Tuesday 19 November 2013

Dhyanchand or Sachin Tendulkar - Bharat Ratna Debate

Yesterday, I was part of an interesting conversation on Whatsapp group chat - a group of four friends at different locations discussed the merits of Sachin Tendulkar being awarded the highest civilian award 'Bharat Ratna'.

Though no one disputed the man for being awarded, all of us did express our surprise of him being awarded on the day of his retirement. Personally, I am huge fan of his and I would have waited for at least five years or ten years before bestowing this honour on him.
Now that he has been awarded and thereby the first sportsperson to be recognised with the top civilian award - another topic came up. Why isn't Major Dhyanchand recognised for all this hockey achievements?

How many of us remember Major Dhyanchand? A lot of them do but not as much as Sachin Tendulkar and that's the modern day truth. I try to make sense to myself on why Dhyanchand's legacy is caught in a maze of illusion when compared with Tendulkar.

A friend of mine had illustrated about India in which the legend of Tendulkar took its birth. It was a time in India when people had few TV sets manufactured by handful of companies. There was no satellite television and national television had one channel for the whole of India - which then were customised depending on which region you belonged to. Cricket was edging field hockey slowly by the day and Tendulkar accelerated that process.

That was the India I was born and by the time I was barely six, Tendulkar had made his debut and before I was eight years of age, he had excelled in Pakistan, England, New Zealand and Australia.  
Every country loves to have their own set of heroes in any field. The fundamental difference being the nature of fellow countrymen and their reactions. Cricket became the preferred sport and Tendulkar became the hero and much more.

TV sets were on the raise and soon there was cable television with multiple channels - people of India could witness a Indian taken on the best of the teams across the world and excel. Everyone could see Tendulkar bat, or bowl or even field and was well appreciated. There were famous Indian cricketers from the past but none reached out to the common man like the way Sachin did.   
Ardent sports fan always found ways to keep in touch with best of sports stories. Which individual or team stories can one think of - purely from Indian sports context in the 90's? Vishwanathan Anand taking on Gary Kasparov for the world title; Leander Paes winning the bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics comes to my immediate mind. Where was hockey, our national sport? Lost in the past glory and refusing to accept the present.

There were performances by other athletes here and there - none matched the consistency of Tendulkar. Mind you, he was still in his 20's at the turn of millennium and his aura had reached grandly proportions.

 The commerce industry was on the increase in the 90's which resulted in the creation of 'Brand Tendulkar' which became a story in itself. One cannot fault a individual if he is getting a raise in his pay because of his performance. His personal life is set as an example for a lot of families in India.

Then came the darkest hour of cricket - the match fixing scandal. Bulk of the senior Indian cricketers were exposed and out of few guys who came out clean - Sachin Tendulkar was hailed as a saint. The year 2000 was very crucial for Indian cricket and to the world cricket in general with few of the cricket fans choosing the dark side of cynicism over a new hope.

There was dirt all around when the exposé took place and Indian cricket had to re-build its image. Cricket in general needed a fresh start. Sachin Tendulkar along with Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Javagal Srinath, VVS Laxman took up the mantle and took Indian cricket to new heights. Their performance was one of the reasons cricket became and still is one of the heavily invested property in India. Unlike other sports federations in India, development was taken seriously and Indian cricket has never been healthier at the grassroots level.

When you talk about Sachin Tendulkar, he is beyond the statistical world. His personality is strong enough to overlook the petty fights of who's the best cricketer in the world. What does one achieve if he is the best? Will he escape death? Will he cease to become a human being? I am curious to know what does one benefit from being the best. Cricketing wise - he has been a complete player than most of the cricketers in the history of the game. On a personal front though, he is in a stage of infancy without cricket.

What are his next set of challenges?
To understand his two teens at home; help his wife in day-to-day matters; start a new career in development of sports; take up politics; become an entrepreneur or become the recluse he wished to be - the options are plenty.

