Monday, September 10, 2012

An artist, a magician!

As a teenager, I was excited by the debut of Vangipurappu Venkata Sai Laxman, a name I had heard a lot on the domestic circuit. Forget knocking on the selector's door, the young man had banged it wide open with his stellar performances. Quota selection this certainly wasn't. It was merit as merit could be.

Laxman made a fighting 50 with the tail and contributed majorly to one of the first Indian wins at home led by a fast bowler, Javagal Srinath's I-will-wreak-havoc 6/21 at Motera. It was a memorable debut. Those were heady days, of two touch artists with subtle and sublime wrists in the same starting eleven. Both unassuming and genial Hyderabadis. Now both are gone, leaving Indian and world cricket a poorer place for the connoisseur as well as the paying public.

Laxman was always a gentleman cricketer, you knew he couldn't harm a fly, let alone upsetting equilibrium in the political world that is Indian cricket. You couldnt associate him with any camp, it was just him and his India shirt. He took pride in being part of the golden generation of Indian cricket, one we should conside ourselves lucky to have seen alive, all together,all flourishing, all at their best. Yet, he quietly sat in the background while Tendulkar, Dravid, Ganguly, Sehwag, Dhoni, Yuvraj, Harbhajan and Kumble got most of the spotlight. He was an artist, but breaching territory and claiming poster boy status wasn't his style.

His calling was the 281 at Kolkata, arguably the best ever test match innings by an Indian. That day in the summer of 2001, I thought he realized what it was to be a world beater; the mouth-watering prospect of replicating his dominance of Indian domestic cricket on the world stage. I remember him dancing down the track to Shane Warne's viciously turning round-the-wicket leg breaks and hitting it through mid wicket repeatedly, completely against the turn. The astonishment on Warne and Gilchrist's face was palpable. It was superhuman. It was almost a zero percentage success shot with men round the bat, yet he was pulling it off with amazing dexterity, elan and above all consistency. The innings earned him enormous respect from the Australians, one that eventually culminated with them coining the now legendary phrase "Very Very Special Laxman".

That defining innings should have made VVS a certainty in the test side, at both home and away. But silencing doubters for good was just a gift he wasn't born with. Many a time, he was dropped in favor of the five bowler approach, despite clearly being well among the top five batsman in the country. When there was a sacrifice to be made, it was always Laxman. He was perenially one bad innings away from inviting questions from critics. "Slow runner", "not fit enough", "looks older than his age" were all unreasonably used against him in the middle of the last decade (and a lot more reasonably last year).

This solution i.e. dropping him, was one of Indian cricket's conundrums. They would drop him, he would go back, make five big hundreds in four Ranji games and smash the door wide open once again. He was easily the most dominant domestic batsman of his generation. Not just the runs, even the aura of inevitability around his hundreds was splendid.

Laxman's one-day career did not flourish as much. He was quite unfairly dropped for the 2003 world cup in favor of Dinesh Mongia. Evidently, Mongia's bits and pieces bowling and better fielding turned the scales. India surprised many people in their World Cup 2003 campaign, but Mongia didn't. It was a decision that clearly shattered Laxman. John Wright mentions in his autobiography that it even created a distance between him and Laxman; re-building the bridge of faith took quite some time.

At the start of 2004, he returned to the ODI setup and delivered three brilliant hundreds in four games in the VB series Down Under. He also made a memorable series winning hundred against Pakistan at Karachi,in the first bilateral encounter between the neighbors in 15 years. He played his last ODI in South Africa two years later, after being rushed there on an SOS in the middle of a shocking series for India. He flew half way across the world, only to edge Pollock's first ball to slip and boom, his career in colored clothes for India was over.

Post 2006, it was just test cricket for Laxman. One of his amazing qualities was that he survived six long years playing only one format. Considering India play only 8-10 test matches a year on an average, fighting the downtime and keeping himself match fit and run-hungry underlined his professionalism and love for the game.

Laxman was India's bankable second slipper. I would certainly have loved to be a fly near the slip cordon, for those interactions between him and Dravid would have been education. What else could you expect from two of India's most cerebral cricketers?

