Thursday, October 28, 2010

I 'Like' whatever has been posted on this Wall

From the days she managed to shower the enigmatic Avatar with 108 distinct names, India has patented an ingenious manner to bestow monikers. Sobriquets and epithets that somehow emerge in public consciousness, grow in popularity and then uniquely identify the more famous children of the nation – specifically that characteristic of the hero that captures the mass. Most often, these nicknames have uncertain origin but overwhelming consensus, to the degree that birth certificates and telephone directories aside, the popular title becomes more definite as identifier  than the original christening.

Mahatma and Bapu both evoke images of the father of the nation – irrespective of whether one swears by unbendable Gandhian principles or belongs to the neo-urban generation of Bapu bashers. Universal reverence enabled Bal Gangadhar Tilak to turn into Lokmanya, and leadership qualities at two extreme ends of the nation made two noble names transform into Sardar and Netaji.

The phenomenon is not limited to the field of freedom fighters. In literature, Rabindranath Tagore was presented with the mantle of kabiguru, and in spite of being much younger than the venerable heads of politburo in his state, only one left hander ended up as the true dada.

Among all these saluting sobriquets, one rises up distinctly different from others. 'The Wall' is a name that sits immovable on the best ever one down batsman to have ever played for the country. The word Dravidian has taken on a new meaning in the last decade and a half – moving away from the ancient origins of a civilisation as old as time, across the geographical expanse of the southern parts of India and now denotes the broad blade which has for years thwarted the most diabolic of deliveries. And 'The Wall' has taken flight from the psychedelic cover art of Pink Floyd audio cassettes and CDs to take guard on the cricket field  as a safe citadel for the coveted wicket.

In keeping with the tradition of Indian epithets, the nick characterises what the country has come to identify with Rahul Dravid. Immovable, impregnable stolidity …  unperturbed shield of courage, defending the nation from every invading foreign force and weaponry year after year after year. It is definitely the popular image of the man who has batted on and on for the last fourteen years.

Yet, I find it distinct from the other nicknames discussed above.
At the risk of shooting myself in the foot by firing off an elitist versus mass argument , I will still argue that the primary reason for the difference is that unlike the rest it is an English moniker.

The argument that this is because cricket is an English pastime, elitist among the Indian playing fields, is dated. Since 1983, it has transformed into an Indian game which by some quirk of fate was accidentally invented by the English. And in spite of globalisation and the internet infestation of the country, the mass appeal for the sport in the remotest corners of the country is unparalleled. The aam admi still has a great voice when it comes to popular icons. Tendulkar, with his universal appeal, is still lovingly called Tendya. Ganguly is not the Big Brother but dada. Sehwag is not a blitzkrieg or a double o seven, but goes by the regal and regional  Najafgarh ka Nawab. Compared to these, The Wall is a substantial urban leap. English epithets are not unknown, but in order to capture popular imagination they have for ever been restricted to the striking and limited imageries found in 'Tiger' Pataudi or the Rawalpindi 'Express'. The sophistication and stretch of the nickname Wall has a lot to convey, not only about Rahul Dravid's skills at keeping his wicket intact, but also about the essential attractions of his game and the nature of his followers.

If Tendulkar is endowed with the allure of an epic novel that enthrals, edifies and educates, Laxman a brilliant collection of sonnets that are lyrical and lilting,  Sehwag a masterpiece which reads like a fast paced thriller, Ganguly a popular novel filled in equal measures with pieces of beauty and unreadable pulp, Rahul Dravid is akin to an elegant exposition of mathematical arguments or grammatical structures, timeless in significance, enjoyable to few but the absolute connoisseurs of the subject.

His game is too perfect, too correct, too neat to have endless popular appeal. Based too much on technical precision than the heady natural talent that Indians have forever been used to worship. The elegant and academic beauty of a perfect forward defensive push, the logical extension of the same into an impeccable drive through the covers, the scientifically accurate moment of connection to send the ball between mid on and the bowler, the productive yet flash free square cut, even the traditional strokes of adrenaline enhancing adventure –  the pull, hook and sweep –  played with copybook correctness and minimum of risk … the masses are not swayed by such perfection.

After ten thousand runs in one day internationals, after a stupendous 92 off 63 balls a few weeks earlier, after only a handful of very recent failures, he was dropped from the limited overs side in a curious decision. However, there was no effigy of Dilip Vengsarkar going around in flames. No demonstrations were held across the streets of Bangalore. Petitions floated to re-include him in the team had to make do with a few signatures.

Contrast this with the reaction to the dropping of Sourav Ganguly in 2006, after the southpaw had averaged in the mid thirties for over a period of five years and fifty plus test matches, a comfortable twenty runs per innings behind his celebrated middle order companions. Indian masses love a flawed talent – whose vulnerability and emotions are almost palpable enough to touch. Resolute perfection, with a face as readable as the most seasoned poker player, is not something that equates with the popular image of a hero. The very same reason why subtlety in Bollywood movies is circumspect by its absence but for rare ventures of brilliance, mostly made for the intellectual elites and later a section of the multiplex crowd.

However, that is not to imply that Rahul Dravid's phenomenal achievements with the bat have not won him a fan following.

After he was dropped and was busy ignoring journalists to make a double hundred for Karnataka, Cricinfo was loaded with visitors numerous enough to become inaccessible to slower browsers – a rarity for domestic cricket. Well articulated and concisely argued articles in newspapers, magazines, web site and blogs spoke eloquently against what seemed to most to be the gravest of injustice. The responses were sophisticated, rational and – to use a dubious term for the country - parliamentary. Every time his name comes up in discussions, there are advocates of his greatness who voice their opinions with reason, but generally stay clear of foul mouthed abuse exchange so frequent in the internet message boards of our passionate country. Even in this series of blog posts, there have been numerous requests made to me to write about the Wall – and all of these requests are polite and  measured … not really characteristics we identify with the common Indian fan who runs around wrapped in the tricolour, burns effigies and sits in busy traffic intersections to protest against some slight to his hero.