The opinions will always be divided no matter what and when it comes to Tendulkar both sides of the argument attract tremendous attention. As a cricketer he had to cope with simple expectations multiplied by countless ocean of people from different backgrounds and cultures; he was expected to help Indian win matches and score runs every match. Now what are the new set of expectations?
He had a flawless professional life and personal life thus far - but he knows with each passing day the responsibilities will only increase. It will not be as a player and life outside of cricket field. 

People would continue to have expectations more than any athlete in the history of sports. The 22-yards and the cricket field provided the perfect refuge from all the pressures - it was one place where he felt at ease irrespective of the opposition he faced.

As he prepares to lead a life of an ex-cricketer - he is now bestowed with Bharat Ratna and with it comes scrutiny of another level. Such is a life of this persona that he can never lead a simple life. His own talent, extraordinary abilities and discipline have made him to lead this uncommon life in a country of common men.

Give me a worthy guy to succeed and I shall find a cynic who thinks otherwise. And now the debate of Dhyanchand or Sachin Tendulkar is becoming a battle of egos.

Who would benefit from Dhyanchand winning the award? What has been done to Dhyanchand's legacy in the name of National Sports Day in India? What is happening to Indian hockey?
Yes, Indian hockey has won eight Olympic gold medals since the time they made their debut in Amsterdam in 1928. Six gold medals on a trot and the first three involved Dhyanchand - which included the famous victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics in front of the Nazi regime and Hitler.

What is its relevance now? The last time India won a hockey gold medal was helped by the cold war which saw many of the countries boycotting USSR led Moscow Games. That was in 1980 and my parents didn't even know each other. It is part of history.

I love history but history to me is convoluted. It does not give me the right answers to my questions - it always leaves me with unexplained situations and on top of it all it narrates countless myths when it comes to specific people or events.

We like metaphors because it is soothing, appealing, poetic and dramatic as compared to simple reports or bland narrations. I, like many would get lost in these metaphors created by few writers. For Tendulkar there are plenty of written and visual evidence; on the other hand Major Dhyanchand, sadly very few saw or has been written about him.

The Union Government of India had instituted Dhyanchand lifetime achievement award in 2002. The National stadium which hosted the inaugural Asian Games in 1951 was later renamed as Major Dhyanchand Hockey stadium in New Delhi. The National Sports Day which falls on August 29th of each year also happens to be his birthday.

How many of us remember where he is from? The town he hails from is more popular by a woman patriot by the name of Laxmi Bai. Who can accurately prove which place he was born? Do people know he was an ex-service man who served for the Army in pre-independence and for a decade after independence?

Major Dhyanchand's statue in Jhansi
The famed four hands and four hockey sticks myth of this hockey wizard remains a mystery though it is very much part of Indian sports folklore. He played for pride because he mostly played in the pre-independence era. For independent India, it was all about helping Indian hockey unlike his playing days.

He was short of money towards the end of his life and was unrecognised by nation and at some of the tournaments he went. He died of liver cancer in 1979 in AIIMS in a general ward. Is that the way one treats an icon never mind a potential Bharat Ratna candidate?

Indian hockey and its decline over the years have not helped to elevate Dhyanchand's legacy. The best way to honour according to me would be - To make the national sport, a sport for the nation. Make it a governmental priority through Sports Ministry as BCCI does not need any help from the government funds. India has a lot of space for team sports outside cricket.

Any institution is governed by politics and this aspect is magnified when it concerns Government. Governmental awards over the years have always had political influence in some way or the other. People have different opinions of the same topic and awards are no different.

Why the reluctance to award Dhyanchand, the top honour of India all these days? Why blame Sachin Tendulkar if he is being awarded instead of Dhyanchand. Why should Tendulkar step in and say who deserves the award or not? How does their value legacy diminish by not honouring this award?

Dhyanchand's autobiography ‘Goal’ starts with the lines “Needless to say I am a common man.”  Looking at the legacy and upbringing of Tendulkar, he too is a common man. Their achievements in the sports field are uncommon. Their names are, have and will be exploited and used as means to spark debates of all kinds.

