Friday, May 13, 2016

The season of faith's perfection - The Olympics

The athlete crouches, nerves on edge and body taut, and awaits the gunshot. What the athlete does after the crack of the gun is a culmination of four years of toil, blood & sweat. Most often, it ends in tears. Often, because among hundreds, in any one discipline, there are just three steps on the podium to occupy. Tears, because there may not be another chance. Ever. The next Olympic Games are 4 years away, and that is a lifetime for an athlete.
This is the greatest spectacle on earth. It is the most equaling of all competitive sporting events. A middle distance runner, on whom a developed country has invested millions of dollars to get his training right, loses to the athlete whose middle distance training in sub-Saharan Africa was running 10 kilometers to school every day as a child. There’s no money for a winner. There’s a piece of metal to be won that no amount of money can buy.
I also like the Olympics because it is a melting pot of the greatest sporting talent on earth. 206 countries will participate and over 10,500 athletes will represent these countries at Rio 2016. It will be played out across 28 Olympic sports. 306 sets of medals will be up for grabs. That also means that over 9,500 athletes will not step on any podium. Most importantly, the Olympics serve as an amazing epiphany that every sportsman is just as important as the other. The multi-million dollar winning tennis player will get a gold medal if he wins and so will the obscure fencer whose face we cannot see behind that protective mask.
The Olympics are a poignant reminder that there are geniuses in sports that might be alien to many lands. Where else would we have seen the gravity defying pole vaults of Yelena Isinbayeva? Where else would we have seen a Nadia Comaneci do a backward flip and land perfectly on a beam that is the width of our palm? Where, on earth, would we have seen Michael Phelps cut through water, all the while making us wonder if this person, resembling Homo Sapiens, had fins and gills?
The darkest side of man is revealed in these games too. Some spoke of this being the testing lab for proving Aryan supremacy, a Canadian called Ben Johnson (and countless others) took drugs to compete, some innocent Israeli athletes paid with their lives in Munich because some Palestine terrorist group called Black September decided that these people were symbols of problems in their part of the world.
Yet, what stands out due to the Olympics is the fact that we get to see the commitment the human race is capable of. We read of Olga Korbut who counted sips of water during practice. We heard of athletes who would refuse to shake hands for the fear of catching germs. And, we’d hear of Natalie du Toit. She missed qualifying for the 2000 Sydney Olympics narrowly, and then met with an accident that made amputation of her left leg necessary. In 2008, she qualified for the Beijing Olympics after training herself to swim with just one leg. We get to know of Karoly Takacs who lost his right hand in a grenade explosion, trained himself to shoot with his left hand, and shot at the Olympics. Yes, he shot gold but even if he hadn’t won anything he’d be a winner, for refusing to accept the cards that life dealt him with. Innumerable stories of such heights that the human race is capable of reaching out to are brought forth by the Olympics.
What also comes forth, with an inescapable surge, is seeing these women and men live the moment because for many deserving athletes, there is just one Olympic Games in their lives. Just one race, or one throw, or one shot, or one row. It is tough for athletes to sustain their peaks and remain competitive for 8 years straight. Which is why the Olympics make our minds boggle at the mention of Steve Redgrave. A man who won 5 Olympic Golds - 13 less than Phelps, 4 less than Larisa Latynina, Pavvo Nurmi, Mark Spitz & Carl Lewis, and 3, 2, 1 less than 29 other athletes – but he won these five golds in five different Olympics. He rowed himself to these golds, in the pinnacle of all sports gatherings, for twenty years in a row.
So come August, let’s count ourselves lucky to be seeing this august gathering. In years gone by, the Olympics have seen a limping, bleeding & bandaged marathoner hobbling into the arena to complete his race and saying ‘my country didn’t send me 5000 kilometers to start a race, but to finish it’. Olympics have seen people honour the true spirit of sportsmanship, like Luz Long giving his biggest opponent, Jesse Owens, a tip that would make the man out-jump Luz for the gold medal. We will see women & men raising themselves to be more than what they are and, perhaps, inspiring a few of those who watch them to raise themselves up as well.

