Thursday 19 December 2013

Going the Distance

I do not care if South Africa wins the Test match from here. I will be one of the happier souls if India were to win the Test from here or an unlikely draw - if weather were to intervene the proceedings of the first Test match between India and South Africa.

Since its re-admission to international cricket - India has toured the 'Rainbow Nation' six times including the current tour. Barring the previous series (which was levelled 1-1), India has lost all the tours and is yet to win a ODI series over there. What will be the outcome of this tour? We know surely what happened in the ODI series.

I will neither be talking more about the shorter formats nor predicting how the series will unwrap in the days to come; all I want to share is the way I feel about this Indian team after having watched the first two days of the Test match in this current series.

A young team led by M S Dhoni - who incidentally captaining in his 50th Test  (only 14 have managed to achieve this feat till date) wins the toss and elects to bat against the number one team in the world. My mind goes back to the Headingly Test match in 2002 when India chose to bat first in overcast conditions with series 1-0 down. India won the Test match in spite of playing in a seamer-friendly conditions to level the series in an emphatic fashion. That was a brave decision!

For the first time (since the time I started to watch cricket) there will be no Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, Sourav Ganguly, Mohammed Azharuddin, Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir in the test line-up. These names resonate a sense of my belonging to cricket - and now we have a team whose highest run-getter is MS Dhoni. This team will go down as one of  the most in-experienced line-up for a long time I can remember. Yet there is no sense of panic and that partially is due to low expectations.

Day one saw Indian openers batting first; they hung around for a while and got out without making any impact. Then came the partnership of the Test match so far (from Indian perspective) between Pujara and Virat Kohli. They occupy the #3 and #4 positions respectively in the line-up which the previous incumbents were the top two run-getters of India all-time and the top three (as I write) in the history of the game.

During the playing days of Dravid and Tendulkar - the third wicket partnership had always been a crucial phase; one which has contributed to many of the recoveries after a poor start and many a times gave momentum to an innings, capitalising on a good opening partnership. The essence was there - although I do not want to compare them in one-to-one terms; the feeling of security was to be seen - controlled aggression meets the soothing influence. And then came the run out - Quel Dommage!

India managed to score 280 and probably could have scored more - I do not wish to get into details. Twenty short of three hundred was all this new team could manage. A lot better than some of the scores the team had posted when they last toured outside the sub-continent (Australia in 2011-12 & England 2011).

I watched India bowl - and saw South Africans running away with the game after good initial spells from the pace bowling trio of Zaheer Khan, Ishant Sharma and Shami. With 120 runs on the board for the loss of solitary wicket, the Proteas were in commanding position going into tea.

Then came the intense spells from the trio, suitably rewarded for some good bowling which reduced them to 145/6. It was all about the Indian pace attack; they did a tremendous job in damaging the back bone of the South Africa never ending list of batsmen.

Bouncebackability - a term invented by English football club manager Iain Dowie comes to my mind. The word is apt for the way Indians forged ahead in spite of losing the openers while batting and the manner they took wickets mid way through the South African innings.

The match at the end of day two is well balanced. Unless there is an intervention from the weather, this Test will produce a result with both teams having a fair chance to win.

Historically, this is one of the few away grounds where India is yet to lose a Test match. In 1992, Indian batsmen fought it out on the last day to draw the Test match; 1997 match saw stellar performances by the duo of Rahul Dravid - Sourav Ganguly; victory only to be denied by poor weather on the final day and a stiff resistance of Daryll Cullinan. In 2006, India won the Test match - their first test win in South Africa.

What will happen this time? I am no astrologer - and I will be thrilled if India were to win and maintain its no-loss record at this ground. A quote from the movie 'Rocky' comes to my mind - "I was nobody. But that don't matter either, you know? 'Cause I was thinkin', it really don't matter if I lose this fight. It really don't matter if this guy opens my head, either. 'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance."

Going the distance is what I expect from this Indian team - a team of new guys little short on Test match experience.

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. 

Monday 14 October 2013

Vakifbank Istanbul wins their first FIVB Women's Club World Championships

At the end of five days of intense volleyball, the 7th Women’s Club World Championships came to a halt yesterday in Zurich, Switzerland. Saalsporthalle, a well known multi-purpose stadium in Zurich were roped in as hosts this year. Since the re-introduction of this tournament in 2010, this was the first occasion the tournament was held outside of Qatar. Prior to 2010, the championships were held thrice in 1991, 1992 and 1994 after which it was discontinued.

Apart from the host team Voléro Zürich, there were teams from Africa (Kenya Prisons), Asia (Guangdong Evergrande, China), South America (Unilever Vôlei, Brazil), Iowa Ice, representative of North, Central America and Caribbean Volleyball Confederation (NORCECA) and the reigning European champions Vakifbank Istanbul.

