Sunday 29 March 2015


There are five rings in the Olympic flag. They signify inhabited continents of the world - Asia, Africa, Americas, Australia and Europe. A truly international platform consisting of events from different sports where athletes from all over the world from these continents come and compete for the top honours. 

In cricket, it is relatively a very small group of nations. The challenge are the conditions and champions are those who master and excel in different environment. Australia for the past three decades have been a dominant force in the limited overs and today they won their fifth World Cup victory. With it, they also became the only country to have won their World Cups in all the five inhabited continents where cricket is played.

It all started in 1987 at Eden Gardens, Kolkata when they won their maiden trophy against the run of play. Allan Border, a tough cricketer and a great leader marshaled his young team of players and was instrumental in guiding the squad to win against their arch-rivals England. Asia, check!

Twelve years later, in 1999 it was the turn of Steve Waugh, who inspired through his batting and leadership first to qualify into the knock-outs and to see his bowlers deliver in the semi-finals and the finals against South Africa and Pakistan respectively. Europe, check!

In 2003, World Cup fever hits Africa for the first time, and Australia by then were consistently winning most of their matches in ODIs and Tests. They continued their dominance and were hardly stretched throughout the tournament and in the finals at Johannesburg, Ricky Ponting single-handedly took the World Cup away from the Indians courtesy of a captain's innings. The total was just too much for the Indians and they fell short by a large margin. Africa, check!

With rotation policy of awarding World Cups in full swing, it was the turn of the Caribbean islands to host the 2007 World Cup. Ricky Ponting and his team once again entered as favourites and at the end of it, it was hardly a surprise when they claimed their 4th title without losing a match. Americas, check!

If there is one place this team would have loved to win, it was in front of their home crowd. This year, there was an opportunity. Teams have hardly beaten Australia in their home matches in the recent years and they started the tournament as the #1 team. In spite of losing their group match against New Zealand, the team always remained a strong contender. Since that loss at Eden Park against their Trans-Tasman rival, they were hardly challenged in the following matches. The bowling was a big plus and in the end it was the bowlers who delivered with Mitchell Starc leading the attack. His 22 wickets along with the strike force of Johnson, accuracy of Hazelwood and variations of Faulkner paved the way for their fifth title and a first in their home continent.

In Melbourne, just as Steven Smith scored the winning runs, one could see the excitement - but it was as if the victory was expected. There were no emotions but for joy, the victory seemed from the players interviews that it was just another game. The enthusiasm of 1987 was missing, the jubilant faces from the 1999 was missing and like the previous two World Cup wins, this World Cup win too was a mere formality. Maybe it is the favourite's curse if you may call it; emotions flow if there is an upset or when you are the underdog. I am sure, the scenes would have been different had New Zealand been on the winning side.

In the end, who cares as long as you have one more World Cup in your cupboard. The fever of the World Cup would die down in a few weeks time and Michael Clarke would have plenty of time to reflect upon his wonderful ODI career both as a player and as a captain. Four captains, five World Cup titles and all of them in five different continents. Needless to say, we just witnessed one of the cricketing greats just go about their usual business and have claimed what they feel is rightfully theirs - the Cricket World Cup. 

Saturday 28 March 2015


Jos Verstappen in the dying stages of 2001 Malaysian Grand Prix, unfortunate to finish outside of top 6 by a whisker
As soon as the chequered flag was waved, the timing screen had the rookie teenager on the time screen placed sixth in the qualifying for the Malaysian Grand Prix . This sensational drive by Max Verstappen reminded me of a race which had his father Jos Verstappen display amazing driving skills in Malaysia under similar conditions.

My mind went back in time, 14 years to be precise and recalled one of the best Malaysian Grand Prix races I witnessed. On the back of Ferrari's domination after a brief setback, one also witnessed the prowess of Jos Verstappen moving up places rapidly and was in 6th place at the end of lap one, after having started way down in 18th position. He finally finished seventh in the race - but had done enough to impress his team and many others who watched that race.

