Thoughts on Carlsen

December 27, 2013

by Anand Bhaskaran

 Aron Nimzowitsch, an influential Danish chess-player and -writer, observed that “the beauty of a move lies not in its appearance but in the thought behind it.”  It follows that chess isn’t an easy game for a layman to appreciate: a move may not be properly adjudged beautiful or ugly unless one knows the reasoning behind it, the possibilities it considers, the insights into the opponent’s mind it incorporates. What you see is merely a player taking a little piece of wood and moving it from one square to another. What you don’t see is the tangle of intermingled calculations and emotions fusing into a move.

Even so, the game of chess has had its share of players distinctive even to the layman (a somewhat informed layman, you might argue; and yes, that’s probably right, I’d concede). Consider Mikhail Tal, the eighth world champion: one look at his daring material sacrifices — a knight in one game, a rook in another, why, even a full queen when he felt particularly adventurous — and you’d feel a giddy romance rarely felt in relation to a chess game:“The Magician of Riga” they called him, and it isn’t hard to see why. Likewise, a look at just a few of Tigran Petrosian’s games would be enough to convince you that here was a stubborn, ferociously defensive player — he was called “Iron Tigran” in fact, this chessical equivalent of Geoffrey Boycott. And in Bobby Fischer’s games you’d recognize a cold serpent-like menace, perhaps even sense the incipient onrush of madness.

With Magnus Carlsen, the current and 16th World Champion, no such immediate associations come to mind. The media has made its comparisons — with Mozart and Rafael Nadal — but these both seem forced and superficial. The Mozart association has nothing going for it apart from the fact that both men were child prodigies; the Nadal connect is marginally better, in that Carlsen’s stamina and grinding style of play is somewhat reminiscent of Nadal’s. However, it misses one important point about Carlsen’s style of play and that, I think, makes all the difference.

In his younger days, Carlsen would play with dare and vim — as an example, I need only cite the thrilling “Carlsen vs. Sipke Ernst”, a game played in 2004 when Carlsen was barely fourteen, wherein he played in the cavalier style of Tal. Doubtless he could still play that way today if he chose to, but at what cost? He’d likely be winning fewer games.

And that’s simply unacceptable to Carlsen. So no unnecessary risks, just the best move he can think of, move after move after move, flair be damned if that’s what it takes. Vladimir Kramnik, a Russian grandmaster and former World Champion, makes exactly this point when he says that every player has to decide on the style that makes him most effective: Kasparov played aggressively, he remarks, not because it would please the galleries but because it gave him the best chance of winning. Here’s where the Nadal association falls flat: I doubt Nadal could play like Federer even if he wished to, while Carlsen could well play in a different style albeit with slightly less success than he enjoys currently.

Playing in his style, Carlsen has achieved the highest Elo rating of all time, besides being the World Number 1 and World Champion for good measure. Whom, then, does he most resemble? I’d propose Donald Bradman. A peculiar choice, you might well say. But the Don’s batting was focused on scoring as many runs as possible. He scored only six sixes in his career — hitting the ball in the air clearly wasn’t compatible with his objective. He wasn’t as exciting as Trumper, as Carlsen is not nearly as thrilling as Kasparov. And then there’s the fact that the young Bradman would practice hitting a golf ball with stump instead of bat all by himself, for hours on end; likewise, little Carlsen would sit with a chessboard all by himself to play out the moves of the classics. And then there are the kindred stats that speak for themselves, Bradman’s 99.94 Test average to Carlsen’s 2872 Elo. So I say why not drop the comparisons with Mozart and Nadal and pick the Don instead?


August 25, 2007

by Aparajith Ramnath

The pavilion seat always commands an excellent view of the playing field. You readers (if any) must be saying now: ‘Yes, it’s a great view, but the field’s been deserted for so long!’ Despair not, my friends. Stay put in that seat. You’ll get your free ticket’s worth.

