The lightness of being MS Dhoni

Posted by the lazy knight on 6:02 AM in , ,

(Image courtesy - Hindu Business Line)

In a nation given to hyperbole, loud celebrations, gaudy displays of wealth and a heightened sensitivity to taking offence, it is often difficult to find public personalities with a calm and dispassionate demeanour about them. MS Dhoni’s is a uniquely ‘un-Indian’ personality in that regard. In the nine years that he played Test cricket (and even beyond that in the other formats of the game), rarely has he looked temperamental, angry, pumped up or excitable. Not for him the fist pumps or big jumps after reaching a batting landmark, nor the high pitched exultation after a catch or a stumping or even the shrill shriek of joy after winning a game.

With Dhoni comes a remarkable sense of detachment. His joys are saved for elsewhere, places we will never know. Places where this intensely private man has not allowed the media circus that constantly follows him entry. You can bet that Dhoni loves the game but unlike the millions who follow it in India, for him the action stops inside the field. You almost get the sense that cricket is like a daily routine for him, akin to going to office. We all wake up in the morning, put on our best clothes, go to work and try to do the best job at it. All our lives we chase our dream jobs. We put endless hours to acquire skills that would lead us there. We study, reach colleges, pass interviews, test the limits of our ability to handle stress. Once in our jobs, we constantly tinker, improvise and add new skills. Offices though are not the places we live in. Our smiles, our laughter, our joys and tears are reserved for another environment – home. You would find many a cricketer for whom the stadium was his home and it is certainly true that the game deserves men of different kind. Dhoni though belongs exclusively to the former category.

You would be hard pressed to take a look at Dhoni’s face and judge the situation of the match. Captains are animated – they furrow brows, wave arms frantically, brood during a game, show expressions of frustration or delight, constantly speak to their bowlers. Yet, Dhoni was rarely into this gig. Whether his bowlers were spewing filth and getting spanked all around the park or whether Ashwin was running through a side on a slow pitch in India, his face had the same calm and stable expression. Wicketkeepers are even a noisier lot – their shouts and appeals are dominating noises of the stump microphones. And yet, rare would be that Dhoni appeal that would be none genuine. Rarer still would be the flourish or celebration after a catch. It is hard to believe that Dhoni carried out two of the chattiest and frenetic roles in the game of cricket for a number of years while simultaneously being the quietest person on the field.

Only two instances come to mind when Dhoni brought emotion into the game and neither was an express cricketing act. The first was when he paraded the entire team in front of the media before the 2009 T20 World Cup after reports had surfaced that Sehwag was faking an injury due to rifts between him and Dhoni. The second was earlier in 2014 on the England tour when he publically called out James Anderson to be punished after the altercation between him and Ravi Jadeja. Both in a way presented a crossing of line for man who had viewed every happening on the cricket field as transient. Both tested his credibility – the first as captain and the second as an eyewitness. And in both, Dhoni was prepared to stake his reputation, do the unexpected and get his point across.

It would be wrong to bucket Dhoni as a successful home and a losing overseas captain. Leadership is a by-product of those of being led but more importantly it is also an outcome of the time in which it is exercised. Dhoni’s legacy will not so much be the numbers but the man management skills he presented. The majority of his captaincy was spent leading men who were either contemporaries or mentees of Sourav Ganguly. Both Dravid and Kumble, who preceded him, commanded the respect of that group. Dhoni had bloomed in the Chappell years – a period Indian cricket likes not to remember. For him to have led the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Sehwag, Harbhajan, Yuvraj and Zaheer without any drama and take them to the number one spot in the Test rankings speaks to an amazing ability to manage upwards, show individuals respect while still maintaining the collective interest of the team above all. Of all the leadership challenges, change management can often be the toughest and Dhoni was right in the center when the Indian team undertook that journey as the greats retired and new men came to replace them. Sometimes, we often view the number of overseas defeats in the last three years and perhaps overlook the fact that it could have been much worse. No doubt India throws up a lot of cricketing talent but it takes a plucky captain to persist with talent when others are calling for heads. Murali Vijay, Virat Kohli, Ishant and Rohit Sharma (if he does manage to salvage his Test career) would perhaps have had stormier careers if not for Dhoni’s faith in their ability.

Of course, Dhoni was not the perfect captain. Away from home, his lost confidence in his bowlers too soon. Too often, with the opposition in trouble, he would back away quickly, put fielders out and wait for the innings to fold. The safety first attitude ironically only brought India risk and the number of test matches lost after letting the opposition off the hook are many. At one level, watching the bowlers go at four an over, you would sympathize with Dhoni. However, at another level, you wanted him to go for the kill, to literally hold his bowlers by the collar and holler at them a bit, to have the field up and that extra slip in place and not the let the last 5 wickets put up 300.

True to his nature, Dhoni leaves without fanfare. He has seen through the storm, got a new team in place and brought it to a position, where, if the bowlers can keep their brains for a day, overseas tests can be won. His successor is an anti-thesis of him – aggressive, brash, charged up and not at all shy of letting the opposition know that he wants to win. Virat Kohli can afford that luxury. This is a young team waiting to be led and he has a clean slate to define his legacy. When the times were messier though, when the eras overlapped, when the new and young mixed and when India needed a stable hand to avoid combustion, we had Dhoni’s calmness to assure us. Indian cricket was lucky to have him at the helm. There might well be a time when we just start missing him.


