The Man in the Arena

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."
Teddy Roosevelt at the Sorbonne in Paris, France on April 23, 1910

Rahul Dravid is the man in the arena whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. He was the last batsman standing against Sri Lanka, and failed while daring greatly. He should not be sacked just because the people are angry after the World Cup fiasco. Let us not sacrifice India’s greatest batsman in a moment of anger, don’t forget that his resilience is the sole reason that we have won Test matches in England, Australia, Pakistan and West Indies. Don’t say that this man doesn’t bleed for Indian cricket and that he is more concerned about making money than playing cricket. Not only is that wrong, but it is merely the envious back biting of bitter critics who neither know victory nor defeat. Yet, there was a failure in strategy at the World Cup and he along with Greg Chappell must be partly blamed for that. The rest of the blame must fall on the selectors and the BCCI because they are as much a part of the Indian team as are the 15 playing members. The World Cup failure is as much their failure as it is Dravid and company’s. A year ago, Chappell had these prophetic words, “Ignore youth at your peril” ,“Only one of the best fielding sides will win the World Cup”, yet the Indian team that went to the World Cup was none of these and exited after the first round, shown up by hungrier and sharper teams. Chappell couldn’t follow through on his vision and I don’t see him succeeding in implementing it, maybe it was because he had too many detractors in India, but if that is the case I don’t see the system changing quickly enough for him to succeed. In the end I was glad to see him beat down the inflammatory questions thrown at him by the intemperate members of the Indian media at his last press conference at the World Cup.

I am more concerned about who will be Captain than who will be the Coach. At present, I don’t see anybody else who is more suited to Indian captaincy than Rahul Dravid. Bringing back Ganguly as captain would probably be the most myopic thing Indian cricket can do. Among the younger players, Sehwag remains an enigma in the one day games and Yuvraj Singh, probably our best one day player, hasn’t yet proven himself in the Test matches. Even if we appoint someone as the captain of the one day team only, we are in effect grooming him to take over the Test team within a couple of years. This factor alone is the reason why I wouldn’t name Yuvraj as the one day captain, yet.

If we take a look at our itinerary for the rest of the year; apart from Bangladesh, we have three arduous away tours against England, Pakistan and Australia. I would retain Rahul Dravid as captain till the end of the year, study the performance of the younger players on the three tours and pick the best young player to be the Captain of the one day team; it could be Sehwag, Yuvraj, Irfan Pathan, Dinesh Kaarthik or Mohd. Kaif. In fact we will be pretty sure who the candidate is mid way through the Australian tour and can even appoint this person to lead the one day team for the Tri-series in Australia in January 2008. Let us give the new captain plenty of leeway to slowly build his one day team and by the time the next World Cup rolls around in 2011, he would not only have refreshed the one day outfit, he would also have graduated to being the Test match Captain.



The rank smell of defeat

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933

The Indian batsmen were gripped by fear; they bathed in it and ended with the malodorous smell of defeat. The exception was Sehwag who doesn’t recognize it and Dravid, the only one with the strength of mind to absorb FDR’s words. The rest of them couldn’t handle it.

Ganguly started out in a reverie and never got out of it, Uthappa tried to awaken him but perished quickly and even Sehwag’s clean hitting couldn’t nudge Sourav out his slow death mode. He finally succumbed to Chaminda-left-arm on the spot-Vaas. Sachin came and departed crushed under the pressure that even Atlas couldn’t bear. There was hope while Sehwag was clattering boundaries at will, but Murali produced some magic to snuff him out and India’s hopes. Yuvraj promptly ran himself out of the cauldron, and even the die-hard India fan would have given up after Murali quickly disposed off a clueless Dhoni. Watching his colleagues crumble seemed to light a fire under Dravid who chose to go down fighting the flames and flailed four boundaries before holing out to long off. It was over.

It wasn’t that desperate on a sunny morning when the bowlers made a good fist of it to restrict Sri Lanka to 254. In fact they did a fantastic job in reigning in the top order and it would have been a much lower total if not for a brave innings by the fearless Chamara Silva, in the Aravinda de Silva mould, and some enterprising hitting by Vaas and Arnold at the end. Yes, India didn’t field too well, but nobody expects them to be great in the field and the plan was that the experienced batters will make up for it. An unsound strategy if there ever was one. The Indian batting has crumbled so many times under pressure that counting on it to offset any deficit was just a terrible blunder. Heads will roll and more effigies will be burnt but life goes on, after all it is only a game.

But, the stench remains.



