Monday, January 16, 2012

Defeat and its consequences: India's tour of Australia 2011-12

Four years ago, the WACA Ground in Perth was the scene of one of India’s finest test match victories. The loss in the third test of the ongoing series against Australia, though, marks one of the team’s darkest moments – the curtains have been closed on a glorious generation. The extent to which the selectors will cull out the “seniors” is shrouded in uncertainty, but what is certain is that the golden generation – which took India to an artificial, if imposing peak – will never be the same.

There were fleeting displays of brilliance in the first two tests from Sachin Tendulkar – who is still in search of the vaunted 100th international ton – but he has consistently fallen short of imposing his will. Rahul Dravid, magnificent in England when no one around him rose above mediocrity, has looked grotesque every time he’s batted in the series. That he’s been bowled, often through the gate, in each of the tests doesn’t help either. But with Dravid it has never been only about technical perfection – some of his greatest innings have, in fact, lacked textbook purity. It has been his ability to come on top through a mighty struggle against all adversities, whether it is playing on the wickedest of wickets or against the fiercest of opposition that has been his most outstanding quality. In Australia, not only has his batting looked ugly, but he’s also seemed incapable of rising above some of these adversities. V.V.S. Laxman, one of cricket’s most artful match-winners, has scarcely made runs away from home in the last two years, and his celebrated hand-eye coordination is certainly not what it once was. Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir have likewise been less than ordinary lately – yes, India have struggled for many years to find a consistently good opening partnership, but the pair has been anything but consistently good in recent times. Away from home in the last three years, Sehwag averages a meager 32.55, while since the beginning of 2010, Gambhir has recorded only a single century, averaging just 32.05. Numbers can of course be misleading, but these are certainly not figures that help teams win test matches.

The time for mere introspection has passed. The time to enforce a seamless transition has also passed. Where youngsters could have once been eased into the eleven, they now need to be thrust into it. Laxman’s place in the pantheon of greats may be assured, but it has been reported that he may not even make the team for the fourth test at Adelaide. It shouldn’t have come to this; he has performed a terrific service to Indian cricket, and in the ideal circumstances he would deserve a proper farewell. But there is no place for sentiment in sport, certainly not when you are down 0-3 in a four match series. It continues to baffle the mind that Rohit Sharma is yet to make his test match debut – had the transition been more structured, he’d have been playing a pivotal role in this series. But regardless, he must be given his chance in the fourth test in place of Laxman, whether or not Laxman chooses to retire. Ajinkya Rahane, Sharma’s teammate at Mumbai, who has made oodles of runs in domestic cricket, must also be accorded a place in the team. This, though, would entail a tougher decision of dropping one of Sehwag, Gambhir or Dravid – something, which I doubt, the authorities would be prepared to take responsibility for.

The root of India’s problems, though, goes far deeper than issues of selection, and is entrenched in the shortsighted, supercilious attitude of the B.C.C.I., exemplified by its president, N. Srinivasan’s remarks after the defeat at Perth: “Next New Zealand is coming to India and it will be followed by England and Australia. We will beat these three teams on our own soil. They cannot beat us here and we will feel very happy.” That the president of India’s cricket board is willing to virtually forego its games away from home shows the incredibly myopic vision of the game’s governing authority in India.

This is a real pity for India is not lacking in talent, certainly not as far as the batting – which has been in shambles in Australia – is concerned. Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Abhinav Mukund, Subramaniam Badrinath and Cheteshwar Pujara have all performed with aplomb in domestic cricket, and certainly deserve a sustained chance at the highest level. Dravid’s performance in 2011 – in which he scored five test match centuries – notwithstanding his display in Australia, perhaps, indicates that he still has runs left in him. But if he is to be retained, he must be pulled down the order, and Virat Kohli – who showed that he has the temperament for test cricket with his displays at the WACA – must be allowed a continued run at one-down. India also needs to think of Rahane and Mukund as viable successors to Sehwag and Gambhir, who cannot be carried on for too much longer solely on the basis of their reputations. Sachin Tendulkar in whatever time he has spent batting in Australia still easily looks India’s best batsman, but nobody should be considered bigger than the team, not even Tendulkar. I am not suggesting that India should, at once, axe Tendulkar and Dravid, but if you’re going to suffer such mammoth defeats as India has in Australia, you might as well do so with youngsters in your team.

Just as worrying as the batting displays has been M.S. Dhoni’s captaincy. Dhoni has always had a laid-back, casual approach to the job – when it works he looks cool and brilliant, and when it doesn’t he looks unconcerned and uninspiring. But the demeanor apart, neither has he looked like a good leader of men nor has his tactics been up to scratch. That he’s batted like a hapless tailender hasn’t helped either. Virender Sehwag who is the vice captain for the current tour has never showed any interest in the job, and in any event his form with the bat scarcely helps further his case. Gambhir is, perhaps, the only other contender, but his batting form has been worrying too, and his long-term future in the side is by no means settled. This then leaves us with Virat Kohli – who for all his indiscipline – has, since his Under-21 days, been considered as a future captain. In recent times, transition to test match captaincy has generally occurred via the ODI path. There has indeed been nothing to complain about Dhoni’s performance as captain in the shorter format, but assuming India wants to prioritize test cricket – which it admittedly doesn’t, but nontheless – it may not be the worst of ideas to consider Kohli, at first, for the ODI vice-captaincy with a view to him taking on the job in the not-so-distant future.