He was also India's best bad pitch batsman. Mohali 2010 was sheer genius; winning a test match of his own bat with a bad back and Ishant/Ojha for company. His chiding of Ojha mid-pitch was a priceless moment, one that showcased his passion for the India jersey; a quality that was generally overlooked. Durban 2010, Perth 2008 are many other instances that come to mind of Laxman shepherding the tail and guiding India to impregnable positions.

To add to all this he was a selfless individual; a quality seldom found in great batsmen. You would never associate Laxman with slowing down in the 90s, manufacturing hundreds or going for personal glory. Giving up his icon status after IPL 2008 for Deccan Chargers, however bad he performed there was a noble gesture.

Laxman's last year in test cricket did not go as planned. He, Dravid and Tendulkar owed it to Indian cricket to plan their exit in phases. Certainly one expected more from the trio than playing till being pushed out by the selectors. That Laxman and Dravid went after the same test match means this phase out process was an unmitigated disaster and a lot of the good work was undone.

Fingers crossed, the younger batsmen, who undoubtedly have the potential, will follow Laxman's consistency and performances for India. 16 years at the top level of a sport is a long time indeed. The next time India bat on a shocking pitch or are chasing a tricky 220 in the fourth innings of a series deciding test match, Laxman will be sorely missed.

Lacchu bhai, as he was fondly known, will undoubtedly walk into the pantheon of legends of Indian cricket. Above all, he will always be a remembered as a role model and a good man.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The last of his kind

He called a press conference on a sunny afternoon at Chinnaswamy Stadium..One hour later,he was gone.No fuss, no frenzy. In the days leading up to this public announcement, he had made it a point to reach out to everyone who made a difference in his cricketing life. Gavaskar,Tendulkar et al. Symptomatic of the grace and stature of the man.

Meet Rahul Sharad Dravid..The hero's best friend, for 16 years..Dravid was bloody good, heck he is an all time great. But he never felt the need to tell. He never gelled his hair, never acted like a casanova, never made obscene gestures after a test match hundred. Sophisticated he was, but classy.

Mothers heat and eat previous night's rice from the refrigerator. They never force others in the family to do so. Dravid was the same. He took many bullets for the team. His answer was always a YES. "I want to win the World cup, will you keep wickets?". "I want to accommodate Yuvraj at 6, will you open?". "Youngsters are not good enough at short leg, could you?" Quintessential team man. Declaring when SRT was at 194 in Multan was totally on. He reasoned that India needed wickets that night. When you practice what you preach, you are not culpable.

Dravid fought and polarized public opinion all the time, during his long career. They said he couldn't play One day cricket because he couldn't rotate strike. Dravid worked real hard on his game. 10000 ODI runs later, we know who should be smiling. He could slog for the team too. He has one of the fastest 50s in ODI's. Neat, for someone who swears by the text book.
They then said he was not a good fit for Twenty20 cricket. He batted 3 and 6 for RCB and very successfully at that. Why, one season, he was his team's best player on view. Hard work/work ethic was his forte. Often times, he was the first batsman to bat in the nets. His enthusiasm to hit balls in the nets belied belief for a man touching 40.

Dravid, on the face of it, did not have the recipe for success in a cricket mad country like India. He was no show pony, he couldn't make news by creating a drunken stupor..Superstar you needed to be to make it big and he wasn't. Importantly, even after 2 or 3 years of Dravid in the Indian team during the 90's, not many kids wanted to become a Rahul Dravid. Ganguly YES, Tendulkar YES, Dravid why? His unrelenting performances over the past 16 years have now registered. There are kids waiting to become Rahul Dravid now.

An endearing quality in Dravid was that his greatness was palpable. You knew you could become a Rahul Dravid with sheer determination, focus, intensity and a good amount of ability. Destiny's child he certainly wasn't. He was the working class hero, not a magician that answers to the initials SRT.

When Dravid made his debut, Sachin Tendulkar was a superstar already. When he leaves today in 2012, no one is flabbergasted if the word Dravid is uttered in the same sentence as Tendulkar. Some achievement, that.