Will it silence the debate once in for all if both these sportsmen were awarded jointly? I guess not... 

Sunday 17 November 2013


I left India for my Master studies in 2009. The course involved sports but when it came to cricket, it seemed as though it was an alien sport.

Except for few Indians in my batch there was absolutely zero interest on cricket and we were the most recognisable Indians, more than Sachin Tendulkar. This is where it hit me, and quite hard. I was in Switzerland and not in India.

It was on a Sunday morning that year on my way back to the room I got a message from my friend. That was the time when I had a normal mobile phone with no internet - no tabs or smart phones. I had to rely on Wi-Fi connection if I were to be connected online. There was cricket being played and it involved India, but no where I saw the buzz or could find enthusiastic people to discuss about it.

I checked the scores on Cricinfo only to find Tendulkar had hit 163 before he left the field retired hurt. How could I have missed it? I cursed myself and in a state of desperation, I found a remedy. A friend of mine, a cricket enthusiast himself gave me the link to a website where I could watch the highlights. I watched it once, twice and few more times.

When the Indians played New Zealand in the 1st Test at Hamilton, I stayed awake till about 4 am watching Tendulkar construct a brilliant innings of 160. It felt different as I had never watched an innings of his live on a laptop. And earlier in India, I had to wake up early to watch a live match from New Zealand and now I had to sleep late.

Over the course of the year, I watched him score a match winning hundred against Sri Lanka, a mammoth effort against Australia. His 175 at Hyderabad reminded of the desert storm innings when he plundered the Australian attack.

I started watching cricket through my laptop regularly; it reminded me the time when I used to watch and follow cricket with my family, friends or even strangers. Be it at someone’s place, or at work or even on a street, cricket was followed religiously and that was the buzz I was missing. Cricket was such a wonderful ice breaker that I started missing the conversations on this sport. Where were the opinionated minds?

After a year of staying and studying in Switzerland, I was back in India on an assignment. I was working late on that evening when I got to know about Sachin’s double hundred, the first in ODI’s. I was sweating it out on a afternoon when I saw the scoreboard of him scoring a Test double hundred against Sri Lanka, I was busily running to different parts of Delhi when he made another double hundred against Australia and I was chatting with my friend on a cold evening with no TV cable connection when he had scored that 50th Test hundred against South Africa at Centurion. He went on to score one more at Cape Town and I missed that too. To sum it up, I had missed the best phase of Tendulkar’s cricketing career in the 21st century. How could I? Why did I not watch all the matches just like the old times?

A couple of weeks before I was to get married, World Cup 2011 had started. I was in Bangalore and didn’t want to miss the chance of watching a match live. After struggling for close to six hours, my cousin and I did manage to buy ourselves a ticket each. Tendulkar scored 120 off 115 deliveries and it was his 98th international hundred. It was to be my first World Cup match and as it stands, it was to be the last time I would watch Sachin score a hundred live on the ground.

I didn’t watch him take that single at Nagpur which gave him his 99th hundred. Like many others, I too waited for him to score his 100th hundred. It wasn’t to be in the World Cup, not when he toured England, not when West Indies toured India or when Indians toured Down Under.

I was in Jaipur working for IPL and a meeting was scheduled to discuss about the preparations for the upcoming tournament. As we went inside the meeting room, there were about 4-5 gentlemen representing Rajasthan cricket hooked on to TV. Sachin was batting and was close to the landmark.

My heart wanted to stay and watch him score that hundred, while my professional head wanted me to go ahead with the meeting. There was a visible reluctance among many to go ahead with the meeting and even my manager wanted to stay back as he didn’t want to ruin the joy of watching Sachin getting to his 100th hundred. In fact, he too was keen to watch the proceedings on TV. He was an ex-cricketer himself and he knew his statistics quite well.