Group drama

The upcoming Group B game between India-Sri Lanka on Friday has been setup very nicely with Bangladesh defeating India and then getting hammered by Sri Lanka. Their battering has made it easier for India to qualify and Sri Lanka have virtually guaranteed themselves a spot in the Super 8’s. If India beats Sri Lanka on Friday, then statistically it becomes almost impossible for Bangladesh to qualify and India will go through. Of course, India has to win to progress, but if they do, then they will actually go into the Super8’s carrying forward 2 points for defeating Sri Lanka. Yesterday, the Sri Lankans were absolutely ruthless in dismantling Bangladesh, and defeating this classy team will not be easy. They have a great bowling attack with high quality spin, fearsome pace, wily swing and impressive seam bowlers in Murali, Malinga, Vaas and Maharoof. Their batting is solid too especially with Jayasuriya firing at the top. One has to wonder at the athletic marvel the 37 year old is. How does he still do it? His fitness and enthusiasm is just incredible.

A lot of people's World Cup travel plans including mine, have been put in suspended animation after India’s opening game loss to Bangladesh. The phone was ringing off the hook and cancellation plans were being discussed. At the same time in Jamaica, Pakistan was in the process of losing to Ireland, and a friend and I were laughing in bemusement that we might be in Barbados on April 15th watching Bangladesh vs. Ireland! Yet, it was wonderful watching the young kids from Bangladesh play cricket with no inhibitions. The 18 years old Tamim Iqbal was a joy to watch. Zaheer Khan pinged him on the neck with a quick bouncer, but the young man didn’t back down and in the same over he charged down the track and whacked Zaheer into the stands. It was just fantastic. Bangladesh has one world class bowler in Mashrafe Mortaza and by the time the next world cup comes around they would have had 4 more years to develop and they will be a real dangerous team.

Bermuda was not a real challenge for India, but the Indians were very impressive in their comprehensive victory. What I enjoyed most about that match was the over the top celebration by the Bermuda players after they got the first wicket of Robin Uthappa. Dwayne Leverock, one of the wonders of the cricket world, launched all 270lbs of his immense body into the air to his right and plucked a wonderful one handed catch and set off on a pirouetting celebratory run blowing kisses left and right. Watch the video on YouTube and you’ll understand why I was in tears listening to the accompanying commentary by David Lloyd, who has got to be one of the funniest cricket commentators. Some of his soon to be copyrighted lines were

"The big man, the fridge is opened"
"He has flown like a gazelle"
"The Earth shook"
"Oh, what a catch"
"Don't want any kisses from him"

Also tearing up was the bowler Malachi Jones, only 17 years old, playing his first World Cup game, but he was experiencing rather different emotions than me.

ICC actually has done the right thing by including the Associate Nations in the World Cup. Only a few of them will succeed and most of them will fail to even make an impact, but in order to spread the game that is a chance I am willing to take.



If Woolmer was murdered…

Cricket has fallen to a new low. Who would have thought that there would be lower point for cricket than the match fixing scandal? Here we are at the premier event in the cricket world, the 2007 ICC World Cup, and the coach of a cricket team may have been murdered in his hotel room because of a game of cricket! What a nightmare.

The air is thick with rumors. Betting Mafia, strychnine poisoning, deranged fan, signs of strangulation!! Sarfraz Nawaz, who seems to have lost it, is mouthing off like a loose cannon, accusing everybody he can think of. The man has no credibility, so it is better to ignore most of what he has to say. For now the death is being termed as ‘suspicious’ and when asked if he was saying that it was murder, Mark Shields, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Jamaica, clarified “I am not saying that” and that “it was too early to speculate.” So let us hold back on the accusations and let the Jamaican Police conclude their investigation. This time, I hope nobody will question the competence of another third world country’s police force. We all know how that turned out the last time.

If it was murder, I don’t even know whether we should carry on. I mean this is ridiculous, how can one enjoy this World Cup anymore?


Bob Woolmer

My final image of Bob Woolmer was of him packing up his laptop at the end of the PakistanIreland game and heading off into the dressing room. There was frustration and despair on his face and it seemed like the final chapter of his coaching career. It was a poignant moment. I remember saying that he had better go straight to South Africa and not even bother returning to Pakistan because he was going to be fired. The next morning he was dead. I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it, I was thinking “This is only a game, nobody is supposed to die.” This is not the way it should end, but it did.

We will no longer hear Woolmer’s positive spin on the wheelers and dealers that masqueraded as the Pakistan Cricket Board. While Bob does have to take some of the responsibility for the abysmal performance of the Pakistan team, the team has been on a downward spiral since the forfeiture of the Oval Test match. The controversy and scandals have come one after the other. The rot starts at the top and the PCB has to be blamed. It reminds me of how Jagmohan Dalmiya ruined what should have been his swansong by clinging onto power by any means possible, in the process forgetting that there was a cricket team to develop.

I will remember Bob as the pioneering laptop wielding coach of South Africa who made the machine synonymous with modern day coaching and a must have tool for all international cricket teams. I will also remember Bob for his stout and naïve denial that match fixing occurred while he was in charge of the South African team and was similarly reminded of his naiveté during the Oval test match fiasco while listening to his pronouncements on the greater good of Anglo-Muslim sporting competition. Even then he never quit the Pakistan team; in fact he has stood by all his players including the most volatile of them all Shoaib Akthar.