Two things I wish he had done differently? One, he did not quit before England in 2011. Yes, he ended up making 3 hundreds in the UK, but it was pretty clear he was on his last legs. Mohali 2008 was a new lease of life. Expecting two re-births was one too many. That a thinking, intellectual cricketer did not figure out the right time to go left a bit of a sour taste in the mouth.
Second, he did not leave on a cricket field, in whites, there by robbing us the chance to celebrate him and maybe shed a tear. These are minor blips in a fascinating journey.

Rainy day, Indian captain loses toss and is put in to bat. India lose flashy openers and are 20/3.. Rahul Dravid was born for this situation. And he is the last of his kind.

Brett Lee summed it up when he said "If you cannot get along with Rahul Dravid, you are struggling in life"..
Thank you Rahul. Thank you for the enchanting memories. Thank you to the thorough gentleman we learned to love.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

A salivating prospect

Sunday 1:30 AM..Rafa was up a break, but I couldn't keep my eyes open..In what turned out to be an inspired move,I turned the alarm clock on in pursuit of the one hour power nap. Blessing it was!
2:30 AM, Rafa had wrapped up the first set and Djoker was up a break in the second..I was feeling fresh again. Vamos, I said to myself. I had predicted a Nadal win in 4.
7:30 AM, I almost forgot I had slept just for an hour the entire night..Rafa had lost from a seemingly impregnable position, but the twists and turns in the game were enormous and I felt privileged to have watched it live. The satisfaction that I had watched sport at its best was comforting and rejuvenating. Well done Djoker. He is someone who has re-defined "peak of your powers" in modern sport.

When I reached out to buddies for reactions, many of the live-sport-must-watch-at-any-cost folks believed this was one of the best matches across sport they had seen. Have to agree, considering this was a Grand Slam Final and the stakes were real high.
What is even more exciting is that this year will potentially bring many such matches. An article on Wall Street Journal said men's tennis is probably the best sport in the world right now. Not hyperbole, certainly.

Casting my mind back to 2004-07, an era Roger Federer dominated and one that helped him stake claim toward becoming the GOAT (Greatest of all time) that he is widely considered today, was an age devoid of competition. Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt were Federer's chief adversaries along with an aging Agassi and none of them hold a candle to Federer, Djokovic, Nadal or even Andy Murray for that matter.

Just when our generation was whining about lack of supreme quality post Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi at their peaks, riches were bestowed upon us. Careful introspection suggests that even today, the gap between this quartet and the rest of the field is yawning. Yes, a Del Potro shows off his blizzard forehand in New York City and a Verdasco or Tsonga roar for a day in Paris, but it is pretty amazing how the same group can make the semifinals of every Grand Slam, day in and day out. Got to give it to them. You don't choose your opponents someone famously said. True, that.

To stick my neck out and actually start calling this a great quartet, Murray has to start winning something shortly. Henman Hill has transformed into Murray Mountain at the All England Club, but the Scot doesn't still look close to winning his maiden title. He needn't look any further than his good mate Djoker for inspiration.

A comparison between the pre-December 2010 version of Novak Djokovic and the 2011 September (post US open) Novak Djokovic is glaring. Egg chamber? Serbia's Davis Cup win? Strict diet regimen? Yeah, possibly. But how can you explain the improvement between the ears? The belief that he could beat and possibly toy around with Federer and Nadal in Grand Slam finals. This was the same guy of whom Andy Roddick said "He has SARS, Anthrax, flu" , after yet another of his excuse offering losses and we found it funny at the time. Djoker was known for bailing out when under the pump. Now, none of that. The talent was always there, but the will power to succeed is finally there. What a relief for sports fans. He should be distraught if he doesn't hang up his boots as a legend of the game.

Nadal and Federer are hovering pretty close to Djokovic. Nadal more so than Federer. Roger has to keep believing he has another slam in him somewhere. The increasing consistency of Rafa and Djoker and the heavy physical demands on players today will make his life even tougher at 31. End of the year might be a good time to re-evaluate. Reaching semifinals every day is fine, but if "the GOAT" cannot conquer that last one percent, there is no point sticking around. He has raised the bar and must be measured by that yardstick and by that alone.