For those who watched the second NatWest one-dayer between India and England at Bristol, I need hardly ask whether you enjoyed it. Wait a minute – don’t I? Any media pundit will tell you it was a cracking match. With over 650 runs scored, a pile of sixes struck, and a run-chase that was technically on until the last over, it’s difficult to quibble with that.

But then I watched the highlights. Oh, it was action-packed. The ball whizzed to the boundary before you could say ‘leg-glance’. It was what commentators love to call a ‘lightning-quick outfield.’ Except there wasn’t much of an outfield. I don’t know what the numbers are, but I get the feeling that the Bristol ground would fit comfortably inside Lord’s and still leave enough room for an athletics track on the remaining area. Add a flat wicket, and there were plenty of baseball shots (in the extremely unlikely event of the existence of a person who is reading this article AND is a baseball fan, I hasten to say that this is no comment on the aesthetics of baseball – except that it looks funny on a cricket ground) going for six. Ganguly’s straight six was especially ungainly for a batsman usually capable of great elegance. Dimitri Mascarenhas’s valiant knock later in the day was commendable for its spirit, but there wasn’t very much science involved there. All this is not to say that the players did not play well. Tendulkar was in his element with his leg-side whips and Player of the Match Dravid was at his one-day best, and one of his late dabs to the third man boundary was as subtle a stroke as you could expect to see on any ground (though he played one fairly ugly stroke to mid-wicket too, at the beginning of the slog overs). And one mustn’t forget the excellent work from Chawla and Powar, who turned the tide in India’s favour with their brave and wily bowling. I’m glad India decided to play five bowlers finally. It paid off here.

It was nice to see India pull off a win, and they should have done so much more convincingly if it hadn’t been for some atrocious fielding. But at the end of the day (or the hour, for I was only watching highlights, after all), I got the feeling that this match was little more than an extended Twenty20 game. My opinions on that version of the game – it’s fertile ground for debate, with much to be said for and against – I will reserve for another occasion.

WWF Days

July 2, 2007

by Rishabh Kaul 

‘Matches 145, clash!’

‘Oh shit! I can’t believe your Undertaker beat me!’

The melee of card clutching youngsters could be seen everywhere. School buses, corners of class rooms (when the teacher wasn’t looking obviously), canteens and homes. WWE (then WWF) was truly a sensation. In an era when Playstations hadn’t quite become available (leave alone affordable, wait a second, are they affordable yet?) to the Indian market and computer games hadn’t graduated above those that required a RAM of greater than 16 MB (ah, sweet reminiscence), WWE ruled. It was a plague, every kid would clutch on to it as though it were his life savings, religiously following the sport on TV. Cheering the face, cussing the heel and becoming a theist whenever a bra and panty match would take place, WWE had taken over.

The story line would be discussed over the lunch break with enthusiasm far exceeding that of when some folks sit down and chat about which soap had the maximum number of divorces. A difference of opinion would invoke fights of the highest order and would sometimes create havoc and even destroy friendships (and forge new bonds).

I would buy thermocol once every fortnight and would make a virtual table out of it. Then we’d have the greatest of all matches- TLC. The sheer joy of lifting my 12 year old langotiya yaar and pushing him through the chasms of hell and breaking the pseudo table (and hence winning the game according to the self imposed rules) would easily overshadow another moment. Glory indeed!

We would also partially heed their advice, the famous ads where the gods would themselves ask us to “not try this at home!” No kicking, no punching at the “shame shame”. We’d share their joy, their grief during the darkest hour and cheer them, these neo-gladiators with bodies of steel.

Post 2004, I gave up on wrestling. The unbelievable solace that WWF provided couldn’t be matched by the unbelievably juvenile plots of WWE. I didn’t see myself cheering these new stars for they didn’t have the same zeal, nor did they seem loyal to the game. And the old ones didn’t seem the same as before. They seemed to have evolved into something more commercial, someone the fans couldn’t associate with.

