Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The adorable rebel

Another day, another tribute. It was just a week ago that I bid adieu to India's greatest match-winner. And in the early hours of Monday morning, India's winningest test captain bid farewell to the game that is my passion. Personally, the latter was undoubtedly the bigger of the two farewells.

India regained the Border Gavaskar trophy, currently the most coveted prize in cricket (ahead of the Ashes),led astutely by Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the man who will be king one day. It was one of the most important wins for Indian cricket. The coronation was well deserved for the deligent troops who had walked the talk for the better part of a month. In the background though, one man depicted a silent smile, albeit one that spoke a lot. As soon as the 9th wicket fell, MSD called his "Dada" for a chat and asked him to marshall the troops one last time. It was after all, a team he helped build. This gesture by MSD was unprecedented and there was a lump in the throat at witnessing the true passing of the baton.

It all started way back in 1991-92. Sourav, who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, 'earned' a trip to Australia on what many thought as East Zone's best player(Indian selection system at that time was not bereft of nepotism). He was a lost soul, in a team dominated by the presence of seniors like Kapil, Shastri,Vengsarkar and Srikkanth..These were people he watched and adored from his multi-storeyed mansion in Behala. He allegedly refused to carry drinks and behaved like a snooty prince. But knowing who said it,I refuse to take it at face value. There might have been an element of truth in the story, but surely not what it was made out to be.

Having played a solitary one-day game on that tour, Ganguly came back into the grind of domestic cricket and performed admirably. Many thought he would be consigned to the trash, but he continued to break into Duleep and Irani trophy sides and his name continued to be around the fringes of national selection for the next 4 years.

His day of reckoning came in 1996, when he was picked for the England tour. There was hullabaloo all over India, that he was a quota selection. When the entire system is flawed, why blame only the benefitiary?There would be no tomorrows if he failed and as he left Indian shores,he bloody well knew it.

In June 1996, in the 2nd test at Lord's (after another meek Indian capitulation abroad, in the 1st test at Edgbaston), he made a hundred on debut. Another debutant, a certain Rahul Dravid made 95 and a new generation of Indian batsmen were born, much to the delight of the over-burdened Sachin Tendulkar and the Indian cricket fans.

For the next 4 years, till early 2000, Ganguly, now known as "Dada" within the team, was a consistent performer for the Indian side, especially in his new found role as Tendulkar's opening partner in the one day game. Together, they obliterated many a record of Haynes-Greenidge and forged what is now rightly called the best opening combination in ODI history.

In 2000, when Tendulkar renounced captaincy and when a match fixing scandal engulfed Indian cricket, the selectors turned to a "youngster" as captain. Since Sourav was the only player established in both test and ODI teams, he was the default choice as skipper.

It was in Nairobi, in the ICC knockout later that year that he flourished as captain and showcased the new India for the first time on the cricket ground. The adage "Team India" was seemingly coined at this juncture and it sure was a proud moment for Dada and India both.He also vouched for a "foreign coach" along with the senior players and the concept of the no-baggage, no bias coach bore fruition with John Wright taking over in late 2000.

The litmus test for the duo was when the all conquering Australians arrived in 2001 and Dada annoyed his counterpart by turning up late for the toss, ignoring him and all such idiosyncrasies which shook his opponents. It wasn't the protocol by any means, but it was damn effective alright. It was all in the intention of getting his team to win the mental battles. The Aussies grudgingly acknowledged that here was a tough cookie, an opponent whom they loved to hate. He backed this behaviour up with innovative tactics and India conjured up their most memorable triumph in history in a series that is part of folklore.

He encouraged Laxman, Harbhajan, Yuvraj, Sehwag, Pathan, Dhoni,Zaheer and many a youngster thrived under his tutelage and took on the mantle of match-winner in the team.

During 2000-2004, Dada became a great batsman in ODI cricket and a damn good one in Tests. India won matches abroad (a new and refreshing phenomenon) during this time and also were pretty much unbeatable at home. But his supposed waterloo came in 2005 v Pakistan. He was struggling with the bat and his often deplorable ground fielding was beginning to show. He didn't seem to deserve a place in the side, but carried on. It was to be a big mistake.
He was inspired by Greg Chappell during the 2003-04 Oz tour, when a few chinks in his techniques were instantly sorted out after a talk with the great man. So, he went ahead and recommended Greg as the successor to John Wright. It was a blunder he was to regret later.

