Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Semifinal

In this fine piece on perceptions of the great Ayrton Senna, Emma John says that it is often difficult for us, especially in today’s age where “perspective is a disappearing see sporting events outside the prism of our own fan narrative, to realise that the stories around which we base our identities have been moulded and cannibalised by our personal experience of winning or losing.”

Now that the dust has begun to settle, though, on India’s victory against Pakistan yesterday, it may be time to release the fervour which was draped around us and look at the game from outside the prism of our fan narrative, as challenging a task as this may prove to be. The game admittedly took a shape that went beyond the realms of sport – what with the prime ministers of the two nations choosing this as the occasion to break their countries’ diplomatic deadlock. As it turned out, it was as much an occasion for fans of extravaganza of any kind as it was for fans of the sport – the cheers that Aamir Khan got even as some of the cricketers were going about their motions in the build up to the game was mildly sickening. But its every man for himself I suppose – who am I to pass judgments on the degrees and boundaries of fandom? What I can say, though, is that for all the hullabaloo and in spite of the appreciable importance of India’s triumph, I may probably remember close to diddly-squat about this match in the years to come.

As I reflected on the game today, I couldn’t help but note that there was nothing particularly special about the victory. The quality of the cricket wasn’t at any admirable standard and, perhaps, a few years from now this game, devoid as it was of outstanding moments, will be eradicated from memory. The 1996 quarter-final and for that matter the meeting in 2003 between these teams, though, will conceivably be etched forever in my mind. Ajay Jadeja’s slog-over heroics and that celebrated delivery from Venkatesh Prasad to dislodge Aamir Sohail’s off-stump a ball after he was unleashed with a mouthful of vitriol from the batsman are indelible moments. Likewise, Sachin Tendulkar’s brutal assault at Centurion in 2003 against a bowling attack composed of Shoaib Akhtar, Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram, in a game played on the backdrop of boiling political differences between the nations will remain amongst the finest World Cup moments. Those three Tendulkar strokes in Akhtar’s opening over for 14 thrilling runs represents a moment of peerless genius.

Yesterday, though, from an Indian perspective there was little of outstanding note. Had Pakistan won, maybe the game would have been remembered for the inspired and quite astonishing spell of swing bowling from Wahab Riaz. As it turned out Riaz’s performance, easily the game’s best individual act was not even good enough to bring him the man-of-the-match award. Instead, Tendulkar, dropped on four occasions en route to a scratchy 85 – possibly one of his worst ODI half centuries – bagged the honours. Thank heavens, though, that this was not the day for his hundredth hundred. India’s batting barring Virender Sehwag’s explosive start and Suresh Raina’s fine hand at the end was largely insipid and stripped out of its character by the superb Riaz.

In response, Pakistan began brightly, but as is so often the case with it, it somehow contrived to gift wicket after wicket to the Indians. Mohammad Hafeez, Asad Shafiq, and Younis Khan all fell to innocuous deliveries. Misbah ul Haq dawdled around for eternity, leaving it far too late for the final assault. No doubt, Munaf Patel and Ashish Nehra – whose inclusion in the Eleven ahead of R. Ashwin seemed inexplicable – bowled disciplined spells and M.S. Dhoni captained with typical calmness if not panache, but the game lacked a performance of singular brilliance – an unforgettable act of distinction.

It remains, however, a victory for India over Pakistan, that too in a World Cup semi-final – up until now the highest round in which the teams have ever met in the competition. The histrionic pre-game build-up was more incredible than any in recent memory. The victory celebrations lived up to the game’s billing – firecrackers were set alight across the country. Maybe it’s the occasion which we will remember in the years to come and not so much the cricket. But by any account, it will count for nigh-on nothing if India is to come a cropper at Mumbai on Saturday.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Let's not go all Moral over Tendulkar's Walk

