Saturday, December 1, 2012

David Stern - Another Blunder

David Stern, commissioner of the NBA, has never been among the most loved people on earth. Not among owners. Not among players. Not among sports writers and anchors. To be honest, he endears himself less and less to the fans everyday. The NBA might be a collaboration between 30 teams, but lets not kid ourselves. It is a dictatorship, plain and simple.

Over the last few years, Stern has made many ridiculous decisions and statements. There was the blatant (and borderline racist) move to distance themselves from the American "hip-hop culture" that was criticized by stars like Allen Iverson and Charles Barkley. There was the controversial moving of the Seattle Supersonics franchise. There was his insistence on handing out technical fouls like candy for even the tiniest expressions of emotion. There have been draft controversies, ownership controversies and a potpourri of other controversies including his infamous "I know where the bodies are buried, because I put them there myself" comment in the midst of an acrimonious lockout. The list goes on and on.

Two days ago, after going through 5 games in 8 nights, San Antonio Spurs coach Greg "Pop" Popovich chose to rest his veteran players Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. Additionally he gave the night off to the player leading his minutes charts - Danny Greene. Unfortunately for Pop, he chose the wrong night. The night the Spurs were playing (on national television) in Miami. It didn't matter that the so-called scrubs of the San Antonio roster nearly pulled off the win. Stern came down hard - $250,000 hard.

Their are arguments that can be made for the fine. From the fans' perspective, especially those who paid good money for tickets, they probably did not want to watch a starting line up of Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, Tiago Splitter, Nando De Colo and Patty Mills. For the TV network that chose this game to air nationally, this meant they took a hit commercially. All in all, teams resting players in such a manner, is a loss to the league commercially. However, the fact that the fine can be argued for should not take away from the fact that it is still not justified.

Resting players is not something new in the NBA. In fact, Coach Pop rested his senior players several times in the last couple of season. Playoff-bound teams have always rested star players toward the end of the season. Lottery bound teams rest stars near the end of the season to better their chances. If anything, the latter is the worst offence, since there, the intention is to lessen the chances of them winning games. So does this fine to the San Antonio Spurs mean that Stern will punish all such offenders? The short answer is probably a 'no' and Adrian Wojnarowski has a theory as to why.

Conspiracy theories regarding an enmity with the Spurs franchise notwithstanding, unfairness is not the only reason why this decision stinks. Coach Pop rested his stars because in his opinion, they needed the break to continue winning later in the season. That is, his decision was in the best interest of the team as far as the season was concerned. What if he played his stars despite knowing it would have a detrimental effect on them. Doesn't that go against his teams' best interests? Isn't that sabotaging his own teams' chances? Isn't that a worse offence? These are questions David Stern will never answer, even if the fans he claims to defend with this decision ask him the same.

All said and done, the biggest problem with the fine is the can of worms this opens. What becomes a valid reason to rest a player? Can a player with a mild cold sit out? After all, Michael Jordan dropped 38 points when he had the flu. What if a team played their starters for just a couple of minutes and rested them for the rest of the game? After all, it is the coach's discretion in deciding on players' minutes. Will it be alright for a player to twist an ankle, walk off for the night, only to return the next game hale and healthy? Will it be alright for a player to feign an injury?

The ambiguity the above questions pose, is exactly why this decision to fine the Spurs is a blunder. There is no way anybody can decide objectively, when and how to fine a team for 'resting' players. There is no way this fine can be applied uniformly across the league. There is no way that Pop's decision to rest his players was detrimental to his team, his franchise and its fans. Logically, unless Wojnarowski's theory is correct, there is absolutely no way the NBA could fine the Spurs. Unfortunately for the Spurs and the NBA, Stern has never seemed to be a big fan of logic.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Sachin Tendulkar - That big question

Writing about Sachin Tendulkar is one of the hardest things to do. On the one hand, I grew up watching cricket in an age where in most games, Sachin's batting decided the result. On the other hand, it has been a painful experience watching him, woefully short of form, scratching about against the likes of Monty Panesar and the Kiwis.

That said, if anyone knows how to work himself out of a bad patch, it is Sachin Tendulkar. For evidence, we need only rewind to Sydney, 2004, where he made that brilliantly attritional 241. Even more encouraging in this regard, is the way he tackled his poor form - by omitting the cover drive throughout that innings.