That race, it was on the race day when teams had prepared for dry conditions and team crew, most notably Ron Dennis openly stating 'it will be a dry race'. Mother nature was smarter than most gadgets and short burst of rain caused mayhem, spoiled team plans and what happened next was sheer class driving by Michael Schumacher, who was aided immensely by the strategy of choosing intermediate tyres while rest of the pack went for more gripping wet tyres.

It was dark, gloomy and yet many predicted it would stay dry for the race. Just when the cars assembled and waiting for the five red lights to go, Fisichella had incorrectly placed his Benetton. The race start was aborted. Sigh of relief for some while many hearts still pounding, so were mine at the start of the race. A few breather moments as many of the pit crew assembled next to their cars, shielding the machinery by stuffing dry ice onto the side radiators to prevent it from further heat loss. As expected, Fisichella would lose his grid position owing to his error and would now start the race from the back of the grid. The race distance was cut-short by one lap as a result of this aborted start and now effectively, the race would be re-started fresh and race for 55 laps.

All that delay was put aside, and now cars were ready for the warm-up lap. More drama! Juan-Pablo Montoya stalled on the grid as cars around past his BMW-Williams. He would now lose his 6th position on the grid. While the cars are parading along the circuit to complete the warm up lap, Juan Pablo Montoya was having a race to quickly reach the pit garage and get on to the spare car.

The re-start had no such drama as Michael Schumacher pulled away from his team-mate and rest of the pack in his usual style. Ralf had a great start and narrowly took the second place at the first corner only to slip, do a 360° and join the track. Both Williams effectively were behind the rest of the pack.
As the cars approached second turn of the track, the race had its first retirement - Kimi Raikkonen out with driveshaft problems. And seconds later, Oliver Panis of BAR-Honda spins off the circuit  from a oil leak, leaving behind a trail of oil on the track. 

Lap two - Two Ferraris out of the track, one followed the other onto the gravel traps. In an awkwardly manner both kept the engines running, ambled onto the grass and rejoined the track. Jarno Trulli and his team Jordan led the race and to time it, clouds opened up and rain started to pour in. By the time safety car was called on and lap three was completed, four cars had spun off and Eddie Irvine retired on the pits with water leakage!

Fifteen cars out of the twenty-two lined up behind the safety car, moving slowly across the damp conditions of Sepang. It was chaos in the pitlane as cars waited for their turns to change the tyres. Barrichello stood in the pits with Michael Schumacher waiting behind him for a good one minute 12 seconds! 

Fans and followers of McLaren were ecstatic. They were praising Ron Denis's strategy to bring Coulthard quickly while people criticised the lack of planning from Ferrari's team management. On lap five, when the two Ferraris re-joined the track, they were placed 10th and 11th respectively whereas Coulthard and Hakkinen were 1st and 4th on the grid.


Ferraris dominated as though they were on a different planet altogether 
The safety car leaves the pack to race on lap 10 and Coulthard in lead takes advantage and pulls away from the second placed Jordan of Frentzen. Jos Verstappen and Arrows Asiatech looked a better team under wet conditions and were placed in second place at the end of lap 10. At the start of lap 12, Michael Schumacher had moved five places up and was now in sixth position charging his way to regain the top spot. A lap later, he was in top three with just Verstappen and Coulthard ahead of him. 4.4 seconds faster than anyone on track, he was two seconds away to take the top position. While rest of the cars were on full-wets, Ferrari took that long time in the pits to decide between intermediates and wets; the option to go for intermediates paid off as Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello made a mockery of everyone with the sheer advantage they gained over a better thought out strategy. That was the game, set and race for Ferrari! They gained all of it and more in just five laps!  

Michael Schumacher would race another 40 laps and finish a good 23 seconds clear from his Ferrari mate Barrichello to win the 46th Grand Prix of his career. Ferrari took time during that long pit-stop, discussed at length and finally decided to go for intermediates instead of full-wet weather tyres. You can call that stroke of luck - but little do people knew, Ferrari ran in intermediates on the race morning warm up to gather performance data while other teams were happy with doing rounds in fully-threaded tyres.

That was 2001 and I hope tomorrow's race has some exciting moments just as it was 14 seasons ago. Will Verstappen Jr. emulate his father's performance at the same track? it remains to be seen! 

