The Final Frontier

The Indian cricket team’s quest for that elusive test series win in Australia…

It’s the crack of dawn. I get up before the cell alarm goes off- there is so much of anticipation. The coffee is put to brew as Kohli and Paine get ready for the toss. It’s the start of the test series Down Under, it’s the start of the quest to conquer the ‘Final Frontier’.

The year had started with so much of expectation for the die-hard India cricket fan, with away test series in the so called ‘Big Three’- South Africa, England and Australia. We competed hard in both South Africa and England. Our fast bowlers matched the opponents and out-paced them at times. But the batsmen disappointed. Kohli was the lone warrior as one batting collapse followed another. Jo’burg and Trent Bridge were mere aberrations as we lost 2-1 to the Proteas and 4-1 to the Pommies. It was a case of ‘so close, yet to far’.

As I look back, tough overseas tours have been a bane for our cricket team for ages now. There have been many an opportunity missed.

The Adelaide test in 2014 comes to mind immediately. India went into the final day needing 364 runs to win the match. While most other teams would try to stonewall and get a draw, we went for it! Going into tea, we were 160 odd away with eight wickets in hand and in with a real chance. But Lyon had other ideas. Vijay got out for 99 and that set the cat among the pigeons. Kohli played a lone hand but even his majestic 141 was not enough as we fell 48 runs short.

Remember the controversial New Year’s test in Sydney in the 2007 series? Umpiring blunders led to captain Kumble saying after the match that ‘only one team played the game in the true spirit’. There was racial abuse allegations on Bhajji leading to the notorious ‘Monkeygate’ scandal. India took a size-able first innings lead thanks to a Sachin special but had to bat out 70 odd overs on day five for a draw. At seven wickets down, the hopes were low but MSD and Kumble batted for a good amount of time and with the dimming light, there were just two overs to go to get a well-earned draw. Ponting gave the ball to Michael Clarke as a last throw of the dice and he took three wickets in five balls to break the Indian hearts and give Aussies an infamous win.

Barbados in 1997 was a similar story. The Windies were still a feared side with a four pronged pace attack. So when the Indians had to chase down 120 in the fourth innings, one thought that history was about to be re-written. What followed was mayhem- India were bowled out for a paltry 81. Only three bowlers were enough as Ambrose and co. broke Indian hearts.

Not all overseas test series had a sad ending though. Wadekar’s team in 1971 recorded super away series wins in England and the Windies. Kapil gave us a memorable win in the Melbourne test in 1981 with a fifer when he was carrying an injury, helping us comfortably defend a paltry 140 odd in the fourth innings.

There was the Headingley test in 2002 when Dada decided to bat first on a green top. Bangar and Dravid blunted the new ball and played on till tea, setting the game up for Sachin and party to amass 600+ and get an innings victory. That series would be tied 1-1 but India would go back under Dravid in 2007 and win the series 1-0, with a win in Trent Bridge thanks to a Zaheer Khan special.

New Zealand is also a difficult country to tour and one of our famous wins was in 2009 when we triumphed in Hamilton. That series is also remembered for the GG special at Napier. Gambhir batted for more than 10 hours to help us draw after following on.

The Adelaide test in 2003 is also right up there. The usual suspects Dravid and Laxman resurrected India and then Agarkar bowled a dream spell in the 3rd innings to set it up for Dravid again to give a finishing touch. Oh, how we celebrated that win in the hostel common room!

Right after the heartbreaking loss at SCG in 2007, was the win in Perth which is mostly remembered for Irfan Pathan’s all-round performance and probably the best ever spell Ishant has ever bowled when he troubled Ponting for a while before ultimately getting him out.

There was also the Jo’Burg test win in 2006 which was the ‘Sreesanth special’. The wicket was a pacer’s delight but the Indians gave the Proteas a taste of their own medicine. Sree was the MoM with a 8 wicket match haul but you remember more his spontaneous dance after hitting a straight six off Andre Nel. What a joker!

And to top it all, the win in Pakistan in 2004. The series was set up by a Viru special at Multan where he hit a triple hundred. Dravid’s declaration with Sachin stranded at 194 signaled India’s intent to win the match more than setting personal milestones. Pakistan came back strongly in the 2nd test in Lahore but India bagged the series with a win in the decider at Rawalpindi with a Dravid master-class.

So, many a heart break for the Indian faithful with a few exceptions to provide some silver lining. The bottom line is that the Indian team has till date not won any test series in Australia or South Africa. We are the No.1 test side for a while now and the coach claims we are the best traveling Indian team in this century. Let’s hope Kohli and the boys prove Shaz right and they do the talking where it matters- the field. All the best guys! Chak de! Jai Hind!

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The Melbourne Cricket Ground- venue for the iconic ‘Boxing Day’ test..

 

 

 

 

 

Million Dollar Baby

What makes the fantasy sports format such madness!

Recent reports indicate that a growing number of sports fans are hooked on to their laptops or mobiles just before 8 pm IST. Surveys indicate that it will stay this way for the next month and a half. Source: Anonymous.