In a series in which the batsmen have given the bowlers so little to play with, it may be unfair to heap much blame on them, but Ishant Sharma’s form, in particular, has been worrying. The verve and the talent that the displayed the last time he was in Australia has been completely non-existent. It is difficult to point a finger at the exact reasons for Ishant’s decline, but none of the consistency in line and length that he once displayed has been evident. Umesh Yadav, while terrific in phases, does not have the reliability of a James Pattinson, who is three years junior to him. That said, Umesh’s raw pace and aggression means that his bowling can certainly be worked upon. What India doesn’t want to see, though, is a regression on lines akin to what Ishant has gone through. Zaheer Khan still retains a lot of his magic, particularly when bowling with the old ball, but it’s doubtful he has too many years left in him. Sreesanth and R.P. Singh who have played important roles for India in away victories have fallen by the wayside, but it is encouraging to see that Irfan Pathan is beginning to make a comeback into the side. Managing the fast bowling group is far harder with the depth in India’s coffins not as rich as its batting talent. But the BCCI’s decision to pick a fast-bowling pool and identify bowlers who would form the bench strength has been one of the more encouraging ones in recent times.

For the average Indian fan, the displays in England and Australia have been far more disappointing than the consistent mediocrity of the early nineties, where the expectations on the team, at any rate, were lower. As daft as it sounds, India went into both these tours as genuine contenders, but perhaps, the team has needed these poundings to grasp the malaise that has slowly been building up. But all things considered, if these defeats do result in relatively wholesale changes, as they should, India are certainly in for an exciting, even if, potentially, painful phase. Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma are two of the finest young batting talents in the world and I am looking forward – as I am sure many others are – to see their fruition as test match batsmen. The darkest hour is just before the dawn.

[First posted at:]

Friday, November 18, 2011

Roger Federer: A Delayed Appreciation

I have often found that I appreciate the genius of a great sportsman best in his declining years. This is partly because I have almost always spent the heydays of the great sportsman rooting for someone, if not inconsequential, certainly incapable of elevating himself to true greatness. When Pete Sampras was in his prime, winning Wimbledon for fun, I was supporting Michael Chang (oh, the grossness of some of my choices) and Goran Ivanisevic, hoping that his rowdiness will be rewarded with a title. During the historic Chicago Bulls era of the 1990s, I backed the Utah Jazz and Jeff Hornacek, whom I loved to bits – why exactly, I haven’t a clue. In the Roger Federer–Rafael Nadal era, which even if it can be argued didn’t strictly overlap, I first hoped, the peerlessly cool Marat Safin would regain his on-court magic, and since his retirement that Richard Gasquet would show an iota of mental strength to go with his truly gorgeous game. During the Shaq-Bryant inspired Lakers victories, I backed the Sacramento Kings because I simply couldn’t get enough of Peja Stojakovic’s three-point shooting (particularly when he faded away and shot from behind the backboard). When Michael Schumacher was zipping away to win all those titles, I was first supporting Mika Hakkinen and then, Kimi Raikkonen – the Finns, you would agree, have this iciness, which is so utterly captivating. This often meant, I would find mostly inexplicable reasons to disregard greatness: “oh he’s just a lucky so and so,” I would think. I couldn’t even get myself to support Sachin Tendulkar in the mid 1990s when he was at his imperious best. I may have given anything for Tendulkar to fail and for Mohammad Azharuddin to score runs.

There have of course been exceptions – Steffi Graf, Curtly Ambrose, Wasim Akram and Justine Henin to name a few off the top of my head – but in general, particularly, during the 1990s and early 2000s when fandom was still the most vital aspect of my appreciation of sport, I usually made bizarre choices. Generally, though, when a great sportsman was in decline – whether it was a temporary blip or terminal – I found myself suddenly gravitating towards him. I wanted to see more. I found myself mysteriously rooting for him. I felt like an idiot when Sampras retired for not having supported him when he was at his zenith. How could I not support Michael Jordan when he was being His Airness? How could I have not seen greatness when it was presenting itself with such crystal clarity? When Tendulkar was going though a terrible phase in late 2003, I suddenly found myself backing him, wanting to see him rediscover his mojo, to see him return to his imperious self. All this idiotic fandom may have skewed much of my sports watching, but I believe it has nonetheless given me the perfect perspective to judge some of these sportsmen, a kind of perspective that only unpleasant ruminations can give you.

This sets me up very nicely then to tell you why I want to see resurgence from Federer, a Federer whom I have often disliked and a Federer that I have never supported, not in a single match that I can remember. Maybe I backed him in his fourth round victory against Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001, which brought to an end Pistol Pete’s superb run, but Sampras had had a pathetic year and it’s probable I wanted to see him win. When Novak Djokovic came back from two sets to love down and saved two match points before ending Federer’s run in this year’s U.S. Open in the most cruel of manners, I couldn’t have been more satisfied. Bottom line: I’ve almost never supported Federer, never seen the elegance, in every aspect of his game, that others purr about, although I may have lied about it in past posts to sound sensible. But watching him win the Paris Masters today, for the first time in his career, gave me a sense of satisfaction, a feeling that there may be gas left in him for a final surge.

