Alive and Kicking

Traditionalists have had the last laugh, for once. Doomsday predictors predicting the demise of Test cricket, the oldest and, according to many, purest form of cricket, have been forced to eat humble pie. Test cricket is alive and kicking.

And all credit to the Indian cricket team for this swift turnaround, all in a matter of two weeks. Pretty much in keeping with its position as the leader in world cricket. Generating over 80% of global revenues from cricket and, well, generating some x share of cricketing capability where, in mathematical terms, x currently is tending to zero.

The Indian cricket team has made a rousing statement for Test cricket in the ongoing series in England. It has often been felt that in the modern world, Test cricket, which is played over a period of 5 days, has no future, as nobody has either the time or patience to spend 5 days on one game. After threatening to compete in the first game, they have pulled out all stops and shown that a Test match can be completed in a period of just two days without ending in a tame draw. Overcoming rain and inclement weather as well.

Imagine the amount of time they have given back to the nation; 3 billion days, assuming a billion follow the game.

Imagine the amount of time they have given back to themselves for shooting commercials.

Great teams do not follow established rules and standards. They set their own. This team has set a new standard for speed. At which a team ranked number one can plummet to the bottom of the pile. Top ranked teams don’t just lose. They capitulate. As they have so ably shown in the past as well. To ensure the last two weeks’ performance does not turn out to be a flash in the pan and to constantly remind themselves of the uphill task at hand, they even have coined a new motivational slogan that they break into each time they go out to play:

Come rain, come bright shine

Defeat, thou shalt forever be mine

Selflessly, risking their own legacy and rankings, they have ensured that future teams, irrespective of their performance, look like they have fared better than earlier ones. And, like great politicians and great corporate leaders have done so successfully earlier, kept us salivating at the prospect of a bright future without trying to worry about events past.

They have also been able to give us a hero that we so desperately yearn for. Not good performance, not winning teams, but individuals as heroes. How many other teams can make this claim? By collapsing in a heap around one player, the legend of that single player, in a game of eleven, has been fed and strengthened.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the richest sporting body in the country by far, and always ahead of its times, has constituted a committee to look into the performance in the first Test, which took almost four days to finish. Could we not have lost that match as well in two days?

Another committee has been formed to address the issue of talent in cricket. Why are we still allowing talent to thrive in Test cricket? Why have we not killed it, as we have so effectively done in ODI and T20 cricket? Why are bowlers still allowed to bowl fast and swing the ball and be accurate? All at the same time. Difficult questions will need to be answered.

The BCCI President has also called for a revamp of the ranking structure in Test cricket. It has to be kept independent of performance, he has apparently stated. You cannot mix two unrelated things together.

I am looking forward to the next Test starting later this week. I have already made plans for the three days the team will give back to me. Have you?

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No Mountain Too High

“Chairman of the National Thermal Power Corporation, sir.”

“CEO of State Bank of India, sir.”

“Director of Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, sir.”

“Commander of the Armed Forces, sir.”

Designations, each more renowned and reputed than the last, were coming at him fast and thick. Delivered in a crisp tone, with body upright, as befitted the solemnity of the occasion.

The smile on the minister’s face was becoming harder and harder to hide, as he passed along the rows of youngsters, asking each of them the same question, “With the rigorous training you are getting, what do you aspire to become?”

This was not the graduation ceremony of the reputed Indian Administrative Service.

This was a bunch of youngsters hard at work at a cricket coaching academy in the city, trying to hone their skills at the game they loved. And the minister was doing what only seasoned politicians can do with such equanimity; preventing others from going about their life without any reason.

Momentarily, while passing along the rows, his mind had wandered back to the not so distant past when similar youngsters, after their playing years, would aspire to become coaches, selectors, commentators, umpires and even groundsmen, in order to stay close to the game they loved, and guide the next generation of cricketers in realizing their potential. But he quickly brushed that disturbing image aside and pushed ahead through the rows, bathed in the glow of the brave new world of possibilities.

The change in “sentiment”, that deep, meaningful and measurable, and particularly Indian, index, which logically explains everything from stock movements to the rise and fall of political fortunes, was palpable. There was electricity in the air.

The recent appointment of Chetan Chauhan (CC) as the Chairperson of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT), a prestigious institution of learning, had opened the floodgates of aspiration amongst the middle class.

As everyone knows, CC is eminently qualified for the position of chairperson of NIFT. He played cricket for India in the company of the legendary Sunil Gavaskar. He runs a cricket coaching academy. He owns a printing business. What more credentials do you need? As the NIFT Act of 2006 also clearly says, the chairperson of the institute is expected to be an eminent academic, scientist, technologist or professional.

