The Old ‘Test’ament

Ten reasons why I like good old test cricket.

Memorabilia from the Centenary Test Match, Melbourne Cricket Ground, Victoria

It is the holiday season. The world is making merry. Late night parties, food coma time! My alarm clock wakes me up at 4:45 am though. It’s pitch dark outside. The coffee is brewing as I am all set- to watch the first ball of the Boxing Day Melbourne test. This has become a habit now. There is something about waking up early to see a gripping test match. If the venue is Australia, then it is even better. The world has moved on to ODI’s and T20 cricket. But I still like my cricket the old school way. So this post is dedicated to all test cricket lovers. Here are ten reasons why I still like good old test cricket.

  • There is something ethereal about test cricket. The traditional whites- there can be many tennis events but there can just be one Wimbledon right?! The red cherry, the white sight screen all add to the aura. There is a nervous excitement as the umpires (in whites again) call ‘Play’. The swinging ball with a full slip cordon, mark the beginning of an eventful five days.
  • Test cricket is a platform for specialists. ‘Bits and pieces’ players have no role to play here. You better be good in plying your trade because this format will surely ‘test’ you. Ask for a traditional opener and you have Boycott, the no.4 can be Sachin as an accumulator, Steve Waugh can be your no.6 to play the role of crisis man or shepherd the tail. The all-rounder ideally at no.7 can balance the side like Kapil or Botham. You need genuine swing bowlers like McGrath to take the new ball or Akram to give it reverse swing with the old ball. Only a great spinner like Warne will do here- to take advantage of a wearing pitch on a fifth day. Why? You even have specialist fielding positions here- like our very own Eknath Solkar at forward short leg.
  • Test cricket truly calls for skills in the ‘art of leaving’. In the T20 era where dot balls are like maiden overs, test cricket still rewards those who try and wait. The first hour of the match especially calls for oodles of patience- it’s like you move ahead by taking two steps back. The openers perform the thankless job of waiting and waiting, ensuring that that the shine wears off the new ball so that the middle order can make merry when the sun is out. Remember Sanjay Bangar playing this role to perfection at Headingley with a painstaking 68 as India made 600 plus in the 2002 test win.
  • Test cricket also truly tests the adaptability of a player. Sunny Gavaskar is considered one of the best test batsmen of all times as he had 13 centuries against the fearsome Windies fast bowling line-up while being equally comfortable tackling spinners on a dustbowl of a fifth day wicket- his Bangalore 96 in the fourth innings vs Pakistan is considered to be one of the classics. Sachin with 51 tons has mastered all conditions. Among modern day greats, Steve Smith has done well in the sub-continent as much as home fast conditions. Kohli needs to tick the box in English conditions. He has pretty much ruled everywhere else.
  • There is that adventure of doing well in an away series in tests. Normally all countries do well at home but great teams win overseas. That was Ganguly’s legacy when he captained India- the team traveled well and drew in Australia and won in Pakistan. The Aussies under Steve Waugh considered India to be the ‘Final Frontier’ in their ‘Alexander-esque’ ambition of conquering all in early 2000’s. How can one forget the India batting collapse at Barbados 1997 chasing 120 to win? Away performance is also a reason I hold the South African team in great regard- they were unbeaten away from home for close to a decade from 2006 onwards. Fingers crossed, Kohli & co. will be able to do a South Africa to South Africa in the current series!
  • Test matches give you a great opportunity to make a comeback. Very recently, England scored 400 in the Perth test and still lost by an innings. Because the match goes on for five days, there is always a chance of a team turning the tide, however hopeless the case may be. Remember the Eden test in 2001 where Dravid and Laxman scripted the unthinkable by batting through the fourth day? Or Botham’s amazing performance to turnaround the Ashes Headingley 1981 test match.
  • Then there is the drama around declarations. This is purely the captain’s call. Do you want to be aggressive and give your bowlers more time? But you may declare early and give the opponents enough time to win the test! It’s fascinating. Sometimes it opens a can of worms and lot of talking points- like Dravid’s declaration at Multan which left Sachin stranded at 194.
  • There is also the concept of night-watchman that comes into play in test cricket. When the end of the day is drawing close, a bowler is sent in to protect specialist batsmen and in a way buy time so that they can prosper the next day. It’s a riveting sequence of play normally. Some of the night-watchmen have gone on to make useful contributions and created nuisance for the opposition- like Gillespie with a double ton in his last test vs Bangladesh.
  • The day 5 action is usually the highlight of a test match. The pitch deteriorates so the match moves fast, especially in the sub-continent. All four results are possible. There can be a tie like the Chennai 1986 test vs Australia. Or a draw with scores level- as it happened vs West Indies in Mumbai in 2011. Even an attempt to block to draw can be truly memorable- like Amla and ABD’s ‘blockathon’ in vain in Delhi in 2015 when South Africa scored 143 runs in 143 overs trying to get to a draw, but where they ultimately failed.
  • Test cricket also breeds great rivalries. The Ashes is the epitome of test cricket more than a century old. The Border Gavaskar trophy has also given us memorable encounters. At a personal level, Sachin vs Warne or Sunny vs the Windies Fearsome Foursome- mouth-watering stuff!