An age passes by...

Posted by the lazy knight on 8:43 PM
(Photo courtesy - Cricinfo)

Over the last fifteen to eighteen months it was gradually dawning upon me that it was only a matter of time. The reflexes seemed slow, the dismissals were more loose, the body appeared tired and the aura seemed to be diminishing with every passing game. I knew the moment was approaching. It was with a foreboding sense of an unpleasant arrival that I would watch each Sachin Tendulkar dismissal in recent memory. After the defeat to England in the home series last winter I had a passionate discussion with an uncle and a cousin bemoaning how Tendulkar was stretching it out too far and that it was perhaps time he realized that we did not want his last memories being those of failure.

And then I thought to myself – what has the world come to, when the devoted seek the discontinuation of their idols. I was six when I first watched Tendulkar bat. He flayed Abdul Qadir for multiple sixes in an unofficial game on the 1989 tour of Pakistan and watching the game on a tiny grainy black and white television set, I was instantly drawn to this young aggressive kid who seemed to hold no fear. I remember crying after India lost that game (my wife would testify that even at 30 I come quite close to achieving that feat after every significant sporting disappointment) and my father went on to impart one of the most important lessons of life right then and there – victory and defeat are part of the journey, learn to take them in the stride and move forward. Those words helped in assuaging my hurt every time I saw Tendulkar get out cheaply or India lose its way after he had all but won it for the team (Chennai 1999 anyone?)

As a young boy I only wanted to see Sachin on the field. I wished he could bat at all positions, bowl most overs and field everywhere. I would be thrilled if he would take a key wicket, effect a run out or take a remarkable catch. I would hear commentators laud his batting but more importantly appreciate his willingness to be part of every moment in the game. Tendulkar for me had to be in the middle of every real or imagined cricketing scenario. If I was daydreaming of India winning the World Cup, it had to be him lifting the trophy or hitting the winning run. If it was a fantasy of defeating Australia away from home it had to be him hitting that crucial test century. Through him I explored the geography of the world. Places like Perth, Old Trafford, Auckland, Nottingham and Jo’burg became familiar names to be lived in animated discussions with school friends. Even obscure small towns like Benoni in South Africa have their place in the mind of an obsessed cricket fan because Tendulkar blazed away an attack there. I perhaps never confessed this to my wife but on our honeymoon last year I took her along to the Sydney Cricket Ground on our first day in Australia to see a Big Bash game. It wasn’t the T20 I was interested in, it was the venue. Sydney was where Tendulkar scored his first century in Australia in a 1992 test. He would come back there to score an epic 241 in 2003 – a knock in which he eschewed all offensive off-side strokes till he reached a hundred simply because he had been dismissed caught behind driving at the ball in the two tests before. In 2007, he was back again at the SCG scoring a memorable century in an acrimonious test. SCG was SRT’s favorite test venue – and how I could I miss an opportunity to experience it.

In many ways Tendulkar symbolized different things to the different generations that saw him play. To young kids like me who grew up while watching him play, he was the hero who did no wrong. Our innocence gave way to cynicism as we came of age and learnt of practices like match fixing as well as generally realized that the world was not as simple or so straight forward as our young years promised it to be. And yet through that evolution Tendulkar remained the pole star, the man who was the standard of behavior. To an older generation he was the carrier of excellence, the lone bright spot amongst a team struggling to assert itself in the 1990s. With him rode our hopes and when he was out, many a TV set were switched off. To the vintage connoisseurs of the game he was an attacking reincarnation of Gavaskar – the same diminutive stature but now packed with an aggressive turbo engine that could charge at the most feared of the bowlers and take them apart.

The first half of his career coincided with the boom in satellite television in India. He was the icon Indian cricket needed at that moment. The saturation achieved in the cricket calendar and the TV coverage of the game would arguably have come slower had Tendulkar not been around. He symbolized in many ways a growing, emerging self-confident India, free of its earlier burdens and not hesitant to stake a claim. To an extent he also reaped the benefits of the spread and popularity of the game with many of the young kids who grew up idolizing him joining the team and contributing to many of the victories that would have surely made the second half of his career more sweeter.

There are too many Tendulkar moments to compile and too many to mention. A nostalgic and heavy heart stops me from listing them out tonight. The videos will always stay around but what are irreplaceable are the visual memories of the atmosphere of those innings. Those evenings of a young childhood watching him battle an Australian attack and a desert storm to single handedly win two games back to back. That excruciating winter afternoon when his back and India’s lower order gave way in a thrilling chase in Chennai. The cozy comfort of a warm blanket on an early January morning watching him make his Sydney classics or simply the crisp spring air that blew around as he tore into Wasim, Waqar and Shoaib in March of 2003 at Centurion.

When another one of my idols, Rahul Dravid retired, I lazed around and never got down to writing a tribute. I promised myself casually then that I would definitely write one when Tendulkar goes. That time has now come. Tendulkar for me represents something larger thank cricket. He was in many ways the last link to a memorable period of my life long gone. A childhood that in some ways found an extension as he kept playing game after game, year after year. That period of fascination that began when I was aged six seemed never to have gotten over, until now. Today, I feel a sense of ageing. Today I feel the grey hair on my head and I feel 30. It is as if a link with a distant time, preserved carefully, has been eased away. Tendulkar will no longer be on the cricket field. Things will now be a quite different.


