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.

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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.

Oh Roscoe..

Here is another typical sport story that becomes the stuff of movies – athlete gets success, athlete gets leadership, there are differences of opinion, athlete gets marginalized, athlete battles physical infirmity, does not give up and comes back stronger. Proves to himself as well as others that he still has it in him but unfortunately Father Time does not sit still all this while. He is now considered older and not suited to every format – gradually he starts making way for others. You could have ended the movie on a high at any point in the above narrative but if you want more twists in the scripts, do not worry since the athlete refused to ride away quietly into the sunset. He is older, wiser, more experienced but just as combative.

Hagley Oval is a picturesque ground in Christchurch. It looks alluring even from small confines of the TV that beams images through the WatchESPN channel. Pitch looks slower and very unlike the seaming green tops New Zealand would produce in the first decade of 2000 – mainly to deflate a rampant India and other subcontinental teams. New Zealand are batting first and after they lost Latham, Brownlie plays a nice little cameo – with three fours in one Chris Morris over followed by a perfect straight drive an over later. He is deceived by a slower ball but to the first impression is its going down leg. In the absence of any guidance from his captain at the other end he does not review. Replays indicate the ball comfortably missing leg.

Content initially to play second fiddle to his captain – a man much younger and widely acknowledged as one of the best in the country of all time – Taylor comes into his own in the latter half of the innings. The mind keeps imagining the savage strokes that will be unfurled but Taylor is sensible. When its wide he lashes a cover drive, when Pretorius and Phehlukwayo bowl short he rolls his writs. These shots are punctuated by quiet periods characterized by purposeful running. He looks serene at the crease and even an on field review of a decision does not faze him. He seems confident of the decision which gets overruled by an umpire’s call and Taylor carries on.

In the last over of the innings with Taylor in the 90s there is a nervous moment before that when Dave Miller almost pulls off a stunner but overbalances himself. Taylor gets to three figures with a boundary off the last ball of the innings. Its exactly the kind of stuff scriptwriters get paid to conjure onscreen.
Today his innings was one of a man who was playing from memory and willing his body and hands to follow along. The mind sharp as ever seems to be ahead of the hands a couple of times. I longed for the slog to come out but the South African bowlers prove much harder to put away. I had to be content with a couple square drives off Tahir long hops.

Its hard to assess how you develop a soft corner for one player versus another. There is something you see in him that appeals to your personal nature. In many ways the understated presence of Taylor resonates with me. His signature celebration of sticking his tongue out is quirky but devoid of ostentation – almost natural.

I still remember one of his innings in 2011 World Cup against Pakistan where he tore into everyone in the last 5 overs – the shots he played are as vivid in the mind’s eyes as in the youtube footage. I believe it was his birthday and boy did he know how to party!!

Generally Kiwi cricketers seem more easy going than most others. The brand of cricket espoused by Brendon McCullum may not win approval by their harder nosed neighbors down under but it works well for them. Rosco seems like an embodiment of that spirit – go about your business and don’t take yourself too seriously.

I would be waiting to hear his version of the events around his career but I suspect I would have to wait forever for a tell-all biography like McCullum’s. Complaining and rattling old skeletons was never Rosco’s style and hopefully it stays that way.

His T20 career may be over with the coach Mike Hesson implying it without stating it in obvious terms. Taylor still seems to have hunger and ability to entertain in the longer forms of the game.

Take a bow Rosco and welcome back. You were missed.

Thoughts on the Auction

Feb 20, 2017

After the Auction..

It had all the makings of a classic business school case. Auction and Game theory. We could even call out parallels from Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” the way it played out initially.

Teams waited for someone to make a move on the first pool of batsmen only. It was only when Diana Eduljee picked out the allrounders that the franchises seemed to warm up to the occasion. It was fascinating watching the exchange when Ben Stokes’ name came up for bidding. Mumbai didn’t care about disguising their intent – they kept their card high whoever the rival bidder was. It was only after the bid reached beyond ₹ 12 lakh that they withdrew. Pune seemed to have come up from behind – I didn’t expect them to go so far.  For a passage where no balls were bowled and no shots were hit – it was tense and exciting. At least now it means that Brathwaite and Stokes might face off again in a T20 match – isn’t that a delicious prospect.

