Overseas Blues

Grudging respect.

Dean Elgar earned it at the end of the Jo’burg test match against India. His innings on the last day of the match was typical of the man – dour, scrappy and tough. This was on a treacherous surface that was supposed to be “made to order” but the chef seemed to have lost control of the ingredients. The final spread came out horribly wrong for the hosts. Batsmen from both sides took blows so many blows on their bodies that it reminded one of of Brian Close’s encounter with West Indies (as also Phil Edmonds)

Mr Elgar seemed convinced after the test that it should have been called off. At least he got points for consistency. He had expressed his displeasure over the pitches in Mohali and Nagpur during the 2015-2016 series in India. If nothing else he was consistent in calling out sub standard tracks.

All this came at the back of a match that had no bearing on a series India already lost. India’s victory in this test feels euphoric but it is in some sense a tree in a forest that we already missed. You would think an average Indian fan is used to it by now but I think he still allows a bit of delusion to creep in before the start of any series.

I have never rated Mr Gavaskar highly as a commentator. Mainly because of his absolute refusal to evolve his style. But I had to agree with his comment at the end of the fourth day when it seemed like play would be called off after Dean Elgar got hit on the head. His view was if the roles were reversed and India was asking for the game to be called off after an Indian batsman got hit they would be labeled “sissies”. I was immediately reminded of a grumpy rant by Aussie commentator Jim Maxwell at the end of the first test. There was nothing new in the substance but the tone felt condescending.

It was a case of so near yet so far for India in its quest for overseas success. The final test victory may cloud the vision a bit but without question this was a series India had a great chance of winning. The quest continues…


The IPL Timeshare

The first week of IPL 10 was like visiting your timeshare for an yearly vacation.  There is an element of the familiar and an aversion to try anything new. So the Maximums, Strategic Timeouts, cheerleaders and the loud commentary are back.

More worrying is the timeshare mentality of some of the franchises.The teams seem to be playing true to the stereotype built around them without any attempt to evolve.

Delhi Daredevils and their fetish for bowlers in general and pacers in particular. This is a team that had failed in the past with a line up of medium pace trundlers but refuses to learn. They lost two of their most reliable overseas batsmen in De Kock and Duminy. Who do they bring in as replacement ? Ben Hilfenhaus. This in a lineup that already includes Cummins, Morris, Brathwaite, Shami, Khan, Khaleel Ahmed, Milind, Saini and Mishra, Yadav and Nadeem in spinners. Its probably TA Shekhar’s influence but you can’t help but question the reasoning behind these decisions. At the moment the “Double Ds” look real short on batting and hopefully it does not come back to haunt them. If it does it would just reinforce the timeshare feel of this edition of IPL.

Credit where its due though. Rishabh Pant looks like the real deal. The courage and single mindedness he displayed in the first game was beyond description. How he could compartmentalize after cremating his father earlier in the day is beyond me. As someone who has gone through the experience I could not help a lump in my throat forming overtime he laid bat on ball.

While on him – can’t help but question the decision making of the more senior Amit Mishra. He would have been a contender for the infamous “Match Ka Mujrim” if that still was a preferred TV channel format. Why one would think of outdoing Pant on this day is beyond comprehension.

Samson flattered to deceive again – true to stereotype. As I write, the match on Tuesday is underway and Samson is blazing away but Pant still seems more assured on the crease especially against the slower bowlers.  If Samson does come good this season it would be long overdue.

The Pune team, RPSG (I didn’t realize they had dropped the s from Supergiants to become one Supergiant – why bother? ) looks to continue the stereotype from last year. It looks in shambles on and off the field with the owners a trigger happy with their tweets. There seems to be a curse of the most expensive purchase in the auction. Seldom have the players lived up to the hype – Stokes seem to be headed in that direction. Still his bustling energy, Tahir’s unalloyed exuberance and Steve Smith’s endless run hunger seem to be the few bright spots in this team. Beyond that any team that relies on Ashok Dinda as a pace spearhead is headed for trouble and so it proved last week.