The world has moved on- so an IPL or Big Bash garner the TRP’s and fill the stadiums. But to me, test cricket is still the pinnacle.

Like Lord Tennyson’s famous lines from the poem ‘Brook’

For men may come, and men may go,

But I go on forever.

Ocean’s Eleven

My Dream Test World XI from this generation.

The test season has finally started. Among the overload of ODI and T20 cricket we see these days, test cricket still has its own old-world charm. It’s like the smell of the morning newspaper that a swipe of the IPad can never give you.  An intense battle with the red ball on the first morning of a test on a lively pitch; A battle for survival on a fifth day turner, test cricket challenges different dimensions of a cricketer. As I reminisce, I remember great tests and great players. I start dreaming…. So if I can assemble my best test eleven, who would I pick? The options are many and the choices hard to make, but here’s my take. I have restricted this list only to players I have seen with my own eyes. So sorry to Bradman and Sobers!

My first pick as an opener is someone who is as safe as a lock. Someone who can play out the first hour to pave the way for my star studded middle order to then make merry. Sunil Gavaskar– the best player for challenging conditions. Who can forget that 96 in Bangalore vs Pakistan on a proverbial dustbowl? ‘Sunny’ was the highest centurion during his time and the breaker of many a milestone. He would also bring in that typical swagger (in his walk) and that ‘khadoos’ Mumbai attitude. He can double up as my first slip fielder.

I will pair up ‘Sunny Bhai’ with Virender Sehwag– what a great ‘Fire & Ice’ combination that will be! ‘Viru’ was the biggest entertainer and match-winner during his time. He would set up matches for India through those explosive starts, thus giving the bowlers enough time to take 20 wickets. Who can forget that unimaginable 284 runs in little over two sessions vs Lanka at Brabourne? The thrill of watching ‘Viru’ hit a six to get to a hundred (or a double or triple hundred) was pure bliss!

My no.3 is the charismatic Brian Charles Lara. Lara is the record holder with a 400 in tests and a 500 in first class cricket. The magician with the exaggerated back-lift- my favourite Lara innings is that 153* for that famous one wicket win vs the Aussies at Bridgetown. He will also bring a great balance in a top order otherwise full of right handed batsmen.

Next will be Lara’s biggest rival, Sachin Tendulkar. A half century of test hundreds and a total basket of hundred international tons, Sachin simply is the best batsman of our generation. He gave hope to us in India when there was none and for many he was no less than ‘God’. For long, taking his wicket would mean winning a match vs India- like the Chennai Test vs Pakistan where he single handedly brought us close but the team crumbled when he fell so near the finishing line. Sachin had amazing longevity and he ruled for 25 years against a wide array of opposition.

At no.5 I pick ‘Mr.Dependable’ all-rounder Jacques Kallis, perhaps the most under-rated cricketer of our times. Kallis has 13k+ plus runs at an average of 55. Add to that his 290 odd wickets and amazing slip fielding, and you get a modern day Colossus. He is the cricketer with the maximum number of ‘Man of the Match’ awards in test cricket with 23. The next best is at 19! A solid batsman and a great first change bowling option, Kallis will add great balance to my team.

Next will be my captain- Steve Waugh. Steve has the highest number of test runs for a no.6 batsman- someone who could resurrect the innings and also accelerate with the tail with equal ease. He had immense mental toughness and will be my safety net for a team full of super stars. You need a strong personality to lead a team of greats- who better than Waugh- he led one of the best ever Aussie teams.

The keeper and no.7 is Adam Gilchrist– one of my favourite cricketers and someone with a great sportsman spirit. ‘Gilly’, apart from being a great wicket keeper, came at no.7 and changed the course of a match with his attacking batting. He would take on the bowling- be it pace or spin, and a run a ball century would be par for course.

The first bowler on my list will be the maverick Shane Warne. He had the best variety and watching him bowl was a treat. Who can forget the ‘ball of the century’ to dismiss Gatting? Shane could spin the ball a mile even on cement. He would also double up as my vice-captain- who can forget his amazing leadership for Rajasthan Royals in IPL1- he was the best captain Australia never had.

At No.9, I pick Wasim Akram– the magician who could make the ball talk. That easy run up and that snap of the shoulder. If you survived Wasim with the new ball, he would come back with the old ball and the reverse swing to set the cat among the pigeons. He was especially deadly with the yorkers versus the tail-enders. Akram was also a handy bat, with a highest score of 257* in test cricket!

Partnering Wasim with the new ball will be Curtley Ambrose. That long run up, the ball coming from an awkward height and then the thoughtful stare- Ambrose terrorized batsmen in the 90’s. His spell of 1 for 7 vs Australia is one of the best spells of fast bowling I can remember. Ambrose and Wasim sharing the new ball will make it a mouth-watering prospect.

