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This is a hair-pun-free zone August 25, 2006

Posted by ramanand in Cricket, Ramanand.
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Man, what a mess. A bunch of babies in their nappies could hardly have made a bigger mess. And given that we have “top” legal teams in the fray (isn’t the fact that these lawyers already boast of a sterling track record in football and tennis litigation an indication of the state of modern sport?), the stink raised can only complement the bawling of journos and former players all over. With babies at least, you can change their diapers and give them a wash.

In particular, the volume has been the highest in the chatter from England, Australia and Pakistan. Pakistan has already declared Darrell Hair some kind of slimy monster (the “Go Back” poster in the linked article is hilarious, given that he is at home in England and suggests that the sub-contintental cottage industry of protest material is thriving), producing this wonderfully absurd comparison between Hair and a toothbrush moustache by Hairy, sorry, Harry Pearson. In England, the controversy has, in its wake, triggered off a rash of hirsute puns. This has become so infectious that no phrase remotely related to a bunch of dead cells is safe from writers. (I have had to be so vigilant in avoiding this fever that it has left me eyeing relatives of rabbits instead of whiskets to raise and pull out). A majority of English commentators have been in favour of Haq’s haqs. This in turn has brought down upon them, the collective ire of the Aussies, who say that Woolmer’s past form is as good as a prize horse in matters of tampering and attacking the English hacks for cooing for Pakistani haqs.

As a neutral, I must say I have greatly enjoyed the spate of wonderfully opinionated writing that has been suddenly unleashed. Every position on the three sides of the fence has been taken and attacked. I loved this bit by John Stern of The Wisden Cricketer:

But back to the Oval. I’m wondering how this issue will come to be labelled by cricket history. It doesn’t seem to have a ready tag. ‘Bad Hair Day’ makes a nice headline but is more of a judgment than a description;

and

So now we know why the ICC moved to Dubai: they needed more sand to stick their heads in.

Reactions from the Aussie press and ex-players has been unanimous. Perhaps this can be ascribed to the fact that since last year, we have been in the middle of one long war stretching from side to side of the Equator: a war that never really went away, but simply simmered, and is just starting to prepare for one long boil that will climax pretty soon. Meanwhile, the Aussie cricketers rough it out in their “jungle camp” as the dogfight resumes in London.

The South Africans left Sri Lanka because of security concerns. I hope someone will soon ask: Is it now safe to play cricket anywhere?

[Sorry for all the bad pun-ditry. It’s a hair-pun-free zone now. Starting now.]

Wanted: A Duellist August 6, 2006

Posted by ramanand in Ramanand, Tennis.
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In the days before Indian cricket team selectors could toss aside last year’s medium-pacers like they would banana peel, the constant refrain used to be: “Can’t a nation of close to a billion produce at least one medium/fast bowler?”. The crop of Munaf and VRV may have pushed the focus to different problems, but we can borrow the lament and apply it thus: “Can’t a globe that has tens of thousands of tennis players produce a player who can challenge Roger Federer?”

Almost everyone I know who follows tennis stopped back and stayed by a television screen because two players were engaged in elegant battle; not just in a single tournament, but over many seasons. Tennis has never needed any better advertisement (especially before smartly attired young Russians whose names ended in “-ova” started to appear on billboards). For my generation, the recent legends of Borg and McEnroe were replayed in the battles of Lendl-Becker, Becker-Edberg and then ultimately Sampras-Agassi. Since these also featured a stellar support cast of Connors, Wilander, Ivanisevic, Rafter, and Courier, tennis was not a collection of ‘breadsticks’ and ‘doughnuts’ as it threatened to be in the last couple of years of “The Rogera”.

Roger Federer, out of nowhere, has installed himself (and with poise) as the definitive player of his eneration – a fact that no one even wants to start disputing. Such unanimity amongst both watchers and critics is as rare as Federer getting beaten on grass. So much so, that despite our affection for the Swiss, we will grasp at any straws, even if they come from a clay-filled, grass-less surface.

Rafael Nadal has provided it to us in the last 14 months. The attachment of the suffix “-ever” to some glorious epithets before Federer’s name awaits victory at Roland Garros, preferably with Nadal to greet him from the other end. But with Nadal’s astonishing ascent to the finals of Wimbledon (which even the kindest of critics will point to his easy draw, earned by his ranking from the clay-court spoils), we are in danger of getting too excited about this “rivalry”.