Thursday 26 March 2015


MS Dhoni's run out signaled India's exit once for all
Image Courtesy - abc.net.au
Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies... The long held adage from Shawshank Redemption kept me going until the time... the time, when the red-light flickered from the bails.. MS Dhoni was run-out! That was the end, the final rites, call it whatever you want...

If anyone had told me before the start that India would be knocked out of the World Cup on the penultimate match of the tournament, fighting for a place for the finals, I would have accepted it, although reluctantly and probably also wonder if it was possible considering the way we bowled and batted at times leading up to the tournament. Since then, winning seven matches in a trot has been the reason why most Indian fans felt and mostly hoped for achieving the glory yet again by defeating the two best teams in the tournament - Australia and New Zealand.

Today's match, right from the start was all about hope, the great Indian hope. The Indian team knew this Australian team, all the Indian fans knew this Australian team and from what we have seen from these endless summer months of playing cricket in Australia, team India had to be at their best, if not more to reach the finals. They met a better side on the day and like most days with Australia in the recent past, the better side (Australia) won.

Is this disappointing? Yes, it is. A loss to a team you support is always a tough pill to swallow. That's about it. Losing the semi-finals in 1987 was a surprise, the 1992 campaign was a disaster, the 1996 campaign ended in tears, shame and what not; the 1999 tournament was a touch and go; the 2003 World Cup went down to the wire; the 2007 World Cup was embarrassing and we were the World Champions in 2011. Yes, today's loss took away the tag of 'world champions'. This year, the conditions were different, something Indians often found wanting, be it any form of the game and yet they managed to stretch till the last four.
India started well.. the bowlers kept the in-form Australia batsmen in check for the ten overs. When the bowling was tested and threatened to concede well in excess of 350, the bowlers came back well, taking wickets, restricting the Aussies to 328, the highest they conceded this tournament.

This was the semi-final, and there was no better occasion to finally win a match against the home team. The openers started well, and did not lose those early wickets in those 10 overs. Everything seemed fine, Indians were well on their way chasing those runs, and against the run of play the first wicket fell... and soon Virat Kohli left. Rohit Sharma looked set, pulls Mitchell Johnson for a six, the chase is underway in spite of those two hiccups, the very next ball, he is out. And since then, the run chase was all about hope. After struggling to find boundaries, Raina perished and in came the last hope. 

I don't believe in miracles - but this guy could perform some, the Indian cricketing version of Andy Dufresne - our captain cool, M S Dhoni. I was hoping, in his mind he would plan just the way Andy did and in the end, break the shackles Indians were under right since the time they arrived in Australia. A win today would have felt like that prison break! He did that four years ago, was I expecting too much? Is it just too much to ask from an individual in a team sport?

He tried his best to take it to the last minute, he held on, even when asking rate was 15 per over. I was hoping, he would do it.. though with each ball it seemed unrealistic. And his run-out signaled India's exit once for all. Team India would lose their first match of the tournament and with it, the hopes of a successive titles ended. Post analysis can be made - but it will not alter the result. We gotta live with the fact of Australia being a much better team than India and Indians did not go out without a fight (they fought for a good part of 80 overs).

On this note, the Indian team will finally depart Australia after having spent close to four months playing all-forms of cricket down under. The end was not sudden, it wasn't anti-climax as deep down everyone knew it was as best as they could have played.

Now.. it's time for the finals, and this Sunday, I will be hoping Kiwis would end up winning their maiden World Cup trophy. A new day, a new hope. 

Thursday 12 March 2015


The three German Ferrari drivers in Formula One - Wolfgang Von Trips on the left was the first
Come Sunday, Sebastian Vettel will be the third German driver to race for Ferrari works team in Formula One. Going by the record his previous two compatriots have achieved - there is little to suggest otherwise but success for the youngest four-time world champion.