The same aesthetics that draws people to Federer has, bizarrely, been at the forefront of my dislike for him. No doubt, he has almost always made things look simple. But simplicity doesn’t transcend elegance, and the two certainly don’t always coincide. Federer’s forehand, everyone will agree, is his chief strength – a stroke of amazing virtuosity. But is it really an elegant stroke? I would argue it’s not. Usually, it’s a whiplash, snappy movement and his bodyweight is transferred awkwardly. There is no technical purity to it. Of course, technique is a funny and often overrated concept; it’s the player’s comfort and the ensuing results that matter. And technique is also probably irrelevant to a discussion on aesthetics.[1] But whether it is because of the lack of absolute technical purity or the whiplash motion, I haven’t ever found Federer’s forehand to be beautiful, certainly not in the manner of Henin’s backhand or Edberg’s volleying. The fluidity that people attribute to Federer’s forehand is a myth. In reality it is a jerky stroke, albeit a brilliant and even astounding stroke, which perhaps accentuates his genius, but my irritation with people describing the shot as beautiful, possibly, invoked the anti-Federer in me; even more so than his arrogance and generally pitiful attitude.

Now to his backhand, an often flaky and floundering weapon that even the most ardent Federer fans will agree is his weakness. In his prime, Federer’s foot speed allowed him to step outside the ball and convert his backhands into forehands (the beauty here, it must be noted, was in his movement and not in his forehand). Over the years, his backhand, though, did improve immensely, so much so that it is perhaps at its acme today, even as his game is otherwise waning. And it is his approach to the backhand, again curiously, that I have found most endearing. Repeatedly you would see him shank his backhand, yet he would persist with it, not slicing it as he would have in his early years, and eventually he would produce a remarkable angle, a remarkable winner, entirely out of the blue. The beauty again, though, wasn’t so much in the stroke as it was in the result and in his sheer bloody-mindedness.

Federer’s serve has always been excellent and a hugely underrated aspect of his game. The motion is neat and crisp, and minimalistic, but elegant? On the volley particularly on the drive forehand volley, Federer it must be said, looks supremely splendid – there is a nonpareil regality to it. But endeavoring to deconstruct every aspect of his game to examine the aesthetic appeal of the respective parts, as I have done briefly here, is an ultimately tedious and futile experience that has somewhat soiled my tennis watching experience. Yes, the simplicity of Federer’s strokes, to me as the beholder, hasn’t translated to beauty, but in watching him play in Paris, I realized that I have been a stuck-up asshole.

For in my general irritation with every aspect of his game being described as beautiful, I allowed myself to look beyond what I have always found extraordinarily beautiful, a kind of beauty that I should have been delighting in – his on court movement. I have played tennis, mostly recreationally since I was six, giving it up intermittently every now and then since I was, maybe, fifteen. Each time I try to get back and play, the aspect I find hardest to recover is my movement – it is unquestionably the hardest trait to master. Shot making is essentially an extension of court coverage and therein lies Federer’s genius. If his greatness were to be deconstructed to a single element, it would have to be his movement on the court, which as it happens is also a thing of inimitable beauty.

Now that Federer’s aura has dissipated, I want to see him regain it. I want to watch his game only for his movement, not for the whippy forehand or the erratic backhand, as loveable as it may be, but just to see him cover the court like a prince. For, there never has been a greater representation of transcendence.

[First posted here:]

[1] Laxman’s leg glance, for instance, may not be technically pure, but it’s certainly beautiful.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Haig Schneiderman – Columbia’s tennis captain

Even at college level, tennis is an ethereally beautiful sport. The levels of strategy employed within the small rectangle are almost infinite. The game is played as much in the players’ heads as it is on the court. Watching Haig Schneiderman, 21, and captain of Columbia University’s tennis team, play is as fascinating as it is watching one of the top players in the world. For each shot that Schneiderman makes, whether it is in practice or in game play, there is a meaning to it.

Schneiderman is hitting with teammate Nathaniel Gery on the first of the six indoor, hard courts at the Dick Savitt Tennis Center – Columbia’s home courts located on the ridiculously picturesque upper western tip of Manhattan by Inwood Hill Park. They begin with a few light hits, standing at the edge of their service lines. And then slowly they up the ante, smacking groundstrokes from the baseline with astonishing power – the kind that you wouldn’t expect to see in college tennis. The margins that distinguish the best from the rest are very thin – it can go unnoticed by a casual observer. Schneiderman wants to compete with the best; he wants to shatter those margins that separate him from the professionals. When he graduates as an economics major next May, he harbors hopes of turning pro. The challenge, however, is not merely mighty, but at many levels unnerving too.

“The realities of the men’s professional-tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of restaurant sirloin,” wrote David Foster Wallace in a seminal essay in Esquire. The realities of college tennis are bleaker still. Even in the effort to make the grade, though, is ingrained an element of heroism, an element of perseverance.

Wearing a white t-shirt and white shorts, Schneiderman, who is right-handed, looks a tennis player. He is six feet two inches tall and one hundred and seventy pounds heavy. He has sharp features and a sinewy body. He sports a scruffy stubble; his jaw is sharp and his eyebrows meet gently above his long, pointed nose. His calf muscles are well defined – a product of hours and hours of tennis – and his forearms are muscular, if not immense. His game itself has a simple elegance to it. His light brown eyes are always focused intently on the ball – there is a detached concentration to his play – the kind that one usually sees from chess players. The ball toss on the serve is not the highest, but the motion is neat. He can hit his serve both down the line and slice it away from his opponent with equal ease and great disguise. His forehand is possibly his strong suit – he seems to think so, at any rate – but his double-handed backhand has a beauty to it – he hits through it crisply and regally with both pace and topspin.