We'll get to behold the greatest social force in the world, for the road of the Olympics, as Jesse Owens said, leads – in the end – to the best within us.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

The Baryshnikov's last ballet

The lovers of most performing arts live a curse and a blessing. They start admiring a performer, see the performer astound and bewilder over the years. And then they live through having to see the performer’s skills fray, their genius slowly fade away and see them reduced to remnants of the maestros they once were. Sure, it’s a bit of a curse to endure that. And then the maestro performs for the last time, and we realize what a blessing it was to have been astounded all these years.

Imagine this! You’re in a concert at Madison Square Gardens, Bille Jean is reverberating in the air, Michael Jackson starts moon-walking – and stumbles! The performer can’t moonwalk as effortlessly anymore. What would the MJ fan in you go through? It’d feel like seeing Roger Federer dunk forehands into the net, the ones he’d have caressed past his opponents in his sleep, when he was at his prime.

Sportsmen are the epitome of performing arts. Yes, sport is more art than science. It’s more literature than mathematics. Tell me, when you think of Sachin Tendulkar does a statistic of 15921 test runs flash past your mind or are you reminded of a short man, standing tall, cracking a ball straight past the bowler for four? I don’t think of Federer as 17 Grand Slams, 7 Wimbledons. I think of forehand cross-courts hit with a precision so great that it would make a surgeon proud.

Roger Federer’s game is beautiful. He doesn’t thump his opponent & batter them to demolition, he merely delicately carves them up, slices them to pieces by the dazzling cuts of his excellence. There’s no scowl on his face when he plays, no grunts of effort, no expression that says that he’s putting in tremendous physical effort. He’s like a ballet dancer, silent feet moving across his stage with enormous effort, but the face belies it. Federer at Wimbledon was like Mikhail Baryshnikov at the ballet. Much of that astonishment is now in the past. These days I see Federer shank forehands into the net, mistime the backhand to 8 feet past the baseline. It’s like seeing Baryshnikov doing a ballet with a limp.

I’ll still see him play this Wimbledon. Sure, I want Federer to win. Not because 18 grand slams will make him a greater player than when he won 17 slams. But because I’ll be able to see a genius pushing an older, obstinate body into some more breathtaking ballet that masquerades as tennis. It’s because despite stumbling through a lot of his games, from somewhere out of the recess of a memory of the past he’ll bring out a forehand which will also make his opponent applaud.

And I’ll watch Federer play because I don’t know if this is the last time he’ll take court at Wimbledon. Yes, I am living a curse of seeing the greatest ever become a shadow of his great past. But I still need to live the blessing of seeing the greatest ever compete despite being a pale shadow of what he was. In every game he might stumble, but till he’s in the competition Federer will just get up and moonwalk again. The ballet of the Baryshnikov is ending, but it hasn’t ended – not yet!

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Phillip Hughes: The story that should live