On Sunday 45000 people crammed into Chepauk to witness what they perceived would be a divine experience. When Sachin Tendulkar walked back into the pavilion ninety eight runs short of what would have been his hundredth hundred, the silence was almost resonant. Some would argue that by walking off the field before umpire Steve Davies could lift his finger – the general conjecture is that the decision would have gone the batsman’s way – a celestial experience is exactly what they got. But cricket, as Andy Bull rightly points out in this week’s Spin – Guardian’s weekly cricket column – is a game of skewed morals. The ethical code in cricket, Bull says, “exists in shades of grey rather than black and white.” Indeed a day before India’s game against the West Indies, Ricky Ponting having blatantly edged one to Kamran Akmal against Pakistan stood his ground, until umpire Marais Erasmus’s decision was overturned via the UDRS. Ponting has never been a walker and he makes no bones about it – “If I get a nick behind to the keeper, then I stand there until the umpire makes a decision.”

But before I get to the morality of the issue of walking or the aspect of decisions balancing themselves out over the course of a cricketer’s career, it is important to point out that Tendulkar hasn’t always been a walker. To exalt his decision to walk against the West Indies as a saintly act would, therefore, be a statement steeped in misconceptions. As Sourav Ganguly remarked in an interview with a television channel, “Sachin has never done that in the past, let's be honest, and he shouldn't because there have been times when he has been given out and he was not out.” The headlines in many Indian newspapers, such as the Times of India, which read “Sachin Tendulkar puts integrity above quest for 100th ton;” the Deccan Herald, which expressed his decision as “Walking tall on the cricketing pitch” and the Hindustan Times, which said that this was “another instance of the high standards he has set for himself,” are all not even worth the price of paper on which they’ve been printed. There have been numerous instances when Tendulkar has been happy to wait for the umpire’s decision; carrying on, in fact, had the decision wrongly gone in his favour. So let’s not idolize inconsistent acts and lose track of the distorted moralities of cricket.

The broad conception that has developed in recent years, particularly on the back of Adam Gilchrist’s decision to walk in a World Cup semi-final – it may also be worthwhile to point out that Gilchrist himself has failed to walk on odd occasions – is that it is the prerogative of the individual to choose whether to walk and that morality doesn’t dictate such actions. But the fact remains that cricket, albeit a game littered with individual statistics, is a team sport. Had Virat Kohli, who batted at one-drop, got a clanger from Steve Davis, I am not sure the Indian team would have been best pleased with Tendulkar. As Ganguly said in the same T.V. interview, “It could be a big game, India 100 for three, Tendulkar batting on 55 and holding the key to India's success. I would really not want him to walk unless an umpire has given him out.” A cricketer's decision to walk does affect the performance of his team and therefore to consign the choice as purely the prerogative of the individual is scarcely in the interest of the sport.

Further, a person's move to walk could impact an umpire’s decision-making. If a batsman renowned to be a walker stays his ground when he has, in fact, edged a ball even if he is honestly unaware of it, psychologically the umpire may think – hang on, this fellow usually walks, so he surely couldn't have edged it and rules, wrongly, in favour of the batsman. No doubt it is the umpire’s job to look beyond such possibilities and make decisions purely on the basis of what he sees. But that said I find it difficult to imagine that umpires, being only human, are unaffected by such psychological considerations. The game would be richer I believe if everyone did their own jobs without aiming to claim a moral high ground.

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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Of Aesthetics and Amla

We watch sports for a variety of reasons, some of which are detailed exquisitely in this series by the football blog, Run of Play. In part two of the series, the author speaks of our proclivity for the aesthetic – which in our world is represented through ‘painting, music, and dance.’ He says in football, aestheticism is often found in amalgam with reality – ‘unlike a ballet, it has no predetermined plan or outcome.’ This is of course as true for cricket as it is, perhaps, for all sports. A beautiful cover-drive is made that much more attractive by its connection to reality – the fact that it is unfolding live before our eyes. Our search for beauty therefore often finds validation in the world of sport.

Aesthetics, though, is not a blanket concept. What constitutes beauty is fundamentally in the eyes of the beholder. Any analysis, therefore, on the beauty of a given stroke or a batsman’s style is mostly subjective – I am sure someone out there takes immense pleasure in watching Simon Katich, Shivnarine Chanderpaul or god forbid Graeme Smith play. (Incidentally they are all left-handed batsmen, a breed generally considered more aesthetically appealing)

But does appreciation of beauty have to be natural or is it something that can be constructed? Can we grow to enjoy a certain style as the aesthetics of it begins to impose its beauty – an acquired taste, if you will? Largely, I believe first impressions are the most lasting. I must have fallen in love with Damien Martyn’s batting, for instance, the first time I saw him hit one of those crisp and pristine square drives. With Hashim Amla’s batting, though, this has certainly not been the case.