“My backhand used to be a weakness,” Schneiderman says, while sitting on a bench in the grassy, sloped verandah outside the center that overlooks the Harlem River, after practice. “I’ve had to work very hard at it. Now I can use it offensively.” Schneiderman can be remarkably lucid when talking about his game. He says he has to think constantly about the dynamics of power and accuracy: “With some opponents, I can sense that they aren’t reading my serve. Then, I can afford to take some pace off and concentrate on placement.”

“Having a big serve helps at this level. If I want to go pro, I need to win easy points – need to win in three or four shots.” He practices long and hard on his first serves and his “first forehand,” as he puts it. “My first forehand is my most important shot. I try to dictate play with it.” Every day, Schneiderman spends about three hours on the courts with Columbia’s coaches, Bid Goswami and Howard Endelman. Endelman, who was appointed the Associate Head Coach in 2010, once competed in the ATP Tour. He said, of Schneiderman, “He’s certainly got a game that is suited for pro tennis and I think he can make it. He has a great serve and a terrific forehand and these are assets that will serve him very well. But the start that he makes is crucial.”

Schneiderman’s focus, for now, at least, in on the Ivy League championships in the spring. In his first two years at Columbia, Schneiderman played a pivotal role in leading Columbia to victory. In 2009, he was named the Ivy League Men’s Tennis Rookie of the Year, while in his sophomore year he enjoyed a 17-3 record, including a win in the crucial decider against Princeton, which clinched the championship. “It was my greatest moment,” Schneiderman, suddenly bursting with enthusiasm, says, “it was one set each and the entire thing was on the line. I was able to control the decider.” A troublesome back, however, laid him low for large parts of last year. “I wasn’t able to even get up or take my socks out after that match against Princeton. It plagued practice for many months. I saw numerous doctors and they suggested surgery, but Tommy Sheehan, the Director of Strength and Conditioning at Columbia, introduced me to some specialists who were able to solve the problem. They were able to understand the biomechanics of it better. It was killing me.”

The body feels good again now, Schneiderman says, and he is raring to help Columbia regain the Ivy League Championships. “Obviously I want to go pro after this, but for now I am just concentrating on the team. As long as I keep working on my game, it takes care of what I need to do afterwards.” He is, however, aware of the difficulties in pursuing tennis as a career. “It’s expensive. And it can leave you a bit empty. I had offers from big tennis schools, but I chose Columbia because it gives me a more rounded education.”

Schneiderman interned in the mergers and acquisitions wing of Ernst and Young in the summer. He found it enjoyable [“it didn’t have the pressure of an investment banking job,”] but it’s not something that he sees himself doing for a career. He plans to use the money he saved from the internship and whatever he can get from his parents to fund his initial foray into professional tennis. “I’ll have to start by playing the qualifiers of the ITF’s [International Tennis Federation] Futures Events. I want to play in Latin America or Europe where the level of competition will be right and where I can get to experience a new culture.”

Schneiderman is half Armenian. His father, also named Haig, was born to Armenian parents in New York. Sargis Sargsian, an Armenian who was once ranked in the top forty of the world, is a huge inspiration to Schneiderman. “I definitely feel that connection. I practiced with Sargsian twice in Vegas and he is a big influence,” Schneiderman says in his genially sincere tone.

Born in the ‘lower west side’ of New York, Schneiderman still lives there with his parents. He began playing tennis at Forest Hills in Queens where the U.S. Open once used to be played. His coach there, Chris Pucci remains a big influence. “He’s my mentor. I still practice under him in the summer in New Jersey where he now coaches.” He is also quick to credit his parents for their support. “My father introduced me to the sport and my mom has had to make so many sacrifices. She drove me around to all the tournaments, from my high school, Horace Mann, to New Jersey for practice and so on. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without her.”

Schneiderman is levelheaded enough to realize that tennis may not work out for him professionally. “It can get to a point where it’s just not worth it. I’m not looking for sponsors right now. It will depend on how well I do in my first few tournaments. It’s not a fun lifestyle. It can be quite a grind.”

Regardless of how he does in the professional circuit, though, Schneiderman wants to be involved with tennis. “Deep down, I want to do something with tennis. Maybe I’ll start a program for kids who don’t have access to the sport. I am not sure exactly what I’ll do, but I want to spread the sport and give kids who can’t afford the sport a chance to play it.”

Schneiderman sees tennis as a metaphor for life. “One of the great things about tennis is the number of people I’ve met. I’ve learnt so many life lessons from it. If nothing else, my experience will help me through the rest of my life.”

[Note: This profile is partly inspired by the late David Foster Wallace’s magnificent essay in Esquire titled “The String Theory.” There, Wallace focuses on Michael T. Joyce’s forays in the qualifying rounds of the Canadian Open. And in Wallace style, I chose to put this into a footnote:]

Learning Baseball

I am a baseball novice. In India, the game is almost looked down upon, as though it is an unintelligent modification of cricket. In truth, the aversion is essentially a product of a lack of knowledge of the rules and history of baseball, as opposed to anything more nuanced. Even a basic understanding of baseball’s rules, though, is sufficient to appreciate that, although it’s a simple sport, it’s capable of producing not only riveting entertainment, but also debate at various theoretical and tactical levels.

I must admit that I have not served as any exception, until recently, to this general Indian aversion to baseball. The only times I saw the game were on highlights reels on ESPN’s Sportscenter. The home runs made for good viewing, but I wondered what the big deal was. Now I know or at least I think I do.

