Saturday 20 October 2012


Usain Bolt proved it once again at the recently concluded Olympics that he is no fluke. The performances he put up at the Beijing Olympics were just the starting point and over the last few years he has consistently shown that he is a short-distance legend. Well, he can only get better in terms of performance as even if he fails to make a mark in the next Olympics and other World Championships, he will still be known as a ‘top performer’.  Ask him to prove his credentials in middle-distance or a marathon, I do not think he will be right up there. But hey, this isn’t a conclusion - But having been part of two sessions with him, it is unlikely he is going to change his line and would stick to short-distance blasts. It is a simply a matter of choice to maintain optimum performance and to stay at the top of your game consistently.

I am looking at the state of our Indian captain and how he has been faring in the last few months. What can I talk about his credentials? He won the first T20 World Cup as a captain; he led the side that was crowned as #1 side in both Tests and ODI’s and not to forget the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2011. In domestic cricket, barring T20 he has not been active in any of the other formats. He has led Chennai Super kings pretty well and till date remains the only captain who has captained a franchise for five years straight. In short, since 2007 he has been a captain in T20s and ODIs for India; from 2008 October he has been captaining in all the 3 formats. It has been four years, non-stop action for him with small breaks here and there. No other player in international cricket had this kind of a schedule in the last four years; and plus he is a wicket-keeper and one of the key batsman in the team. Does he deserve a break? You bet!!!

What lies ahead? – M.S. Dhoni might be looking at 2015 World Cup and nothing more beyond it. It might not be a surprise if he decides to opt out of cricket completely before that. Personal choice must always be respected, but if the choice is based upon the factor of ‘burn out’ then the whole system must be introspected. You don’t want to lose a player of his calibre or for that matter any good player in that way and it must also not reach a stage where he is in side only as a captain. 

Transition is the essence and it can be brought about slowly instead of making any drastic changes.
A lot of them have suggested changing the captaincy? Is it because of results? I do not think that is the right way to look at it. You do not need to change a captain just because of results – A captain is a mere reflection of the team he possesses, nothing more. A good captain is separated from a great captain in terms of his vision and how does he use the resources available to him. As the results have been inconsistently for the past 18 months, is it time to remove M.S. Dhoni as captain and put Virat Kohli instead, as everything seems to be going correct with that guy at the moment? A very tempting proposition, but must be looked at from close quarters.

This is how I look at it – Cricket captains over the last decade have had many challenges than their predecessors. A lot of them had to adapt to the increase in volume of T20 cricket in addition to ODI’s and Test cricket. I cannot think of any other captain but Dhoni who has managed the transition quite well, but like Ian Chappell once famously mentioned, I am beginning to think – Has Dhoni reached his used by date as a captain? Does it affecting him perform better by being the captain for all the 3 formats?

This is what I asked myself and I was not looking at stats to come up with a case for Dhoni. After constant arguments within myself over past two days, I still feel he has few years (2-3 years) captaincy left in him, but it might not be in the manner he is going at the moment. With the cricket schedule only getting stiffer and to add other commitments off the field, things are not going to be easy and this is what I came up with.

Let Dhoni give up T20 captaincy with immediate effect - I know this will burn a lot of money in many people’s pockets, but he is very much capable of doing so, if he is convinced as to why it is necessary. Make Virat Kohli the captain and let him understand the perks and perils of being in the hot seat slowly. Giving Kohli the captaincy in all the three formats at the moment isn’t such a great idea as he is our #1 batsman at the moment. He must be concentrating in honing his batting skills and become a better batter. There will be some tough times for him as a batsman and you do not want additional burden of captaincy over his head. I strongly believe another 2-3 years of him not being the captain in both ODI’s and Tests would do a lot of good to him and to the team in the long run. He looks very much like a marathon horse rider, and hence he must be given the right foundations to educate himself before leading the side. He is aggressive and in the mould of Ricky Ponting when it comes to batting and he is just 23 years of age.

