The human bullseye

A young man had attached a piece of paper on his chest which read: Shoot me in here.

For those following developments in Iran: Parvez Sharma’s latest dispatch. [In case you missed it, here’s the first in the series]. And here, a series of eloquent images that add urgency to the story.

And with that, I’m off for the weekend. See you guys Monday.


Flight into the unknown

A brief report on the travails of the Indian women’s hockey team.

Ever heard of any occasion where travelling Indian sports officials were in a similar fix? No? I thought not — traveling and something akin happened to them? Suresh Kalmadi and gang travel first class, with everything laid on, no snafus or else.

Clippings

Thank Zeus, and those who devised Twenty20, for the glorious unpredictability of unpredictability.

Andy Zaltzman on South Africa, chokers, and a brilliant talent who scored 208 not out off his own bat and then took 4/13.

And just to ensure that Andy doesn’t monopolize the humor quotient, here’s a cracker from Robbo Robson, on BBC [hat-tip Naveen Surendran for the link]. Select lines:

A bowler’s pace has varied from express to stopping-at-all-the-stations. Shahid Afridi bowled a 78mph twirler in one game, Harbajhan flighted a last-over delivery at an elegant 46mph when you’d have expected it to be fired in. Umar Gul has spent the tournament trying to remove the toe-nails of the opposition.

……

It is cricket for the goldfish-memory generation, of course, but it’s pretty enjoyable for all that. It’s all over so quickly it sort of defies too much analysis – not that that’s stopped me, eh?

I am reminded of the post-match interviews of the quick chats given to the press by 100m sprinters just after they’ve finished running. ‘Usain, take us through the race!’ ‘Well, as you can see, I start as quickly as I can then I like run really fast and ooh, I’ve finished first.’

Right. Much to do work-wise, no clue where to begin or when it will end — blog on a break, people; back Monday.

Celestial melodies

The call had come out of the blue, to the India Abroad office in New York. “Hello, I am Ali Akbar Khan.”

Sorry, who, I asked, mind yet on whatever I was doing at the time.

“Ali Akbar Khan. I am a musician, I play the sarod.”

I remember stammering apologies, greetings, salutations and praise all jumbled up together. I listen to — but do not much understand — classical music, yet that voice made husky with cigarettes touched even me with the aura of all that his name and accomplishments entail.

The ustad was coming to New York that weekend, he said then; could we meet?

I had already made a plan to spend that weekend with friends in Connecticut: some cricket, some beer, some fun — and I didn’t feel the urge to cancel. I apologized, pleaded prior commitments, and pro forma said something about looking him up when I was in the Bay Area, or definitely making time when next he was in NYC.

He did not return during the rest of my tenure or if he did, he never called. When Shubha Mudgal posted on Twitter just now of the Ustad’s passing, that was the first thought that occurred: how casually, how unthinkingly, we [especially jaded, been there, seen them all journalists] toss aside the opportunity to spend moments in the company of genius — the kind of opportunity most people long for, and never get.

Live on in your music, Ustad. And know how deeply I wish I could take that day back.

Long range planning?

The Indian team physio Nitin Patel will monitor Sehwag’s rehabilitation process and his stint at the National Cricket Academy in Bangalore. Sehwag has to wear a sling for at least four weeks, and the lesion is expected to heal in six weeks. His shoulder will also be evaluated ten weeks after the operation to check whether he can throw a ball.

A touch weird, this story that Virender Sehwag could miss the Champions’ Trophy. Not ‘weird’ that he could miss it; it is the timing that strikes me as off. A month ago, the BCCI and its physio were downplaying the injury in the hope that recovery would be smooth; now they are anticipating that the recovery will not be completed, two and a half months ahead?

Madness, method…

Consider this sequence at the start of Pakistan’s innings:

Kamran Akmal cuts the second ball of the day fiercely past point. He then thumps, off the front foot, the last ball of that over, short in length, past cover. The second ball of the second over produces a wicket; Akmal pulls the third in front of square leg and drives the next off the front foot, threading it between Herschelle Gibbs at short cover and Graeme Smith at mid off; to the sixth ball of that over Shahid Afridi ducks in exaggerated mime of defense and gets the wide; the sixth ball is rebowled and Afridi plays a forehand down the line that screams to the fence behind the bowler. To the second ball of the third over, Akmal glides onto his front foot and tees off, hitting through the line, up and a long way over the long off boundary; to the next ball, he is out top-edging a pull…. And so it went for the early part of the Pakistan innings.

When the Proteas came out to chase, Smith and Jacques Kallis get the score to 30/0 at the end of four overs — and memory fails to regurgitate a single shot those two played though they had kept pace with Pakistan, which had made 32/2 in its first four overs.

Or consider these two contrasting images: In the second over of the Pakistan innings, Parnell gets a short, lifting delivery to move off the seam; Shahzaib Hasan shapes to pull and finds the ball hurrying onto him; the ball flies off the toe of his bat and Roelof van der Merwe at mid on spins around on his axis, races away as the ball soars over his shoulder and flings himself forward to pull off a blinder.

Versus: 5th over, ball three, Abdur Razzaq bangs one in slightly short of length, Smith goes for the pull and ends up heaving it up in the air. Umer Gul moves to his right where he should have been going back, realizes his error, back pedals, takes time off to check if he can pass the buck to Shahid Afridi, then reaches for the catch, lets it fall behind him, falls over and bangs his head hard on the ground, almost knocking himself out.

It was that kind of day: the machinelike efficiency of the Proteas versus the electric madness of the Pakistanis. Clinical efficiency will on paper trump random bursts of electricity any day — but on the ground, especially in a format where a game can spin on its axis in the space of an over or less, inspired madness can produce amazing results. A machine knows its limitations and plays within them; the madman [and I don’t use this word in a pejorative sense] knows nothing except the prompts of fleeting moments.