The next 15- 20 minutes went by and finally the moment had arrived. It was not one of his best hundreds and Tendulkar would agree to it. But the burden was lifted. A huge sigh of relief and what next was left for this cricketer? Since then he has announced his retirement in both ODI’s and in the T20 format. Now, he is bowing out of the game in less than ten days time.

I was not in Kolkata and also was not to be in Mumbai for his 200th Test. Like it was four years ago, I caught all the action on the laptop and by this time I have made few friends with whom I can talk about cricket here in Switzerland.

Life as a cricket fan is a lot easier these days, thanks to the internet and smart phones. I can follow live scores, catch the highlights, watch live cricket or even archive videos.

As I prepare to watch his final few moments in international cricket I know for sure, irrespective of where I reside and what’s going on in my life, a glimpse of a Tendulkar’s innings will remind me of those random memories of mine associated with cricket.

I put my feet on the lake and the water gushes away. I am not the same person anymore as the water which gushed my feet is long gone replaced by a fresh stream. Cricket will not be the same to me. 

Lost Track: Circuits of the Yore XVII - Sebring International Raceway, United States Grand Prix

Jack Brabham pushing his Cooper Climax to the finish line enroute to claiming his first world championship

This year Austin will be hosting its second championship race since it made its debut last year. The Circuit of Americas thereby became the tenth venue in United States to host a F1 race; most by one country when you consider F1 is not really a commercial winner in this part of the world. Barring Glen Watkins, Long Beach or Indianapolis - the rest of the circuits came with a lot of promise which were to be short lived. How long will the current track survive?

In this edition of Lost Track, we go back a little over fifty years to the 50's when F1 in its world championship embodiment first raced in North America.

On 13th September 1959 - Stirling Moss scored an emphatic victory in his privately entered Cooper-Climax courtesy of R.R.C Walker racing team. This was his second straight win for the Rob Walker's team and crucially the victory put Stirling Moss along with Tony Brooks on a mathematical chance to win the championship - which at that point the resilient Jack Brabham was leading. Moss was geared up - but he had to wait for three months for the final round of the championship to begin.

Since its inception, the F1 World championships always had a round held in United States of America in the form of Indianapolis 500. Though the points counted towards the championships, rarely did any of non-US drivers took part. In fact there was none from outside the states who took part for the first nine years running.

The 1959 title contenders - Jack Brabham, Tony Brooks and Stirling Moss had three months to plan and prepare for this momentous occasion. Sebring Raceway, located in Florida was chosen to be the venue hosting the F1 drivers and teams from across the globe.

That year was significant for many other reasons too. The most relevant and important was the introduction of rear-engine chassis designed F1 cars. This idea was that of the visionary John Cooper; a innovation which made him an auto racing legend instantly which changed the way modern cars were built at the top level. Jack Brabham benefitted immensely from this revolutionary design; though it was not a dominating performance, it still gave him a lead of 5.5 points going in to the final round.

Sebring is well-known even today for its endurance races. Remember 12 hours of Sebring? The track included a part of former military base which was used to train the World War II US Army Air forces.

The track saw its racing avatar courtesy of Alec Ulmann, who brought his love for automobiles to United States when he emigrated from Russia. When the local racers were looking for a place to race he organized the airbase at Sebring, Florida to be the race track. The inaugural 12 Hours of Sebring was held in 1952 which became quite popular and was one of the considerations taken into account when Sebring was later chosen to host the first Formula One Grand Prix event in United States. The race was initially lined up a day after the endurance event in March - however with logistical issues, the F1 event was postponed to December to be the final round of the season.

Stirling Moss, the driver in form took the pole position ahead of Jack Brabham and Tony Brooks. Brooks was later pushed to 4th after it was discovered quite late that American Harry Schnell had the third fastest time. Despite caustic protests, mainly by Ferrari there was no change in the order and Brooks was to start from the second row in 4th place.

