Personal update…

…and some self-promotion:

News reports and other sources probably tipped you guys off by now; I wanted to wait till things were buttoned down, though. Now that they are: I will be leaving Rediff, which has been home to me since October/November 1995 [and also leaving Mumbai, which has been my home since December 1989] and moving to the Bangalore office of Yahoo, hopefully likely by January 2 at the latest.

I noticed some questions both in mail and on the previous post on the ‘Why Yahoo?’ lines — those are questions I’d prefer to leave alone for the time being. Leaving Rediff is a wrench, since I’ve been here before there was a ‘Rediff’; it is a decision I’ve agonized over for the better part of a year and now, for better or worse, it’s made.

Again, there were some questions about the why of it — and the best answer I can give is, it is time. 14 years is by far the longest I’ve worked at any one job — the previous highest was three years at Mid-Day, and the same span of time at Sunday Observer, and both times I left because I was bored.

When you work with one outfit for a prolonged period of time, it breeds a certain comfort level [more so in a place like Rediff edit, peopled with colleagues/friends I have worked with, and been part of the lives of, for 20 years now] which in turn breeds a certain sort of mental laziness; you get to where you are coasting through your work, without really challenging yourself to think outside of the organizational template. Couple that need to shake myself out of my comfort zone with certain personal/familial issues that I’ve been coping with, and change was mandated.

There’s much to nail down ahead of the move, so now you know why blogging has been — and will for a while continue to be — sporadic [am likely off again tomorrow, but will be back here Wednesday].

Now for the self-promotional bit: a mail from the organizers just informed me that I have been nominated for the Indibloggies awards this year — in two categories, yet. Flattered, but more than that, faintly surprised to receive the blog nomination in a year where my blogging has been very sporadic, unlike my fellow nominees in that category. The norm, as I understand it, is to ask the regulars among you to back me with your votes, but I’ll avoid the impassioned appeal — outside of the Bhim posts, I’ve been way too erratic to ask for your votes with a straight face.

I notice I’ve also been nominated in the Twitter category — and that’s bitter-sweet. I signed up for Twitter [like I sign up for anything new and potentially interesting in the social media space] to walk through the thing and figure out what it was all about and where it was coming from, but for over a year I never felt the need to post. Then 26/11 happened — and by day two, the visceral nature of those attacks, the immediacy, the need to share what I was seeing and hearing and to hear from others, combined to get me posting.

Often, you come across great reading material without however having anything to add to it. Before I figured out what Twitter could do, I tended to save them to my delicious; Twitter with its micro-blogging function is just perfect for such: a ‘Reading now: Link’ is all it takes to spread the word.

[And while on 26/11, spreading the word about good reads and such, if you read only one thing today, make it this: Jason Motlagh’s superb recreation of 26/11 in the Virginia Quarterly Review. Der Spiegel’s recreation of 9/11 was, I thought at the time, the best reportage to have come out of that event; this one by Motlagh almost, but not quite, touches that height. Or maybe the comparison is unfair — Spiegel’s was a team effort, and intended as a book; this is one man, solo, attempting to make sense in a land where quality information is hard to come by, and writing it originally as a series of blog posts. Very evocative — go read].

Back to self-promotion: my friend Jai Arjun Singh [whose blog Jabberwock is a hugely deserving nominee in the ‘Humanities’ category] had written some great commentary on the epics, on Chitra Divakarunni’s Palace of Illusions and related subjects before I’d started my recreation of Bhim [the full version]. When I started writing my transcreation of MT’s work, Jai and I had some fairly extended email conversations on related matters; some of what we spoke about has come together in a lovely review of Bhim that Jai wrote for the Business Standard. Tempted to include a clip or two, but will avoid — the piece flows so beautifully, it needs to be read in full.

Right — need to get back to re-organizing my life [thankfully, the cricket was so incredibly boring, the less said the better]. Away from blog today and tomorrow; back here Wednesday. Random riffs, as always, on Twitter.

Blog on a breather

Hey, all — have certain personal decisions to make, a life — mine –to reorder. Apt to have my head wrapped around these things for the next two-three days, so outside of maybe random thoughts on each day’s play in the first Test, unlikely to be on this thing. Will also occasionally be on Twitter — and back with more regular blog posts after Wednesday. Be well.

Blog cancelled due to lack of cyclone

No, seriously — the possible headline ‘Play called off due to no rain’ put me in mind of this recent article by Peter Roebuck.