Or maybe I grew up.

by Rishabh Kaul

Lagaan, though fictitious, with all its espionage fused magically with the British pulverizing the villagers off-field gave a very wrong impression of cricket in the nineteenth century.

In the early years it was truly a gentleman’s game.  The game was an embodiment of class and dignity coupled with sophistication and elegance. The phrase It’s not cricket was in use as much off the field as on it, and was used for events not necessarily related to the game of bat and ball.

The ideal cricketer would adhere to the spirit of the game which was sportsmanship. He would call the batsman back if a false verdict was given in his favou, he would walk off the field if he knew he was out though the rival team didn’t appeal for it and would surely beg for forgiveness for excessive appealing.

Ah, those were the days, with Victor Trumper and W.G. Grace with their technically sound drives dominating with the bat and legendary greats such as Spofforth (nicknamed the Demon, and single-handedly responsible for the Ashes as we know them today) scalping wickets.

The great Don himself, who was known for putting most bowlers to shame, respected the spirit of the game and himself would sacrifice his wicket if he noticed that a bowler was trying too hard and wasn’t meeting success (by a whisker) for a long time.

People say that the game has changed, with the spirit no longer prevailing amongst the players. It’s easy to support the argument with the numerous instances of players having rows with umpires, mutiny by team members against the captain, swearing (remember the Sarwan/Mcgrath tamasha), excessive appealing (spearheaded by Souravda).

But what were the players playing for back in the old days? Honour and Pride. Add millions of dollars, contracts, deals and all the other complexities that govern the game today. Would the scenario still have been the same? Players back then didn’t depend on the game for their bread and champagne, nor did they see the need to get their body insured. Man of the Match winners back then didn’t receive Audis and Land Rovers.

Each appeal that’s not given the finger costs the team thousands of dollars. Everything is digitized, even the slightest of remarks gets blown out of proportion (and almost immediately the Chappell Finger fiasco comes to mind).

There comes the occasional incident that brings back memories of the olden days, but for the greater part, the gentleman’s game has a huge cover of bureaucracy and hundred dollar bills resting over it.

Truly International

March 2, 2007

by Aparajith Ramnath

It is not unusual in cricket to find players representing a country different to that of their birth. Nor is it unprecedented to find players who’ve played for more than one country. A number of South Africans illustrate the point: Robin Smith and Allan Lamb, and more recently Kevin Pietersen, all of whom went over to England. John Traicos played for South Africa before they were banned from the international arena, and then for Zimbabwe in the 1992 World Cup, when in his forties. Kepler Wessels, of course, played Tests for both Australia and South Africa, famously scoring centuries on debut for each country.

The modern-day World Cup, with its profusion of teams, is a prime candidate to furnish more such examples. This year’s tournament in the Caribbean has its share.

The man who scored an important century in the recent tri-series in Australia in the course of a remarkable turnaround in England’s fortunes, Ed Joyce, was an important part of the Irish team until fairly recently. Ireland, on the other hand, goes to the World Cup for the first time, and is captained by Trent Johnston, who came over from Australia a few years ago.

Followers of Indian cricket from the early nineties will remember a certain opposition seam bowler, Andy Cummins, who used then to play for the West Indies. Wonder of wonders, he is at the World Cup this year: he will play for Canada.

Does anyone know of other such instances from this year’s World Cup?

by Aparajith Ramnath

As the World Cup inches closer, it is natural that all cricket discussion is dominated by it. Every run scored, every wicket taken, every selection made is viewed in the light of its implications for this Holy Grail of one-day cricket. While the pundits pontificate on these significant happenings and the whole cricket machinery gears up for the frenzy that will begin next month, let us sit back in our armchairs and allow our minds to wander back to earlier editions of the World Cup, pulling out those disjointed wisps of memory to see if they might not be stitched together.