I moved to New York City, late July, to study journalism. One of my first tasks was to choose a neighborhood to cover for my class website from a plethora of uptown areas. In spite of my nonchalance – and at some levels, maybe even a dislike – towards baseball, I veered towards Highbridge, a small portion in The Bronx – the poorest of the city’s five boroughs – located on a sloping bend around Yankee Stadium, the historic home of the New York Yankees. Highbridge is, apparently, the most deprived congressional district in the whole of the United States and yet it is home to the world’s most valuable sports franchise. There is an anomaly to this that is disturbing at so many levels, making it a very good neighborhood for a journalist to cover. I would be lying, however, if I said that this incongruity was the reasoning behind my choice, for it was a decision, almost solely, based on the location of Yankee Stadium – if nothing else, I thought, I’d get to hang around one of the world’s most iconic stadia for a few months.

But why? I am no baseball fan. The Yankees don’t mean anything to me. Until very recently, I couldn’t give a diddlysquat about them. Yet, there is this unparalleled vibe that you get as a sports fan, from just being around a great arena – this feeling is by no means to be underestimated. It makes you feel part of a community, a community where sport is the one unifying factor. I’d taken only a glimpse of Yankee Stadium from a tinted window of a bus and that was enough to make my decision.

In the weeks that have followed, I’ve made many visits to the area, several times on game-days when hordes of supporters wearing Jeter and Sabathia jerseys congregate on the 161st street subway stop. It is an occasion to behold – just sitting outside the station, watching fans fervently march toward the stadium gates. Each, expectant, excited and hopeful. There is a buzz to the place. The street vendors come alive, the local bars surrounding the stadium steam with people – it is almost like a ritual carnival experience.

When you see the sheer number of fanatics, it makes you think: “there has to surely be something about this sport?” And indeed, I can proclaim with an equal dose of embarrassment and revelation, there is. At many levels, this process – a continuing one – of watching and understanding a new sport has been weird. Over the years, I’ve grown to enjoy a variety of sports, but I can’t remember the last time I sought to pick up a new game, virtually from scratch. It is usually a process that has no clear, decisive beginning. At any rate, it has been many years since I endeavored to watch and understand an altogether new sport. As a child or as a teenager, it is easier to see a sport for what it is – in other words subtle nuances don’t often come into the process. Implicitly, maybe, an understanding of other sports impacts the process of learning a new one. But at 25, the experience is vastly different. Almost 20 years of watching a number of sports contributes directly to the process of learning about a new one.

I am not suggesting that I’ve compared each play in baseball that I’ve seen to other sports, but in grasping the several gradations of the game, my understanding of other sports has played a critical role. To better explain myself, in game 3 of the ongoing New York Yankees versus Detroit Tigers post-season American League Division Series, CC Sabathia, the lead Yankees pitcher, intentionally walked Miguel Cabrera in the bottom fifth inning. In other words, he allowed Cabrera to walk to first base by pitching the ball several feet away from home plate giving the Tigers a man on the first two bases with two out. This was a tactical ploy that I might not have immediately grasped had it not been for my general understanding of sport. Sabathia was tiring and the last thing he wanted was Cabrera swinging with a man on first base, especially considering that the Yankees were trailing by a run. It is, no doubt, a common strategy, but one that would have been harder, I presume, to understand for a sports novice, as opposed to a baseball novice. The play in itself may not be directly comparable to other sports, but it involves a thought process that is common across the sports world. It is these little characteristics that I’ve started to enjoy about baseball. On the face of it, it looks a prosaic, slow sport, but it has not merely a physical facet, but also a highly nuanced tactical one.

Numbers, play a more important role in the baseball than in perhaps any other sport. I am still not in a position to comment on the efficacy of the models deployed, but I am presently reading Alan Schwarz’s “The Numbers Game” to understand “baseball’s lifelong fascination with statistics.” I also watched Moneyball, the movie starring Brad Pitt and based on Michael Lewis’s 2003 book on the Oakland Athletics, its general manager, Billy Beane and the sabermetricapproach to assembling a baseball team. The movie, by itself, was scarcely enjoyable and has done little in adding to my appreciation of the sport.

Over and above the fascination offered by the strategic and numerical aspects of the game, though, is its pure beauty. David Schoenfield, writing for on Justin Verlander, the Tigers’ lead pitcher, reminisces about Roger Angell’s description of a Nolan Ryan fastball as a “liquid streak of white.” He said, “That has to be how opposing hitters have felt about Justin Verlander this season. Even if they do go to bed early the night before facing him, they must be thinking about liquid streaks of white or curveballs dropping from heaven or unhittable changeups or sliders that make you flail like a snowflake in a windstorm.” In game 3 on Monday, Verlander was nearly irrepressible. He pitched with variety and precision; his fastball, in particular, was a thing of beauty. He ramped it up at 100 mph even well into the game. His action and his release had a raw, grace to it that makes you want to keep watching him pitch. This was the Eureka moment for me – it isn’t as easy to be a batter, as it can sometimes seem to be.

I am learning more and more about the sport with each passing game, but what I’ve already come to recognize is its pure beauty. It has a subliminal elegance to it that can go unnoticed in the eyes of its most ardent followers and can be unfathomable for the nonbelievers. Thankfully, for me, I’m still somewhere in the limbo.

