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!

Bradman
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?

 

Ye Dus Saal, Aapke Naam

Ten moments which best describe the IPL journey

It’s 8 pm. The IPL daily soap opera is about to start- it’s become a ritual now. It started as the pyjama version of cricket no one cared for. But the India 2007 T20 World Cup triumph, master -minded by MS Dhoni, changed it all. The world is governed by the rich and IPL is where the money is. IPL has transformed the way cricket is played and enjoyed.

As I switched on the TV channel, I saw the ‘ten years of IPL’ TV jingle. Just seems the other day, but yes, 10 years have passed by. I start reminiscing and thinking about the ten moments which best describe the IPL journey. So here you go…

The first one was the very first match of Season 1. Bangalore vs Kolkata at the Chinnaswamy. Jammy and Dada went for the toss that day but what everyone remembers is the brutal hitting of a certain Knight Rider which stunned the world- Brendon McCullum. Savour the statistics- Baz scored 158 not out. You would have been happy with that score in an ODI- well, he got it all in a 20 over match. He scored more than 70% of KKR’s score and alone beat RCB by 76 runs! 13 sixes and ten fours set the ball rolling and SRK couldn’t stop dancing!

The other memorable moment from IPL-1 was the motley crowd from Rajasthan Royal coming together under the magician- Shane Warne. Rajasthan were the pure underdogs- least favoured and not tipped to even reach the semi-finals. But Warne was the ‘Pied Piper‘ who helped them scale Mount Everest- making beasts out of seemingly average players like Shane Watson (the MVP), Sohail Tanvir (the Highest Wicket Taker), Yusuf Pathan (the Brutal Hitter). Each player had a specific role in the RR team and they performed to the brief and how! One hurdle after another they crossed, and finally won with a last ball win vs CSK in the finals.

The next one is from IPL 3 in 2010. CSK were the most consistent teams led by ‘Captain Cool– Dhoni. They finished runners up in the first season and were a semifinalist in Season 2. They were struggling to reach the semifinals in Season 3 and had a do-or-die match vs Kings XI in the picturesque Dharamsala ground. It boiled down to MSD facing up to Irfan Pathan with CSK needing 16 runs in the last over to win. What followed was 4,2,6,6. The last six was out of the world- the ball kept rising as it left the stadium- sealing the legend of MSD the finisher. MSD punched himself like a cornered boxer as CSK completed a famous win. CSK would go on to win that year and the year after.

IPL is always thought of as a batsman’s game but there are a few star bowlers who have made a big difference. None bigger than Lasith Malinga– ‘Slinga’ with his side arm slingy action, has been a constant source of delight for Mumbai Indian supporters. His yorkers are impossible to score of in the slog overs and the disguised slower ones well camouflaged in between the toe crushers. None more so than in Season 4, when Delhi Daredevils did not know what hit them- Malinga was on song that day and finished with 5/13- Mumbai winning with lots to spare.

The next one is from Season 5. My team KKR had performed abysmally in the first few seasons and re-done the entire set up with Gambhir at the helm. No one gave them a chance when two time winners CSK got to 190 in the final at their home ground at the Chepauk. What followed in the chase was shock and awe. Manvinder Bisla, a journey-man in the company of the ‘Mr. Reliable‘ Kallis, started scoring at ten an over to keep up with the asking run rate. Bisla kept taking risks and hitting in the air and would go on to score an invaluable 89. With the last over starting, KKR still needed 11 and it was anybody’s game. But Manoj Tiwary hit the two most important fours he will ever hit as KKR did it. It was a famous win, when the Kings were reined in at their home ground and the ‘City of Joy’ celebrated unabashedly.

IPL is all about brutal hitting and there is no one better than the ‘Universe Boss’Chris Gayle. After having mediocre seasons with KKR, and initially going unsold in the auctions, Gayle moved to RCB in Season 4. What a buy this was for Vijay Mallya! Gayle has been the face of RCB and IPL and has regaled us all with his murderous batting. None more so than in Season 6 vs Pune. Even the ‘Boss’ went on over-drive that day. A hundred in 30 balls, highest ever individual score of 175* and a small matter of 17 sixes- Gayle took the world by storm.

