Friday, July 27, 2007

Sachin Tendulkar: The heart wants you to go on, but...

It has become a little distressing. After almost every big series that India plays, and also during the series, one question invariably pops up: “Are Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman already well past their sell-by date?”. The distressing part is that while this question has been asked very often, one does not have an answer to the same. The more the fans of Indian cricket think about this, they more they shuffle uncomfortably. Probably, our heart says one thing and our head says another. The one person that has really made us most uncomfortable is Sachin Tendulkar, more than Rahul, VVS and Sourav. The main reason for that is not because he has been the mainstay for Indian batting for nearly 2 decades, not because he has been at one time the best batsman in the world. Let me try and explain, dear reader, why.

As per the census conducted in 2001, the average age of Indians is 24.8 years. And how many years has Sachin been playing for? 18!! This is the reason why we get so uncomfortable, because we have a huge population that has grown up with a certain Tendulkar being an integral part for 80% of our lives. We may have never thought of the same but it is true. Sachin has been part of our childhood. Very few things have been common thru childhood, teens, adolescence and adulthood for most of us. And one of them is Sachin.

Sachin started playing when I was nine. My friends and I would watch, on TV, a fantastic batsman playing and then walk out to the grounds wanting to play like him. We have grown up from then on. We have moved on to different careers because we were never good enough to play cricket at higher levels, but each one of us still want to walk out to bat like him. That is why when we watch Sachin play now there isn’t one but 2 of us watching him simultaneously. One being the working adult that cerebrally analyses the pale shadow of a world beater and wishes that he either shapes up or ships out soon. The second being the child in us, gratified by the countless moments of joy this champion batsman has given, disagreeing with the head and wanting him to play like the young Tendulkar. We really need to ask ourselves this question: are we wishing for the young Sachin, or are we striving for some wonderful moments of our childhood?

Past series have shown that SRT is not likely to regain the form of 1995-2002. Those days of glory might never come. Do we really wish to see a champion become an also-ran? It is true that we haven’t seen anybody who can take his place. Frankly, nobody can. But he needs to be replaced, sooner rather than later. People had this apprehension when Kapil Dev was about to end his career, India’s first world-class fast bowler. True, we have not had another like him, but post his retirement we have had a line of good, competitive pacers. Srinath, Prasad, Zaheer, Sreesanth, Pathan, Munaf etc. Maybe the floodgates will open once the big three call it quits.

The problem is that around 5 top performers will leave the stage together and Indian cricket would then face a crisis that might last a few years. Replacing 5 champions is never easy. But, for the betterment of Indian cricket, it needs to be done. While all of us are grateful to these great servants of Indian cricket, we all switch on our TV sets to see India win. A Sachin duck and an India win is a lot more acceptable than a 100 for Sachin but an Indian loss. I think it’s time the fans of Indian cricket tell themselves that the end of the greats is here, and the greatest batsman India has produced is also in the winter of his cricketing career.

If Tendulkar walks out and scintillates again, a childhood would be vindicated. I hope that day comes soon, as the noises in our heads are getting louder. I think even Sachin Tendulkar would know that he has been a very important part of the ‘Wonder Years’ of most Indians. That is something nobody can take away from him. I hope he makes 2007 memorable as well. If not, we shall have no complaints. This warrior can walk away into the sunset, ending the most glorious career ever. A new generation shall then look for another hero from 2008. But what he should now know is that most Indians living now shall go to their graves with memories of SRT of 1989-2002, grateful for having grown up watching the best that ever was.

Friday, July 13, 2007

ICL Vs BCCI: Mountain out of a molehill

BCCI and ICL! This is turning out as a long-drawn soap opera. The underlying factor here is that every party involved is taking oneself and the other way too seriously. What is funny is the fact that the BCCI and ICL are trying to tell the world that each is doing things for the betterment of the game. Even Kapil Dev is trying to deceive the world at large by saying that nobody can stop him from doing a great service to the game. This statement is far from the truth.

It is extremely clear that Kapil Dev has joined ICL to make money. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. Almost all of us are looking at making money and we move on to more lucrative and better prospects. Kapil Dev has every right to do so. I couldn’t fathom why he was talking rubbish earlier by saying that he had joined ICL for the betterment of the game, create a pool of players to represent India, so on and so forth. He has now come out and said that he has a right to look at greener pastures. That is the very fact. Most of the ex-cricketers look at commentary and at being experts in the TV studios, not to give back to the game what they got from it (and that is the usual self-righteous drivel they dish out), but to make money. Why would they want to feel shy admitting to that fact? Some would also love to be cricket coach of India, but would not coach state teams.