Perhaps the US Open will give us a good idea as to where Nadal stands. Those hands that rubbed in glee anticipating a long run of Roddick-Federer clashes have been thrust deep into pockets. Does Nadal really promise to be the only spell, mental or physical, against a man who would probably have been burnt for being a warlock in less englightened times? This time we’ll wait and watch.

Update:

Rajk points me to this unbelievable Federer moment. You may not believe it even after you see it. Andy Roddick didn’t seem to.

The usual suspects – a post mortem July 12, 2006

Posted by ramanand in Football WC, Ramanand.
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Now that drama has butted in and left, and also that it is just less than a week after, perhaps it is a good time to quickly revisit Arnold’s question on the not so glorious certainties of the WC i.e. why are most of the football WCs dominated by the same set of superpowers.

This world cup, more than any in recent times, has seen a lack of its fair share of huge upsets. Portugal, the only semi-finalist, without a WC crown cannot be compared to Croatia or South Korea in past years. So why do the same teams strut about every 4 years?

Take a look at the Czech Republic. After a stunning opening, they faltered rapidly (much to my dismay) once they had their chief strikers on the injury list. OTOH, Germany and Italy could stave off cards and crashes by sheer depth in their squad. Most of our usual suspects had great depth, perhaps not so much in world-class talent but in a decent standard and ability to replace players with ease.

Mental strength and a sense of confidence in certain situations like the penalty shootouts saw the likes of Portugal, Italy and Germany succeed. Contrast this with Switzerland. Italy is a new addition to this list after years of failing from the spot as a team. But ever since Totti’s glorious corner slot against the Aussies, they haven’t looked back.

As for the French, well, sheer memory, both muscle and mental, seemed to have pulled them through.

So go on: tell us the reasons why Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, Portugal and France (now legitimate usual suspects?), and to a small extent England – a veritable Rogue’s Gallery of World Cup aspirants – were incriminating themselves again this quadrennial.

Roland Garros 2006 thus far June 6, 2006

Posted by ramanand in Ramanand, Tennis.
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So far, the French Open this year has been your average engrossing Grand Slam right from the injury-affected draw, the slogfests that seem to take as long as making a claymation film, the orange of the courts and the blue-black of the skies. But it remains with a hint of the magic to come, which we will also return to in a while in this post. Before that, a look at the support cast.

The Women's draw this time was affected by injuries to some of the former No. 1s, but it is a sign of the current depth in the women's game that despite that and the knocking out of the current top player and the holder of the first Grand Slam of the year, we still have 4 former #1s in Hingis, Clijsters, Henin-Hardenne and Venus Williams to slug it out with the remaining Russians (who continue to flood the draw) and some new faces. Hingis has been patchy but on a high after winning Rome while Henin-Hardenne has had the least trouble on the pathway to her title defence.

The best match that I have seen in this year's Open was the Russian cat-fight between Maria Sharapova and Dinara Safina. Safina, who has had an excellent run leading into Paris, matched the beauty-ova in her relentless efforts of dishing out muscular winners, which meant a match pockmarked with errors and studded with winners from improbable angles. Nerves ultimately had the say in trading of sets, but the spectacular comeback from Safina in this battle that clearly had a semi-visible edge to it made it the match of the tournament so far.

The men's draw soon saw the 5-setters that in another day and city would be considered noteworthy, but in Paris are merely par for the course. What keeps the additional interest alive is that Nadal and Federer are as on date still heading for that salivating clash. For a long while now, the only matter of intrigue in Federer's career has been that missing bullet point of a French title in the resumé. And for not making it a foregone conclusion, we have to thank the other modern-day record setter. Rafael Nadal's astonishing run of clay-court wins has included a couple of run-ins from Federer which were very tight affairs. So it will be no surprise to anybody that if the 11th of June does not see Raf and Fed warming up, there will be a bunch of very disappointed tennis-watchers.