The machine was best represented by Jacques Kallis, who returned to the side and played with efficiency. With the ball, he bowled two controlled overs of pace and bounce for 14 runs before Smith turned to spin; with the bat he kept his end going with a controlled — that word again — 64 runs off 54 deliveries. It was a performance worth the consummate professional — yet it contained no incendiary moments that could light fires in his team mates. [“We had Albie padded up in the 11th over but if we don’t lose a wicket, he can’t come in,” Smith said post-match; with Jean Paul Duminy playing his trademark nudge and run, Kallis motored along till the 18th over before getting out].

The epitome of Pakistan’s own special brand of cricketing madness was — as he has been so often in his career — Shahid Afridi. Alternating painfully studied defense with trademark thumps, taking exaggerated care not to hit in the air, and playing a 34 ball knock worth 51 that gave impetus to the first half of the Pakistan innings. And when his team came out to defend the total Afridi was all over the place from ball one, talking to whoever was bowling, casually rearranging the field his captain had set, and — like cricket’s equivalent of Kamal Hassan — showing every sign of wanting to play all the roles himself.

In course of an earlier game, Wasim Akram produced a great commentary moment when Nasser Hussain asked him how Pakistanis classified Afridi the bowler. “We had no idea what he was doing,” Akram said. “Then we went on this tour to the West Indies, and they told us he was bowling leg spin, so we said oh, okay.”

That vignette spells out the quintessential maverick, who defies classification. But on the day and in fact through this tournament, Afridi has been producing virtuoso leg spin: there is drift, loop, flight, turn, bounce and very good use of the crease; what makes the package devastating is the top spinner he bowls at speeds approaching that of his team’s quicks, with no discernible change in action.

His two wickets were of the kind that would have done a Shane Warne credit. Gibbs stood at the wrong end of the track watching Afridi bowl two leg breaks of varying degrees of turn to Kallis; he then squared up to the bowler and was given a lovely top spinner that landed on off stump line and drifted in just enough to beat the batsman playing for turn and hit the top of the stumps. In his next over he ripped a leg break past the bat of a bewildered AB de Villiers and then, in his own version of the fast bowler’s three card trick, produced a top spinner close to the stumps and just short of length. De Villiers, the player with the highest strike rate in this tournament, was lured into the cut, and looked back to see the ball crash into the stumps off the bottom edge.

“I enjoyed batting, bowling and fielding,” Afridi said at the post-match presentation while accepting his Man of the Match gong. Even filtered through a television screen, that enjoyment was infectious; on the field, its impact was epidemic with his mates catching the disease, laughingly shrugging off their occasional flubs and producing enough moments of inspiration [Mohammad Amer in the 6th over frustrating Smith with changes in length, direction and pace to the point where the Proteas skipper lost his cool, took a swipe, and saw the bowler run down the pitch, almost push his wicket-keeper out of the way and claim the catch; Umer Gul who, were most quicks are lauded for producing one yorker or two at the death, produced six each over…]

South Africa’s problem, says Dileep Premachandran, is its predictability.

Players like Afridi and Yusuf Pathan will fail as often as they come up trumps, but they bring a sort of manic unpredictability to their teams that South Africa patently lack.

Australia had it with Andrew Symonds, and West Indies do with Chris Gayle, and it should come as no surprise that those outfits have brushed South Africa aside in global events in the recent past. There’s little doubt now that South Africa possess the best all-round side in all forms of the game, but until they can win the matches that matter, they will never be respected or feared like Lloyd’s West Indians or Ponting’s Australians.

In the most unpredictable format of the game, you could argue that the law of averages caught up with them, after seven T20 wins in a row. But the greatest operate outside of such restrictions. Australia have won 29 World Cup matches in a row since 1999, and the West Indies didn’t taste defeat in the competition until 1983. As good as Smith’s team is, it isn’t yet the real deal. You suspect that realisation will hurt even more than this defeat.

For Pakistan fans, says George Binoy, Afridi’s record doesn’t matter — each fresh appearance is greeted with a roar fuelled in equal parts by anticipation and hope.

Pakistan and Afridi supporters always hope that it will come from him. They roar him to the crease, brimming with optimism, hoping he will destroy the opposition with his recklessly cavalier approach. Thousands of fans celebrated his arrival at the crease at Trent Bridge after Pakistan had lost Shahzaib Hasan in the second over.

Did they know that Afridi’s last half-century, in any format of the game, came 28 innings ago, against Zimbabwe at Multan in 2008? And the one before that was 19 innings earlier, against Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi in 2007? It didn’t matter, for when it comes to Afridi, there’s always reason to hope. He’ll disappoint more often than not, but his successes are so spectacular that it’s worth the heartbreaks.

Kamran Abbasi on what it all means:

Yet Younis has made his own luck. He has encouraged a determined and aggressive attitude, something that caught South Africa off guard. In the past, Pakistan have struggled against South Africa, largely because Pakistan have been mentally beaten before a ball has been bowled. This may be only Twenty20 but Pakistan’s attitude made a palpable difference.

Behind his smiles, Younis is determined to win this World Cup for his country and especially for his embattled North West region. He and his team can hold their heads high. They have made hundreds of millions of their fellows very proud. A semi-final berth was a pleasant surprise, a final appearance is beyond expectations.

This is a sweet moment for Pakistan’s long-suffering fans, who passionately follow a team that often produces frustration but sometimes conjures magic. Nobody swings more sharply between frustration and magic than Afridi. He epitomises Pakistan cricket.

Tangentially, S Rajesh has a post on why New Zealand has always found Pakistan the insurmountable hurdle.