In the 1950's, there was none more famous German driver than Wolfgang Von Trips - who began his Formula One career with Ferrari in 1956. It took some time for him to get going and it was in the season of 1961, when he and the American Phil Hill both demonstrated their prowess and the power of Ferrari. If not for his death as a result of a collision with Jim Clark at the Italian Grand Prix, Von Trips would have clinched his first driver's championship as he was leading the championship at that time. The only consolation for Ferrari was Phil Hill's triumph as he won an emotional race marred by the on-track incident involving his team mate.

Two of Von Trips wins came in his final season at Netherlands (Dutch Grand Prix) and Aintree (British Grand Prix) and it was not until 1992, a German driver had won a full-length race in Formula One. At the time of Schumacher's victory at the Spa-Francorchamps (Belgian Grand Prix 1992), it was just the fourth win (Jochen Mass won the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix which was curtailed) for a German driver.  And since then German drivers have won a total of 146 races.

One of the best drivers of all-time and taken in the same breath as Ayrton Senna, Michael Schumacher will go down as the best German F1 racer irrespective of what Vettel will go on to achieve. For the 1996 F1 season, Michael Schumacher had decided to don the famous red colours of Ferrari. The two consecutive driver's titles with Benetton were anything to go by, a move to the ailing Italian team was perceived as an illogical move. Ferrari was struggling and the team were in a desperate need for a champion who could revive their fortunes. In came 'Michael Schumacher' to overcome this challenging task and to bring back the glory days of the Prancing Horse.

With Michael Schumacher at the top of his game, Ferrari rose to new heights which also saw them claim six consecutive constructor's title (between 1999-2004) and five consecutive driver's title (2000-2004). In those 11 seasons with Ferrari, Schumacher won a wow-rendering 72 races! (91 in total). Just for the record, the second placed Alain Prost has 51 victories in his career.

Sebastian Vettel is 27 years old, the same age as Michael Schumacher when he joined Ferrari. Vettel said at the time of joining Ferrari - "When I was a kid, Michael Schumacher in the red car was my greatest idol and now it's an incredible honour to finally get the chance to drive a Ferrari."

For Ferrari, since that emotional heartbreak in Brazil in 2008, they have not won any championships. This winless phase is nothing compared to the 20 years drought they went through between 1979 and 1999. Like every era, this too is different and with technology and news reaching to all corners of the world by a single click, each season without a win makes it that much harder, opinions are quickly drawn which aches the management a touch more and thus with the start of new season comes pressure in the form of expectations, great expectations.

Fernando Alonso during his stint with Ferrari came close to winning more than once, but always found wanting at the last hurdle. This year Vettel will be on the other side after scripting those memorable wins for Red Bull which had him win those close encounters against Alonso. Alonso will remain a rival if it is of any comfort and instead Vettel will be alongside Kimi Raikkonen, who was Ferrari's last champion eight seasons ago.

This is what great racers are made of, the ability to drive a team forward, win championships and taste successes together. Michael Schumacher had to wait four years to achieve glory with Ferrari, and who knows how long Vettel has to wait. One thing is clear, he would definitely enjoy this challenge than spending few more years at Red Bull.

We will see how history unfolds for the German driver with the Italian team. 

Tuesday 10 March 2015


World Cup and the lesser known teams...how can they be separated? 
The year 2002 was the first time football World Cup was staged in Asia - and the event had finally reached the largest continent seventy years after the inception of this premier tournament. France, the defending champions of 1998, the European champions of 2000 was still the best team to beat and a favourite to retain the title. Senegal defeated France, yes it was a freakish goal by Diop - but that goal was enough to write a script for a team that was unheard of, in the world stage. It was the World Cup and there is something else that brings in the best of the lesser known teams. France then drew with Uruguay, lost by two goals to Denmark and as a result went out of the tournament without scoring a goal. This is just one such story and there are many such tales of World Cup and not just in football.

Football is popular for a reason; and if not for their global outlook and appeal, the game would not have succeeded and tasted fame in the modern era. Cricket cannot be compared to football - but is it wrong in trying to have the global appeal and look to emulate the father of all sports? No one likes to watch a strong team strangle a weak opponent on a daily basis and rarely people turn up to watch two minnows competing against each other. So what is the solution? Having cricket world cup reduced to just a test-playing nations affair is not the way, and irrespective of the number of teams, there will be minnows even in the big league, because ratings are what that counts - the number one, the chasers, race for avoiding the last place and so on.