For the longest time, ever since Amla began to wield a bat in international cricket, I found his style inelegant, gawky even. Indeed, after an inauspicious beginning to his career, he slowly began to make runs in heaps. Yet, I remained doggedly unimpressed, not by his effectiveness mind you, but by his mode of run-getting, which somehow appeared graceless. He seemed to, no doubt, ooze this Zen like serenity at the crease, but the double arced back-lift – he drags the bat back twice, before striking the ball – and an excessive flourish of the wrist, I felt, was ungainly.

Over the last couple of years, though, even as Amla has plundered almost every bowling attack in every format of the game, my opinion has wavered. At times, I find myself in awe of his abilities – his drives through the off-side often timed and placed to perfection can be breathtaking to behold. Yet, now and again, the same drive, timed and placed just as well can look clunky. And even more bizarrely, in the ongoing World Cup, Amla has looked at his most elegant in his knocks of 42 against England, 61 against India and 51 against Bangladesh, while he has looked rather uneasy in his century at Mohali against the Netherlands.

Where then on the aesthetic pedestal is Amla placed? Quite honestly, I continue to grapple with the question. It seems Amla’s batting polarises opinion more than any other’s. Some find it utterly gorgeous, while others cannot stand to watch it. What I do know is that on many occasions, he can make batting look ridiculously easy – as he did at Chepauk against England on a landmine of a pitch before playing onto his stumps an innocuous delivery from Stuart Broad – a dismissal that opened the floodgates for a South African collapse. Till the point of his ouster, though, Amla had batted with sagacious tranquillity – unperturbed it seemed by the demons on the pitch. So even if his stroke-play can generate a mixture of either aesthetic delectation or aesthetic torment, his disposition at the crease will always remain a joyous sight.

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Sunday, March 13, 2011

Confidence Boosting Victory for the Proteas

The thriller between India and South Africa contained many moments worthy of consideration as the chief turning point, the moment that tipped the balance in South Africa’s favour. Some would say India’s astonishing batting collapse aided no small measure by an inspired spell from Dale Steyn (five for 50) that saw it reduced from 267 for one to 296 all-out, represents that moment. Others would point to South Africa’s batting power-play in which it conjured 52 runs for the loss of only one wicket. India’s captain M.S. Dhoni, reckons South Africa’s fielding made the crucial difference – saved it at least 15 runs in his opinion. Maybe it was the Proteas’ approach to the chase – steady at the top with the fireworks following later that proved telling. But in truth, rarely is one single moment or phase of the game responsible for its outcome. Yesterday the sum total of India’s efforts in the field simply failed to weigh up. Mistakes were made, no doubt, but this is no disaster. The team needs to consider its frailties, endeavour to correct them and get on with its game.

More crucial, though, in the larger scheme of this World Cup is the confidence that South Africa may derive out of this victory. Having choked itself out of many World Cups in the past, the climax of this chase would have done little to sooth its nerves, but the result could banish many a demon from its players’ minds. With 13 to get off the last over, and with the team’s spine-tingling defeat against England fresh in memory, the prospect of a cruel World Cup exit would have been at the forefront of their thoughts. But Robin Peterson in flaying Ashish Nehra – albeit aided by a fortuitous inside edge off the first ball – ensured a South African victory that was far in keeping from its usual form at such crucial junctures. The chase could give the Proteas not only a faith in its talents, but could also ensure that it evades Australia – so often its nemesis – in the quarter-finals.

