Test 3, day 1

Sri Lanka clearly hasn’t learned the art of putting the boot in when it can.

With the toss won and the innings off to a flier courtesy the openers putting on 93 runs inside 20 overs, the visitors had the opportunity to send India on a leather hunt. In the event, it ended the day having lost too many wickets; the innings tripped over its own inability to strike the right balance between momentum and substance.

The wicket at the Brabourne Stadium had turn. Not the kind of slow turn seen at Ahmedabad and Kanpur, either – here the turn was quick, pronounced, and accompanied by bounce whenever the spinners looped the ball up and allowed it to bite the deck.

So pronounced was the possibility of spin that Harbhajan, who typically starts with a flat, quick line, tossed the first ball of his first over up above the eye line, as early as the 16th over, and got it to drift across the batsman, bite, and turn.

The spinner went on to have one of his best days of this tour, clearly revelling in conditions that gave him considerable bang for the buck. Pragyan Ojha got sharp turn as well, but he is the more relentlessly attacking bowler, and that style is guaranteed to bleed runs on first/second day tracks absent top notch support in the field.

Spinners bowling on a first day wicket, no matter how amenable to turn, are wholly reliant on their mates in the field to keep the pressure on – and it is here that the Indian fielders let Harbhajan and Ojha down. Dilshan showed the way, and the rest caught on – throughout the day, the standout feature of the Lankan innings was their willingness to tip-tap and run, a practice that inevitably led to misfields. Worse, it took the edge off the bowling, as neither spinner found it possible to bowl a series of deliveries to any one batsman.

Vital stat: the first 80 overs of the Lankan innings saw 123 singles in a score of 329/6.

With all that they had going for them, the Lankan batsmen underperformed. Dilshan, who returned to form with a fluent century, got one of the most godawful umpiring decisions in recent memory, but his mates by and large gave it away after having the bowling at their mercy.

Paranavitana got a good ball from Harbhajan with loop and sharp turn that defeated the attempted cover drive, but Kumar Sangakkara played without the calm he is noted for, seemed ill at ease against both spinners, and ended up edging a delivery going down leg side; Mahela Jayawardene gave an object lesson on how to counter swing and seam, and then slapped a badly conceived pull to backward square; Samaraweera’s hard hands on a defensive prod was very un-Lankan in its execution; and Prasanna Jayawardene, after taking Ojha for successive fours at the start of the 80th over, gave it away with a badly conceived charge that saw him beaten for flight and holing out to mid on. If the Lankans ended the day not needing to hide their blushes, much of the credit goes to Dilshan’s craft at the top of the order, and Angelo Mathews’ fluidity in the lower  middle order.

Test cricket is largely a game of managing time. By scoring at a cracking pace almost throughout the day, the Lankans sought to buy time for their two spinners [and Sangakkara might yet have reason to rue leaving out Ajanta Mendis, as and when India bats in the fourth innings] to take out India’s in-form line-up twice. But by losing eight wickets in the day, the team ruined its own strategy: to really exploit the toss and the conditions to optimum, the visitors had to be looking at a score in excess of 500-550; the loss of three top middle order batsmen for a combined score of 48 negated that possibility.

For India, the fielding was uniformly patchy; ditto the bowling. Zaheer Khan seems yet to strike mid-season form. He is a rhythm bowler who, just now, is clearly off beat; when that happens he tends to try too hard, and ends up going all over the place. Sreesanth had a curate’s egg of a day, good only in patches when he throttled back his ambition and let motor memory do all the work. A classic example was his second spell, which he began with a near-unplayable series of outswingers and deliveries that jagged back in off the seam, but then ambition got the better of him, he changed his line and took to bowling from well wide of the crease, and ended up losing control and efficacy.

On balance, India will be the happier side going in at close. Lanka looks to end well short of the 500 that is a minimum requirement batting first on this track; an added plus is that the Indian batsmen will have maximum use of the good batting conditions of day two and to an extent day three. The one consolation for the Lankans is that the wicket is turning — and the Lankan fielding is streets ahead of India’s.

Advertisements

Wide Open

Before he steps out into the public glare, Sachin Tendulkar puts himself through a ritual: First, he plugs in his earphones and turns the volume of his IPod way up; he then hides his eyes and half his face under his preferred brand of shades.

The earphones and shades are the bars to a prison Tendulkar voluntarily immures himself in, not out of arrogance but of the desire of an intensely private, extremely shy person to keep the world at bay.