Now what about Dhoni? Does it matter if he isn’t part of T20? If he is willing to play it would be not a bad option if he plays just as a keeper-batsman. For ODI’s he is still a great batter, and a positive thing would be to have him just as a batter-captain while you start grooming the next wicketkeeper. This can be one of the options as I do not see him giving up T20 cricket entirely. For Tests, I want him as a keeper-batsman. A very much in Gilly mode, I believe strongly that India misses the attacking batsman in Dhoni in Tests.

When was the last time we saw him score that quick-fire fifty, or a hundred in Tests; when was the last time he came into bat when opposition was on top and score like the way Gilly did consistently. He used to, but somewhere the attacking nature of his batting went missing. Indian team needs a resurrected Dhoni, not as a captain at the moment, but as that batsman who was very consistent. It is also worth noting the fact that, if stop-gap arrangements are to be made in captaincy, then look to Tests and do not start with T20s and ODIs. Test cricket is a marathon and requires a special degree of preparation to remain on top. India did it with Anil Kumble, and the team progressed quite well before he handed the reins of captaincy over to Dhoni.

So while I propose Dhoni to be the captain for the ODI team, I am saying it is time to look at Virat Kohli for T20’s and one of the veterans to take up the mantle of Test captaincy.

If this kind of arrangement breeds inconsistency and breaks the constancy associated with Indian cricket so far; then it is time to upset the current orderliness as our players have to learn to perform under different leaders. When worked as a team under an able leader, it does not matter much. Australia had it with Steve Waugh and for some time with Ricky Ponting. This way, the pressures of being Indian cricket captain is well distributed among the three captains. The law of physics holds good and is a time tested one – ‘The building built with foundation that bears the load equally as a whole is a sign of a good structure.’ Dhoni was the sole foundation which was burdened with a lot of stress and cracks started to appear in the structure. Instead of demolishing the building, it is time to call upon reinforcements as there is nothing wrong with the building; it just requires a proper maintenance along with few preventive measures, which was long overdue.

Hope Indian cricket surprises us with visionary ideas. It is time to press the action button instead of relying on the typical reaction button. With a new selection panel in place, it isn’t such a bad idea to look at different ways to play the three forms of cricket. History cannot be completely accounted to the ever-changing dynamics of this game and it’s always been the out-of-box thinking that has helped teams to get to the top and more importantly for the game to evolve and reach out to many more in the world.

So it would be a surprise if Bolt or other athletes do a 100m, 5000m and a marathon simultaneously in the near future. Previously, you did have people doing multiple disciplines in running but currently the games have advanced so much that, you need different thinking processes to excel. In cricket, skills have not changed. It still is all about bowling, batting, keeping and fielding – but what has changed is the manner in which it is being executed. 

While the game of football has remained unchanged with little changes to it, cricket on the other hand relies heavily on a commander who in tandem with his comrades has made a significant difference to the game. While skill has always been respected and adored; the person who had/has the abilities to use them on the field is revered. Why be stressed and tired, when you can be fresh by placing different horses (captains) for different courses (formats)? 

Thursday 4 October 2012


The engines are making the noise already and the Japanese have woken up to it and so are the fans who follow Formula One religiously. Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka has given me some fond memories in my lifetime – a circuit where I have had my Formula One’s best moment (Michael Schumacher winning his first driver’s championship for Ferrari in 2000) and the worst moment (Schumacher retiring with engine failure in 2006). My first Japanese GP was in the season of 2000 and prior to that I had just known the results of the race following Sportstar or the snippets that came on Star Sports.