Complementing Warne as the second spinner will be the wizard- Muttiah Muralitharan– the man at the top of the summit with 800 wickets. Murali could literally hit a coin on top of the off stump with his nagging accuracy. Imagine watching him bamboozle the opposition in the second innings along with Warne- a dream spinning duo for my team.

My twelfth man is the evergreen Imran Khan. A great leader and one of the best all-rounders ever, Imran can replace Murali if the pitch is spicy and warrants a pace heavy attack. He can also beef up the lower middle order with the extra runs he brings to the table.

So that’s my pick-a team of stalwarts. I have tried to pick the best man at every position. For eg: Viv Richards was a serious contender but he will make it too many Nos.3/4 in the team- so went for a No.6 specialist in Steve Waugh. By the way, Viv will be the first name on the sheet if it was an ODI team, but that’s for another day!

The team has great balance with the ‘chalk and cheese’ combination as openers, two lefties in the top seven, a good mix of attacking batsmen and those who can defend well. In bowling you have a leftie/ rightie opening pace combination complemented by the best ever leg spinner and a wizard off-spinner, with Kallis as the ideal all-rounder. Three batsmen can also back up as part time bowlers. Give us any surface, any venue, and I think this team will rule. I call them my Ocean’s Eleven*.

So what do you think?

*Names which were considered but narrowly missed out are Hayden, Richards, Botham and McGrath.

The Statue of Shane Warne, outside the MCG, Melbourne. ‘Warnie’ was one of the first picks in my ‘Ocean’s Eleven’.








The Art of Leading

A debate on who is the greatest cricket captain of all time..

The winning runs are scored in Nagpur. India has downed the Aussies for a 4-1 ODI series win. Another victory for Kohli and his boys, taking India to the pinnacle of ODI team ranking again. They are comfortably no.1 in tests also. Kohli has truly shown the way- a record which is unmatched in recent times. Leading a team of youngsters, inspiring by aggression, Kohli is like the naughtiest kid who finds his feet once he is made the monitor in school. He lifts the team with his remarkable batting and is also the team’s best fielder. Always setting very high standards, is Kohli going to be India’s best captain of all times? Well, maybe the overseas tour of the big three (South Africa, England, and Australia) will help us answer. Till then, let’s roll back time and debate- who is the greatest cricket captain of all time?

To start with, there is Sourav ‘Dada’ Ganguly. Taking over the reign from Sachin with the backdrop of the betting controversy, Dada truly changed the way India played cricket, over his captaincy reign. In a time when captains used to favour players from their own states, he was the first to back his horses from across India- Yuvi to Bhajji to Zaheer to Sehwag- the list is long. He was a transformational leader- the one who changed the trajectory for Indian cricket and made them a good side overseas in tests. The series draw Down Under and the win in Pakistan were the feathers in the cap, among many others. He was also great in giving a tit for tat- so making Steve Waugh wait for the toss and rubbing him the wrong way in that Famous Eden 2001 test to celebrating by taking off his shirt at the Lords balcony to get back at Flintoff and the Pommies- Dada always gave back more than he got! His leadership and administrative skills are next to none. My hunch is Dada as the BCCI or the ICC head is a day not too far away.

If Dada was the fire, Dhoni is the ice. ‘Mr Cool’ took over after the turmoil that was the 2007 World Cup ODI fiasco in the Windies. Dhoni quickly established his own ‘Band of Boys’, stressed on the importance of fielding, and was in a way ‘The First among Equals’. His record as captain is exemplary- a T20 World Cup, an ODI World Cup, Champions Trophy, No 1 test ranking and numerous IPL’s- the list is complete. MSD is an economist’s delight- marveling when the resources are constrained- no wonder his awesome record as leader in limited over cricket stand out. And who can forget that six at Wankhede to win the World Cup- the best ‘Captain’s knock’ if ever there was one. He is street-smart and instinctive- who else would have given the last over of a final to a rookie like Joginder Sharma? The other thing so admirable about Dhoni is how calm he is no matter what is the result- he would gladly take a back seat after the job is done. So you will struggle to find him in the team pictures after the World Cup wins- reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’- ‘If you can treat victory and defeat.. And treat those two imposters just the same…’.

If you turn back the clock, Imran Khan was another truly charismatic leader. His greatest claim to fame was obviously leading Pakistan to the World Cup win Down Under against all odds. From being all out for 70 odd vs England (the game was luckily abandoned due to rain) to winning it all in Melbourne- it was the stuff of dreams. Imran had the amazing knack to back youngsters and give them confidence- from Qadir to Akram to Inzy- the young blood prospered under him. His magnetic charm and good looks as also the noble cause he espoused for (making a cancer hospital in memory of his late mother) made him appeal to the masses.

