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On a slow day, some sports-related reading:

1. In the game last Saturday between the Deccan Chargers and Somerset, Scott Styris bowled what, for the first three deliveries, seemed likely to become a final over worth celebrating in song and story. Needing to defend five runs, Styris began with the wicket of James Hildreth off the first ball, taking out the man who was looking the most dangerous; bowled an immaculate dot ball as follow up; and took out Waller with his third delivery. From five to get from six with three wickets in hand, Somerset was down to five to get from three with one wicket in hand. And then Styris ran in and bowled garbage — a thigh high full toss outside off that Alonso Thomas smacked for a four to level the scores and effectively put the result beyond doubt. What caused Styris to lose the plot so completely — fear of failure, or the less discussed fear of success? Aakash Chopra’s latest column is worth a read in this context.

Anticipating success, and the accolades that come with it, coupled with the fear of ruining all the hard work that has been put in, makes a player nervous near the finishing line. The mind is in two places: one part wanders into the future, contemplating the kudos, while the other is scared of stumbling at the last hurdle.

2. At some point in the Delhi Daredevils versus Wayamba game yesterday, when DDCA president Arun Jaitley appeared on the television screen, Ravi Shastri went into a gush about how the “dynamic” Jaitley could be credited with “so much of the improvements at the Kotla” [If the venue, which has known for the better part of five months that it was scheduled to host various games in the Champions League, couldn’t in all this time produce a halfway decent pitch, that of course is not Jaitley’s fault].

Shastri knows — as does anyone who has ever watched a game at the Kotla or indeed most other grounds in the country — that the stadium hasn’t significantly changed in character in the last two decades and counting. The experience of watching a game there, and in most of our other grounds, is sheer physical torture — that the Kotla and other grounds draw crowds is in fact the ultimate tribute to the all-consuming passion we have for the game.

So why the undeserved eulogy?

Because, increasingly, cricket journalism — more accurately, broadcast journalism — is bought and paid for by the BCCI. If the governing body puts you on its in-house panel, you get gigs whenever there is major cricket happening in the country [Tests, ODIs, IPL, CL, whatever]. And if you don’t make it to the panel you are like the kid in the candy shop, forced to stand on the other side and salivate.

Hence the unedifying spectacle of the BCCI’s favorite ‘panelists’ — Shastri, Gavaskar, Manjrekar et al — breaking off commentary in mid-sentence whenever a VIP face appears on the monitor, to launch into unscripted eulogies. The culture of patronage is one the BCCI has long refined into a fine art — cash and high profile games for votes in the case of the associations; five star living and good money in return for ritual kowtowing and the self-censorship of any critical thoughts in the case of the empaneled commentators…

This is merely a beginning — the BCCI and its IPL arm are clearly not content any more with creating the news, but are hell bent on controlling it as well. Memory being notoriously short, these reminders of what Modi attempted in the run up to IPL-1 might come in handy: here, and here.

Modi and company had to partially back off when the media kicked up a fuss, but that was a strategic retreat. What Modi learned from that fiasco is that he needs to do this in incremental stages. So, today, various restrictions remain in place on how many pictures can be used per game and various other aspects, the clear intent being to create a monopoly for the official site of the tournament du jour.

The media, typically, has been largely blind to the danger. This series, on what happens when sports owns the journalists who cover it, might help put the issue on the front burner where it belongs.

3. When Shastri talked about the improvements to the Kotla, he was in fact correct — in a narrow sense. The last half dozen years has seen a massive upgrading of the quality and comforts of the VIP boxes — the enclosures housing administration honchos, sponsors, franchise owners and such now look less like ringside seats for sporting events and more like exclusive, A-list lounges where the sport happens to be incidental. And as more and more space is required for the hospitality areas, the tickets available for the paying public has gradually decreased — which won’t bother the authorities, because ticket sales in any case provide only a minuscule fraction of overall revenues. Here’s a story that resonates, in this context.