It is, equally, the attempt to find through artificial means the privacy denied, for two decades and counting, to one who ‘belongs’ to the nation.

The prison motif also permeates much of Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open — but in his case it is a prison constructed by circumstance, not out of choice.

Open is a searingly honest book [earliest posts here, and here]; a brilliant coming of age narrative that also serves as the prism through which we witness the entries and exits, on the world stage, of some of the most storied players of the age.

It helps that the narrative arc of Agassi’s life is almost operatic: tormented childhood, troubled teens, conflicted adulthood all marked by an internecine conflict between talent and temperament/inclination; an almost Dickensian plumbing of the depths of degradation followed by a Chicken Soup for the Sporting Soul story of redemption.

Three women power the story: the teeny-bopper crush turned live-in lover of his early twenties; the Princeton-educated supermodel/actress he happily beds and reluctantly weds, and whom he treats in his memory with an indifference bordering on contempt; and the leggy blonde tennis legend who becomes his personal Holy Grail and who, once she enters his life, propels the narrative towards a fairy-tale denouement.

Supporting the lead actors is an ensemble cast of supporting characters who in their respective ways serve as catalyst to the tale: the tyrannous father [‘bad things happen’ when his father is angry, Agassi says in the voice of the scared child, early in the book] and soft-spoken, all-accepting mother who, in the denouement, stands revealed as The Image is Everything phasepossessing unsuspected strengths; the older, less talented brother who becomes his pro bono driver and wing man; the physical trainer who is the closest thing mankind has seen to the Incredible Hulk; the Fagin-like director of the tennis academy that becomes Agassi’s teenage prison [he refers to his training there as the tennis equivalent of breaking rocks as part of a prison chain gang]; the pastor who on cue doles out dollops of Deepak Chopra-esque bromides; the best friend of his childhood who becomes his manager; and the two coaches, themselves former players of some repute, who chisel his court craft and convert him from street-fighter to a strategist of the tennis court.

And the players: a constant, dazzling parade on the other side of the net of some of the greatest names of the age. What we often tend to lose sight of is that in a career that spans 1986-2006, Agassi has storied players fade and fresh talent emerge. He has battled McEnroe, Lendl, Edberg, Connors and Becker [the latter two he treats with undisguised contempt]; he has seen the likes of Courier and Wilander emerge, soar and ebb; he With friend and rival Pete Samprashas seen the metamorphosis of Pete Sampras from a ‘no talent’ tyro to his arch-nemesis [“I wish I could emulate his spectacular lack of inspiration, and his peculiar lack of need for inspiration,” Agassi says in one of the many cathartic moments in the book]; he has played against and outlasted the greatest names of two decades and, in his twilight years, seen the emergence of Roger Federer, the player who he names, against the backdrop of their first meeting, as the one destined to be the greatest ever.

Those names, and Agassi’s photographic memory for match detail, drive large sections of the book and provide unmatched insight into what goes on in the mind of a player as he battles back from the edge.

But it is his personal journey – from traumatized boy to troubled teen; from precocious talent to chronic under-achiever; from the ‘Image is Everything’ parody to the dignified champion who, in his last hurrah at the 2006 US Open, made fans weep the bitter tears of personal loss – that gives the book its cutting edge. And Agassi’s greatest triumph is perhaps this – he handpicked the perfect collaborator.

JR Moehringer, who is thanked extensively in the afterword, had during his stint at the LA Times netted a feature-writing Pulitzer for his portrait of a river-front town that is home to the descendants of slaves, whose isolation is threatened by a proposed ferry that will link them to the mainland.

He almost netted another Pulitzer [Moehringer was a named finalist] for his searing profile of heavyweight boxer Bob Satterfield, every key stroke of which is, in the light of hindsight, a precursor to what he would do with the many dozens of hours of conversations he had with Agassi.

In an extended section of the afterword, Agassi talks of how he had identified Moehringer as the writer he wanted to work with after reading his memoir, The Tender Bar. Read these excerpts – from the author’s website and from Amazon – and the reason for the choice of

With Brooke Shields: I do? Like heck I do!

Moehringer becomes clear. The themes in his memoir — parental neglect or/and abuse; a desperate quest for identity that paradoxically triggers self-destructive behavior; the constant search for a father figure, mother, companion, seer and, always shimmering in the distance, the promise of redemption – foreshadow the themes that permeate Open.