There have been a few leaders who have led great teams. Think of the Windies in the late 70’s and Clive Lloyd’s name flashes up. The Aussie ‘Invincibles’ in the early 2000’s and there’s the dour ‘no nonsense’ Steve Waugh. Or the Indian team in the 80’s and that unforgettable picture of Kapil lifting the Prudential Cup in Lords in 1983- these were good leaders who created great milestones. Then there were a few ‘New Age’ leaders who changed the way their team played the game – Martin Crowe in the 1992 World Cup and Arjuna Ranatunga in the 1996 World Cup are the names that pop up. With the novelty of pinch hitting, we got a flavor of T20 cricket well ahead of it’s time.

We have a few young Turks who took over the reign early in their careers and led their country with great success over a long period of time- Stephen Fleming and Graeme Smith are two great examples. There was also the case of average players who were great leaders- Mike Brearley probably justified his position in the team more as a captain than as a batsman. He was known to be among the most astute leaders.

A few possible great captains missed the cut and never got the chance to lead their countries. Shane Warne ‘The Maverick’ shone so brightly as captain for Rajasthan Royals in IPL1- winning it all with a group of youngsters. Specifying a role for every player and maximizing their potential. Yusuf Pathan, Shane Watson and Sohail Tanvir prospered under him. Gautam Gambhir (GG) and his aggression won two IPL’s for KKR. GG unfortunately played for India when the MSD wave was on in full swing. The super attacking fields that GG set won many a game for KKR in IPL- India’s loss was possibly KKR’s gain. There was also ‘Mr.Tracer Bullet’ Ravi Shastri- currently coach of the Indian team. A habitual straight talker, ‘Shaz’ is known to be shrewd strategist with a mind that would have made a good captain.

The one leader who has truly impressed me of late is Mithali Raj. She has a 50+ average for India and has been a successful Indian player in a sport dominated by the Aussies and the English. But she has stood apart for her cool and calm demeanour and she has truly led from the front. Batting for ‘more women power’ in a sports dominated by the men, she has vouched for more live women’s matches on TV and hopefully she will be a reason why we will have a Women’s IPL someday. Amidst many leaders, she stands out- as a true ambassador.

So you have the super aggressive Kohli, to the cool MSD; charismatic Imran to the ‘no nonsense’ Steveda; ‘Mr. Milestone’ Lloyd to the ‘Prudential’ Kapil; the maverick Warne to the ‘ambassador’ Mithali. Who do you think is the greatest captain? No points for guessing, my vote goes to the one and only Royal Bengal Tiger- to Sourav ‘Dada’ Ganguly- because there can be many contenders, but you know there can only be one ‘Maharaja’.

The Lord’s Balcony- venue of Ganguly’s (in)famous shirt waving celebrations.

It takes two to tango

My take on ‘Fedal’ and other great rivalries in the world of sports

2017 has been a watershed year for men’s tennis. At the beginning of the year, if someone suggested that Federer or Nadal would win a Grand Slam, he would have surely been laughed at.  But fast forward to the end of the year, and ‘Fedal’ has swept the Slams- it is Federer 2 Nadal 2. So who is the greater of the two? And hence, the greatest of all time?

The Federer vs Nadal match-up has been the one of the most glorious sporting rivalries of all times, certainly the biggest of the last decade. It’s Federer’s effortless natural ability vs Nadal’s grit and never-say-die attitude; Federer’s grass court ballet vs Nadal’s clay court monopoly; Federer’s poetic backhand vs Nadal’s gladiator like forehand. Who can forget that epic Wimbledon ‘08 final? Surely, one of the best matches of all times. Federer has had the rub of the green in 2017 but Nadal leads the overall head to head 23-14. Federer leads the Slam count 19-16 as of now but Nadal has age on his side to do the catching up maybe. 2017 indicates that we haven’t seen the last of them surely. So let the debates continue as these greats continue to enthrall us.

Tennis has a history of great rivalries and awesome match-ups. I grew up idolizing Becker and one of the earliest memories was a troika of Becker vs Edberg Wimbledon finals from ‘88 to ‘90. Both Becker and Edberg were grass court studs. Becker’s diving volleys, and Edberg sliced back hands- quite a treat to watch. Edberg took ‘88 and ‘90 while Becker won in ‘89. The rivalry would actually spill-over to the coaching box when Edberg would manage Federer while Boris sided with Djokovic.

Borg vs McEnroe was one from the previous era- Borg with the ‘good boy’ looks and ‘ice-cool’ attitude vs the proverbial ‘bad boy’ mercurial McEnroe. They had many a memorable match but the ‘80 Wimbledon final was one for the ages. Borg won in five sets but the fourth set tiebreak probably deserves a separate blog post in itself. McEnroe would get his revenge in the ‘81 final but Borg’s surprisingly early retirement would rob us of many more classics.

Sampras vs Agassi was a similar clash of styles- Sampras the boringly efficient cool and calm champion vs Agassi the charismatic colourful joker with a bandana. The best serve vs the best return. The two from Uncle Sam’s land would have many a memorable fight, including that magical point from the ‘95 US Open final.