Dravid is appreciated by a distinct category of fans, that group of devotees who marvel at technical perfection, to whom concentration and application that goes behind a superbly negotiated late in-swinging delivery with the score reading 4 for one hold more value and merit than a hastily slogged six. There tends to be a marked social correlation between the admirers of the straight batted defensive stroke and the ones who would be rather seen dead than in the streets burning effigies. This is the same group who would actually appreciates the now famed urban sobriquet – The Wall.

But, even though The Wall is how the populace thinks of him, is it enough to characterise all the facets of the maestro's batting?

I beg to differ. Even to the most clamouring and irrational modern cricket 'fan', it is clear that Dravid has been the greatest match winning batsman in the recent times – till the advent of the rejuvenated Sachin Tendulkar. He averaged 102.84 while scoring over 2500 runs in the 21 matches won during the Sourav era. This is simply not possible with purely defensive technique. What we casually overlook while focusing on his impregnable defence is that he is perhaps the first Indian batsman to possess every stroke around the wicket with equal amount of risk eliminated perfection. The revenue more than speaks for his versatility in scoring all over the oval. At the same time, he has also scored some of the faster fifties in One Day Internationals. So, what gives the impression of one dimensional defensive technique?

The explanation is that while batting for the country the excessive element of  determination and focus to hold on to his precious wicket makes him avoid the slightest of risk in his strokes, making him eschew adventurous endeavours that he is more than capable of undertaking. Except for the occasional square cut off the front foot, he does not show the slightest inclination towards unorthodoxy in test cricket.

In matches of lesser importance – first class games for his state, domestic limited over showdowns – I have seen him clout the ball over the ropes with élan, giving a freeflowing expression to his batsmanship that he seldom indulges in at the highest level. I remember his four sixes in a fourth innings Irani Trophy hundred when he and Laxman sealed a win against a fighting Mumbai. I remember him stepping out and clouting Sourasish Lahiri onto the remote tiers of the stands in a Challenger Trophy encounter. He is more than capable of attractive hitting and once in a while comes out with the full array of his strokeplay. He did once straight drive Alan Donald for six in a one day international in Durban, a most extraordinary and surprisingly unanalysed stroke. A straight batted pull in his third test match during an explosive forty against Australia still remain fondly remembered. But, ever since he was given the role of the number 3 in test matches, he put a severe price on his wicket, allowing the beauty of his batsmanship to shine through technical perfection and results.

That is not to say that he is selfish in his approach. One can find few examples of a batsman losing his wicket trying a reverse sweep when on 270. Few middle order maestros have taken up the challenge and opened the innings while captaining the side. But, with there seldom being an opening combination that got going on a regular basis before the Delhi duo of Sehwag and Gambhir, he gave the impression of being that Rock of Gibraltar at the top of the middle order that people will remember him as. That Great Wall of India.

People increasingly tend to notice chinks and crevices in the brickwork that presage winds of change blowing into the dressing room. However, something formed over years, brick by brick, takes a long while to be dismantled … and I believe when it is time, he will know it before anyone else and The Wall will depart without crumbling, with the same amount of dignity with which he has played the game and conducted himself in public eye.

 Till then I can say with conviction that I 'like' everything that has been posted on this Wall for the last one and a half decades.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Problems of an All Time XI - (including With or Without Hair?)

In your all time XI, would you choose the young Sachin Tendulkar of 1998 or the vintage run machine of 2010?

Wouldn't it be a delight if those eternal entertainers on green ovals could travel across time and play in clashes across eras? Can any traditional cricket lover not be enthralled at the imagined sight of Virender Sehwag walking in to open the innings with Victor Trumper while Dennis Lillee limbers up with Harold Larwood?
These flights of flannelled fantasy leads to the fascination of All Time Elevens – a pastime every enthusiast has allowed his fancy to indulge in.

Neville Cardus, in articles of comparative levity – although no less delightful in perusal – often came up with weird teams across space and time, with criteria as macabre as 'Eleven with Odd Names'.

Sunil Gavaskar confesses that along with Peter Roebuck, he spent his hours in the slips for Somerset by creating all sorts of elevens. And the popularity of the recent project of Cricinfo, of choosing elevens for each nation, underlines the endearing and everlasting appeal of having our heroes of one era share dressing rooms with the stalwarts of others. Geoff Boycott has even written a four hundred page book on the best elevens of test playing nations.

I myself have been making up teams ever since cricket consciousness emerged over the horizon of my childhood and works by Cardus, Arlott, Beanaud and Cozier first infiltrated, and gradually ruled, my shelf space. From all time elevens for nations, I soon graduated to more complicated stuff. It took hold of my leisure hours in school and a great part of not so leisure hours of the college and professional years, to the extent of my coming up with all time Ranji teams, County elevens, Sheffield Shield sides … and soon teams that were actually bizarre.

I spent a large part of a year of excruciating cubicle existence by preparing and refining elevens made with each letters of the alphabet. Hard to believe? How about an A team comprising of Dennis Amiss, Saeed Anwar, Zaheer Abbas, Hashim Amla, Mohammed Azharuddin,  Warwick Armstrong, Gubby Allen, Les Ames, Wasim Akram, Curtly Ambrose and  Ghulam Ahmed. And a B XI – Geoff Boycott, Bill Brown, Don Bradman, Ken Barrington, Alan Border,  Ian Botham, Mark Boucher, Richie Beanuad, Alec  Bedser, Sid Barnes and Bishen Bedi.
I'll stop … it is addictive and never ending. Besides, I can never decide on the opening pair when I get to H. Hobbs, Hutton, Haynes, Hunte, Hanif, Hayden …. well …

However, after two and a half decades of cricket watching, I am slightly circumspect about this exercise. Putting names on paper is obviously always a pleasurable and sometimes passionate pastime, but as I have followed the career of players over decades and have seen them as evolving performers and not names staring out at me from a page of cricket writing, old scorecards or tables of statistics, I find some questions tugging at my fantasies as I etch elevens in imagination.