4. For random reading — Ian Chappell on Jean Paul Duminy. Chappell, incidentally, said something interesting while Viru Sehwag was doing his stuff in the middle yesterday. While watching footage of Don Bradman, Chappell said, he was struck by the fact that the Don batted in the middle exactly as he batted in the nets. In practice, you tend to play without fear of getting out — that is, with no inhibitions at all; hence, your batting is unfettered, free-flowing, inventive. It is out in the middle that the thought of losing your wicket paralyzes you, curtails your natural freedom of expression — and unlike most players, Chappelli said, the Don seemed not to be affected by such inhibitions. The same, he said, was the case with Sehwag — he batted at all times and in all situations as if he was having a net, and thus managed to surmount the match situation, the pitch and ground conditions and the nature of the bowling.

5. Club and franchise cricket changing the nature of cricket has been a recurring theme on this blog in the recent past. Here, for more on the topic, is Nagraj Gollapudi.

Cricket is the only mainstream team sport that survives on international competition. Every other sport lives off club-based or franchise-based competition. “There must be something in the model, for every other sport to follow club-based competition,” Neil Maxwell, who was the CEO at Kings XI Punjab in the first IPL, says.

Maxwell, a former Australia A player, who was also once the marketing director at New Zealand Cricket, reckons the difference in the standards of play between the elite nations and the others, as a result of the FTP model, is hurting cricket more than anything else. “We are seeing the flaws in the country-versus-country model, where there is a huge disparity in the standard of teams. Some matches aren’t competitive and some countries are choosing to play others more regularly, so you haven’t got an even spread of the wealth generation.”

Club-based cricket, on the other hand, provides regularity of competition and more balanced contests. That, Maxwell thinks, is the main reason why the Champions League is bound to change cricket.

Lure of the spotlight

Saturday, two teen friends of mine from the neighborhood came home to watch the cricket [‘Uncle, watching cricket with you is great fun’ was the opening gambit, when I opened the door to their ring — very flattering, except for the ‘uncle’ bit]. Both aspire to play cricket; one is already fairly decent skills-wise and of late, they have developed an interest in reading books on the game, and on sport in general [one of these days they will hopefully learn to return the books they borrow].

“This Puttick — how come he has never played for South Africa, if he is that good?”, asked one as the Cape Cobras captain weathered the early loss of Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Davids and, with JP Duminy for company, began turning it around.

That led to a fairly intense discussion of domestic cricket, how talent filters to the top from school and collegiate cricket on, and why not every talented player will necessarily find space on the international stage. “Must be way cool for these guys — you think they’ve ever played in a stadium this big, before a crowd this noisy?”

Possibly. Domestic cricket is hugely competitive in places like South Africa and Australia, and good matches attract a decent amount of spectators. But the youngster’s point was well taken — this is a step up from domestic cricket, a newly erected stage that could over time redefine ‘international cricket’ as meaning more than ICC-stamped encounters between nations. And clearly, the fact that they were now competing against peers from other nations was spurring teams and players on to perform out of their skin — even as we spoke, an admiring Mike Haysman in the commentary box was saying this was the best he had ever seen Putting bat.

What caught the attention of the kids was the standard of fielding, especially in the second half of the game, as the Cobras turned it on. “He must spend all his time throwing a ball at a single stump,” one remarked as Herschelle Gibbs pulled off a stunning straight hit from mid off. [While on that, the fielding by the club teams has been outstanding. Clearly, it is this high standard set at the club level that translates into the brilliance shown by the national teams; the antithesis is India, where the fielding at the domestic level is mediocre, and that in turn translates into the way our national team performs.]

That led to a discussion on by-rote practice as opposed to developing situational and positional awareness. How do you explain that concept to kids? Two examples worked. The first was a quick trip online to watch The Shot, by Roger Federer. Clearly, he had practiced hitting that shot between his legs, with his back to the opponent, time out of mind — but what made the shot was not the act of hitting a ball in that fashion; it was positional awareness at its best, with Federer ‘seeing’, even with his back turned, the possibilities on-court and the position of his opponent and thus finding the best angle to pull off the winner.