On the women’s side, Navratilova vs Evert would be an enduring rivalry in the early 1980’s. Again a clash of styles, the two would dominate the world of tennis with 18 out of 19 grand slams between them from ‘82 to ‘86. Great friends off court, Martina would have the overall edge in this match up.

Graf vs Seles was the headline clash in the 1990’s- Seles would have the upper hand on clay court while Graf would mostly dominate on the other surfaces. The rivalry promised much more till an eccentric Graf fan stabbed Seles in ’93. While Monica made a comeback after two years and even won a slam, things would never be the same again.

Great sporting rivalries go beyond the game of tennis. In cricket, the Ashes is a milestone for every fan. It’s when the Aussies and the English hope they will have the bragging rights as the teams fight for the smallest cup you can imagine. It is win at all costs here- even if you have to go the ‘Bodyline’ route!

The Ashes Urn- MCC Museum, Lord’s

Closer home, the India vs Pakistan clash is one of the most sought after events which brings both the countries to a virtual standstill. The stakes are high- so a Sohail vs Prasad type situation is always around the corner. Too bad, that we don’t play more often nowadays.

From the world of football, there is the eternal question. Who’s the greatest? Pele or Maradona. The rivalry here transcends generations. Pele- the all-rounder, equally adept with both feet and the head, Maradona with just his left foot, but what a left foot!  Pele recently joked that he has challenged his good friend Diego to continue the debate only once he crosses 1000 goals. Till then, the discussions can wait!

When it comes to club football, there is the El Classico between Barcelona and Real Madrid- also a battleground for the Messi vs Ronaldo duels of late. In EPL, there’s the Manchester Derby and the North London Derby between the Gunners and Spurs. And closer home, the Calcutta derby between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan which routinely house a hundred thousand crowd even now at the Salt Lake Stadium on derby days.

Moving on, the athletics track saw Ben Johnson vs Carl Lewis fighting for the sprint crown in the 80’s. Ben with his lightning starts, Lewis with the deadly sprint, to make up at the finish-line. Ben would win the all-important 100 metre dash in the Seoul Olympics in ‘88, only to be beaten by the doping ban.

The game of chess saw a clash of styles in the 80’s and 90’s- the safe and defensive Karpov vs the aggressive and charismatic Kasparov– the later had mostly the upper hand. Sebastian Coe would make Steve Ovett produce the run of his life, every time they competed. Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna drove each other wild whenever paths crossed on a Formula One track. Muhammad Ali and George Foreman and their mercurial rivalry gave us ‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ in Kinshasa. NBA in the late 80’s was always about the Jordan vs Johnson debate.

We idolize champions, but what makes sports truly memorable, is great rivalries. After all, it takes two to tango!






Jamaica Farewell

Reminiscing the most memorable swansongs in sporting history.

‘I’m sad to say I’m on my way
Won’t be back for many a day
My heart is down, my head is turning around
I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town….’

Harry Belafonte is crooning one of my favourite songs as I warm up to Usain Bolt’s swansong run at the London World Championships. What a career Bolt has had! An eight-time Olympics gold medalist, with the ‘triple double’ combination of 100 m and 200 m wins the last three times. Bolt has been Mr. Clean in the oft tarnished image of dope-stars in the world of athletics. I am starting to think that he gave the phrase ‘bolt from the blue’ a new meaning altogether.

So when Bolt lines up for one last time at the 100 m starting line, it sort of signals the end of an era. As the gun roars, Bolt makes another slow start. The youngster Coleman from the US is the one who starts with a bang. But you expect Bolt to make up ground between the 60 and 80 meters mark, like he always does. You look at lanes 4 and 5 expecting a photo finish when, all of a sudden, Gatlin from the outside lane presses a foot on the accelerator and does the unthinkable. The crowd is stunned. Boos are heard as Gatlin has had a long history of failed dope tests. The fairy tale finish was not to be but Gatlin pays homage to the ultimate champion as he bows to Usain. 9:57 seconds will continue to be a marker, for generations to come.

Sporting farewells are always difficult- and here are some of the more memorable ones.

It was November 2013 when India stopped for a day. This was when the ‘Little MasterSachin Tendulkar finally decided to call it a day. Remember seeing a banner which said ‘I was an atheist till I realized that God played cricket.’ We grew up with our lives punctuated by centuries by Sachin. He gave us hope when there was none. So when the curtains came down at Wankhede after 24 memorable years of unadulterated joy, the entire country cried with Tendulkar. His humble speech, when he thanked his family, his roots, his coach and fellow players defined the middle class values this great man stood for. But the most remembered shot was when the little master after finishing his speech, went and bowed to the playing pitch one last time as he departed with tears in his eyes. One remembered the shot of Kohli carrying Sachin on his shoulders after the ODI World Cup win. Virat said ‘For more than twenty years he has carried Indian cricket on his able shoulders. It’s time we carried him…

Arguably the greatest to play the game of cricket, Bradman went into his final test in 1948 with an average of 101.39. ‘The Don’ had broken all possible records. He squared up to face Eric Hollies one last time. Given Bradman’s metronomic consistency, everyone assumed he will hit another century in his last innings. But just the second ball into his innings, Hollies pitched the ball up slowly, it was a googly and what followed was He’s bowled…Bradman bowled Hollies … nought. The unthinkable had happened- the crowd was silenced and then they rose in deafening applause yet again to accompany the legend’s walk back one last time. Bradman would finish with a career average of 99.94, another four runs in his last innings and it would have been a perfect 100!