The race was also significant as for the first time, most of the European cars were to showcase in a F1 competition held in United States. This wasn't any ordinary car shows or exhibitions. F1 was the world's premier racing event and comparisons were made between the European machinery to the American style of racing.
A man with a mission Moss, having finished second in the past few years of the championship was hoping for a victory and Brabham to finish outside of second place. It was a daunting task considering both raced with similar configured Cooper-Climax cars, though for different teams. Moss was out of his blocks quickly at the start of the race and his dream of becoming a world champion came to an halt on lap 6 when he retired due to a transmission failure.

Unless Brooks was to win and Brabham to finish third or lower, the title was very much for Brabham's to lose. Brabham took over the lead from Moss after the latter's retirement and led the race till about 500 yards before the finish. His car halted and he got out of the car - started pushing his Cooper Climax which was permitted in those times, managed to cross the finish line in fourth. 

His team-mate, the young Kiwi Bruce McLaren was the winner and became the youngest F1 race winner (if you exclude Tony Ruttman's Indy 500 victory which counted towards the championships). 
First time winner Bruce McLaren greeted by one of the models 
The 2nd place was taken by Moss's team mate Maurice Trintignant and Tony Brooks crucially came in third. He finished as the runner-up of the 1959 championships overtaking Moss in the overall standings.

His fourth place finish was enough to give Jack Brabham his first crown. Cooper-Climax also became the first non-manufacturer to win the Constructor's championship which was significant considering it gave rise to the 'Garagistes' mainly from Britain, who were to play a prominent role in the evolution of this sport.

The race was exciting - but it was a financial disaster for the organiser and promoter Alec Ulmann. Going by the audience who were to witness the endurance races held previously on the same track, the total count was appalling. In addition, there was a small problem few teams faced post race. The cheques issued to the winners bounced. To save the name and face of American racing, Charles Moran and Briggs Cunningham, two big names in America racing circles personally covered the expenses to the tune of $15,000 and make amends.

Sebring turned out to be a one-off event for F1. In 1960, the same promoter moved the race to Riverside Raceway in California.

In today's scenario, the costs of hosting an F1 event is high and unless Americans accept F1 alongside the other forms of motorsports - I am afraid Circuit of Americas will be abandoned just like its predecessors. United States need F1 or is it the other way around? 
Track Photo Courtesy - allf1.info

Friday 1 November 2013

Abu Dhabi: Where it all Began- The success story of Red Bull and Vettel

Image Courtesy - Telegraph.co.uk

After clinching his fourth consecutive driver’s world championship, Sebastian Vettel is undoubtedly the king of F1, at least for the moment. There might be couple of drivers currently who are more talented than him; however they will have to wait or come up with something out of the extraordinary to beat him or even come closer to him.

Fernando Alonso came close last year and in 2010 with his Ferrari, reliable but lacked the final punch which was so badly needed to beat Vettel and his Red Bull or whatever the fancy names he calls his car. Mark Webber his team-mate had his best chance to win in 2010 and since then he never looked set to beat Vettel, while Raikkonen excelled in few opportunities where Lotus looked good.

The race now shifts to the Middle Eastern world, Abu Dhabi. A race amidst the twilight on the streets of this Emirate capital welcomes the new world champion albeit a familiar face who previously has won this race twice including the inaugural race in 2009. The last of his two victories is a significant one, the one which wrote the most defining chapter in the legacy of Vettel’s racing career and gave him the momentum to move to another level.

It was the evening of 14th November 2010; four drivers came into this season finale having a chance, a mathematical one to win the driver’s title. Fernando Alonso with 246 points, Mark Webber with 238 points, Vettel with 231 points and Hamilton with 222 points, which was a record in itself. Never has F1 seen a four-way battle for the top spot. Ferrari and Alonso were confident and so was Mark in Red Bull. It was Vettel’s second year with the Red Bull and was not yet the senior driver of the team while Hamilton had nothing really to lose.

