Cricket clips

The most intriguing game of the weekend was not the one featuring India’s “thrilling” one run win over RSA, hyperventilating commentators notwithstanding. The marquee game for my money was the one between England and Pakistan — a low-scoring affair that put the ‘thrill’ in thriller.

Most interesting to me was the identity of the player who sealed the game for Pakistan — one Abdur Razzaq, last seen hitting the headlines during the recent furor about Pakistan players in the IPL. How did it go, again? Shah Rukh Khan started the ruckus with his statement that he would love to see Pakistan players in the third edition of the tournament; asked why, if he felt all that strongly about it, he hadn’t pushed his franchise into picking a player from that country, he said KKR had been very keen on Razzaq, and were on the verge of signing him up, but at the last minute had been informed that he was out of action with a wrist injury.

That ‘injured’ player turned in the best bowling performance, by a very long margin, when England was batting, and then nailed the game with an 18-ball 46 not out that included five mammoth sixes. So — why did SRK, whose heart bleeds all over the place for Pakistan players, not pick Razzaq again?

The India-RSA game, in contrast, was an extended audition for dumb and dumber. With the bat, player after Indian player got off the blocks, then stumbled; with the ball — and needing only to bowl out a won game, thanks to an underwhelming Proteas batting performance — the bowling unit disintegrated in ludicrous fashion [and they didn’t even have ‘pressure’ as an excuse, once Jacques Kallis got out in the 43]. Steyn and Parnell capitalized on some mediocre bowling to infuse artificial excitement into the proceedings, but for all that the contest was one between two sides both intent on losing.

In fact, the most noticeable aspect of the game was the commentary — a vertiginous descent into cliche hell [At one point in the game, Ravi Shastri flagged off four consecutive overs with the words ‘Kallis is now the key’, leading to the suspicion that the commentator had taken the day off and been replaced by a bot]. Fittingly, the increasingly mediocre nature of commentary is the subject of a Sriram Dayanand rant:

Live commentary, a well-established source for opinion and analysis, was scrubbed clean too. Erstwhile opinionated voices were now contracted by ratings- and revenue-obsessed cricket boards, and matches were accompanied by the voices of cheerleaders. Too wary of saying anything substantial, they concentrated on honing their clichés and giggling away with their co-hosts. Even the once edgy and opinionated-by-nature Sunil Gavaskar had begun to sound like a chirpy choirboy as the decade ended.

The scalpel was wielded now and then, but all too rarely. Like when Geoffrey Boycott spluttered, “In my day we didn’t indulge in any of that nancy-boy stuff” as the ritual of batsmen coyly touching gloves mid-pitch unfolded between overs.

Ian Healy, Tony Greig, L Sivaramakrishnan, Arun Lal, Michael Slater, Ranjit Fernando, Ian Bishop, Danny Morrison, Kepler Wessels, Robin Jackman, Waqar Younis, Aamer Sohail blended seamlessly into the commercials and background noise of the crowd. Exceptions in the form of the thoughtfulness of Mike Atherton, the loquacious openness of Harsha Bhogle, or the schoolboyish enthusiasm masking a keen insight of a Mark Taylor did exist, but by and large white noise was what we got.

The one silver lining in this cloud of verbiage is the humor our commentators are sparking on Twitter. In a moment of inspired exasperation — and after one too many iterations of “that ball went like a tracer bullet’, from the usual suspect — my friend Ramesh Srivats [Twitter] was moved to suggest that Shastri should do commentary during the Commonwealth Games. During the shooting event, Ramesh suggested, Shastri might be moved to say ‘that bullet went like a cricket ball’. Heh!

Virender Sehwag, Dayanand said in his piece, was among the few honorable exceptions to the mind-numbing sameness of cricket sound bytes. As if to prove that point, Sehwag’s reaction to winning a second successive award for Test innings of the year from the opener’s slot was to suggest that he wanted to bat at number four:

“I would love to bat at number four. I know I would not get that till Sachin retires. But I can wait,” Sehwag said, despite his enormous success at the top of the order. “I still would like to bat in the middle order. It’s difficult to field one-and-half days and then come out to bat in 10 minutes. When you bat at No. 6 like (MS) Dhoni, it allows you some rest. I have been successful as an opener but who knows, maybe I would have been more successful in the middle order.”