The 'Spiraling' London

Posted by the lazy knight on 4:50 PM in , , ,
So how do you begin to describe London? A city that goes more than a thousand years into history, has seen tragedies and renewal, hosted events of great proportions, been home to the first parliament of the modern era, been the colonial capital of the world and still continues to be a financial nerve center and a cosmopolitan menagerie in a Europe growing increasingly wary of external cultures.

A city of spiral staircases. That is what I would call it based on my experiences over a rapid weekend tourist tour of some of London’s major sights. To get a view of London city, you have to embrace the spirals. And it is not just a simple of matter of a few steps to get from one floor to another. To get a real bird eye view of London, you can circle around on the London eye or you can take, in my opinion, the slightly more romantic option of climbing 300 stairs of spiral case and reach the roofs of some of the city’s oldest standing structures.

Right at the center of London stands the St.Paul’s Catherdral. It is believed that a shrine to St.Paul, who was the most influential of early Christian missionaries, has stood at the sight since the early AD years. The current structure, modeled on the great basilica of the Vatican, was constructed in the 17th century, after the Great Fire of London destroyed the then existing building. Located on Ludgate Hill, considered to be the highest point in terms of altitude in London, the cathedral was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, one of the principal architects behind the reconstruction of London post the great fire of 1666. The cathedral was to be the showpiece of the reconstruction efforts and was completed within Wren’s lifetime, achieving consecration in 1708.

Ludgate Hill is not the only aspect that provides height to St.Paul’s Cathedral. The church has three levels that you can choose to climb to capture a view from the heights. And here is where the spiral staircases come in. Take 259 spiral steps and reach the Whispering Gallery that runs inside the dome of the church. At 99 feet above the ground, you can soak in a grand view of the cathedral underneath or whisper something into a hole in the wall for your partner to hear from another hole many feet away.

The first spiral staircase leading up to the Whispering Gallery

A view of the Cathedral below from the Whispering Gallery

If that is not good enough, you can take another 119 narrower spiral steps to reach the Stone Gallery, which forms an outer perimeter of the dome. From here you a get 360 degree windy view of the city. Even on a cloudy day marked with incessant London drizzle, the great sights such as Big Ben, the London Eye, Tate Gallery, the Shard and Tower Bridge are easily visible. I had the privilege of standing at the gallery on a particularly typical cloudy and windy London day and had trouble holding on to my SLR camera as I tried to click away.

The steps leading up to the Stone Gallery

Millennium Bridge and Tate as seen from the Stone Gallery

At the Stone Gallery

And if vertigo has not struck you by then, soldier on and take another 128 steps on a narrow steel spiral staircase within the deepest interiors of the cathedral to reach the Golden Gallery. Located on the peak of the dome at 85 meters above the ground, the gallery has radius of just about 4 feet and finds it difficult to accommodate two people side by side. On a windy afternoon, managing your footing in that space can be quite tricky. The view of London from there though is worth the effort!

The steel spiral that leads to the Golden Gallery - highest point of the Cathedral

The Tower Bridge and the river Thames as seen from the Golden Gallery

At a slight distance from St.Paul’s Catherdral lies the next set of spirals. The great fire of London in 1666 destroyed virtually the entire town and presented a massive challenge towards reconstruction. 3 years after the fire, as a new London city came up, it was decided to ‘preserve the memory of this dreadful visitation’ in some manner. Christopher Wren was the architect again coming up with a design of a single stone column that stood at a height (62m) which was the exact distance from the spot where the fire had originally started. Built into the core of this structure, simply called ‘The Monument’, were 313 narrow spiral stairs that take you to a caged viewing platform at the top which offers panoramic views of London. On my climb, I came across young kids, old couples and young men and women all making their way slowly up the half lit staircase in an orderly fashion and it made me wonder why we can’t ever get the Archaeological Survey of India to open up the climb to Qutub Minar in Delhi again.

The Monument now stands in the middle of a busy office district

The sculpture at the top of the Monument depicts the concept of fire

And finally the spiral that contains 313 steps

Climbing up the monument is considered quite a feat and upon your descent, at the exit, a staffer hands you a mock certificate that states that the holder has climbed the steps to the top!
The spirals continue in many pockets of the Tower of London as well, the oldest structure in the city whose foundations were laid by the first English king, William the Conqueror in the 11th century. The Tower was notorious through the ages for being a place of banishment and in certain unfortunate instances, even the site of executions (The most famous one being of the second wife of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn).

London’s modern architects don’t seem to have forgotten the old inspiration. I made acquaintance with a spiral that leads to the cafeteria on my very first day in the office building. The stairs do give your head a dizzy tour and can pose a challenge for those challenged by the heights, but when you are exploring history that is four centuries old or trying to grab a bite of food in the middle of a busy office day, I think it is probably pointless to crib and more sensible to adopt a stoic English pose and just climb on.

Not to be outdone, the architects at my temporary office also added a touch of whirl


Marching on Australia

Posted by the lazy knight on 4:32 PM in , ,
This article first appeared on the Big Show in December 2011. The link to the original post is here

In military circles it is often light heartedly remarked about Russia and Afghanistan that invading armies over the centuries passed by the skeletal remains of previous empires that had tried and unsuccessfully attempted to conquer those lands. In the cricketing context, it is perhaps an exaggeration to compare the unforgiving vastness of western Russia or the rugged and inhospitable mountains of Afghanistan with the pleasant and warm lands of coastal Australia. The analogy though begs the question – Is Australia the most difficult country to tour, especially for the sub-continent teams?