Thank you Bob, you have left the game better than you found it.



The Non Cricket Issues

There is a lot of cricket to be played in this World Cup, yet the stories from outside the field are in play.

Lost in Translation
The Pakistan Cricket Board instructs their cricket team to speak in Urdu only, with the manager tasked with the translation. Apparently speaking in Urdu will promote tourism in Pakistan and also prevent players from being misquoted. The tourism plug is as hare brained as it sounds. Obviously this is not going to increase tourism, but it most probably will result in fewer quotes from the Pakistani players being published so it really is a roundabout way of silencing their players. But, it doesn’t end there, the ICC frets that there will be a lot of time spent translating the interviews during the pre and post match ceremonies and brings out the stick that is the World Cup participating nations agreement where teams are contracted to conduct on-field interviews in English. They get into a conference room with the PCB chairman Naseem Ashraf to thrash out the matter. A compromise is reached whereby the players will speak in English for all media interviews on the field, and they will switch back to Urdu at the press conference. Hey, wait a minute, has anybody asked the players what they want? Ideally the players should speak in what ever language they are comfortable with.

Sunny vs the Aussies
Sunny Gavaskar doesn’t like the Australian cricket team, this is a known fact. He has been railing against their on-field behavior every opportunity he gets. In his World Cup preview column he attacked them once again for their ‘awful’ on-field behavior and evoked a response from Australia’s captain Ricky Ponting that Gavaskar is being ‘high and mighty’. Ponting is quite right in saying that, but that is what columnists are supposed to be, i.e. armchair critics. Sunny is also correct in saying that the Aussies are the worst behaved team in the World, but it was in responding to Ponting that Sunny lost it and behaved in the same rude manner that he accuses the Australians of. It was in bad taste to bring up the death of David Hookes in a scuffle outside the bar as an example of poor Aussie behavior. Australia doesn’t hold the copyright on bar room brawls, it happens all over the world. Hookes is dead and however mealy mouthed he may have been, let him rest in peace.

The new Idi Amin
Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe, is fast becoming a dictator in the Idi Amin mould, and it is time to stop ignoring this fact. Andy Flower, former captain of Zimbabwe, is right in calling for sanctions against Zimbabwe, but I think it should not be mere sporting sanction it should be a series of United Nations sanctions. Mugabe doesn’t care about the cricket team; he cares about money for him and his supporters. He has been silencing his opposition with arrests, threats and violence. In his latest attack on the opposition Morgan Tsvangirai, President of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), was badly beaten in police custody and sent to the hospital with a suspected fractured skull. We should no longer tolerate the thuggery of Mugabe and keep waiting till he becomes another Amin. The ICC money is not going to the cricketers it is going to the ZanuPF thugs running Zimbabwe Cricket. India with its financial clout in ICC should take on the leadership role in acting against Zimbabwe in both the cricketing and political spectrum. The time has come to stop worrying about their cricketers and start worrying about the people of Zimbabwe.



World Cup 2007

It is here.

It is hard to believe that there are 16 teams in the world that play this beautiful game called cricket; the caveat being that in 7 of these countries a majority of the people don’t even know that they have a national cricket team and will probably be bewildered to find out that their team is playing in a World Cup. Yet the average cricket fan will be rooting for an upset from one of these teams. Anybody who has seen the joyous celebration of the Bangladesh team after their victories over India and Australia will understand why they should play this game.

In the warm-up matches these teams showed glimpses of their potential. I was rooting for Ireland when they bowled South Africa out for under 200, I took great pleasure when Bermuda’s 270lb leviathan Dwayne Leverock took 2 wickets for 32 runs in 10 probing overs against England, I enjoyed Kenya’s robust chase of the host West Indies’ big total and was positively over the moon when Bangladesh embarrassed New Zealand, one of the strong contenders for the title.

For those of you who are not die-hard romantics and don’t enjoy the thrashing of the smaller teams, the Super 8’s provide exciting match-ups of the top 8 teams, assuming that they all make it to the second round.

This time around, Australia’s dominance has waned and they are without their premier one day fast bowler, Brett Lee, another key player, Andrew Symonds, the best cricket athlete in world, is recovering from a torn bicep which will definitely curtail his fielding ability. I don't think that this makes them vulnerable, but there is a perception of vulnerability and that maybe enough for the other teams to get their noses ahead. Having said all that, and even though South Africa are currently ranked number one the overwhelming favorite still is Australia and they will take some beating.

Bravely putting my foot in the mouth for the entire world to see; here are my picks for the semifinals: Australia, South Africa, India and the West Indies.

Let the cricket begin.