(First posted in

Saturday, September 24, 2011

M.A.K. Pataudi - An Indubitable Genius

I lost a contact lens, while walking home today. I am short sighted on both my eyes and with my right eye partly – only partly – blinded, I was utterly disoriented. I trudged on with as much care as I could muster, stopping at a traffic signal to check my twitter feed. Tributes were pouring in for Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi – ‘Tiger’ Pataudi – who had sadly died, in Delhi, with a lung infection. Here I was, struggling to orient myself with the loss of my right contact lens, while this man had made test match hundreds with one good eye. Genius is often difficult to fathom, I thought, but has it ever been so unmistakable?

Even leaving aside his vision, Pataudi was a very good batsman, a great fielder, and, arguably, an even better captain. As Raju Bharatan said, in the Hindu, after Pataudi was awarded the C.K. Nayudu Award in 2001, “Tiger it was who brought the Indian cricket team out of its slavish British fixation, a fixation abiding in the 1960s. Tiger inspirationally let it be known that each member of the Indian team simply had to learn to stand shoulder to shoulder when face to face with the white man on the field of play. Tiger’s being in no way awed by the white-skinned opponent helped cut the Gordian knot of the Indian team’s facing the `Englishman to man”.”

And it was Pataudi, crucially, who got the best out of the famous quartet of spinners – B.S. Chandrasekhar, Bishan Bedi, Erapalli Prasanna, and S. Venkataraghavan. As Prasanna puts it: “He was primarily responsible for developing India’s spin quartet in an aggressive role similar to what the West Indians had later in form of the pace quartet.”

Till this date, though, whenever I had thought of Pataudi, his impaired vision had played but a minimal role in my consideration. In spite of making the odd public appearance, and in spite of being the husband and father of popular film stars, Pataudi had an air of detached elegance to him – he was an almost debonair, mythical figure to me. Every time I saw him, I wished I had been there to watch him bat. Oh boy, he must have been fun to watch, I used to think.

Today, though, I wonder, how much greater he could have been had he had two good eyes. I am led to believe that the Indian media, particularly the broadcast media, is inundated with accolades concentrating on his impaired vision as opposed to appreciating his pure contribution to the sport. For Pataudi, notwithstanding his eyesight, was indubitably a great cricketer. The Internet, though, mercifully, contains enough tributes that narrate the Pataudi story with authority and excellence that only those who had seen him closely can provide, so I won’t tread down that path. What I can say, though, is that despite my reluctance to concentrate on his impaired vision, the circumstances of the day – with his genius presenting itself to me so obviously – commands me to wonder how much greater he could have been with two good eyes.

[First posted at:]

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Flushing Meadows

I was at Flushing Meadows earlier this week – to watch the first day of the qualifying rounds for the U.S. Open – and I must say I was utterly underwhelmed. Not with the quality of the tennis, which by qualifying rounds standards was excellent, but with the general vibe of the arena.

The US Open moved from its Forest Hills venue to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 1978 at Flushing Meadows and has since then been played on hard courts. The venue has seen the tournament grow into a commercial behemoth. The place palpably lacks a sense of history; it has a plastic feel to it – you don’t get the impression that a John McEnroe or a Chris Evert once strode there with imperious grace.

There are, however, snippets of the past to consume if you are willing to walk into areas that are otherwise barren, such as the ‘Court of Champions,’ which celebrates the past winners with dedicated plaques, located near the South Gate. Even that, though, is essentially unimpressive. And barring that, all you will see is food stalls selling pretzels and pizzas, the official merchandise store selling t-shirts and caps, all at exorbitant prices.

In brief, you don’t get the feeling that you’re in a place truly historic. Yes, the arena is relatively new, but the tournament isn’t, and you would have thought greater emphasis would have been placed on its cultural significance. Sadly, however, the place brims with commercial garishness and does little justice to the repute of the event that it stages.


That’s enough of the rant, though. As gaudy as the arena was, the tennis was beautiful. I had the chance to recall, the late, David Foster Wallace’s brilliant essay on the physics and metaphysics of tennis, titled “The String Theory.” In the paper – which I rate as one of the best pieces of writing that I’ve ever read on the sport – Wallace writes about the experience of watching Michael T. Joyce, then a top hundred player, at the qualifying rounds of the Canadian Open in Montreal. He deconstructs the game, with gorgeous delight, to explain the thin margins that separate a very good player from a truly great one.

Consider this paragraph, for instance:

“Even more illuminating than watching pro tennis live is watching it with Sam Aparicio. Watching tennis with him is like watching a movie with somebody who knows a lot about the technical aspects of film: He helps you see things you can’t see alone. It turns out, for example, that there are whole geometric sublevels of strategy in a power-baseline game, all dictated by various PBers’ [read: power-baseliners] strength and weaknesses. A PBer depends on being able to hit winners from the baseline. But, as Sam teaches me to see, Michael Chang can hit winners only at an acute angle from either corner. An “inside-out” player like Jim Courier, though, can hit winners only at obtuse angles from the center out. Hence, wily and well-coached players tend to play Chang “down the middle” and Courier “out wide.” One of the things that make Agassi so good is that he’s capable of hitting winners from anywhere on the court -- he has no geometric restriction. Joyce, too, according to Sam, can hit a winner at any angle. He just doesn’t do it quite as well as Agassi, or as often.”