Cricket cannot be serious. A game supposedly trying to hold its own in a packed marketplace cannot a moment longer pull up stumps whenever a drop of rain falls or grey skies hover. It’s high time the game put aside its precious refusal to play except in the most benign conditions. It’s pathetic.

Yeah, I know — a cyclone was supposed to make its landfall somewhere in or around Mumbai sometime at or around 10 pm. Which — coupled with the few millimeters of rain that fell the previous evening and night, was apparently enough to call the game off while, as I noticed on the Twitter stream, fans who had bought tickets kept each other updated on weather and traffic conditions.

At one level this could seem like undue fuss over a dead rubber — which it is. But this thought actually occurred to me during the recent Champions League, when one game — I forget which one — continued in the midst of not a mild drizzle but a seriously brisk shower.

The umpires who stood in the CL are the same ones who stand in ICC-mandated matches — so how then does the perception of risk to players change so dramatically? Simply because CL and similar leagues live or die by the bottom-line, whereas the ICC apparently feels no such compulsion to give the fans what they paid good money for.

Suits me just fine, anyway. Today and tomorrow are, thanks to staff shortage, insanely crazy days here at work. I’d originally planned to post some thoughts structured as a kind of freewheeling series retrospective, but that will have to wait for another day. For now, will leave you with this post by Great Bong on his blog. The money quote comes right at the top:

While we came very close to becoming the statistical number 1 ODI team in the world, the fact remains that we have far too many fundamental problems to claim that we rightfully deserve the top rank.

And in passing, a not so savory story out of the bizarre world of Pakistan cricket. Kamran Abbasi reckons the fault lies with Younis, and maybe he is right — Kamran is well connected with the PCB power structure and likely knows the inner workings of this latest fiasco. Absent such knowledge, though, it strikes me as sad that a captain picked by the national board — and more recently, reinstated in the face of an incipient rebellion — can be reduced to the point of wanting a break from the game because he realizes he is no leader, merely a lonely man taking a walk.

PS: On an unrelated note, Subhash Jayaraman on Twitter pointed me at this piece he has done on defending small totals. Your thoughts?


Blast from the past

On his blog, Hindustan Times sports editor Anand Vasu says that by a singular stroke of good fortune, chairman of the national selectors Krish Srikkanth is under no compulsion to explain his actions to the media.

That line made me think — of a series of selection related issues dating back to 1997, in which the central figures were Sachin Tendulkar, Mohammad Azharuddin and then chairman of selectors Ramakant Desai. The links below serve as a capsule  history of that period:

The problem began in July 1997, when then captain Sachin Tendulkar participated in, and later stormed out of, a selection committee meeting. Outlook has the story. [From the same era, another instance].

Fast forward to January 5. 1998: at a selection committee meeting, Sachin Tendulkar was sacked, and Mohammad Azharuddin reinstated, as national captain. This is the smoke and mirrors story of how it was done.

The selection committee then announced its team for the ‘Bangladesh Silver Jubilee Independence Cup’ [you will remember that this was the period in Indian cricket when the main purpose of the BCCI/Jagmohan Dalmiya was to organize various jamborees in Bangladesh; the fact that Dalmiya’s construction firm at that point in time was doing major business in that country was merely one of those bizarre coincidences. Or was it?]. The practice at the time was for the chairman of the selection committee and the secretary of the BCCI to announce the team list, and then take questions from the media.

That meeting took place at the CCI, in Mumbai. At the time, I had recorded the one memory that, even today, remains vivid:

I came away with one abiding memory — of Desai, unable to answer questions relating to the omission of Rahul Dravid, pounding the table with his fists, the foam of spittle that was the visible symptom of his heart ailment flecking the corners of his mouth.

Four months later, Desai died. Age, and a heart ailment, were the stated reasons; this however was the real cause.

The story has a sequel: two weeks after that January 2008 selection meeting, the BCCI put out a two-line memo, sent to all media offices: ‘It has been decided that in future, the secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India will read out the team list at the completion of each meeting of the selection committee. No questions will be entertained from the media.’


Jobs for the boys?

The Kerala Cricket Association must have partied hard last night, after their gamble paid off with the inclusion of Sreesanth in the test squad to play Sri Lanka.