Twenty two players walked out on one of the most hallowed turfs of the cricketing world. That’s how a  story always begins when one writes or reads about a cricket match. The story then builds about how some batsmen crafted a beautiful innings, how some bowlers eked out wonderful spells. The story always ends with how a team won, or lost, or how the match was drawn. This time, and I hope that it’s for the last time, I read a new ending in a  match story – A man died! Phillip Hughes’ mortal remains were lowered in Macksville, Australia, but it’s important that his story lives.
Hughes was playing a safe sport. He didn’t hurtle down on tracks at 300 KM/h in a racing car. He didn’t face a raging Mike Tyson in a ring eager to knock him out. He was in a park, all decked in protective armour, but he still died and that’s why it’s important that his story lives on. That batsmen, far inferior to him, have come out unscathed facing bowlers even more fearful, but he succumbed, is why this story should live on. The fact that he died when he had so much to live for is why this story should live on. The belief that no other man with a dream should have a death like this is the reason why this story should live on.
Cricketers have done much on fields that has been reported. Taken stunning catches, scored gritty hundreds, bowled sublime spells. Some have questioned the parentage of the opposition batsman, some have tampered with the ball’s seam, some have stood their ground despite knowing that they have edged one and some have signaled crooks by hanging a towel from their waists. But no cricketer has ever wanted a life taken on a cricket field. As a fan I had read about Raman Lamba dying because of a cricket ball hitting his head when he was fielding. That story was reported, but it died. It has come back to life, ironically, because another man trying to build a career has died.
I saw Michael Clarke fighting his tears while giving his tribute to his little brother one last time. I saw Sean Abbot trying, manfully, to face his demons as he came to bid his mate goodbye. I saw an ageing man act as pallbearer for a man he’d once cradled and called ‘son’. This story needs to live on because stories on cricketing endings shouldn’t be ones of a mourning family at a funeral. Aren’t cricketing endings happy stories of a family acknowledging the fans for finally returning them their son who always had to be away?
We are now talking of the helmet that needs to be improved. We probably will see innovations that will cover the back of the head as well. We will probably see a headline in a few years that would say ‘Helmet manufactured that completely insulates cricketers from head injuries’. We will probably live out our lives without the news of a cricketer dying because the equipment protecting him wasn’t inadequate. This story needs to live so that the ‘probably’ used so often in this paragraph transforms to ‘certainly’. Raman Lamba’s story died, so it’s very important that Phil Hughes’ story lives.
I have read about two cricketing deaths and this is a sport where one death is also one too many. What has happened to Phillip Hughes can’t be undone, the pain and grief cannot be lessened. But we cricket fans can take solace in the fact that Hughes died when he was at a place he could call his own, doing the one thing that loved doing most, playing cricket. I believe that is another reason why his story should live.

Thursday, March 03, 2011

A commentary on commentators

25th of June, 1983, was a momentous day in the history of not just Indian cricket but India as well. There is no denying the fact that those men went where no Indian had gone before. What I do not like, however, is when some of those men come on to news channels as broadcasters with nothing to contribute, but to remind us that they had won a world cup.

When I look at cricketers analysing cricket for me, I look for insights, I look for very interesting anecdotes, I look at them for stating things that are beyond the obvious. Apart from Sunil Gavaskar, none of these ’83 players say anything insightful or even entertaining. They keep repeating themselves on and on and on. All they talk of is the 1983 world cup. They have been doing this now for over a decade.
Imagine somebody tweeting something great one day and then retweeting the same thing for the next 10 years. It gets irritating. Here is an analysis of the most irritating characters of the 1983 squad on the tube.

K. Srikkanth: An ODI great despite a grand average of 29, swashbuckling despite a career strike rate of 71. Rahul Dravid has a better strike rate than him. I do not mind the superlative adjectives used for him, but what I do mind is that as a cricket analyst he doesn’t know his face from his ass. His scientific name is ‘selfus contradictus’. Here is a pearl from when we was doing live commentary – ‘great shot over the top and OH! He is caught on the boundary. What a stupid shot’. Just that to say this Cheeka style, please ignore the spaces between words.

Since those halcyon days of Cheeka the commentator, we now have Cheeka the expert. He comes on news channels to explain the ‘poishun’ of the game. Ok, ‘position’, but then that’s not the way Mr. Srikkanth pronounces it. He has now become the most forgetful of all ex-cricketers. ‘Whaddyoucall’ has become his favourite phrase. These days his lines go like this – ‘that was a great, whaddyoucall, catch, by, whaddyoucall, Yuvraj.’

Madan Lal: He embodies simultaneous translation. He is constantly thinking in Punjabi and simultaneously translating it in Hindi. If you are unfortunate, you will catch him translating it to English. A simple man, he strongly believes that all one needs to win matches and tournaments is ‘josh’. Here is how his expert analysis goes:
Q: Tendulkar did not quite look like himself in the last 2 innings. What should he do?
Madan Lal: He must play with more josh.
Q. What would a team like Zimbabwe be thinking when they are up against the might of Australia?
Madan Lal: They must come out with belief and with Josh.
Q. The finals. What would the teams be thinking?
Madan Lal: That come what may, we must play with josh.