The Don’s Statue, National Sports Museum, Melbourne Cricket Ground

The other memorable farewell from the game of cricket was for one of my sporting idols. Saurav ‘Dada’ Ganguly redefined the way India played cricket, especially away from home in tests. Who can forget the Eden Gardens test win against Australia and that unabashed shirt waving in the hallowed Lord’s balcony after the Natwest Final? So when Dada decided to call it quits after the home Aussie test series in 2008, it was indeed the closing of a great chapter in Indian cricket. Saurav started his career with a test ton and would end his innings with a duck, but what I remember from that farewell test is how Dhoni handed over the captaincy reigns to Dada towards the end, and as the last wicket fell, Dada finished his career in the way we all remember him the most, as a leader!

Not all farewells are stuff of dreams. Some are infamous. Take the 1994 World Cup for example. After winning the World Cup in the most magical manner in Mexico ’86 and breaking Azzuri hearts in Italia ’90, US ’94 was positioned as Diego Maradona’s parting shot. It seemed to be setting up nicely for him as the Argentines started with a bang with an easy win vs Greece with the stud getting a goal too. But the world would fall apart after that- Diego would fail a drugs test and be suspended and sent home. His country would also fall apart and exit in the knockouts. What a sad way to go for one of the game’s greats!

Moving to the world of tennis, I started watching the game due to Becker. Those booming serves, the theatrical dives, Boris had an aura which went beyond just his game. And Wimbledon was his backyard. Well, before Sampras dethroned him anyways. But there’s that romanticism about Boris and his relationship with London SW19. 1999 was the year. Boris would start the tournament the way only he can. Playing a local wildcard Miles Maclagan, he would come back from two sets down to win in his own signature style. Two wins would follow against much younger opponents in Nicolas Kiefer and Lleyton Hewitt. Chance for one last dream, maybe? Maybe not! The second Monday saw Boris come across Pat Rafter, the second seed. Rafter would bull doze Boris for a straight set win. Sampras and Federer ruled Wimbledon for the next two decades, but somehow Becker and those days would be hard to match, at least for this hopeless Becker fanatic.

Michael Phelps swam for one last time in the Rio 2016 Olympics- 23 golds over five memorable Olympics, setting a record which would be difficult to match ever. Kobe Bryant would finish his illustrious career with a scarcely believable 60 points game. And the greatest golfer of all time, Jack Nicklaus would receive a 10 minute standing ovation after crushing his final tee shot to close out the greatest career in PGA history.

There are a few adieus around the corner. Federer seems to be reaching his peak well into the mid-thirties while the sunset is near. How about a CSK win with Dhoni lifting the cup one last time in the IPL? And Messi has to win one time for Argentina before hanging his boot- Russia ’18 anyone? Till then, let’s enjoy the symphony.

Mauka Mauka

Re-living the soap opera that is the Indo-Pak cricket rivalry.

Cricket is more than a sport in India. It is like a religion. There is nothing bigger than the Indo-Pak rivalry. We play less these days owing to the troubled political climate. So when there is a face-off, not once, but twice, within a fortnight, it is like winning a jackpot two times over. As I go through my memory flip book, I see that my growing up years have been punctuated with unforgettable Indo-Pak matches.

My first live match at Eden Gardens was as a seven year old. I remember how India dominated almost the entire match but with almost 80 runs to win in eight overs, quite safe in the pre T20 era, a certain Saleem Malik went crazy. A small matter of 72 in 36 balls to silence the one lakh motley crowd. It was an even matchup in the mid 80’s till Javed Miandad broke Indian hearts with that last ball six off Chetan Sharma. It didn’t just win the Greens the match but gave them a strong psychological advantage over the next decade or so. There would be many Indo Pak matches on Fridays in Sharjah and the general rule was that Pakistan invariably won.

We toured Pakistan in ‘89- the highlight was a washed out ODI match. Very few remember the result but what still lingers in memory are the four sixes that a certain 16 year old hit against the wily fox Abdul Qadir in one over- what a grand entry it was by the ‘Master BlasterSachin Tendulkar. The Sharjah debacle would continue. Those were the days of home umpires, and very often, they played as the 12th and 13th team members- none more so than the Sharjah Wills Trophy ’91 final when Aaqib Javed would take a 7/37 including a hat-trick of LBW’s- the third dismissal where the umpire gave the batsman out even before the bowler had appealed.