Nadal, strangely, will be happy with the Australian open final. As he aptly said, he took Djokovic to a place where Djoker hadn't been all of 2011. Till he actually beats the world no.1 on a surface other than clay and in a Grand Slam final, the soothsayers will not believe he has put the shenanigans to sleep. Being an ardent Rafan, have to admit he gives you everything you want in your sporting hero. Puts in 100% each time. Every time. He will acknowledge 7 losses in 7 versus Djoker in finals is not a coincidence. Djoker is slowly making a scar somewhere in his mind. Got to get him out of there and soon.

As long as this quartet keeps making the business end of Grand Slam events and the Masters series, the sport will be alive and kicking. Question is can the rest of the field wake up and make their life harder. Makes for a salivating prospect. Keep your eyes glued to the tennis in 2012!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Planning for tomorrow!

My previous post in August was just after the nightmarish English summer. As MS Dhoni put it, everything that had to go wrong, did! I genuinely believed it was a one-off and that is what it should have been, provided some remedial actions were taken.

As someone famously said "You cannot do the same thing repeatedly and expect different results". "Visionary" is a term in short supply in our great land. We have been rarely blessed with leaders that can see and live an India after 20 years. That same problem seems to plague even our cricket leaders. I would not like to talk about cricket administrators here because most of them are clowns beyond repair that deserve no print space and ink.

The lack of foresight is what hurts me most in what has been a humiliating, appalling, embarrassing three weeks for Indian cricket. All of our top players are fit, the 11 that played at Melbourne and Sydney are the best we could have put up on a cricket field. So no excuse from that perspective. Yet, how can we be mauled repeatedly? How can one explain that this team under MSD can be seemingly worse (atleast in the results column) than the pedestrian India sides Azharuddin and Tendulkar led in the 90s?

Here are some do's and don'ts for the actors that make Team India.

Virender Sehwag: That he is still a match-winner is beyond debate. Even outside the subcontinent. But his no-holds-barred license needs urgent review. It is one thing to be adventurous and explosive, but to be downright reckless when your team is lagging way behind in a test match and your middle order is struggling is a luxury India cannot afford.The 219 in a one dayer might end up doing a lot of disservice. The ego boost was really unnecessary!
Playing for your team is paramount in cricket and that sadly has been missing in his "I donno where my screw fell off" approach in the last 3 overseas tours. Kick up the backside, anyone?

Gautam Gambhir: Fighter,albeit filled with anger. Needs to know that 60s and 80s are not done for a test match opener. Gambhir is worth preserving(like Sehwag), but the message should be loud and clear. Make test match hundreds consistently, else we will not hesitate to invest in youth.

Rahul Dravid: The first of the 3 legends in the lineup. A mortal genius who should have known his limits better. Mohali 2008 was his rebirth and England 2011, his coronation. I wrote that he should have gone out on a high post England but he chose to stick on. Now, 5 bowled out of 6 and suddenly a Steve Waugh like farewell might not be in his destiny. Gut feel is, Laxman being in a weaker position will allow Dravid to drag on for a series or two more. But it shouldn't come to that.Hope he goes out on his own terms and real soon!

Sachin Tendulkar: calling for his head is sacrilegious in India. People don't want to listen to criticisms of SRT. I find that annoying. Oh yeah I love him too, but let us open our eyes for a minute. I am not suggesting the great man quit tests, no not yet. He has another year in him (the way he is batting in Australia), but for what joy is he playing One day cricket? Enjoying the game? Not a good enough answer. If SRT cannot make it to the 2015 World Cup, he doesn't deserve a place in the ODI side right now. Period.
By the way, isn't Mumbai 2011 THE finish a sportsman hopes for? What more do you want other than being paraded on your young teammates shoulders on your beloved homeground having just won a World Cup for your nation? Great people need to take bold decisions and by playing all IPL games and one day cricket, SRT has lost a little sheen in my eye and I say that with a heavy heart.

VVS Laxman: Our Houdini. A lovable human. But does that make him bullet proof? No. VVS looks the oldest of the 3 legends on a cricket field. His batting in England and Australia hasn't been convincing and he has looked a pale shadow of his halcyon days. Time to leave the room, sir. You will always be respected.

