Wednesday, November 24, 2010

IIT-Chemplast, Bergkamp and the Ashes

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I had a few spare hours this morning and I felt the time would be well spent by visiting the I.I.T. Chemplast Cricket Ground. The Ground nestled in the Indian Institute of Technology’s lush campus in Madras brims with scenic beauty. With the dense trees enveloping the sides of the Ground and a small, yet pretty, red-bricked pavilion adding to its grandeur, I would imagine this to be one of the more attractive sports venues in India.

Anyway, Tamil Nadu were scheduled to play the Railways’ cricket team in a Ranji Trophy Super League Group A game here, and I thought watching a few hours of first-class cricket wouldn’t hurt, especially considering the setting. Braving the rush-hour morning traffic, I reached the venue, on time, at 9:30 AM only to be greeted with the site of grounds-men working furiously to get the field ready. Madras during the monsoons can be rather strange. A glance outside my window in the morning had suggested that, although it was a cloudy day, there weren’t any signs of overnight rain. As it turned out, it had rained in other parts of the city, and particularly harshly at Guindy, where the Ground is located. Not one to be instantly disillusioned, I waited, sitting under one of the giant trees that surround the Ground, reading my book – The Perfect 10 by Richard Williams, in which the author portrays the careers, oddly enough, of eleven different playmakers, ranging from Pele to Zinedine Zidane – but more on that later.

The Ground, from the boundary ropes, looked dry enough, but there were apparently a few wet patches in line with the fast bowlers’ run-ups and near the popping creases on both sides that were worrying the umpires. An inspection was scheduled for 10:30 and I decided to wait patiently until then. The captains, Dinesh Karthik and Murali Kartik, both had a walk to the middle, and as did T.N. quickies, C. Ganapathy and Lakshmipathy Balaji. Any hope of immediate play though was quickly quelled, with the patches near the crease continuing to trouble the umpires. The next inspection was scheduled for 12:00 noon, and I remained optimistic, hoping that even if the action commenced at 12:15, I could still, probably, watch an hour’s play before I had other matters to be concerned with. In the end, the inspection at 12:00 did not convince the umpires enough and the next bit of scrutiny was scheduled a further hour later. So I made my way out, and thanks to Cricinfo, I now hear that only eight overs were bowled, with T.N. ending the day on 26 runs for the loss of S. Anirudha.

The conditions, no doubt, made the visit mostly pointless, but I did get through substantial portions of Williams’s book. In essence the book is a depiction of a group of players, each of whom are his personal favourites, and who were all ‘conventional number 10s’ and celebrated for their playmaking. Essays on Ferenc Puskas; Pele; Gianni Rivera and Sandro Mazzola (a chapter is commonly devoted to the Milanese pair); Gunter Netzer, Michel Platini, Enzo Francescoli, Diego Maradona, Roberto Baggio, Dennis Bergkamp, and Zinedine Zidane constitute a chapter each. Having read a part of the book earlier, I reached up until the chapter in which he describes Bergkamp, by which time I found my thoughts drifting from the book’s contents to the sheer majesty of the Dutchman’s craft.

Much like Williams, I have a special reverence towards playmakers. Growing up as a Manchester United fan in the nineties and the two-thousands, it was rather difficult to appreciate Arsenal and their play, dazzling as it could be. But Bergkamp and Robert Pires – who was of course a wide midfield player – were exceptions in my abhorrence for Arsenal. Bergkamp’s technique, touch, control, passing, and shooting were all a delight, but his exemplary vision was, by far, his most laudable trait. His goal against Newcastle United in 2002, when he pirouetted around centre back Nikos Dabizas with a sublime piece of touch before slotting past Shay Given must surely rank as the finest piece of ingenuity witnessed in the Premier League. There have been goals scored, from tougher angles, with far greater ferocity, and possibly even with superior deftness in touch, but I doubt if any has been as inventive in its construction. It is for moments such as this that we watch sport and to be reminded of it, certainly made my visit worthwhile, even if conditions at IIT-Chemplast played spoilsport.