The ‘92 World Cup was the crowning glory for the evergreen Imran Khan as he led Pakistan to the most unlikely World Cup win. But what I remember more is India winning the most important match-up- when the Indian bowlers tightened the screws and Kiran More got under Javed Miandad’s skin so much that he practiced some spot jumps.

Then the subcontinent ’96 World Cup and the quarter final clash at Bangalore. There was a 10th Physics Board Exam in two days but priorities where clear- cricket always won! The Pakistan team had the most fearsome death bowling but a rookie Ajay Jadeja would take a particular liking for Waqar Younis with a savage assault. India would finish on a high but Pakistan would start on the fifth gear too. That’s when Aamir Sohail would get carried away and sledge the bowler. Venky Prasad would make a fitting reply by uprooting the off stump next ball and then give back a few pleasantries, with some interest.

The late 90’s saw the peaking of the rivalry. We even went to a skating and curling club to play cricket- Toronto. Windy and cold, quite like the UK weather, this would be a series to remember for Sourav ‘Dada’ Ganguly as he bagged four consecutive ‘Man of the Match’ awards. This was also when Inzamam ul Haq had a brain-fade and attacked a fan in the stands, unable to take the consistent ‘Aloo Aloo’ taunts. I fondly remember celebrating the 4 am series win with a few crackers and not so fondly remember the scolding I got from my dad for waking everyone up at that God forsaken hour!

The flip book whizzes by- there is that Ijaz Ahmed butchery- a 139 not out in 84 balls at Lahore in a 217 chase. The Rajesh Chauhan six in the last over, and a Hrishikesh Kanitkar four with one ball left to give us the Independence Cup in Bangladesh.

The college years were punctuated with the tragedy that was the Chennai test. Sachin with a questionable back would play a lone hand in a 271 chase with a heroic 136 but would misread a Saqlain ‘doosra’ with the target in view- from 17 runs needed with four wickets in hand, India would go on to lose by 12 runs. Lot of people skipped dinner that day in college. We would however take sweet revenge when Kumble did a Laker with 10/74 at the Kotla. There was also the emergence of the express Shoaib Akhtar in that phase where he would knock off Dravid and Sachin with sheer pace in back to back deliveries. I remember the controversial run out of Sachin in the second innings and how the match was played out to an empty Eden Gardens stadium on the last day when the police kept the crowd away fearing some violence.

How can one forget the ‘03 World Cup clash at the Centurion? Those were the MBA days. The lucky corner in the hostel common room had been booked from days in advance. Classes were bunked to cheer for Team India. Saeed Anwar- the scourge of India- he of the 194 fame, the one who could turn a test from 26/6 with a masterful 188, would go on to hit a century as Pakistan posted 273. Against a fearsome bowling attack, that seemed plenty. Or was it? Sachin was at his murderous best- that upper cut six of Shoaib Akhtar was one for the ages- 98 in 75 balls to set it up for Yuvi and Dravid to finish off a comfortable win. Oh! How we celebrated that victory in style.

Then there would be that ’04 series in Pakistan- when a certain Virender Sehwag– with scant respect for milestones, would reach his triple hundred with a huge six. In the ’06 series, Irfan Pathan would take a first over hat-trick for the only time in test cricket but Pakistan would still go on to win the match.

And then the 2007 T20 World Cup- India would beat Pakistan in a ‘bowl-out’ in the first group match after scores were tied. We would meet in the final again. I still remember how it was raining cats and dogs that day in Kolkata. The match went right down to the wire. The experienced Misbah ul Haq versus a greenhorn Joginder Sharma with 13 needed in the last over. Misbah would almost single handedly win it for Pakistan till the ill-fated scoop would be pouched by Sreesanth, resulting in an India win by a thin margin of five runs. After the disaster that was the ODI World Cup, it was a historic triumph inspired by ‘Captain Cool’ MSD. This would give birth to T20 cricket and IPL which has since transformed cricket.

India had the upper hand in most clashes now. The 2011 World Cup Semifinal at Mohali would be another pivotal clash- Sachin was like a cat with nine lives that day- going on to score a chancy 85 that took us to 260. Our bowlers tightened the screws after that and choked the Pakis as we got a comfortable win. Onwards to Wankhede, where India would go on to win a second World Cup vs. Lanka.

The last few years also signaled the coming of age for young India- Virat Kohli, the ‘master of the chase’ took a particular liking to the Pakistan bowling line up. The most memorable of his knocks was a scarcely believable 183 in a 330 chase in the 2010 Asia Cup. There was also a superb unbeaten half century against a wily Mohammad Amir on a green Eden Gardens top in the 2016 T20 World Cup. In between would be a rare Pakistan win in the ’14 Asia Cup when Afridi squatted a six off Ashwin in the last over with the last pair batting. To match a last over Bhajji six to win one for India at the death.

So it is India vs Pakistan in a final after ages. Statistics indicate that the footfalls in the temples and the mosques will go up. While the crackers will come out on one side of the border, a few television sets will be broken across the LOC. And some corporate will tap this opportunity with another ‘Mauka Mauka’ campaign. May the Blues and Greens play each other more often! May the best team win on Sunday!