Gujarat Lions is another team to bring about a sense of deja vu – pick a bunch of quality overseas openers and then try to fit them in the playing XI. Without Bravo around and relying solely on a lineup of Indian military medium pacers this team has struggled.  Praveen Kumar and Kulkarni are honest triers but seems to me that the attack lacks a potency, an X factor if you will.  The “frog in the blender” Kaushik seems to be able to land the ball on the line most of the time – which is a biological wonder if ever there was. Based on limited evidence I cannot fathom how someone can control the ball without getting the whole body lined up at the point of delivery. There have been more unusual bowlers who have defied conventional wisdom and gone on to achieve unparalleled success so there may be a case for him. At the moment thought its hard to imagine Kaushik becoming the game changer the Lions so desperately need.

Punjab could surprise and that could be a new update in the resort town. The team does not seem to have changed a whole lot but Maxwell as captain seems to have revitalized the apprach.  Punjab have placed faith in Manan Vohra more than anyone else, sticking with him through various changes. I would think its high time for Vohra to fire – his previous IPL outings have been underwhelming.

The old feeling of IPL being an old boys’ club returned when the team mentor Sehwag got the franchise to recruit Ishaant after he remained unsold at the main auction. Sehwag’s statement after the acquisition seemed to imply that Ishaant was recruited more due to closeness with the mentor than on any real quality bowling ability.

KKR and Sunrisers Hyderabad seem to be well balanced. Typically the first match of the season sets the tone with McCullum kicking off the IPL 10 years ago with the memorable hundred. This time there was no McCullum like feat but Yuvraj still managed to revive old memories.  I have been skeptical in the past about Yuvraj’s continued utility in T20 but I suppose I have the entire duration of the timeshare to adjust my views on this.  Rashid Khan seems to be the talk of the town right now but I have to watch highlights of his bowling to experience the hype.  Hyderabad was innovative in their team choices with Mustafizur earlier and Rashid currently. It would be no surprise if this team goes on to the playoffs.

Still a lot of action to come and hopefully there are moments that stand out. Moments that rise above the repetitive shots of the big screen on the stadium and the multitude of loud tropes and cliches that the commentators dish out.  But then again as has been proved over the past 9 years, this is a package that blends the rough with the smooth, the sublime with the ordinary, ability with the hype.

Order Restored

I figured I would wait a couple days before posting my thoughts on a fairly momentous occasion – mainly to allow time for a balanced perspective to form. To me it was a moment that brought home the point that sometimes the journey is more important the destination.

I could only be referring to the recent series. One that had brought me grief, a feeling of normalcy, provided me escape as usual and finally gave me a sense of order being restored.

There have been comparisons to another great series – the 2005 Ashes. While comparisons are odious at times this one has its merits. The drama, the gamesmanship and the level of interest it generated as well as the emotions it aroused are arguably at comparable levels. Beyond that I would think people would be better served enjoying the lasting memories both series have provided and leave it at that.

The setting for the fourth test match could not have  been more picturesque. The state of Himachal Pradesh is inextricably linked to my growth as an individual. By extension Dharamshala felt like a familiar place you visited when you were young but whose memories now have begun to fade.

My feeling at the start of the match was that it would take a horde of elephants to stop Kohli playing  this match – whatever the injury.  He showed that he was more pragmatic – preferring to sit out when his shoulder had not healed completely. At lunch on the first day I went to bed thinking Kohli would be regretting his decision. The mandatory wake up call did happen and this time it didn’t seem so bad. Australia close to being all out – made for a peaceful last hour of sleep.

Pujara and Rahul started down the familiar path it and I went to bed looking forward to better news early in the morning. 6 wickets down with more than 50 runs behind wasn’t my idea of a pleasant dream but it probably completely a nightmare.

The next day brought forth the full gamut of positive emotions that you would associate with passionate and partisan fans. I gave myself a few minutes before retiring to bed. Jadeja made sure those few minutes turned into an hour. It was cricket at its most intense. Quality pace bowling against batsmen who displayed pluck and panache in equal measure. The sword flourish at the half century mark made you wonder if there would be a similar celebration for a ton. That turned out to be a story for another day.