Voléro Zürich and Vakifbank Istanbul remained unbeaten in their respective pools A and B while Guangdong Evergrande and Unilever Vôlei finished second behind Zurich and Istanbul clubs.
The two semi-finals turned out to be very one sided. In the first semi-final between Vakifbank and Guangdong there was a close fight in the first set which Vakifbank eventually won 28-26. The next two were relatively easy as Vakifbank cruised to their second finals.

In the second semi-final though the hosts had the local support, the flair and talent came from the Brazilian side. After a closely fought first set, Voléro Zurich surrendered in the next two sets. The best they could hope for was to fight for the 3rd place.

And the hosts started off well claiming the first set. The next three sets saw an outstanding display of commitment from the Asian champions as they claimed the bronze spot and thereby becoming the first Asian country to achieve a top 3 finish at this competition.

If one looks at the history of this championship which began in 1991, there have been three Brazilian winners and all the three clubs being different. Unilever were playing their first finals while things were slightly different for their rivals. After a straight sets loss in 2011, Vakifbank were playing their second finals in three years. Their form throughout the year was outstanding and looked good to claim their first World club title.

Jovana Brakocevic, a Serbian national team player and a rock star for the Turkish club was a dominant force to reckon with for the entire match. The tall Serbian collected points for all three scoring skills category. Her spike, block and the high jump serve was thrilling to watch from the seats but not so pleasant if you were a Brazilian fan or the team which had no clue most of the time. She finished the match with 23 points that included 3 blocks and one serving ace.

Vakifbank Istanbul won the finals comfortably after a tight second set (25-23, 27-25 and 25-16). Jovana Brakocevic was rightly named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the tournament. The winners were awarded USD 200,000 while the runners-up and 3rd place team got USD 110,000 and USD 60,000 respectively.

The 2013 Women's Club World Championship Dream Team went this way:
1st Best Outside Spiker: Kenia Carcaces (Voléro Zurich)
2nd Best Outside Spiker: Kirdar Sonsirma Gözde (Vakifbank Istanbul)
1st Best Middle Blocker: Christiane Fürst (Vakifbank Istanbul)
2nd Best Middle Blocker: Carol (Unilever Vôlei)
Best Libero: Yuko Sano (Voléro Zurich)
Best Setter: Jingsi Shen (Guangdong Evergrande)
Best Opposite Spiker: Sarah Pavan (Unilever Vôlei)
Most Valuable Player: Jovana Brakocevic (Vakifbank Istanbul)

Friday 11 October 2013

Sachin Tendulkar: From a Child to an Adult - The Longest Transition

It was more than a drizzle. It was pouring last morning. I wondered why? A gamut of coloured leaves lay on the street and the rain washing it away. This is what I saw out of the window from my drawing room. Just as I sipped in the last bit of my ginger honey tea, I heard a beep. My throat was giving me a hard time and the hot beverage had a somewhat soothing effect.

I had to barely walk a couple of feet to pick my phone up. I had a notification and it read "Sachin Tendulkar to retire after his 200th Test" courtesy NDTV breaking news.

I quickly got on to my twitter feed and checked what’s happening. I knew this might have happened, but was more interested in the source. It was the BCCI who had made this announcement on behalf of Sachin Tendulkar.

The adages started pouring in left, right and centre. Few expressed relief while majority expressed their loss of connection to childhood - the constant he has been in cricket to many. What did I do?

Words are like perceptions and I read plenty of them. All sorts of people put in their views – Logical, cynical, sadists, critical, dramatists, cerebral, statistical, purists, fanatic, emotional and human. I was amazed and not surprised at the same time to see everyone to put in their two cents on this topic. Few pour their heart out while others wrote whatever they felt. Frankly, I didn’t want to reflect on this decision of Sachin Tendulkar. I didn’t want to. I was just reading one after the other.

As I occupied myself reading all this - Every now and then, my mind went back to those laminated picture books I have of Tendulkar (3 to 4 of those big books). It is still stacked in my room in India and remains my prized possession.

And then, I got reminded of the way I played cricket as a kid. What made me love this game to this day? Is it because the game itself was so attractive or was I influenced to take up this game?

How old was I? Let me remember, seven, six, five or even younger than that when I either picked up a bat or a ball for the first time. Our house was located away from the city centre and so I didn’t have the luxury of having too many friends. There were few (4 of us) and were of my age (what a lovely coincidence). We started playing cricket on the streets as having a proper ground was unimaginable in those days. With occasional tips from elders we were mostly on our own to understand this game and play, a challenge which we relished.

