Walking the line

At some point in the 1990s, George Best, the greatest footballer the British Isles had ever seen, popped into his local pub in London and sat down with a half-pint. His liver was already failing and the doctors had told him to go easy. A while later, a giant of a man walked in. Eyeing Best in the corner, he walked up to him and said: “Can I get you a pint?” “No, thanks,” said Best. “Too important to drink with the likes of me, are you?” said the man with a hint of menace in his voice. Best ignored him.

When he leaned in closer, Best looked up and told the man to **** off. “Make me,” he snarled. Best, who had never shied away from a challenge on the field, stood up and socked him one flush on the jaw. The man didn’t flinch. “That the best you can do then?” he sneered. “Oh, alright then. Get me another half!” said Best.

I was reminded of that anecdote when I read the non-story about the eight Indian cricketers inside Tequila Joe’s in St. Lucia. Continue Reading »

Lee Bowyer could have been somebody. At the turn of the new millennium, he was the engine of a young and vibrant Leeds United side that had the football world at its feet. Then, after a drunken night at the Majestyk nightclub, Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate – also “daft as a brush” – were accused of a racist attack on Sarfraz Najeib, a Pakistani student. The court case took months and its aftermath resulted in Leeds being relegated and then sliding down the leagues. Bowyer, who was once seen as being on the same level as Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, plies his trade for Birmingham City these days, any chance of greatness having long since passed him by.

The English Premier League, like its Indian cricket equivalent, is a harsh environment to grow up in. Pots of money, a fancy car a week if you feel like it, an endless stream of faux-celebrity girlfriends and groupies. Parasitic agents and hangers-on. But for every idiot like Bowyer who hits the skids, there are others like Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs, exemplary professionals who have lasted nearly as long as Tendulkar at the top. Continue Reading »

As a microcosm of life, sport too has its I-was-there moments, occasions that made you believe it was more than just a game. If away victories in the West Indies and England in 1971 were akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall for Indian cricket, then the agony [the Miandad six in Sharjah and narrow defeat in Sunil Gavaskar’s final Test, both against Pakistan] and the ecstacy [upsetting the West Indians to win the World Cup in 1983] of the decade that followed were like Nelson Mandela’s long walk to freedom. Those were the games that defined a generation of players and fans alike, the faded photographs of the lover whose face has become increasingly blurred with time.

Test cricket, with its drawn-out plots and Hitchcockian twists, is an anachronism in the 21st century, and you half-suspect that there are those in the game’s administration that wouldn’t mind seeing it go the way of the T Rex. After all, it’s one-day cricket, the Govinda movie with popcorn, and Twenty20, the five-minute cartoon, that have the cash registers going ker-ching. Test cricket, though, is a resilient beast and from time to time, it throws up matches that captivate a nation and bring in a whole new breed of fan.

English cricket is ineffably richer for the Ashes series of 2005, five matches where Dame Fortune didn’t seem to know which team to favour. From Ricky Ponting’s bloodied cheek at Lord’s to Kevin Pietersen’s dashing final-day century at The Oval, a generation that had never seen English Ashes success lapped it up.

Sadly, in India, where respect for elders is a way of life, the most venerable form of the game has often been given short shrift. Every other major Test-playing nation has its traditional matches, the ones that people plan their holidays around. Whether it’s Boxing Day at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the New Year’s Tests at the Sydney Cricket Ground or Newlands, or Lord’s in summer, these occasions have become part of the social fabric. Whatever happened to the Pongal Test in Chennai? Why not play at the Eden Gardens during Holi, or in Mumbai during Diwali?

Those that run the game won’t give you any answers. After all, board politics meant that Kolkata didn’t host a Test in 2008 or ’09, while games were played at venues like Nagpur and Mohali in front of largely empty stands. Ask the players where they’d rather play and they’ll tell you. “Eden has always been special,” says Harbhajan Singh, one of the heroes of the innings win that kept India at the top of the Test tree. “I have not heard this kind of noise anywhere in India. In Test matches, we don’t always get crowds but at Eden, you do for the whole five days. It’s fantastic.”

The game was too, with India resurrecting its hopes after a dire first two sessions that saw South Africa canter to 218 for 1. The famed Eden roar, that helped bring Steve Waugh’s Australia to its knees back in 2001, then came into play as the middle order fell apart. India never looked back, with Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and MS Dhoni all scoring contrasting centuries as a massive lead was built. Then, without Zaheer Khan, the pace talisman had picked up a thigh strain, and in spite of the magnificent Hashim Amla – who batted 499 minutes for his unbeaten 123 – the patched-up attack bowled India to victory.