Tomorrow, the first Ashes test will commence at the Gabba in Brisbane. Unlike most previous tours to Australia, the visitors start the series as favourites, overwhelmingly so, in the minds of some. I think, though, the first test could be crucial in determining which way the series goes. Brisbane has seen unusually high amounts of rainfall this year, and while I hope there is enough cloud cover to assist James Anderson and Ben Hilfenhaus to charm us with their swing, I do hope the rain stays away, lest I be consigned to reminiscing about the clever geometry of Bergkamp’s play.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The North London Derby

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Consecutive victories against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Everton that followed a home loss to Newcastle United prompted many to consider Arsenal as genuine title contenders this season. Their prophecies seemed that much more perceptive at the end of the first half of the North London Derby at the Emirates Stadium yesterday after Arsenal produced some of the most gorgeous football, that one can hope to see, to lead Tottenham Hotspur 2-0 at the break. At the end of ninety minutes though, with Tottenham completing a remarkable turnaround to take the honours 3-2, the familiar groans about a lack of steel in Arsene Wenger’s side resurfaced and some critics consider the loss as an effective death-knell to the club’s title challenge. The truth of the matter, though, is that individual games, and more so forty-five minutes of football, especially at this stage of the campaign, rarely determines the nature of the season as a whole even if, at times, indicative of a club’s strengths and weaknesses. If anything this game was more significant for showcasing Tottenham Hotspur’s growing eminence as opposed to any new-found vulnerability on Arsenal’s part.

Starting the game with Rafael Van der Vaart floating behind Roman Pavluchenko in a 4-2-3-1, Tottenham struggled to get a grip over the midfield in the opening period. With Cesc Fabregas pulling the strings in typically dazzling fashion, Alex Song at his harrying best and Samir Nasri continuing to sparkle, Arsenal began the game in stately fashion. The opening goal scored inside the first ten minutes may have partly been a product of goalkeeper Huerelho Gomes’s blunder and a lack of cohesion in Spurs’ defence, but Fabregas’s vision demonstrated by his through ball was as much a delight as was Nasri’s smart finish from the tightest of angles. The second goal that came on 27 minutes was a result of a move of captivating beauty, the kind of which that has come to symbolise Wenger’s team over the years. With three passes, Arsenal countered from the depths of their half to rip Spurs apart and created a chance that was daintily flicked home by Marouane Chamakh. Few more minutes of breathtakingly quick passing and movement followed before the half time whistle gave Harry Redknapp the chance to correct any tactical errors and help his team a mount a seemingly impossible comeback.

A fortnight back Newcastle United showed at the Emirates that a two-striker formation can be effective against top opposition, something which their neighbours Sunderland further attested at Stamford Bridge in a 2-0 victory against Chelsea. With Van der Vaart, Luka Modric, and Gareth Bale struggling to get on the ball, Redknapp brought Jermain Defoe on for Aaron Lennon, moving thereby to a 4-4-2 that saw Van der Vaart take up a narrow position on the right of midfield; Gareth Bale was also brought further infield, resulting in a tight quartet in the middle of the park that exhibited far greater control in the second period. Van der Vaart was not particularly impressive over the ninety minutes, but he played his part in each one of Spurs’ goals. On fifty minutes, he picked up Defoe’s header to release an onrushing Bale who stylishly finished with the outside of his left foot. Soon Spurs began to pressure the Gunners with Modric beginning to come into his own. It was a free-kick won by the quick feet of Modric that led to the equaliser. Van der Vaart’s attempt from the dead ball was imprudently handled inside the box by Fabregas, stationed in the defensive wall, and the referee had little hesitation in awarding a penalty. The Dutchman took the spot-kick himself, stroking the ball into the back of the net with alacrity. Having never won at Arsenal’s home for 17 years, and having failed to win at the home of any of the Big Four – Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal – in 69 attempts, the stage was set for the most glorious victory for Spurs. In the 86th minute, Younes Kaboul who had had a torrid first half glanced home a superbly struck right-wing free-kick from Van der Vaart to win it for Spurs.