It has to be said the season of 2000 was the first time I religiously started watching, following, and analysing this sport. I also spent quite a lot of money (I didn’t have internet at home that time) to browse on more information regarding the F1 drivers and more so about Michael Schumacher.
2000 season started off well for Schumey as he won the first three races of the calendar. Things settled in the leader board when the McLaren duo of Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard reduced the deficit and with four races to go, Hakkinen had a lead of six points over Schumacher. Who could have forgotten the daring pass (one of the best in F1) Hakkinen made on Schumacher in the Belgium Grand Prix; that pass made a lot of statements –a) Hakkinen overtook Schumacher to lead the World Championships b) Was that the end of Ferrari and Schumacher as McLaren looked unbeatable?
Two weeks later after the disappointment of Belgium GP, I was hoping Ferrari and Schumey would turn it around. Pole position and a victory at Monza (Italian GP) gave me a certain sense of joy; I vividly remember that Sunday when a safety marshal died on the track, Schumacher was in tears for he had just overtaken Aryton Senna for total GP victories and the two incidents could not have been very different. To put it short, it was an emotional victory which made everyone remember the late great Aryton Senna as he was the last to die on an F1 track (prior to Italian GP) during the race.

Next up was the US GP at Indianapolis and Michael was sharp enough to win that race and with it the championship titled his way as Hakkinen retired in that race. With two races to go, teams moved to Suzuka. Ferrari had never won the driver’s championship since 1979 (Jody Scheckter) and 21 years hence they had a chance in Michael to make history. After coming agonisingly close in 1997 and 1998, Schumacher had a chance to win in 2000 unless fate has to write it otherwise.

Hakkinen was looking for his third straight World Championships and if qualifying was any indicator, it showed both the title contenders weren’t that keen to start second in the grid for the race. In the end, Schumacher nudged past Hakkinen by a margin of 0.009s. Yes, it was that small a margin that separated these champions. I remember that Saturday because of another match – India vs. Australia (2000 Champions Trophy, Nairobi) in which Yuvraj Singh smashed Australia and took a wonderful catch while fielding. It was also on that day when we had just bought a new TV; till date I have never forgotten that day. Next day was to be even better.

As a sixteen year old I was very nervous before the race – funnily this pattern was there till the end of 2006 F1 season. Those heartbeats just before the five red lights went, the crossed fingers, occupying my favourite superstitious spot (after a lot of trails) and what not, just to ensure Michael won.
The race started and it a poor start by Michael gave Mika Hakkinen the lead right away and for the next 22 laps Michael spent behind Mika’s McLaren. Hakkinen pitted on the lap 22 and Schumacher on lap 23. Both started their fight all over again at the end of first round of pit stops. A combination of traffic and changing weather gave Michael a chance to claw back within seconds of Mika Hakkinen, but couldn’t get close enough and get past him. And when Mika pitted for the second and last time on lap 37, it was the moment Schumacher was waiting for. Unlike the first time, he didn’t pit immediately on the next lap; he went on for three more laps. Three laps for the glory by risking the traffic ahead of him, but then destinies are not made by itself, somewhere it has to be created. Ferrari took the risk and Michael responded with three scorching laps before coming to pit. I was never that nervous in my life as I was anxiously waiting to know the fate of the race at the end of his pit-stop.

Schumacher’s Ferrari came to a halt, the lollipop man seriously holding the lollipop was waiting for the signal to release him; in the meantime four tyres were changed and fuel was added to the tank and then the most crucial moment of the race came - Lollipop man signalled Michael to go and the timing at the right hand side of the graphics stopped at 6.0s. I was delighted and couldn’t contain my emotions. The car was still ambling at the pit-lane speed and the next moment a split video screen shows Mika Hakkinen stuck behind the traffic and yet to cross the finish line. What was happening? It meant Schumacher and the pit crew have just turned it around. Yes they did it. It was Schumacher in P1.

Later on after the race I remember reading a race report in which a conversation was highlighted; it was between Michael and Ross Brawn (Yes, he has been there with Michael since god knows when). In his response to a curious Schumacher as he was coming to the pit lane exit, Ross Brawn said - "It's looking good, it's looking good". Then he said: "It's looking bloody good." – Those words were definitely the most amazing moment of Michael’s racing career. Looking back to that day, I still get goose bumps and it was and is one of my amazing moments in Formula One. The job was yet to be finished, but Schumey wouldn’t let go of this opportunity and at the end of 53 laps, one could see him banging the steering wheel, shouting with joy on the radio and for Ferrari history was made. For Michael, the move from a strong Benetton team to a meagre Ferrari in 1996 paid off. 