It was the best wake up call ever.  Resisting the temptation to kiss the phone screen – I refreshed just to make sure it wasn’t a mistake. This time I could feel every word on the scorecard morph itself into a celebratory fireworks display. Be still my beating heart – there is still a small matter of 80 runs still needed.

Rahane and Rahul made sure the end was swift. Rahane’s sixes off Cummins were like the icing on the cake – a reminder that IPL was round the corner. With a controlled roar and a rare triumphant smile I retired to bed for the first full night of sleep in a while.

The war of words between the rival teams and media seemed to continue for a couple days. Visuals of Smith reacting to a catch that was overturned on replay wasn’t one of his proudest moment. The cynic in me couldn’t help but remember the catch that Michael Clarke claimed against Ganguly in Sydney in 2008.

At the end of a major series or tournaments there is a sense of emptiness and if a series was as compelling as this one that sense persists for a long time. Next stop IPL.

Escape to Reality

Cricket has always been an escape for me. The poison I picked.  A crutch I lean on in crazy times, a safety net in many ways.

I am not sure how a pastime became a passion and a passion became an escape. These days when daily life becomes dreary I look forward to the comfort offered by the sight of the grassy outfield, men in helmets with contraptions on their body, the eager people around them including one with a ball in hand and the two neutral gentlemen

And it’s not been roses all the way with cricket. When you have something like alcohol as your form of escape you know what the process of gratification will be like. A few pints here and there and pretty soon you are tipsy – the aftermath could be different depending on the day but you could argue that by then you are back into reality. With cricket unless you train yourself just to focus on the moments, the many contests between the bat and ball, you run into the danger of letting this escaped world become your reality.

Part of the trick of maintaining cricket at a level of museum art versus something you run into everyday in your living room is to maintain balance. The ability to treat the imposters of triumph and disaster same. And as I have shown in my earlier posts I haven’t mastered those – either in my real life or in my escaped works of cricket fandom.

Partisanship comes naturally to sport fans. If there’s not a horse you pick in a two horse race you can get bored fairly quickly.  There are not too many neutral observers – it could be argued that while its possible to remain neutral in terms of the bigger picture, you tend to favor one over the other when it comes to the individual moments that constitute the bigger picture.

These thoughts came to mind in three different instances in the past week – all at different times. There was the test series in New Zealand with South Africa visiting, a test series was on in Sri Lanka with the perennial underdogs Bangladesh playing against the home team, and of course there was the India Australia series in India.

In terms of sheer viewing pleasure and the convenience of viewing the New Zealand South Africa test was hard to beat. There seems to be a relaxed air about everything in the Kiwi land. The cricket was fun for most part – I found myself rooting for the Kiwis from the start – something about being the underdog up against a formidable opponent. It was also the way the Kiwis approached the game. Their game was an example of well meaning professionalism struggling to come out of its amateur avatar.

There seems to be a dearth of world class quality players in New Zealand – and this is not a new issue. Through the years they have some world beating players but they are like crown jewels in an otherwise ordinary necklace. It still looked pretty but seldom commanded the ooh’s and aah’s that greet other ornaments.

Without Rosco and Boult, not much was expected. Add Kane Williamson’s twin failures to that and you don’t find much else to talk about. Except there were flashes of promise. Jeet Raval was like the boy on the burning deck for most of second innings – but he seemed to run out of gas after reaching 50. Hopefully the elusive 100 will come and along with it the confidence and the bloody minded “stick-to-it”iveness. The Kiwis were in with a chance after having South Africa six down for less than a 100 but two of my favorites in the Protea side raised their hand up. Bavuma and DeKock are different players but they were attractive together. I would have enjoyed it even more if my neutrality was a touch more nuanced. I was struggling between my desire to have the underdog have its time in the sun and the ability to enjoy two stars of the future.

The end came pretty swiftly for the New Zealanders but whatever I had seen whetted my appetite for the next round of battle between the two sides.

The second instance involved a series I had referenced earlier and it was like the Wooden Spoon Derby judging by the recent performance of the sides involved. Bangladesh a team of honest triers who never seem to advance to the next level against a home team that just a drubbing in South Africa. The first two tests played according to script – Bangladesh being nearly there but not quite.