What strikes you most forcefully as you read Open is its breathless urgency; a sense of watching events unfold in the living, breathing present, that gives an added urgency to the matches Agassi lives through, to the sense of impending cataclysm that hangs over his relationship with Brooke Shields  and to the developing destiny that drives the Agassi-Graf relationship. Moehringer achieves this by writing always in the historic present and, by putting you in the midst of the action as it is taking place, getting you to invest emotionally in the story.

You feel in a physical way the ball come off the racket as he hits the screaming forehand pass that knocks Boris Becker out at the end of a match in which Becker got Agassi’s goat by bowling kisses at his then girlfriend Brooke Shields; you feel the lung-busting, soul-searing effort that went into the quarterfinal of the 2005 US Open [one of the meticulously detailed games in the book], where Agassi

The Holy Grail: Agassi and Graf with son Jaden and daughter Jaz

came back from two sets to love to win his match against James Blake in a 5th set tie-breaker; you feel Agassi’s disappointment when he wins finally Wimbledon only to learn that Steffi Graf, the women’s champion, won’t be dancing with him after all; and as he sits in a plane, crafting a crude birthday card for Graf out of an airline menu, you root for romance to triumph.

And it is all down to Moehringer’s brilliance as amanuensis.

Moehringer constructs the story with rare skill; his tools are a pitch-perfect ear for dialog and a deft touch with portraiture, so that every character, central or peripheral, appears on the page vitally alive and fully formed.

‘Voice’ is the hardest thing for the ghost-writer to crack. Write in the voice of the protagonist — who, though skilled in his area of endeavor is likely untutored in the art of telling a story — and the narrative could end up bloodless, lifeless; write someone else’s story in your own voice, and the result rings false in the reader’s ear.

In 2006, Gary Smith [subject of an earlier post] wrote a profile of Agassi for Sports Illustrated that has since been extensively anthologized in ‘Best of…’ collections. It reads, in retrospect, like a Condensed Books version of Open — and the similarities suffice to tell you that the voice we hear, in Smith’s profile and in the autobiography, is Agassi’s own. What Moehringer brings is the skill of the top-notch practitioner of narrative non-fiction: pacing, sentence structure and a driving ‘beat’ to the words that, like a good bass line, you feel in the gut.

Sometimes, though, it all feels too pat. The villains get their comeuppance; no matter how rocky things get in the life of his friends it all comes right in the end, thanks often to the hero’s large-hearted generosity; the hero himself beats all odds, becomes world number one; woos, wins and weds the unattainable maiden…

Pat. Perfect, in a way life rarely is. And it makes you think.

We, all of us, lead two lives. The one is a messy, chaotic affair lived in the hurly-burly  present. And the other is the revisionist version that we live relive in our personal rear-view mirror. In this version there are no coincidences; everything that happens ties in neatly with everything else that happened or will happen; actions are dictated  not by knee-jerk reactions to the randomly unfolding present but by carefully calibrated reasoning; unsightly loose ends are neatly tied during this process of post hoc revision and the more obdurate ones are snipped away altogether.

Open is clearly revisionist; its silences speak to the unsightly bits that have been cauterized. And nowhere is that silence as eloquent as when Agassi speaks of his drug-taking. We know when it started and how; we have a sense of his short term gains and long-term losses; we live through him the euphoria of the high and the soul-destroying nature of the aftermath. But — and thanks to my personal experience with drugs, it is something I looked forward to reading, and was disappointed not to find — when did the self-destructive nature of what he was doing really dawn on him? How? Why? And how, after clocking up a year or more on a killer like crystal meth, did he kick the habit?

The book is silent on that, just as it is largely silent on his role in the two failed relationships that preceded his link up with Steffi Graf.

That minor quibble aside, few if any sports memoirs manage to rise beyond self-serving hagiography and into the realm of soul-searching bildungsroman. Open makes that leap effortlessly, and wins my vote for best sports book of the year/the decade, and – since tennis is the theme – finds place in a very select list that includes the seminal Rivals by Johnette Howard, the story of the Chris Evert-Martina Navratilova rivalry [review by Soumya Bhattacharya] and You Cannot Be Serious, the autobiography of my all time favorite tennis player, John Patrick McEnroe.

Afterwords:

Agassi’s riffs on the players of his generation provide rare insights. Here, for the Indian in us, are his thoughts on two players. First, Ramesh Krishnan, who handed Agassi his first defeat after the latter turned pro at age 16:

My first tournament as a pro is in Schenectady, New York. I reach the final of the $100,000 tournament, then lose to Ramesh Krishnan 6-2, 6-3. I don’t feel bad, however. Krishnan is great, better than his ranking of 40-something, and I am an unknown teenager playing in the final of a fairly important tournament. It’s that ultimate rarity — a painless loss. I feel nothing but pride. In fact, I feel a trace of hope, because I know I could have played better, and I know Krishnan knows.