In one of the pre-race press conference, Vettel was asked – “You are leading the race, Webber is in second place, Alonso in third and the race would be finishing. What would be your behaviour Vettel?” The wonder kid from Germany smiled, paused and answered in a calm manner – “I was asked a similar question at the last race. It is just Thursday guys, if we ever get to that situation, we’ll see”

All the title contenders were placed in top five after qualifying. Vettel and Hamilton occupied the front two positions while Alonso and Webber were to start from second and third row respectively.

The race started and by the end of lap one safety car was called to slow the pace while the track marshals removed the wreckage of Michael Schumacher’s Mercedes and Liuzzi’s Force India. The race resumed its normal and usual pace after lap five with the top five being Vettel, Hamilton, Button, Alonso and Webber in that order. Alonso was to win the championship if the race finished in that order. He looked set to do what ‘Raikkonen’ had done in 2007 by winning the championship with Ferrari in his first year.

Drama unfolded on lap 11 when Mark Webber was called on to pits. Why? He was getting stuck behind Alonso and this way he could make up some ground and challenge for the lead or was there some other reason?

Ferrari race strategists keeping a closer eye on Webber were planning to counter this with their own strategy. Alonso was the fastest driver on the circuit before he was called to pit on lap 15. Was the call to pit as a result to keep Webber in check or to replace the degradation of softer tyres on Alonso? Did they have a good look at other drivers on track and their strategies before calling him in? Surely, they would have factored all this considering it was going to be a one-pit stop strategy?

Alonso re-joined the track in 12th position and ahead of Webber and the pit strategy worked. More importantly, he was behind a long chain of cars that had already pitted and would not be required to pit another time. On lap 24 Vettel pitted and the pit-stop was pitch perfect, reminiscent of Ferrari’s ruthless stop at Suzuka in 2000 which gave Michael the championship.

Vettel came ahead of Kobayashi and Kubica with clear track ahead of him. Hamilton overtook the Sauber and Renault in pursuit of victory while Alonso was stuck behind the other Renault of Petrov. With each lap down, one could see the disappointment in the faces of Ferrari fans, their crew and Andrea Stella in particular, the race engineer for Alonso who was heard constantly delivering motivational messages lap after lap on the radio. It was just one of those days where things could go all wrong and it did for the team from Marenello. Those despairing faces dressed in red appeared even more hopeless and all they could expect was for some retirements at the front.

On the other hand, the team of Red Bull were anxious, knowing Webber’s chance had dwindled and Vettel’s victory would mean nothing unless Alonso finished outside of top five. They waited with fingers crossed.

Vettel crossed the line and won the race by 10 seconds. He was not announced as the World Champion immediately and instead he was asked to hold till they could confirm the finishing order. It was looking good and so Vettel waited patiently while he heard out the messages from his race engineer on the radio. “Hamilton P2, Button P3, there’s another two cars coming on turn 15 and 16, Rosberg P4, Kubica P5 and.......Der Meister”

Tears were all I could sense hearing Vettel react to being the World Champion. Yes, he became the World Champion and it was unbelievable. He led the championship for the first time that season and what a day to have done that.

As the German national anthem played, my mind could only think of that Sunday evening in Japan 10 years before this race. A German by the name of Michael Schumacher was in tears of joy winning his 3rd driver’s championship and the first of his five with Ferrari. His junior had arrived on the big stage. 
Vettel in his younger days with this hero Michael Schumacher
In 2008, it was Hamilton who had become the youngest World Champion and now the world was to see another youngster claim the throne. Since that day, he has gone on to win three more titles.

On 3rd November 2013, Vettel will race as a four-time World champion on the Yas Island track. He will be fully aware of the day on this track which gave him the momentum to surge ahead and stamp his authority on the track.

Next year with the rule changes, return of turbo engines and Ferrari having a powerful driver’s line-up, it promises to be an exciting season. Will Vettel be crowned for the five time come Abu Dhabi next year? I don’t know and honestly even Red Bull doesn’t know. What they do know is that it is all theirs to lose. But for now, they will race in Abu Dhabi knowing this is where it all began, the legacy of Vettel and Red Bull in particular.