Statistically, Australia remains the team to beat at home. Its winning ratio over the last decade (2001-2011) is a staggering 74%. The years of total dominance in the first half of the last decade contribute significantly to this healthy number. This record at home becomes more respectable when compared with other major countries – In the same period, South Africa has a winning ratio at home of 57%, England of 61% and India itself of only 47%. Neither are Australia’s numbers bloated due to runaway successes against minnows. Its winning ratio at home in the analyzed time period against England and South Africa combined has been 67% (2 out of every 3 tests). Interestingly the only test series to have been lost at home have also been against these two countries – The 3-1 Ashes loss last year against England and a 2-0 defeat against South Africa in 2009.

For the sub-continent giants Pakistan and Sri Lanka, there has been little joy Down Under. Pakistan has lost all 6 test matches in the last decade and while Sri Lanka has only managed to draw 1 and lost the other 3. Yet, amidst all this carnage of numbers, one anomaly stands out. Against India, the Aussies have won 3, lost 2 and drawn the remaining 3 – that gives a win ratio of 38%. Against no other country at home has this number dropped below 65% for the last decade.

MS Dhoni’s team faces the expectations of maintaining this competitive posture and given the ‘perceived’ troubles with Australia in the recent times even go ahead and retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy that has been in their possession since the home series of 2008. Six months ago, this script seemed a fairly promising adventure; post England, the tale is now one of redemption. For India all the marketing jargon of ‘final frontier’ is now secondary. They must first prove to themselves and then to their fans that the ability to meet opposition head to head on foreign soil, the single biggest achievement of Indian cricket in the first decade of the 21st century, is still alive and burning.

On each of their previous two tours, India punched above their weight. Man for man, their batting perhaps matched that of the Aussies but never have the bowlers looked as threatening as the home side’s. In 2004, Zaheer Khan showed a glimpse of his brilliance (5/95) at Brisbane before departing for the rest of the series. In 2007, he again flattered to deceive and after a 4 wicket haul in the opening test at Melbourne, missed the rest of the tour with an injured ankle. Another premier bowler, Harbhajan Singh, also missed 3 tests on the 2004 tour with an injured shoulder and made more noise off the field than on it on the 2007-08 trip. In Australia, in 4 tests, Harbhajan has taken 9 wickets at an unflattering average of 73. On both occasions, India discovered new bowling talents in Irfan Pathan and Ishant Sharma, rookies who came back home with enhanced reputations, but it was one man who held their bowling effort together and kept the Australian batsmen honest. For a spinner, Anil Kumble had two outstanding tours of Australia in 2003 and 2007 taking 24 and 20 wickets respectively at averages of 29 and 34. On both occasions, he was India’s leading wicket taker by a distance. In a country where away spinners leaked 46 runs for each wicket (since Jan 2006), Kumble with 44 wickets at an average of 35 is the leading wicket taker amongst spinners in Australia over the last ten years.

This time though India go without their holding and strike bowler of the last two efforts, which makes it absolutely imperative for the fragile ankles of Zaheer Khan and Ishant Sharma to last the distance in the Test matches. It would be a surprise and not an expectation for India’s bowlers to consistently bowl out Australia and it is their batsmen who would have to land the heavy blows to keep the team in the bout. It is on the continued success of Dravid, Tendulkar, Laxman, Ganguly and later on Sehwag that the positive results away from home were achieved. In Australia, Sehwag, Laxman and Tendulkar average above 54 while Dravid, despite a poor last tour, still averages 48. The batting order will feature two first time travelers this time – Gautam Gambhir and Virat Kohli, with Rohit Sharma who impressed in the ODI outings in Australia in 2008, as the first backup.

Unlike England, if India is to make a match of it in Australia, their batsmen have to make up for the deficiencies that their bowlers will perhaps frequently display. And therein lies the weight of India’s burden. Dravid has had a wonderful year and looks assured and settled. Laxman had patches of brilliance and Tendulkar has been laden with artificial mental burdens of late. Sehwag has only now struck form (and how!) and Gambhir averages below 30 in his last 25 test innings with no century to show. Buffering this line up are Kohli and Dhoni - for the first, this can be a career defining tour if he manages to avoid the fate that England dished out to Suresh Raina; for the second, this would perhaps be a visit where he may be required to play above his test average of 38. Indian batting faces a collective challenge which would demand the shedding of indifference and inconsistency and the adoption of bold and certain postures. The pitches would be quick, barring Sydney and the engine of Indian batting would have to chug into life quickly and swiftly. A slow start would only create the danger of a repeat of this summer, when more than the English bowlers, the lack of certainty and confidence of the batsmen did them in.

Facing India would be an Aussie side that has tasted victory against both South Africa and New Zealand recently, has discovered a new found depth in bowling riches and would in all probability have an in form Ricky Ponting awaiting India. The gaps would remain at the top and at the bottom – an opening combination that contains a Shane Watson unable to bowl at full effectiveness denies Australia the comfort of a quality all-rounder, and a rookie spinner in Nathan Lyon may not pose too many uncomfortable questions to the Indian batsmen. Barring that, Australia will come hard with (speed) guns blazing at India and will perform the basics in fielding and catching well.