A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream

A dream about a fictitious tennis GOAT (Greatest of All Times)

This tennis season has been a stuff of dreams. The new guard has made way. The old favourites are back- ‘Fedal’ is ruling the roost. As the big two (French Open and Wimbeldon) are around the corner, there is a world of expectations- will ‘Fedal’ continue to defy age and make it a season for the ‘Oldies‘? Or, will the current lot (Murray and the Djoker) get back their Mojo? Or, maybe the time for the next generation (Thiem and Zverev) to stand up and signal a change of guards?

I saw a strange dream the other night. There was a debate between us friends recently on who is the greatest male tennis player ever. Well, I saw in my dream that God was giving me a boon- of choosing talents between players across generations– and hence putting together a fictitious player who surely is the greatest ever. Interesting, isn’t it? We all have our favourites and soft corners, but how will we go about creating this ‘fictitious GOAT’? So here is my attempt…

To start with, I will choose Federer’s natural ability. Well, someone may argue that Federer just as he is, may be good enough to be the ‘GOAT’. His silk smooth game, carefree shots- such a joy to watch. 18 grand slams and counting. There are a lot of things that training and practice will give you, but Fedex’s natural ability makes him better than anyone else.

I will next pick Del Potro’s fore-hand. Here is a guy who could have reached far greater heights but for his many injuries. A game with one shot, but what a shot that is. So that booming fore-hand from ‘The Tower of Tandil’ will be a great ammunition.

When it comes to back-hands, it is mostly a second shot for most players. Not for ‘Stan the Man’. The Wawrinka back-hand is a weapon that all peers fear. Ask Djoker about his French Open 2015 experience and he will vouch for it. Waw can rip it down the line or cross court. A serious weapon, if any. And I am a purist who loves a single handed back-hand to a double handed one- any day. So Wawrinka and his back-hand is my pick.

Goran’s service is the next pick for me. In a game of rallies, he was in a way the first one who made the service a serious weapon. It was quite boring to watch Goran at times because all sets would progress to tie-breakers. In fact, when he lost to Agassi in the ‘92 Wimbledon final, he still had 37 aces in that match- just imagine! So Goran and the insurance of his terrific service would be a great weapon in the armoury.

If you serve well, the return has to match it. Who better than Agassi for his service return? Deuce court or advantage court- forehand or backhand, Agassi was the man. He even joked recently on how he used to read Becker’s tongue to know which way the serve was coming! That or otherwise, Agassi terrorized big servers during his time and made them look ordinary.

Volley is an oft ignored part of the game now. People slug it out from the base-line. They hardly ever approach the net. But if you have to rule from the net, I would choose none other than Leander Paes- yes, he is a doubles specialist. But such quicksilver touch, deft hands, and what anticipation. No wonder, Paes and his net play is ‘Umarless’.

That takes me to my favourite player of all times, Boom Boom Becker. Boris had the charisma, and the ‘rebel’ feel. He made memorable comebacks from two sets down to win multiple times in grand slams. But what made him absolutely stand out was his stupendous athleticism and dives. Who can forget that incredible dive to win that point in ‘86 vs Lendl on his way to a second Wimbledon title? Those dives and fist pumps defined Becker.

My next pick will be Nadal’s defense. In today’s break neck game of attacking tennis, Nadal wears opponents down through his magical defense. You have to hit three winners to actually win a point against Rafa. That for a man whose career was over in his first professional year due to a life threatening injury! No wonder Rafa has won nine times at Roland Garros and is a favourite for ‘La Decima’ this time around. If I have to bet my life on a tennis game, I would bet on Rafa and his defense to see my through.

Tennis these days is more than just about the strokes. So I would now have to pick Djokovic and his out-of-the-world stamina and energy. Djoker is easily the fittest of all players I have seen. He manages to look fresh even after six hour slug festslike the one vs Rafa in the 2012 Aussie Open Final. He just wears down the opponents with his energy and then jokes about them the way only he can during press conferences!

My next bet will be Sampras and his monotonous consistency. Sampras ruled the roost in the 90’s- he had such a perfect game. He would be downright boring at times but you know, in the end, he would always win. What a trait to have in my ‘GOAT’.

All players have their favourite surfaces, Nadal has nine French Open wins and Fedex has seven Big W triumphs. But if you are looking for the best adaptability– look no further than Bjorn Borg. The ice cold Swede won 6 French and 5 Wimbledon titles- in surfaces diametrically opposite to each other. I would like my player to be versatile and Borg was the epitome of adaptability.

Some players who narrowly missed out from this list were Edberg and his volleys, Courier and his fore-hand, Chang and his resilience, McEnroe and his drama, Connors and his longevity, and Lendl and his monotonous consistency.

What fun it will be if we seriously have such a player who is a ‘Jack of all Trades’? Surely he will sweep a grand slam of slams, or maybe two? ‘The GOAT’…. Care to challenge him?