Reading matter

1. A year ago today, authority dithered and allowed Lehmann Brothers to collapse. Marking the anniversary, Pulitzer-winning journalist and Columbia U prof James Stewart has a 24-page insider account of the final days of Lehmann, due out in the New Yorker Monday US time. Watch for it; meanwhile, Politico has a sizable sampling from the story to whet your appetite. If you’ve read Heart of a Soldier, you know how Stewart writes; if you haven’t, here’s a taste: the New Yorker story that eventually grew into that book. And back to the crisis for a moment, Spiegel Online on how the meltdown has played out in New York.

2. Remember Stephen Farrell, the NYT reporter who was kidnapped by the Taliban and blogged about it [the link is part of this post]? Tunku Varadarajan addresses a dilemma that lurks just beneath the surface of that episode.

3. Candy is just dandy but commonsense would be better, says David Wood in Afghanistan.

4. Amit Varma on Baba Ramdev and, um, Yogic Jogging. And on the third world war.

5. Moral of the story: Never discuss a favorite movie with a mathematician.

6. A death to commemorate: Raj Singh ‘Rajbhai’ Dungarpur — princeling, raconteur [especially brilliant after that first post-sundown whisky at the CCI], cricket administrator and friendly acquaintance. A round up of tributes on Cricinfo to the man so well liked that Lord’s flew its flag at half mast in his honor. I’d only add of him that his head and his heart were often, if not always, at the right place at the right time, together.

7. Writing a book can all but kill you — as William Manchester found out when he attempted to write the authorized book on the JFK assassination.

8. Introducing Tajik Jimmy.

9. Time to move on from Ram Temple and suchlike issues — to more important things like, um, beer.

10. Meet the Usain Bolt of the animal kingdom.

More, if and when I stumble on them.

Freak out

To mark Serena Williams’ absolute freak out this weekend in the dying moments of her semifinal against Kim Clijsters, Newsweek compiles video of five compelling on court freak outs, featuring an all star lineup of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, and lesser lights Mikhail Youzhny and Marin Safin. Enjoy.

If… when… maybe…

A WTF news story from recent times: Nandan Nilekani says the Unique Identification Number is not mandatory.

On the face of it, this seems contrary to what was originally announced — a UID number for every citizen.

The Unique Identity (UID) project seeks to assign a UID number to each individual in the country that would remain a permanent identifier right from birth to death of the individual.

The UID would obviate the need for a person to produce multiple documentary proofs of his identity for availing of any government service, or private services like opening of a bank account.

Closer examination reveals considerable ambiguity. For instance, this is what Montek Singh Ahluwalia actually says:

“By 2011, we should be able to develop a system through which anyone wanting a unique identity number could get it. This will help authorities in easily identifying the citizens of the country,” Planning Commission deputy chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia said…

Nandan’s vision, as articulated in interviews like this one, is however inclusive:

Mr Nilekani, let me start with a simple question. It is said that 80 per cent of Indians have Election Commission identity cards, others have ration cards, some people have BPL cards, others have driving licence and passports, and there are even PAN cards. Why on top of this do we need a unique identification number?

Nandan Nilekani: We need one single, non-duplicate way of identifying a person and we need a mechanism by which we can authenticate that online anywhere because that can have huge benefits and impact on public services and also on making the poor more inclusive in what is happening in India today.

Karan Thapar: When you say one online way of identifying a person, am I right in assuming what makes the unique identification different to anything else is that in addition to name, age, sex, date of birth and address, you actually have the individuals biometrics which are unique to that individual?

Nandan Nilekani: Absolutely. It is a combination of most probably fingerprints and picture and a biometrics committee will finalise that but finally that makes it unique. And we will also make sure that there are no duplicates. That’s another important decision.

Curiosity prompted me to mail the man in the middle of the muddle, with one simple question: The Yahoo story suggests the UID number is not mandatory — is that correct? Nandan’s response:

It is correct. Cannot make it mandatory as that would exclude people who dont have it, from getting services. Can be made mandatory once it is ubiqutious.

I suspect that behind the ambiguity of that response lies the technocrat’s dilemma. He is used to a more structured system, where an idea is thought through in its entirety, from concept to implementation; the execution systems are put in place, and so on. As opposed to that, he now finds himself in government — where a grandiose vision is articulated without the nuts and bolts having been thought through, and the person responsible for implementation is then thrown into the deep end and forced to work things out, a process that within our bureaucracy is akin to doing the backstroke through molasses.

Nandan likely needs to work out, first, where his office will be and what resources he has before he can even begin planning the project and its implementation. Universal UID numbers by 2011? Don’t count on it.

Cricket clips

The debate on reform of the ODI continues, with Ian Chappell — a column I like over recent efforts by others because it examines multiple solutions to make the game more exciting.

ODIs are increasingly exercises in painting by numbers; there has been no real innovation since the 1996 World Cup that institutionalized big hitting in the early overs where the formula, till then, was a quiet start [a Krish Srikkanth, and a Mark Greatbatch, notwithstanding].

