With this ring

From across India they came to this big, steamy government-run gym. Before entering the boxing ring, they bowed their heads to the floor, as though entering a temple. A sweet-shop owner’s daughter let loose a right hook. A construction worker’s daughter leaned against the rope, streams of sweat dripping from her face. Bouncing, ducking, like a grasshopper on speed, was a short girl from Calcutta with close-set eyes; she had forsaken her sister’s wedding for a chance to come here and fight. The thud of glove against glove echoed against the cavernous walls.

That atmospheric clip is from a recent New York Times article on women boxers in India.

Boxing is one of several avenues that have opened up to poor Muslim women across a modernizing India, including careers with nonprofit organizations and in teaching. It reflects the changing role of women within their own communities, particularly in the past decade, says Sabiha Hussain, an associate professor who studies women’s issues at Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi.

“They find (boxing) as a way of coming out from conservativeness. They have very limited role — poor Muslim women — in the public sphere. So these women, these boxers, they find a way to come out and this is an outlet for them to fight poverty,” Ms. Hussain says.

And that is from the Wall Street Journal, also recent. The compelling story will come together in With This Ring, a documentary-form narrative by Montreal natives Ameesha Joshi and Anna Sarkissian, with whom I’m currently working on an email interview for India Abroad and Rediff.com.

That story will materialize over the rest of this week and part of the next; in the meantime, here’s their story, in their own words.

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ODI RIP

Lasith Malinga, I read in one of the morning papers, practices his devastating late swinging yorkers by placing a pair of boots where the batsman’s feet would be, and trying to knock its toes off. Nice. Reminds me the silly season is about to begin later today, with another clutch of one dayers we’ll watch reflexively and forget as soon as they are over, if not sooner.

In the week or so that I was away, everyone and his uncle appears to have been busy writing the obituary of the one day game. Here for instance is Mike Henderson about a one day series no one gives a hoot in hell about.

As Kingsley Amis said, more will mean worse. After this interminable bunfight against the Australians, England go immediately to the Champions Trophy in South Africa, then return to the republic for a tour that kicks off with 11 one-day matches, over 20 and 50 overs, before the first Test starts in Centurion on Dec 16. Were England to reach the Champions Trophy final, a long shot admittedly, they will have played 25 one-day matches between Tests.

The problem, suggests Stephen Brenkley, is that in the 50 over version there is a prolonged period when the game is in a state of stasis.

It is the manner in which the players approach the game. Between roughly the 20th over and the 40th in most innings of one-day internationals the game is put in a kind of suspended animation in which the bowlers bowl and the batsmen bat, but only way, as if by unspoken agreement.

Defensive fields are set, runs are nurdled and squeezed rather than struck, it is risk-free on both sides. Anything beyond is a bonus. Things start to happen again in the 40th over. It was like that at Lord’s again yesterday. Australia, having reach 75 for three off 20 overs, were 169 for six from 40 and then added 80 in the final 10. Perfectly innocent Sunday afternoon slumbers were disturbed all round the ground.

It is formulaic cricket, which the introduction of power plays has not fully addressed, and its torpid effect has been aggravated by the advent of Twenty20 which is not perpetually exciting but is short. And at least in 20-over cricket, somebody is always trying something.

Sachin Tendulkar suggested that a solution to this and other ills is to split the ODI game into two innings per side — a formula they are now calling the Sachin Plan, though various luminaries have been arguing this case for years now. [Most recently, Dean Jones suggested a marriage of the T-20 and Test forms].

A solution that does not address the problem is IMHO no solution at all — merely a case of activity without direction. If you accept the argument that the problem with ODIs is the lull in the middle, what then causes that lull? The fact that teams have to preserve wickets for a late order blitz, yes? If that is the case, how does splitting the boredom into two halves change anything? Teams still have 50 overs to play, and need to keep wickets intact for the end, and so will ease off after the field restrictions are removed. All this Plan, whose birth certificate now boasts Tendulkar’s name as ‘father’, will do is create an artificial jerk in the progress of an innings.

Err, how would it be, since Tests too have begun failing to draw crowds, if we split the Tests up too? The first five batsmen play, then the first innings is adjourned, the second team has its five batsmen play… no? Or how about the side batting first plays 50 overs, then the second team gets a shot at bat, then the first team comes back… again, no? Too ridiculous? How then is it sensible to implement such a system in the ODI format?