I see lots of analyses in different websites. Stokes’ above is the one that seems to come up most often but it was also the day of uncapped Indian players.

One of the reasons I was keen on watching the Mushtaq Ali zonal T20 tournament was to build a sense of familiarity with the names that showed up at the auction.  Most names that came up in the auction were not surprising mainly because the amount of time scouts have spent digging up records and dissecting performances in various tournaments. Ishank Jaggi was a surprising name to be omitted earlier and it was great to see him reinstated in the auction first and later picked up by his Eastern Zone franchise.

I alluded to the IPL being the stage for unknown performers to step up and demand their time in the spotlight. Looks like we have too many contenders from the “unknown” side of the house. Would be watching them keenly. If I were to bet I think Ishan Kishen, the Sri Lankan Gunaratne, Nathu Singh and Natrarajan might be the ones who put their hand up.

There was also a lot of analysis on the players who went unsold. It’s not great for the players who were left out but it looks like franchises were very clear and focused on their goals. I was a bit surprised to see Ishaant coming in at a base price of ₹2 crore.

There were quiet comebacks also seen yesterday. Only yesterday I alluded to Manpreet Gony as being one of the guys who had a fleeting moment in  the IPL sun only to fade away quickly.  Apparently the scouts at Gujarat Lions think he still has the fire burning. Hopefully they are right. No better sight in sport than a resurgence and redemption.

I think the auction provided just enough of a teaser to whet my appetite for the real action. But before that there is the other clash of the summer – India vs Australia.

10 years on ….

02/19/2017

I can feel a buzz in my head – and I haven’t had a drink in three years. It’s literally minutes before the auction for the IPL and I guess it takes a special kind of a nut to be excited by an auction – something that some derogatorily call a place where cricketers are treated like cattle.

I still remember the first edition vividly. I was laid low by a spinal injury that limited my movement. I had one of those cervical collars that make your neck stand out.  A sure fire way to catch attention but you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. I remember I would sleep in a sitting position for 2 weeks – it was just too painful to lie down.  The makeshift office at my home was to be my world for those few painful days. Luckily there was cricket.

But wait – this seemed a different kind of cricket. Cheerleaders, Bollywood stars, celebrity team owners and “Maximums” – was I dreaming? Delusional with all the pain killers? It was like when multiple dreams come together and you wake up trying to figure out what it all meant.

Propped up on my chair with feet on the table wasn’t the best way to watch but the alternative was too painful.  In that situation even the endless strategic timeouts did not seem jarring. I timed those with timing of the painkillers.  Kids, don’t try this at home. Leave it to the experts. But take it from me that painkillers and T20 make a heady combination.

I was wondering how this would all turn out. But out came McCullum and after that all was right with the T20 world. This was a mix that couldn’t and wouldn’t go wrong. And we were off on a whirlwind ride.

I always thought that a typical baseball season in the US was interminable with 167 matches in the league stages. IPL schedules seemed intent on giving the MLB a run for their money with about half of the matches in a third of the time. The fact that it still remained a viable product proves that this was an idea whose time had come.

With the nature of blink and miss T20 games its hard to think of many matches as being truly memorable. There are still moments and vignettes. Hitherto unknown players coming to the fore and becoming headline news has become a healthy habit with this tournament. Swapnil Asnodkar, Paul Valthaty, Manpreet Gony to name just a few – were players who had their five minutes of fame at the IPL stage. It was great while it lasted but unfortunately it could be measured in a T20 minute.  But these guys dared to be brave on the biggest stage and for that they deserve our adulation. Great going boys – nobody would be happier if you could prove there is some spark left in the seemingly dying embers.