IPL is also about nail biting finishes- most matches go right down to the wire. None better than a close one in Season 6- CSK played RCB and Jadeja needed two to win facing up to RP Singh. Amma Chennai prayed and hoped! As RP roared in, Jaddu swung hard- it took an almighty edge and went all the way to third-man for a catch. Kohli roared and RCB had won by a run. Or, did they? In a Lagaan type sequence of events, no one realized that RP had overstepped and the umpire had signaled a no ball. So, Sir Jadeja had got out of the last ball but still managed to win the match for his team- talk of nail biting finishes and comedy!

The next one is another Purple moment- the Knight Riders had turned around from strugglers in the first three seasons to a top team under Gambhir. In Season 7, they banked on the mystery spinner Sunil Narine to bamboozle all and sundry. The final vs Kings XI started with KKR as strong favourites. But Kings XI had a plan of their own. Led by Wriddhiman Saha’s 115, Kings set KKR a humongous 200 as a target. Not much of a chance for KKR. But ‘cometh the hour, cometh the man‘. Manish Pandey was the knight who stepped up- a masterful 94 with sixes at the right moments took us to the doorsteps of victory, and when Piyush Chawla hit the winning runs, Kolkata went wild again.

IPL is also about superb fielding- gone are the days where poor fielders are hidden. Close finishes mean that every run is crucial. And there has been an advent of super-human catches. Chris Lynn has set IPL 10 alive with great pinch hitting but what gave him identity was the out-of-the-world catch he took off ABD in Bangalore when RCB was knocking on victory’s door. ABD heaved when a six would have won it. Lynn at deep square leg slipped, and everyone thought that it would be a six. But he kept his eyes on the ball and jumped up to take a memorable catch, at the same time keeping his balance to ensure that he didn’t go out of the boundary ropes. A nail biting win through a wondrous catch- that’s IPL.

IPL is also such a fast game that consistency is impossible. You score some, you get out at times- as you try to up the pace. Right? Not everyone, Kohli in Season 9, was at a different level. After a poor start by RCB, Kohli upped his game to a different stratosphere- four centuries, almost 1000 runs and an average close to 100- Don Kohli bettered the ‘Law of Averages’. Sad that he couldn’t put the finishing touch as RCB faltered in the finals, losing to Warner’s Sunrisers Hyderabad.

Rip roaring batting, inspirational captaincy, nail biting finishes, super human catches, toe crushing yorkers and memorable finals- the IPL has seen it all. But what it has done even better is to unite India for two months of the year and becoming India’s most enjoyable soap opera.

No wonder it’s our favourite fruit (after mango) in the summer season.

Ye dus saal aapke naam!

IPL
When Blues stumped Purple- MI vs KKR, IPL 10

Arrey O Samba

Memorable moments from an ardent Brazil football fan

It’s the break of dawn. The IPhone alarm chimes but is swiftly stopped on one ring- a quick dash to the TV room to see the poetry in motion. 90 minutes later, Brazil completes a stroll in the park against Paraguay. Three goals orchestrated by the kingpin Neymar and ‘The Selecao’ become the first team to qualify for Russia ’18. They also reach the no.1 FIFA ranking with this win.

As the final whistle goes, and I do an imaginary high five, I go back in time.  Our middle class joint family in Kolkata was united by football- it used to be a month long celebration during World Cup years. A small black and white TV used to be the most prized asset of the house during those single screen household days. We were united by the love for Brazil. How can I ever forget the Zico penalty miss which knocked us out of the Mexico 86’ World Cup- when there was so much of expectations but it ended as a teary eyed night for us all.