No wonder, whenever he is asked what the team thought in the mid-innings break when they went out to defend 183 he replies, you guessed it, that they thought they will play with josh.

Kapil Dev: A lot of unjustified fun was poked at his English when he was a cricketer. His job then was to win matches for India. However, he cannot ignore his awful English when he comes on the tube as a cricket expert. He better be eloquent. But the Haryana Hurricane does on TV to the viewers what hurricanes do to trees.

He once asked after an insipid Indian performance in a match – ‘are we the problem balling, or is we the problem batting?’ I’m sure former cricket writers must have turned in their graves after hearing this, just like a few fans might have smashed their TV sets after this. For a bowler, it’s amazing how he pronounces bowling as ‘balling’.

Mohinder Amarnath: Courage thy name is Jimmy, is what Gavaskar once said about this brave-heart. But out of his cricketing whites, beaming from the tube, he turns his viewers into brave-hearts. Those people who do not have cable at home and are forced to watch matches on DD, start taking cable connections just so that they do not have to hear Jimmy paaji singing on ‘Fourth Umpire’. He is the only cricket expert in the world who’s mid and end innings analysis is songs with changed lyrics.

When he bowled, so slow was his run-up that he would put batsmen to sleep by the time he reached the bowling crease, and then hurl a ball to get them out. As an expert, he talks insipid stuff that puts viewers to sleep and then he suddenly sings to give them insomnia for weeks.

Syed Mujtaba Hussain Kirmani: By far, the most inattentive cricket expert. Maybe, not inattentive, but handicapped. After all, he was last seen advertising Widex hearing aids. But whenever I have seen him in a studio, he is sans his hearing aid, and hence the absolutely unrelated answers to questions.

Q: So, Mr. Kirmani, a tough total for Dhoni’s team to chase?
Kirmani: Dhoni has a reputation of drinking 4 litres of buffalo milk every day. So you never know what will happen.
The line above is usually uttered in even more unintelligible English and followed by a guffaw from the former keeper. If a buffalo was to hear Mr. Kirmani utter this, milk would curdle in her udders.

So, batch of 1983, we are grateful to you for having won a world cup. We shall, however, be forever indebted if you stop coming on the tube.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The right to smoke

This is something that I have been thinking about for quite some time now. There was a ban some time back, and rightly so, on smoking in public places. However, this ban was not thought through properly and hence was a draconian system that really hurt smokers. Let me explain why I thought so.

Just like non-smokers have a right to not inhale cigarette smoke, smokers have a right to smoke. If there is a ban on smoking at the airport or the train stations then there ought to be a smoking zone demarcated at those places that allows smokers to smoke. Well, it is not an illegal activity. Every adult above the age of 18 has a right to smoke tobacco.

If one were to walk into an airport, and pee near the check-in counters, the person would be fined or put behind bars. The person would be told that ‘there are loos in this airport and that’s where you need to go and pee’. So to ensure that a person can answer the call of nature, all airports and stations have loos. After all, it is everybody’s right to go take a pee.

Somehow, this sort of consideration is not shown towards smokers. We need to go and indulge from time to time. It is legal. What is not acceptable is that smoking zones aren’t always given to indulge in a perfectly legal activity. Till the Bombay airport was refurbished, there weren’t any smoking zones. I am yet to hear of any train station having a smoking zone. The Calcutta airport does not have a smoking zone. Most restaurants and pubs have been dictated to ban smoking on the tables, but they have not been dictated to ensure that an area is given for smokers to smoke. I would certainly feel like a wretch smoking on a restaurant table and a kid sitting nearby inhaling that smoke. But why couldn’t Ramadoss feel like a wretch when I could not indulge in a perfectly legal activity?