This brings us to that question - when should Sachin Tendulkar hang up his boots. The answer is actually quite simple. His boots are his own to hang up, so to speak. Nobody can walk up to Sachin Tendulkar (or any player for that matter) and tell him to retire. A player can be dropped, of course. But retirement is a personal choice. This may seem like a technicality, but it is not. If a 37 year old batsman was dropped, went back to the Ranji trophy and rattled off a series of centuries, I would not be completely against him making his way back to the team. This brings us to Sachin Tendulkar.

Like half the cricket fans on twitter seem eager to point out, Sachin Tendulkar is no ordinary batsman. They are absolutely correct. Sachin Tendulkar is a Demigod, plain and simple. Should Sachin Tendulkar be able to pick and choose when to retire? As I said above, retirement is entirely upto him, so yes. This brings us to the unfortunate group of 'wise' men - The selectors. You see, Sachin Tendulkar's job is to worry about Sachin Tendulkar's cricket. As much as we fans would love cricketers to think about the future of the team, it is an impractical expectation. Which is why we have selectors.

Unfortunately for India, the selectors have a history of not planning beyond the next match or the next series. This poses a huge problem. Nobody seems to know what Sachin's plans are. Is this home season his swansong? Is he planning to stay till South Africa? Is he thinking about the Champions Trophy next year? This is where I have a problem.

I love Sachin. When I was 8 years old, I watched him make mincemeat of Shane Warne (live) in this game. It was my first live cricket experience (that I can remember), and he has played a major part in many such experiences since. I would love to see him torment the Australians at Chepauk one last time. That makes it hurt to say this. If Sachin Tendulkar does not plan on making the trip to South Africa, I believe that the 4th test against England, in Nagpur, should be his last. Here is why.

When Sachin retires, I assume that his spot will be taken by one among Ajinkya Rahane, Manoj Tiwary, Subramanian Badrinath or Rohit Sharma. Not one of these batsman has ever had more than a couple of games exposure. Handing over a spot in the middle order to one of these batsman in South Africa, on bouncy and/or green tracks, against what is in my opinion the best pace attack in the world, would be a huge mistake. So, if one of these batsmen is to play in South Africa, I hope the selectors have the foresight to blood them in the Australia series. Which means the selectors need to bite the bullet and replace Sachin in the Australia series. On the other hand if Sachin plans to go to South Africa, I would hope that form is a major criteria in that decision. In that situation, it would be prudent of the selectors to take a call on Sachin's place at the end of the England series.

Ultimately though, if Sachin wants to play the Australia series and bow out at home, the selectors have one question to answer. Who is more important - Sachin Tendulkar or Team India? If they believe Sachin is above Team India and let him play out a complete swansong, I will cheer wildly for him at Chepauk. But, deep down I will be disappointed. Some part of me wants to believe that in a team sport, the team counts above an individual, even if that individual is Sachin Tendulkar.

If such a situation does present itself, do the selectors have the strength to make the toughest decision in Indian cricket? Do the selectors have the courage to make the tough (and right) call that will infuriate a large chunk of cricket fans in the country? Going by the history of the 'wise' men, I'm not holding my breath.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Cleveland Cavaliers - The Return

The city of Cleveland, Ohio, has always had a history of cruel moments in sport, so much so that it’s put down to a curse. “The Catch” (video here), “The Drive” (video here), “The Fumble” (video here) and of course Michael Jordan's "The Shot" (video here) – Four famous phrases that you may want to avoid when you visit the Cleveland area. On July 8, 2010, another body blow was delivered - “The Decision”. He was the Messiah who was supposed to deliver this cursed city a championship. He was the King, a hero of the masses, the son of the state. He turned his back on his people. LeBron James left.

To put the effect LeBron had on Cleveland with his departure in words, is not something that is entirely feasible. The effect on the Cavaliers was evident. The owner, Dan Gilbert, came out with an ill-advised rant (famously using the “Comic Sans” font). The Cavaliers broke to pieces. Suddenly, the support cast of a championship contending team, showed exactly what they were - a support cast without a star to support.
It’s been two hard losing seasons since, and the Cavaliers are well on their way to a third. But, as they say, it’s always darkest before the dawn. In the years since LeBron left the city, the Cavaliers management (thankfully) did not look for temporary fixes. They did not try to create a playoff team capable of staying relevant. Instead, they chose to break it all up.