Next, Leander Paes, whom Agassi encounters at the Atlanta Olympics:

In the semis I meet Leander Paes, from India. He’s a flying jumping bean, a bundle of hyperkinetic energy, with the tour’s quickest hands. Still, he’s never learned to hit a tennis ball. He hits off-speed, hacks, chips, lobs — he’s the Brad [his then coach, Brad Gilbert] of Bombay. Then, behind all this junk, he flies to the net and covers so well that it all seems to work. After an hour you feel as if he hasn’t hit one ball cleanly — and yet he’s beating you soundly. Because I am prepared, I stay patient, stay calm, and beat Paes 7-6, 6-3.

Right. Moving on:

Graf and Agassi in Louis Vuitton ad/photo Annie Liebowitz

Remember this image? From my archival collection, a link to the Louis Vuitton ad series, Journeys. Scroll down on the right nav bar to check out the eight clips in the ‘New York’ series.

Agassi talks to Katie Couric about Open: Part one, and two.

And finally — one of the most moving personal introductions I’ve ever heard: Agassi introduces Steffi Graf at her induction, in 2004, into the Hall of Fame [transcript here, if you need one]:

Got ball?

No one has anything to say about the solutions Chris Ryan proposed to redress the imbalance between bat and ball, vide my post yesterday?

The essential fallacy of Ryan’s argument is that in trying to make life harder for batsmen and give bowlers a bit of a chance, it actually accomplishes the opposite: the first to suffer from a reduction in size of the ball is the bowler himself.

Bowling with the existing size of ball, the bowler finds his thumb and two fingers resting easily over the seam; the position enables the wrist to come into play. Reduce the size of the ball, and the fingers will need to curl inwards, like claws, to get a good grip. Try it out, and you’ll see that curving the fingers in largely takes the wrist out of the equation, and thus reduces both power and control at the time of delivery.

My friend Rahul Bhatia [find him on Twitter here, and on blog here] had, during his Cricinfo stint, once done a story on how the cricket ball is manufactured. Based on that experience, he picks the flows in Ryan’s proposal, and in email suggests a solution of his own:

I had a problem with Ryan’s idea. Changing the shape of the ball doesn’t just affect the batting side, but also bowlers and fielders. They will have to relearn how to throw the ball.

I have another solution: the rubber-cork mixture in the ball? Make it bounce more. Right now ICC ball regulations state that if the ball is dropped from a certain height, it has to bounce back within a particular range. What if the bounce-back exceeded the present range?

There’s also another possible answer to this. Use a thicker thread for the seam. Make it harder, and more pronounced. For ball producers this should be a simple matter of experimentation.

I wrote a story on how cricket balls are made in India, a few years ago. I was struck then by how easily the scales could be tilted. I can think of only one reason why changes haven’t been made to the ball: because whoever’s calling the shots prefers things the way they are.

Of the two solutions Rahul proposes, I like the second one — making the seam more pronounced [and more durable] better. It gives the bowler greater conventional swing and cut with the new ball and more chance of reversing the old one; the spinner gets more grip on the ball, and bite off the deck — in other words, it enhances the bowler’s effectiveness by helping him maximize his skill sets. The other solution — making the ball bounce more — brings with it a bit of a problem: bowlers have over time perfected the ideal length to hit when they are looking to hit the top of off. With a ball that bounces more, they will have to increase that length — and will end up in the half volley zone, playing nicely into the hands of batsmen who really don’t need any additional pampering.

Comment?

Oh, and there’s a game on and early indications are India is in for a fight to maintain its lead and grab the second win that will put it at the top of the ICC table. The wicket has rolled out into a beauty for batting; Lanka has first strike, and the openers, Dilshan in particular, appear to have forgotten the horrors of the previous game [As I write this, TD has just dismissed Sreesanth with a pulled six, a pulled four, and a wristy flick, all in the midwicket region — indicating among other things just how easy paced this wicket is to bat on] and are off at a pace even a Sehwag would find tough to match.

A leather hunt in the offing — and if the Lankans build their first innings score to sizable proportions — India will have a fight on its hands to just stay in the game. Should be fun; back here with thoughts on the first day at close of play.