Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Azhar that I want to remember

A few weeks back, Rob Smyth paid tribute in Guardian’s weekly cricket column, Spin, to Rob Moody (aka Robelinda2,) the man behind a truly wonderful youtube archive. As Smyth predicted, I’ve spent much of my time, since, lost in this archive, watching videos ranging from Mark Waugh’s delectable century against Pakistan in 1998 at Karachi to that infamous incident at the MCG in 1981 when Sunil Gavaskar and Chetan Chauhan stormed off the ground in protest against an umpiring decision. The collection contains many other gems including Gary Sobers’s blistering double hundred, against Australia, for a Rest of the World side at the MCG in 1972; an entire Malcolm Marshall spell, showcasing his mastery over both swing and seam, against New Zealand in 1987; Mike Atherton’s gutsy, back-against-the-wall innings against a fiery Allan Donald, and South Africa at Trent Bridge in 1998; and some of Graham Thorpe’s finest innings’ – a player that I always enjoyed watching – to name but a few in a plenteous collection.

I keep coming back, though, to Mohammad Azharuddin and the six centuries of his that are featured in the archive. Growing up, Azhar was my hero; I worshipped his batting for it seemed to transcend all boundaries of artistry. Unlike Inzamam Ul Haq and Carl Hooper – two other batsmen that I particularly loved watching – Azhar wasn’t unhurried; he never seemed to have as much time to play his shots as those two. But his hands were always so quick, his wrists always sinuous and his timing invariably pristine that his batting glistened with an incomparable joyousness.

Previously, before I discovered Roblinda2’s channel, the only clips of Azhar’s batting that I’d seen on youtube were highlights of a century against New Zealand in 1998 – by no means his best – those five consecutive boundaries that he struck off Lance Klusener’s bowling at Eden Gardens in 1996, and his century at Lord’s in 1990 – the fastest ever at the ground. Now, though, thanks to this archive, I’ve watched highlights of his centuries, against England at Calcutta in 1993 and at Old Trafford in 1990; against South Africa at Kanpur in 1996; and against Australia at Calcutta in 1998 and at the Adelaide Oval in 1992 – each of them crafted not so much with care and precision as with insouciant charm.

Of them all though, I most relished watching his 182 off 197 balls at the Eden Gardens against England for there are many things cherish-worthy about this video. Henry Blofeld’s voice, for one, pervades through the clip. Every time Azhar put bat on ball, Blofeld seemed to go ballistic – not in a mindless IPL-commentary kind of way, but with more genuine, excited enthusiasm. Of course Blofeld was prone to throwing the occasional clanger in commentary, but the video serves as an excellent reminder of jollier times. Four minutes and forty two seconds into the video, there is a clip of Azhar playing a dazzling flick for a boundary, of left arm seamer Paul Taylor’s bowling, not through square-leg or midwicket, but through mid-off. Yes, a flick through MID-OFF timed to perfection that soothes your eye even as you feel for your jaw, which is rapidly descending onto the ground. Six minutes and twelve seconds into the video and Azhar caresses Taylor’s ball to the extra-cover boundary; I haven’t seen the usually laconic David Gower being more profuse in his praise – “sumptuous shot by Azharuddin,” he screams, “and Eden Gardens is going potty.”

This was a sight for the gods – Azhar, killing England ever so softly, with gentle flicks and delectable late-cuts timed and placed with astonishing purity. This is the Azhar that I want to remember. The Azhar who wielded a cricket bat like a magician would his wand. The Azhar who would cut the opposition to ribbons not violently but through sublime delicacy. The Azhar who batted like nobody else could.

Indeed, as Rohit Brijnath said in this wonderful homage, there is no justification for Azhar’s misdeeds; I surely haven’t forgiven him for them. But courtesy Robelinda2, I will now be able to transport myself to an age when Azhar batted like a dream – to watch some of his most gorgeous knocks in an endeavour, not to forget his misdeeds, but to remember what made him so prized in the first place.

(Also posted at:

Monday, July 4, 2011

Djokovic and the Art of Preserving Energy

July 20, 1937: Don Budge and Gottfried von Cramm meet in the centre court at Wimbledon in the final tie of the Davis Cup semi-final between the United States and Germany. The match, as Marshall Jon Fisher recounts in his exemplary book, A Terrible Splendor, had a significance that stretched beyond the realms of tennis and sport. Von Cramm races to a two sets to love lead, playing an exquisite, stylish brand of tennis that was nonetheless exhausting against Budge whose power game was incomparable. A closely fought third set that took a toll on both players is edged out by Budge 6-4 and with the American leading early in the fourth set, von Cramm chooses to ease up, to conserve his energy for the decider – a tactic, which ludicrous as it sounds now, was in those days considered very viable. As Fisher describes: “There is no way Cramm is going to break Budge three times in one set, he knows, and that is what he would have to do to win the fourth. He decides to conserve his energy for the fifth set. He puts up little resistance on Budge’s next two service games, wins his own without too much exertion and concedes the set six-two.”

In the final set, von Cramm speeds to a 3-1 lead, his tactics look sound, but Budge recovers superbly and ultimately succeeds 8-6. Quite conceivably, the German’s strategy of preserving energy for the deciding set was misjudged, but it was one that had worked wonderfully in the past not least for him, but for Budge too, and it was one that he had no choice but to deploy. We don’t hear of such approaches in modern-day tennis, but to believe that they are redundant would be erroneous.