Racing in Formula One is all about winning and the 2000 win was much more than that to me, Schumacher and all the Ferrari fans worldwide. With third championship under his belt, Michael and Ferrari went from strength to strength. After winning in 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004 they looked good for more.

Then it was the hurricane of 2005 season which whipped the entire dream of Ferrari. With rule changes, McLaren and Renault looked more powerful. It was just not the rules; even the Bridgestone tyres had given up on Ferrari as the Michelin rubber cars powered to victory at the all the races they took part. The sole Michael’s victory was courtesy the ill-fated three Bridgestone team race at the Indianapolis circuit. Season of 2005 was a fall for Ferrari straight from the top of Mount Everest to the ground and to further depths. It wasn’t easy watching them struggle this way.

For the 2006 season, all I wanted was vengeance. Rubens Barrichello was not in Ferrari, he was replaced by a fellow Brazilian in Felipe Massa. Fernando Alonso and Renault looked strong early on, but Ferrari wasn’t that behind. Though not dominating, it was way better than 2005 car. The first punch was from Michael was the skillful blocking of Alonso at the San Marino Grand Prix for a good 20 laps or so. It was a case of role reversal as the previous season in the same circuit; Michael was blocked by Alonso when the former looked much stronger. 

By the time the season moved to Europe, I was done with my Engineering and had a good two month break before it was time to put on those formals and start working. To my friends who know me, I have been very vocal about Michael’s races being one of my inspirations in my life. Just when the season looked heavily in the favour of Alonso, Schumey bounced back in such a fashion that he reduced 30 something point deficit to nil with two races to go. At this time, I felt irrespective of what happened I would be proud of the way Schumey has raced in 2006. In hindsight, I feel I should have retained my hunger and zeal of 2000. It had reduced a touch low.

Two races prior to the 2006 finale while Michael was still chasing Alonso, he had made an announcement to retire at the end of 2006 season. He made this announcement at Ferrari’s home circuit, Monza – a sort of mixed emotions. In the next race on the wet Chinese circuit, he drove a race that involved few of the best overtaking manoeuvres; he was in prime form, well at ease while others struggled to stay on track. That victory at the Shanghai International circuit was his 91st victory in Formula One, forty more than the second placed Alain Prost. Life was different, new place at work, unlike college, new people and I was contemplating it would be a different thing watching Formula One without Schumey from 2007 season. But with points being equal and two races to go, I hoped for a good farewell for Schumacher.

One of the most regretful decisions of my life was the choice I made to be in a workshop on that Sunday when at the same time cars were racing in full throttle at Suzuka. I didn’t want to check updates in between, but by accident, Michael’s retirement in the race was brought up by someone in the crowd. He was quick to announce this and I just couldn’t believe what had just happened. I cursed myself for having done this and for abandoning the race for a workshop. What was I thinking?
Alonso won that race in Suzuka and had taken a 10 point lead in the driver’s championships. It was an engine failure that led to Michael’s retirement, Engine failure? The last time Schumacher had retired owing to an engine failure was way back in 2000 and I remember that race held at Magney Cours (French Grand Prix). After six years, the car gave up on him. Maybe that is how it had to end and as Schumacher said it aptly – “You win as a team and lose as a team”. Next day, I watched the re-telecast of the race; I came to terms as to what had happened a day prior. I was sad, but maybe I had grown up in age to take it better. I couldn’t have imagined how it would have been if something similar had happened in 2000? But it might have to all those McLaren and Mika Hakkinen fans that day in 2000. That’s how I had grown in life that I sort to philosophical and certain pragmatic explanations to come to terms to what had just happened.

Last race was in Brazil; unless Michael was destined to win, there was no way Alonso could have lost the title, his second in a row. Nothing of that happened Michael suffered a puncture; at one time he was well behind in the race only to come back strongly. His overtaking at the first corner to take up a spot towards the end of the race was something of a delight. Kimi Raikkonen who was to take his seat just couldn’t block him out. That was sheer racing. Alonso won the championships, became the youngest driver to win double world championships (Vettel currently holds that record now) beating Michael’s record.  