When Harbhajan trapped Morne Morkel leg-before with only nine balls left to be bowled, there was bedlam in the stands. Reports of Test cricket’s imminent demise had clearly been exaggerated. Keeping it healthy in the age of popcorn cricket may not be impossible after all.

*This was the latest column for the Sunday Guardian, a new newspaper published out of Delhi.

IPL, Soviet style

Unlike many purists and cynics, I love the Indian Premier League and the Champions League, which has the potential to be its big brother. Over the last two years, I’ve been to nearly 50 games in both competitions. Right from the Brendon McCullum blitz in the inaugural game through to the heartwarming displays of Trinidad and Tobago in Hyderabad last year, I’ve seen most of the highs and tolerated some of the lows – the plug-a-minute commentary and Shiamak Davar dancing like an idiot to the anti-apartheid anthem, Gimme Hope, Jo’anna.

Now, the IPL is to spread its wings, and the Champions League will surely follow. The United States is the favoured destination for some matches next year, and it’s the next logical step given that Lalit Modi took the franchise model from American sport. The south Asian and Caribbean population in the US should ensure that it’s no outrageous gamble either.

But for every step forward, Modi and the IPL appear to take one back. Continue Reading »

The mild maestro

In the pantheon of Indian cricket, Rahul Sharad Dravid stands tall alongside Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar. Yet, despite more than 21,000 international runs, he has never been one for trumpet solos. A flamboyant 177 in Ahmedabad last November became the launchpad for India to win the series against Sri Lanka. It also raised many a surprised eyebrow, especially amongst those who had thought that the sun had set on Dravid’s pitch. He followed it up with 144 in Kanpur, becoming the second-highest scorer in the series after Virender Sehwag.

From a player living on the edge after being dropped from the ODI team, one would have expected a triumphant swagger. But Dravid is a man of few words. And when he does talk, he is as watchful and circumspect as he is with bat in hand.  Today’s fast-track media detests sportsmen that aren’t quote machines. When a subject is neither florid nor effusive, reporters have to take the trouble to dig deep. Dravid doesn’t come giftwrapped with sound bytes. With such individuals, even the smallest gesture tends to be deconstructed for clues. Often, motives are ascribed where none exist.

Was Dravid’s uncharacteristic exuberance on field after his century in Ahmedabad—which reminded one of his exultation after a hundred in the match against Australia at Eden Gardens in 2001—a response to some of his detractors? He laughs and shakes his head. Continue Reading »

Riotous stuff, but no classic

After that Wanderers game , I argued long and hard with those who thought it a great game of cricket. Nearly four years on, my views haven’t changed. In the days to come, many will speak of Rajkot as another classic. Some opportunists might even come out with commemorative DVDs, but nothing will change the facts. A game in which batsmen score at more than eight an over hardly constitutes an even tussle between bat and ball. Great entertainment, sure. Great cricket? Not really.

If you want to watch a real classic, watch how Pakistan chased down New Zealand’s total in the World Cup semi-final in 1992, or better still, go and watch footage of the greatest one-day match of all, Edgbaston 1999. Until there’s a tie in a World Cup final, that will remain the greatest cricket played in coloured clothes. The enormity of the occasion and what was at stake ensured as much.

There were two big differences between Rajkot and the Wanderers though.

You can read the full article here.

Last Sunday, Bollywood luminaries and team-mates, his childhood coach, Ramakant Achrekar, and those he grew up admiring gathered at the south Mumbai residence of Mukesh and Nita Ambani, owners of the Mumbai Indians IPL franchise, to celebrate two decades of Sachin Tendulkar in Test cricket. There was even Asha Bhosle – of Cornershop’s Brimful of Asha fame – to sing that classic from Umrao Jaan, Aankhon ki Masti (The Magic of these eyes).

Tendulkar was a John McEnroe-admiring curly-haired bully of eight when the movie was released in 1981. But as much as he would have enjoyed the evening, it wouldn’t have been a patch on what had happened earlier in the day, as victory by an innings and 24 runs over Sri Lanka at the Brabourne Stadium took India to the top of the Test rankings for the first time.

To understand what it meant to Tendulkar, you perhaps need to go back a decade, to a Test tour of Australia when he was captain.

You can read the full article here.