Greg sent out an obnoxious mail, about the bad influence that Dada was having in the side, to the BCCI and it was promptly leaked in the media. Dada felt cheated by Greg. The contents of the mail were truly inflammatory. But as fate would have it, Dada lost the captaincy and thereby his place in the side. For the next one year, he was a true taboo in Indian cricket. With the coach having none of him, he was being spoken about in the past tense. But it was to change.After the youngsters (whom Greg backed)failed to live up to expectations, Ganguly was recalled in December 2006, on the tour of SouthAfrica.

He was all guts and gumption in that SouthAfrica series and the sight of him fighting for a few more runs for India with the No.11 batsman at the crease was something his detractors also appreciated. It's hard to keep a good man down. That was a lesson learnt by many.

He played well in the disastrous World Cup campaign in 2007, but was released from One day duties for good in late 2007 by Dhoni, who wanted to build a team of youth and rightly so.
Dada performed superbly in tests in 2007-08 and made a heroic 239 at Bangalore and an even more personally significant and emotional hundred at the Eden Gardens in Kolkata, his theatre of dreams.

However,after a poor series in Srilanka in mid 2008, the knives were out for the umpteenth time. He was dropped from the Rest of India side, jeopardizing his preparation for the Oz series at home.
With the changing of the selection committee, Dada was thrown another lifeline. But this time he had had enough. Visibly frustrated, he announced at the start of the series that it was to be his last.This, he felt,was his only chance to go out on his own terms.

He made a gritty hundred in the Mohali test and was always among the runs in the series. Not least the 85 he made in his penultimate innings. He made a golden duck in this last try, but I am sure it was a moment that he will look back philosophically in due course. He was deeply disappointed to narrowly miss out on joining his "best-buddy" Greg Chappell in the list of players who have made a ton in both their first and last test matches.

To put things in perspective, Dada was not a great test batsman. Far from it. He was an honest trier and fighter. To be fair, he was a trifle lucky to be mentioned in the same sentence as his more illustrious colleagues as part of the Fab Four. He sure was the 4th best in that group, the top 3 of which is a non debate. But to his credit, he performed day in and day out, made utmost use of his talent and played 113 tests for India. Only a handful have played more.

Dada, despite his batting exploits, will always be remembered as the man who changed the face of Indian cricket. "Lambs abroad and tigers at home" was a notion that was erased in his era, so was the favoritism that was a part and parcel of cricket in the land.Many a good player maybe born in the future, but truly inspirational leaders like Dada come once in a generation. Whenever he was down in the dumps, a miracle saved him, proving he truly was a child of destiny.

The nucleus of the present team, which I am sure will do wonders under MSD, was formed in the Ganguly era. Younger players like Sehwag, Harbhajan, Yuvraj, Dhoni will, till date do anything for their beloved Daadi.

He taught the present India to fight. He gave meaning to the theory that we are no less than anyone else.

I salute my hero. He will be sorely missed.
Thanks for everything Dada..

Monday, November 03, 2008

A champion alright!

Saturday night..I switch on Cricinfo and to my utter amazement and disbelief I find that Anil Kumble has announced his retirement from International cricket with immediate effect..
My first reaction was "Oh No.." But the second and more thought out one was "Maybe Yes"..

I then asssessed that since Dada is retiring after Nagpur, could Indian cricket together afford to lose 2 bespectacled heroes, who both ironically had a clear and perfect vision for the future..
Ganguly deserves a tribute on his own too...That wil come later..

The time now is to celebrate Anil Kumble.... This name is synonymous with determination... Hardwork, perserverance, work ethic.. Bring on the thesaurus.

A man who made his debut as a bespectacled, easy to rag engineering student in England in 1990.. At first sight he was a trundler.. Not many who saw him could love him instantly..He wasnt a Shane Warne..The tweak was non existent and beating batsmen in flight was almost an unwelcome visitor.. He seemed to have his ways.. His height was strange for a "spinner".. His modus operandi seemed to rely on the uneven nature of the wicket and hope that the batsman made a mistake when the ball misbehaved..
Easy to say, he dint quite work..Azhar wasn't swept off his feet and traditional spinners like Raju and Hirwani seemed better to his laid-back eye..