Around that time, a little phenomenon in Indian cricket was making his mark in international cricket. He was young and so were we. So it was an instant connection, a bond which became stronger by the day. I started playing cricket everywhere – on the roads, inside the house and any place which was sufficient to put bat to ball. It didn’t matter – My life was occupied with cricket, obsessed with it which made me think school and academics were extra-curricular activities.

Outside my family circle, he has been a constant throughout my life and so that connection is what’s being broken. I am now all grown up; understand life in a much better way than I did previously. He gave me immense joy, made me shed tears, made me go frenzy, made me go mad, made me frustrated, gave me that pride, gave me confidence, made me inspired, made me obsessed, made me a thinker, made me a believer, made me a guy to go after one’s dreams and it goes on........

Who is this guy? God, no; Demi-god, no; superhuman with magical powers, no; ordinary human with extreme talent, no – To me he is a kid who extended his childhood beyond the conventions of its definition. As we grow old, we get distracted by innumerable things than a child would. As an adult, I believe there is a kid in us and for Sachin Tendulkar I feel it was always the opposite. To me the association with cricket started with Tendulkar. He was a fellow kid like me with whom I could connect to whenever he played cricket.

Kids move on to the next toy or next set of challenges only when the next toy is attractive or when they are bored with the existing toy. I believe Tendulkar has reached that phase in his childhood where playing cricket no longer gave him that fun it once did. He made his retirement call to move on with his life and let the adult in him take over from now on. If cricket were to be his most favourite toy, he has utilised and played with it more than one can imagine. He will play out the final two tests as an adult, fully aware that his childhood days are now over.

A big chunk of my childhood tree has been etched out. The kid in me has lost a link. Now they will be replaced by memories of Sachin Tendulkar and his cricket playing days. I will move on, going about life the usual way with interesting things happening around and with me comes all those wonderful days of the past, recollecting my life, remembering the times when I did everything I could to just watch him play. 

Monday 7 October 2013

My Two Cricketing Idols - Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid

I had completed my Engineering studies and was now a corporate. Few months later in December 2006, Indian cricket team were touring South Africa and part of their tour was a solitary T20 match. It was India’s first international T20 match and at the end of it, they emerged victorious. It was Sachin Tendulkar’s first and turned out to be his only T20 international. At the time of the first T20 World Cup in 2007, the trio of Tendulkar, Dravid and Ganguly and had opted out of T20 cricket internationally as they felt it was best suited for youngsters. Rest, it turned out to be an historic moment in the evolution of present day cricket. MS Dhoni led his young team to the title which changed the course of cricketing future - Birth of Indian Premier League and the successive T20 leagues around the world.

It was the summer of 2008 when Indian television and stadium goers had got a custom made cricket event which involved international cricketers spread across eight franchises or cities in India. Sachin Tendulkar represented his home city ‘Mumbai’ while Rahul Dravid turned out in red and gold colours for ‘Bangalore’. This year IPL completed six seasons and if I look back on that night of 18th April 2008; I was celebrating my mother’s birthday with relatives and friends at home and the IPL carnival was not so far off from my place in Bangalore. For the first time Indian viewers were to be divided on city basis for its most worshipped sport. I am a Bangalorean and my cricketing idols were Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid. I decided not to support anyone and I still maintain about picking my favourites on the match day or how I felt. C’est la vie for me when it comes to T20 cricket.

Around the fourth season of IPL I found myself to be in a situation where I was donning the outfits of the IPL central management team which operated the tournament. It was a dream for most youngsters, cricket fans, and game maniacs to be working on a job that involved cricket and cricketers. By that time, I had lost my innocence as a fan and looked at my idols in a different way. I became averse to the idea of clicking photographs with them and more so when it involved my revered cricketers (God knows, how many of my close friends and relatives I have denied). I was still a kid at heart when it came to these two cricketers or when it came to supporting them. Just that, I had become a more silent kid than continue being a naughty one. I felt I was different and if I ever get to meet them in person, I knew I would be not be like any other fans. Believe me it was different.

Looking back, I was thrilled when Sachin Tendulkar greeted me, shook hands and gave an autograph penned using his right hand (he is a left-handed writer) in a local cricket match and quite a similar euphoria when I met Rahul Dravid for the first time after winning a competition and second time at a game. I was a kid back then, the one who had his dreams fulfilled by these two cricketers. No they were not just cricketers, they were super-heroes to me.

And few years later I meet them as a professional. A lot had changed in my life – I was married by this time and yet I could not stop but admire these two cricketers. Yes, I was watching less of live cricket than I used to and yet was managing to follow the missed action through highlights, cricinfo and other medium of information.Cricket was not just a passion, it was my work too. 