And for Michael, he bid goodbye with his head held high. He had seven World Championships, 91 victories, 68 pole positions and a lot more when he last drove for Ferrari. A legend had just moved on. The quest for the new champion was on. Only Sebastian Vettel has come close to the level of Michael Schumacher till date since 2006.

Three years later, Michael made a surprise return and this time it was not for Ferrari. It was for Mercedes, a team he raced for as a child offered him and he was once again seen partnering with Ross Brawn to re-create some of the magic they had in the past seven victories of his.  While I am an ardent fan of Ferrari, I secretly hoped Michael to pull off a victory now and then in the last three years, but it never happened. In the three seasons of him being at Mercedes, it was a learning curve for the team. Now, prior to the Japanese Grand Prix he announced his retirement and this time I feel it should be for good. Lewis Hamilton will take his seat, but I doubt whether he will take his place in the annals of F1 history.

I never saw Michael live in a race and when I did catch up an F1 event live, he wasn’t there (2008). Now when he will be racing his last few races, all I did as soon as I heard about his retirement was to book a ticket for the Indian Grand Prix. I always had a dream to watch him race; due to unavoidable circumstances, I was not able to attend any of the previous GPs. Not this time. I was contemplating to attend this year’s Indian Grand Prix, but his retirement was the trigger and I just didn’t want to wait any further.

Japanese Grand Prix is on this Sunday, and it was suffice that I recalled one of the most memorable moments I experienced as a F1 fan. Among the 91 victories, the victory of Schumacher at Suzuka on 8th Oct 2000 remains the sweetest one. To Michael Schumacher, second greatest driver of all-time (impact wise behind Ayrton Senna) and by far the most complete driver F1 has ever seen – it has been a pleasure watching you drive, following your race career and for being an inspiration at a crucial phase of my life. 

Wednesday 3 October 2012


For India, in the end it all came down to the last match. Pity it was not the last match of the tournament. Prior to the match, the situation India was in reminded me those ODI multi-nation tournaments which India played in the 1990s and how they had to squeeze into the finals through mathematics. It was always about net-run rate, it still is.

In 2007 T20 World Cup, India after losing to New Zealand in the Super 8s bounced back well with a victory against England (Yes, the same match where Yuvraj Singh scored those six 6s) and had to face South Africa in the last match. A win would have ensured them a spot in semi-finals and for South Africa; they were playing for the net run-rate. Eventually they didn’t qualify and rest is history. India went on to win the inaugural T20 championships, T20 became the latest craze in India, BCCI cashes on this madness and launches IPL, Dhoni becomes the overnight star and many more can be added to this. Cricket was never the same in India and to a larger extent worldwide.
It has been five years and a week since that victory over Pakistan, and in between then and now three World Cups have already taken place with India failing to be in top four on each occasion. After India’s failure to advance to semi-finals, I wondered - Here is a case which is worrying for a country that by far has the best T20 league in place (IPL).

T20 cricket, when looked purely from cricket’s point of view was one of the best things that happened to cricket. It just made cricket get into an elite and I go on further saying, a sole league where a sport can be played in three dimensions. Additionally, T20 gives a chance to be part of the Olympics programme. Cricket is by far the only sport (compared to other sports) that offers a wide range of action a consumer can ask for - a quick bite, a hearty meal and a buffet spread over five days.

Though T20 was conceived in England, BCCI has been instrumental in making it grand courtesy of Indian Premier League (IPL).  Besides the controversies that are part of any sports league, IPL has made cricket a much calmer sport owing to interactions of international stars. The way it is structured, Indian cricketers – current and upcoming have a lot of benefits. More opportunities to learn new things, unlearn certain things which might prevent you from becoming better and re-learn the basics. So far it has been good, but I asked myself – What effect does it have on the national team? Why have we gone back ever since IPL started?