Well, it’s the season of fantasy sports and none is bigger than IPL, India’s great cricketing extravaganza. For the uninitiated, fantasy sport is a game where you are a virtual manager with a budget (say a million dollars) with your baby that is a team of players who get points for actual performance in the game. It is a format that is currently in India $ 20 Mm in size with a 10X growth in last two years, as per reports. Dream XI and Fandromeda are some of the most popular ones though the official websites (IPL, EPL, etc.) have their own versions and are just as popular.

The early days of Fantasy sports in India were in the early 2000’s when ESPN Super Selector was big. I remember the craze during my MBA days. In the 2003 cricket World Cup, there was as much cheer when Vaas took a first over hat-trick vs Bangladesh (for someone who had Vaas as his fantasy team captain!) as when Sachin hit a six off Shoaib Akhtar at Centurion. It was pure joy when the Mirror newspaper would carry your name when they published the daily leaderboard for the 2006 Football World Cup. A Nokia phone as a gift for winning a fantasy tournament was a prized possession. Thierry Henry would be my permanent captain in my fantasy EPL team during the glory Gunners era and he would always deliver!

So what makes the fantasy sports format so special?

To begin with, the Indian sports fan always has a unique point of view. ‘Why promote Vijay Shankar when you have DK?’. ‘Who gives the last over to Vinay Kumar?!’, and so on and so forth. Well, fantasy sports gives a great chance to the passionate fan to be the couch Harsha Bhogle and create a team of players who they think will do well.

In psychology during my MBA days, I had read about the n-ach motivation- there is this latent need for achievement and managing success with a finite budgets versus a competitive peer set gives you a pure high.

Fantasy sport also provides a great platform to a hardcore sports fan for an evolved engagement level. So it’s not just the KKR matches for the Kolkata fan, but you have to follow the other games too- as there is a need to see where the next fantasy points are going to come from.

In a way, this format is also an extension of your personality. There are people who ‘play safe’ and go for middling picks whereas the entrepreneurial types would go for more ‘lateral picks’ and risk it all.

Lastly, whether it’s an office or an alumni group, it’s a super way to stay connected through a passion point which is sports. So who gets the bragging rights as the winner? Whose leg can you pull as he is the bottomer? Such banter is all that matters, sometimes much more than the prize money. Some fun to spice up your day.

And now to the million dollar question, how to succeed in fantasy sports?

Well, there are no set rules, but there is always some method in the madness. So, sharing some tips.

The fantasy sports format is like a stock market. You need to plan well when you want to buy and sell a player. You do not want to follow the market all the time. So being proactive and buying before a big performance is the key. Like Guptill gave average returns in the World Cup 2015 format till he hit 237 in the Quarters vs Windies. Someone had Guptill throughout the cup and dropped him for just that match while someone else bought him for the first time in the Quarters. Guess who had the last laugh?

It pays to think like an economist as the resources are scarce. Everyone would want to pick all the big players but with a finite budget, one has to pick and choose. The trick is to maximize the return/ price ratio. So a Kohli purple patch will be important, but a good performance from a rookie who is cheap (like Unadkat in last IPL) is almost gold dust!

It always pays when you do your research. So a Nadal always does well on clay court, Rohit Sharma performs well in Eden Gardens and Kohli is mind-blowing in chases. Past trends can be a good indication of what may happen in the future. An eye on the fixtures and how scheduling patterns are also help you to move ahead in the fantasy table.

You can do all your preparations, but there can be no substitute to gut feeling. So kudos to those who picked Pennetta in the 2015 US Open (when she entered the tournament as the 26th seed), or the one backing Fakhar Zaman as power player in the Champions Trophy final. Good hunches are critical to fantasy success.

Lastly, it’s just a game- so important to enjoy the bragging rights and leg pulls along the journey because that’s why we play the game in the first place.

So, the alarm clocks and calendar invites have been set. Here’s to the next 8 pm deadline!

To end, as one great man once said, ‘Fantasy game is 90% luck and 10% skill. But don’t try it without that 10%’!

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Veni Vidi Vici

‘I came, I saw, I enjoyed!’ My most memorable live match experiences as a sporting fan..

It’s the 25th minute. A free-kick a fair way of. The wall is set- a swarm of yellows guarding the citadel and Oblak shouting instructions from the goal to thwart the danger. A couple of people in the wall jump up to make it even tougher, but then, it’s that man! A measured kick sails over the wall and dips viciously, tantalizingly touching Oblak’s stretched hands just that wee bit, before nestling into the top left corner. Messi! Messi!

Nou Camp goes berserk as Barcelona takes the lead in the top of the table clash vs Atletico Madrid. We are in the stands, making up the full house of a hundred thousand. It’s drizzling continuously but who cares about that when the atmosphere is so riveting. Everyone is ‘colour coordinated’ (why, even our water proof jackets are red and blue!), face painted and waving their flags wildly. The Spanish crowd is so very passionate- worshipping Messi, egging the rest of the team and not afraid to voice their disapproval to the referee when a decision goes against their team. Barcelona dominates the match and come close to scoring a few more, but they end up winning just 1-0 to extend their lead at the top of the La Liga table. It’s a memorable experience for me as a passionate sports fan- to be in the Mecca of Spanish football and seeing the ‘Messi’ah score! It’s truly a bucket list tick.