Kyrie Irving, the star point guard from Duke University’s, Mike Krzyzewski coached, assembly line of a team and the talented Canadian Power Forward Tristan Thompson, were picked up in the 2011 NBA Draft, before the lockout. Joining them in the 2012 draft, were Dion Waiters, a talented sophomore shooting guard from Syracuse and the seasoned college center Tyler Zeller of North Carolina. The Cavs have found their core.

The Oklahoma City Thunder built a championship contender around three big draft picks – Durant, Westbrook and Harden. Portland nearly built a similarly strong team around Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden and Nicolas Batum. However, injuries would go on to deflate the Trailblazers. The fact of the matter is, every great team needs a solid core. Occasionally, you will get a team like the current Denver Nuggets side, with a deep roster and no real identifiable core. But rarely, will such a team win a championship. When you think back to all the great sides over history, there has always been a key set of players who hold the key to the franchise’s fortunes.

In Irving, Waiters, Thompson and Zeller, the Cavaliers have assembled the talent they need to contend in the future. In Byron Scott, they have a coach who started for the “Showtime” Lakers side of the 80s, alongside the likes of Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and James Worthy. He will also be able to draw upon the experience of coaching Chris Paul, and help Irving develop into a potent force. A strict disciplinarian, and a demanding coach, there could hardly be a better choice of coach, to mentor a group of young budding stars.

Additionally, Tyler Zeller and Tristan Thompson are lucky to be lining up alongside Anderson Varejao. Varejao may not be among the biggest names in the NBA, but you would have to really strain your grey cells, to think of a better big man defender of the pick and roll, than the Brazilian big man nicknamed “Wild Thing”. Varejao came to the league limited as an offensive player. But over time, using his ability to pull down offensive rebounds, and by developing his mid range jumper, Varejao has shown the work ethic and professionalism needed to survive in this league. The 2 young big men could hardly do worse than look to Big Andy as a mentor.

For Cavaliers fans, the past undoubtedly still hurts. The present probably makes things worse. But hope is on the horizon. Another losing season could mean the Cavs landing a lottery pick in the 2013 draft and in the process another talented youngster. Add that to a core of Irving, Waiters, Thompson, Varejao and Zeller, and the future is bright. As a fan of the Cavaliers, I will be waiting in patience along with the other Cavs fans around, with a large dose of hope and optimism, for the Cavaliers re-emergence at the top of the NBA. It's almost time to add to "The Drive", "The Catch", "The Fumble", "The Shot" and "The Decision" with something a lot more positive - "The Return".

Saturday, October 13, 2012

The confused entity that is the CLT20

2009. Lalit Modi decided that the success of the IPL in South Africa merited the creation of a "Champions League". A competition of the best club/franchise/regional teams from all over the world. A brilliant idea in theory. But a little hard in practice, with fledgling T20 leagues sprouting all over the world. The resulting 1st tournament was a brilliant show on the field, with a lot of fun and a lot of unheralded names stealing the spotlight. Not a single IPL team made the semis and finals as the Aussies from NSW ran away with the tournament.

2010. The tournament is more or less about the Chennai Super Kings running away to the IPL-CLT20 double.

2011. Mumbai took the tournament with a few exciting games.

The first CLT20 was exciting because the likes of Trinidad and Tobago were pushing the so called "star-studded" IPL teams. The CLT20 was unearthing the likes of Kieron Pollard and Sunil Narine. As the spin-masters in 2009 put it, here was the opportunity for the lesser lights around the World, to grab the spotlight and make a name for themselves. A huge opportunity.

It then became about the money. That led to the IPL. Now we have a farce of a Qualifying tournament for teams not from Australia, India and South Africa. Why? "Because these three countries have a stake in the tournament." So now, teams from Sri Lanka, the West Indies, New Zealand, England and Pakistan, go through a rubbish six team "Qualifying Round" so that two of them may join the EIGHT teams from India, Australia and South Africa.

Lets face it, the CLT20 is having a really powerful identity crisis. What is the purpose of this tournament? It could be one of the two below:

1. A platform for relatively unheralded/unknown domestic teams and players to get a chance of performing under the spotlight and make a name for themselves. Is that happening? Clearly not.

2. A league for Champions of countries. A test of the best vs. the best. Is that happening? Of course not. When the best from England and Pakistan are not even guaranteed a spot in the tournament, yet the 4th place team from India plays? You know something is monumentally screwed up.