The victory heartened Redknapp enough for him to suggest after the game that Spurs are now genuine title contenders. "Chelsea are not as good as they were, Manchester United are not as good as they were … Tottenham are getting closer. Why can't we win it? Why should we be fearful?” he said. Spurs, it must be said, have been excellent against the best of opposition this season, not least against Inter Milan in the Champions League at White Hart Lane. Their first choice eleven may not be as well equipped as Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United or for that matter Manchester City, but they do seem to possess more strength in depth than any of these four. To judge their potential title credibility on the basis of this victory against Arsenal alone may be ill-advised, but Redknapp certainly seems to have the tactical answers and the players at his disposal to mix it with the best.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Vettel wins in style

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A pulsating formula one season was brought to a fitting end at Abu Dhabi today. Sebastian Vettel, aged 23, clinched his first title, and became the youngest ever World Champion by winning at the Yas Marina Circuit with a drive of pace and purpose. Leading almost from start to finish, Vettel didn’t offer an ounce of a chance to the rest of the field, maintaining his concentration and tempo through the course of the race with aplomb.

Fernando Alonso, placed at the top of the championship going into the finale and starting from third on the grid, began the race as the favourite, to win his third title. At the end though, neither did Alonso possess the pace nor was his team’s tactics prudent. Slow off the blocks, Alonso slipped to fourth in the opening corner before pitting early and finding himself wedged in traffic, with Renault’s Vitaly Petrov keeping the Spaniard at bay for the best part of forty laps. It may be easy to say in hindsight, but had Alonso stayed on the track for longer, as Jenson Button did, he may well have secured the fourth place that he needed to lift the title.

Vettel, in tears on the slowing down lap after taking the chequered flag, has been undoubtedly the quickest racer this season, as evinced by his ten pole positions. A combination of ill-discipline and bad-luck may have seen him struggle to take grip of the championship – he never led the points tally prior to the conclusion of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. But his three victories in the final four races of the season saw him seize the moment with a champion’s touch.

With Michael Schumacher returning to the grid, the season promised much even before it began. But the seven time world champion had a disastrous year, finding himself easily eclipsed by his teammate Nico Rosberg. The season though did not fail to lure. Rather strangely for Formula One, it has been remarkable, more for its on-the-track racing as opposed to off-the-track politics. For the first time in its sixty-one year history, Formula One saw four drivers – Alonso, Mark Webber, Vettel, and Lewis Hamilton – with a mathematical chance of lifting the title going into the final race of the season. But had Alonso won, Ferrari’s team orders to allow the Spaniard to pass Felipe Massa to victory at Hockenheim may have left more than a sour taste. Therefore, Vettel’s victory is, perhaps, a vindication of a philosophy that championships can be secured devoid of favouritism. Red Bull remained insistent in shying away from imposing team orders – although some may argue that they clearly favoured Vettel over Webber.

Alonso was, no doubt, desperately close to securing the title. But Ferrari as Massa’s poor form demonstrated have been ruefully off the pace. It was a product more of Alonso’s class than Ferrari’s pace that saw the Spaniard stay in touch with the Red Bulls and the McLarens. In the end, it was quite appropriate that the quickest racer on the field emerged victorious. Vettel’s maturity has soared with the season’s progress. Denied a victory at South Korea after leading with a few laps left to go, due to an engine failure, Vettel said to his engineers: ‘Well, it can happen – let's just go for it in the last couple of races.’ And didn’t he and Red Bull go for it? Two pole positions and two victories, at Brazil and Abu Dhabi, later, the German has secured, what I would imagine is the first of many driver’s titles to come.

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Diwali Weekend

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The Diwali holiday weekend gave me a lot of time to watch sport, and needing no invitation I readily indulged, almost unhealthily. Here are some notes from my gluttonous viewing.


