Safe and insecure

Indian cricket captain M S Dhoni and off-spinner Harbhajan Singh gave some anxious moments to the police in Chandigarh when they left the team hotel without informing them.

Yuvraj Singh also went out declining an offer to have security personnel with him on Sunday night.

Police said they were not amused at the “irresponsible action” of the players and have prepared a report about the “security violations” made by them.

From this story. Does it strike you as fairly asinine behavior from players who argue the ‘security’ case when it comes to complying with WADA’s testing policies?

Agassi’s mea culpa

Brad Gilbert, Andre Agassi’s long time tennis coach, takes a no-harm, no-foul attitude to the crystal meth revelations, but Harsha Bhogle is not quite as forgiving. The core of Harsha’s argument is contained in this clip:

At the best of times it’s a flawed equation, this assumption that a fine sportsman is a fine person, but it exists and I fear Agassi may have given people reason to indulge in drugs.

Precisely the problem I find with the fuss being made of Agassi’s revelations. We know him, and followed him, for his brilliance as a tennis player — whence the need to elevate him into a template for us to live our lives by? Put differently — isn’t it enough that a sportsperson entertains us in his or her chosen domain of activity, which is what they get paid to do? Is it also necessary for them to be worthy of canonisation?

If Agassi had taken performance-enhancing drugs, it would have been quite another matter: that is cheating pure and simple, and goes against the grain of what we expect from sport. By no stretch of the imagination, though, can crystal meth be called a performance-enhancer — the opposite is true, if anything.

So the worst you can say about this situation is that the man did recreational drugs. Is that something I would want my child to emulate? No — but then, I wouldn’t want my child to emulate my experiments with drugs either [quite a while ago, so those raised eyebrows of yours can come right back down; outside of an occasional joint, I don’t indulge now].

In any case, what are the tennis authorities supposed to do now, publicly defrock Agassi, strip him of his many titles? The question of his legacy is in any case not grist for the official mill — a player’s legacy is in the minds and hearts of the followers of his sport; some will likely gasp in indignation that they were suckered into emotionally investing in a druggie, while others will remember those moments of incandescent brilliance he brought to the game, and forget the rest.

In course of random browsing just now, I refreshed my memory of just what the man brought to his sport. Way back in the late 1980s, US tennis was looking for a savior — and found a temperamental, tempestuous talent [here, dating back to that time, is an early appreciation on Sports Illustrated]. What struck me about this piece is the glimpse of what such enormous national expectations can do to you:

So desperate are tennis fans in the United States for a new crown prince that not even juniors are spared the scrutiny. When Michael Chang won his first match in a main draw at the United States Open last August, the question was heard again. ”Is this the one?”

Aaron Krickstein knows about expectations. He was a phenom at 17, ranked No. 7 in the world. Surely, this was the one. By the time he was 20, he was considered washed up, dropping to No. 61 last year. Krickstein has only recently begun to show he may survive, after all.

Later in the same year, the media was already proclaiming the end of its search and the anointing of the new crown prince of American tennis [in passing, check out this article on what it takes — and takes out of you — to be a teen star]. From there to here has been a memorable ride — and despite that hit of crystal meth, I find my own memories of the man remain largely untarnished [incidentally, IMHO Harsha is a bit off base when he compares the Agassi episode with the Roman Polanski affair — in doing drugs, Agassi hurt no one but himself; what Polanski did was a crime on another person].

Here’s the lengthiest extract from his book that I’ve been able to find; I’ve got a print out for reading at home tonight, but even a quick glance indicates there is more to this book than a hit of crystal meth — our thirst for scandal being what it is, though, it is only that one episode that is consistently hitting the headlines.

In passing, some — including Harsha — have suggested that maybe we would all be better off if Agassi had kept some facts to himself. Again, I’d want to disagree: in interviews, in the profiles that proliferate in magazines and newspapers, and even in their books, sportsmen too often tend to dishonesty. I’d far rather read of, and learn from, a flawed human being than be treated to the whitewashed ‘memories’ of a putative ‘saint’.

Sports writing: update

Additional to my previous post — read the opening of Gay Talese’s book A Writer’s Life: a lovely example of finding great stories on the margins of sport.