Another example was a story I’d once heard of how Pele used to practice his pinpoint accuracy. Apparently his coach would line up, at one end of the ground, a series of flags with sequential numbers on them, each flag separated from the next by the width of a ball and a half. Pele would start his run from one end of the ground; as he gained momentum, the coach would roll a ball, at varying speeds, in tangential lines to the player’s approach. As Pele got to the ball and pulled his foot back to kick, the coach would yell out a number — and the trick for the player was to then, without pause, adjust so his kick sent the ball between the designated flag and the next one.

Henry Davids helped the discussion along by putting on a show. He had already run out Brendan McCullum, and was discussing that live with Harsha Bhogle. I want the ball to come to me, Davids said — and on cue, the ball came to Davids who raced in from his position at long on, turned sideways to field, and fired in the return long, to the striker’s end to catch Neil Broom short.


“Hey, do you think one day all players on the field will be wired like this, so commentators can ask them about the play live?”

Watching cricket with kids is a salutary lesson in what how the next generation sees the game, in what excites them — I wonder if the ICC, which currently is in the throes of ‘reform’, carries out such exercises to get a sense of the audience they seek to attract.

If my two friends are exemplars, it is not about national loyalties any more — what turns them on is great cricket, and it is immaterial to them what flag the team flies. [An amusing example of such shifting loyalties came later the same evening, when a spectator at the Chargers versus Somerset game held up a banner welcoming ‘Gilly bhai’ and ‘Symmo anna’].

“If you had a choice between watching India play Australia and watching this game, which would you pick?”, I asked.

“I’ll check both out, uncle — and watch whichever is more exciting.” Simple, unambiguous, immediate.

“And,” chipped in the other one, “If India is playing ODIs and there is a good T20 game on I’ll watch the T20 — more fun.”

“Except if Sehwag is batting for India — then I’ll watch him!”

There’s been considerable talk of reform, of revolution even, in recent times with various notables advancing suggestions to ‘fine tune’ the game. Increasingly, it seems to me, this talk is akin to Louis XVI and his nobles discussing what flavor of cake from the Marie Antoinette Bakery to distract the peasantry with, completely unaware that  said peasantry is busy dismantling the Bastille brick by brick.

The ‘revolution’ is already on — one of these days, the ICC will wake up and notice that their carefully constructed edifice is in ruins.

A random point my young friends brought up are also worth mentioning. “How come,” one of them asked, “the big IPL teams are getting their butts kicked by clubs we have never heard of?” [While chatting randomly on Twitter yesterday, I realized this is a fairly prevalent question, and comes with its set of conspiracy theories on the lines of ‘The franchises are guaranteed payment, so there is no incentive for them to exert themselves].

I suspect the answer is considerably simpler. Drawing up a list of 11 ‘stars’ does not make a team. The club teams are composed of players who have been playing together, have a sense of each other’s game and a trust in their mates built through constant association. The franchises, on the other hand, are made up of players who got together just the other day, and have not as yet begun to gel as a unit. For the IPL, most of these teams got together at least a fortnight before the event to train together; not so for the Champions League — and the resultant lack of cohesion is showing in the on-field performance. I suspect the franchises — or at least, the ones that survive the preliminary round — will start to come into their own from the next stage on.

Aside: Did you notice the rain midway through the Somerset chase, Saturday? Here’s the question: How come the umpires didn’t immediately wave the players off the field, but permitted play to continue? Or, to flip that question on its head, how come the same umpires, standing in ICC-sanctioned tournaments, call off play at the first hint of rain on the grounds of ‘danger to the players’, and then waste our time with endless inspections? How come there is, within the game, such variance in the interpretation of what constitutes ‘suitable’ playing conditions?

Somerset continued its chase, got distracted by the D/L rules, stumbled, picked itself up and played on to a dramatic win — and those of us watching enjoyed every minute of it. To paraphrase a famous cricket quote for the benefit of the game’s mandarins, we come to watch cricketers play, not umpires ‘inspect the ground at 12’.