For India, the story is familiar and yet slightly deviant. Their batsmen must win the big moments for them but this time they will perhaps be afforded lesser buffers of luxury by their injury prone and inexperienced bowlers. History can often be a strange companion. It can comfort, as the statistics in the opening part of this article indicate, or it can sow doubts and suspicions, as the memories of England this past summer may testify. India have fought Australia to a stalemate during their last two trips Down Under; its critical, for the sake of their immediate Test match future, that they leave a more promising legacy behind on this trip that what exists in the harsh battlefields of Russia and Afghanistan.

Statistics Source: espncricinfo.com


Beyond the Bashing

Posted by the lazy knight on 10:32 PM in , ,

(picture source: Cricinfo)

As I write this the covers are being pulled on the square at Edgbaston and MS Dhoni is preparing for another ‘loosing captain’ speech (his third in a row, an unusual event in itself) and searching for reasons to offer for a loss that was as big and humiliating as the margin suggests – an innings and 242 runs. India now have been wiped clean 3-0 by an ascending England that completes a remarkable one year of test cricket for the hosts and raises perplexing and troubling questions for visitors.

The last time India performed with such abject hopelessness in an away test series (or any test series for that matter) was Down Under in the winter of 1999. The Sachin Tendulkar led team was demolished by a rampaging Australia under Steve Waugh and the extent of the defeat then bears a close resemblance to the ones we are seeing now –

Adelaide – Lost by 285 runs
Melbourne – Lost by 180 runs
Sydney – An innings and 141 runs

It was a tour equal to the current one in terms of complete batting failure with only 2 centuries and 3 half centuries being scored in response to a batting flood from the Aussies. And despite the tireless efforts of the Karnataka trio of Srinath, Prasad and Kumble, the team never even won a session against the Aussies, let alone coming close to threatening them with a draw or a loss.

View the results of the current embarrassment in England and notice the pattern – Defeat by 196 runs at Lord’s, by 319 runs at Nottingham and the latest by an innings and 242 runs. The bowlers have tried and have been handicapped by injuries but the batting has opened the floodgates and let the invaders through. The three test matches have seen only 2 centuries and 7 seven half centuries and in neither case have the hundreds been big enough or the fifties been accumulative enough to push the total beyond 300.

The difference though lies in the expectations and the historical performance. No one gave the 1999 team a chance against the Aussies. There was not much you could expect from a team that had a support cast of MSK Prasad (opening the batting mind you), Hrishikesh Kanitkar, Devang Gandhi and SS Das for the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly. It was a complete collective batting failure with no opening stands of note and no stand out middle order performances. During the intervening 12 years though, India have done enough to wipe the stains of that humiliation and improve their reputations from easy cannon fodder to worthy contenders on overseas tours. Between 2000 and 2011, out of 54 tests played away from home (excluding Zimbabwe and Bangladesh), India won 15 and lost 21, giving them a win ratio of 27%, which while not comparable to an Australia or South Africa, is certainly much higher than those of any previous decade in Indian cricket.

During this period, the team was served by the bowling efforts of Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble, but the foundation of the victories and match saving draws were often laid down by the batsmen. It is India’s batting core of Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly (assisted during the later part of the last decade by Sehwag and Gambhir) that enabled it to post significant overseas victories (Headingly 2002, Adelaide 2003, Perth 2008, Hamilton 2009, Durban 2010) and often save games that could easily have been lost with a batting collapse (Nottingham 2002, Brisbane 2003, Adelaide 2008, Napier 2009, Cape Town 2011). This picture is perhaps appropriately reflected in the batting averages of the Indians away from home (admittedly not excluding Zimbabwe and Bangladesh this time) – Tendulkar expectedly leads with 55, followed by Gambhir at 57, Dravid at 53, Sehwag at 47, Laxman with 44 and Ganguly at 41. Each of them has, over the years, played a part in the setting up totals for bowlers to defend or responded to opposition’s attack with equal gusto.

It is based on the above that we must confront the critical hypothesis that now stares Indian cricket in the face as it awakens from the shambles of the England tour – India was and certainly for the near and medium term future shall remain a batting team. The bowling quartet (and a quartet it will be, for there is no genuine seam or spin bowling all rounder on the horizon) shall always possess one or at most two (if we are lucky) world class bowlers and not more. Kumble’s mantle passed onto Zaheer and from him it is now a toss up. Ishant Sharma perhaps possesses the best talent to claim it but is yet to stamp himself as a match winner as Zaheer did in 2007. The spinners will be effective at home but will remain predominantly stock bowlers outside and the seamers will never run through batting sides as the English and the South Africans now do. We will not have a Steyn or a Morkel and our seamers will always need receptive pitches to make the opposition batsmen hop.

It will therefore be the batsmen who have to bear a good 2/3rds (and at times even 3/4ths) of the burden of responsibility for winning games. They will need to compensate when the bowlers are hacked around during the first innings of a test match and will need to give enough to the bowlers to defend in the 2nd and 4th innings. This has been a pattern quite obvious in our recent one-day successes and will have to be the template if we are to be successful as a test side going ahead. Unless the soil of our pitches where Ranji games are played dramatically changes, we will need to look at our top 6 to win and save games for us.