But what Kumble did was fight.. He went back home and completed his Engineering ..And kept performing on the domestic circuit, albeit on helpful pitches.. He was moderate without ever being eye catching.. But this was to change and quickly...

The redemption came at the Feroz Shah Kotla stadium in the capital, one that was to be his bastion later on.. It was the season opener Irani trophy game, an annual fixture between the Ranji champs that year and the Rest of India, an assembled squad which was akin to a quota system realization.. Kumble sure won the quota from the South Zone and off he went to Delhi.. He took 13 wickets against a strong Delhi contingent and made the selectors sit up and take notice..This performance earned him the sobriquet "Jumbo", one given to him by the outspoken Sardar, Navjot Singh Sidhu..

The performance earned him a recall to the SouthAfrican sojourn later that year and he took a 5 wicket haul in his comeback game and did well enough to be picked as one of the 3 spinners to face the "Poms" (England for those who came in late) in the sultry 1993 summer.. He made the Poms smell dust and at the end of the summer had earned a reputation as India's leading spinner..

Throughout the 90s. when Azhar and Tendulkar led India, their concept was simple...When in doubt turn to Kumble.. Most of the fast bowlers(that is sure a misnomer) of the 90s were just people to take the shine off the ball.. Skipper Azhar and coach Wadekar soon sized up the situation that India was better off playing on doctored surfaces, where even the coin at the toss would tweak after landing on the pitch.. Kumble was his right hand man.. No Kumble meant no win..

Crept in the bad habits.. When India went abroad, Kumble wasnt a force cos he was used to bowling on the turners and he was played as a medium pacer by the batsmen.. Jumbo was more of a stock bowler abroad and this was simply not working for India cos the pacers were not upto scratch anyway, apart from Srinath,who again was an honest trier and maybe later Prasad..
Indian team to no one's surprises lost all they played abroad, but come any home game and Kumble and co would run amok at the slightest sign of turn..

His moment of crowning glory came when he took all 10 wickets against Pakistan at home in the Delhi (where else!) test.. The uncharitable would point to JP being the umpire, but hell he deserved them all(OK most).. Then came the bouquets and formation of "Anil Kumble circle" in his homeland..Both his feet all the while were firmly entrenched on the ground..

Post the Azhar and the Sachin era, Ganguly was annointed captain.. Kumble though had a shoulder injury(rotator cuff) due to a heavy workload.. Now that came as no shock for the yeoman services he had rendered to Indian cricket.. In the meanwhile, Harbhajan Singh was born.. A heavily strapped Kumble assisting him in the nets in the 2001 home series against Aus was a sight for sore eyes..

A fit Kumble in 2001-2003 did not find a place in tests abroad because he simply wasnt bowling better than Bhajji.. Ganguly took the "hardest decision of his tenure" and Jumbo was benched.. But the sight of him readying his lens to capture the winning moment in Trinidad test in 2002 is stil embedded in memory. Team came first then came self.. It was a refreshing change in Indian cricket and the humble engineer had showed the way..
2 tests later, bowling with a broken jaw at Antigua was the pinnacle.. Though it seemed a touch foolish, he said "I am going home tomorrow and wil be content that I gave my best"..It was difficult to disagree with such a warrior..

Jumbo at this time was stil king in test matches at home.. The Bhajji-Jumbo duo simply crushed all comers and India continued winning at home, apart from the new found Dada instilled vigour that helped them win a match in all series abroad during 2001-03.

The turning point though came at the Gabba in late 2003... Bhajji had an injury to his bowling hand and he had to leave Oz.. The benched engineer was drafted in to what was to be his biggest project till date.. He took 24 wickets in the 3 ensuing games and 13 no less in Steve Waugh red ragged farewell at Sydney in Jan 2004. A man of the match away from home was a first and made him proud..
Since then he never lost his place and Bhajji had to do the reserve role abroad.. Jumbo had well and truly taken off...

He had that quality..Once he was given a chance, he rarely fluffed it.. Milestones came like there were no tomorrow.. 300 and 400 both at Bangalore(I watched both in the stadium luckily!)..And then 600 at Perth in 2008..
600? U must be kidding me.. For a man who wasn't by any means the Sheik of tweak like the genius Warne or a mystery freak like Muralitharan, this was some achievement..