Coming back to ICL, I fail to see how and why BCCI should feel threatened by it. They are planning 20-20, for starters. It will comprise of a pool of retired cricketers and others who haven’t worn their national caps. Would you or I want to watch too many matches involving have been cricketers and might-be-one-day cricketers? Your guess is as good as mine. In case they are dishing out quality cricket, and quality players, the BCCI would do well to take them into the India 20-20 side or the ODI side.

There are a few things about this new league that I am not sure about.

1) What are the chances that a young cricketer would want to turn out for ICL and not for their state Ranji sides? Every promising cricketer dreams of wearing the India cap, and that is not something that ICL can do.
2) Would we get quality cricket at ICL? I mean, it would contain players past their prime who cannot make it to their national sides, or young players that do not have the capability yet of making it to their national sides. The thing with Kerry Packer was different. He managed to draw players who were playing in their national sides, if I remember correctly.
3) How can a 20-20 tourney make test cricketers? I am not even sure if it would create a talent pool of ODI cricketers. They are entirely different forms of cricket and Ranji trophy, organized by the BCCI, is the right breeding ground. To think that a 20-20 specialist is a prospect for test cricket is like saying that a pool player will play the billiards world championship. It is theoretically possible, but is practically highly unlikely.
4) Would any current India cricketer want to turn out for the ICL? I mean, Harbhajan, Pathan and Sehwag have been dropped but would they ever consider playing for ICL? They would rather concentrate on getting back to the regular Indian side.

This is why I feel that the ICL is taking itself too seriously and even the BCCI is taking the ICL too seriously. Well, one thing is definitely likely that the ICL would be better managed the BCCI. That is why we see Niranjan Shah shooting off letters on BCCI’s behalf, the BCCI asking their associations not to ally with the ICL. This stems out of its own lack of self-belief. I guess the BCCI knows that it is incompetent and has a long way to go in order to run the game properly, and the ICL might expose BCCI completely. But at the end of the day, the players want to represent India in recognized internationals. And the viewers want to see the India flag. The viewers want to see the current international stars meet in the stadium and fight it out.

That is why I feel that Kapil and team are taking themselves, ICL, too seriously and the BCCI is also doing the same. The ICL is creating entertainment. Let them not propound the fact that they are doing it for the good of the game. And the lesser we say about the BCCI, the better. It has succeeded in making a mountain out of a molehill. They have no right to try and remain the sole custodian of cricket in India. Let them see how the events pan out. We shall be watching for sure. We shall be waiting to see if at all a Sachin, Sourav, Dravid or Kumble will every play in the ICL. Let’s see Kapil and More and team earn some extra money. Oh! Sorry. Let’s see Kapil and More do supreme sacrifices for the betterment of cricket. This soap-opera has just started. Its not going to end soon.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Sania Mirza: The most eulogized loser

I opened the newspaper this morning and turned straight to the sports page. I needed to know what’s happening at Wimbledon. I read two bits of news, both were predictable. Rafael Nadal won his match in a grueling 5-setter; and Sania Mirza lost – again. This time she bowed out of the mixed doubles in the second round, and she drowned with Mahesh Bhupathi. Yes, the same person who had won mixed doubles titles at various Grand Slams with other parthers.

I do not understand India’s obsession with Sania Mirza. Yes, when she broke thru for the first time, it was really commendable. The first woman from India to make it good at tennis tournaments. Yes, she broke into the players ranked in 30’s. But what happened after that? I am not an expert on tennis, but I can safely say that she has made little, if any, progress as far as her tennis goes. She has been slipping in rankings, she has not progressed beyond the fourth round in any Grand Slam, yet she gets adulation in India.

Why don’t we look at Wimbledon this year itself? She lost in the second round in singles, and mixed doubles. She lost in the women’s doubles also in the 3rd round. Sania’s performance at French Open and the Australian Open was also nothing to write home about. So why it is that she is the recipient of so much adulation?

I know people would jump for my throat for whatever I am going to say next, but I need to say it anyways. I might even be called sexist, which I am not, I am saying things as I am seeing them. Sania Mirza’s breakthrough to the world of tennis was commendable. After a few glimpses of promise many moons back, she has faded away. But she has been marketed well. The endorsements that she gets in India, the needless columns that she writes, is more because she is a product now and not a player. Why don’t the press flock to Paes and Bhupathi? They are the champions in the true sense. They have won innumerable slams and look good for winning a few more. But their achievements appear in the Indian media as footnotes after the main tennis news that Mirza has lost again.