And yes, he bailed out the Union Finance Minister against charges of corruption and financial irregularities in the Delhi District Cricket Association (DDCA), levelled against him when he was the President.

Meanwhile, getting ready for the role, CC has confirmed that he will be able to spend 20% of his time at NIFT which explains why his appointment as a full-time chairperson was necessary.

Now there is no mountain too high to climb for aspiring cricketers. No river too wide to swim. No jungle too dark to penetrate.

But even the government, always well prepared for the fracas its illogical and unilateral decisions generate, was taken by surprise at the violent reactions to this appointment. The opposition is baying for blood. They want to know why Sakshi Maharaj was not considered for this position. He has impeccable credentials. At no point of time in his life has he displayed anything which could even remotely be considered as studious or academic. CC, on the other hand, during his playing days, is known to have studiously left alone balls he could not play, or took them on his body. Sakshi Maharaj has also displayed an uncanny ability to make inane statements for no rhyme or reason. CC, in comparison, is barely audible. He even meekly accompanied Gavaskar when he walked out of a match in Australia in protest at poor umpiring.

What is a government to do? It takes decisions in the best interests of the common man and all it gets is rebukes.

Like any mature political establishment, the government is not responding to the criticism. When your conscience is clear, and you have acted in total disregard of commonly accepted rules, you don’t need to.

They have plans is what one hears from reliable sources. Sakshi Maharaj may be delayed, but he cannot be denied. He is soon to assume the role of chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission of India. It is learnt that the country’s reliance on imported enriched uranium will, as a result, reduce. Instead, Sakshi Maharaj’s volatile and inflammable temper tantrums will be used to light the centrifuges.

Other important appointments are also in the pipeline.

With the retirement of M S Dhoni, long-time captain of the Indian cricket team, from active service, nigh, it is learnt that Uma Bharti is being readied to take over the reins. By creating Ram temples on foreign pitches, she could well neutralise the “home” advantage held by teams like Australia, England and South Africa.

Anupam Kher is waiting for a suitable position to open up by hounding an existing incumbent to step down citing personal reasons.

In this reshuffle, driven by knowledge, competence and suitability for the job, Arun Jaitley could become the next RBI Governor.

Meanwhile cricket, always a top choice, is witnessing an unprecedented surge in popularity. If one becomes a cricketer, who knows what one could become.

 

Advance preparation

In the final analysis, the Indian cricket team managed a respectable showing in the recently concluded World Cup Cricket for One-day Internationals (ODIs), ending up as one of the two losing semi-finalists.

How that happened cricket pundits are still trying to figure out. Pretty much the same team that did not win a single game in the two months they spent in Australia prior to the World Cup, their undefeated progress to the semi-finals has become a bit of an enigma. Knowledgeable analyses like “they would have felt at home after so many days in Australia”, “playing Pakistan in the first match was the key”, “the team management helped them focus on the game” have been offered, giving us deep insights into winning cricket games.

But this is the hallmark of great teams. Up one day, especially when playing at home. Down the very next. Frequently giving up without a fight. Being consistent, especially when on a losing streak, particularly in unfamiliar conditions overseas.

While the armchair pundits continue their efforts at unravelling the mystery behind the team’s showing, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), claiming responsibility for the World Cup performance, while maintaining a dignified silence on performance prior to the Cup, is not letting the cat out of the bag. Instead, demonstrating the leadership that has made it India’s richest sports body which apparently generates 80% of the revenue generated by the game all over the world, it has already hunkered down to the task of preparing for the next World Cup.

Their actions in the immediate aftermath of the recently concluded World Cup might also provide some clues on the turnaround in the team’s performance.

 As a start, the BCCI has lost no time in issuing guidelines to the Advertising Standards Council of India, the apex self-regulating industry body for advertising companies, that when a pretty girl calls a cricketer in an ad, she has to give him at least an hour to reach her. Five minutes will just not do, as was the case with a TV ad of a tyre company where a girl had the cheek to ask the vice-captain of the team to reach there in five minutes, and which, one can conclude, was the reason for his lasting no more than five minutes on the pitch in a crunch game.

Thankfully (or was it pre-planned by the Board? Perhaps we will never know) the next edition is in England and Wales, where our teams have had spectacular lack of success in the past, though a couple of teams in the past did buck the trend. A long series of matches has been scheduled just prior to the tournament, involving the home team and, for additional insurance, the other best team in the world (India is always one of the best teams; sometimes one of best four, sometimes one of best seven, sometimes one of best twelve). Matches will be scheduled on pitches that require skill and fitness. After this series against fast pitches and competent opposition before the Cup, whatever performance the team is able to put-up in the World Cup will be like manna from heaven.