As an aside one of the pleasures of Sri Lanka series is that its covered by one for the finest and most under rated cricket writers around – Andrew Fidel Fernando on Cricinfo. He just does not leave anything else for people to say. More on him in a later post.

Once Sri Lanka had a middling first innings score I am sure the Bangladesh fans must have sat up – what was it forming at the back of their minds? Surely it can’t be the beginning of another dream? Surely the team can’t sustain it? Can it? Can it ever?

Sustain it they did. Barely – creeping, crawling and climbing with bruised and battered fingers on to the the edifice occupied by top quality test teams. Their seniors led the way. Shakib so shaky to start with showed why he is rated so highly.  The time difference and the fact that this test coincided with the third one referenced above made it hard to follow live. But there was always the highlights package to fall back on.

Left with a score of less than 200 to make to achieve a rare away test win, Bangladesh faced a moment of truth. I could not ignore this moment regardless of the partisan interest elsewhere and sat up late to watch the start. As it always happens with great sporting stories, the start was wobbly. Two wickets in two balls and Herath made the home crowd start to believe. Was it going to be so near yet so far again for Bangladesh?

A 3 am wake up call for a test that did not involve India, a test that involved Bangladesh of all teams would have been hard to imagine ever. But this was no ordinary test match for the Bangla tigers. They trusted their natural attacking instincts and made it. As the ubiquitous commentator would say – Test cricket was the winner. But it was so much more than that – it was a sporting story that can be relived time and again without losing anything in terms of heartache and thrills.

Needless to say – my neutrality evaporated after the Sri Lankan first innings and I was egging the Bangladesh team along silently. Would it have been same if the home side was India – probably not but that would be a story for a different day.

The third instance was where I couldn’t even pretend to be neutral. In the third India Australia test partisanship was at its most ferocious in my mind. I couldn’t bear to watch Steve Smith bat in the first innings. By all accounts and the shots in the highlights package it was a beautiful innings. Wish he had saved it for another day. But the second and third day were like a taste of heaven. Pujara, my fellow Saurashtrian, how my heart puffed with pride. It was slow going, unbearable to watch at times but he was still there at 3 am in the morning. At around 5 he was gone and so were two of Aussie batsmen trying to play out the rest of the match. They were able to do exactly that the next day – another one that was tough to watch as a non neutral spectator but one that enabled the Aussies to effect a great escape in a very good test match.

For me its back to reality now – till the next heavenly escape.

Normalcy restored …

Fresh guard. Fresh perspectives.

As they say out of despair emerges hope. But when it shows up it tends to tantalize a bit.

Acceptance at the end of the first test was hard – you feel you are ok but any news of that event brings the pain right back. At the end of the first day of this test it seemed like all the bad memories had never completely gone away. They were just hiding in the shadows ready to occupy every corner of the mind.

And occupy they did. It was another 3 am surprise for me. Not sure what it is with test matches in the Indian time zone and 3 am wake up calls. Its like there is a mental alarm clock that sets itself up automatically. Earlier It was 6 wickets in the blurry bowlers analysis that got a dull ache going – this time it was a figure of 8 in the wickets column that got the dark clouds to gather.

Cricket fans have to be resilient, they need to be willing to take the knocks and come back for more. Whoever spoke of sport as a metaphor for life knew what he was talking about.

Feeling mentally bruised I followed the second day sporadically. Expecting a wicket to fall every over – like it threatened to do. But it was a hard day of toil and surprisingly the silver lining of today’s wake up call was that like the wickets, the runs were hard to come by also.

Watched an hour of the Indian second innings on the third day. There was intent but there was also luck – on equal display. Figured it would be an interesting read at 3 am. And it was. Pujara still batting. The Gods must be relenting.

The next day was spent in anticipation for a night time date in front of the TV. It was topsy turvy – the guys never looked comfortable in the crease but still managed some runs in between. One of the great paradoxes of the game then played up – on a pitch that was considered a spinner’s paradise, the pacemen came to the party. Hazelwood wrapped it up and with that it was time for me to down the shutters too. Thrills would have to be packaged into a 3 am surprise – there was no way I could take that stress live late at night.