My dad is an ardent Brazil fan and from him have I inherited the Samba genes. He always spoke of how Brazil played ‘Joga Bonito’- the beautiful game. There were stories of the 1970 final with the Carlos Alberto goal capping a memorable win- with Pele and company retaining the Jules Rimet Trophy for keeps. The ‘Class of 82’- the best ever team not to win the World Cup. Brazil played with the soul. It was always the heart over the head, art over science. These stories created a lifelong Samba fan in me.

In this post, I pen down some memorable moments as a Samba fan, through the ages…

To start with, penning a few which took my breath away.

The 94 World Cup was the first one in Uncle Sam’s country. Late night outs and early morning alarms to manage the challenging time zone. Romario was in full flow. I remember the Bebeto cradle celebrations, that last gap Branco free kick against the Netherlands. To top it all, the nerve wracking tie breaker in the final when Baggio wept and Dunga roared to take Brazil to #4.

Cut to the 2002 final- the first one in Asia, jointly hosted by Japan and Korea. Brazil started as an underdog in the cup after a tough round of qualifiers. But once the tournament started, they began to do the Samba. The 3 R’s (Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Ronaldinho) created a sweet symphony. We bunked MBA classes to see Ronaldinho’s audacious chip to beat Seaman in the hostel common room. We jumped with joy when Ronaldo finally managed to put it across Oliver Kahn in the finals as we watched in the class auditorium on big projector screens, with face paint et al.

There’s one from the recent past also- when Neymar buried the ghost of the Maracana by scoring the winning goal in the penalty shootout vs Germany in the Olympics final last year. It was the same venue where Uruguay beat us in ’50 against all odds. Neymar broke a long curse and liberated a generation.

And then, there were few I would rather forget.

First, the mind goes back to Italia ’90, where Brazil ended up clashing with Argentina in the last 16 itself. The family was equally divided- half of us Samba loyalists and the other half cheering for Maradona’s army. Brazil dominated the match and how. They toyed with the Argentines but did everything but score. I still remember one sequence of play where Careca and company hit the post twice in the same move. But as the match went deep, it needed one deft touch from that dreaded left foot to open up the defense and set Caniggia free to douse all hopes. Brazil out in the second round- unthinkable!

Next was the 98 France World Cup- the TV had been set in the common area and all of us would huddle at night and cheer for our favourite team. Brazil was having a dream run, but the curse struck just before the final. Ronaldo had a fit attack and he and the team never recovered. Zizou was the cynosure of all eyes as ‘Des Blues’ won the World Cup for the first time by humiliating Brazil 3-0 in the finals.

Fast forward to 2014 and the World Cup was back to the ‘Home of the Game’. We had organized a family reunion in Kolkata with folks pouring in from all parts to watch the matches on a big projector screen in the drawing room of our ancestral home. Neymar and company made a nervous start but they were chugging along till the quarters when a Colombian knee put an end to Neymar’s cup dreams. I watched in disbelief as a Neymar-less Brazil was like a ship without a captain out in the stormy sea. The Sambas didn’t know what hit them that night. They were numbed by the Germans, the match ending with a scarcely believable 1-7 score.

It seemed like the 2014 debacle will be the end of an era. But like a true phoenix, the Selecao have risen again. The Olympic win at Maracana was part retribution, but the brilliant run under Tite gives me renewed hope. It is up to Neymar and company to add a 6th Star to the jersey next year. Long live ‘Joga Bonito’. Russia- here come the Samba!

Comfortably Dumb

The debate is on- “In Arsene We Trust” vs “Arsene Out”. A passionate Gunner’s prophecy on the ‘Professor’

An ode to Arsene- from a winner to a whiner!

I was an avid football follower as a kid- but interest would generally peak in the World Cup year. There weren’t a plethora of TV channels those days. So my love for club football was fueled by a small radio I got as a birthday gift. Saturday evenings changed forever- holding that archaic device close to the ear- following Sports Roundup on BBC and soaking in the EPL spirit.