Dean Jones had an alternate suggestion — reducing the number of overs, hence shortening the mid innings stalemate, by 10. In other words, are you bored because there is a period of two hours in mid innings where nothing much happens? Pity — so tell me, would you be hugely enthused if the boredom quotient was reduced to an hour and a half?

No? Thought so.

Derek Pringle has five solutions, not one.

1 Allow bowlers a maximum of 12 overs each rather than the current limitation of 10. That way fewer bowlers are needed to provide the bulk of the overs, a move that would simultaneously allow more batsmen to be picked to face them.

2 Remove the playing condition that restricts bowlers to having a maximum of five fielders on the leg-side. Packing that side of the wicket can restrict the scoring, but it would open up the off-side field allowing bold batsmen to score boundaries that are such rarities in the middle overs these days.

3 Only allow both the fielding side and the batting side to take their Powerplays after the 20th over. That way, you will have 10 overs of the “boring” middle period where play should not be predictable.

4 The use of a new ball at either end as used in the 1992 World Cup. Might be tough on batsmen on early season pitches in England but it precludes the need to change the ball while making it easier for both spectators and TV to pick it up.

5 Ensure every team carries a home and away kit so there are no colour clashes of the kind that marred this year’s final of the Friends Provident Trophy where both Sussex, Hampshire and the umpires all wore the same shade of dark blue.

I’m kind of amused by item 3: All it means is that teams will look to preserve wickets, that is, to bat sedately, in the first 20 overs so they have their wickets for when the powerplays kick in after twenty overs — the choice being offered, then, is do I want to be bored pallid at the beginning of the innings or at the end?

What characterizes much of recent commentary on the subject is a pervading sense of panic: No one is coming to watch ODIs any more; something must be done [Why? Because what would happen to the ICC’s cash cow, the World Cup, otherwise?]; this is ‘something’; therefore let’s do this.

The most relevant comment/solution came from Sambit Bal, the other day.

Meaning. Context. Provide those, and interest will kick in. Speaking of — give me one good reason to care a damn for a triangular one day series beginning in Sri Lanka today? Even the journalists covering it are so bored, they are reduced to suggesting that this — a tournament being played out on low, slow pitches — is the perfect opportunity for these three teams to get their act together ahead of the Champions’ Trophy, which of course is going to be played in conditions that are the exact antithesis.

Update: In the first game of the tri-series, Sri Lanka has opted for first strike. And as the camera pans across the ground, what you see are large swathes of empty stands. Would the seats had been filled if this game was to be played over two innings per side of 25 overs each, do you think?

A nod and a wink

I’m not sure why, but the first thought that popped into my head when I read the Page 1 headline this morning was: Thomas Beckett.

Or maybe I do know why. Henry II may have asked ‘Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?’, or not. Point is, his actions left in the minds of the ‘more loyal than the king’ section of the nobility the impression that the king would actively welcome a bloody solution, that they could even be rewarded for it. Which is pretty much the impression Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi appears to have created in a section of the law and order machinery.

For all any one of us knows, Modi had no desire to bolster his ‘strong on terror’ image through stories that set him up as a target for the Lashkar-e-Tayeba. For all we know, had the likes of Vanzara sought his express approval before killing the likes of Sohrabuddin Sheikh [the Geeta Johri report] and Ishrat Jahan, Modi would have been horrified, and refused point blank. For all we know.

Accepting all of that for the sake of argument, the question is: what is it about Modi — a man who clearly aspires to lead a national party and maybe some day, if the electoral dice fall right, the country — that led top police officials and even state ministers to assume that he would appreciate, even reward, fake encounters, stage-managed killings of innocent people, to bolster the impression that the Gujarat CM was constantly in the cross-hairs of terrorists?

Renunciation

During a recent chat, Harsha Bhogle threw up an interesting point: If the IPL is supposed to be a platform for Indian cricket to fine tune its team, strengthen its bench, then how well has it done in terms of throwing up the future captain of the national team?

There’s MS Dhoni with the Chennai Super Kings, as incumbent. There’s Viru Sehwag with Delhi, but he says he doesn’t want to lead the national team [the reasons for the sudden renunciation remain unclear].

There’s Yuvraj Singh with the Punjab outfit, but… “Yuvraj’s comment that the captaincy makes him angry is in my mind the quote of the IPL,” Harsha said. Besides, if you were paying close attention to Punjab’s games, what would have struck you with force is that Yuvraj was captain in name only — it was Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara who at all times seemed to be controlling the action; they were constantly consulting each other, making changes in the field placing, deciding on bowling changes — and Yuvraj was quite content to stay in his fielding position and let the two Sri Lankans handle the reins.