What is the role of the International Federation and whom do they report to? Is it the commercial partners, the association members, the fans or a fruitful combination of all? People and fans turn up to watch the innumerable bilateral series, countless ODI's and T20's. But that does not drive the sport globally if it does not travel beyond the boundaries. What does is that a relative, a friend or a group of people getting together in Afghanistan, Scotland, Ireland, Kenya, Canada, Bermuda, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Netherlands, UAE and many more from the Associate and Affiliate countries, because it is the World Cup! - a place where underdogs can dream of achieving glory just like many such stories we have in different sports. Global appeal is what cricket seriously aspires, then World Cup is the stage to showcase it, for there are no other words than World Cup which generates attention and more the countries, merrier it is.

Favourites winning is logical, predictable and worthy - but just as in life, in sports too all we seek are stories that are never being told before, something fresh, unique and tales that evoke interest. Beyond the hopes, against the odds, the victory over the might is what makes the headlines. In not providing such a opportunity, one needs to re-look at the term 'international' and 'world cup' as not having more teams is a recipe for stagnancy.

What are the roles played by the commercial partners who fund the game? I have never heard a business house complain if their name and product reached out to many places across the world. Ask Pepsi, what's their challenge is? Sixteen teams or even thirty two teams for a 50-day event is possible and will be the way to go. Thirty two teams divided into eight groups and then the knock out begins. What are we afraid of? If big teams do not make it past the first round? or will they lose in the round of sixteen? Should there a minimum number of matches guaranteed to evoke interest levels till the dusk of the tournament? or do you want to watch series of do or die contests? For a greater reach, few one-sided games can be excused and if we all seek only for the master teams, what will happen those apprentices who have ambitions to be a master one day or defeat them on a given day? Have we come so far ahead that, we have forgotten how we got here in the first place?

Familiarity breeds contempt and do I need to say more? The suspense of not knowing your opponent is what brings in the element of drama, the awe-inspiring moments, the breathtaking scenarios, the theatrics, the elite performers irrespective of their background till the time when winners takes all.

Whoever it is who needs to make decisions for the future of the World Cup, take a good look at the outside world, beyond the four walls where the decision would probably be made; understand the value of legacy and embrace the power in you, the ability to take this sport as it has been envisioned.
To be the best, you gotta be in the league of the best! And having a World Cup with less teams will only have limited reach and a very clouded future.  

Tuesday 3 March 2015


The centurion Wilt Chamberlain 
The evening of 1962, and about 4,000 people at the Hershey Sports Arena in Pennsylvania witnessed history being made as Wilt Chamberlain hit a century to power his team  Philadelphia Warriors (now Philadelphia 76ers) to a resounding win in a high scoring match against New York Knicks.

It has been more than fifty years since that day in March - and till date no other player has come close to emulating Chamberlain's stunning performance in a competitive NBA match.  Just for the record, Wilt Chamberlain's name features six times in the top ten of highest points scored by a player. Kobe Bryant with 81 points comes second.

NBA as we know today was nowhere a commercially successful league back in the 1960's. The college basketball still remained popular, which was highlighted in the limited number of people that attended the match. Wilt Chamberlain in his third year was a popular player, but unlike the hype surrounding Roger Bannister's historic 4-minute mile, 100 points by a player in an NBA match was something that one could only dream of, it still remains that way!

Chamberlain played all the 48 minutes of the game spread across the four quarters. With 25 rebounds, 36 Field Goals, and 28 Free Throws, the 'big dipper' went on to create history on the 4th quarter of the match.

Not only the match had limited public viewers, this historic game was poorly covered by the media and had no broadcast coverage. In fact there is no video recording of the game barring for few audio clippings. Except for articles that came in as match reports and aftermath analysis, this once in a lifetime record was destined for 'selective' members and for few eyes only. There has been silver jubilee celebrations, 50 years anniversary recollecting that magic night of March 2nd, 1962.... however, no matter what celebrations are arranged, the achievement will remain as one for the memory!