Cricketers, as any other human being, evolve over time. Some get better, some skills wane, some remain consistent over the years. If we look at truly great performers, we find more or less the same career average graph over the span of his exploits. However, with the passing of time, the mind, body and spirit undergo invariable change. The speed of the eye is slowed down that wee bit by the weight of the years and is compensated by that extra experience. The nimble feet become more economic in motion and the mercurial movements lean more towards safety rather than scintillation.

When I see a Sachin Tendulkar in an all time eleven, I pause to wonder which edition of the champion we will see on the fictional field. Will it be the irrepressible eighteen year old stroking his way to a century on the fast and furious Perth, the mature middle order maestro in mid twenties as he marauds over Shane Warne provoking nightmares, the sedate, sober, secure statesman of Sidney 2003 concentrating along to 241 or the relentless run machine in his late thirties who continues to score double hundreds more frequently than ever before?

When Don Bradman returned to competitive cricket after the war, he piled on runs as ever, scoring his  customary centuries with metronomic regularity. However, even though his average improved over the second half of his career (a mind boggling feat that, considering a 99.94 career average), eye witnesses recounted that it was easier to make a trip to the tavern for a beer then than during the halcyon days of his early period, when missing a minute was akin to closing eyes to history.  So, which one of them plays in the Australian team? Someone we can count on to score three hundred in a day, or the other version who can bat for eternity as the innings grows around him?

It is more so with fast bowlers – whose trade is most savagely touched by time. Will we look at a Dennis Lillee of the mid seventies, the fiery tearaway whose very sight froze the best of batsmen at the crease? Or will it be the older wilier version sporting that headband, scary pace making way for clever variations, picking up wickets with similar frequency, in a slightly more humane manner.

With time, Kumble added venom to his orthodox leg break even as his shoulder became weary from the toils. Warne kept proclaiming new mystery deliveries, Viv Richards walked out with the same swagger with varying results.

Even fielding positions need to be thought of with care. Should Dravid be the youthful, agile newcomer – hovering in the short leg? Or should he be the eternal poker faced first slip, serene and still, occasionally taking time off to snap up blinders that leave others speechless but not him? 
Should we have in our team a young electric Clive Lloyd patrolling the covers, the lone man in front of the wicket as the four fast bowlers torment the opposition batting with six slips, leg slip and short leg? Or will he be the giant of a man standing in the slips, waiting to gobble up those fast and frequent edges.

For someone like Sehwag, I may get away asking whether it will be the version with hair or without. But for most of the other names that one is likely to encounter on an all time list, there needs to be a time stamp as well to qualify which snapshot of the evolving career we are including in our team.

How can a captain decide on strategy or batting order or bowling options without knowing which brand of the great cricketer he was carrying in his team? Who will play the role of the innings builder, the stroke player, the stock bowler, the strike bowler to be used in short spells? Who will stand in slip and who will be in the covers?

So we start our team with Gavaskar (1971), Sehwag (with/without hair – the time does not  really matter), Dravid (2004), Sachin (1998) … Now we know exactly what we are talking about.
But, then we are faced with another dilemma.
There are some players who peaked at a particular period – during which sublime stage they were right at the top of the world. However, their time at the peak were short lived.
If we decide on players with time stamps, can we not pick those super successful streaks? In the time stamped Indian team that we were just making – and I find the Cricinfo choice of Hazare and Mankad at 5 and 6 surprising to the point of inanity – should we go for Laxman 2003, when our wristy wizard was perhaps manufacturing his best masterpieces? Or should we pick Dilip Vengsarkar of 1986-87, who was acknowledged as the best batsman of the world during that period -  averaging over 100 in 16 tests, and rated by the computer to be ahead of contemporaries Gavaskar, Richards, Border, Gower and Miandad?

Should we go for Zaheer Abbas of 1982 or Yousuf Youhana of 2006?  Erapalli Prasanna of 1967 or Harbhajan Singh of 2001?
Too many complications.

We can keep it simple by agreeing on the following steps.
1. The greatness of a cricketer is stamped when he succeeds over a long, long period of time … a testimony to his longevity, consistency and class. (Takes care of the short peaks of good but not great players)
2. Each of these long serving players need to be tagged with a date stamp to enable us to decide the exact entity we are including in our eleven.
3. We need to live with the fact that the player is limited to the time stamp.

So, as the first step, we will definitely go ahead and choose Dravid and Laxman ahead of Vengsarkar of 86 and Amarnath of 82.
Next, we will tag 1998 against the  name of Tendulkar. (It can be any other vintage year of the maestro, 1998 is just an example)
And finally we need to remember that he will have the ability to smack Warne out of the ground even with a mistimed loft over mid on against the spin, but will be prone to guide an innocuous ball down the throat of the point fielder much more often than the run machine of 2010. There will be spectacular centuries, but most often they will not mature into epic double hundreds.

The task of choosing elevens is so fascinating that I can keep writing on and on … While there are several people who ask questions about the utility of such diversions, my answer is the following. If we can use our imagination to move forward and backward in time, and then follow it up by bringing together some of the men in white who have captured our fancy over the ages, why not indulge ourselves?

Time is a dimension that flows forward forever. The relentless passage of the moments make the magic of the masters of the cricket field – as in any other experience of life – so precious. It is only in our imagination that the river can flow backward, from the sea to the source, picking the banks and shores where our memories linger the happiest.

When Mutthiah Muralitharan reached 800 wickets to bring about a fairytale end to his test career, could any genuine cricket lover have checked his secret tears at the sudden realisation that the master would never again trundle up to spin his web around helpless batsmen?

However, in the subconscious of my cricket loving psyche he will play on – as the supreme off spinning spearhead of the All Time Sri Lankan side, doubling up with Stuart McGill or Arthur Mailey as the spin twin of my M XI,  maybe bowling in tandem with Bill Bowes in the team composed of players with first and last names beginning with the same letter of the alphabet, as Richie Richardson watches from the slips.

(Finally : Thanks a lot for your comments … I really appreciate it and they spur me on to write more. Let me know your feedback as usual and whether you would be interested in elevens of such curious compositions. If there is a great audience, I will be happy to oblige)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Three Amigos and a Young Man

Still in safe hands

It is one of the adrenaline charging high points of watching cricket when the young debutant, under suffocating pressure, comes out of the restricting cocoon of inhibition and self doubt, and emerges with self expression and stroke play as a promise of the future.