If you can’t beat them…

Schrader also gave an insight to the film’s story and said, “American saves the Indian’s life during one operation and they become friends. After completing the assignment, the two go back to their respective homes. The American becomes a cop while the Indian becomes a “bhai” (underworld don).”

“The American’s father-in-law has remarried and has a daughter who lives in Mumbai with her husband. She is kidnapped and the husband is asked to negotiate a ransom with the bhai. It’s a story about obligations and duties. There is also a love story with songs and dances,” he added.

This, from the man who wrote Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Last Temptation of Christ, among others? From IMDB:

XTRME CITY is an action thriller set in the brutal impenetrable criminal orbit of Mumbai, India. Curtis Hawkley, a former U.S. Ranger, is obliged to return to Mumbai when his father-in-law’s youngest daughter is kidnapped by a powerful underworld Don. In order to save the girl he must first find his old friend Raj Rangan, an Indian Special Forces Commando who became a crime world enforcer. After reuniting and saving the girl, the two men are drawn deeper into the “bhai” underworld of Mumbai than they expected. Sense of duty (“farz”) compels them to take on a system of corruption, revenge, and familial obligations

In the furnace of the sporting psyche

Sport comes to us in boxes – the perimeters of our TV screens or the boundary lines of fields and courts. As much as I enjoy what goes on inside those boxes, I’ve always had the urge to bust out of them. I’ve always had the feeling that the most compelling and significant story was the one occurring beyond the game – before it, after it, above it or under it, deep in the furnace of the psyche. Conventional journalism couldn’t always carry me up to those rafters or down to those boiler rooms, so I had to break out of a few of my own little boxes as well.

That clip is from one of my favorite sports writers of all time; more specifically, from the preface to Gary Smith’s Beyond the Game.

Beyond the game

Sports journalism, done right

For a flavor of how Smith writes, try these stories: The Chosen One, a December 1996 profile of Tiger Woods; Damned Yankee, the story of the man who was widely regarded as the heir to the Yogi Berra mantle until a photographer clicked a picture that changed his life forever;  Coming Into Focus, his 2006 profile of Andre Agassi;  Moment of Truth, a story written around a camera verite moment in a locker room; Blindsided by History, the tragic tale of unintended consequences arising out of segregationists’ attempts to keep black students out of an Arkansas school; and Remember his Name, the story of Pat Tillman, who turned his back on a multi-million NFL contract with the Arizona Cardinals and, in the aftermath of 9/11, enlisted in the United States army in 2002 and died in action in Afghanistan in April 2004. [One of my personal favorites, though it appears to be unavailable online, is Rapture in the Deep — the story of competitive free-diving ace Pipin Ferreras and of Audrey Mestre, the woman who fell in love with him, bought into his passion for the incredibly dangerous sport, and died in 2002 while attempting to break a world record.]

The prompt for this post comes from a Joel Achenbach article I just read in the Washington Post where, against the backdrop of the internet, blogs and social media, he celebrates the craft of the extended narrative in general, and Smith’s work with Sports Illustrated in particular. From his article:

There’s endless talk in the news media about the next killer app. Maybe Twitter really will change the world. Maybe the next big thing will be just an algorithm, like Google’s citation-ranking equation. But Smith is betting that there will still be a market, somehow, for what he does. Narrative isn’t merely a technique for communicating; it’s how we make sense of the world. The storytellers know this.

They know that the story is the original killer app.

When Smith won his third National Magazine Award, Slate celebrated with an article on the man and his craft. An extended clip:

As for complexity: It is always easier, and generally more profitable, to sketch the world in blacks and whites rather than grays. As much as this calculus reigns on newspapers’ Op-Ed pages and in thumbs-up/thumbs-down movie reviews, it is an iron law in sports sections. From reading them, you’d think that every athlete, coach, or executive is either a saint or a blackguard.

That’s not Smith’s way. The only profile of him I have been able to locate appeared in a

Gary Smith

Gary Smith, courtesy 'Talk on Tap'

magazine called PhillySport in 1989. (Smith made his name as a young sportswriter for the Philadelphia Daily News.) In it he explained his approach to the writer, Bruce E. Beans: “I’m looking at it not so much as ‘this is good, this is bad,’ as much as ‘this is just life’ and trying to understand it.”