It is here that India’s problems lie, not just as of now with the batsmen failing to fire in England, but also in the future as each of Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman will not last beyond the next 2-3 years. Behind them, warming the benches is a lot that has justifiably failed to inspire confidence thus far. The spot vacated by Sourav Ganguly in 2008 is still up for grabs. And neither Yuvraj Singh (overall test average of 35 and an away average of 29) nor Suresh Raina (test average of 32) have managed to cement that slot as their own. Both have been patchy and inconsistent and have shown major shortcomings against the short ball and an inability to graft when the pitch is not to their liking. Yuvraj is now out with an injury and Raina, who after his knock at Lord’s could have made this his breakthrough series, has frittered away the chance and seems set to lose his place in the playing XI. That leaves four other young men who currently are lined up in the queue with an eye on the future – Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. Kohli has started disappointingly and shown a visible discomfort against pace and bounce, even on docile West Indian pitches; Rohit Sharma has perhaps the most amount of talent but also the most fickle temperament; Pujara is only 3 games old and needs more chances and with the batting failures of England, Rahane may well find himself a part of the squad in the upcoming test series at home and in Australia.

The cupboard is not exactly bare for India’s batting but it’s a bit like sending cadets out of a military academy to replace experienced field commanders in the middle of a war. The transition, given the problems of the new crop of batsmen away from home, has to be phased and will necessarily involve pain such as that experienced in the last three weeks. It is critical that India’s new generation steps up to the mark in test cricket or else more such hidings may be in the offering. Test cricket is about the quality of effort and display of temperament and less about statistical rankings. The loss of the top spot must hurt but it is time to be realistic. A weak bowling and a declining batting line up will not take us back to the top of the summit. A more realistic short term goal would be stay in the top 3, keep in the hunt with the likes of England and South Africa and groom a new batting line up that can perform away from home. It is good to aspire for the numero uno slot but India’s priority in the near future has to be a Jardinesque obsession with building a strong XI that can play well away from home. The results and the rankings will take care of themselves by consequence.

Much would be written and lamented about the three tests lost. The bowlers were always suspect but the batting failure is inexplicable and as Ganguly has said, it seems more of a mental block than an issue about adapting to the environment. The batsmen, as has been pointed out, have been having a sub-par year and have not crossed 400 even once in the 7 test played in the calendar year thus far. It is not as if India did not have their chances in the series – they were 158/2 at Lord’s replying to England’s 474, only to get bowled out for 280 odd. Even after England recovered from 124/8 at Nottingham, the batsmen only had to score 350 in the first innings to get a sizeable lead. Instead the last 4 wickets were lost for 20 odd runs and the Houdini act enabled England to grab the psychological advantage. India turned up at Edgbaston conditioned for defeat and that is one mental spell that champions must immediately break out of.

The fourth test returns to the Oval in London. A ground where the blue of Indian fans will match the blue of the English as at Lord’s. A ground also where the pitch will seem flat and the batsmen may finally manage to play through the line of the ball with lesser risk. A 4-0 whitewash prediction was sacrilege when the series began but now seems realistic. India have been shuffling players, managing injuries and patching up their batting order. To use another military analogy, England has been pounding the heavy artillery while the Indians are still getting their battle formations in order. It is up to the batsmen to pull the team out of the current abyss. It is perhaps too much to expect a victorious turnaround or even a simultaneous coming to form for the top 6, but in this bout where India have been a mute punching bag instead of a living animated boxer, a batting effort exceeding 350 may well be a starting counterpunch.


A Right too far

Posted by the lazy knight on 8:26 PM in , , ,
'Oh my love, it's a long way we've come
From the freckled hills to the steel and glass canyons
From the stony fields, to hanging steel from the sky
From digging in our pockets for a reason not to say goodbye'

U2 - The hands that built America

Noise is the hinge on which the doors of democracy open. It is the one characteristic that distinguishes it from any other alternative political system. Not for no reason was Eastern Europe referred to being under an ‘Iron Curtain’ during the years of the Cold War. And not for no reason do we see the rich and supposedly destined for greatness China going all out to block internet chat forums, Facebook and Twitter whenever civil disturbances raise their feeble head in the country. Noise denotes life, liveliness and interest. When combined with opinion it reflects participation. Democracies cannot run on mute and unlike our television channels, in our systems of governance we have to listen to all kinds of noises, wherever they emanate from and howsoever unpleasant they may be.

Developed and to some extent emerging democracies are increasing hearing new and perturbing voices. Voices they always believed the locomotives of their nations were far too superior to produce. Voices that are increasingly shrill and radical and are making those in the seat of power squirm uncomfortably. There is a direction that they are coming from. You only have to turn to your right and try and see far ahead, beyond the immediately obvious.

On 22nd of July, Anders Breivik single-handedly committed the deadliest armed attack in Scandinavia since the end of the Second World War. He blew up the fa├žade of the Prime Minister’s office and then went on a shooting spree at the youth camp of the ruling party killing 69 and injuring many others. Before Breivik’s arrest the initial suspicion fell on Islamic terrorists and for good reason. Scandinavia has been under threat since the publication of the Prophet cartoon by a Danish daily a few years. It could have been entirely plausible that revenge had finally been sought for that perceived insult in the quiet of Oslo.

All convenient theories were however torn to shreds as Breivik laid down his automatic weapon and surrendered to the police on the island of Utoya where for more than hour he had emptied bullets on defenseless teenagers. Something that not just Norway but all of Europe and dare I say all of the developed West had overlooked or believed not to be of major consequence, had occurred right in their midst – Right wing home grown violence and terror.