Who else in contemporary cricket is likely to make that statement after his record through 2009 and in the two Tests against South Africa this year? Equally noteworthy, his thoughts on defense [and for Sehwag addicts, one from the past — an interview published in Open magazine after The Daily Telegraph picked him as player of the decade]:

Sehwag defended his naturally aggressive approach to batting, saying there were risks involved even if he opted to play more cautiously. “People say I take too many risks. But the fact is, there is risk involved in every shot. You can get out trying to defend a ball as well. At times, people tell me to leave ball outside the off-stump. But some of them can jag back and get you out if you don’t play shots. I think if you think so much, you simply cannot bat,” he said.

Elsewhere, with the BCCI now on a mission to get India to play as many Tests as it can squeeze in, even if it means reversing its earlier policy and abandoning a few one-day games to make room in the schedule, Sidharth Monga makes a timely argument for more care in choosing venues:

Between this last Kolkata Test and the one before that, at the end of 2007, six Tests have been played in Nagpur, Mohali and Ahmedabad. During those matches, Tendulkar overtook Lara, India completed a series win over Australia, Rahul Dravid engineered a stunning comeback from 32 for 4. Still this Kolkata Test alone was probably watched by more people than all six others put together.

To watch those six Tests was to find some merit in the view held by the rest of the world that India – the country, not the team – doesn’t care about Test cricket. To watch the one at the Eden Gardens was a pleasant reassurance that India did. That Test cricket was alive and kicking in India, the only place able to draw more than 100,000 – the figure when Eden Gardens is not undergoing renovation – to a Test match.

Harbhajan paid his friends at the ground a fitting tribute: “In Test matches, we don’t even get crowds, but Eden [Gardens] is probably the best ground, as you get the crowds for the whole five days. It does not matter whether India is batting or bowling.”

That sentiment, doubtless shared by Harbhajan’s peers, cuts no ice with the BCCI’s rotation policy: The Test against South Africa was the second at Eden Gardens since March 2005. Whether this is because of board politics – the lack of Tests coincides with a shift in power from Jagmohan Dalmiya to Sharad Pawar and Shashank Manohar – is immaterial now: the policy is obsolete anyway and needs ruthless, radical change. The purest form of the game, generally reckoned to be an endangered species nowadays, should be played at venues that care for it.

So, it is time to strike Nagpur, Mohali and Ahmedabad off the list of Test venues. The logic is simple: There is a clear mismatch there between the crowds and Test cricket. The crowds in Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, even Kanpur, and to a lesser extent Delhi, support Test cricket with their presence in the stands and should each get a match every year. They are not necessarily the best stadiums but the players will trade in the advantages – the state-of-the-art facilities, the hospitality, the indoor nets – for a large, appreciative, knowledgeable crowd that creates atmosphere. And that’s true of hosts and tourists.

And finally, for leisure reading: another good friend [Rahul Bhatia on Twitter, and this is his blog] weighs in with a lovely piece on the making of a cricket ball.

Off to do stuff outside office; back here tomorrow. Be well, all.

Move over Ekta Kapoor

A well-informed source tells me that over at the Balaji Telefilms headquarters, they are beginning to worry. Ekta Kapoor is understood to have called her producers and told them in no uncertain terms that they have to immediately come up with ideas to combat the emerging threat to their soap opera dominance from the IPL and the sundry noise-makers associated with it.

You can see her point — with all the drama around in the real world, who needs TV?

A day after welcoming the news that KKR has approached Abdur Razzaq with a view to securing his participation in IPL-3, reading those tea-leaves and finding among the dregs signs that there is a thaw in Indo-Pak relations, and suggesting that maybe the climate is now right for bilateral talks, Pakistan did an abrupt volte face and decided to cancel the NOCs to Pakistan players to take part in the IPL.

Let’s see, now — the PCB seems to be saying that India has no business insulting Pakistan players; any insulting that is required will be done by the PCB itself, thank you very much. [And that is not surprising either — after all, it was the PCB that pointed a match-fixing finger at its own team captain not so long ago].

Meanwhile, the Shiv Sena and its gracelessly aging leader decided to take up cudgels against a sea of troubles. That is to say, against Shah Rukh Khan, with the party’s Thane unit led by its MLA Eknath Shinde ordering a ban on all SRK films until further notice. You can’t blame Shinde, really — the Sena is a monkey-see, monkey-do party, and its loyal ‘leaders’ know nothing better than to blindly jump in whatever direction Mr B Thackeray points his finger.