Cheteshwar Pujara’s courageous counter attack in the fourth innings at Bangalore was fascinating, sending the country into passionate celebrations.  He drove with authority and executed thrilling pulls. And as has become so predictable to the point of puerile, there followed in the wake of the innings mass manufacture of laudatory lines, clichéd columns and praise-ful pages across the curious popular entertainment platform – also known as the media.

Sensation scavenging and controversy addicted, the scribes of the sporting pages and web sites, and the hosts of television channels, have gone about earning their despicable daily bread by provoking mass speculation and sentiments with that exceptional gift that characterises Indian journalism – of putting the instant success on a precarious pedestal from where one false stroke will result into a headlong plunge into the quagmire of criticism.  And while elevating a one innings hero to the ranks of greatness, they have allowed their articles provoke the fickle fan frenzy to step on the achievements of some of the greatest names of Indian cricket with mud caked shoes of yellow journalism.

There have been suggestive speculations hinting at contrasts with a typical Dravid counter in similar circumstances, and wondering if this is not the opportune moment to replace the ageing maestro with the youthful new hero.

Well, Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara, the latter shrewdly promoted by the team management, did counter attack to conquer the fancy of the Indian fan, laying the foundations of a memorable victory. But they had been batting with the secure knowledge that in their wake waited a safety net of 26000 runs and 78 centuries. If they got out, the next two men at the wicket would be Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. That very thought would have allowed them to go about their task with the gay abandon of youthful adventure.
What if Sachin and Dravid had come together at the fall of the second wicket, with a 200 plus score staring at them and sitting in the pavilion with pads on were Pujara and Raina? Could they have indulged in aggressive tactics like the young duo? Cricket changes with circumstances, and comparisons cease to hold water at some levels.

And even as we rejoice in a batting hero after all these years of waiting for one, can we actually claim that this victory looked  a remote possibility with Australia putting on 476 and India struggling at 38 for two? Without one timeless champion coming in and turning things around with 267 runs in the match? Novelty sells papers, magazines, raises the TRP and increases webpage hits, but it cannot replace the experience gleaned through more than 300 test matches with one innings.

In the last dozen years, India has won more than 50 test matches, doubling their number of wins from the earlier sixty six years of test cricket. And in all but 4 of those occasions, one or more of the trio of Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman, have fired and got substantial scores. A piece of statistics that makes you sit up and realise the enormity of the contribution to Indian cricket by these three gentlemen.

Sehwag will definitely play on for a few years. It is difficult to measure and analyse the mind and methods of this curious cricketer, but one of the reasons for his cavalier approach to batting is probably that he is secure in the knowledge that at one down will come in the broad bat of Rahul Dravid, at two drop the genius of Sachin Tendulkar, and after them the calm conjurer in the guise of VVS Laxman.   The only two other successful opening batsmen who come remotely close to matching Sehwag’s murdering methods in the not too distant past are Mathew Hayden and Gordon Greenidge. The bowling attacks of the teams they played in varied vastly, but still there remain parallels are aplenty. Their methods contributed to their teams being the most successful ones of their times. While Greenidge went about scoring runs with the shelter of Haynes, Richards, Lloyd and Larry Gomes around him, Hayden did so with the assurance of Langer, Ricky Ponting, the Waughs, Martyn and later Clarke and Hussey to follow, with someone called Adam Gilchrist as an additional security to fall back on. Will Sehwag, with that celebrated uncluttered mind, manage to play with the same fluency if the next three names to follow are Rohit Sharma, Pujara and Raina? Oodles of talent may jiggle around between them, but there will be some 33000 runs and 94 centuries less in assets.  Figures that make one realise that perhaps one solitary innings of 72 is not all that big a deal as yet.

I try to imagine what the Indian line up will look like a couple of years from now. No impregnable Wall making his way to defend the country after the quick loss of a wicket, dapper and dignified, every aspect of gesture, grandeur and gear embodying the immaculate cricketer. No compulsive cheer at the fall of the second wicket, the moment for which a nation waits, the trot of the little big man to the wicket, that lean into the cover drive, that look at the heavens after yet another hundred. No magician walking out next, spreading calm with lazy elegance, wristing the balls to unthought-of regions of the green oval, delighting the cockles of the heart with a whip to the mid wicket. And in the field, no reliable assurance of the bucket hands of Dravid at first slip, no cheerful Laxman at the second, no exuberant little man sprinting around like a teenager in the outfield.

When they turn their backs on us
What would it be like? A sequel to The Three Musketeers without Athos, Porthos and Aramis? An impressionist exhibition without Degas, Monet and Renoir? A Manhattan skyline without the World Trade Centre, the Chrysler and the Empire State Building? A Friends episode without Ross, Chandler and Joey? The Ivy League without Harvard, Princeton and Yale? Social Networking without Facebook, Linked In and Twitter? A Marx Brothers production without Groucho, Chico and Harpo? For the Bollywood savvy Indian fans, a remake of Dil Chahta Hai without Amir, Saif and Akshaye?

A feeling of emptiness in the soul even as we contemplate. Cheteshwar Pujara has shown a lot of promise. Definitely it is the time to groom him as the understudy, to prepare those young, quick stepping feet for the enormous shoes that they will put on with time. However, for now, even as we rejoice sitting at the pinnacle of test playing world, let us enjoy the blessings of the three amigos as long as we are able to.

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Nation Walks with Sachin

It started when I started sneaking surreptitiously out of the strict confines of a Roman Catholic institution to follow the exploits a fellow schoolboy whose blazing trail had just been sparked off in neighbouring Pakistan.
Two decades later, the trail continues to blaze along pristine paths where no mortal has treaded before. And now, as a supposedly responsible manager, I creep with a careful ALT+TAB past the forbiddingly workmanlike windows, to peep at his continuing saga of success in the pages of Cricinfo. While he sustains the insatiable appetite to score more and more, I retain the childish craving to break the rules to follow his awe-inspiring achievements. The ageless wonder has also managed to keep me mentally young.