He became captain in 2007 when Tendulkar refused test captaincy..If u had asked Jumbo to take bullets for India, he would without flinching.. Captaincy was nothing after all... But in the end the bed of thorns that came with being captain consumed him..

His biggest praise was from Steve Waugh who said he was amazed by how relentless Jumbo was.. U could lose focus for a moment against him at ur own peril..

Harsha Bhogle once said that for any growing up schoolboy the role model should be Kumble and not Tendulkar, cos Kumble is a hero for the common man.. He gives us the feeling that "I can become one like him someday".. The Gods surely weren't very impressed with him initially and he was born with very few gifts.. But they would have been showering flowers from the clouds and nodding in approval when he announced his retirement at the Kotla.. It was a win for mankind.. For work ethic against riches..For the mortals against the geniuses..

If any kid today is given a pocket money of 100 bucks, I would suggest him to call Jumbo.. How to make use of one's limited resources is a lesson not many have taught... Hell..Jumbo did that for 19 years..

It was sad to see noises from all quarters when he was on the struggle.. When he had a bad game, people suddenly saw that he dint turn the ball, that he wasnt good anymore.. But 619 wickets? Not a joke.. He had his style and he achieved greatness with it.. Nothing more nothing less..

I will always be proud that I share my birthday with the great man..
Thanks Anil.. I can't imagine what Indian cricket will be without u.. U have influenced my growing up years mate.. And yes u have imparted smiles on the way... Good on u..

Thursday, July 10, 2008

When sport is more than just sport..

Its been more than a year since I stopped time and penned down to my heart's content..A couple of busy semesters coupled with "I'd rather relax or listen to songs than blog" attitude was the reason for this prolonged hibernation..
Up side of it is it feels like Aamir khan...one blog a year.. :) (U patrons of this blog must be thanking heavens that I will be writing only 1 a year, but I may not be that kind to u guys!)..

One reason why I showed a stop sign to my laziness was that the topic popped up itself, without me having to go running wild behind it.. It was just last Sunday that arguably the greatest sporting event of the year ended..And this time it very much lived up to its name..
2 of tennis' greatest players perspired and inspired their way to the greatest tennis match in recent times.. The incessant rain at London along with the ever active Sun God in the United Kingdom added more drama to the event..

The match in itself was 4 hours 44 minutes long..Wait wait..Long is not the word.. It was just a measly 4 hrs 44 minutes short.. The way the two artists of the drama were playing, it seemed we could stay in front of the idiot box for another zillion years..It was tense, roller coaster like and an exuberant battle of the best...

Well u may argue that since the man I was backing won, this blog was written..Well that is partly true..Who would watch highlights of a cricket match India just narrowly lost...Thats natural..

Coming back to the artists of the showpiece..The man who lost first...Roger Federer...He who is part of the endangered species of tennis players cos they dont make them like him anymore..A man bristling with talent, surely the most talented player to have ever walked on a tennis court... He sometimes has 2-3 shots for each occasion and surely that backhand to save matchpoint in the 4th set tiebreaker was unthinkable and surreal..

And then the "challenger"..Rafa "vamos" Nadal... He is now the champion, no? I have rarely seen someone who is willing to retreive every ball as if his life depended on it.. A nerveless macho man with amazing resolve and brilliant concentration..

This is not the forum to discuss who is the better player and who will be better.. This is simply a celebration of the riches these guys have provided tennis fans over the past few years, especially the last 2 Grandslam events...

What makes a rivalry tick is if both guys on any given day can beat the other...From what I have seen Sampras-Agassi in the mid 90s was at par the Fedex-Rafa bull fight...Am not qualified enough to comment on Borg-Mac and Connors-Mac cos this was well before the 90s...

I just hope that these 2 guys continue what they do best, decimate opponents along the way and reach finals.. Cos simply put, this has been a salivating rivalry, one that will easily be the paradigm for more to come in this century..

I know for sure that the genius of Roger Federer will keep making semifinals and finals on all surfaces for some time to come yet..Now its up to the man from Mallorca to follow suit... He sure has everything that takes to click on all surfaces..

And yes, the more time Roger takes in exceeding Pete's tally of 14, the better it is for tennis fans and tennis per se.It means that Rafa has made it to more finals along the way and given life to this rivalry as well as to the tremendous sport that we all love..