Khan’s fault, apparently, is that he spoke up for Pakistan players. If the Sena means to say that anyone expressing a personal preference for seeing some of Pakistan’s T20 World Cup-winning stars in action in the IPL is to be banned, then I wonder what the Sena plans to do about Dr Manmohan Singh? Who, while remaining mum about a host of pressing issues ranging from price rise to the growing intel that India is apt to be the target of a major terrorist attack sometime soon, did manage to find time to “signal his displeasure” at the IPL and at Lalit Modi for shutting a “growing window of opportunity”.

Seriously, Dr Singh — what window of opportunity was that? Is it your contention, and that of your mouthpiece, that if the IPL had allowed a half dozen Pakistan players to feather their personal nests by turning out for sundry franchises, Indo-Pak relations would have improved to the point where Islamabad would have immediately handed over those it now acknowledges as having had a role in 26/11 to India for punishment, shut down all terrorist camps, thrown every member of the LeT into prison for life, and abjured the use of terrorism as state policy for ever?

Or maybe you were not so ambitious — you only wanted to create a conducive climate for talks? But then, isn’t it you, and your government, that has been consistently saying there can be no talks with Pakistan without Islamabad acting and being seen to act to end terrorism?

So again — could you throw your tame mouthpiece please explain what “window of opportunity” got shuttered by the IPL?

Back to the Shiv Sena: So now that the Federal Home Minister has, at the behest of the Prime Minister of this country, expressed a desire to see Pakistan players in action on Indian soil, what are you going to do?

Do you have the courage of your stated convictions, and the cojones, to threaten the Home Minister and the Prime Minister with “dire consequences” for their words? Do you have what it takes to publicly suggest that Mr P Chidambaram and Mr Manmohan Singh [not to forget the Federal Sports Minister, who also expressed similar sentiments] will not be allowed to set foot in Maharashtra? Or is your soap-operatic rage so small in scale that it can only be used against small, soft targets — a film star here, a movie theatre there?

Could it be that you are, as your friendly enemy Mr Sharad Pawar once told me in an interview, a coward after all?

PostScript: Irrelevant to the above, but interesting: Aakash Chopra talks of the futility of having premier games in the domestic circuit played out on dead tracks.

The recently concluded semi-final between North and West Zone vindicated my point of curtailing the maximum number of overs at a team’s disposal for the knock-out matches. It was, as usual, a batting paradise in Rajkot and both teams knew that the toss might just decide the fate of the match. And boy it did…that too with style.

West scored nearly 800 runs, perhaps the highest in the season, and batted North out of the game. Yes, North could have fought harder and got closer to the total but overhauling it was a forgone conclusion. But what followed after West got a mammoth 465-run lead devalues the importance of a first-class century. West opted for some batting practice instead of going for an outright win which was perhaps there for the taking. But since a first-innings lead was enough to see them through to the finals, they can’t be blamed for not forcing the issue.

See you Monday.

SRK for foreign minister

So hey, CNN/IBN is ecstatic.

Largely through the channel’s fearless reporting [at least that is the impression the tone and tenor of the coverage conveys], aided by Shah Rukh Khan’s equally fearless ‘speaking out’ in a series of non-sequiturs, India has narrowly avoided a potential catastrophe of cataclysmic proportions.

In other words, Abdul Razzak will likely play in IPL-III.  Or, more accurately, the Deccan Chargers Kolkatta Knight Riders have expressed interest; Razzaq is interested in this interest, and all concerned are waiting for ‘clearance’ from the IPL, whatever that means [I thought the IPL had said there is no institutional ban on Pakistan players? So why then does Razzaq/KKR require clearance from on high?] A tangential note for Razzaq: dude, when you do come over, make sure you get your payment up front. Shoaib Akthar can tell you why.

But never mind the IPL’s inability to speak with one voice – larger fish are being fried. Wazir-e-Azam Syed Yousef Raza Gilani tells Barkha Dutt that it is now time for India and Pakistan to move beyond the IPL – a statement that clearly marks a breakthrough in bilateral relations.

Seriously, are we losing all sense of perspective here? In the original instance, the franchises took a practical call that having Pakistani players in their sides could lead to potential problems [no, not law and order problems so much; the problems relate more to guaranteed availability]. That got transformed into some kind of bilateral face-off, fit to rank with Kargil, and the confrontation along the LoC in the wake of the attack on Parliament, in order of importance.