Whether he deserves a place in the squad on form is a question I’ll leave well alone — I haven’t seen his most recent outings; the selectors, on the other hand, presumably have. I’m not sure, though, that inclusion in the national team is the right signal to send a player who, given a final warning by the board less than a month ago for serial bad behavior, flipped everyone the finger by blowing away the practice session of the state team of which he is captain. Hopefully, the least the BCCI and the team management will now do is tell the young man that another transgression is his last — encouraging bad behavior merely tempts the offender to push the envelope even further.

On another note, the K Srikkanth-led selection committee is proving no better nor worse than its predecessors. Team selection is normally an exercise in picking the obvious players, and then bargaining for the remaining slots. It is much harder to do in a domestic series, because there are only 14 slots to fill, of which at least 12 *have* to command their place on merit, leaving slots for one reserve bowler and one reserve batsman for the selectors to play games with.

It took Srikkanth and his cohorts to find the perfect solution — increase the team strength to 16, simple; and in doing that, ignore the fact that historically 14 players are picked for home series because in the event of injury, it is easy enough to call up replacements.

So the committee first picked the obvious names. With two additional ‘berths’ created in a fashion that reflects the operations of our railway touts, ‘Cheeka’ managed to fill those spaces with two statemates in M Vijay and Badrinath. The curious aspect is that the announcement specified that Vijay would be the reserve batsman — which makes Badrinath the afterthought.

And that is curious in itself because when the BCCI announced its latest round of central contracts, Badri was one of the biggest gainers, moving two slots up from Category D to B, and seeing his annual guaranteed earnings go up from Rs 15 lakh to Rs 40 lakh.

Leave the question of whether Badri deserves a place in the playing eleven aside for the moment — he is probably playing to his best form just now. The fact remains that neither he, nor his fellow TN player, will ever make it to the starting eleven absent a spate of Australia-like injuries.

If you assume that selection committees have a say in who gets contracts and promotions, the piquant situation here is that a player found worthy of being promoted is an afterthought even in the minds of the same selection committee. And that player — players — will tag along with the team, sitting on the bench sharing gossip, when they would be considerably better off emphasizing their claims in the Ranji Trophy season now on.

The problem with that is, if Cheeka and company don’t pick Badri, they cannot make the case for his continuing to get a central contract. And if Vijay is not picked as the first choice batting replacement, they can’t make a case for him to be included when the next round of contracts is given out [more on that next round in a bit].

Actually, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 2007, when the question of refining the contract system was being discussed, there was some talk that the board would incorporate performance clauses, and that promotions and relegations would be based on what the contracted players actually did in national colors — how often they were picked, how they performed, etc.

Came the day for the announcement of contracts, though, and there was no change in the fine print. BCCI chief administrative officer Ratnakar Shetty, when asked about the omission, told the media simply that “there has been no change”. The media did ask why; Shetty said that was the decision arrived at by the executive committee — as if that automatically precludes further questioning.

Oh and incidentally? The contracts were issued in October 2008. They ended September 30, 2009. The board has thus far not had the time to renew/review the contracts. Hence the imperative for the selectors to pick additional players and push into the ranks those they would like to see retain existing contracts or get fresh ones.

Nothing, clearly, changes in the Wonderland that is Indian cricket.

PS: Busy day. Mercifully, there is a cyclone warning in effect in Bombay and from yesterday on, the weather has been wet and blustery. The umpires will likely go through the routine “pitch inspections” and delay a decision until they are sure it is not even possible to fit in a 20 overs a side game today — but the ground reality is, no play will happen, so India won’t have to “play for pride” today.

Busy day personally, so off this for the rest of the day.


Protecting Pakistan’s nukes

I follow this timeline fairly obsessively, and the more you read the more worried you get [maybe the trick is to not follow the darn site?].

Last week, one of the stories I was editing for India Abroad related to a Brookings Institute conference on the Obama administration’s policy options in Pakistan — and it is perhaps a function of the times that the bulk of the panelists’ time appears to have been taken up by the question of Pakistan.

Representative Jane Harman, the California Democrat who heads the House Homeland Security Committee’s Subcommittee on Intelligence and Terrorism Risk Assessment, trotted out the tired line that the key to Afghanistan and Pakistan lies in Kashmir — a theme Obama previewed during his presidential campaign and got considerable flak for.