There are also some who get into the MORAL of the whole thing. I have read and heard time an again, senseless things like ‘smoking should be completely banned in India’; ‘Cigarettes are the causes of so many deaths’ and so on and so forth. Well, let me put some statistics forward. Out of the total revenue that India earns, 8.8% is earned from excise duty of cigarettes alone. Bidis, cigars etc. contribute a further 3.3% to the government’s coffers.

Furthermore, the tobacco industry employs 62 lakh people in India. Bidi manufacturing is the biggest cottage industry in the country. So all those who want to ban smoking completely in India, please consider these facts. Banning smoking would not only lead to a huge dent in India’s revenues, it would mean 62 lakh jobless people in one go, just for some nonsensical people’s so-called high-moral ground.

Some might cite the fact that smoking leads to cancer and that needs to be a reason enough to ban smoking. This argument is rubbish. Firstly, smokers who get cancer are extremely heavy smokers and even among them not all get cancer. Secondly, there are more people in India who suffer from diabetes and high cholesterol than cigarette related diseases.

So, first ban sugar so that diabetics can live. Ban butter and cheese so that nobody in India suffers from cholesterol problems. Then talk about banning cigarettes. And, may I add, cigarettes give more employment and revenue to India than butter and cheese and sugar.

The same NGOs and saviours of the earth will not move their bums to ensure that a Govt. of India ruling – cigarette shops should not exist within 200 meters of any school – is stringently followed. They will not ensure that a person selling a fag to an underage kid is put behind bars. They will not work to ensure that there are no cigarette shops within 200 meters of a school. I can show you many cigarette shops in India that are within a few meters from a school.

Well, I hope the right of smokers is preserved. They are old enough; they are indulging in a legal activity; and they should be given their space to smoke. There should not be a draconian rule like what exists in places like, say, Phoenix mills in Bombay – where one cannot smoke anywhere in acres and acres of place.

Punish the irresponsible smoker who smokes at the airport. But also ensure that he has an option of walking into a smoking room somewhere nearby. That way both smokers and non-smokers would remain happy.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The best in the world

An attempt at a short story.. Inspired by a true incident that came flooding back when I heard the song ‘The Greatest’ by Kenny Rogers.

It was raining, and the 11-year old could not go out to play cricket. He was restless and kept looking at the clock, for there was only an hour’s day-light to go. Sadly, Mother Nature didn’t seem considerate enough to relent. The boy’s restlessness was understandable. After all, he wanted to hone his batting skills, he wanted to drive and cut and pull; he wanted to be Sachin Tendulkar, he wanted to be the best.

His mother saw him forlorn and lost and asked him to play in the garage instead of waiting in the veranda. The boy saw sense in the suggestion. He picked up his bat and a tennis ball and walked in to the garage. He switched the light on and prepared to battle. The moment the light was switched on, he was transported to another world. This was no longer a garage, it was Eden Gardens. And he had to practice his craft here for the day; he wanted to be Sachin Tendulkar, he wanted to be the best.

The rules were simple. The garage shutters were pulled down behind him; stumps were drawn on the shutter using crayons. The boy would stand with the stumps (garage shutters) behind him and hurl the tennis ball at the wall ahead; and when the ball came back, he would hit it with his bat. It was a new bat and a heavy one at that. His father had suggested that it might be a tad too heavy for him while buying it, but the boy was adamant. After all, his idol used a heavy bat and so should he; he wanted to be Sachin Tendulkar, he wanted to be the best.

He threw the ball at the wall, and the tennis ball quickly bounced back at him. By the time he gripped the bat and swung it, he heard the sound of the ball crashing into the shutters behind him. Well, the bat was too heavy for him to lift and swing, in a little more than a second; for that was the amount of time the ball took to come back to him after being hurled at the wall. He could have under-armed the ball to the wall very slowly, but he wanted to face the fastest bowlers in the world. That’s why he insisted on throwing the ball with full force instead of gently under-arming it to the wall. He had to learn how to face the fastest bowlers in the world; he wanted to be Sachin Tendulkar, he wanted to be the best.