So what should the CLT20 be? In my opinion the best CLT20 till date was the first one in 2009, because of the names it threw up. I do believe that is the best way to position the CLT20 - A platform for the lesser known domestic players. Of course, there is the case of India, SA and Australia holding a stake in this tournament to consider. Keeping all that in mind I have taken a jab at proposing a re-designed CLT20:

Qualifying round: 12 teams in 3 groups of 4. Teams: Winners from England, Pakistan, the West Indies, New Zealand and Sri Lanka and the best four Associate T20 teams (Currently they would be Ireland, Afghanistan, the Netherlands and Canada). Additionally, a draw could be held to decide among all the countries listed above (in addition to India, Australia and South Africa) based on which 3 countries get a wildcard entry into this Qualifying round. The countries that win the draw will get to send their 2nd best team to this Qualifying round (or in India's case the third best team).

Ultimately, the top two from each group would go through to the final tournament.

Final tournament: Same 10 team format as it is currently, with 2 IPL teams and the South African & Australian teams guaranteed a spot.

The above tournament, in my opinion, would be much more exciting than the one we're currently witnessing. It also gives enough of an edge to the 3 countries who took a punt on creating this tournament.

The CLT20 in its current shape is a nothing tournament. It needs to be restructured to bring back the magic of 2009. I do believe that reshaping the tournament as above will help.

Let me know your thoughts below :)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Sportsmanship is in transition

Matt Goss of Australia (a sprinter with the Orica-Greenedge team) was docked 30 points in the Green Jersey competition of the Tour De France yesterday for "cutting off" Peter Sagan while bolting toward the finish line. What I saw was a brief little shimmy to the left which could have been down to the effort Goss was putting in to accelerate. Peter Sagan saw it as otherwise. So did the referees. As usual this incident sparked off a heated debate in cycling circles on a topic which has become common to sporting circles. Where does sportsmanship end and where do governing bodies interfere?

All sports are governed by sets of rules which take years to frame and always seem to change with the times to adjust to new events. But there is this strange set of "unwritten rules" that always intrigued me. This strange set of ambiguous moral "follow-if-you're-a-good-person" set of rules. Sportsmanship.

Don't get me wrong. I think as a person you should always do the nice thing. Sportsmanship is something I completely believe in. If an opponent on the basketball court should go down with a hurt ankle, I'd like to think, I'd instantly stop play and alert the referee. However, the next person may not believe or do the same thing. There, lies the problem sportsmanship faces today.

Cricket has this whole abstract "Spirit of Cricket" concept that the ICC have tried to promote and enforce. How has that panned out? Not very well. Should a batsman walk? Subjective. Why is it okay for a batsman to stand his ground knowing that he's out but not okay for a fielder to claim a catch he knows pitched in front of him? Why is it okay for players to scream obscenities on the field of play, often visible and audible to the entire world, but not okay for a batsman to hit back a critic with a hand scrawled note saying " Yeah Talk Nah".

Cycling is another sport ridden with a lot of sportsmanship based "unwritten rules". Slowing down if there is a major crash to allow riders back. Not attacking a rider when he has a mechanical problem (Like when Contador attacked Schleck 2 years ago). Fabien Cancellara was met with mixed reactions for this.

Football has seen a drastic increase in diving. FIFA has tried to crack down on it, but to be fair to them, it's a ridiculously hard job with players getting better at it. Play acting is another absurd part of modern football. Flopping has waded it's way deep into the NBA culture. Tennis saw Tomas Berdych refuse to shake Nicolas Almagro's hand after the game because he smacked a ball at his body in the pursuit of a point.

In this increasingly cut throat world of sport, "sportsmanship" is evolving. Every incident involving a "breach of sportsmanship" now leads to a huge debate, where both sides always seem to have valid points. Take Dhoni recalling Ian Bell for example. MSD was well within his rights to run Ian Bell out. But as Sourav Ganguly argued, the precedent set could be damaging for the rest of the series. Valid points, both sides. 

That's what makes this concept of sportsmanship so complex. There are ways to discourage it. Diving footballers could be retrospectively punished. Cricketers could be banned for claiming bump balls. But that just raises the important "where do you draw the line" question. This is why I believe sportsmanship cannot be enforced. It can't be imbibed in professional players and athletes.

If sportsmanship is to survive it has to be part of the culture of athletes growing up. Kids should be told what is right and what is wrong. Unfortunately, there are two problems even with this approach. 