The story of Tendulkar has for long been intertwined with the story of the young Indian growing up in the eighties and nineties. His meteoric rise in the late eighties and early nineties was representative of the spark of genius which shone on painfully rare occasions in a very prolonged while in the field of Indian sports and games, rising from the shadows of despondence that defined the arena of a developing nation. But, even as a country battled with the remnants of bureaucracy, the adamant refusal to computerisation and open economy, and chugged along with drastically dated information about the world, a teenager showed that change was around the corner. It was reflected in the audacity as he stroked the ball, throwing caution and the baggage of the past to the winds, carving the revered Qadir for consecutive sixes, hitting the knighted Hadlee inside out over the covers, taking on the might of the Aussies at the fast, furious Perth while established pillars of batting crumbled around him like pieces of brittle bread. Impossibility was just about to be redefined, limits re-laid.

With the coming of globalisation, slowly but surely, India emerged as a force to reckon with. Along with the newfound confidence of being a player in the world in her own right, Team India too underwent metamorphosis. The 27 for two specialist of the team no longer had the enormous responsibility of carrying the burden of batting on his own shoulders. He was no longer forced to ensure that India qualified for the finals at Sharjah before proceeding to loft those sixes off Kasprowicz and Fleming to try for an impossible win, bearing the brunt of the media if his single handed attempt at the impossible did not come off.

There matured a Wall to secure the innings, an artist to paint it in peerless patterns, a dada to stand up against the bullies of the world and a nuke from Najafgarh to blast opposition attacks to smithereens. Sachin evolved from the one who specialised in fighting losing battles, the engineer of ephemeral dreams, to the quintessential torchbearer who could plant the flag of the nation on the highest pinnacles. In boom time India, Sachin was that extra yard, that final frontier, that elusive peak which the Indian woke up to realise was within grasp. The country no longer followed the crumbs dropped along the way by the Hansel and Gretel of the west, it cut furrows where no other nation dared to tread. It was this boy who had grown into a man who taught the nation how to.  Taught them to live in the way he went about scoring runs.

Through his straight drive, one was taught the art of persuasion, the ball coaxed to the fence with the minimum of forceful negotiations. In his paddle sweep was the schoolboy who continued to live, finding cheeky non-existent gaps in patrolled confines to sneak out of the restricting oval into the forbidden boundary. In his upper cuts one came across real innovation, the new Indian who knew to take risks that amounted to audacious calculations. And his pull spoke of colossal confidence in self that defined the emerging superpower.

And now, 49 centuries and 14000 runs later, with almost double the figures if one considers the One Day Internationals, he still goes on and on. The dada has passed on into the shady confines of the IPL, cracks and crevices appear on the great Wall that for long sheltered the batting order and an work of inspired genius by the artist is often followed by days in recuperating recess. Passage of time has probably rounded those rough edges of excitement that used to accompany every foray into the middle. The fractional fraying of the hand eye coordination has probably curbed the audacity of the stroke-play, now passed on to the more than capable hands of Virender Sehwag. But, for each small diminution of the treasure-store of ability, there has been replenishing pearls and diamonds from the many splendored vaults of experience. Time's erosion has been replaced and secured with timeless foundation. Having shown the way to take on the world, he is now the wise general who knows the virtue of consolidation, of accumulation. He has never looked so invulnerable, so impregnable.

He is now the Bhishma Pitamaha of Indian cricket, who cannot retire until the last sling and arrow of fortune in the war for the world cup is shot. The one who has perfected his batting to resemble the benchmark of the Don in the last year, and yet has that last frontier to conquer.

While Sachin Tendulkar has without doubt been the crowning achievement of the sport of cricket and the rejuvenated nation of India, what follows in the wake of his gargantuan glory brings to light the ancient Upanishadic teaching – everything positive comes with its own inbuilt negative.
There are hordes of so called followers of cricket in our very nation who lift their hind quarters to pee their quaint peeves on the monumental achievements of the man. These consist of the self proclaimed defendants of the society who try to hide their irrational envy behind righteous indignation at a man making money for his phenomenal contributions, and the zonal yellow journalists, with a flair for statistical ignorance, who try to cut down each and every exploit of the remarkable cricketer with reasons and ratios that redefine ridiculous. A most pathological bunch of losers if there ever was any. If the master symbolises the height of Indian achievements in the past couple of decades, these callous critics probably underline all that is wrong with the nation, bringing alive the celebrated history of colonial divide and rule, the propensity to wallow in the muck of one's own making, of being satisfied with glorified mediocrity.

However, the collective contamination of these social stinkers can do little to tarnish the halo that has been the result of two decades of resplendent brilliance. 15000 runs, a 100 hundreds, a World Cup triumph? Whatever is the final goal, I await it with an amalgam of hope and trepidation. While nothing would be dearer to me than this giant of a little man to conquer whatever peak he sets sights on, summits the less of ability can hardly make out with the naked eye, a part of me dreads the day when he will make for the pavilion the last time. I have not known adult life without Sachin Tendulkar at the crease. Without the little man walking out at two drop for India, a whole generation of Indians will start walking alone.

Friday, October 8, 2010

From Grace to Don to Laxy - how Cricketers have Pushed through the Covers of Dictionary

It was a consulting presentation, on which I had spent considerable time, sprinkling it with image metaphors, quaint animations and gently persuasive arguments. Piloting it on a close friend, the only one whose review I respect sufficiently to make changes to my thought process, I was rewarded by a solitary word that confirmed that I had outdone myself. I knew then that it had been elegant  and enjoyable, subtle yet shining, effective yet aesthetic, while not sacrificing one ounce of substance. For closing his eyes and reflecting for a while, my best friend and severest critic had summed it up as "Laxy."

The greatness of a game is symbolised when coinages specifically meant for the sport extend beyond the outfield end up in the living room, to describe scenes of ordinary life far removed from the pitch. In a cricket crazy nation of Indians, who have rewoven a game of British heritage to the patterns of their own fabric of life, the sporting adjectives, verbs and nouns creep into the language of everyday, without any scope for ambiguity or misinterpretation.