Brazil is the team I support (no, worship!). So it was no surprise that I began rooting for the club whose playing style most resembled the Sambas- Arsenal. One big reason was also the manager- a misfit ‘Professor’ who had plied his trade in Japan before making the big move to Highbury. Good matches are made in heaven, but imagine the coincidence when the name of the manager also matches with the club he leads- so no surprise that Arsenal flourished under Arsene.

When Arsene ‘numb’ed us….

Here was Wenger- a visionary who looked much beyond the game itself, into other aspects of sports fitness- on eating habits and training methods- ages before his times. There was also a sense of magic the way the team played- slick passes, one touch play- so easy on the eye and different from the long ball game of the Brits. And the fierce determination and passion he drove among the players. Here was a team who could ‘wow’ you with their skills but also rough out 1-0 away wins on ice cold December evenings.

Wenger created a legacy by leading ‘The Invincibles’ in 2003/04 to an unbeaten EPL run- a feat which may go unmatched in history given the fierce rivalry in the league these days. Wiltord’s away goal at Old Trafford to clinch the EPL title, that glorious run into the Champions League final in 2006- those were the days!

He stayed the course and led the ship well even during troubled times when Arsenal moved from Highbury to the Emirates. With an eager eye for spotting talent early and using a shrewd ‘Money-ball’ approach, Wenger would buy early, buy smart and manage the club remarkably well during tough financial times.

There were many heart-warming moments during the ‘Comfortably Numb Days’- but I am sharing a link of a goal which best embodies Wenger’s philosophy- A Wilshere goal vs Norwich city.

When Arsene ‘dumb’ed us….

As an Arsenal fan, I am in minority these days- there are a few of us left and we are worried we will be extinct soon!

And I start reflecting on why this happened? When Wenger moved- from numbing us to ‘dumbing’ us.

A good friend once said, ‘You are only as good as your ambitions. Set high ambitions, actions follow’. Well, I guess no one told this to Arsene. In the last five years, he is like the lazy employee in the office who is happy with an ‘Achieved Expectations’ rating every year. A fourth place in EPL and a ‘Last 16’ spot in the Champions League seems to make him happy, with an occasional FA Cup win thrown in- while the fans hope for more, much, much more.

The Emirates move meant we had to manage our financial books very tightly for some time- but Arsenal under Arsene got engulfed in this ‘Money-ball fallacy’- when the bottom line became more important that the ‘trophy line’. From a buying club, we became a selling club- why else will you sell your best players- the likes of Van Persie to your closest rival in the league? When you pay peanuts, you get monkeys! Or, you may get a Walcott, Ramsey, or Ospina- nothing better.

They say, ‘It’s foolish to do the same things again and again- and expect different results’. Arsene has been doing just that for the last few years, so no wonder Arsenal have stagnated.

There are a few who have mastered the ‘Art of Leaving’- some went ahead of time like Borg, some timed it perfectly- like Dada and MSD. But some are just too unwilling to let go- Arsene has created this club brick by brick in the last 20 years- his managerial stay more than the combined experienced of the other 19 EPL managers put together! So the swansong is indeed difficult. But when you stop inspiring, it’s the clearest sign that you have to go.

Another EPL season draws to a close. A season which promised so much for Arsene and Arsenal, but we flattered to deceive again.

The debate is on- “In Arsene We Trust” vs “Arsene Out”. He has given us wonderful memories, shaped a generation, so bidding adieu is tough. But the time has indeed come now.

So Au Revoir Arsene- thanks for numbing us!

From,

A Passionate Gunner

Coming Back to Life

It’s 3:15 am… Neymar has just chipped a long ball to Sergio Roberto and his deft touch has just capped the biggest comeback of the generation at the Nou Camp. Five goals needed when the match started, three needed after the 87th minute, and the Catalans still win. Impossible is nothing! So as I listen to one of my favourite Floyd songs, the topic for my first blog takes shape- the glorious world of comebacks. Those moments we always remember like “Where was I when……?”