It is, perhaps, safe to assume that such a method was not in Novak Djokovic’s mind at the start of the match. He would have merrily taken a straight sets victory. In the second set, he had come as close to perfection as is imaginable against Rafael Nadal. He was able to scurry across the back of the court chasing improbable balls that would have been winners against any other player, and was able to return them not so much with mere interest and purpose, but with glorious certitude.

Yet, he was broken early in the third set. His concentration levels had dropped, as is only normal after two sets of scintillating tennis, and Nadal was now beginning to exert his authority. Djokovic chose not to consume excessive energy in aiming to get back into the set. Instead he focused his efforts on beginning the fourth set in optimum physical condition. Having allowed Nadal a way back into the match early in the third set, he had two options, either to keep his efforts up and aim at breaking Nadal back – which looked unfeasible at the time considering how well Nadal was serving – or to drop his levels a bit, and ensure that he retained enough energy to launch a more sustained attack in the fourth set. Djokovic, wisely, chose the latter and broke early in the fourth to go up two games to love.

Nadal’s physical condition, by then, had understandably slumped – he had worked consistently hard throughout the first three sets – whereas Djokovic was able to find renewed vitality. Had Djokovic chased Nadal in the third set and had he failed, which was very conceivable considering the Spaniard’s improved game, both players would have begun the fourth set in almost identical physical condition. As it stood, Djokovic was the more relaxed; he was able to restore the rhythm to his game and although Nadal broke back in the set, albeit fortuitously, the Serb’s newfound confidence meant that in his superior physical state, the victory was almost inevitable. He broke Nadal’s serve again at 4-3, served and volleyed at a tricky time at thirty-all in the next game and won his first Wimbledon, a big fat cherry that now sits atop his status as the world’s new number one player.

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Saturday, July 2, 2011

Murray and the lack of a champion's mind

Very often we hear of a moment – a single point, a single tackle, or a single ball – that turned a sporting contest on its head: the turning point, as it were. Invariably these are rather tenuous for a tennis match is played over three or five sets, a football match over ninety minutes and test match cricket over five days. Yet, on some occasions the turning point is palpably clear, a moment when the tide obviously turned, a moment that wrecked seemingly irrevocable damage on one of the competitors.

Yesterday, Andy Murray dazzled for a set and three games, serving with pace and precision and whipping his forehands with audacious venom and spin. One would have been forgiven for thinking that he may finally step out of the shadow of Fred Perry whose name has hung over every British player that has taken the court since his retirement. But at 2-1 in the second set of his semi-final, with Rafael Nadal serving at 15-30, Murray missed a sitter of a forehand, sending it long when it would have been easier to find a winner. With that the damage had been done. From that point, Nadal won seven games in a row, a stretch that saw him win the second set and take an early break in the third; a stretch from which Murray never recovered.

Let’s set aside Murray’s British roots for a moment – even if it perhaps has something to do with his frailties. His pure abilities as a tennis player can at times be a joy to behold, as it indeed was in the opening phases of his tie against Nadal. When playing with confidence, Murray’s coverage of the court is incomparable; he has a happy knack of finding funky angles that even the very best find difficult to counter. He can hit his double-handed backhand with depth and pace, and is equally capable of removing the left hand to play delicious slices that are often devious in their execution. His forehand is a more rugged weapon, harsher and tougher to counter when in full tilt, but vulnerable when his confidence dips. Yesterday, its vagaries were in abundant evidence. When in command, it was his chief weapon, but when his conviction waned at 2-1 in the second set, it was the forehand that let him down. In the very next game, Murray placed an easy overhead long, on break point, to hand the initiative to Nadal; a grip which the Spaniard never let slip.

Murray continued to go for broke in the games that followed – a strategy, which worked wonderfully in the first set. This, though, isn’t his natural game. He likes to dab and slice, slow the pace of the point and use his nous rather than power to outmanoeuvre opponents. For as long as it fell his way, it seemed the right way to play, but having taken the lead, the tactic ultimately proved injudicious. He needed to settle down into a rhythm, one in which he could dictate the tempo of the match, not by muscling the ball, but by forcing Nadal to create his own pace. By the time he was able to get back on board, though, the Spaniard had wrested control. Nadal had begun to unleash his groundstrokes – particularly his forehand – with outrageous portions of topspin, getting the ball to kick off the grass with biting venom. He showed the mind of a champion, one whose focus never seems to waver. Murray, on the other hand, having displayed incredible skill in the opening phases, sank deeper into a quagmire of his own doing. His tactics needed to be more exact. And even more importantly, he needed to realise that one poor forehand is hardly the end of it.

Nadal broke twice in the third set and once in the fourth, winning them 6-2, 6-4 and sealing a place in the final against Novak Djokovic. Gracious as ever he said after the match: “Andy Murray today didn't win a Grand Slam, but he's a much better player than a lot of players who have won Grand Slams in the past." Murray has two options – either to feel sorry for himself that he is playing in one of the most competitive eras of men’s tennis or to work harder, not merely on his tennis skills, but on his mind, which had it remained strong, he may well have been the first Briton since Bunny Austin in 1938 to reach a Wimbledon final.