The boy composed himself and launched the ball again. He swung the bat at the ball and again heard the sound of tennis ball on garage shutter. He walked down what he imagined was the pitch, tapped it like the batsmen did. He kept a running commentary on, and at that time the commentator said that this was a very fast pitch. It would require immense grit and skill to save this one for India and the boy had it. After all, he wanted to be Sachin Tendulkar, he wanted to be the best.
This process kept going on and on for half an hour. Swing, miss, ball crashes into the shutter. Not once did the boy lose hope. Not once did he throw the ball a little gently on to the wall. But every single time he swung the bat, he did not hear the sound of the bat hitting the ball. Each time the ball hit the shutters, each thud louder than the last one. Then finally, his mom called. It was time for homework. He raised the shutter and crawled out, walked into the house with bat and ball. His mom smiled at him and asked him if he batted like Sachin Tendulkar. The boy gave a wide grin and said “no, Ma! I didn’t. Today I bowled like the best, I bowled like Allan Donald.”

Friday, April 16, 2010

Of goodbyes and comebacks

I have seen people, aged 60, finding their world coming apart once they retire. The day seems to be a continuous challenge to keep oneself active, to still remain important. It is not that they miss an active working life because that is what they were best at. They might have been better singers than architects, better painters than soldiers, but still they really missed their jobs once they retired. Just imagine what retirement means to sportsmen, keeping this thought in mind.

These retired sportsmen are young people, most of them in their 30’s. In our corporate world, people that age will still be young men with a lot of potential for growth. However, we aren’t that kind when we're talking of a sportsman in his 30’s. We refer to them as old, await their imminent retirement. And retirement would mean that they give up, unlike us, the one thing that they are best at. For most of them, that is the only thing that they can competently do, something that has been part of their lives once they crossed infancy.

Of all things that we comprehend when we watch sport, there are some things that we can never associate with as viewers. We can comprehend skill, strength perhaps, for that can be seen. We can never comprehend physical pain, and emotion. When our favourite sportsmen retire, we are dejected, but we learn to move on, find other sportsmen to idolize. But can we ever imagine what goes through the mind of a sportsman who gives up everything that mattered to him?

Once they leave, over a beer or a cup of tea we wonder if that chap had one more season left in him. For the great ones, we usually ask why they have retired and wonder if he can just come back once. Can he, just once more, drive through the covers? Can he, just once, curl in the free kick into the net? Can he, just once, pull that stunning overtake?

Over time, I have realized that the retired sportsman thinks of this every waking hour of his life. Perhaps, he sleeps just because he can dream of that comeback. Some of them then start to work on the comeback after retirement. One does not know how differently they train, but probably they put in harder yards to get an obstinate ‘older’ body back into competitive shape. And then, some of them come back.

Why do they come back? There is a reputation that they would put on the line, they would constantly be reminded of the fact that they already know – that they are past their peak. They might reduce themselves from being champions to also-rans in their second avatar as a competitive sportsman. These are arguments followers of sport would put across, and rightly so.

But the sportsman is not programmed to think like this. Their thought process is driven by a will to win, to excel. They have spent a lifetime thumbing opponents in the nose, scrambled to emerge victorious, and trained to become the best in the world. Perhaps that is why they hold on to their dreams. Body and mind are divorced, but they let their minds keep custody of their dreams. Body says – ‘can’t do it’, mind says – ‘give it a shot’. They have lived a life living their dreams, and excelled at it, probably they need to hold on to that dream a little longer and thus they come back from retirement to active sport.

This could be the reason why Michael Jordan came back, or why Michael Schumacher is racing, or why Lance Armstrong would compete in the Tour De France, or why Warne and Ganguly and Gilly are playing one last IPL.

Or perhaps, none of this is true. Perhaps they never come back to hold on. Perhaps they come back one last time to say goodbye. When they first retired, they said their goodbyes to their fans. When they come back after retirement, maybe that journey is just for them, to marry mind and body and get them in agreement – an agreement to say goodbye to their dreams for ever.