Both champions have had fairly easy runs to the quarters, though Nadal has had to demonstrate more of his weapons than Federer. The Swiss fortuitously faced two lucky losers in his 1st two matches, of which, the fact that the second was a left-hander sent the commentators into raptures and treat this as a chance for Federer to work out his southpaw strategy. Though the broadcasters have been careful not to jump the gun, the undertones give it all away, for it's been a while since a tantalising matchup of this quality presented itself. Unfortunately, Nadal's overwhelming claycourt game makes it difficult for him to translate his successes to other surfaces at the moment, so the scary question is: if Federer wins, what will we do for the next couple of years?

As a closing note, what are the odds on a Swiss double this year? Difficult, but not improbable. 

The Monty Ball Problem May 28, 2006

Posted by ramanand in Cricket, Ramanand.
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On the first day of the 2nd Test between Sri Lanka and England at Edgbaston, the Lankan batsmen found themselves making a familiar journey from and to the pavilion in rapid succession. But for me as a neutral observer, the highlight of the morning was when Monty Panesar spectacularly dropped Lasith Malinga at mid-off . The ball looped droopily as if voluntarily seeking a pair of warm palms to avoid the chill, but Panesar contrived to hold his hands such as to form an event horizon of a rather leaky black hole. The Ministry of Silly Walks would have approved.

I tried to avoid using the word "incompetent" above, but in all fairness to the epitome of the species known as the "amiable Sardar", there's no more fitting epithet. What surprises me most is how Monty made his way to this high a level of the sport without having such a problem being given a penicillin shot. The days of ambling amateurs who could do just one thing very well (as Panesar no doubt can with his left-armers) are equivalent to the Dark Ages to modern coaches who grimly drop the likes of Anil Kumble (the subject of a lament on this blog) for reasons such as suspect fielding and batting in limited overs cricket. Perhaps by 2050, we will see teams saturated with five-dimensional players, i.e. all-rounders who can field, keep and even captain, a dream that will have most coaches drool in their sleep. The irony is that the same team that has in Andrew Flintoff the closest to a full four-dimensional player in cricket, also has Panesar replacing Ashley Giles, the previous incumbent of the "soloist trial" dock. England would prefer to hide Monty in the field in the little hole-in-the-ground that holds the bat-pad helmet, but that would be little solace to the spinner who is usually left wishing for much larger chasms ever since he dropped Dhoni in the last Bombay Test match. He has a tendency to make amends though; he caught Dhoni later in the same match while dismissing Malinga off his own bowling in this instance.

In all the professional flavours of modern sports, everything is strategised, margins are carefully pared away, and support staffs strain so that the quirks of luck are not all left to chance. Which is why such sights as Monty's fielding are rare to see these days. Mistakes at the highest of levels are caused by pressure situations and overworked players, and rarely by sustained ineptitude any more, which is a bit of a pity for the casual observer. The current series between India and West Indies have seen a bunch of utility players who can all bat, and so it's going to be a while before anyone puts on a performance like Courtney Walsh in whose hands the bat could be anything you imagine, except for an instrument to score runs. So when the same Walsh battles out overs to allow Lara at the other end to score a 1-wicket victory over the Aussies, you are permitted a chuckle. Or when uncertified madmen like Réné Higuita rush out to the half-line only to turn back and see the ball dribbling into the unguarded citadel. These things don't tend to happen much these days, and remain the preserve of soppy nostalgics. The phrase "human element" gets bandied a lot these days, and is usually a euphemism for "oops, I've done it again". With the players playing the percentages, it is left to Messrs. Bucknor, Terje Hauge and even the double act of Rauf-Doctrove to be custodians of the right to goof up.

So apart from providing writers with a opportunities to earn their daily roTii while having a good laugh, where does that leave poor old Monty? For one, the prospects of dropping Ricky Ponting when Australia are 12/3 in the 1st Ashes Test in 2007, and worse, having those "friendly" men rub it in, is too bone-chilling to contemplate. That something has to be done and soon is evident to Fletcher-Vaughan-Flintoff and co., despite Freddy's brave "I hope it's not catching" banter. Although we've taken the mickey out of the poor spinner, everyone seems to think very kindly of it all as Mike Brearley writes. His progress will be watched keenly over what should be a reasonably decent career even for an English tweaker. Till then, we'll try to resist the bait of silly comedy, but not before one final word from the resident pun-dit who thinks that right now, as far as fielding goes, Monty's name is Madh.