Number one, How would you define “good” and “bad”? Most of our judging of sportsmanship is based purely on gut. Everyone is different in this world. So it's not necessary that everyone feels the same way about every event. 

Number 2, the stakes are getting higher and higher in sport. Manchester United, for example lost out on 17 million Euros simply because they failed to make the knockout stages of the UEFA Champions League. With such huge stakes, is it fair to expect a high degree of sportsmanship from a player while he's under so much pressure to deliver victory?

I think these two fundamental questions need to be answered if this complex and abstract concept of “sportsmanship” is to survive. One thing, though, is for sure. Sportsmanship is not what it was 20 years ago. And it will not be the same 20 years hence. The World of sport and it's inhabitants are evolving at a rapid rate. It will be interesting to see what becomes of sportsmanship in the process.

Friday, July 13, 2012

The valiant Mr. V - Tommy Voeckler

There are sportsmen who make things look extremely easy - Sachin with a cover drive, Kevin Durant doing his thing or an Alberto Contador gracefully dancing up a uncategorized climb. Then there are sportsmen like Thomas Voeckler.

When Tommy gets up a tough climb, you feel his pain. When he gets out of the saddle to push himself to the limit, your calf muscles start to hurt. When he flashes that victory smile, you feel a sense of relief that his pain is done for the day. And yet, he comes back for more - over, and over, and over.

Last year I watched in near shock as Pierre Rolland pulled Tommy Voeckler up with him on the Col du Galibier, a ride, that ensured that Voeckler retained the yellow jersey. A young Andy Schleck had mounted one of the most memorable and audacious attacks you would ever see from a cyclist. The experienced Aussie, Cadel Evans had delivered a gutsy (and eventually tour-winning)  ride that single-handedly made sure that Andy didn't get too far ahead of the field. Yet despite all this, one memory remains. An exhausted Voeckler with his arm around the young Rolland. The scene was such that it would have been completely understandable if Voeckler fainted immediately after (he didn't).

That in essence sums up Tommy Voeckler. He's not got the most pretty looking stroke on the bicycle. He won't make you go ooh when he gets out of his saddle like the disgraced Alberto Contador might. His "labrador-like" tongue (as @saddleblaze wrote recently) sticking out doesn't go well with the dinner you're eating. He isn't even like Rafael Nadal, whom you look at and know can keep on running forever. Instead, Thomas Voeckler always looks like he's an old auto running on fumes, desperately trying to compete with the BMW that just whizzed by him. Yet, there he is, winning a stage at the Tour De France.

Tommy Voeckler is one of the most popular cyclists around. One of the most popular in France. And it isn't hard to see why. Voeckler is the kind of underdog athlete you always want to see do well. The French of course expect him to do well in his home tour. But that pressure only stacks the odds against him even more. And yet he somehow finds a stage win here and a stint in the Maillot Jaune there. It warms the heart.

In the age of increased professionalism and scientifically designed training methods, athletes and sports-persons of the ilk of Thomas Voeckler who often seem to be portraying a dying duck while they seemingly pull off miracles are a dying species.  It's getting harder and harder to find true underdogs to cheer for. So when you find one, enjoy him.

"Heart" is often spoken about in American sport. The courage and the willingness to fight with everything you have. Nobody signifies that more valiantly than Tommy.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Kevin Durant - The NBA's unique superstar

Game 5 of the Western conference semi-finals against the mighty Lakers. He nails a three. The lead balloons beyond the reach of the Lakers, beyond the reach of Kobe Bryant. The most beautifully innocent smile (in the NBA at least) breaks across his face. Kevin Durant, on his way to taking the Oklahoma City Thunder, to the NBA finals.

The NBA has always been a superstar-centric league, starting way back from the days of Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, Jerry West and (slightly later) Wilt Chamberlain. Magic Johnson and Larry Bird reinvigorated the league before a certain Michael Jordan stole the show. Look around the league, and you will see stars everywhere - Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Garnett, Derrick Rose, Tim Duncan, etc etc etc. Yet none of them, are anything like Kevin Durant.

Karan Madhok (@Hoopistani on twitter) wrote this piece on how Durant is the last universally loved player in the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki for example, though an extremely like-able character, has always elicited doubt in the minds of certain groups of fans, who called him "soft" and so on. Till date, I am yet to hear of someone having a bad word to say about KD.

But no, that is not what I wanted to write about. Kevin Durant is a unique personality. Sure. But his game is something extraordinarily unique. Yes, being a 6'11'' tall Small Forward in itself is unique. Yes for such a tall player, to have such a good handle on the dribble is impressive. But that isn't what I'm trying to get to either. Kevin Durant, makes basketball look easy.

Over the years, I've watch so many different stars grace the game. Whether it was Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, Wade or even Rose, they all have one thing in common, the ability to make your jaw drop. Quite frequently, Derrick Rose will drive through the lane, contort his body, get off a layup and make you wonder "How? How did he pull that off". Kobe goes through these phases where it doesn't matter if 3 people have their hands in his face, he still makes the bucket. LeBron transforms occasionally into an unstoppable beast. Wade slashes and drives like his life depends on it.

Watching Kevin Durant in action, in contrast, is like watching a ballerina in a break dancing group. Amidst the chaos and the physicality of an NBA game, the man stands out for his grace and agility. That's not to say he isn't a physical player. You can't play basketball without being physical. But Durant makes everything look graceful. Whether it be a nonchalant 3 point dagger at the death of a game, or a ferocious dunk on the break, Durant makes it all look beautiful. Makes it look easy.

In Game 1 of the NBA Finals, LeBron James huffed and puffed his way to 30 points, using his strength to get to the rim. Wade struggled. Bosh struggled. At the other end, in the second half, Durant was unstoppable, only it didn't appear so. When Battier, LeBron and even Haslem blocked his path to the basket, he'd nail the jumper. When they tried chasing him off the three point line, he'd put the ball on the floor and glide to the basket. When both paths were unavailable, he'd pick out an accurate, perfectly thought out pass, to the right man, at the right time and create a basket. Little wonder that OKC (incredibly) converted on 22 off their last 29 possessions. But Durant didn't go about it like LeBron James would. He wasn't defying the laws of physics. He wasn't making incredible shots. Heck, if you didn't glance at the box score you wouldn't know he'd scored more than 30 points. Why?

The NBA has trained us to look for the incredible. We are fed with dunks, buzzer beaters, powerful blocks, behind-the-back passes and so on. Eventually it turns out that it's the players who make these highlight reels the most are the biggest stars in the game. The league thrives on players who make things look incredibly hard and pull them off. Then there is Kevin Durant. A man who sometimes convinces you that you could play like him. A man who's almost nonchalant with his play. A man who thrives on simplicity, effectiveness and a knack for incredible efficiency. Sure, he has a few highlights to his name, who doesn't? But, rarely does he seem to be defying any fundamental laws. Rarely does he seem to pull off the incredible. He is like a graceful dancer, trapped in the 6'11'' frame of a basketball superstar. That, to me, is why he is the NBA's unique and graceful superstar

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Rahul Dravid - The Gladiator, The Warrior, The Legend

In about a day (assuming that Rahul Dravid is actually retiring) the internet will be inundated with tributes to one of the greatest players this game has ever seen. The majority will call him "The Wall", "The unsung hero" or any such demeaning phrase.

"The Wall" should be the nickname given to a Mark Richardson (New Zealand), an Alistair Cook (England) or any player in a similar mould. Dravid was much much more than that. We have all at some point or the other delighted in his delicious cover drives, those cracking square cuts and those gorgeous flicks through the leg side. For a man with a reputation of being a plodder, it is easy to forget that the great man once hit a 22 ball 50 against New Zealand, and hit 3 huge sixes in his one and only T20 international. In short, "The Wall" is perhaps the most unfair name ever given to any player in the history of the game.

Has Dravid been an "unsung hero"? Some of his big hundreds have indeed come alongside another batsman scoring bigger and more attractive runs. But does that diminish the value of those hundreds? Of course not. In most of those innings where Dravid was supposedly overshadowed, the innings at the other end would probably not have happened if Dravid didn't fight and stick around. Simple as that. For example, without Dravid's 180 (batting at number 6) there wouldn't be a Laxman 281. So to say that Dravid played "second fiddle" or that his innings was "overshadowed" in such instances is merely an insult to the greatness of those innings.

Dravid will forever be remembered as our colossus abroad. For years and years while the rest of our batting line up struggled to cope in the bounce of Australia, the movement in England and the combination of both in South Africa, Dravid was our gladiator, dodging the lions, smacking the wolves, surviving and keeping us in the game. A gladiator. That was what he was.