The number of teams participating has been reduced to ten. Who can argue that even if the team involved is Afghanistan or Ireland, or even Fiji and Chile, who have never claimed to play cricket, for that matter, the possibility of defeat always looms, such glorious uncertainties is what the game of cricket is made up of. Gradually, the number of teams will be reduced in future editions, till we are left with two, one of them India. From then onwards, the winner will be decided based on the toss of a coin. If we lose…well, who can argue with the caprices of a coin.

Even management of supporters has not been left to chance. Selection policies have been updated to ensure that at least one of the major players has a girlfriend who is a well-known actress, so that knowledgeable fans know who to blame for the team’s poor performance.

In an inspired move, the selection committee has asked for the duration of T20 cricket’s India Premier League to be extended so that the top overseas players who participate in it can qualify to play for India and eliminate the problem of Indian players not performing overseas. There need to be teams and players overseas to lose to, stupid! In any case, it is a much more controllable and easier method to deliver results than the alternative, which is to get people to adopt fitness and sports as a way of life. 

Eagerly looking forward to the next World Cup.

O Captain! My Captain!

On the eve of the away Test series against South Africa, the captain of the national cricket team got into a freewheeling discussion with a leading daily. He was in a relaxed and expansive mood. He had every reason to be relaxed, as the team had just successfully suffered another rout in an away series in ODIs (One day internationals).

Produced below are extracts from this conversation.

Interviewer: You have achieved a lot at a very young age. What do you now look forward to when you play?

The captain broke into a half-smile. He said: When you play for the country, the job is never done. Each day brings a new challenge. I am looking forward to leaving behind a legacy that people will remember.

Interviewer: Does that mean you are looking at retirement soon?

Captain: One has to face retirement sooner or later. I have made contributions on the field. Now, I have come to that stage of my career where I will be selected to play without making any contribution, purely because of my past performances and the love people have for me, so that they can debate in offices and coffee-shops about my retirement and offer their advice. Such is the price one has to pay for fame and success in our country.

Interviewer: That will be quite a change. The paying public has got so used to seeing you in the middle, not having a clue about what to do, especially when playing on fast and bouncy pitches overseas, as in the ongoing series.

Captain: Well, things change.

Interviewer: Back to the question of legacy. Do you have any short-term goals for the team?

Captain: I would like to restore cricket in our country to its rightful position. We have made a start in the right direction by losing the last two away series’. And we did not leave things to chance. We lost both series by convincing margins of 0 – 4 so as to leave no room for doubt. After all, we claim to be the best team in the world. If we don’t lose in style, who will? The upcoming Test series against South Africa provides us with a golden opportunity to build on this success and make it three away series losses in a row. And, in between, we even managed to lose a series at home. Which team can beat that?

Interviewer, nodding his head: I can empathise with that. As you know very well, there was a period, a few years back, when there was a threat that the team will buck the trend and become a world-beating team. In fact, the influence was so strong that even when you became captain they continued to win matches.

The captain, with a deep sigh: You have seen the terrible times we have been through. There was a time when things were so bad that some of our teams had even started winning overseas. Such things will happen from time to time.

Interviewer: But how did things become so bad? Who do you think is responsible?

The Captain: Though different people will have different views, I think that we have to blame two batsmen who happened to play together in the same team. We could have handled one but with two of them together, backed by a bold captain, some victories could not be avoided. But that is providence. It is rare that two batsmen of this calibre happen to play for the same team at the same time. You can only try to minimise the impact. With both of them now retired, we are back in contention, as the ODI matches in the current series have shown.

Interviewer: Any advice to young cricketers?

Captain: What can one say? Youngsters these days have their own mind. They will not listen to advice. There is a young cricketer from UP who has hired a former player as personal trainer. Such dedication is uncalled for and unheard of. ‘This is not tennis’ I have told him, ‘where you need to keep running hard and hitting for hours at a stretch. This is cricket’. If he continues to practice and hone his skills even in the off season, when will he have time to do the ad shoots which all of us cricketers owe to our adoring fans. He says the sport pays him well enough to engage a personal trainer. Such dedication could shake the foundation of the sport in our country. It needs to be nipped in the bud. And if he gets paid well enough, he should open a restaurant like some of our illustrious predecessors have done. Or buy motorcycles without really needing them, as some others have done.

Interviewer: Do you have a message for your fans?

Captain: Our countrymen have made us proud and have contributed their mite towards our achievements. The more we lose, the more they love us.

We (cricketers) love you too. Please turn up in large numbers for my last match which will be held in Ranchi. I guarantee we will bring the weakest team to play that match against.

Interviewer: Any suggestions for the future of cricket in this country?

Captain: We are lucky to have an engaged and proactive Cricket Board guiding the fortunes of the game. They have been quite busy looking for countries to teach cricket to so that we can beat them. Being financially strong, they might even start their own countries. I understand the country’s maiden Mars mission has been partially funded by the Cricket Board. In case any organisms are found to exist on Mars, we will teach them cricket and organise a series. I don’t think the paying public will notice.