That argument runs roughly thus: Pakistan sees India as its primary threat. Hence it focuses the bulk of its military/security infrastructure on its border with India. This leaves Islamabad lacking resources to adequately push its existential war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Ergo, solve the Kashmir problem and Pakistan will no longer perceive India as its main threat; hence it will be in a position to deploy its military/security apparatus to best advantage.

The naivete implicit in this line of thought is astonishing. For starters, Pakistan’s perception of India as the threat is a matter of political and military convenience, not a point of fact. As long as Islamabad can keep the India bogey front and center before its people, it can distract attention from domestic ills: a Balkanized country and a failed economy, with the over-arching threat of a fundamentalist takeover, being merely the most important of these. Similarly, as long as the military harps on India it can justify its enormous expenditure on hardware and, in fact, provide its own raison d’etre. And ‘harp’ is the mot juste: the state sponsors and actively promotes a steady drumbeat of programming aimed at convincing the ordinary Pakistani that but for the grace of the military and whichever political power broker is in office at the time, India would have swallowed Pakistan whole by now [more on that later].

Bottom line, the government and military need the India threat — which is why ‘solving Kashmir’ resolves nothing; Islamabad merely has to discover/invent another reason for feeling ‘threatened’. And it will. Too often, the military is accused of having created the India bogey for its own ends, but the fact is that successive prime ministers from Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on down have equally held up the India threat to rally its people behind the political process.

Incidentally, just how does Harman and her ilk propose to go about ‘solving’ Kashmir? The most commonly propounded solution is to make the Line of Control the new international border. Assume that is acceptable to us — does Pakistan have a government in place that has sufficient popular support to proselytize that solution and gain widespread acceptance for it? Does it, hell — the reaction to that will be that Pakistan cannot accept formalizing the LoC because to do so means ‘ceding’ Kashmir to India, and negating a decade-plus of ‘jihad‘.

Harman is not the first US lawmaker to propose the ‘resolve Kashmir, solve Afghanistan-Pakistan’ solution — but none, including her, have as yet been able to indicate just how the US, or anyone else, proposes to solve the problem in the face of Pakistan’s continued intransigence.

Bruce Riedel, the former CIA analyst who co-authored Obama’s review of the Afghanistan-Pakistan situation and thus paved the way for the formulation of the administration’s Af-Pak strategy, had a different view [Riedel’s writings on the region here].

He believes among other things that Pakistan’s India-centric threat perception is dictated by self-interest and not because of India’s actions [So one would hope — what act of India’s can Islamabad point to, to justify this ‘threat’? Hell, we didn’t even go to war when Pakistani nationals trained, funded and armed in that country waged war in Bombay a year ago] but because of its own self-interest. And, further, that while it is mandatory for the US to support Pakistan in its current struggle, the US should also begin showing some ‘tough love’ [his words]  by calling them out publicly when they go down the wrong road — such as doing deals with the Quetta Shura or other extremist elements, for instance, or using the ‘India threat’ to justify deploying less than the required resources to its battle against the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Riedel’s is, in administration circles, the unpopular line to take; for some weird reason, successive US administrations seem to prefer accepting — or at least, appearing to accept — Pakistan’s ‘concern’ about the ‘India threat’ as genuine, and even to feed that paranoia.

Maybe it is this paranoia — real, or a convenient creation — that Harman and her fellow travelers might want to try and ‘solve’. And fast. The October attack on the military complex in Kamra, which experts say is one of the storage points for Pakistan’s nuclear components, should have been warning enough [the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies had a think paper out on the theme]. More recently, Seymour Hersh has produced for the New Yorker a typically comprehensive effort on the safety — or lack thereof — of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal that is required reading [the only reaction out of Pakistan, incidentally, is the suggestion that its nukes are safe, thank you very much so shut up already].

Harking back to the question of the ‘India threat’, Venkatesh Varadarajan in email pointed at the sort of official media manipulation that breathes life into this perception. The relevant excerpt from his email:

On another note, was watching a Pakistani music channel the other day – decent music actually. But I was a bit surprised at the anti-India obsession on it. They had this junta interview segment where they interviewed the ‘man on the street’ plus some musicians. Constant underlying theme: we are waay better than those guys across the border; they suck, they force you to compromise on your principles, yada yada yada.

I mean, come on!! Grow up! I’m guessing it probably was a state sponsored channel. But still … The only way they’re going to get over it is if they get something else to do with their time other than listening to the mullahs.