To break out of formulaic play will take more than a cosmetic change or two. It requires that the administrators, when setting out to reform, address all aspects of the game. Samples from Chappelli:

The boundaries should be as large as possible, which places an emphasis on daring running between wickets and athletic fielding, two features that originally attracted fans to the limited-overs game. Short boundaries tend to emphasise defending the ropes, and make some fielding attributes redundant, whereas larger extremities make containment difficult because of the big gaps between the outfielders.

There should only be one stipulation about field placings: four men should compulsorily be inside the circle in the final five overs. If captains aren’t told where their fieldsmen have to go then they’ve got to think where to put them, and the regulation is only there to stop teams having nine men on the boundary in a tight finish.

The other restriction on the fielding side should simply say that five bowlers have to deliver a minimum of five overs each. Apart from that the captain can utilize his bowlers how he sees fit. The more overs available to the better bowlers, the more likely a captain will attack rather than defend with stop-gap trundlers. Bowl well and you’ll be rewarded with more overs.

A good contest between bat and ball is the crucial factor, closely followed by a tense finish; all else is forgotten if the final moments are riveting. If every run is scrapped for and earned by skillful, aggressive batting and daring running between wickets in defiance of brilliant fielding, no one can complain about the game providing value for money.

Elsewhere, another worry often expressed by administrators threatens to come true, with Andrew Flintoff poised to become the game’s first official mercenary shortly after a group of New Zealand players made moves in that direction by refusing to sign national contracts until the calendar incorporated a window for them to make money in the IPL. Flintoff’s problem:

The ECB awarded an incremental contract to Flintoff as they hope will be key part of England’s limited-over sides when fit and has stated he wants to play until the 2015 World Cup. But England coach Andy Flower had said his players could take part in only three weeks of the 45-day IPL next year if they toured Bangladesh. That means Flintoff, the joint highest-paid player in the IPL along with Kevin Pietersen, could stand to lose about half of his US$1.55m fee by going to Bangladesh.

And the solution his agent has worked out:

“He’ll play for Chennai [Super Kings in the IPL], he might play for an Australian team, a South African team, maybe one in the West Indies,” Chandler told the Observer. “If he hadn’t have been injured he would have probably played in December-January in Australia. And then at the end of January, early February in South Africa. I was already negotiating with them. We were negotiating with South Australia and the Durban team, the Nashua Dolphins. And there’s been an offer from Northern Transvaal [Northerns] as well.”

The shot heard round the world

If this is the only sporting moment you see all week/month, it will still be worth it. Sheer genius [hat tip Reuben Abraham, in an email thread].

Federer thinks it is the best shot he ever hit in his life [from Tennis magazine, a piece on the sweat that goes into such genius]. If you don’t, nominate your own favorites.

The whatsit cup final

Remarkably little heartburn in the papers Saturday, following India’s collapse chasing an improbable target of 308 against a well-rounded bowling attack backed by superb fielding. Nice. The team after all is easing back into competitive cricket after a decent-sized layoff, so any breast-beating at the symptoms of rust would have been premature. Come to think of it, if India loses the Compaq Cup final today, I still wouldn’t worry.

That said, there are signs that should begin to seriously worry selectors — and the first is Suresh Raina. Along with Rohit Sharma, Raina is being groomed to bat at 3 or 4 in the order in the new dispensation. Watch him play Shane Bond, though, and you realize just how far he has to go before he can live up to that billing — Raina was distinctly discommoded by anything that didn’t pitch in his own half and, in fact, was in such a state of chronic apprehension that once, ludicrously, he jumped onto the back foot to a ball of good length, and got into a horrid tangle. He may have been working on remedies, but clearly he has a heck of a long way to go still, and that opens up a major vulnerability within the lineup.

The other was the Yuvraj Singh sideshow on Friday. The one time contender for captaincy is a notoriously slow starter even when in prime form, but at the start of a season he is just plain flat-footed — and that is in large part the result of a lifestyle that avoids anything remotely resembling practice in favor of the bright lights of the Mumbai party circuit. During his time as coach, John Wright had identified the tendency to slack off during the off season as the single reason why the team invariably starts the new season slow. Years later, though the symptom was identified, there still seems no cure in sight. Do we even have an off season schedule, and does anyone actively monitor what the players get up to when there are no international commitments?

The third problem, unfortunately, is not something the selectors or the team can do much about just now. In ODIs, you need the ability to maximize the possibilities of the first ten overs — and absent Viru Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, the team lacks that ability. A slow start, compounded by Dravid at three, means pressure all the way down the line, and that pressure is falling on the likes of Raina and Yuvraj who, at this point, are just not equipped to turn it around.

At the end of Friday’s game, MS Dhoni said the toss was 50 per cent of the battle and if you can put up anything in the region of 250 batting first, that is 80 per cent of the game won. I don’t know if it is that simple — the team at this moment has a sluggish look about it, especially in the field [against Lanka, fielders routinely conceded twos where there should have just been brisk ones; against that, the Lankan inner ring routinely denied singles and had the Indians under enormous pressure]; even if they were to win the toss today, I don’t see them winning the game, not with rust so thick in all three departments of the game.

In any case — how many of you watched the two India games thus far? Just taking the temperature. 🙂 I’ll likely watch the first half of today’s game, anyway, before heading off to meet some friends just in from London — thoughts, as and when the occur, on my Twitter stream.