Interviewer: Finally, back to the question of legacy. Is this how you would like to be known as? The guy who managed to lose three away series in a row and restored cricket to its rightful position in our country?

The captain looks up at the ceiling, then in the distance. You could see a smile coming to his lips. He knew what he had to work towards. He finally spoke: I think more can be done. We lost the last two by 0 – 4 margins. Unfortunately the present series only has two matches. But, perhaps, we can try to lose a two match series by a 0 – 3 margin. That will surely be difficult to beat.

With that, he got up, shook hands, and went away.

Cricket pitch

“Commodity markets rocked by strong demand for Sahara sand”,

“Sahara sand advances on demand from cricket Board”,

“Dunes lose height overnight as Sahara sand changes into dollars”

screamed the headlines in popular daily newspapers.

The run-up to the cricket Test series had well and truly begun.

A day earlier the visiting Australians had fired the first salvo by claiming that they have a fast bowling attack that can scythe through any team, on any surface.

In response, and a fitting one at that, the captain of the home team petulantly demanded that pitches for all the matches be covered with imported sand.

Like any powerful, self-respecting governing body in a popular sport, the cricket Board promptly gave in to unreasonable demands of its players. But, to their eternal credit, not without putting up stiff resistance.

“Look what happened against England in the recent home series”, the captain is said to have queried officials of the Board when they suggested sticking to sand from the local Thar desert while preparing pitches. The home team’s recent capitulation against the visiting English team still fresh in everyone’s minds, the officials had no response to this well-researched and thought-out query, and promptly agreed. He did have another query in his mind; could our players not work hard on their game and fitness levels to obviate the need for such measures? But better sense prevailed and the query did not leave the safe confines of his mind.

For the uninitiated, coating the playing surface with sand is a traditional ritual, carried out with much fanfare in the country prior to any Test series against a visiting country that does not have a better spin bowling attack. Which equates to Nil nowadays. But the ritual continues. Because it is also carried out with much fanfare in the country prior to any Test series against a visiting country that has a better fast bowling attack. Which equates to all Test playing countries. Though recent performances may lead the impartial observer to other conclusions, the objective of this ritual has been victory over the visiting team.

The traditional ceremony has relied on sand from the Thar, an expanse of desert on the western periphery of the nation, bordering an often hostile nation to the west. But, it now seems this sand has been afflicted by a strange virus because of which even visiting teams are able to win matches.

The decision to import sand has got nationalist elements up in arms.

Members of the opposition have bombarded the government with allegations on mishandling the quality of sand in the Thar desert which has led the country to become dependent on foreign elements for critical commodities like sand from the Sahara. “Can the nation afford to be dependent on foreign sand in as critical a matter as cricket?” they have rightfully queried.

The government has, meanwhile, levelled allegations of the presence of a “foreign hand” in the Thar desert. Considering that the Thar desert straddles the country’s boundary with an often hostile  western neighbour, the government has instituted a commission of enquiry into the origins of the subversive nature of Thar sand.

In keeping with the current trends of litigating for no reason, and eager to demonstrate his passion for cricket, a Member of Parliament has filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the Thar desert for actions amounting to treason. In his petition he has stated “It is a huge letdown for all cricket fans in the country. Every fan eagerly awaits for a cricket Test series till the time it starts. Once it starts, and it becomes clear that it is a losing cause, he even more eagerly awaits for the next series. The Thar desert is playing with the emotions of innocent people and needs to be punished.”

Environmentalists have cautioned the Board to tread cautiously as it could play havoc with a fragile ecosystem; that of the emotional landscape of the country’s cricket lovers. If not handled properly, and if it does not yield the desired results, it could lead to irreversible long-term damage to that ecosystem.

People living in the plains are, long accustomed to being bruised and battered by Thar sand carried by the “loo”, the swirling westerly winds that blow across the dry plains in the hot months of May and June every year, are rejoicing as they look forward to the prospect of being bruised and battered by some particles of foreign sand mixed with the local Thar sand.

The soft-drink giant sponsoring the series has had to re-shoot all commercials to reflect the new reality. In the new commercial, the black liquid spurting from the sands of the Sahara turns out to be their best-selling product. The entire team has been busy with the shoot, gambolling on the dunes and quenching their thirst afterwards with a refreshing sip of the sponsors’ best-selling product.

Leaving the cricket to the visiting team, which continues to work on its game and fitness.

The new battle-cry of the local team is:

“Pepsi or Coke, glass-bottle or tin-can,

If Thar’s sand can’t do the trick, Sahara’s surely can”.