Can this be the one of the reasons - Indian players not being allowed to play in the abroad leagues? IPL might be a shorter version, but it does give a chance to play in foreign conditions which will come in handy. In the age of professionalism, injuries are just an excuse for mis-management and over commitment is a plane excuse for ignorance.

On contrary, Pakistan has been one of the most consistent performers in T20 World Cup formats. Lost to India by a whisker, won the next edition in 2009; missed the final by a whisker (courtesy of those sixes from Mike Hussey in the last two overs) and now semi-finalists again. Surely there must be something going right besides talent or luck? They do not have a good T20 league, do not have any international cricket at home and yet they are always been in the last four consistently in the last four T20 World Cups. I am not saying they are better than the Indian side, results definitely point in this direction and one cannot fail but notice their immense growth  as a T20 side. They are the only team to be in top four since 2007. The only solace for an Indian fan is the fact that they have yet to win against us in a World Cup match. Gone are those days when a victory against Pakistan was equivalent, in fact better than the World Cup. There are still people who belong to that school of fact – Personally it is great to win against them all the time, but it should not stop just there. Thankfully Indian cricket team knows that. What is it that we are missing? Why are we getting close to resemble the English football team that boasts of a high profile domestic league but produce inconsistent performances  in international tournaments.

M S Dhoni has now captained in four T20 World Cups, a record? Having captained consistently and successfully the Chennai Super Kings in IPL and Champions League, he has not been able to get the most of his national team to be in the top four. Yes, this format is a freak show where anything can happen. But this format is also a highly strategic one where often the best strategies hold you in a good stead. Did India as a team has been missing the point at crucial times in the last three World Cups?

I am not trying to be hard on this team. They have just lost one match in this tournament and still they find themselves in this uneasy situation. Is there a way to analyse this kind of performance? Or should we just blame our ill fate and move on with our lives? After all this is just a sport, isn’t it?
Well, to me this way of looking at it is a big ‘NO’. To a lot of people, sports and cricket in general might be a source of recreation. But this ‘recreation’ is also a profession. As in every other profession, if one fails there is a tendency to shake up things and try to look for alternative solutions to change the pattern. Cricket is no different.

This is where ‘homework’ comes into picture. I have loads of things running in my mind.

·        Is it time to look at the T20 format beyond the traditional means of thinking? Yes, several teams have been doing this consistently now.

·        Should we replace the players and form a new team – different players for different formats? – A lot of teams follow this.

·        Should we have a separate T20 support staff strengthened by analysts who might just think out of the box? – Well, to my knowledge there is not much evidence to suggest teams in cricket are following this.

In T20, just like the players, the support staffs are also in the ‘WIP’ mode. Is it not better to have a different/new set of backhand support that might just make a difference?

It is a point to consider and in a format like T20 such people have no lesser role than say contingency planners in any of the major events or companies. T20 is like a rapid chess game where you need to have a vision or an idea about all the different probabilities in a situation. One should have worked out different ways to tackle a situation, as there is less time (considering over rate issues) for captains to think efficiently.

This struck me hard ever since India lost to Australia. The manner in which we lost should have the think-tank minds ringing. Yes, a bad loss can happen at any time. Players take time to recover; in T20 games since time is crucial the support staff comes in handy. More so, if they are pro-active.
What must be done to nullify such a bad loss? It is all about winning the tournament right?  In such a scenario; could we have thought a better way while playing against Pakistan knowing that net run-rates can make a lot of difference?

Why don’t we start looking this format in a more analytically as different results can pose threats to one’s cause? One cannot expect players to do this; all they can do is prepare and polish their skills. Such analytical information will be a supplement when one gets to team meetings. I see a merit in such thinking and BCCI for instance can start to look at this T20 format differently than the traditional formats where teams do have time to adapt to prevailing conditions.

I had read this quote once – “One of life's most painful moments comes when we must admit that we didn't do our homework, that we are not prepared.” – Does Indian T20 team feel that way?