That’s of a piece with the totally self-effacing way Smith writes. Today, most journalism that anybody pays attention to gives pride of place to the writer: his or her attitude, opinions, and/or experiences. Smith, by contrast, subjugates himself to his subjects, winning their trust and spending hour after hour with them, until he has the understanding and facts needed to write long, richly psychological pieces in which the word “I” never appears.

The O’Leary article, “Lying in Wait,” is a typical production. (Along with most of Smith’s work, it can be read as part of a seven-day free trial at elibrary.com.) First of all, it’s more than 8,600 words long, a positively anachronistic bulk in today’s streamlined, dumbed-down magazine cosmos. (Smith is now an anomaly even at SI, a magazine with a noble lineage of long-form journalism. Flip the page after reading one of his engrossing sagas—it’s like you’ve wandered into People.) But room to ruminate is necessary, assuming you’re trying to do justice to the tragic story of a human being’s fall from grace. Second, the article starts from an assumption of moral ambiguity. It’s a given that O’Leary did something very wrong, but for Smith, exploring the roots of that action is much more interesting than condemning it or excusing it.

Finally, it reads like a rich short story: not a minimalist piece a là Ann Beattie or Raymond Carver, but a pull-out-all-the stops production, in the manner of Gabriel García Márquez. (In the light of recent scandals, it seems important to say that Smith has never been accused of fabrication or other journalistic sins.)

Journalism that goes inside people’s heads is a tricky proposition. In the heyday of the New Journalism, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, and Truman Capote wrote from the points of view of Joe DiMaggio, stock car driver Junior Johnson, and murderer Perry Smith, respectively, with the assurance of Virginia Woolf describing London streets through the eyes of Clarissa Dalloway. But pulling that off requires prodigious reportorial stamina, capacious insight, and darned good literary chops. It’s much easier to take your subject’s description of what he or she was thinking and just drop it in the piece, surrounded by quotation marks. In a Smith piece, you rarely see a quote until the backstretch, when he’s got his narrative hooks into you and can afford to plunk in some background info via direct testimony.

It’s a great act, if you can pull it off — but can you? Smith spends the best part of three months working on a single story — a luxury that is increasingly rare in today’s world, where journalists are lucky if they get three hours. In his piece, Achenbach underlines the conundrum:

The sages say that we’ve reached a situation where “content creation” no longer pays. Only “aggregation” is profitable. It’s a freak variant of Darwinism — the survival of the parasitic. But obviously there will be little of value to aggregate if only rich people and dilettantes can afford to type up their thoughts.

Even the TV industry faces a serious story deficit. Those prime-time police and hospital dramas cost a lot of money to make. Not so expensive, however, is Jay Leno walking out and doing a monologue. That’s one reason he’s moved to 10 p.m., five nights a week. (The most compelling stories on TV are now those crafted by reality-show producers who stitch together a narrative of who’s backstabbing whom in pursuit of a prize. It’s all in the editing.)

Good stories take time to craft. Good writers, editors, copy editors, photographers, etc., all expect a living wage. The real question in the months and years ahead is whether there’s a business model that can support good stories. Norman Sims, journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst: “The great stories will survive. But the question is who’s going to pay for them. . . . This is not fast food. This is slow food. And it’s expensive.”

Very expensive — but someone needs to have the vision to foot this bill, if narrative journalism of the highest class is not to die out altogether. Somewhere in the rush of ‘deadlines’ and ‘instant news’, we seem to have forgotten the journalist’s real job description — the best definition of which I once found in the preface to the DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics [at a Poynter seminar on journalism in 2003, Pulitzer winner Tom French recommended this to me as one of the best how-to books on journalism I’d ever find — and it turned out he was right]:

Here’s what I would like you to do for me: Make me laugh. Make me cry.

Show me my place in this world. Show me the world’s place in my life.

Lift me out of my skin and put me inside another’s, and show me how to live there.

Show me places I have never been to. Carry me to the ends of time and space.

Give my demons names, give my fears a face, and show me how to confront them.

Present before me heroes who will give me courage and hope.

Demonstrate for me possibilities I had never thought of.

Ease my sorrows, increase my joy.

Teach me compassion. Entertain me, enchant me, enlighten me.

Above all, tell me a story.