I can imagine how Caesar would have felt when he conquered Turkey- Veni, Vidi, Vici! As I reminisce, there are a fair share of memorable sporting spectacles I have seen live. Watching the action on TV is one thing, but nothing can match the experience of ‘been there, done that’. So, which are your most memorable live match experiences?

There are a few cricketing masterpieces. Top of the pile, for obvious reasons, was the 2001 Eden Gardens test vs Australia. When Dada’s army stalled the 16 match bandwagon of Steve and his all-conquering Aussie team. I still remember we had made plans for an early lunch at Park Street on Day 4 but then Laxman and Dravid had other ideas. They batted on and on, and it was a stuff of dreams. When Dada declared an hour into the fifth day, we were safe. But over the next five hours, Bhajji and Sachin the leg spinner did the unthinkable and made this possibly the best comeback ever in the history of test cricket. Something I can surely brag about to my grandchildren!

A lot of my best sporting experiences have been in Eden Gardens and one of the memorable ones was during the Hero Cup in 1993. India was a middling side then led by Eden’s crown prince Azhar, with a young Sachin and an aging Kapil. Hero Cup was a long format event where all the major teams participated. A pulsating semi-final pitted India against South Africa. We were defending 195 and going into the last over, SA needed six runs for a win. It was nail biting stuff. Surprising everyone, Azzu Bhai threw the ball to Sachin, who had not bowled till then. The rest, as they say, is history. Sachin with his five step medium pace would out fox McMillan and co. and will give us a ‘till then scarcely believable’ two run win. Pin drop silent Eden will be delirious with joy as India won. It was a day-night match and torches would be lit for the first time with spare newspapers. India went on to beat a very strong Windies side and lift the Hero Cup. Remember an out of the world caught and bowled by Kapil, ‘God’ again sending Lara’s stumps for a cartwheel, and a ‘6 wickets for 12 runs’ spell by the ‘professor’ Kumble.

Eden also gave a few other memorable matches. Who can forget South Africa’s re-entry into One Day cricket? Clive Rice and Azhar walked out to toss amidst much fanfare. It was a low scoring affair as the world got a first glance of ‘The White Lightening’ Allan Donald who broke Indian’s back with a fifer but the very young ‘Master Blaster’ stood out alone with a breath taking 62 as India would complete a 3 wicket win. Donald and Sachin would share the MoM prize as the world welcomed back SA to the cricketing fold. The other Eden spectacle I remember, not so fondly, this time is the Salim Malik heist in ’87. That was one of my first live match experiences and after ‘Cheeka’ Srikanth’s century, India seemed to be coasting towards an easy win as Pakistan needed 80 runs in 8 overs- a very steep ask in pre IPL days. Salim Malik would go mad, scoring 72 in 36 balls as he would single handedly (literally) get a win for Pakistan with half an over to spare!

I have seen a fair share of IPL matches including some close KKR clashes in Mumbai over the years. But who can forget the Dada vs KKR clash at the DY Patil Stadium in IPL 5? I am a big Dada fan and also sing the ‘Korbo Lorbo Jeetbo’ anthem. So when Dada donned the Pune jersey, I was in a tight spot. Whom to support? The ‘Maharaja’, or, my favourite team? I wasn’t the only one- the entire stadium seemed to be sharing this dilemma as Bongs landed in hordes. Dada would entertain with his batting including one trade-mark six over long on  but KKR would go on to get an easy win- so it was a ‘win win’ situation for everyone.

There have been a few memorable experiences beyond cricket too. The Davis Cup in the early 90’s vs Switzerland at South Club saw Ramesh Krishnan and Leander battle it out vs Rosset and Co. Rosset was the reigning Olympics Singles champion then and had the biggest serve in the game then. Not a good information if you are the ball boy- as you had to be attentive and ready to take evasive action as you faced Rosset’s thunderbolts! There was some rain and the uneven bounce which helped India. At 2-2, Ramesh Krishnan would become a magician and stun Hlasek to give India a wonderful tie win.

A couple of other recent experiences were also great. Being part of the U-19 Football World Cup spectacle in India and watching a semifinal- it would have been better if Brazil was one of the teams, but Spain or Mali did not disappoint and it was a great fun watching with a vociferous crowd that appreciated sports which was not cricket in India! The other exciting one was watching an Australian ‘Footy’ match at the Etihad Stadium in Melbourne. Enjoying a completely new game in a foreign country was nice as it gave a peak into the country’s culture. AFL has an extremely passionate fan base in Australia and the fast pace game was extremely entertaining.

So, quite a few good ones in the trip down memory lane, but still a few unticked ones in the bucket list… a Lord’s test match, a boxing day test match at MCG, a World Cup Cricket final, watching the Gunners at Emirates, cheering the Brazil football team live, and enjoying the strawberries and creams at London SW 19 Wimbeldon. No harm in keeping the dreams big, what say?!

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The Old ‘Test’ament

Ten reasons why I like good old test cricket.

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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.

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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’.

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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!

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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!