In the past few months there have been quite a few words written about big data and how that could be used in T20 format. A Moneyball type analysis with terabytes of data available on performances in T20 leagues the world over. That might be an interesting exercise to see if one could predict what the franchise owners think based on number crunching possible ahead of the auction.  Would definitely be an interesting thought experiment to come up with hypothesis and watch those either being validated or blown to bits.

Past 10 years have made household names of some of the participating players. They also have seen teams go from household names to oblivion. Allegations of corruption have surfaced, teams have been forced out of the league, new teams have come in. What has not changed is the excitement around it and almost undivided attention it commands across the cricketing world. . IPL for all of its flaws has not lost its relevance and that it saying a lot – since the flaws have been significant.

Cricket has been a part of my life – all important events have a cricketing memory to go along with it. While it’s true IPL will always bring back memories of physical pain I had endured it’s also true that I keep coming back to it every year for the sheer pleasure of performances and personalities.

While I wait

One more test. One more series. Maybe not the most glamorous but wasn’t quite the cakewalk some had anticipated.

Followed the game live off and on while India was batting. Was hoping for a Pujara ton but got three others one of which was a double to boot. I want to describe Kohli’s batting and one of these days I might be able to find some words to do just that. At this point though it leaves me speechless.

I did not want to write Bangladesh off just because of the enormity of the task in front of them. I was watching their series with New Zealand on the watchESPN app. My hopes were raised after the first innings of the first test when Shakib finally seemed to have come of age as a test batsman. Reality hit in the second innings and continued through the second test. I do think there is some merit to the things said in Bangladesh defense – they don’t play too many tests, they are still improving, they occupied the crease for a long time etc. I did not realize they had played 98 tests already.  The entire nation must be hoping they come of age as a team – I hope so too.

And so we wait. The hottest series of the summer – with the men from Down Under visiting.

The filler games during the wait were uninspiring to say the least. The South Africa Sri Lanka series was one of the more one-sided affairs in recent memory. The silver lining for me was the emergence of some good bowlers on SL side – Kumara seemed to be a good prospect. But the sight of a hobbling Angelo Matthews and an underperforming Chandimal must have lent a sense of déjà vu to the fans. How long must they wait to see these stars add consistency and resilience to their resume?

An upcoming series between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka would inspire interests only from the most die-hard of neutral observers given the past few performances. I think I will be among those sadistic die-hards. Just because it’s a game of cricket – and the guys playing it will still be doing a better job than I can ever hope for.

Eat my words? Not quite yet …

Feb 1, 2017

Were 4 shots enough to make me eat my words? I would say not just yet.

Another good game for the Indians. One I couldn’t watch live due to a pesky little matter of going to work to earn a living. Watched the highlights and on a flat Bangalore pitch the Indian batsmen who struggled in the earlier matches came into their own.

It was not surprising that Pant got a look in. And I wasn’t surprised that Pandey was the one who had to make way. There is something about selecting seniors in the team – they seem to enjoy the patience of the team selectors a bit longer. So Yuvraj stayed and in a 6,6,4,6 routine made me question if he was back to his T20 best after all. The slower ball that deceived him so completely may have done the same to better batsmen but it still was not a pretty sight.

Raina coming back to form was much more pleasing to the eye. In the highlights package there seemed to be no discomfort against pace although its hard to imagine him not getting into a tangle with the short ball at least once during an innings. Dhoni and Raina were together and it seemed all was right with the world.

Joe Root plays so effortlessly that sometimes you are afraid he may go the David Gower route rather than the Graham Gooch way. Elegant but not always effective enough for the team cause over a long periods. I hope I am wrong since he carries the hopes of the whole of England. His dismissal along with Morgan’s started the nine-pin fall that I haven’t seem for a while. Weakness against leg spin – check, panic in a chase – check. Seemed all too easy at the end which is a pity since this England team has the promise to go a long way.

So at the end England go back empty handed.

As for me things seem to have come full circle since that first post in 2011 when I resolved to stay away from the game. I am back baby!!! Does not look like cricket will be far awy from my thoughts again for the rest of my life. Might as well accept it.