The body clock played a little trick on me with the time and I woke up at 4 am. Eyelids droopy more with dread than sleep and fingers shaky I manage to get to the score. See some pics of the guys celebrating. Can this really be happening? Trying hard to keep excitement in check I sit up and look for the score in multiple websites. The facts sink in. Redemption is complete.

Wide awake now, this time I have no qualms about digesting all the analyses. I never said I was not partisan !!

No series between these two teams is complete without some questions on gamesmanship. This seemed to follow the same pattern of coverage in the media – partisanship more visible than perspective.

Tomorrow can take care of itself. For now it feels good to live in the moment. 

The Five Stages ..

As always there is an air of anticipation at the start of the first match of a widely billed series of the summer. Unlike the overenthusiastic former player who tries to invoke McGrath in the mental disintegration with talks of a 4-0 whitewash I am filled with trepidation. Pune has not been a happy hunting ground for India recently as the World T20 game against New Zealand proved. On a spin friendly wicket roles were reversed and tables turned.

When a similar wicket greeted viewers for this test match – most people thought the obvious. Same script seen multiple times in the past. Asian teams bullying tourists on dust bowls in the name of home advantage.
What I experienced and probably  a few other fans did too – was the five stage grieving process.

Denial was an emotion I started feeling early on the second day. At around 11 pm central with eyelids heavy with sleep I looked up and saw the scoreline – 45 for 3. Ah but all three had gone to pace – surely that could be an aberration. The pacemen will not operate for long and the spinners shouldn’t trouble the batsmen.

It can’t be happening – at about 3 am in the morning Australia is batting again. With half open eyelids I can make out 6 wickets against a bowler – he is listed second on the card so probably is Hazelwood. Still it can’t be real – am I dreaming? Hopefully the morning will change things. But sleep is elusive – what if it’s true. Now I am sitting propped up against the pillows. Let the eyelids open fully – surely I was mistaken earlier. It cannot be true can it?

Disbelief leads to sleep deprivation. A void seems to be forming in the mind – a blankness slowly taking over the senses.

Its the nature of sport. What goes around comes around. Game is a great leveller. All those aphorisms come to mind – and there is something I can feel welling up. Anger.

I am angry at myself first. For letting myself along this path again. The anger then expands its range finding new targets – the individual players, openers, Pujara, Kohli, spinners for coming second best, the curator for again succumbing to the fallacy of home field advantage, DRS for turning decisions into a lottery, the powers that be that had to go for a new venue and the list goes on.

But maybe not all is lost. Maybe there is a grander design here – a come from behind victory that will be a crowning moment of Kohli’s captaincy. It is possible still. They are still only 300 ahead. What if its a target less than 400. Maybe more than what we bargained for but it could happen. Laxman and Kolkata may be coloring my view of the world a bit but can this hope fall short of foolishness and naïveté?

Sleep does not come easy.  Lots of emotions trying to pop their head but I fight them and keep my mind clear. The eyelids open halfway at 3 am. Nervousness and an impending sense of doom take over. The fingers unlock the phone and the browser shows the scorecard. This time it does not take long to register.  The crevices begin to open up and despair and depression engulf the canvas of the mind.

I toss and turn – what if we could rewind the whole situation. Pretend it never happened and start over.

A new day. I try hard to avoid reading any reviews or news related to this event. But some news filters through. Of 12 wickets in the match by a spinner but not the one you expected. Of this being a wake-up call.

Meanwhile the kids still wake up at their usual time, the school bus comes as before, the meeting with the boss happens at its scheduled time. Life as has been defined for me seems to move along. And in that path acceptance is a given.

Time to take fresh guard.

They also serve ..

This has been a heady week for some uncapped Indian domestic cricketers. Landing an IPL contract must be one of the major goals of an up and coming cricketer – second arguably to getting the coveted India cap.

Many former cricketers have indicated with a tinge of wistfulness that this is a great time to be a cricketer. Imagine the days before franchise based T20 leagues where the only things people would be playing for would be an International or maybe even an A team call-up. The implication of the limited opportunities was that a majority of cricketers ended their careers unsung and unheralded.