Breivik’s action were an eventual culmination in practice of an ideology that has been spewing hate in theory (and internet chat rooms) across Europe over the last few years. As ‘indigenous’ population stagnated and migrants from poorer countries started entering the workforce, Western Europe’s much vaunted multiculturalism has increasingly felt the pressure coming from a Right that believes the ‘original’ nation is under siege. While till the turn of the century this debate was purely a fight for scarce resources and jobs and at one level even justifiably about illegal immigration, post 9/11 and the Afghan war, the toxic ingredient of Islamophobia has been added to the already unstable compound of frustrations.

These emotions are not confined to Europe alone. North America has also been experiencing a political divide that sharpens by the day. In the US, on the one side stands the Republican party that is shrill it is denouncement of everything that represents government. Ironically it cites the fiscally broke welfare states of Western Europe as examples of what US should not become and what its opponent, the Democratic party is hell bent on doing. The Republicans have never known to be anti-immigrant but their often harsh and illogical stance on illegal immigration (specially through Mexico) and perceived bias towards affluent and middle class suburban whites and Christian conservatives, has pushed the minority vote of blacks and Hispanics away from them. The Democrats meanwhile are ranged on the Left, resisting overt attachment to faith and counterbalancing the concerns of those who are ‘non-white’ in America. The political dialogue is mostly sharp, accusatory and bordering on the unpleasant. And it did not take long for a country where owning a gun is at times as easy as buying groceries from the nearest store, for violence to emanate from someone owning allegiance to the extreme right. In January of this year, Gabrielle Giffords, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives was shot at in an assassination attempt by a man who claimed that the government was ‘mind controlling’ the country and listed Hitler’s Mein Kampf as one of his influences. The shooting was clouded by what preceded it. Giffords had barely managed to get re-elected the previous November and during the campaign her office had been ransacked once and her constituency had been shown in the crosshairs of a gun in an election map put up on Sarah Palin’s website. As speculation over the cause of Gifford’s shooting continued, the political rhetoric only went up.

No society is free from violence and no society is completely open enough to accept everything and everyone it comes in touch with. But society itself is collection of individuals that have not always consented to living together with each and every one of them around. Unless we are ready to live in gated communities and by extension in gated colonies and gated nations, we will always have someone in every generation joining us as a new neighbor. Our fear of the outsider will only confine our world view, for the universe is large and our shells too small.

It is a question that we in India have grappled with as well. Our major metropolitan cities today are bursting at their seams and anti-migrant chants are not hard to hear. In Mumbai, self proclaimed cultural defenders have taken to attacking those they perceive as coming from outside and robbing locals of their jobs and draining the city of its resources. While the fight for our cities is a relatively new phenomenon, the tussle to own the heritage of the land and the country has been ongoing since the collapse of the Mughal Empire. Hindu nationalists have claimed the land as belonging to the nation’s largest faith on the basis of simple numbers and a view of history that begins only from 1000AD onwards when Muslim victories started resulting in permanent inhabitation of the conquered land. But India is much older than that and while Hinduism may have originated here, were the Aryans or the Indus Valley settlers the original squatters as far as history can logically see or did they too travel a distance before setting camp in the north-west of our subcontinent?

Within this debate are layered contexts of migration and movement? Both my father’s and mother’s family moved from comfortably settled and well to do households in Pakistan to the newly independent India during Partition. How much entitlement that does legacy bestow on people like me to call Delhi as ‘my city’ or more importantly to deny anyone else the right to enter its gates? And do I get that entitlement by virtue of birth or by ancestry? And how long does the bloodline have to run before the footprints of migration are erased forever and I become an accepted part of this city and the country?

Both Europe and the US, thus far, have experienced controlled and peaceful influx of outsiders, unlike India. Their engagement with multiple religions and cultures has been at the level and extent of their own choosing. Globalization has expanded boundaries of economies and nations while also expanding insecurities. The Indian sitting in far away Bangalore is no longer a mystic yogi for the average American but a potential job stealer. The turban wearing bearded man from the Middle East is not a carpet seller but a potential suicide bomber. The natural human response is to build walls, to appropriate resources, land and culture for those found ‘home grown’ enough. But every passing generation is layer upon one that came seeking a home. The blacks in the US came from Africa, the whites from England, Germany, Ireland, Russia and Eastern Europe. England was a Viking raiding territory before being conquered by Romans and then by the Anglo-Saxons. Germany was inhabited by fearful tribes before organized empires emerged in the middle ages.

The problem is not with nations defining boundaries or rules for admission, for that is how the modern civilized world must live. The problem lies in the politics of hate or more clearly the politics of the ‘other’. A strand of polity that solely focuses on the supposed negatives of the ‘other’ corrodes the moral correctness of the accuser. The need to banish the outsider and protect the native has now been combined with the need to protect the native culture and religion. This is the translation of the extreme right. The extreme left translated it as a battle between the earner and the seeker. Both demonized one against the other and both have not proven shy of pressing the trigger of a gunshot to make their voice heard. And while governments of the day have maintained that these mini-volcanoes of hate are too small and too dormant to release any harmful lava in the mainstream, incidents like those in Norway only reflect how day to day political speech is influencing those on the margins. It sounds uncomfortable but an Oslo bombed by an Al-Qeada trained Muslim would have been a terror attack but an Oslo shaken up by a Breviek becomes an act of a loony nutcase. As we never tire of saying, terror has no identity, religion or language. If it does not discriminate between the victims then why the discrimination between perpetrators?