Test-match cricket has once again proved to be a game of glorious uncertainties. New Zealand, lowly New Zealand, had India on the mat on day four of the first test-match at Ahmedabad. Had it not been for a fantastic partnership between Harbhajan Singh – who scored his first century – and V.V.S. Laxman – whose stock as a man for the crisis is ever-increasing – India could well have come a cropper. New Zealand’s resurgence, though, had much to do with a century each by debutant Kane Williamson, and Jesse Ryder. While they were both fine knocks, Ryder’s century offered a rare pleasure. It’s hard to imagine a man of his build taking part in any other sport of consequence, so to see him succeed gave us a glimpse of the joys that cricket can provide. His century wasn’t belligerent, as you would expect from someone his size, but was measured and methodical. Along with Williamson, Ryder ensured that ‘collectively’, the Kiwis punched well above their weight.


Football is a great leveller. Days after their outstanding victory against European champions Inter Milan, Tottenham Hotspur were brought crashing back to earth by Bolton Wanderers who fashioned a 4-2 victory at the Reebok Stadium. Although, Owen Coyle has got Bolton playing some pleasant football – a sharp contrast to the days of Sam Allardyce – much of their strength remains in the aerial ability of their strikers and the bulk of their midfielders. Kevin Davies who scored twice and Fabrice Muamba who covered almost every blade of grass on the pitch were both massive for the Trotters. But amid all the physicality little Stuart Holden, anchoring the midfield for Bolton, impressed the most. The, Scotland born, U.S.A international has shown himself to be an excellent reader of the game. Although he generally keeps his passing neat and tidy, he does possess the ingenuity to cut open a defence, when required.


Sunday’s Rome derby – widely regarded as one of the world’s feistiest football ties - failed to live up to its billing. Tactically, though, the battle did offer some elements of fascination. Both teams lined up in strangely asymmetrical formations that saw huge gaps on Lazio’s right and Roma’s left wing. But neither John Arne Riise nor Stephan Lichtsteiner – Roma’s left-fullback and Lazio’s right-fullback – could exploit this space. On the account of the football played, Roma probably deserved the win that they secured courtesy a penalty each from Marco Borriello and Mirko Vucinic. The victory helped keep intact Claudio Ranieri’s record of never having lost a derby in Italy as a manager. The result also sees Lazio’s lead over A.C. Milan at the top of the table trimmed by two points.


The league leaders in England, Chelsea, also had their lead slashed to two points after Fernando Torres returned to form to score two splendid goals at Anfield. Roy Hodgson lined Liverpool in a 4-4-1-1 – a system that he had used for most of his time at Fulham – with Dirk Kuyt floating behind Torres, Raul Meireles continuing as a right midfielder, and Steven Gerrard playing as a conventional central midfielder alongside Lucas Levia, who inarguably had his best ever game in a Liverpool shirt. Torres’s first goal, as impressive as it was – a dink over Petr Cech after he had glibly controlled Kuyt’s pass – was eclipsed by his second goal that was a thing of captivating beauty. The Anfield crowd purred with delight as the Spaniard collected Meireles’s ball and curved it around a bemused Cech to find the bottom left corner. Didier Drogba reportedly suffering from a fever was brought on for the second half, but it was to no avail. Liverpool retained their shape with aplomb and controlled proceedings wonderfully well in the second period. After a turbulent start to the campaign, Liverpool are now only 5 points adrift of fourth placed Manchester City. Much work remains to be done at the club, but with Torres and Gerrard – who scored a hat-trick after coming on a substitute against Napoli on Thursday in the Europa League – returning to form, I’d expect Liverpool to secure European qualification with ease.


Paul Scholes, remains one of the most influential midfielders in England. Manchester United were utterly awful for much of the 74 minutes they spent without Scholes on the pitch against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Although the little maestro didn’t have a direct impact on the game, the shift in United’s rhythm and tempo upon his arrival was palpable. His slight feints and changes in pace to find space in the middle of the park and the precision of his passing were a joy to behold. United have lost several players under Sir Alex Ferguson’s twenty-four-year rein and have managed to find a way around it, either by means of a straight replacement or a tweak in the system. But replacing Scholes, when he does quit, could well be Ferguson’s hardest ever task, assuming of course that the task does fall upon him and not his successor.

