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.”

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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.

Follow-no?

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!’)

At the Ground

November 11, 2006

by Aparajith Ramnath

Reading about cricket always puts me in a good mood. Especially when the writing is top-notch, combining the evergreen qualities of literature with the warm glow of the sporting activity it describes.

Such are the entries in The Picador Book of Cricket, a book that I had heard much about but never read until recently, when I have been able to read some of the pieces in it.

Some of the writing about the pleasures of watching a cricket match led me to think about my own experiences of watching cricket live, in Chennai and in Pune.

The first first-class match I can remember watching was a Duleep Trophy match in Chennai (then Madras), at the MA Chidambaram Stadium at Chepauk, a ground which has been synonymous with high quality cricket for my generation (earlier generations saw some Test matches at the Corporation Stadium). I must have been younger than ten, but I remember clearly the experience of sitting in the Madras Cricket Club members’ pavilion, courtesy of a relative who is a member, and watching a Central Zone off-spinner bag a clutch of wickets against a West Zone team that featured, if I remember right, Vinod Kambli, Amol Mazumdar, and Sachin Tendulkar (though I think the last of these was not batting on the day). That off-spinner, Rajesh Chauhan, was selected to play for India soon after.

Watching Test matches was a step higher in terms of excitement. The cavernous stands at Chepauk with concrete roofs that helped to keep the sun out just a little, the colour in the stands, the chit-chat among neighbouring spectators, the Mexican waves that did the rounds every now and then – all these were new and stimulating experiences. I once saw a fellow spectator with a portable TV so they could catch the replays; years later when I saw my (so far) last Test match at the stadium, some of the stands had TVs mounted on the pillars, beaming live (well, almost live, there being a delay of about a second) action and replays. (The mammoth scoreboard at the Kumbhat Stand end of the ground, which used to have the players’ names and scores painted in bright yellow across a black background is now gone; in its stead stands an electronic replay-displaying scoreboard carted all the way from an Australian ground.) It was here also that I tasted first-hand the strange but palpable yearning of every spectator at the stadium to get his or her fifteen seconds of fame by being shown on television. There was much frantic waving of hands and witty banners whenever the cameramen turned his lens in our direction.

From there it was on to Pune. I don’t know if the Poona Club still hosts Ranji Trophy matches, but if it does, it must surely be unique in being a first-class venue with almost no seating for spectators – the only spectators being the ones in the club house. The ground itself was lush green, and its historical significance in being the venue of B.B. Nimbalkar’s famous 443 not out in years gone by made it glow a little more in my eyes. The sightscreen was a white cloth tied to a bamboo frame, quite unlike the Test match grounds where the practice of using sliding panels to use the sightscreen at the batsman’s end as an advertisement had already become established.

If Poona Club was the epitome of this dichotomous city’s ‘Camp’ or cantonment area, then Nehru Stadium was right in the middle of the more traditional ‘City’ area. This was where the one-dayers were played, and it seated thousands of people, though perhaps fewer than Chepauk. At this ground I did not have the privileged behind-the-bowler’s-arm view of the cricket, but watched the action from a shamiana-covered stand square of the wicket. The memories from here are not very detailed, except the way people rolled their paper caps into cones and shouted ‘oo-aa-oo-aa-oo-aa’ as the bowler began his run-up.

Watching the action on television just does not compare with the real thing. When you are at the ground, you can feel the speed at which the pacer hurls the ball, sense the quickness of the batsman’s reflexes, see the effort the fielder at fine leg actually makes when he sprints all the way to the square leg boundary. There is no commentary, and so you are closer to the players. You see things as they see them. You feel the heat they feel. You glance up at the scoreboard just as they do. When the twelfth man runs up with a bottle of water, you, sitting in the stands, reach for your own. Now which channel can top that?

Hair-Ball-ing controversy!!

November 7, 2006

by Amit Goyal 

Darrell Hair seems to beat the current bad boy cricket (Sohaib Akhtar) when it comes to being the centre of a cricketing controversy. The apparently no nonsense umpire has been removed from the elite panel of umpires and will no longer be officiating in International matches.

While the media from Down Under and Britain are crying foul and terming it as strong arm tactics of the Asian bloc, Mr. Hair is not stranger to courting controversy. Lets take a look at his career which has never remained free from the limelight.

1992. Adelaide Test. India vs Australia. In this match eight Indians fell victim to LBW decisions but only two of their appeals were upheld. Australia won by a narrow margin of 38 runs. Wisden felt that the entire affair was “marred … by controversy over lbw decisions – eight times Indians were given out, while all but two of their own appeals were rejected”.

1994. Adelaide Test. South Africa vs Australia. Peter Kirsten had an animated talk with Mr. Hair after a series of Proteans were declared out LBW. Kirsten was promptly declared out LBW in the next innings, and South Africa lost the game. Many felt that the decision was flimsy at the best.

1995. Melbourne Test. Sri Lanka vs Australia. Mr. Hair infamously no-balled Murali (from the bowlers end) for chucking. Now though the Aussies agree that Mr. Hair is very fair in all his dealings, I am ready to bet that such instances are not very common in the cricketing arena where the leg umpire is generally the one to declare a ball as being “thrown”. Lot of water has flown under the bridge since then. ICC has cleared Murali of all charges. Mr. Hair was charged (note, not penalised) for bringing the game into disrepute by calling Murali’s action “diabolical” in his autobiography.