Why is there this big thing about celebrating mediocrity? Sania Mirza is, at best, a mediocre tennis player. A player who has not progressed beyond the 4th round of a slam does not deserve any mention unless s/he really does something commendable. And a loss in the second round of a slam isn’t a commendable thing. I know, I know. People will pop-up the questions about cricketers asking, why do the cricketers who lose in the first round of the World Cup get so much adulation then.

Three reasons, really. 1) When the cricketers step out on to that field, they play for India. Sania Mirza walks out as Mirza. 2) This cricket team is capable of winning tournaments and beating the best in business. Mirza is not capable of the same, as far as current form goes. 3) The Tenduklars, Gangulys, Dravids and Kumbles are world class players on merit. Mirza is not. How many, if any, top 10 players has she beaten in her career? The fact that India’s first round exit in the cricket world cup was a shock is ample proof that we expect so much more from this team. Sania crashed out in the first round of the French Open, and I am sure that our reaction was –“ho, hum!! What more do you expect?”. The Indian team had the capability to bounce back and beat South Africa. But Sania, well, she talks and talks and loses by round 2 at Wimbledon.

I wish that the press does a better job of covering tennis. Please give us more news about the real champions, Paes and Bhupathi. Not only have they won many tournaments, and look like winning more, they have also played some wonderful tennis at the Davis Cup, particularly Leander Paes, and played for India with pride and distinction. Paes has won us an Olympic medal and the Lea-Hesh combo has just also won us the Asian Games Gold medal. They have beaten the best in business, be it the Woodies or anybody else. Now, they play with other partners but still are capable enough of winning, and have been winning slams.

I hope we hear a lot more about them and their progress. I really hope Sania matches up to whatever these two big-hearted players have achieved. Till she does, could we please have news about her losses in the foot-notes? Let her win something big or at least reach the last 8 of a slam to merit space on the main page or the headlines. And lastly, a big thumbs-up to her PR and marketing people. They have done a fantastic job of glorifying a loser.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

India Vs England: Let the real games begin

I don’t know what I should do - bask in the glory of India’s win over South Africa or lament on the futility of this series?

After the World Cup debacle, India did need a series win against a tough side in order to get that belief back. It is good that the series victory came about in alien conditions against, arguably, the No.2 side in ODI cricket, albeit without Shaun Pollock. Graeme Smith not playing either was a boon, really, as he doesn’t have a great record against India. But still, India’s win was commendable, though the timing of this series does beg the question: Was it necessary?

India now take on England in what will be a tough tour. England are a very good side, especially on home turf, and particularly in Tests. Instead of needlessly playing against Bangladesh, Ireland, South Africa and Pakistan, India should have played the English counties in a few three-day warm up games. As it is, they will play only two before the Test series starts.

They should have played at least three, so that all 15 squad members would have had the chance of playing at least two full games. The current scheduling, by including Ireland and Scotland, really put India in a situation where they were struggling to put 11 fit players on the field. If this does not serve as a wake-up call to the BCCI, I don’t know what will.

Then there is this needless ODI against Pakistan, celebrating 60 years of independence. Now, this is not a celebration. This is a needless match that was planned in advance so that the BCCI, under the presidency of Sharad Pawar, could show value to those who bought the neutral venue rights for a hefty fee. There is no sense of patriotism attached to this match, and it is poetic justice that the match looks like being rained off.

Coming back to the England tour, there is yet another mystifying thing in the schedule. India play only three Tests at the home of cricket, but also an excruciating seven ODIs. This is extremely unfair. Test cricket is real cricket, and that is what the focus should be on. I am not saying that we do not need ODIs. Play a best of five, by all means. But a three-Test series means that any side losing the first Test have their backs to the wall. To win the series, they would have to win both remaining matches. Playing four Tests would have been fine, and five would have been just right. This would have been possible had the needless ODIs not been scheduled for Ireland and Scotland.

Some might argue that this series has been a shot in the arm for India. I disagree. India played and beat West Indies and Sri Lanka before the World Cup. Did that help? Even more pertinent, we are playing England at home and not South Africa. England are going to be a different side altogether, and precious little is going to come out of the South Africa series as we are playing Test cricket first. The ODI series follows later. This ODI series win is going to have no bearing in the test series against the hosts. All the ODI series in Ireland has done is ensured we do not get to see more Tests.

Again, well played Team India. The real fans always are with you, win or lose. But the BCCI are still suffering from a mental illness. This illness makes sure that the people scheduling tours look at money only, and do not give two hoots about the players, the viewers and, sadly, no thought to the fact that it’s a sport. The Afro-Asia Cup, Bangladesh series, Ireland and Scotland tours were cash cows. They are over. At least we can look forward to some real cricket now.