Wallace also posits that television doesn’t let you “appreciate what real top-level players can do.” I couldn’t agree more. I have seen a few of them play at the Chennai Open and the power and the accuracy of their strokes boggles the mind. This, though, was a different opportunity for me. I was going to see some very good players from really close quarters. In some cases I was going to be at a distance no longer than six feet from the tramlines.

First up, I visited court 9. Estonia’s Jurgen Zopp was playing Sergei Bubka, the son of the legendary, world-record holding, pole-vaulter, Sergey. Bubka, 24, has been on the tour for many years now, struggling to break into the top echelons. He is ranked just outside the top 200 and has never made it to a Grand Slam main draw. As one would only expect, he is athletically built and on the evidence of this match, he has a strong serve and is particularly good on his backhand wing, which he hits with a double-handed hold. He is even capable of jumping onto it, a la Marat Safin, and hitting it with serious venom.

Bubka steamrolled Zopp in the first set, winning it 6-3, in just 25 minutes. It was only the first round of qualifying, but he seemed a class apart. His first serves were quick and placed at the edge of the service box and his second were swerving and clever.

In the second set, Zopp found greater rhythm. Bubka was still the superior player, holding his service games with ease and stretching Zopp on his. But Zopp, somehow managed to hold on to his serves, and took the set to a tiebreak. In it, the Ukrainian’s class again shone through. There were difficult moments to counter, but he served with rare confidence and took the tiebreak 7-5.

Watching from the side, I was astonished at the sheer pace of Bubka’s groundstrokes. If this was how hard the World’s 210th ranked player could hit the ball, I wondered how good the truly great players were. The margins, though, must be really thin. It cannot be merely be a case of power. While Bubka, can hit backhands on the run with amazing power and accuracy 7 times out of 10, maybe Djokovic and Nadal can make it 9 out of 10 times. Regardless, I was watching someone who is exceedingly good in his craft even if he was just short of being a great player.


After Bubka was through, I shifted my attention to court no. 4 where France’s Arnaud Clement, once ranked as high as no. 10, was to play Canada’s Frank Dancevic. Clement is now ranked 154 in the world, while Dancevic is 183rd. Clement reached the finals of the Australian Open in 2001, losing in straight sets to Andre Agassi. Incidentally en route to that final he defeated a young Roger Federer. He has also reached the quarterfinals of Wimbledon and the US Open in the past.

He is short for a tennis player – only 1.72 meters tall – but his calves are muscular. He is essentially a counterpuncher – his style involves scurrying across the baseline and making the opponent play one ball more than he would like to.

Frank Dancevic, is Canada’s third best player. He was ranked 65th in the world in 2007. But, since then troubled by back problems, his ranking has plummeted. Nonetheless, he looks a proper tennis player, athletically built, standing at 1.85 meters. He plays too, as I found out soon, beautifully.

The bleachers on Court 4 were filling up. Even though Clement was, arguably, the biggest draw of the qualifiers, the crowd was surprisingly large. Dancevic, however, was the one who shone brightest. He served hard and accurately and made Clement work very hard in his service games, pushing him around the court and dominating imperiously.

Dancevic’s backhand, I must say, is a thing of beauty. I have a particular predilection for single-handed backhands, and Dancevic’s, regardless of his ranking, was one that stood out for its sheer magnificence. Often the ball seemed to stand still, as he readied himself to stroke his backhand.

Time is often the decisive factor that separates the good from the great. Dancevic certainly had the goods on his backhand wing. He could slice it delicately, either dropping it just over the net or deep into one of the corners, with sharp spin; he could hit it flat with pace and accuracy, increasing the tempo of the point; or he could hit it with top spin, sliding the racquet head up and over the ball when striking it.

Dancevic dominated, nearly, from start to finish, winning the match 6-3, 6-3, breaking Clement’s serve four times and allowing himself to be broken only once. I had expected to watch Clement showcase his artistry, but I was nevertheless satisfied at watching, from such close quarters, a player strike his backhand with rare elegance. I suspect had Dancevic not been plagued with injuries, we may have been hearing of him more now.


I also watched Lithuania’s twenty-one-year-old Richard Berankis disposing off Spain’s Guillermo Alcide 6-2, 6-2 in just three-quarters of an hour. Berankis is certainly one for the future – he varies his rallies by sometimes going for power and at other times opting to change the rhythm with little slices and dabs.

France’s Caroline Garcia, who was ever so close to upsetting Maria Sharapova in the French Open, though, came up a cropper against Russia’s Regina Kulikova. Garcia won the first set, looked in fine touch, serving well and finding corners of the court with remarkable ease. But Kulikova upped her game in the second and third sets, even as Garcia’s own game began to wane. Still only eighteen, however, Garcia showed enough skill to suggest that she is likely to make a definite impact on the women’s game in the future.


The day, though, wasn’t only about the qualifying rounds. I saw Andrea Petkovic practice with her coaches at Louis Armstrong and she struck the ball with so much power and with so much style that I could sit there watching for hours. Robin Soderling and Mikhail Youzhny played a practice match, a little later, on the same court. Soderling, suffering in recent times with a wrist injury, certainly looked a bit off, not hitting the ball with as much as power as one is accustomed to seeing from him. Youzhny, however, made for a sublime sight, with his single-backhanded backhand glittering in the radiant sunshine. Somdev Devvarman and Janko Tipsarevic had a hit at the Grandstand stadium with the Serb pummeling the Indian from the back of the court. Somdev had his moments, but for the most part, Tipsarevic was utterly dominant.