Dravid forever embodied the true spirit of a team sport. In the ODI format of the game Dravid was frequently shunted up and down the line up as per the team's wishes. Somedays he would be at number 3. Some days at number 6. For the sake of the team, Dravid even adorned the wicketkeepers gloves to ensure that Ganguly could play 7 specialist batsmen in his teams. In essence Dravid was probably the key factor behind India's success under Ganguly in ODIs. In tests, Dravid opened, played at number 3, batted at number 5 and 6 as per the whims and fancies of the management of the time, never with a semblence of a complaint.

He captained the side graciously and slipped out of the role when he felt the time was right. In the era of sledging, abuse and "mental disintegration", Dravid was a always a welcome presence from the game's gentlemanly past. World over, Dravid has earned the respect of his peers, officials, old timers and the youngest of fans, for his honesty, hard work and distinguished behaviour on and off the field.

Tomorrow, in all probability, the gentleman born in Indore and raised in Bangalore will address the media announcing that he has walked out to the pitch in Indian colours for the last time. It should be a moment of great sadness for all us Indian fans. Not just because it is only a matter of time before we lose the sight of the likes of Dravid, Sachin, Laxman on the cricket field. But simply because a great man has ended his career. According to Virat Kohli Sachin has carried the hopes of a billion people for a very long time. He is right of course. But somewhere, down the line, Sachin had a lot of help. And a lot of it came from the blade of Rahul Dravid.

Let us not call him "The Wall". Let us not call him an unsung hero. Rahul Dravid was a warrior on the cricket field. The trustworthy hard working and talented general on the field. He retires tomorrow, not as an unsung hero, but a living legend. That is his place in Indian cricket.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A vital part of sport - The Story

When you speak about romance, you think about Romeo and Juliet. You think about warm spring days, the beautiful sound of birds and occasionally a girl's lovely smile. But all these cliches ignore a simple fact. Sports fans are the biggest, goofiest and most shameless romantics in the world. No I'm not going to say date a guy who watches sports. On the contrary, they're probably the worst possible. What I do mean, is that every sports fan loves a good story. It doesn't always have to be a rags-to-riches story. Sometimes it doesn't even have to be a story per se. All it takes is a bit doom and gloom followed by the shining ray of light.

We all remember the tragedy that was the Munich air crash in 1958, where 23 people including several Manchester United greats lost their lives. We also remember United under the very same Manager Sir Matt Busby and United Captain Sir Bobby Charlton, taking United to European glory 10 years later. Why? It was a special story. A club surviving the tearing apart of their team by tragedy, recovering against all odds to cover themselves in glory. Special.

In Aakash Chopra's book "Out of the Blue", he goes to great lengths to explain the backgrounds of several of his Rajasthan team-mates. He tells tales of poverty, distress, tragedy and more. And a sports fan, I was hooked. Why? What a story! A team filled with such distinct characters, facing different personal tragedies, all coming together to succeed on the cricket pitch and lift the Ranji trophy. Special.

Jeremy Lin, of the New York Knicks is an average basketball player. At best. Yet the whole basketball world went gaga over him. Yes, he started off with a bang, but so did so many other players. Then why did this man generate so much fanfare? The story. Here was a Harvard graduate, a school not known for basketball at all. A man of Taiwanese Origin. A man of slight build, a cheerful smile and a lovely attitude. In essence, he makes for a great story. His is the story that we all play for ourselves in our head. We all want to be stars. We all want to be great at sport. Too often we have these larger than life characters in sport. Yes, sometimes they have wonderful stories behind them too. But when normal-looking average guys like Jeremy Lin (meaning no offence whatsoever to Lin) succeeds, it really makes your heart go warm and fuzzy. It's a special feeling we sports fans really love. Special

The story is the reason we love the underdog. When you have no stake in either team (as a fan), you generally tend to support the plucky underdog. Who didn't love Kevin O'Brien and Ryan Ten Doeschate sticking it to the English in the Cricket World Cup. Who didn't love watching Virat Kohli defying India's form to pound Sri Lanka to smithereens to keep them alive in the CB series. Who didn't love the Senegal football team in 2002 for showing up France and running to the quarter finals, or South Korea for making the semi finals in the same tournament. Underdogs are big part of sport fandom and are always loved dearly. Special.