A googly for ever remains an unpredictable step, the man of the moment ending up doing exactly the antithesis of the expected. Missing a dolly is the inability to capitalise on the obvious gift of fortune. And a faux pas that would make one the helpless target for the ribs of friends is in varied circles termed a full toss or a half volley or a loose ball.

This is not limited to the modern day proliferation of the television channels which beam sports non stop to integrate it within the realms of our disintegrating thoughtscape. Some words and expressions which have long established themselves in dignified dictionaries are of sporting origin. Long shot harks us back to the era of the knights when medieval tournaments and jousts were the sporting fare, with a target far away on which the William Tells focused their practised eyes with bows pulled taut. Bullseye is for sure a derivation from the sport of marksmanship, with arrows or muskets, while a huge, time consuming ordeal which taxes the physical and mental reserves is universally referred to as marathon.

While bouncer, beamer and bodyline have become as much a part of cricketing folklore as aggressive boardroom discussions, there is a chicken and egg problem to decipher whether the term caught napping is a contribution from the oval to the word book or the other way around.

However, what fascinates me is the way some of the names of the players get entrenched into the vocabulary beyond the game.

This is where Laxy ambles in -  a characteristic which is esoteric if one wants to build up the image with common words, but perfectly understandable to the cricket lover with the magic of the couple of syllables. In spite of its similarity in the tailing two letters and the rhyme with the provocative adjective, Laxy comes across as pure, sublime, effortless and heady. The greatness of an individual player is even more apparent when he enters the periphery of common parlance away from the game, when the exploits on the field leave a mark beyond the twenty two yards, imprinting them on the tapestry of everyday life, the very name evoking a definite characteristic which is unique and immediate in ready, revelling recognition.

Before the Hollywood influence and the rasping voice of Marlon Brando glamorised the Mafioso, in the cricketing nations Don meant God and not Godfather. W.G. Grace for ages was a symbol for the great, the pioneer, the ageless, the bushy beard or the potent and omnipotent. And the Compton look was the well groomed metropolis male, hair slicked back with Brylcream, not one strand out of place after a hard day's work.

To the middle class Indian of the seventies and eighties, drops of energy drained fighting for the basic necessities of life, Sunny was a flash of brightness in midst of dreary drudge.

With the advent of the post globalisation world of the nineties, Indians became world beaters in their own right. Team India followed suit, and so did the sporting influence on the vocabulary of the generation. Etched in my memory is the image of a friend preparing the defence of his dissertation. A group of us close chums sat through his exposition, and it was impressive enough for one of us to sum up the defence as Dravidian. The Wall had extended and cordoned off words well established in the dictionaries, driving his influence through the covers of the lexicon, giving an entire new spin to the interpretation. Dravidian no longer was limited in its meaning to the South Indian or the ancient Indian civilisation. It conjured up images of the impregnable, the infallible, without a chink in the armour for any shred of doubt to creep in, however tough be the questions posed, the problems faced, the foes opposed.

Likewise, dadagiri was given a facelift by Sourav Ganguly. Although this had to do more with the arrogance of gamesmanship than with the game, the haughty audacity of never cowing down in the face of the established and overbearing, erstwhile overlords, became the other meaning of a term that was for long considered derogatory.

However, from Grace to the Don, from Dravid to Dada, all were blessed to have a name or nick that could easily be tampered with and cloaked quickly into nouns or adjectives. Even Laxman benefitted from the aural proximity to the same semi sensational word that his name could be transformed into. But, what about some names that are proper enough to be as unyielding to manipulation as Sachin Tendulkar?

People have tried 10dulkar, Sachaninnings and general jovial juxtapositions, not really succeeding in stretching it into the dictionary by some quirk of prefix and suffix. However, they need not have bothered. Someone who goes on and on forever while lesser men may come and go, brooks no indulgence of monikers. His name is enough to summon images.

As the man himself has evolved, Sachin the name has conjured up meanings diverse through the two decades that he has spent in delighting the crowds. A young lad with naughty curls can fully expect to be called Sachin by friends and strangers alike, the name thus standing for an entire category of hair type. During the early days of the boy wonder, Sachin was synonymous with precocious talent, with child prodigy, with potential beyond age. As the years rolled on, it was used for unquestionable authority, someone who was beyond the orbit of the mortal, who can never be competed against – don't even try questioning his decision, he knows what he is talking about, he is a Sachin.

And now, it stands for an ever shining diamond, an ageless, timeless warrior, a jewel to be treasured, a trendsetter who has blazed along paths no one has walked before and continues to cut new furrows. It is the greatest epithet that can be bestowed on man.

In the end, the epic game is just like the Mahabharata or Shakespeare or the Iliad and Odyssey – where the names of characters define the characteristics, the situations and the dilemmas of day to day existence. Just as in the grand epics and dramas, there are the pinnacles of virtue as well as the murky, shady underbellies. For each saving Grace, there is a Trevor Chappel, denoting despicable, underhand dealings. For each Laxy brilliance there is a loose talking Lele, the new definition of turncoat.

However, it is the base that evokes appreciation of the ethereal. For all the Lalit Modis that symbolise filthy lucre, trying hard to rewrite a script that is fit for Homer, Shakespeare or Vyasa with grubby, money grabbing paws, there will always be a Don or a Sachin symbolising the everlasting quest for perfection.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Laxman for Life

These were supposed to be infrequent musings in the midst of more serious writings. However, not everyday will we be treated to the delights of a single wicket victory earned by the wristy waft of a wand. So, I allowed myself the luxury of another article within twenty four hours.

Often, to determine the degree of dependability of a batsman, the question is floated in cricket loving circles : Who would you choose to bat for your life? While India battled for survival on the final day in Mohali and then did the unthinkable at the death, I pondered about the same.

If really faced with such a morbid evetuality, who would you ask to put on the pads and go out to protect the wicket that is slotted to be the very last? Who would you choose, assuming that Don Bradman is elevated to the level of Gods, someone who is beyond the realms or prayers of the mortal finite?