The onus is on the center to balance the scale and push the hardliners to the margins. Both the Left and the Right have a place in polity but the language of political discourse needs to consider its message and those that interpret it on the outside. The shrillness and vitriol of words can soon be matched by deadly action as demonstrated in Oslo. Nations cannot open their gates with accepting arms to every outsiders, but they also cannot run around rubber stamping their citizens as owners and dependants. The creation of the planet preceded the creation of the species that now inhabits it. That should settle all disputes claiming ‘original ownership’ of land.


Manufacturing Enemies

Posted by the lazy knight on 7:06 PM in , , , , ,

In Delhi’s political circles they are mourning the demise of the Left. And it is not just the caricatured ones from ‘civil society’, JNU and NGOs that experience this sadness. It is perhaps equally true of the Congress and its government in the UPA. For the first five years of its perch in the cockpit of governance, the party and the alliance faced internal turbulence on every issue directed at it from its own friend cum critic, the Left parties. From market liberalization (insurance and retail), to the scope and breadth of NREGA (something many journalists were quick to cite as a reason for the 2009 Congress victory) to ultimately the decisive (and fatal) clash over the nuclear deal three summers ago. Neither the Left, nor the UPA has really recovered from that collision, despite a return to power that spoke as much for the vanquished as it did for the victor.

The Congress since then has been on an auto-pilot. The Prime Minister, having braved a confrontation that many thought him incapable of causing and having achieved what he believed to be a significant domestic and foreign policy victory, seems to have lost energy and drive. It appears as if the 2009 polls for him were the end of a race and not a pit stop that many observers assumed it to be. These days he resembles an unwilling sportsman, forced out of retirement (or in his case being forced against retirement) to lead a team where disinterest is the prevailing feeling. The Congress seems to have mistaken the period between 2009 to 2014 as one that simply requires the completion of the formality of staying in office. The real pie is the next election when Rahul Gandhi is expected to take over the reigns and a new era of posturing can begin. UPA II then is the foster child the parent is not too keen to engage with. It is a necessity to be borne but the imagination is hidden for better times expected to come ahead. That perhaps explains the indifference and apathy running through this government since its inception. The Prime Minister has been low key, but unlike his first term when this was an asset, in his second term where allegations of corruption have abounded and ministers have been speaking about everything except their work, this silence has conveyed helplessness to favorable and weakness to the less charitable of his supporters.

The problem with playing a waiting game is that two critical elements, time and circumstance, always remain out of control and can turn and twist causing discomforting pain to even the most numb of bodies. In a sense, the UPA’s problems are seeded in its first term when a blind eye was turned to dirty secrets that many thought would either never come out or were underestimated with respect to their potential impact. But both the Telecom scam and the shenanigans of the Commonwealth Games have put the ruling coalition on the mat from which it is still wriggling to escape. It has not helped that multiple public agitations, high profile in nature and media coverage, have never really allowed the government to shift the focus away from the misdeeds in the corridors of power.

To use corporate jargon, the ball has been dropped. And several times over. As evidence slowly crawled of irregularities in Telecom and CWG deals, standard bureaucratic responses were dished out. There was little attempt, in the face of political compulsions, to decisively act and grab the initiative from the opposition, which despite its own disarray has managed to find a voice that it lacked in the UPA’s first term. The result has been that both the government and the party have been made to defend on the backfoot, right from the disastrous announcement of Telengana in the winter of 2009.

Democracy demands governments to possess a thick skin, but also combine it with a large heart and a sense of magnanimity. While the right to free speech requires us individually to listen to a lot of things we would privately consider as trash, governments must not only put up but also accommodate with groups, persons and views that may seem unrealistic at best and churlish at worst. Given that outcomes in our system only appear after years of grind in the bureaucratic machine, intent becomes more important than immediate action. And this government has done every action to let the voter question its intent. When the well heeled and well off middle class agitates for a stronger anti-corruption law, they must be co-opted and not discredited. When a gimmicky godman ‘fasts’ a few hours of the day demanding the return of black money, death for the corrupt and courses in Hindi, there are certainly more deft ways of taking away his sting than by forcibly evicting him and his supporters from the middle of the national capital. Anna Hazare and Baba Ramdev will not stand up in polls but the UPA has now given itself the tag of being a government against peaceful protests, howsoever whimsical and misdirected.

The arrogance of power can often lead one to believe that the reaction is temporary and will not affect electoral outcomes. But in a democracy as chaotic as ours, it is foolhardy to rest on such cushy assumptions. Shifting caste identities and a perceived stamp of corruption from Bofors decimated Rajiv Gandhi’s super majority in 1989. For the Congress to think that anti-corruption anger is a middle class drawing room phenomenon and that a disunited NDA along with a beaten Left present no challenge three years from now is to adopt hubris at par with the NDA’s India Shining posturing of 2004. The electorate threw a surprise out of nowhere then and it is perfectly capable of doing it a second time. The initiative has been lost, the momentum was never there and now along with scandal comes the tag of being insensitive and brash. The government stays in office, its electoral fortunes may point north in the coming days but is moral compass is pointing a firm south.


Copyright © 2009 twenty2yards All rights reserved. Theme by Laptop Geek. | Bloggerized by FalconHive.