 The earliest World Cup memories I have, for practical reasons, are from the fifth edition. Held in 1992 in Australia and New Zealand, it had, in many ways, all the trappings of today’s ODI culture: floodlights, coloured clothing, even a rain rule. And with just nine teams participating, it was a thorough tournament if ever there was one: each team played every other team in the league stage.

India’s opening match was against England. Subroto Banerjee was one of India’s quick bowlers in that match; aside of that I remember little of the first innings other than my father saying that India had given away a few runs too many in the final overs. In the end, India lost by nine runs. I remember distinctly that I went downstairs to play ‘compound cricket’ (i.e. cricket played in the building’s compound) with my friends, either as a reaction to the loss or towards the latter stages of the game when it seemed a lost cause.

New Zealand was, in many ways, the dark horse of that tournament. As I remember it, they played all their matches – at least in the league stage – at home, and won most of them. They were stopped by Pakistan and Inzamam’s superlative performance in the semi-finals. Enduring images from their campaign: Mark Greatbatch’s pioneering of the role of the pinch-hitter; Deepak Patel, the off-spinner, bowling at the start of the innings as a containing bowler; and the fact that the New Zealand matches would have the score on the corner of the TV screen displayed in English parlance (Runs/Wickets) as opposed to the matches in Australia, which used Aussie parlance (Wickets/Runs, which still causes much confusion for me during the early stages of an innings).

As an aside, the Australian style of reading out the score was imprinted on my mind by a typical Tony Greig passage of commentary during the Australia-South Africa league match, which I watched – partly at least – at the house of my grandmother’s neighbour: “Not a good over for [Meyrick] Pringle, nor for South Africa, Fooooiiiiive for One-Forty-One!” This was also a match in which I mused on the meaning of the term ‘breakthrough’ that the commentators seemed to keep using. I had assumed previously that this referred to the first wicket a team took in an innings; here they were using it to refer to the second wicket. The first had been a run-out, which led me to the assumption that the term referred to the first wicket taken by a bowler during the innings!

India’s campaign during that tournament was largely unsuccessful, their only victories coming against Pakistan (with a sterling performance by Tendulkar with the bat) and Zimbabwe, and another point from a rained-off match against Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, they had their bright spots. One especially was the match against Australia at, if I remember right, the ‘Gabba in Brisbane. India were chasing, and were rather unfortunate to have a tougher target set for them after rain had eaten into their innings (the rain rule – though it must be remembered that these were early days for this device – got to its most absurd point in the SA vs Eng semi-finals, when, after a rain delay, the Springboks found themselves with a target of, I think, 23 runs off 1 ball). Sanjay Manjrekar played a handy knock in the middle to late overs, and the match went down to the last ball, with, I think, four required for a win. Srinath was on strike, and clubbed the ball towards the long-on boundary. Steve Waugh – those were the days when he still fielded at the boundary – dropped the catch, but got the ball back in time to complete a run-out (was it Raju?) as the Indians scrambled for a third run. It was a good lesson for an Indian fan in the making, for such heartbreak was to become a regular feature when following the team’s fortunes.

In the end, Pakistan came from behind to win the crystal globe, with a match-winning performance from Imran Khan, who scored seventy odd and took the final wicket when Richard Illingworth skied a shot.

Those were the days before Australian supremacy, and I do not think that, before the tournament began, there was a clear favourite. None of the following World Cups could afford to have the same format, with the number of participating teams swelling; this year there will be a Super Eight stage following the league matches. Will there be parallels with the 1992 World Cup this year? With the West Indian pitches universally diagnosed as ‘slow and low’ nowadays, could this World Cup be a throwback to the days before the batting fest and the mammoth total became the defining features of the one-day match?

Vote for us

February 13, 2007

by Amit Goyal

We have been nominated in the Best Sports Indiblog category for Indibloggies 2006. The entire team is thrilled and requests you to vote for us.

Vote for me!

Impossible Is Nothing

February 13, 2007

By Rahul Misra 

In Feb 2005, an email with the following text landed in my inbox.

Instructions on the back of Maggi 2 minutes noodles pack:
Step 1: Boil one cup of water
Step 2: As soon as Ganguly goes out to bat, put the noodles in the boiled water and add the tastemaker.
Step 3: Stir till Ganguly is on the field.
Step 4: As soon as Ganguly is back in pavilion, your noodles are ready to eat.

What followed was a year long barrage of Ganguly-bashing. His batting form went from bad to worse and there were people out there who made a living out of creating jokes on him. Bulletin boards were filled with cries of his removal from the team, there were those who made bets on whether he’d reach double figures. I admit it, I made a few bucks myself doing that. Stats like 48 runs in 5 matches did the rounds over and over. And when we went to see the 2nd India-Pak test match in Bangalore, we were sure Ganguly won’t last more than 10 balls. He obliged us, handing the ball to first slip.

The end had to come, and it did. Many didn’t like the way it came, many didn’t like the way he was treated.. but through heated exchanges televised on the national channel to email which were leaked and gobbled up with glee which our sensation-loving media, in December 2005, Sourav Ganguly was shown the door out of the Indian Test team. I sometimes wonder how he would have felt at that point. The team management dead against him, the public not really that supportive either.. and his batting form had all but left him. He had been dumped in a coffin, nailed all around and buried six feet under. A cricinfo article talked about how he didn’t go without a fight. Oh boy, the author had no idea.

This was the most successful Indian team captain, one who had twirled his shirt around at Lord’s. And then, as fickle as public memory is, he all but disappeared. Youth was the order of the day now and except the abuses Greg Chappel got when he reached West Bengal, there wasn’t much else to remind us of him. And then, 6 months later, he was back. Dressed in a formal shirt, he sat on the steps of a cricket pavilion and talked to the camera in a Pepsi ad. He referred to the Indian team as “mine”, he talked about how he had been practising real hard. The timing couldn’t have been better, the cricket team wasn’t doing too well and the stage was set for the comeback of a lifetime. Sure enough, as the team got thumped in South Africa, Sourav Ganguly was recalled to bolster the middle order. It can be said that wouldn’t have gotten a reprieve if the collective Indian team form hadn’t slumped. But that thought is nothing more than a byline, fortune has always favoured the brave.

He must have walked to the pitch in that 4-day match with Atlas’ weight on his shoulders. He returned with the highest individual Indian score in the match. Not many expected it, hardly anyone predicted it. But there was no looking back and in the middle of the 3rd test, the Times of India headline read, “Ganguly leads India’s fightback.” A few days later, he was selected for the one-day squad, the comeback was complete.

The Prince of Calcutta was back on the throne.

The Indian squad for the World Cup was announced this weekend. I drove to my office listening to RJs discussing names like Sehwag, Yuvraj, Raina, Karthik and Kaif. In absolutely no one’s mind was Ganguly’s place in the squad in doubt. He is back and all of us know it.

A sport is supposed to be an extension of life. It throws at individuals similar challenges and gives us, those sitting on the sidelines, an opportunity to see how our heroes face them. We, in India, are often accused of putting our cricketers on the high pedestal, not realizing that it is after all “just a game.” For once, seeing this drama play out in front of us, I’m proud of our fanaticism. I’m proud that the youngsters in our country look up to someone who has it in him to be a real role model.

He didn’t swing on a spider web and rescue Mary Jane, he didn’t smash up Lex Luger after being pounded with Kryptonite.. and he didn’t vow to “smoke out” the Taliban. Sourav Ganguly did a lot more, he took all the hits, didn’t buckle, believed in himself, found strength deep within and came back the way not many can. He showed us that perseverance counts, that it’s not what others think or say that matters, and that with self-belief, it is always possible to bounce back.