When you watch "Remember the Titans", "Glory Road", "Coach Carter" or any sports movie you can think of, you always find yourself rooting for the protagonists. In fact, I am not ashamed of admitting that, the moment of victory against all odds in your average sport movie, generally moves me to shed a tear of happiness. Why? The story. The beautiful, beautiful story. Special.

We adore (and sometimes worship) the likes of Lance Armstrong, Yuvraj Singh, Matthew Wade, Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorius, B S Chandrasekhar, Eric Abidal and several, several others. Why? The story behind them. We will never forget that Yuvraj Singh delivered performance after great performance, all the while struggling with a serious illness he didn't know he had. We will never forget Lance Armstrong winning the grueling Tour De France again and again and again. We will never forget B S Chandrasekhar fighting Polio to be a part of the famous spin quartet of India. They are great sports persons, with the most wonderful stories of grit and determination behind them. Special.

You needn't even look deep to find the story. Sometimes you can find a story within a single game. Take the famous 2005 Champions League final between Liverpool and Milan. 3-0 down at half time, Liverpool under inspirational captain Steven Gerrard suddenly found a gear to their game and stunned Milan by taking the game to penalties and winning it from there. You don't need a background for the game, because in this instance, the game itself was a story. So too is every single famous comeback in the history of Sport. We remember a lot of them very fondly. Comebacks make for wonderful stories. Special.

Human beings all have a little kid in them, who sometimes, just wants to be excited and made to dream. This holds true even more for the average Joe you see, sitting on his couch watching a game. We love following our sport because to us those on the field are living the dream. And when there's a lovely story in the backdrop, we love it even more. When we were kids we listened to fairy tales about princesses, frogs, horses, fairies and all sorts of mythical creatures. And as fully grown adults, we look for those same fairy tales, in the more realistic backdrop of the world around us. As sports fans, we find those moments of wonder, love and magic in the same heroes we worship day in and day out. To a game, to a sport, the story is everything.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sports? Why?

People often ask me whether I'm alright in the head. I'm constantly ranting about cricket, basketball, football and generally any sport that I can claim to have remote knowledge about. I am (to put it another way) a sports fan. 'Fan' is derived from the word fanatic. Explains a lot about our tribe doesn't it.

I've tried in different ways to explain my passion for sport. This is the best explanation I can come up with - Sports is natural. It is evolution.

Through the years, man has always been striving to prove himself superior to the next man. In pre-historic times, man walked around with broken branches and beat up everyone who stood in his way, while on his way to fetch water from the nearest lake (ok I made this up, sue me). Years later, Kings rode to war, dooming the lives of several fellow men, for the sheer drive to prove himself to be better than the opposing King. Alexander the Great travelled the world, defeating Kings in war, just to prove he was the Greatest and could conquer the world. Hitler committed the gravest of crimes simply because he believed one race of man was superior to another. The United States wiped out Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II. Why did they use Nuclear weaponry? To prove their superiority to Japan and scare them into submission. Recently, we've had a bunch of terrorists in different parts of the world, killing innocent people simply because they believe that their 'beliefs' are better than everybody else's. This is the world we live in. One of violence. One of competition.

Meanwhile Sport has been evolving. From the time where Roman emperors looked on while gladiators killed each other in the name of sport, to Usain Bolt sprinting away to an Olympic Gold, sport has always been about one thing. Competition (and the occasional violence). In my opinion, it is no accident that as people have matured, morality has improved and democracy has set in, sport has flourished. Where there was once war, there is now sport. Kings, nobles and knights took immense joy in defeating one another on the battlefield through their soldiers. Today, millionaires and billionaires look on as the teams they own fight with each other on a different battlefield. One where almost all of them leave alive. Evolution.

The point I try to make, is that sport is nothing but a new medium to express the oldest natural urge of mankind - the need to prove superiority over one another.

Another reason I'm so passionate about following, watching, reading and tweeting about sport is the same reason we watch movies. To escape reality. Sometimes life is fun, sometimes life is great. But either way, most of us tire of our own lives and need to get away. Sport is that release. We madly cheer on our favourite teams. We cheer on our favourite players. They are living our dream. The dream of scoring a goal at Stretford end. The dream of scoring a hundred at Lords. The dream of scoring 50 points at Madison Square Garden. The dream of winning the superbowl. Following sport with a passion helps us feel alive. It makes us feel part of something special. It drags us away from our boring old lives and give us an immense of satisfaction.

That my friends, is why I follow sport.