Some former cricketers have gracefully taken this in their stride. Others have made a stray snide remark or two about how T20 is not real cricket and that so much money tied to that is not just vulgar but maybe even not kosher. Its hard not to feel sympathetic to them but I guess you play with the cards you are dealt with. Sometimes complaining helps – most of the time it sounds like whining. An example of the latter to my mind was when one of the more distinguished players of the past Sir Viv Richards complained in his book about not being compensated enough for his skills. It made me appreciate the mental strength and fortitude required to look at the past dispassionately without comparing it to the present and future.

I cast my mind to simpler times in the past and wonder what motivated the cricketers of the time to toil day in and out in long, unyielding domestic summers.  The Indian domestic season can be unforgiving given the conditions and apathy of the people running the show.  You wonder what makes the domestic cricketing scene tick – year in and out. I would assume that one of the factors would undying enthusiasm and positive spirits of the men stepping out in the field.

Reading about the good fortune of the people selected to be part of a franchise I couldn’t help but cast my mind to the unsung domestic heroes of time when as a child I was drinking the cricketing cool aid. These were players who I would look for in the scorecards buried in an obscure columns of the local newspapers. The names would sound exotic and their exploits even more superhuman – I guess all it takes is a vivid imagination that is typical of childhood to make even the mundane look pristine.

In the late 80’s and early 90’s when my immersion into cricket became total there were a couple of domestic teams that I became fascinated by. Not because these had stars or glamour – far from it. These were like the middle children in a large family. Everyone expects them to do the duty but there is seldom any appreciation for their toil.  When one of your siblings is the most glamorous dude in town the plight of the unheralded middle siblings becomes even more obscure.

The superstar team in the West Zone family was of course Bombay (that was what it was called back then).  Players who represented the country were the ultimate in terms of name recognition and appreciation.  A close second were the players from Bombay.

With a team like Bombay around it was only natural that other team in the West Zone like Gujarat, Baroda, Maharashtra and Saurashtra would be also-rans not only in terms of performance but also perception.  Maharashtra seemed to suffer particularly from the perception bias – I believe it was because their home turfs were believe to be absolute featherbeds. I wouldn’t be surprised if the term “paata” originated from there.  Players from Maharashtra seldom made it to the A team.

I always felt a kinship to the names of the players from Maharashtra I would read from the scoreboard. Its amazing how some memories fade and some remain fresh. Not sure why but I still remember the names and the feelings they evoked as they floated from the scorecards into my mind’s visuals of the games.

Players like Prasad Pradhan, Riaz Poonawala, Santosh Jedhe, Surendra Bhave, Shantanu Sugvekar, Milind Gunjal and my namesake Shrikant Kalyani epitomize the unknown obscure cricketer who toils away just for the love of the game.  I don’t remember watching any of them on TV – domestic cricket was never telecast until very recently.  Newspaper reports were my only link to them. These guys were known to score heavily – double centuries were a regular feature. The regularity of the tall scores probably is an indicator of the quality of the bowling and the pitches – but for a kid reading the scoreboard these exploits appeared superhuman.

Closer home Saurashtra was regarded as an easy picking for the other teams in the West Zone.  No one told me so at the time and even if they did I doubt if that would register. The stardom in my mind of these home grown stars seemed approachable. Almost like a distant relative who manages to make it big and becomes a legend and a benchmark in the family. Players like Atul Pandya, Bimal Jadeja and Bipin Pujara (his more celebrated nephew plays for India currently) not only adorned the local English and Gujarati newspapers but also dominated the conversations by the street side ‘paan’ shop.

I would always wonder why these players wouldn’t ever be considered for national selection. They would always be in my fantasy teams – I guess I was ahead of the times with a version of such even when they weren’t called fantasy teams.

These names may not have much of recall value even among die-hard cricket fans today but I know these folks helped me grow and develop an understanding of the effort, perseverance and sacrifice that was on display season after unrelenting season.

The game may not have given them a whole lot in terms of money and comfort but I don’t hear them complain. Forgive me if this sounds melodramatic – but these guys remind me of the quote – A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove… but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child”

To these and other unsung heroes of domestic cricket –  you definitely were an important part of my  life as a child. And I sincerely believe my world is better for it.

Thank you for your service Gents.