See below for the Guardian chalkboard that graphically shows Scholes' completed passes.

by Guardian Chalkboards

Saturday, November 6, 2010

'Purposeful Practice Makes Perfect'

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Matthew Syed’s book – Bounce: How Champions Are Made – is an interesting even if not an entirely illuminating read. Syed, formerly Britain’s number one table-tennis player and presently a journalist with the Times, argues that ‘purposeful practice,’ and not innate talent, plays the most crucial role in moulding a champion. He relies on examples from a variety of fields, and on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, to conclude upon the 10,000 hour rule: that a person acquires mastery of a skill by practicing purposefully for a period of at least 10,000 hours. Syed uses his own success in table tennis as a case-in-point. He says it was a combination of circumstances – 24-hour access to a table-tennis court, and the presence of a world class coach in his area – and rigorous practice that casted him into a top table-tennis player. How else, according to him, could a small road in Reading have produced a glut of table-tennis champions? – Silverdale Road contained an astonishing number of the nation’s best table tennis players.

Syed cites several instances in an endeavour to establish the superiority of practice over talent, but his argument isn’t particularly novel, even if the evidence adduced may well be considered as its further proof. In a way it’s flattering to think that had I practiced as hard and as purposefully as, say, Sachin Tendulkar did, I may well have perfected the skills that make a champion cricketer. But as compelling as the evidence may be, the romantic in me makes me want to believe in the ‘innate’ gifts that lend a god-like status to some sportsmen.

The book’s core arguments may not be particularly thought-provoking, but Syed provides several other fascinating insights. One such is the role of the Placebo Effect in moulding a sports champion. He cites the examples of triple jump legend Jonathan Edwards, and Muhammad Ali, for whom religion played the part of the Placebo. Edwards, once a devout Christian, when asked if religion played a crucial role in his success, said: “Without doubt. Looking back, I can see that my faith was pivotal to my success... It provided a profound sense of reassurance because I took the view that the result was in God’s hands and that God was on my side. It enabled me to block out doubt in the moments before I was due to jump.” Likewise, Muhammad Ali, who prior to the Rumble-in-the-Jungle bout against George Foreman, a fight that Foreman was favoured to win, said: “How can I lose when Allah is on my side?”

Syed has also sought to dispel any notion of black superiority in running. The abundance of successful Kenyan middle-distance runners, he argues, is a product more of circumstance than genes. He says that a startling majority of the Kenyan runners come from the Nandi district, a small region that is marked by its hilly terrain. High altitude as research has shown is an excellent environment to build endurance. This coupled with the fact that most Kenyan children have to run more than 20 kilometres to reach their school everyday means that they accumulate incredible amounts of practice time before they are sixteen – a phenomenon that Syed argues is directly linked to the superfluity of Kenyan runners.

But, perhaps, the most fascinating aspect of the book is Syed’s views on drugs. He endeavours to find a middle road between prohibition and full scale legalisation. He says that the safety of a drug is determined by the quantity of its administration, in most cases, and that drugs are not by definition safe or unsafe. In most endurance events, the key to success lies in efficient transmission of oxygen to the muscles via the red blood cells. The percentage of red blood cells known as the haematocrit level (HCT) in the body can be enhanced either by injecting EPO – a hormone banned by the World Anti Doping Agency – or by training at high altitude. It is only when the HCT level is elevated above 55 % in the body that risks of a heart-attack increase. When the level stays below 50 % there is no risk, whether it’s achieved by an infusion of EPO or by training at an altitude. It is interesting to note that it is only EPO which is banned, and not training at an altitude. Syed adds that WADA has spent millions of dollars in trying to figure out a foolproof testing model for EPO. Instead he suggests that all blood-altering techniques must be legalised, and that WADA must directly test for HCT, which is a considerably simpler process. Similarly, for steroids, it would make considerable sense in Syed’s opinion to test for the symptoms of over-use as opposed to the mere use of a steroid, ‘which when used moderately can improve strength and aid recovery without causing significant and damaging side effects’.