A true champion has the ability to get up when others would stay down. He has that seemingly impossible iota of strength still left when all hope seems lost. By digging in that reserve, Ganguly showed us that he deserves to be remembered as one of the greatest. The Adidas executives should kick themselves in the backside, for more than any other brand ambassador they’ve got on this country, it is Sourav Ganguly who has earned his stripes in the World Cup squad and truly personifies the slogan – “Impossible is Nothing.”

Match or Scoreboard?

January 28, 2007

by Aparajith Ramnath

I have written here on the joys of watching cricket at the stadium. The point of comparison, there, was television coverage. No doubt things were different in the pre-TV days, with people huddled around radios, hanging on to the commentator’s every word and trying to cobble those words together to form a picture of the action. It just occurred to me recently that we have, in a way, our own equivalent of the radio days (although the radio itself is still going strong) : following a match by tracking the score online.

How many of us, deprived of television coverage of cricket matches by location, the constant bickering of TV companies over telecast rights, or simply the lack of a TV, are now dependent on websites where you can get the latest score! Sitting in front of the computer screen numbly, waiting for the score to tick over, looking at the bottom of the page to see if fresh data is being sent. We stare at the names and numbers so long that all sorts of statistical operations begin to be performed in the mind; we notice, for instance, that it is barely half-way through the (ODI) innings and around twenty extras have been given away. Ah! The bowlers have been spraying it all over the place. Perhaps the wicketkeeper has not been at his most solid best. We make arcane calculations: ah, the other batsman is on strike now but the first one has not added to his score: a leg-bye, perhaps?

Sometimes we download a desktop scoreboard to save ourselves the trouble of using our browsers and wondering whether or not it is showing us the latest score. Invariably, this program is dominated by advertising, and before one knows what’s happening, announces something in the nature of a Javascript or unable-to-find-page error, prompting one to go back to the website itself.

This is the sort of stuff that can paralyse. Colonise the mind, to use high-falutin language. Not allow one to think of any other task in peace unless one is clicking away every few minutes. Yet, much of this can be said of TV coverage. And for those who don’t have the latter, there are times when scoreboard tracking can be a godsend, if a nerve-wracking one.


November 25, 2006

by Aparajith Ramnath

‘Well, what did you expect?’ began Ted Corbett’s report (in The Hindu) of the first day of the much-hyped Ashes series. At the ‘Gabba in Brisbane, Ricky Ponting had just notched up century number 32 in a relentless march towards Tendulkar’s current total of 35, Justin Langer had scored 82 runs, and Mike Hussey was keeping his captain company at stumps with a fifty to his credit: 346 runs in the day for the loss of just three wickets. Corbett’s opening line captured acutely the utter dominance of the Aussies.

Now, the same line could probably be used to talk about the home team’s decision not to ask the Englishmen to follow on after having clinched a mammoth lead of 445 runs. They seem to have made this a part of their style. Just consider. At the end of Day 3 of the Test, they are at 181 for one in their second innings, so that they now lead by 626 runs with two days to go.

Conventional wisdom has always been to go for victory by the shortest possible route. So if the opponents are 445 runs behind and have only managed around a third of that total in their first innings, asking them to follow on would be the shortest route. The Aussies have, over the last few years, given a number of reasons why they do not prefer this – including their bowlers being tired, and not wanting to bat last on a wearing pitch. (Staunch Indian supporters will no doubt hypothesise that the experience of losing to an Indian team that was following on at Eden Gardens in the now-famous Test match of Laxman’s 281 has led to a distrust of the follow-on method). None of those reasons, though, seem to apply here; for the Aussies had to bowl all of 61.1 overs in the first innings, and batting again for any length of time was hardly a very likely scenario for the Aussies. Why then the decision to bat on?

The pragmatists would advance the theory that this is part of an overall strategy to demoralise the opposition for the rest of the series, for the Aussies to stamp their authority on the series early on. Somehow one is not convinced about the need for this. Yes, sport must be competitive, but it is not politics. Is so much long-term planning necessary?

(In this context, see my post titled ‘The Cricket World Cup is still a year away!’)