“I don’t want to be a captain, I have already told selectors about it. I have said that a new player should be made vice-captain and be groomed to be a captain,” Sehwag told Indian news channel News24. “I want that I should continue to score runs and keep winning matches for the team.”

Full marks to Viru for foresight, and for being upfront about his own intentions/ambitions and lack thereof — but where do the selectors go for the next vice captain? Gautam Gambhir has done fairly decently when he has had to take the reins from Viru, but outside of the Delhi opener, there is not in this Indian squad a single player from the younger lot who has cemented his position to the point where he is an automatic pick, and hence an option for apprenticeship in the leadership role.

Pros and cons of tech

Ever since the ICC announced earlier this year that referrals system would soon become a fact of life, and that additional tools like the ‘Hot Spot’ technology would be trialled as part of the initiative, there have been occasional murmurs of dissent.

Ian Chappell pegged his naysaying on the fact that ‘technology’ as we know it involves a human hand.

It would be ironic if umpires, in the name of fairness, aren’t allowed to stand in Tests where their country is playing, but a behind-the-scenes-operator who has a “home side” involved in the match has a say in the decision-making process. Also, will these behind-the-scenes- operators be subject to the same corruption regulations that apply to players and officials? If they’re not, they should be.

It’s time to concentrate on ways to improve the standard of umpiring rather than harbour the misguided belief that the use of more “technology” is going to enhance the officiating. The reliance on off-field help in the decision-making process is part of the problem rather than being the solution.

Former umpire Peter Willey took another tack shortly after Chappelli’s column, and argued that reliance on technology would have an adverse impact on human skills.

“Umpires who have done Tests for five or six years have lost the art of giving out run-outs and stumpings – they just refer everything,” Willey wrote in the October issue of Wisden Cricketer. “If you have all the technology for a number of years you are going to lose the art of giving out caught-behinds, lbws and everything else because the third umpire is doing everything for you.

“The umpire will end up hardly having to make a decision. Then he stops doing Tests and goes back into first-class cricket and he has to start learning again. It could be dangerous for an umpire’s career.”

Fair enough for a former umpire to see things from the point of view of that profession, but I am not sure the average cricket fan would be moved by an argument aimed not at improving the quality of refereeing but at prolonging the career of an umpire. Besides, if umpires increasingly refer close run outs upstairs, it only means we get better line decisions — and where’s the harm in that?

Trust Simon Taufel to bring some balance to the debate.

The man in the middle

The man in the middle

Despite your continued excellence over a number of years, no one involved can be happy all of the time. How do you handle the criticism from players and the media, including the “Awful Taufel” UK headlines of a few years back?

You do your best. If you make a judgment error, then you learn from it and become better. If you make the same type of mistake, that’s when people should be critical. But don’t forget, we’re up against around 25 cameras and all the tools of super slow motion, Snicko, Hot Spot and Hawk-Eye, and we still get 95% of our decisions correct – that’s pretty good in my book! The challenge for me is to get as close to 100% as possible, realising that I cannot be perfect but I can be excellent.

What’s your view on umpires getting more help through TV technology?

There is no easy answer when it comes to technology. The fundamentals for me are: firstly, having the right balance; having consistently accurate technology; but most of all, having the umpire make the right decision in the first place. Technology can be used to assist the umpire get the decision right, not replace him. Yes, the game has changed and we need to change with it – that’s being professional. Technology has a place, provided it gives us a more reliable and accurate answer than an umpire and it is used to enhance the game, not dominate. I’d like to see more effort put into helping umpires develop greater skills and better performances before giving all the decision-making to technology.

I’d think the bad umpire will, as the likes of Chappell and Willey warn, get lazy while the good umpire will learn to harness technology to aid his decision-making and to get things as close to 100 per cent as possible.

Incidentally, when umpires talk of getting things 95 per cent right, that is one bad decision for every ten wickets that fall, and four bad decisions in course of a Test — even assuming that all umpires are hitting the 95 per cent standard. Add to it, the four bad decisions need not be evenly spaced out across a Test but could come in a cluster, to the detriment of  the prospects of a particular team. Equally, they could come at crucial moments, and irrevocably turn the course of games. All of which is an argument for using any and all tools to try and hit the 100 per cent mark.