Yesterday, both Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid played out their final limited overs game or should I say in coloured clothing. While Rahul Dravid has retired from all forms of the game internationally, Tendulkar continues to be a player in the longer version of the game (Test cricket) for India. While I am amassed and intrigued at the journey and accolades Tendulkar has been able to achieve, I am inspired by the course and journey Rahul Dravid endured. Sachin Tendulkar won his last T20 International for India, last One day international for India (including a World Cup), last IPL match for Mumbai Indians (including the trophy) and the last Champions League T20 again for Mumbai Indians (including the trophy). Even if he doesn’t play another Test for some reason or the other, he would still have the feat of winning his last Test match he played for India.

On the other hand – Rahul Dravid has not won a World Cup; he was part of the losing team on the occasion of his last Test, last ODI, his last T20 all for India, his last IPL match and the last Champion’s league T20 match with Rajasthan Royals.

Rahul Dravid will not play competitive cricket anymore and I am a grown up boy to understand his decision better than I would have few years ago. He will be missed but I am sure his family would not complain about this retirement. Personally, it was a warming experience to work with the same franchise Dravid captained and something which I cherish for a long time to come. The journey outweighs the destination and one such epitome to that is Rahul Dravid's career. 

Sachin Tendulkar has played 24 years of international cricket. I know he is not at his best at the moment and I also know he knows his cricket much better than I do. Is he destroying his legacy by not being at his best or is it a tale of perseverance and dedication to one’s skill? Frankly, it doesn’t matter to me. His effect on cricket lovers and to the world cricket has been enormous and a mighty positive one.

So on that note, I will cherish this period of dusk on the greatest cricketer I have witnessed in my lifetime. I was a five year old kid when he first played international cricket (1989) wearing the whites and he will end his playing career someday wearing whites. Among my list of childhood idols across all sports, he remains the last man standing
Image Courtesy: internationalreporter.com

Friday 4 October 2013

Afghanistan - The New Messengers of Sport

The Manuka Oval in the capital city of Australia will be part of a certain country’s history. The seventh match of the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup which will be played on Feb 18th 2015 features Bangladesh with another Asian team. No, it is not India neither Pakistan nor Srilanka, the three strong pillars of Asian cricket.

Not so long ago, this country was at unrest and it still is due to conflicts of different nature and security being at the top of this. However, when it comes to cricket they have made significant progress and now they are making their debut at the World stage. Welcome to the 50 over World Cup bandwagon ‘Afghanistan’.
They had earlier qualified for T20 World Cup in 2010 and repeated the feat in 2012.This had inspired a lot of youngsters to take up sport in the post Taliban era. I hope this news acts as a catalyst to the population of Afghanistan and more so with the youngsters.

Cricket and its origins in Afghan provinces date back to the time when British rule was prevalent in the mid 19th century. Unlike India and Pakistan, the legacy of cricket in Afghan regions was short lived and was not until the end of previous millennium, a cricket board had been formed.  While sports having been placed under ‘ban’ while Taliban was ruling, cricket escaped with such ban and was to be the only exception sport.
This act of deliberate omission by Taliban was crucial for the development of sport; it paved the way for the national team to become a member of International Cricket Council (2001) and subsequently with Asian Cricket Council (2003). In twelve years time, they have progressed and sky is the limit for the future.

The fraternity of the sporting world must celebrate what Afghanistan has achieved. To put up a team of individuals of different mindsets is never easy especially when you have to constantly worry about your life. No International matches are currently played in Afghanistan due to ongoing security issues. They have a domestic championship which involves a tournament taken part by little more than twenty provinces. They play their home international matches at Sharjah, United Arab Emirates and bulk of their cricket stadiums in Afghanistan are under construction. The Afghanistan Cricket Board has big plans to build a stadium in every province of the country and hope to see international cricket return to their home territory. They are currently placed 12th out of 14 teams which would participate in the multi-country tournament.

In a political world which is judged by one’s passport, such heroics from the people of a country will go a long way in changing the image of the country. In the recently published list by Henley & Partners Visa Restrictions Index (a global ranking of countries based on the freedom of travel of their citizens) Afghanistan was placed at the bottom of the list (93rd) with a score of 28, meaning the Afghani citizens can travel to only 28 countries without a visa. And now, they will be travelling to Australia and New Zealand to play the signature event of cricket, with a visa of course.

The last paragraph had nothing to do with cricket or sports in general, atleast they are not related directly. However, repeated performances on the sporting world will ensure a youth giving him/her to imbibe the qualities of their heroes and thereby give a chance to them for a much peaceful future. I believe you don’t need great plans to make a sports project work in conflict affected areas; all you need is an opportunity to provide the basic infrastructure to play and life of such players will be automatically taken care. That to me is the power of having Sports in one’s life. It is not about being the best in the world, it is all about making an effort to be the best one can become. Sports are one such medium in life. Today, Afghanistan has become the new messengers of the sports industry.

Catch more on the background of growth of cricket in Afghanistan through this documentary