South Africa has been perennial World Cup underachievers. It has gone into virtually every edition since it made its debut in the tournament in 1992 as one of the favourites, only to come undone either by nasty bits of luck or a failure to hold its nerves at the most decisive of occasions. On the back of its failure to chase down 171 against England in an admittedly difficult wicket at Chepauk last week, its pursuit at Nagpur yesterday invoked several déjà vu moments, not least when Johan Botha having hammered 23 of 15 deliveries fell with 17 runs left to get. What transpired though was a rare piece of brilliance from Peterson.

Had Peterson and South Africa failed to cross the line, this may well have represented the end of the road for the country in this World Cup. No doubt its remaining two fixtures look easy enough on paper, but if it had been forced to play Ireland – a team that, if nothing else, has showcased that it belongs at this level – and Bangladesh – never an easy proposition in its own home – on the back of a defeat to India, it may have been left clutching at straws. As it stands, though, its remarkable chase against India may not only give it the impetus to top its Group but the confidence to win games under pressure in the knockout rounds. Ominous signs, indeed.

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Saturday, March 5, 2011

The genius of Sachin Tendulkar

‘Talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see’. These are the famous words of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, and as I watched Sachin Tendulkar fashion a magnificent century against England at the Chinnaswamy stadium, they seemed most apposite. Of course, England’s bowling was mediocre, at best, and later in the day Andrew Strauss matched and perhaps bettered Tendulkar’s innings; yet it seemed Tendulkar was the real genius.

But this begs the question as to what constitutes genius? Is there at all a place for the word in the world of sport, where its usage is hackneyed – often employed even to describe the banal and the pedantic? Teresa Lacerda and Stephen Mumford in an outstanding article in the Journal of Philosophy on Sport – yes there does exist something of its ilk – argue that while in art, the genius “innovates some new technique, movement or style”, in sport, “the genius is one who creates new sporting strategies that tend toward competitive success.”

To me, genius is a mastery of space, achieved through intuition – an exertion of one’s will over another. Throughout history man has been fascinated by space and philosophers great and meek have theorized on its forms. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, wrote in Critique of Pure Reason that space is an a priori form – something intuitive from which knowledge is later gained. Kant’s work may have come under intense criticism, but in many ways his theory on space finds embodiment in the world of sport and nowhere more perfectly than in the batting of Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar.

As Tendulkar carved gaps in the field that even to the probing eye seemed non-existent, my father, with whom I was watching the game, opined that this was down to pure providence. Placement of such precision, he said, cannot be calculated. Yet, I thought, it was this innate ability of Tendulkar’s that sets him apart from the rest. His knowledge of where the spaces in the field were seemed utterly intuitive and not least bit manufactured. The works of a genius are rarely explicable and as Kant argued, even the genius is himself often unaware of how his idea was conceived. I am sure Lionel Messi would not have an answer to how he dribbles past maze after maze of defenders like they never existed. Genius is vague and enigmatic and therein lies its beauty.

Matthew Syed in his book, ‘Bounce: How Champions are Made,’ uses the Malcolm Gladwell line of thought and argues that talent is overrated; a person acquires command of a skill through purposeful practice for a period of at least 10,000 hours. Tendulkar in his rigorous sessions at the dusty Sivaji Park in Mumbai where he learned the game would have undoubtedly lapped up these hours well before his teenage years. But it is difficult to believe that at the core of his achievements are not his inherent gifts but the strenuous and committed practice of the art. The intense coaching and painstaking training must have surely contributed towards the thriving of his genius, but they most certainly cannot account for its creation.

As he twists his wrists to find the minutest of gaps that leave the opposition and the spectators gaping in awe, Tendulkar himself I doubt is aware of the gravity of his accomplishment. This intrinsic gift, though, is only but an element in his genius. To him creativity bears no boundaries. In a career of over twenty years, he has been faced with the need to constantly innovate; to change his game to suit the demands of the time. But this burden has rested easy on his shoulders. Creativity comes intuitively to Tendulkar. The double-hundred in Sydney in 2004, where he famously shunned the cover-drive was by itself a manifestation of his force – an ability to eschew the natural as an inventive answer to the necessities of the situation.

The sustenance of his talents for more than two decades is, perhaps, the greatest element in Tendulkar’s genius. By meeting the need to create in every step along the way, he has imposed his will like no other – an imperious mastery of space by a true genius.

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