Taking one for the team

In his book Beyond the Blues, Aakash Chopra talks of how he was given the job of playing foil to Virender Sehwag; of how the team defined his job description as being the methodical counterpoint to Virender Sehwag’s madness. And of his confusion when, having done that job to the best of his ability, he was cut loose after a couple of failures on the grounds that he was too ‘slow’.

Now, here’s VVS Laxman:

Your early Test career started as an opening batsman – do you have regrets that you could have established yourself much earlier in your favoured middle-order position or were you just pleased to be picked anywhere at that stage?

Actually I started off my [Test] career as a middle-order batsman because I got my first opportunity to bat at No. 6 when Sourav [Ganguly] was injured. So the first four Tests I played were in the middle order at No. 6 or 7. But the middle order was very packed with experienced players in Sachin [Tendulkar] and [Mohammad] Azharuddin and then you had Rahul [Dravid] and Sourav who had done well in the matches they’d played. So I got an opportunity as an opening batsman and took it as a challenge because right from my childhood I’d always been taught that you have to do whatever the team requires. I thought, “The team requires me to open and I’ve got an opportunity to play for my country,” which is a dream for all of us, so I took it up as a challenge.

It was a tough phase for me – the first four years from 1996 to almost 2000. Not because of the cricket but it was just that I used to get runs, then two or three failures, and then people used to brand me as a non-regular opener. It really hurt me because I was trying my best to do well for the country as an opener, even though it didn’t come naturally. That was when I decided that I would not open anymore for the team because the ultimate aim is to score consistently, and to do that you have to be a regular member of the side. I decided that the best chance for me to do well for the country was in the middle order, so I took that decision, and luckily for me, once I took that decision, I got a lot of runs in first-class cricket. I got 10 or 11 hundreds on the trot, and I then got my chance in the middle order [for India] and I grasped it.

When you made the decision not to open anymore did you accept you might not get an opportunity for India again, or at least for a long time, if the players in the side all scored consistently?

Absolutely. That was a factor that was definitely there in my mind. But the decision was taken after the South Africa Test match in Bombay when I was dropped. In the previous Test in Sydney against Australia I got 167. After the next Test – I didn’t get many – I was left out of the side and that’s when I decided. Luckily for me, my coaches and my uncle helped me in making the decision because I was not enjoying what I was doing. You want to be a regular member of the squad. It really is disappointing and discouraging when you are dropped frequently and then again being branded as a non-regular opener. It was a tough call because there was a risk that I wouldn’t get an[other] opportunity.

And I remember once I made the decision, Sourav was the captain and we played a Test match against Bangladesh in 2000. We played with five bowlers and Sourav asked me to open, because he wanted me to play in the XI, but I told him that I wasn’t keen to open, so I was dropped for that Test match and also two Tests against Zimbabwe. But I stuck to my decision because of what had happened over the first four years [of my international career]. By God’s grace everything went well with me getting consecutive hundreds [at first-class level] and then getting an opportunity in the middle order and then establishing myself.



Open, and bleeding

Agassi crying

Image courtesy The Telegraph

I’m yet to get hold of a copy of Open, Andre Agassi’s autobiography – but last night, I read the extended extract published in Sports Illustrated.

At one point I stopped reading, unable to resist the memories that bubbled up unbidden from the subterranean wellsprings of the soul. This is the graf where I stopped reading:

Such moments come to mind whenever I think about telling my father that I don’t want to play tennis. Besides loving my father and wanting to please him, I don’t want to upset him. I don’t dare. Bad stuff happens when my father is upset. If he says I’m going to play tennis, if he says I’m going to be No. 1 in the world, that it’s my destiny, all I can do is nod and obey.

It is now 12 years and counting since my own father died in 1997 – and yet I remain conflicted about so much of the love-hate relationship we shared. Okay, ‘hate’ is the wrong word. For a period of 11 years, from the day I delivered the coup de grace to parental ambition by dropping out of college to the day I left my home in Chennai and arrived in Mumbai to take up a job as a journalist, we were two people forced by circumstance to share a finite space while speaking totally different languages that rendered us each incomprehensible to the other.

Dad was — and I cannot emphasize this enough — not even remotely close to Mike Agassi in temperament. But there were parallels – in his case, the dragon was the vision he had of my future, a vision that constantly blasted ambition at me like so many tennis balls I was expected to hit over the net: research scientist; doctor; army surgeon; IFS officer…

Dreams he had for himself. Dreams he sought to live vicariously through me. Dreams I never shared.

In retrospect, there are many things I could have done better; many ways I could have reconciled the dreams he dreamt for me with my own vision of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do with my life. But that’s the thing about going through hell – that journey comes without a GPS, a roadmap. It is not about days lived so much as it is about minutes endured – a succession of impossible minutes that, like Chinese water torture, drip away at your mind, your strength, till without warning you snap, you break in vital ways beyond possibility of repair.