So, which do you consider the most glorious comeback in sports history?

There have been a few off late….My friends in the US tell me that it’s the NFL finals this year when Brady master minded a win for the Patriots from a 25 point deficit. And RF devotees claim that No 18 takes the cherry- when Fedex triumphed coming back from an injury lay-off when no one gave him a chance for #18 at Melbourne.

The Red Devils (Oh how I hate them!) tell me it’s Fergie’s army in the ’99 Champions League final when two super-subs scripted history vs Bayern. But their arch rivals (the Kops) remind them that 0-3 is more difficult to start from and they point to the amazing turnaround vs Milan at #Istanbul2005.

There were a few from another generation too… Kapil single handedly winning India the match from 17/5 vs Zimbabwe at Tunbridge Wells- to stopping Viv and his team’s swagger when no one gave them a chance after scoring 183 in the ’83 final. The ‘Black Panther’ Eusebio- rallying the Portuguese from 0-3 down with four goals, to finally triumph over the upstart North Koreans in the 1966 World Cup. The dogged Germans in 1954- losing 3-8 to the Golden Team from Hungary in the groups and trailing 0-2 in the finals before overcoming Puskas & co. with the well-known German grit. And then there was the peerless Ali outpunching Foreman against all odds in the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ in Kinshasa.

But my mind goes back to one balmy morning in March 2001. It’s the start of the 4th day’s play at Eden Gardens vs the all-conquering Aussies- they are on a 16 match winning run. The current Indians are struggling to sew up the series vs Smith & co. The Aussie team in 2001 had 11 Smith’s- and better. They were ‘Team invincible’- India being considered the final frontier for the ‘Alexanderesque’ Steveda. Gilchrist had not drawn, let aside lost a match since making his test debut. This promised to be another jog in the park.

India still trail by 20 runs with just six wickets remaining. Plans have already been made for a Park Street lunch with friends assuming that it will be an early finish. But we start fighting. The new ball is blunted. Scores level! And then Laxman starts flicking Warne against the spin to mid-wicket. Steve Waugh is getting flustered. Lead crosses 50,….75. He brings on Ponting’s part time medium pace before lunch to see if he benefit from the batsmen’s overconfidence. There’s a close LBW shout- pin drop silence among the crowd and then a huge sigh of relief. We reach lunch around 100 runs ahead. Meanwhile, the superstitious Bong crowd is at their best- they don’t let anyone leave their seats as staying put will mean Lax and Dravid also staying!

Lax starts the second session with a ‘silk smooth’ boundary and the belief is growing. Laxman has replaced Azhar as the God of Eden- not just with his wristy flicks and cover drives but also thanks to his demonic record at the Mecca of cricket. And Jammy plays along- the two create sweet symphony as they go on and on. Aussies are playing with 11, but India batting with one lakh and two players in the middle and the crowd egg the batsmen on. Every break is greeted by a four of the first ball of the new session. Laxman is doing a Mozart- you don’t know what’s happening and very soon the Aussies also start appreciating his strokes. And Dravid, gritty as always, plays the perfect second fiddle. Lead mounts 150, 200. It’s all a blur now. And nothing can separate the two. Not even cramps, dehydration. Lax and Dravid go on, and on, and end the day unbeaten, with India 315 ahead. Who would have thought at the start of the day? The Park Street lunch has to wait… And we go on to complete the most famous comeback wins with seven wickets in the last session on Day 5.

It happened 16 years back, but seems like just the other day. At the Garden of Eden, cheering on Dada’s Army, to the best comeback win of all times. So all you nouveau sports lovers- you saw a few good sporting comebacks. But nay, this is nothing compared to that balmy day in 2001.

So the impossible becomes ‘I’m possible’. And Floyd’s ‘Coming Back to Life’ draws to a close too… Hang on for the next song in the playlist.

Cheers!

Article Pic
Back to the Eden for the New Zealand test in Oct 2016. It all happened here 16 years back.