Rahul Dravid? One who would create that impregnable Wall around you, to refuse a crack or crevice for the hatchet of Charon to scythe your life away? Or would it be Sunil Gavaskar, who would put his head down with infinite concentration, prompting Lord Realtor to a new calypso – ‘the real master, just like a wall, death couldn’t out him at all’?

Many would probably prefer Geoff Boycott or Steve Waugh, stalwarts who would not only put a price tag on their wicket but also install a bar code enabled checkout counter at the pitch and tag sensors at the gate of the pavilion.

It is one of the quirks of the game that the choice in this category is never attacking strokemakers.  Would you call upon a Virender Sehwag or a Vivian Richards to scare the daylights out of the messenger of mortality, to have even death running for life, bestowing on you the gift of eternal youth? No, you would much rather prefer the dour and defensive Geoff Boycott, although he averages about seven runs less than the Nawab of Najafgarh. Steve Waugh comes across the crisis man ahead of Sachin Tendulkar in so many minds, but the Aussie maestro has no hundred  and 2 fifties in the fourth innings in contrast to the 3 centuries and 4 half centuries of the little champion. When the stakes are as high as death, perceptions take root. Rationality has seldom been the forte of the cricket fan. With the end in sight, the remnants of reason go out of the window.

However, while VVS was on his way to magical magnificence in Mohali, I reached one unalterable personal decision.  If ever faced with this fatal choice of the willow wielder, I would pick Laxman every time.

I am not drunk in the intoxication of his fluid strokeplay as I say this. Actually, that’s a lie. I confess that I am still heady from the exhileration, but not to the extent that statistical reason disappears from my mind, yielding to a preference of passion.

I will be rational enough to pick the risk evading Kallis over the more gifted, but temperamental Gary Sobers for this monumental batting order. I would opt for the immovability of Bill Lawrie ahead of the combination of Caribbean flair and English defence of Gordon Greenidge.

Geoff Boycott? No, way. Even if he kept the reaper at bay by clinging on to his wicket with a dead bat, I could be under the considerable danger of being bored to death just by witnessing the spectacle.

But Laxman! With the stakes so high, he would be bound to elevate himself to his sublime best, the peak of his poetic powers from where it would take nothing but a miracle to dislodge him. And even if he did lose his wicket, and thereby I my life, my last moments would be filled with the visual delights of VVS Laxman’s wristy magic in the face of peril, the aural allure of the willow striking the leather at the sweetest moment, the ball never forced to the outfield, but persuaded along the way by his charm – sensual feast delightful enough to allow me to die with a smile on my satisfied lips.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Pull of Laxman

Lots have already been written about the sublime 73 not out by VVS Laxman which managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against a determined Australian side.

Living in Switzerland, I had to make do with commentary updates on Cricinfo, but managed to view the entire highlights … about a couple of dozen times. But, instead of repeating the much deserved eulogies that have flooded the media, blogs and posts, I will limit my article to one solitary stroke during the entire innings.

 Having matured into a cricket aficionado in the eighties, the sight of a batsman pulling a fast bowler evokes romantic images – mainly because of the pitifully limited number successful executions of the routine by Indian batsmen during my formative years of cricket watching.

Many of the top batsmen of India had either eschewed the shot totally, weighing the risks it brought into the game against the probable benefits. Brought up on domestic pitches, where the bowlers' backbreaking effort more often than not failed to bounce a new ball higher than the knee, batsmen lacked sufficient practice against high class pace to employ it with confidence and consistency.

Dilip Vengsarkar seldom played it against fast bowling during his best days, preferring to evade or defend the short balls at his body. Mohammed Azharuddin resorted to it only as an afterthought during his madcap years of the mid nineties, and for someone who wielded the bat like an artist's brush, he suddenly seemed to trade it for a sledge hammer every time he went back to cart the ball past the square leg. Both these maestros failed more often than not whenever they tried the shot on the faster, bouncier tracks overseas.

Sunil Gavaskar, famously bringing the hook back into his repertoire during his 29th century that morning twenty seven years ago at Feroze Shah Kotla, nevertheless confessed that the pull was one stroke he never mastered. Television did not beam the famed counterattack of Mohinder Amarnath in the West Indies in 1982, but back home in India, his performance against the best fast bowlers of his day was less than ordinary to put it very mildly.

Among the lesser luminaries with the bat, Kapil Dev did execute a Nataraja shot in which the bat scythed across the body, but it was effective and exciting in an agricultural way, rather than a real sight for sore cricket loving eyes. Krish Sirkkanth did have a peculiar pull shot of his own, but as his average of 30 in test cricket and 29 in ODIs testify, seldom was he too long at the wicket to play the stroke with regularity. Probably the only time his pull brought forth success was when he holed out off Imran in the Sialkot test in Pakistan, thus denying Akram the distinction of getting his wicket on every occasion during the test series. Akram, however, had both his hands in the dismissal as he took the catch at  long leg. Ravi Shastri and Navjot Sidhu were too stiff around the lower back to swivel around and pull a super fast delivery. For all their six hitting ability off slower men, their scoring became distinctly slower and painstaking whenever the balls became fast and short.

With the coming of the nineties, the phenomenon called Sachin Tendulkar walked in and stamped his mark on all departments of the game, including the pull. Even as the expert in Sunil Gavaskar harped on his lack of inches which made it difficult for him to keep a pull on the ground, we were exposed to the thrills as he played the shot again and again, against every mighty fast bowler and with disdain. Yes, many a masterpiece in the making or on the way to becoming an opus were cut short by the stroke – as his 88 in Napier,122 in Birmingham,169 in Capetown and 155 in Bloemfontein are the ones in immediate memory. But, the discerning never complained of his dying by the sword, having been witness to the delightful heaven of his living by it. Versatile as he was, while his straight drives were just about gloriously timed pushes, delectable and effortless, his pulls were violent and merciless, executed with powerful disdain for the fast and famous bowlers around the world. As Andy Caddick will remember forever, they could travel far.