Virat Kohli: The young man has bottle. One to be persisted with. I won't be surprised if he leads India in the longest format within the next few years.

Rohit Sharma/Ajinkya Rahane-- The 2 Mumbaikars are very close to test match debuts. Rahane averages 68.18 in Ranji Trophy and that is way more than knocking on the selectors door. That is, pushing the door wide open.
Rohit Sharma is a superb talent whose temperament and shot selection are still big question marks for me. I only hope he doesn't go the Yuvraj way i.e. remain a "youngster" in test cricket all his life.

Suresh Raina: India material. If not for shot selection and repertoire, for his dedication to the India shirt. His determination will make sure he features again in Test cricket soon. Someone for the future.

Cheteshwar Pujara: Lots of talent and runs in domestic cricket to back his case. I see him as our future no.3 in test match cricket. Needs to get in at 3 the next home series and Dravid needs to bat 5. Passing the baton time.

Yuvraj Singh: Champion one day cricketer. Time for Indian selectors to slam the door on his test career. Real real hard.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni: I respect the man. A lot. One of my role models in life. Will be indebted forever for 2nd April 2011. But he has never been a world class test batsman. If we still want to live in the Mongia/More era, he is more than adequate. If we are looking for a Gilchrist, the answer is not him, not Saha/Parthiv/DK either. It has to be some young man in his teens somewhere in India. For now, TINA factor might save Mahi. His application has been a major disappointment in Australia.

Zaheer Khan: Our best bowler. Our only world class bowler. Is 33, but his body is way more delicate than that. I always fear what will happen of Indian cricket if Khan isn't fit for test cricket. Alas, I don't think that day is far away. His batting has gone to the dogs in the last 3 years (after Bangalore 2008) and over reliance on him might cost our team dear. Caution!

Ishant Sharma: The term "unlucky" has been abused of late. Ishant hasn't been unlucky, he has been plain mediocre. He doesn't have a place in colored clothes right now and might soon have to prove his worth playing for Delhi and North Zone before getting back to test cricket. IPL performances to be ignored, please. Hope he bounces back real soon.

Umesh Yadav: one of the shining lights of this sojourn Down Under. Seems to have a big heart, can rely on him to produce a back breaking spell when the opposition is 300/2 on a flat deck. You see that quality very rarely these days. Hope he keeps improving and goes strength to strength.

Ravichandran Ashwin: can bat, can turn the ball. Good cricketer is R.Ashwin. Whether he is a test class spinner or not, time will tell. But he is a team player alright. Running between the wickets needs urgent attention though.

Pragyan Ojha: Good at holding one end tight, but not a "run through the opposition" bowler yet. Needs to do that more often, else he might find someone screaming at him like VVS so famously did in Mohali.

Vinay Kumar: Venky Prasad reborn, without the effective leg cutter that is. He is from my state and have followed a lot of him in the Ranji trophy, but I don't see the killer instinct and that "world beater" attitude. I would pick Abhimanyu Mithun over him most days.

Irfan Pathan: someone worth trying out. A 3 dimensional cricketer. If the ball is swinging back into the right hander, a definite asset.

Harbhajan Singh: 400 test wickets is no joke. I just hope he has the guts for more glory and a Kumble like finish. Needs to pull up his socks.

Overall, I feel Dhoni and the senior players have set Indian cricket back by a couple of years by failing to plan the phase out process. In professional sport,most people don't get to go when they want to and how they want to. The sentiment should be avoided, for the larger cause that is Indian cricket. Laxman, Dravid and Tendulkar owe a lot to Indian cricket for the love and faith shown over the past 15-20 years. By timing their retirements well, they could have helped rebuild Indian cricket but each one seems to be sticking to his guns. "Age is only a number" is all crap. There comes a time when you have to invest in youth, while yet not making wholesale changes. That time has more than come.

I wish these legends are NOT remembered for this small indecisive phase in their careers, as opposed to their glory years when they served our country with great distinction.The very thought that they might be, is excruciatingly painful for ardent Indian cricket fans.

Hope better sense prevails in these great men we love. Atleast now!