Now KKR, caught up in the hype of its owner [within the space of 24 hours, SRK has said that it is sad Pakistan players are not playing, but has also said a climate needs to be created for Pakistan players to play — the second statement assumes such a climate does not currently exist, so why is he sad, again?] is trying to get one particular player to play in IPL-3 — and that is at best grist for school quiz masters on some future date, but not a ‘breakthrough’ in relations between the two countries. So please could we cease and desist?

In passing, here’s a Dawn think piece on the whole IPL fiasco:

The Pakistani players ignored at the auction were justified in feeling humiliated because they were obviously not judged on merit. A quiet withdrawal should have been a proper option — in the case of Pakistan’s official and non-official meddlers too. Instead they were keen to turn the slight caused to some commercial-minded players into a matter of national disgrace.

The retaliatory measures announced by them — cancellation of the visit to India by parliamentarians and the election commissioner and calls to boycott all sports events scheduled to be held in India — made little sense. All such decisions normally advance a demand till the fulfillment of which the protest is supposed to continue. What do the angry Pakistanis want IPL or India to do to satisfy their bruised ego? They cannot be unaware of the fact that the disruption of sports ties with India, or ties in any other area, cannot be sustained forever. The Indians, too, are learning this all over again.

Memo to Shah Rukh

Dear Shah Rukh:

Just watched with immense fascination your interaction on TV with a bunch of journalists. As always, you showcased your ability to speak at the rate of knots. Kudos.

One minor quibble. You said, with considerable warmth, that you don’t consider yourself anyone special, that you never ask for special treatment, that if you are raising a fuss now it is for a larger reason. You point out that our former President APJ Abdul Kalam was similarly hassled, and that you believe a person of his eminence should never have been subjected to such indignities.

Since you seem a bit short on detail, here you go — the Kalam incident.

Two minor points: The incident happened in an Indian airport. The people involved were the staff of a private airline, not the immigration officials of another country. Arising from that — when time permits, please could you send me a link to what you, and your colleagues in the film industry, said in support of Kalam at the time?

Thanks, and best

An *issue* to take up

My friend Kapil Sharma, formerly of Washington DC and since 2006-07 a Mumbai resident in good standing, has a suggestion for the government of India that is currently looking for “issues” to “take up strongly”:

My point is that visiting foreigners to India may not be officially “detained,” but do face “shake down” treatment when it comes to paying customs and duties. We experienced this when coming to Mumbai, when they accused my wife of being a gold smuggler at 3am with a crying 2 year old. Funny though, I bet you the GOI couldn’t tell you how long we were detained.

Before the GOI goes around criticizing how other governments conduct their security and customs procedures, they should make sure that their own system is functional and error free. At least the US system has some form of transparency.

Not suggesting that the documented problems at Indian airports should be a reason for the government not to take up issues relating to how Indian nationals are treated in airports around the world — but the breast-beating over SRK being detained at Newark, and the ill-considered [and syntax-challenged] reactions of some at least in the government leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Then again, this is Ambika Soni after all — a ‘politician’ who opens her mouth only to remove the foot that was previously in it so she can stick the other one in.

Come back SRK, all is forgiven

The Indian government is ‘taking up strongly‘ the case of Shah Rukh Khan who, gasp, horrors, was detained for questioning at Newark airport. The Left led by Prakash Karat, I’m told, is celebrating — they’ve been saying all along that this strategic partnership with the US is all hokum and needs to be axed forthwith.

Meanwhile, my heart goes out to Shah Rukh. While we feel outraged [Even Gotham Chopra is not immune from this pervasive sense of outrage. Hell, even his wife Candace is not immune, and that should tell you something — at the least, it tells you that Bob Dylan really doesn’t rate similarly iconic status], and the Khans of Bollywood with one exception unite under the ‘My name is Khan’ banner [any resemblance to an upcoming movie is purely coincidental], my heart goes out to the star.

Now that the US knows who he is, surely they can honor a couple of simple wishes?

1: Shah Rukh Khan does not want an apology. He is very clear about that. Come on, America — is that too much to ask, that you don’t say sorry?

2. Shah Rukh Khan wants to go back to his country. Again — is that too much to ask? Buy the man a ticket, for god’s sake.

Oh, you mean he wants to come back to his country after he is done performing at half a dozen other venues, for which he has already been booked and paid?

Okay then… make that an open ticket.

PS: This from Sepia Mutiny.