Then came Dravid, a master technician, who went about playing every stroke with the approved stamp of the MCC Coaching manual. In his pull, as with every other stroke of his, he looked unhurried, composed and infallible, as the Wall which has been his alias ever since. Here was the first Indian batsman who could pull fast bowlers on pacy, green foreign wickets without allowing for the slightest risk that generally creep in even for the best masters of the stroke. This was in sharp contrast to his fellow debutant Sourav Ganguly, a peerless stroke-maker on the offside, whose pull off fast bowlers was often an act of futile self defence, eyes closed, bat held at a periscopic angle, with frequent, fatal and flimsy results. Dravid's pull had an elegant efficiency about it, which was the hallmark of his entire game. The ferocity associated with the stroke was eliminated as was the uncertainty.

Virender Sehwag, with the bludgeon of a bat, prefers to cart the short balls in the region between extra cover and thirdman. While initially he suffered some discomfort with the balls aimed at his body, he has developed a pull, which like most of his other shots, is belligerent and fierce, but the audacity and confidence while he plays it does not quite match the rest of his strokes around the wicket.

Enter VVS Laxman. Styled in the Hyderabadi gharana of wristy willow wizardry, stepping into the large shoes of Mohammad Azharuddin, he shuttled up and down the order for a few years, but soon outgrew the illustrious footwear. The world sat up to take notice of someone who had bettered the esoteric template that he was built on. While possessing every bit of the silky elegance of the wrist on the onside, he was distinctly more assured than Azhar through the covers and could play the same ball to mid wicket or extra cover based on the whims of his will and wrists. At the same time, on faster wickets, he outshone the earlier artist almost to the extent that the sun outshines the pretentious street lamps.

A significant reason for his success overseas was while Azhar negotiated the short balls with a jump and a duck or a cross batted swipe more reliant on luck and wager than timing and placement, VVS Laxman did have an impeccable pull shot which kept the fastest bowlers from pitching too short too often. Even when India was bundled out for 83 at Bridgetown while chasing 120 for a win in 1997 and Laxman was still in the floating up and down the order days, a languid short arm pull off Ambrose still sticks to the memory as he top scored with 15 while opening on that treacherous wicket.

While the pull embodies exuberant energy in the case of Sachin, elegant efficiency in the case of Dravid, in Laxman's case curiously it is an extension of the exquisite artistry in the other shots. Timing and wristwork all the way.

When Laxman essays a pull shot off the fastest bowlers, there is none of the savagery associated with a bludgeon by a Mathew Hayden or an Adam Gilchrist or the arrogant ferocity of a Ricky Ponting. The body moves into position with the customary lazy elegance and the stroke is as wristy as his flick through the mid wicket – and as effective and devoid of risk.

In the latest Mohali test against the Aussies, during the later stages of the innings when he was batting with Ishant Sharma and Pragyan Ojha, with the field allowing singles, men placed on the ropes, he kept taking twos with élan, using those malleable wrists to place the ball at will, just a wee bit on either side of the men on the ropes. With two people on the mid wicket fence to cut off his celebrated flicks off the pad, Hilfenhaus pitched short. Laxman laid back and rolled those wizard wrists over the ball, placing it with impeccable precision between the two deep fielders, the patrolmen almost running into each other as the ball mocked them, slipping through undeterred into the fence. It was a masterly demonstration of an unreal mix of artistry and efficiency in the face of utmost pressure.

People often wonder how he manages to turn out  these poetic yet potent offerings in the face of peril. The Cricinfo team compared his rescue acts to symphonies conducted with ambulance sirens in the background. However, I don’t think that is strange. The most poignant of art, we must remember,  comes from the dark pits of distress. We often see this same very, very special soul struggling for self expression when the going is smooth and there are lots of runs on the board as he walks into bat. Sometimes, he drops his paintbrush for the more austere workman's tools. It is only when the stakes are raised to tipping point and the opposition places demanding challenges for his creative batter's mind that he is motivated to sublime brilliance, a sight fit for gods.

One thing that probably works for him in his rearguard actions is that it is very difficult to set a field for him to limit his scoring or even keep them down to a single – as Ricky Ponting has so painfully found out. Those wrists can always find the gap in the most crowded of fields. And while people like Sachin Tendulkar are wont to back their big hitting ability to try and aim for the maximum when the batsmen at the other end are busy taking part in a relay race from and back to the pavilion – something that brought his demise in the heartbreaking so near yet so far affair in Chennai against Pakistan in 1999 – VVS Laxman, with all his genius, knows the limitations which keep him from clearing the fence too often. Even when six runs were needed with the last man in, there was no desperate attempt to aim for the stands. Unlimited in versatile artistry, he is fully aware of the boundaries of his calibre which has limited his overboundaries to four in all his test matches. In fact, the only occasion when Laxman looks ungainly at the wicket is when he tries cross batted cow shots.

However, genius is rare. There will hardly be another 281 in a lifetime. And Laxman may not hit another six in his career. Even then, let me recount one of these rare occasions which sticks to memory. There are strokes that a cricket lover cannot forget. For example, the straight drive of Sachin Tendulkar off Shoaib Akhtar in the 2003 World Cup face off. Or a pull by Brian Lara, with an almost vertical bat, two feet off the ground. And that moment of mesmerising magic by Laxman.

It was a short innings of 32, made from 30 balls, a miniature masterpiece if there ever was one, on the fast and furious Bloemfontein wicket against Pollock, Hayward, Ntini, Klusener and Kallis. In the 9th over, with India at 17 for one, Pollock ran in and bounced. Laxman, with a seeming eternity in his hands, swivelled, languid and lissom, and dismissed the ball off his face. It was a cross batted stroke off a short ball, experts undecided whether to call a hook or a pull. Almost a cross batted counterpart of a Tendulkar defensive push which often blazes away to the fence. The effort was minimal, the fuss non-existent, the batsman's eyes hardly followed the ball once it had been removed from his presence. The red cherry sailed all the way, over the boundary board behind square leg and into the crowd. A short ball by one of the fastest men in business almost lovingly caressed away for a six. A contradiction in terms?

Even if VVS does not hit another six in his lifetime, I will be blessed to have witnessed that one stroke. Like the pull shot of his latest match winning innings, it will be replayed in my memory for ever – as a delight to brighten the drabbest of days.