In that time I’ve done alcohol and drugs or more accurately, alcohol and drugs have done me; in that time I’ve left my home thrice, each time with nothing in my pocket and no idea where I was going or how I would survive; in that time I’ve more than once contemplated ending my life because to continue it seemed more effort than it was worth.

I’ve never been able to speak of the specifics of that period to anyone; even my wife, who knows pretty much all there is to know about me, only has a broad picture but no idea of the real colors of despair. When dad died, I wrote this – my valediction, my attempt to paint the complexity of our relationship in the colors of love, and of grief.

I found then that it was easy to write of the good – but when I got to the point where I had to write of the underside of our relationship, I chickened out. In that piece, I also spoke of why, of how difficult candor is, when it potentially cuts close to the bone:

It is a very difficult thing to do, that: to lower your defenses, express yourself not just from the head but also the heart.

Because, each time you do that, you reveal a bit more about yourself. And the more you reveal, the more vulnerable you make yourself, the more you expose yourself to hurt, to ridicule.

It strikes me that this is yet another reason to admire Andre Agassi – what I’ve read thus far is an example of the sort of searing honesty that is so rare in the self-serving hagiographies that take up so much space on the shelves.

Read, again, the passages headlined 1977 and ask yourselves this: Could you have gone through that experience and not been broken by it? Could you have survived, let alone triumphed? And then, when there really is no need for you to do it – could you have viewed your past life with such blinding clarity and painful honesty?

Those who suggest that Agassi wrote as he did so he could sell a few more books miss a point: he didn’t need to. He – and wife Steffi – are rich. In their case, ‘rich’ is an absolute, beyond need of qualifiers; beyond need, also, of the chump change to be made by selling a few copies of a book.

Incidentally, proponents of the theory that ‘honesty’ is a sales gimmick also need to consider that by writing as he did, Agassi has effectively ruled himself out of future endorsements, sponsored appearances, and other avenues that even the stars of a previous generation continue to exploit.

Rohit Brijnath, one of my favorite sportswriters and a long-time friend, was discussing this with me in email; apropos, he sent me the text of his latest column – one that resonates with my own reaction to the Agassi controversy. It appeared in the Straits Times in Singapore; since there is no online link, I’ll reproduce it here in its entirety, with Rohit’s consent:

The Sporting Life

Andre Agassi is an attention-craving, poor me-crying, book-hyping, drug-cheating millionaire.


What's he complaining about?: An Annie Leibowitz image

Guy marries Steffi, can buy a Las Vegas casino and still have money to lose in it, and his life is hard? In his autobiography, he writes that he took crystal meth, he hated tennis, his back hurt. Boo hoo.

This is one view of Agassi. I don’t subscribe to it. It is too convenient. It’s too cynical, as if we’re programmed to be suspicious of any honesty as a way to sell books, especially in the Oprah-fied American landscape. It’s too simplistic in its view that if you’re rich, and successful, what’s there to cry about?

Agassi’s soul baring isn’t a clever ploy. His tale is simply alarming, an athlete’s grim walk through the disturbed terrain of his youth. The extracts available so far are compelling. Like Lance Armstrong found the perfect teller of his tales in the writer Sally Jenkins, Agassi’s collaboration with JR Moehringer, who won a Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing in 2000, has paid off.

The writing is taut; the stories full of the darkness of sport that we don’t see every day, or choose not to. We see the champion, but Agassi is telling us, we don’t always know his story. So he has peeled off the skin of his public persona and shown us a rawer version of himself.

A page of this book is worth entire tomes that sleep on bookshop shelves, inane diaries of athletic lives and autobiographies so dull they can induce a coma. Just for that we should thank Agassi.

His book is a mea culpa, yes, an admission of guilt about recreational drug-taking in 1997 and lies to the tennis authorities. His game then was disintegrating — at one point he played eight events and won a single match. Was the drug an indulgence, an escape? Make your choice, but his honesty deserves respect. We cannot understand sport unless its heroes reveal its insides to us.

The drugs have become the book’s primary controversy, but it is the young Agassi’s labour on court, how he was made, that appals. He is a boy shouted at and berated and pushed into greatness by a father who perhaps saw him not as a kid but a business plan. His book is revealing; it is also a warning.

Turn on the television set and you see the oversized cheque, the grinning winner, the manicured field, the excited fan, the blonde wife. It seems the perfect life. But the sporting world, and we need reminding of this, is not merely about fantasy and fairy tale.

It is a grimmer universe.

Some sports have a culture of abuse towards women. A study early in this decade apparently revealed that English cricketers are twice as likely to commit suicide as the average male. Steroid use to gain advantage is still pushed hard, even at high-school level. American football is having to take a closer look at the links between the game and later dementia.

Sport is not absent of madness and Agassi’s early life is proof. Not that his is the first story involving a pushy parent. Tennis player Mary Pierce’s father shouted “Kill the bitch, Mary” about an opponent. Golfer Anthony Kim’s father would pretend to trash trophies if he won with an over-par score. Golfer Sean O’Hair’s dad made him run a mile for every stroke he finished over par. Once he reportedly said: “When he was too old to spank, Sean was sometime lightly slapped across the face… A few times the light slap would catch the nose and it would bleed. There was never any abuse.”