 

 

Antidote

If Ishant Sharma doesn’t get back to being the pacy spearhead of the Indian bowling attack, it won’t be for lack of good advice. Anil Kumble had some for the bowler not long ago; now it is the turn of Sourav Ganguly:

Q Why do our fast bowlers lose pace and consistency after a year in international cricket? Ishant Sharma is the latest casualty.

A They’re all young and they bowl with venom when they come into international cricket. The problem arises when they return from a long series. It’s imperative that bowlers like Ishant have personal trainers—they can afford the best. They train unsupervised, not knowing what their body needs.  Munaf, RP, Sreesanth, Ishant must all do this. If Ishant wants to play for India for another decade, and he has the potential, he must do this immediately.

The ‘psychological advantage’

As I walked in to office this morning, a young lady reporter on one of the TV news channels was doing a ‘spot report’ as part of the channel’s preview of the game, later today, between India and Australia at Mohali.

She seemed very taken with the notion of ‘psychological advantage’, to the point where in course of a typically breathless one minute monologue she repeated it thrice. The track has some grass on it apparently and Mohali ‘traditionally’ supports pace and bounce, but India has the ‘psychological advantage’. Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag are doubtful starters and India will miss them, not simply because of their experience and ability but because of the ‘psychological advantage’.

TV anchor: Gambhir and Sehwag are doubtful starters, and that could be a big blow for India as it seeks to build on the psychological advantage of having a 2-1 lead.

Reporter: Yes, Gambhir and Sehwag are doubtful, and that is a blow not just because of the experience they bring to the side but also because India wants to maintain its psychological advantage.

TV anchor: Yes, India has a 2-1 lead but the injuries to Sehwag and Gambhir are crucial as they could cost India the psychological advantage.

And so it went, back and forth…

And then, thanks to Cricinfo’s surfer, I found this piece where Greg Baum is extremely critical of the Aussie touring party for gaming the Indian media.

THAT was a bit of a wrong-‘un that the Australian cricket team sent down to the media in India this week. You can read about it in coach Tim Nielsen’s blog on the Cricket Australia website. ”The boys tried to have a bit of fun with the media day,” he writes. ”As I’m sure you can imagine with so many interviews you tend to get asked the same question over and over and we had a bit of a competition running to see who could work the most sporting cliches into one answer.”

There’s also the one about their ”concern for the image of the game” and a ”need to give something back”. Something, but nothing that was truly meant, not anything from the heart. The message from Australia’s cricketers to their supporters is simple: don’t take anything we say seriously, because we don’t.

…”Walking out from the press conference with Rick [Ponting], we left about 70 cameras and another 150 journalists, which I find amazing every time we are exposed to it,” writes Nielsen. ”Although when you consider how many people are over here in India that follow the sport. I suppose it’s fair enough.”

But not so fair enough, evidently, as to dignify questions with anything other than the pretence of considered and worthwhile answers. Not so fair enough not to put on a charade. Whatever Australia was up to that day, it just wasn’t cricket. Ho, ho, titter, titter, slap thighs.

Far from feeling shame about this tawdry exercise, Australia’s cricketers boasted about it, via their coach’s blog.

The offending paragraph has since been deleted from Tim Nielsen’s blog, Baum tells us.

Whether such behaviour is apt for a team that is increasingly so enamored of the riches of Indian cricket that when its stars are not making money in our proliferating leagues, it has plans to play India home or away every year for the conceivable future is a question for the Australian captain, its media, and its board to consider.

Hopefully, we won’t now witness a paroxysm of righteous indignation from our own media people – the fault, dear Brutus, lies with us.

Amit Varma is fond of telling this story dating back to when he was covering India’s tour of Pakistan. Virender Sehwag appeared before the media, and almost immediately confronted this question: ‘Aapke is century aur pichle century main kya farak tha?’ Sehwag being who he is, responded with the straightest of faces: ‘Bas kuch thees run ka farak tha’.

That’s the kind of inanity that characterizes our ‘press conferences’. The point should be clear: if the touring Aussies are treating our media with contempt, it is because we deserve it — if we insist on asking the most inane of questions, we shouldn’t be surprised if we get canned, cliché-ridden answers.The irony is, these responses are then carried verbatim, with breathless commentary on television and/or hyperbole in print.

The surprising aspect of this affair is not the Australians gamed us – it is that we didn’t know we were being gamed, and that is as eloquent a comment on the state of the cricket media as any.