2005. Faisalabad Test. Pakistan vs England. Mr. Hair declares Inzamam run out for leaving his crease while taking evasive action. Cricketing gurus feel it is contradictory to cricketing laws that stipulate that batsman cannot be run out if he leaves his ground due to evasive action. [Side note: I was happy as the decision against Tendulkar at Eden Garden is avenged.]

2006. Oval Test. Pakistan vs England. Mr. Hair, in consultation with Mr. Doctrove, declare the ball as being tampered with penalise Pakistan 5 runs and change the ball. Now, we all now that Pakistan has long faced such charges and are often in trouble for tampering with the ball and getting “some” reverse swing. Anyways, Pakistan decide that they had done nothing wrong and decide to not take the field as a mark of protest. Mr. Hair declares the match as forfieted and awards it to England. An enquiry committee then finds the ball being not tampered with and clear Pakistan of ball tampering charges but penalise them for bringing the game into disrepute. This was done after hearing the views of former cricketer Geoff Boycott and TV analyst Simon Hughes.

On the receiving end of Mr. Hair’s decisions have been India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and South Africa while on the other end stand Australia and England. Now, only if someone could explain me why the so called Asian bloc (supported by South Africa, West Indies and Zimbabwe) was for, while Australia and England (supported by New Zealand) are against, the suspension of Mr. Hair?

by Amit Goyal

It was the last F1 race in Suzuka for some time to come. It was definitely the last race of Schumacher here. And everyone was out to see the Red Emperor score a big victory.

It was a race he was supposed to win with ease. And, till the 36th lap today, nothing happened to the contrary. Schumacher qualified second on the grid, just behind teammate Massa and 3 places ahead of fifth placed Alonso. He passed Massa on the third lap and after that remained comfortably at the top of the group.

Alonso, however, drove with a lot of passion and quickly overtook Jenson Button and Ralf Schumacher to come up to the third place and drove like there was no tomorrow. At no point of time did he let the two Ferraris out of his sight. He overtook Massa after the first round of pit stops and drove great laps in and out of the pits to exit just ahead of Massa. The difference in their stops being a mere 0.3 seconds.

Michael was the last of the top 3 to pit and that erased all doubts of a lightly fueled Ferrari for qualifying and the rumors about the tyres not being suited well enough for the circuit. He drove in his usual calm and composed manner, and looked all set to win. Disaster struck, however, on the second Degner Curve on the 37th lap and fumes came out of the red machine. The circuit looked on in stunned disbelief as the Ferrari of Schumacher retired for the first time since Spain 2005 without a crash. Schumacher, however, got out his car calmly, waved at the crowds and shook hands with all he passed, to show that he was the true Champion.

Alonso then drove a very calm race to take his Renault home, for a first victory since June. Massa came in second and Fisichella third. Button and Raikkonen completed the top 5.

Only a miracle can now see Schumacher win the championship. What is needed is a victory in Sao Paulo and Alonso finishing out of points. Will that happen? Well, with the fortunes changing as it has this season, I would definitely not bet against it but I agree that it is only a slim chance.

On another note, I have always been a critic of Alonso, not because of his driving skills, but because he does not have enough grace. That came to light again last week when a frustrated Alonso blamed his own crew and mate Fisichella of letting him down in the last race at Shanghai and even said that there were people in the Renault pits that did not want him to win. I hope Alonso has watched how Schumacher behaved after his blown engine in this race and has picked up a tip or two.

“The drivers’ championship is over because I don’t want to go to Brazil hoping someone else retires – Michael Schumacher

Beauty, in Slow-Mo

September 21, 2006

by Amit Goyal

It seems to be a season of retirement for my favourite players. First Agassi, then Schumacher, and now Riquelme. Anyways, here is a small tribute to the greatest midfielder of our times.

I must confess right at the start that I have an extremely soft spot for Argentine players. Right from Maradona and Batistuta to Messi and Crespo, I have been a huge Argentinean fan and I was heartbroken after their exit from the ’06 FIFA World Cup.

Some people play the game like they have just 45 minutes rather than 90. Riquelme, however, plays as if there are 180 instead. As Arsène Wenger said, “He’s always able to slow the game down, and wait for a weak moment to kill you“. He is so different from his contemporaries that football once again seems like the beautiful game when he plays.

His speed of thought, ball possession and his creative vision is what sets him apart from the pack. A master at juggling the ball, he outfoxes the defense with such ease that it induces a sense of serenity in his game. When the Argentine is at work, a certain degree of romanticism fills the game, and you are transported back to an era when the game was played for pleasure than winning alone. I always hear people say that Sachin is a great player since he makes the game look so easy. I now believe that the same is true for all sports. Riquelme, with his supreme control of the ball and a vision that sees all, does exactly that.

Born in a poor family of 10, he was spotted early by Boca Juniors (same as that of legendary Maradona and Batistuta) in 1995 and stayed there till 2001. In 2002 he shifted to Barcelona and could not adapt himself to the European style of play. His performance and confidence took and nosedive. In 2003 he was loaned to Villareal. Back in midst of Latin American players (like captain Sorin) he blossomed again. The playmaker was back and helped improve Villareal’s fortune in both the La Liga and the UEFA Champions League through the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons.

He announced his retirement on September 13, 2006, at a young age of 28, a decision that shocked many who expected him to take over from Sorin. I hope he reconsiders his decision. I hope he does not retire. I hope that the game is not robbed of the beauty. I hope to see Riquelme play again.

As Argentina legend Jorge Valdano describes Riquelme: “If we have to travel from point A to point B most of us would take the six-lane highway and get there as quickly as possible. Riquelme would choose the winding mountain road, the beautiful scenic route which takes him six hours instead of two.