The stories are endless, but with Agassi we’re surprised, perhaps because he did not look haunted, merely silly, in those denim shorts. It seems he had only disguised his pain. As a boy, he hit 2,500 balls a day, not for himself but for his father, and he couldn’t argue, couldn’t say no, couldn’t say enough.

His father pointed a gun at a stranger in traffic, he carried salt and pepper in his pockets in case he ever needed them in a fight. Of course Agassi couldn’t say no, as he writes: “Besides loving my father and wanting to please him, I don’t want to upset him. I don’t dare. Bad stuff happens when my father is upset.”

Agassi’s book is a journey through an imperfect life, and a strange livelihood, and let’s be grateful. There is enough inspiration out there about sport – sometimes, the darker side needs an airing. Because this is him, Agassi, the great player, we pay more attention and we remember, again, that sport should never be like this.

Sport should be about fathers who challenge their kids, not those who hand them amphetamines before matches. It should be a life born of fun, not fear.

I don’t mean to suggest that post facto honesty absolves Agassi of a ‘crime’ we would have known nothing about had he not chosen to speak to the record. He confessed, and now he can take whatever knocks come to him, and welcome.

I do, however, intend to point out that in our obsession with the ‘scandalous’ coda to the story of a life lived on the edge [from which we single out for notice not the important bits, but such inanities], we are perhaps in danger of overlooking the intrinsic worth of this book. And that, as Rohit points out, would be a tragedy, because such openness is rare enough to be treasured.

The art of running backwards

‘A million fans were cheated of a chance to witness history,’ says the reporter on the TV screen.

The decision was dodgy, to put it mildly — but ‘a million fans’ have been ‘looking forward’ to seeing this particular slice of history being created ever since this series started; we can wait for another game. Or two.

What appears to have been reduced to a side-story is the fact that India lost a game it should have won with considerable ease. The wicket was loaded for the batsmen [while on that, India’s bowlers and, for once, the fielding, did outstandingly well I thought to limit Australia to an under-par 249], unlike the Kotla wicket of two days ago. And yet, strangely, India opted to approach this chase as if it was still batting at the Kotla — with an exaggerated caution that at first seemed inexplicable, then progressively ridiculous.

‘Strategy’ is a two-edged sword — it can clear the mind and help you focus on what you need to do. That said, it strikes me that devising a one-size-fits-all ‘strategy’ is equally daft. India’s batting ‘game plan’ appears to be something on these lines: Sehwag is a force of nature, no point telling him anything, so let him do his stuff and get out. Then we will, come hell or high full toss, start “pushing the ball around” till we get to the end game, and at that point we will “explode”.

It is a ‘strategy’ we appear to implement without reference to the ground conditions, the bowling, the wicket or even the size of the target, almost as if there is a court injunction that stops us from playing any other way. And it works just fine so long as our ‘exploders’ manage to hang around till the end.

Yesterday they didn’t, and we paid. The how of it is contained in these two sets of stats: the over comparison [incorporating the run rates and required rate] and the player-versus-player stats, which when parsed [check out the singles versus dot balls; check out what happens when you break a batsman’s score down into its component parts: proportion of dot balls to scoring shots] shows you exactly where, and how, we lost the game.

[Incidentally, in all this talk of how well Doug Bollinger bowled — and yes, he was exemplary in his adherence to line and length — what does it tell you that the best strike rates against him are those of Harbhajan Singh and Praveen Kumar?].

One other random thought occurs: Virat Kohli needed to come in to cover for Gautam Gambhir’s injury [though we do have the more experienced Dinesh Karthick as cover, and likely could have used him to better effect] — but does that automatically mean the youngster, still to play the one innings that will give him confidence at this level, should be inserted in Gambhir’s batting position?

Kohli is as yet too unsure of his own skills, and how they stack up at the international level, to take on the crucial number three position, yet it is in this slot that he gets to bat every single time. The upshot — the innings gets becalmed after the inevitable Sehwag cameo, with the inexperienced Kohli playing for survival and the experienced Sachin playing, presumably, for those impatient million fans the TV reporter is still nattering about. [But I forget: suggesting that maybe Sachin is currently not optimizing his game for the team is fraught with risk — what, have I forgotten the knock he played in Sri Lanka?!].

In passing, a clip from the Cricinfo bulletin:

India’s chase had a terrific start with Virender Sehwag caning Mitchell Johnson for 30 runs off 14 balls. Australia began to fight back after Sehwag fell but India were on course while Sachin Tendulkar was batting. However, his dismissal for 40 – the highest score of the innings – was the beginning of the end as wickets fell frequently thereafter.

Really? Or would it be more accurate to say, Sehwag treated the bowling as it deserved to be, and India allowed the Australian bowlers to catch their breath, recover their wits and get back into the game once Sehwag fell?