At the end of it all, I was left a little stunned. I knew these players hit the ball with great power and found angles of geometric brilliance. But witnessing it from as close as I did, gave me a whole different perspective. Tennis, I have always thought, is the world’s most beautiful sport and any lingering doubts, have now been put firmly to rest.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Ian Bell, the late-cut and artistic batting

I was a fan of Ian Bell even before I had ever seen him play Test cricket. Not that I had watched him play enough in County games, but his prodigious talents were much spoken about well before his England debut. It was in one of the Wisden magazines, I think, which was on display at Landmark, where I first read about his potential – a player who relied on touch and finesse more than power and one who supposedly had the talent to become one of the game’s top run-scorers. The description of his batting, I remember vividly, suggested that it was a sight to behold, full of elegant cover drives and delightful flicks.

It was his penchant for the late-cut, though, that did me in. I hadn’t seen him play, of course, but if he could play the late-cut well – which almost all the pieces written about him seemed to suggest – then he had to be mighty good. I’ve had an endless fascination for the stroke, heard romantics purr in delight when merely talking about Gundappa Vishwanath’s execution of it and I myself have derived great pleasure from watching Carl Hooper and Mark Waugh play the stroke, ever so late, with the care of a surgeon and the joie de vivre of an artist. But by the time Bell was ripe enough for his debut, V.V.S. Laxman’s and Damien Martyn’s batting had already captured my imagination. They both made batting look ridiculously simple and played in beautiful, flowing styles, essaying the late-cut with rare polish.

Yet, I waited in anticipation of Bell’s debut. I wanted to see, for myself, what the fuss about his batting was all about. I wanted to see if there was finesse in his late-cut; could he pierce seemingly non-existent gaps through the slips and the gully?

In August 2004, against the West Indies, with Graham Thorpe – another favourite of mine – injured for the fourth test at the Oval, in came Bell, still only twenty-two-years-old. He looked rather innocuous –skin, freckled; hair, ginger; build, light and ostensibly under-confident – surely he was no batting artist? Yet in the middle, bar a testing time against Fidel Edwards, he looked the bit. He was neat and composed in his stance, he had oodles of time to play his shots and he certainly possessed the gift of timing. His propensity to play the ball almost posthumously, at times, was also on display and I revelled in watching the arrival of a new artist – one who could not only play the late-cut, but play it bloody well, with subtlety and elegance.

The real test, I knew, was still to come. His talent was obviously undoubted – he seemed to be endowed with many natural gifts, but his temperament remained to be tested. Indeed, in the years to come, he seemed to make a name for himself as a flat-track bully – one who could pummel inferior attacks with ease and elegance, but who came a cropper in examinations of mental fortitude against the best, viz. Australia. Shane Warne – who gave Bell the moniker Sherminator practically drove him to mental disintegration, tormenting him psychologically, if not purely through cricketing skills.

But under, Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss, Bell has blossomed. Finally, the prettiness in his batting is finding its justification in his run-making. Indeed he didn’t have the greatest of starts under the new management. He was dropped immediately after England’s embarrassing loss at Jamaica in February 2009. He was sent back to play for Warwickshire – to find not merely form, but to build his mental resilience. His response to being dropped, though, was excellent. He made scores of runs in County Cricket and earned a recall to the Eleven for the third Ashes test, but it wasn’t until the decider at the Oval that he displayed the complete extent of his comeback. On a difficult wicket, batting at one-down, he dropped anchor not merely through a display of artistic batsmanship, but by showcasing outstanding resilience and newfound mental toughness.

From there on, it has, almost, been all rosy for Bell. The runs have flowed, whether batting at 3 or 5, and he has found the balance between extravagant stroke-play and necessary watchfulness. A century of the highest class at Durban against Dale Steyn and Morne Morkel in an innings victory for England showed that he had come a full circle. He played the pacers serenely, concentrating hard to settle down before unveiling his rich array of strokes, which no doubt included a few of those fluid late-cuts.

In the tour to Australia last year, he easily looked England’s best batsman; but wasted behind an out-of-form Kevin Pietersen and a declining Paul Collingwood, at number 6, Bell rarely got the opportunity to make a big score. Yet at the SCG in the fifth test, in partnership with Matt Prior, he made a splendid 115 to help England put a cherry on top of their Ashes triumph. It was a century of rare class – one in which he displayed both obstinacy and style.

This summer, he’s already made three test match hundreds. The first two, at Cardiff and Southampton, against Sri Lanka, were both phenomenal in their artistic delight. They were littered with velvety late-cuts – time and again he let the ball go past him before caressing it gently into the third-man boundary.

These knocks, though, came in relatively easy circumstances against a weak Sri Lankan bowling attack. The century against India, however, in the on-going Test at Trent Bridge has not merely been exquisite in its artistry but is a vindication of his advancement as a batsman. With Trott injured, he walked in at number three, survived a tricky phase at the end of day two before stroking the most sublime century today. He not only eased England’s nerves, but also put it in a position of supreme command. His century came off a mere 129 balls and was exhilarating in its imagination. He timed the ball with purity, and his placement was often immaculate to the point of perfection. His innings – and perhaps also the sporting reprieve that he was given, albeit when he had passed his hundred – epitomises so much of what is great about the sport. It was a beautiful reminder that in an age of twenty-twenty cricket, where batsmen choose raw power as their weapon, there is still place for delicacy of touch.

(First posted at: