My first novel, My Friend Sancho, is now on the stands across India. It is a contemporary love story set in Mumbai, and was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize 2008. To learn more about the book, click here.
“I don’t play poker.” The protagonist of “The Crack of Doom”, a wonderful installment of Alfred Hitchcock Presents from 1956, says these words to a friend near the start of the film. As it proceeds, we find out why. When he was younger, his life was shaken up by the game. He got some bad beats at a poker session, lost his buy-in, and, his ego hurt, decided to buy back into the game and recover his losses. But it was night, his bank was shut, so he took four thousand dollars out of a ten-thousand dollar stack that had been given to him for official purposes. In case he lost it, he intended to pay it back the next morning by dipping into his savings account, where he had nine thousand dollars. Well, he lost it. So he went home, looked into his passbook, and found that his wife had withdrawn all their savings. He woke her up to ask her what had happened to it, and she tearfully confessed that she had blown it up in the stock market. (A more foolish option than investing in poker, if you ask me.) Our man was devastated. He faced humiliation and possibly jail for his behaviour. He was, effectively, a thief. He was doomed. Unless…
You got it. He went back to his office, took the remaining six thousand dollars and went back to the poker game, where he found himself, as the title suggests, on the crack of doom. I shall give no more away, you have to watch it for yourself. (The film is online in two parts, you can see it here: 1, 2.)
The form of poker they were playing in the film was five-card stud, which is rarely played these days: Texas hold ‘em is the most popular form. But apart from that, if you adjust for inflation, the film seems like it was made yesterday. Every regular poker player will find echoes of himself in the film: the compulsive need to get back to the table, the belief that a good run is just around the corner, the despondency on our hero’s face as he loses, and loses, and loses. We’ve all had sessions like that.
I’ve written in an earlier piece—‘The Beautiful Game of Poker’—about how poker is essentially a game of skill. The skill comes in being a winner in the long run, but in the short run, luck plays its part. People chase gutshot draws at a cost that is not justified by the pot odds and catch it on the river, 82 suited kicks the ass of AA after a pre-flop all-in is followed by a flush on the flop, a flopped straight is beaten by a runner-runner full house, bad beats pile up on bad beats. The thrill of being part of this action is similar to any other casino game where there is no skill involved and the odds are against you—roulette, for example.
Many poker players, such as me, disdain most other casino and card games—we treat poker as both a science (of mathematical probability and expectation) and an art (of reading people and navigating the shores of human behaviour), and certainly not as pure gambling. Not all poker players are like that. I play poker regularly in Mumbai and Goa, with different groups of people, and many of my poker buddies are in it for the thrill of gambling. They know the numbers, they understand the skill aspect of the game, but they don’t come to the tables because they value the intellectual and sporting challenge, but because they need their fix. They’re addicted.
In his recent book, What’s Luck Got to do With it?, Joseph Mazur speaks about how “recent research, using PET scans, suggests that pathological gamblers, alcoholics, and drug addicts have similar patterns of neural activity when exposed to their individual addictions. [...] PET scans of pathological gamblers show increased levels of dopamine during play and even more substantial increases during high-risk, high-stakes playing.” Such gamblers find it hard to stay away from the tables; they focus on their winning sessions and ignore their losses entirely; and they have weird notions of the lady we spend our lives wooing: Luck.
There are two fallacies in particular that help gamblers rationalise their behaviour. One is the Monte Carlo Fallacy, also known as the Gambler’s Fallacy, or the “law of averages.” As this post on the subject defines it, this is “the belief that the likelihood of a random event is influenced and/or predicted by other independent events.” For example, a roulette wheel comes up black five successive times, so you decide to bet on red because red “is due.” Or you flip an evenly weighted coin eight times and it lands on tails each time, so you figure that it surely must land on heads the next time it’s flipped. (The probability remains 50%; coins don’t have memories.) Compulsive gamblers fall prey to this fallacy all the time, telling themselves that their luck has been so rotten that things will surely change now, and that a good session is due. Of course, if they’re playing roulette or any of the casino games where the house has an edge, or if they’re playing poker without regard to its mathematical aspect, they are bound to lose in the long run, irrespective of the winning sessions that are inevitable (like a coin landing on heads five times in a row if you flip it long enough), and that they’ll selectively remember to justify their continued gambling.
The other fallacy is the Hot Hands Fallacy. This is the reverse of the Gambler’s Fallacy; in Mazur’s words, it is the tendency to “expect long runs of the same outcome to continue.” For example, if an evenly-weighted coin lands on tails eight times in a row, you expect it to land on tails the ninth time as well. If you flip a coin long enough, there will be successive streaks of the both tails and heads coming up too many times in a row for it to seem random, even though it is exactly that. Mazur writes, paraphrasing Amos Tversky, “People reject randomness and the mathematical expected number of runs because the appearance of long runs in short samples seems too purposeful to be random.”
I see this all the time in my poker sessions. Often, a losing player will get up from the table and say something like, “Yaar, aaj mere patte hit nahin ho rahe. Better not play any more today.” Or if he’s winning, “Today is my lucky day. I can feel it. And I have a good feeling about these cards.” And then he plays 85o and flops a straight, reinforcing his belief that luck is on his side. (If the flop is AKK, he folds and forgets that he had a ‘feeling’.) In Goa a couple of months ago, I sat at a cash table where a loaded gambler repeatedly called down a young man’s raises with shit cards, all the time saying things like “I shouldn’t play these cards, but I’m only playing them because you’re in the hand. My luck is running well against you.” He kept sucking out in outrageous fashion, and the youngster, a Ranbir Kapoor lookalike with curly hair, was sucked out of three or four buy-ins and went away shattered, his poor girlfriend in tow, unable to hang it out for the long term in which the fish’s ass would certainly have a hook through it.
In most facets of life, an irrational belief in luck is harmless. When it comes to gambling, though, it can cost serious money, and destroy lives. Mazur quotes an old Arab proverb in his book: “Throw a lucky man into the sea and he will come out with a fish in his mouth.” The truth, especially when it comes to poker, is that if you throw a gambler into the sea, he will be eaten by sharks.
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Just as we seek patterns where there are none on a roulette wheel or a poker table, we construct those narratives in life as well. The world is maddeningly complex, unfathomable and tragic. (Why tragic? Well, we all die and that’s that: there is no greater meaning or purpose behind the randomness of nature that created us.) To comprehend it, we try to fit everything into patterns, and build narratives that help us make sense of it. Some of these narratives happen to be true; many, when the truth is beyond us, are not. Religion is an example of this—but even though religion is irrational, it is perhaps necessary for a weak species like ours, which makes it rational to be irrational for many of us. But I’ll write about that some other day.
The essence of sport is not triumph but tragedy. Every year, 128 men take part in the Wimbledon Men’s Singles, and 127 end their journey gutted, trying to smile while their insides are churning. For most of the 219 men racing the Tour de France this year, there will be more heartbreak than glory, and much pain along the way. Sport is not just the Spanish celebration of the recent World Cup, but Asamoah Gyan holding his head in his hands—not just after one missed penalty, but for the rest of his blighted life.
In poker, that tragedy is about the bubble. While most sports fans are detoxing from the football or following cycling or cricket or golf, a bunch of us have our eyes trained, through the lens of internet updates, on the main event of the World Series of Poker—the de facto World Championship. 7319 players entered this year, and 747 people were in the money. (747th prize is US$19,263—the winner will take home US$8.9 million.) The player who comes 748th is considered to be the ‘bubble boy’—or ‘in the bubble’.
Two hands of sporting tragedy. First, Angel Guillen, with all-powerful pocket aces in the hole, shoved all his chips in the middle, and was called by pocket jacks. Guillen had an 81% chance of winning the hand and surviving. The 19% held up, a jack came on the flop, and a dream was over. Guillen was 749th out of 7319 people, and had been busted with the best hand. In a parallel universe, the dealer did one final shuffle of the deck, Guillen got 27 offsuit, folded the damn thing and survived.
And then there was Tim McDonald, who went all in with pocket queens against A2 suited—at 68% to win. But life is cruel. When the hand was done, Pokerstars reveals, McDonald “stood there like the loneliest man at a bachelor auction.” Let me tell you something: there isn’t a poker player in the world who doesn’t know that feeling.
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Poker is an amazing game. It astonishes me sometimes that it is considered by some people to be a form of gambling. Friends of mine who play both bridge and poker often assert that poker requires more skill. Indeed, as a former chess player, I find it a far more demanding sport to master. In chess, all the action is on the chess board in front of you, and there is an objectively correct move for most complex positions. In poker, you’re not just playing the cards on the table, but also the players around you. Every situation is unique and filled with imponderables, and it is often impossible to ascertain the right move at the time.
The most popular form of poker is Texas Hold ‘Em, and in a nutshell, here’s what it’s about. Each player is given two cards face down at the start of the hand. After this, five community cards are dealt, in groups of three (the flop), one (the turn) and one more (the river). Of these seven cards—the five everyone shares on the board and the two in his hand—each player has to make a five-card hand. (Here’s the hierarchy of hands.) The best hand wins. There are four rounds of betting—after the hole cards are dealt, at the flop, at the turn and at the river—and, sometimes, a showdown at the end.
At its most basic level, the game demands maths. Say I am dealt AJ, both spades, a fairly strong hand. I raise, an opponent calls, and we see the flop. It comes 72K, with the 7 and the 2 being spades. My opponent, who has a short stack, goes all in. My sense of the situation is that he has a king in his hand, probably AK, and therefore the best hand at the moment. There are nine spades left in the deck that give me this flush: thus, I have an 18% chance of completing my flush on the turn, and a 36% chance of completing it by the river. Because my opponent is all in, there will be no further bets, so 36% is the key figure here.
Now, whether or not I should call the bet depends on what is known as pot odds. Assume there are 1000 bucks already in the pot, and my opponent’s all-in bet amounts to 800 bucks more. That means that to enter a pot of 1800 bucks, I need to pay 800—or odds of just over 2 to 1. As my odds of hitting the flush are 2 to 1, slightly better than the pot odds, I should make the call. However, had his bet amounted to 2000 more, that would have meant investing 2000 to enter a pot of 3000, at odds of 1.5 to 1. My chances of ending up with the best hand would have been worse than that, thus mandating an automatic fold.
Every decent poker player develops an intuitive sense of pot odds, so we don’t even need to calculate them. If a poker player consistently gets his money in the middle when the pot odds are in his favour, he will make money in the long run. In the short run, he will suffer what poker players call bad beats, losing hands he is the favourite to win. Indeed, he may get all his money in the pot six times in a row when he is 70% favourite to win and lose each time. Such swings happen. But as long as he plays with a small percentage of his total bankroll (look up ‘bankroll management’), he can tackle these swings (look up ‘variance’) and come up a winner. Chris Ferguson, the former world champion, described the role of luck in poker thus: “On any one given hand, it might be 99% luck and 1% skill. Over the course of a tournament, it might be 30% skill and 70% luck. Over the course of a month, maybe it’s 30% luck and 70% skill, and over the course of a year maybe it’s 90% skill and 10% luck.”
But the maths is just one part of playing the game. It is a hygiene factor, something every good player must master, just as every batsman needs to learn how to keep his elbow straight while straight driving. But maths involves just the cards on the table, while every competent poker player will tell you that in this game, you play the people, not the cards. You need to be able to deduce, from betting patterns and physical behaviour, what kind of cards your fellow players are playing with, what cards they think you have, what cards they think you think they have, and so on. At that level, the cards you have often don’t matter—if you can get into the other guy’s head better than he can in yours, you win. As a recent Economist report revealed, a 2009 study analysed 103 million hands played at pokerstars.com and found that more than 75% of them never even reached showdown. So much for the cards.
While this incredible sport has become hugely popular in the US and Europe—the Economist piece I linked to earlier has more—it is just beginning to boom in India. Sadly, the gambling laws in the country make playing poker for money effectively illegal in India, which is why tournaments here have to be organised on one of the two offshore casinos in Goa. (I came fifth in one of them a few weeks ago, and am headed to another one tomorrow.) I have two issues with this: One, despite the short-term element of luck, poker is not gambling in the traditional sense of the word, but a game of skill. Two, in any case, gambling should be legalised. Even if you do not grant me the second point, the first should be indisputable to anyone who’s played the game.
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I can’t end an article on poker without a bad beat story now, can I? Yesterday, my run of 12 consecutive winning sessions came to an end when I received one bad beat after another in a session with friends. The worst moment: I had AQ suited, and the flop came 7J2 rainbow (different suits, so flushes ruled out.) The turn came Q. In my estimation, from previous betting and the expression on my opponent’s face, he had a lower pair—probably the 7. So, confident that my top pair was the best hand at the moment, and that he would call any bet because he was playing that way, I went all in. He called and showed K7 offsuit—my read was correct, and the math was on my side: my opponent had an 11% chance of sucking out on me. Well, yes, you guessed it—the river was one of the two 7s left in the deck, my opponent had trips, and I was busted. It was the last straw in a haystack full of them in a day filled with suck-outs, and I stood up, threw my cards on the table, and uncharacteristically exclaimed, “F*** man, f***ing river.”
That sentiment united me with Angel Guillen, Tim McDonald and every poker player who’s ever seen a hand through. F***ing river. But we come right back and keep on playing, because in poker, the right decision sometimes leads to the wrong outcome, and vice versa. You just need to think of the long run and keep on doing the right thing. Indeed, that’s something the Bhagwad Gita could tell you. The lessons we learn in poker are lessons we would do well to apply in life—so shuffle up and deal.
I misread this headline, and thought that the IPL authorities are talking with Iran about a feeder system for young Iranian cricketers. Wouldn’t that have totally outdone anything Lalit Modi has done in the past?
A few months ago, a friend and I had an argument about Roger Federer. Both of us are Federer fans, and the argument wasn’t about his greatness. Instead, it was about a parameter of that greatness. Federer, my friend said, was the Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) in his sport partly because his tennis was so beautiful. His aesthetic appeal was a key part of his GOATness.
I disagreed. No one would deny that Federer plays beautiful tennis—but sport is about winning or losing. To be considered great, you have to win a hell of a lot. To be considered GOAT, you have to win more than anyone else, and achieve dominance in your era. Federer fulfills all these criteria, his record against Rafael Nadal notwithstanding. The beauty is a perk.
GOATs of other sports—a phrase I never thought I’d use, by the way—weren’t all pretty. (Don Bradman was thought of by some as being unorthodox and even ugly.) Also, beauty is necessarily subjective, and I know people who find Nadal’s tennis prettier than Federer’s. (Fellow Yahoo! columnist Jai Arjun Singh, for example, mentioned in an email conversation once that he found “genuine artistry in some of Nadal’s cross-court play and running forehands.”) To some, form follows function, and the beautiful player is the effective one. Also, perceptions of beauty vary depending on one’s understanding of the sport as well as one’s approach towards it. As a teenage chess player, for example, I found great beauty in some of the explosive tactical play of Mikhail Tal—but as I grew older, found a more enduring grace in the subtle positional machinations, in seemingly quiet positions, of the likes of Anatoly Karpov. Beauty depends.
I thought of beauty in sport, of course, because of the ongoing football World Cup. This is one game where debates about beauty and efficiency are old hat, and it is almost fashionable to bemoan the death of artistry at the altar of results. The teams we remember with the greatest fondness are the ones that gave us beautiful football—Brazil in 1982, for example. But they weren’t necessarily the teams that won World Cups, who were sometimes uninspiring and ugly, such as Germany in 1990. This is inevitable—we associate beauty with an open game, with players given the space and the canvas to display their artistry, but in the modern game, no good team will give an opposing player that space. As Jonathan Wilson wrote in his excellent book Inverting the Pyramid, “The dribbling technique of Garrincha or Stanley Matthews doesn’t exist in today’s game, not because the skills have been lost, but because no side would ever give them the three or four yards of acceleration room they needed before their feints became effective.”
Modern football is about pressing for the ball, about controlling space, about formation. Brazil’s team of 1970 was perhaps the last great team of the pre-modern age. Football like that, beautiful as it was, would not win World Cups today. In his book, Wilson pointed to the Brazil-Italy match of 1982 as the day “a certain naivete in football died; it was the day after which it was no longer possible to simply to get the best players and allow them to get on with it; it was the day that system won. There was still a place for great individual attacking talents, but they had to be incorporated into something knowing, had to be protected and covered for.”
Diego Maradona, as a coach in this World Cup, seemed a throwback in the sense that he seemed to “simply to get the best players and allow them to get on with it.” It’s ironic, because in 1986 he helped Argentina win the World Cup under a coach who believed in efficiency over beauty. Carlos Bilardo summed up the modern ethic when he said: “Football is played to win… Shows are for the cinema, for theatre.” (The quote is from Wilson’s book.)
Perceptions of beauty change with the times, of course. I watched Spain’s semi-final win against Germany with my father last night, and he was disappointed at the seeming lack of action in the middle. I was enthralled, though, by Spain’s pressing game, and the manner in which they controlled possession, and set the rhythm of the game. (Much like Barcelona vs Arsenal not long ago—and this Spain side is more or less the Barcelona side.) There was some astonishing, subtle artistry on display—and I dare say it was beautiful. It was also effective. Same difference.
To end on a personal note, that also sums up my ethic as a writer. I’m one of those who believes that style must always be a slave to substance, and that writing that draws attention to itself is bad writing. Rather than lose myself in self-indulgent dribbles and feints, playing to the gallery, I’d prefer to move relentlessly towards my goal—and if you’ve gotten so far in this piece, I’ve scored. Now bear with me while I remove my T-shirt and do cartwheels.
We humans are a funny little species. We’re limited by mortality, reside on a tiny planet that whirs around one of countless stars, with a scale and complexity we do not have the tools to fathom—and yet, we behave like masters of the universe. It reminds me of Douglas Adams’s puddle.
The ongoing football World Cup is a microcosm of this comic marriage of frailty and arrogance. Take the wonderful game between Germany and England. Exhibit one: Human frailty. There is no way any referee is equipped to adjudicate on the kind of situation brought about by Frank Lampard’s almost-goal. If the referee is on one side of the goal line, with the ball falling on the other, and he is both at a distance and a height from it, it is hard for him to tell for sure which side of the line it landed. (Among other phenomena, the parallax error comes into play.) The closer the ball to the line, or the further away the referee, the closer his decision will be to guesswork. In a tight situation, he cannot know.
Exhibit two: Human arrogance. For years, FIFA has refused to entertain the idea of using technology in such situations. They have presumably believed that the referees are up to the task. I suppose they consider it an insult to their judgment for it to be implied that the referees they pick aren’t good enough for the job. Well, they aren’t. A referee and his team of linesmen are limited by the human failing of not being able to take in all the action on the pitch at the same time, and even if a ten-headed (and maybe ten-bodied) Ravana referee miraculously appeared, there are some decisions he’d get wrong even if he was looking straight at the action—like the Lampard-Hurst kind of goal.
This World Cup, like any other, has been full of dubious refereeing decisions. The offside goal by Carlos Tevez in the Argentina-Mexico match. The red-carding of Kaka in Brazil’s game against the Ivory Coast after Bollywoodesque over-acting by an opposing player. Penalties not given, hand balls not seen. These mistakes aren’t necessarily caused by incompetent refereeing, but by inevitable human error. (Indeed, human error is inevitable precisely because we’re human.) What I find tragic is that each of these errors could have been avoided if technology was used. Hawk-Eye at each goalpost would solve the Lampard-Hurst kind of problem. A facility for an overrule within 30 seconds by a match referee watching replays would sort out most of the others. Players take that long to celebrate and regroup anyway, so it wouldn’t affect the ebb and flow of the match at all.
After the bloopers involving Lampard and Tevez, and the consequent uproar, Sepp Blatter has said that FIFA will consider implementing the use of technology for such decisions. Like a politician, he is responding to his market, and may forget about it when the uproar dies down. In any case, why on earth should it have taken so long for football to wake up to the uses of technology? Football has been a huge-money game for decades now. There is so much at stake.
Blatter said that he apologised to the teams at the receiving end of the bad decisions. A fat lot of good that does. Had Lampard’s goal been allowed, the score would have been 2-2, and the rhythm of the match would have been different. The butterfly would have fluttered its wings one way instead of another, and the storm might well have been elsewhere. Instead, England is out of the World Cup, and will wonder forever what might have been.
In one respect, football referees and cricket umpires are like governments. I often rant on India Uncut about how governments are supposed to serve us, but somehow contrive to rule us. Similarly, referees and umpires are there only to implement the laws of the game and keep it going smoothly. They are servants of the game. You’d think otherwise to see the hubris some of them display. Power intoxicates us, so much so that we might sometimes forget why we were granted that power.
Those referees and umpires who speak out against the use of technological aids do themselves a disservice. Technology is no more a threat to them than an oven or microwave is to a chef, or a laptop is to a writer like me, who hasn’t used a pen in years. It won’t make them redundant; instead, it will help them do their job better.
Consider how ludicrous it is that during a televised match, thanks to technology, every viewer can see exactly what happened on the field of play—except the one man actually making decisions about it. Referees are judged by tools that are not made available to them. That is both unfair to them and a betrayal of the sport.
I remember the time when the idea of TV replays were first mooted for run-out and stumping decisions in cricket. The usual objections were made, about how technology would dilute the human element of the game and suchlike, as if spectators flocked to the grounds to see the umpires perform. Today, replays for line decisions are so much a part of the game that we can’t imagine cricket without them. Also, since TV replays were introduced, no umpire has copped criticism for getting a run-out wrong. I suspect Hawk-Eye, another tool used to judge umpires but not made available to them, will also one day be a fixture in the game—and then we will wonder how on earth we managed all this time without it. (Around six years ago, I wrote a few pieces examining Hawk-Eye, and answering objections to its introduction. Here they are: 1, 2, 3, 4.)
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While technology can play an important role in enabling a sport to run smoothly, I hate it when technology takes center-stage, where the players are. One of the things I love about football is that it is such a basic sport: just 11 men running around a field kicking a ball, in a display of pure skill and character. The more technology becomes essential to the playing of a sport (as opposed to the refereeing), the less I am drawn to it. Formula 1, for example, leaves me cold. If you switch the teams of the top and bottom performers this season, I’d wager that the bottom guy would start outperforming the top guy—that’s how much difference the car makes. Even in cricket, heavier bats and better protective gear have been transformative—when top-edges go for six, the game loses some of its charm.
A sport I love for the way it pits a man against his own limitations is cycling. The Tour De France begins on Saturday and runs for 22 days. I am looking forward especially to the mountain stages, where the peloton will fall apart and a handful of men will battle gravity and their own bodies to try and survive and get ahead, even as it hurts so damn much they just want to give up, stop, lie down. That’s like life—and thus the best that sport can be.
What is the job of a journalist? An idealistic reader would say that it is to report the news, to put the facts of the world on record. A jaded news editor would say, it is to tell stories, ideally sensationalistic ones, that capture the attention of the reader. These stories are often a spin on the truth; and sometimes they may be outright false. A reporter’s brief is often to turn banal facts into gripping drama—and if there is no easy story to be had, then to manufacture one.
We see this in the way sports is covered in India. You might think that a sporting encounter is dramatic by itself, and does not need embellishment or hyperbole. But news editors seem to believe that readers not only want dramatic narratives, they want those narratives to be simple. (I wrote about this in the inaugural Viewfinder as well.) A cricket match may be decided by a number of complex factors, and the loser most often does not play badly, but simply gets outplayed by a better team. But this complexity does not make for a good story.
The most crass illustration of this came a few years ago, during an India-Pakistan series, when a news channel started finding the Match ka Mujrim (‘Villain of the Match’) in a post-match analysis show. Cricketers aren’t Mujrims, and on most days, even when matches are lost heavily, there may not be any blame to be assigned. In sport, shit happens. But no, it’s more fun, allegedly more engaging, and what’s more, far easier for a lazy thinker, to affix blame, paint the events of the day in black and white, and move on.
Last year, when India crashed out of the second T20 Cricket World Cup, there were the usual calls for our captain MS Dhoni’s head. When there was no story to be had, the media made it up, such as when, as Anand Vasu reported, “Dhoni’s effigy was burnt in his hometown Ranchi, ... apparently it was ‘arranged’ by two channels.” The footage was good—so what if the burning was staged?
The sports pages of our newspapers these days are also full of such nonsense. For the last three days we’ve been reading about an alleged brawl that our players had in a nightclub. Well, as this report indicates, it wasn’t a brawl, and it wasn’t even a nightclub. There was no story in it. But our players had already been painted as mujrims, and of course our journos took that narrative forward.
Another big story of the last few days was about how the BCCI was planning to sack Dhoni from the T20 captaincy. As Prem Panicker eloquently pointed out, it was a fabrication. And it was a particularly ludicrous one, when you consider that Dhoni is also captain of Chennai Super Kings, which is owned by BCCI bigwig N Srinivasan and has chairman of selectors K Srikkanth as a brand ambassador. If Dhoni is sacked from the Indian captaincy, it directly affects CSK’s brand value. Even if he really sucked as a captain—despite some bad tactical calls, I believe he is a splendid captain—he would not be sacked. He could walk on field in a bikini, holding a tennis racket, and he would keep his job. So what a dishonest story to run.
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Besides the lazy reporting, there has also been lazy analysis. Success breeds enemies, and the IPL has been successful, so obviously it has become fashionable to beat up on it. That’s okay, but to blame it for India’s poor performance in the T20 World Cup, as so many commentators have done, is ridiculous. If the IPL did tire out the men who played in it, or get them used to a lower standard of cricket, or fatigued them with its parties, then you’d expect the non-Indian players also to suffer from it. Well, consider the following facts:
The Man of the Tournament in the T20 World Cup, Kevin Pietersen, played in the IPL. The top run-scorers of England, Australia, Sri Lanka, South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand and India were all IPL players. Australia’s miraculous comeback in the semi-final was fashioned by two IPL batsmen. The top wicket-taker of the tournament, Dirk Nannes, was an IPL star. Barring Pakistan, whose players unfortunately missed out on the IPL, every team was driven by its IPL stars.
And yet, at the end, we were the only ones whining.
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I am a purist and prefer men wearing white flannels to those in coloured pajamas, but I’m an admirer of what the IPL has done for Indian cricket. I’m not speaking of how viewership has increased or how it has brought new followers to the game, both of which have happened, but what it has done for the cricketers. Before the IPL, the BCCI ran a monopsony. Young Indian cricketers who wanted to play for India had only one market for their services: the BCCI, via the state associations affiliated to it. It was no wonder that domestic cricketers were so underpaid. The teams they represented faced no competition for their services, and had no incentive to treat them well or pay them handsomely.
That has changed. The IPL has created 10 teams competing furiously for domestic talent, and forced, by competition, to pay them well. The result is that cricket is a viable career option even for players who will never play for India. A domestic journeyman today stands to make up to 100 times as much money as he might have made 10 years ago—and this is all because of the IPL. For this reason alone, I’m a fan.
* * * *
That said, there is much that is crass about the way it is covered. Commercial breaks in the middle of overs is pushing it a bit too far, even if the irony is delicious that as the Delhi Daredevils lose their second wicket, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag are rolling around in the grass, giggling over a call from Vidya.
And I am so glad to see the last of the ‘MRF Blimp.’ I am told that MRF paid an astronomical sum to ensure that the commentators would mention the blimp a minimum number of times during every match. What made this especially bizarre was that the alleged blimp was actually not a blimp, but a tethered balloon. Also, it wasn’t even there at the venue during some of the matches when it was shown, and the broadcasters used stock footage. Imagine that: commentators forced contractually to praise a blimp that is actually a tethered balloon and is not even there to begin with. Next year, for all you know, they’ll put up a tethered balloon shaped like a volcano, and say, ‘Hey look, MRF has brought a volcano to India for the first time! And it’s in the sky! Hey, did you see that? The MRF Volcano just burst!’
And then MRF Ash will prevent the MRF Blimp from taking off.
* * * *
There also seems to be a bit of a financial bubble formed around the IPL. Some friends and I parsed the numbers recently, and could not figure out how potential revenues could ever justify the current valuations of the franchises. Sahara paid crazy money for its franchise, and are reportedly planning an IPO for the team. I suppose that explains it: it’s the Greater Fool Theory at play. But will all the franchise owners, in the long run, find greater fools?
In any case, the financial madness around the IPL does not mean that the IPL hasn’t created immense value, just as the bursting of the dotcom bubble did not mean that technology wasn’t transforming our lives. Will the IPL bubble burst one day, or will the IPL continue to thrive? I believe both will happen.
* * * *
The IPL somewhat resolves one of the problems with Indian cricket: that it was a monopsony, and cricketers had only one credible buyer for their services. But the other, more serious problem, remains unresolved: that the BCCI is a monopoly.
That is a problem with most national sporting bodies worldwide. They have exclusive rights to the sports they control in the jurisdictions they function in, and that brings with it all the ills of an unfree market. There is no competition to hold them accountable.
In other countries, there are multiple sports that compete with each other for attention, and that can keep the sports bodies honest. But India is effectively a one-sport country. So the BCCI does exactly as it pleases, and much of it is unsavoury. To take just one example, the way it bullied the ICL, and messed with its players lives, was disgraceful. This is a problem, though, that has no solution.
The BCCI is not run on taxpayers’ money—so it’s not accountable to us. It is not a public limited company, and has no shareholders to answer to. The only stakeholders with any control over it are the state associations who elect its office bearers, and their incentives are aligned with continuing the status quo.
In other words, the BCCI is the Match ka Mujrim. And there’s nothing we can do about it, because without this mujrim, we don’t have a match.
Why do I need to have curfews when you have got the selectors?
I wish our captain and our media learned a lesson from this. We make excuses for our players under-performing by saying they party too much, or they spend their time shooting for commercials instead of practising, or they’re not committed or fit enough, and so on and on. Well, why go into all that? Why not keep it simple and just look at their performances?
As long as they’re performing, they stay in the side. What they do off the field is nobody’s business.
When they stop performing, they get dropped. What they do off the field is still nobody’s business.
No excuses, no gossip. Keep it simple. Performance.
Think it’ll happen?
Posted by Amit Varma on 15 May, 2010 in
India’s exit from the T20 World Cup has been blamed by many people, from current players to former players to the media to Ashton Kutcher on Twitter, on the IPL. Allegedly, the players played too much cricket, went to too many parties, and/or the low standard of the IPL softened them up too much.
Ah well. Consider this: As Australia march into the final without losing a game, their top five run scorers in the tournament happen to have played the IPL. So did their top wicket-taker. They will play England in the final, and England’s top run scorer also played the IPL. England beat Sri Lanka in the semi final, and Sri Lanka’s top scorer and top wicket-taker also played in the IPL. Barring Pakistan, whose players were unfortunately not part of this IPL, every major team was driven by its IPL stars.
About 20 years ago, when I was in standard XI or XII, I qualified to play in a state-level chess tournament for schoolkids in Sholapur. I was part of the Pune contingent, and the school championships covered practically every other sport played in India—though chess was a first that year. When my team of four players landed up the day before the event began, we were shown into a large hall and told we’d be sleeping there for the night, with many of the other athletes and sportsmen who had shown up. About 60 people could have fit in it in normal circumstances. There were more than 100 of us. No bedding was provided, part of the floor was wet (leakage from somewhere), and sleep didn’t come easy.
The next morning, we found that the toilet facilities intended for us amounted to a small shed outside the building that had three or four cubicles in it. Inevitably, fights broke out in the rush to use it. There were judokas, wrestlers, weightlifters and shot-putters around. As you’d expect, we chess players had to learn to control our bowel movements.
I came third, and qualified for the nationals. Bizarrely, it coincided with my final exams, as it must have for many of the schoolkids who qualified. I did not go.
The regular age-group tournaments that the national chess federation organised were not much better. I represented Maharashtra once in the national junior championship (under-20), in 1992 or 1993, and the tournament was held in Vijaywada in the peak of summer. ‘It is so hot here,’ a local friend told me, ‘that crows drop down dead in summer.’ The electricity, which was variable, went off one day before the round began. I was drawn to play a player I respected hugely for his theoretical knowledge, though I felt that once you leave theory out of it, I was better than him. So, to take him out of his opening repertoire, I played 1. b4—the Orangutan opening. He arrived late at the table, took one look at the board and burst out laughing. The sweat poured down my face, and my head throbbed. I lost that game, finished lower in the tournament than I’d expected, and retired from chess at the age of 19.
I don’t blame my early departure from the game on outside circumstances. It was evident to me that I wasn’t good enough to play the game at a higher level, and I will always cherish the memories I have, including the time I beat a future grandmaster (I was 18, he was 15, but already considered a prodigy; I still remember the spectacular rook sacrifice I unleashed, leading to mate in four.) I also made significant pocket money in college as a chess hustler, but that’s a tale for another day.
Why I relate these stories, though, is to give a sense of how hard it was to make it in any Indian sport apart from cricket. Most of those sports are run by the government, and I don’t need to elaborate on the inevitable inefficiencies that result, and the hardships and bureaucracy that young sportspeople have to battle. You always feel that you’re fighting against the system, and whatever you achieve is in spite of it. I cannot stress this enough: To just survive the damn system, to keep playing the sport you love through years of this crap, you have to be made of stern stuff.
To actually come out of this and excel at the international level: that’s a whole different deal. To those guys: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
* * * *
For chess players, it was hard for another reason. Back then, in the pre-internet, pre-liberalisation days, it was impossible to stay in touch with the cutting edge of chess knowledge. Chess books beyond basic ones were hard to come by; and were treasured when they did, even if they were outdated. And while all local players were bound by pretty much the same limitations, when Indians moved on to international chess, they were hopelessly behind in terms of knowledge and training.
One of my friends, Devangshu Datta, played chess at the national and international levels in the 1980s. Over an email conversation, which I quote with permission, he described how the barriers for Indian chess players were “absolutely mountainous.”
“To put it bluntly,” he wrote, “when I started playing East Europeans, the difference in ‘chess culture’ was stark. We knew so much less, it wasn’t funny. To take an analogy, it was like putting a bunch of talented kids with a basic knowledge of, say, self-taught HSC level maths into direct competition with people who had post-grad math degrees.
“We’d struggle through the opening and hit the middle game and start wondering what to do, then in the post-mortem, the opponent would say, ‘Oh, my trainer AN Other taught us that with this structure you have to play this way,’ and you’d be like, ‘Shit.’”
It was around that time that Viswanathan Anand broke through to establish himself as one of the best players in the world, and a potential successor to the great Garry Kasparov. This week he successfully defended his World Championship title against Veselin Topalov. His achievements, which I do not need to summarise, are greater than they would have been if they belonged to a Russian or East European player. They are beyond stupendous. In the context of where he came from, it’s like a guy takes a Maruti 800 into a Formula 1 race and wins the championship. That guy, frankly, is more than just the best driver in the world.
* * * *
After Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in that classic chess match of 1972, interest in chess in the US spurted. I suspect Anand’s achievements will have a similar effect in India. The live coverage of his match against Topalov was eagerly followed on Twitter, with near-live commentary being produced by some tweeters. For a chess player, the precision of his play in some of the games, like the last one, was breathtaking. But even for non-chess players unaware of the nuances, the match was dramatic and compelling. As I write these words, the day after his win, the newspapers and TV channels are full of him. Chess, amazingly enough, might just be on its way to becoming a spectator sport in India.
And what a time to be a young chess player in India. As Devangshu told me, “Until 1993, India had to wait an extra 4-6 weeks for Informant, a paper digest of, say, the 1000 best games played in the past quarter (many annotated by the players) to arrive from Belgrade. The East Europeans got it on day one. Now you get them instantaneously as they’re played. We get the annotated versions as quickly as anybody else, and I have home analysis of nearly the same calibre and quality as Anand does. You have free chess engines available that are as strong as the world champion or stronger in many respects. Plus, all the material is digital and includes depth of annotation that was unimaginable.”
Also, needless to say, playing chess competitively requires little investment in equipment, unlike other sports. (A chess set is all you need to start, and later a chess clock and an internet connection.) You aren’t dependent on the government any more. You have all the resources you need—and if you watched Anand at work this week, you also have the inspiration. For this reason, I expect India to produce a wave of strong chess players in the years to come.
Who knows, one of them may even win the World Championship someday. But it won’t be as big a deal as this. Anand is special.
No. 1: The player who can command his place as a specialist in the side in both batting and bowling. This kind of allrounder is hugely rare. Garry Sobers was one; maybe Keith Miller at his peak; among Indians, Vinoo Mankad qualifies. Of the quartet of the 1980s, Kapil Dev, Ian Botham and Richard Hadlee would not have got in as specialist batsman; and while Imran Khan was good enough to be a specialist in either discipline, his batting peak came after he had declined considerably as a bowler. In recent times, Jacques Kallis was one, but his bowling has declined since.
No. 2: The player who can command his place as a specialist batsman or bowler, but while he’s a worthy part-timer in the other discipline, would not command his place for that alone. Most people you call allrounders today fall in this category. Kallis has slipped into this category, and Shane Watson also fits in here. Shahid Afridi was one, though his bowling seems to have gotten worse. Among Indians, Irfan Pathan was one, till his bowling fell away just as his batting improved.
No. 3: The player who would not get in the side as either a specialist batsman or bowler, but who does both well enough for their combined value to get him into a weak side. India had some such ‘bits-and-pieces’ players in the 1980s (remember Kirti Azad?) and New Zealand had some in the 1990s. But against top-quality opposition, the bits-and-pieces allrounder will usually deliver in neither discipline, and will be a liability to the side.
Well, the reason I’m going over this is that in the current side, India have one player in the third category. I don’t believe Ravindra Jadeja would be in the Indian side as either a specialist batsman or a specialist bowler. We saw his limitations as a batsman when MS Dhoni sent him out to bat earlier than he should have in the game against England in the 2009 T20 World Cup, and the balls he ate up cost India the game. (He made 25 off 35.) We saw his limitations as a bowler today, when he was hit for six off six consecutive balls—Watson pumping the last three of his first over, and David Warner laying into him on the first three of his next. To add to this, he got himself run out with a ridiculously lazy piece of running between the wickets, ambling diagonally across the pitch. Like, really.
Jadeja is good enough to play in the IPL, where the standard of cricket is not so high and he will add value to any team. But I don’t believe he is international material, and it is shocking that he kept out a player like Rohit Sharma in the earlier games of this World Cup. We may just have learnt an important lesson today—but is it already too late?
The question can be asked, which category does Yusuf Pathan fall into? He is not good enough to play as a specialist bowler, but does he cut it as a batsman? I think the jury’s out on that. He is a phenomenal striker of spin bowling and medium-pace bowling—but has yet to prove himself against quality fast bowling. He had a good chance to get set in today and establish himself in the side—and he muffed it.
If we consider a wicketkeeper-batsman an allrounder by virtue of his performing in two disciplines, then we are fortunate to have seen Adam Gilchrist play in our lifetimes. He was both a great batsman and a top-flight wicketkeeper, and walks into my all time XI. In recent years, Mark Boucher, at his peak, could have played as either a specialist batsman or a specialist wicketkeeper. And I believe Mahendra Singh Dhoni also falls in that category. Yes, even in Test cricket, where the captaincy seems to have done him much good—he averages 71.8 as captain, in 13 Tests. That’s off the charts.
Since I mentioned my all-time XI, just for kicks, here it is: 1. Hobbs, 2. Gavaskar, 3. Bradman*, 4.Viv Richards, 5 Headley, 6. Sobers, 7. Gilchrist+, 8. Akram, 9. Warne, 10. Lillee, 11. Muralitharan.
On a different day, I’d probably give you a different XI. Nos. 5 and 10 are the ones always in question, and I’m also tempted to push Sobers one spot up and play five freakin’ specialist bowlers. Just imagine. Even Martians with eight hands and four bats would have a tough time against the Earth XI then.
I know you’re complaining Sachin isn’t there. How could I leave God out? Alright, then, here’s an all-time India XI, and God walks into this one: 1. Gavaskar, 2. Sehwag, 3. Dravid, 4. Tendulkar, 5. Laxman, 6. V Mankad, 7. Dhoni*+, 8. Kapil, 9. Amar Singh, 10. Kumble, 11. Harbhajan.
Why not Bedi, you ask? For balance. We already have a left-armer there in Mankad. Why not Prasanna instead of Bhajji? Because that damn spin quartet is too freakin’ romanticised. See their records carefully. Filter for matches won; filter for matches played overseas; that’ll tell you the story.
And yeah, we also romanticise Vishy, and don’t give Laxman his due. Compare their records also.
Among our commentators, Sanjay Manjrekar can be reliably banal, but rarely says something outright ridiculous, unlike some of his colleagues. Well, today he did. As India were headed out to chase Australia’s 184 in the T20 game today, he praised India’s strategy of playing the extra batsman, since the total they were chasing was so big, and said, ‘In hindsight, that’s proved to be a very good move by MS Dhoni.’
Duh, no. India lost precisely because they played that extra batsman. It meant that they played one specialist bowler less, and had to rely on part-timers to bowl 8 of the 20 overs in the innings. Against a quality batting side like Australia, that was asking to be pumped. That was exactly what happened, and Australia got a total that, given their pace attack and India’s problems against pace, was way too high for India.
Some people suggest that in T20 cricket, a side is best off playing as many batsmen as they can, and part-timers can do the bowling. This is nonsense. Bowlers win T20 games, as we saw in the IPL recently, and every team must have at least four specialist bowlers in the XI. Those that don’t will lose—and sometimes get pumped, as India did today.
Two teenagers aged 14 and 15 years allegedly strangled their 13-year-old friend with a copper wire and then pinned his body to a wall using iron nails.The children were paid Rs 20,000 by a 35-year-old woman, Sabroon,to commit the murder.She was angry with the victim as she suspected he was stealing from her shop and wanted to get rid of him.
Pretty horrific. And I don’t know why, but I read that and thought of Lalit Modi. How strange.
Much to my surprise, quite a few people were surprised when King’s XI Punjab beat the Mumbai Indians yesterday in the IPL. They shouldn’t have been. At the halfway stage of the tournament, I predicted to a friend that Mumbai, then leading the league, would do worse in the second half than in the first, and Punjab, then at the bottom, would do better. And so it’s turned out. My reason for believing this had nothing to do with any deep cricketing insight, but with a simple statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean.”
The teams in the IPL are more or less evenly matched: they have a similar mix of overseas players, national stars and domestic players. (The salary caps ensure that this will continue.) And the format, being just 20 overs a side, that ensures that chance events play a much greater role than in other formats. For these reasons, I don’t believe that any team can ever truly dominate the league—unless they have a phenomenally lucky season, which will even out in the long run—or be too far below the rest. While in the short run the game is unpredictable, in the long run everyone’s going to be bunched around the mean.
So while I’m wary of predictions about specific results in the IPL, I’ll be glad to make a general wager on IPL 4. I’m willing to bet that the team that tops the league at the end of the first half will do worse in the second; and the other way around for the team that comes last. I have absolutely no idea, of course, which those teams might be.
As it happens, I would not make a similar bet for the EPL, where neither of my two conditions apply. (ie, teams are not evenly matched, and there is a far greater premium on sheer skill.) Is that a good thing or a bad thing for the IPL?
I don’t mean to say that matches at the IPL are decided purely by chance. There is immense skill involved, and I love the contest between bat and ball that we get to see every day. But the skill is so evenly distributed among the teams that in the long run, it evens out. The X factor that a captain like Shane Warne brings to the game does count for something—but while the Rajasthan Royals won IPL 1 under him resoundingly, in IPL 2 they won six out of 14 games. Such it goes.
Harsha Bhogle tweeted that this story would leave us with a lump in our throats, and it certainly did that for me. It’s about Bob Blair, a 21-year-old New Zealander in 1953, who was on tour with his national side in South Africa when he got news that his fiancee, Nerissa, had died in an accident. He couldn’t go back, because “overseas air travel was a thing of the future, and the boat trip took 28 days.” He’d never have made it in time for her funeral.
The story is about a heroic innings Blair played in the midst of his grief, but that’s not the part that got me. Instead, I was struck by this:
To make matters worse during the tour of 1953-54, letters that Nerissa had written to Blair before her death would continue to arrive at the team hotel for weeks afterwards.
Imagine that. If you were in his place, could you have read those letters?
A Pakistani parliamentary delegation has cancelled its visit to India after none of the country’s cricketers found any takers at an auction for the third edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL).
National Assembly Speaker Fehmida Mirza made the announcement in the House on Wednesday after opposition members raised the issue, terming it a “planned conspiracy” to prevent Pakistani players from featuring in the cash-rich series.
Now, really, if you were in charge of an IPL franchise, what would you do? Your resources are limited, and you want to make sure that every player you bid for and buy actually turns up and plays. If there is a no-show, even if you don’t have to pay the player, you incur an opportunity cost, and there’s a gap in your team. And with India-Pakistan relations being the way they are, it’s quite possible that, like last season, there may be no Pakistan players. All it takes is one more terrorist attack like 26/11.
The rational thing to do—indeed, the responsible thing to do, from your shareholders’ point of view—is to play it safe and not bid for any of Pakistan’s players. As a cricket fan, I find this tragic, because I love watching Umar Gul, Shahid Afridi and Sohail Tanvir in action. But from a business point of view, there was really nothing else the franchises could have done.
All this speculation about government directives and collusion between teams is, thus, pointless. Each franchise looked to its self-interest and made a perfectly rational decision. Such it goes.
As for the anger in Pakistan about their players not playing in the IPL, it is entirely justified. But it should be directed at the Lashkar, not at the IPL franchises.
And I don’t get this whole business of auctioning players. Why can’t the franchises just negotiate with players on their own? Why do we need the BCCI in the middle, distorting price signals?
If I remember correctly, Lalit Modi had once argued that the auction system and the spending caps in place are necessary so that a franchise like the Mumbai Indians, flush with Mukesh Ambani’s money, can’t buy out all the good players, thus killing the competition. But such a state would be unsustainable—consider these two scenarios:
1. Assume that Ambani has way more money than anyone and can conceivably buy off all the good players. But once he has an XI full of superstars, the attraction of being part of his franchise diminishes for the others. No up-and-coming star will want to be part of his team because they need the exposure more than the extra money—that is where their long-term equity lies. And established stars not guaranteed a place in the XI will also have an issue with the tradeoffs involved, because their long-term brand value can only go down, not up, if they don’t play.
2] Make the far-fetched assumption that Ambani somehow pulls it off, and his team is by far the strongest, and is thrashing everyone else. What happens? Because the matches are one-sided, the crowds lose interest, ratings fall, revenues go down, and it is no longer sustainable for Ambani to be spending those big bucks. He scales down, the players drift to other teams, and we move towards an equilibrium again.
Also, the auctions harm the players more than they help them. A franchise may be willing to pay, say, US$80,000 for a player, but the base price set for him is $100,000. So they don’t bid for him, and both the franchise and the player suffer—after all, where he could have been earning 80k, he’s earning nothing. (At this point, you might want to listen to Milton Friedman on the minimum wage. Here’s the transcript.)
And this affects the superstar players as well, who might command much higher prices than the franchises are allowed to pay. In other words, players and franchises are all made worse off by this auction system—so what’s the point of it at all?
My friends waved at me from the buffet counter not knowing what the human sperms did to me during those fifteen minutes.
This is Sherlyn Chopra writing about… well, I really can’t summarize on a family blog such as this what she is writing about. Read it for yourself.
Her post also contains the magnificent line, ‘A tall white hunk dressed in a black suit walked up to me.’ But just when you think this is like some nice, romantic Yashraj film, there’s a touch of Bunuel. Masterful.
That said, I have more respect for Sherlyn Chopra’s writing skills than Bobilli Vijay Kumar’s. This is the man who once wrote, as my friend Prem Panicker pointed out, that Raj Singh Dungarpur is the ‘uncrowned grandfather of Indian cricket’. Week after week, he writes columns that mangle metaphors, torture idioms, and in general try too hard to show his mastery of the language. But just when you thought you’d seen it all, he comes up with this gem:
Tiger Woods is finally realising that life is not always a bed of roses. He has slept in so many, anyway, that he would have known that a prickly one was just a birdie away.
However, even in his wildest dreams (and as we know now he does have wild dreams, even if you don’t count kinky sex or foursomes), he wouldn’t have expected that he would end paying such a heavy price. Will he really need to put away his club to save the marriage?
Tiger is, of course, not the first person to fish in muddied waters; nor will he be the last high-profile athlete to play the field so well. The only reason he has become the butt of all jokes is because, ironically, he is Tiger Woods.
Mind you, this is the sports editor of the Times of India writing. When his reporters write like this, he probably pats them on the back proudly instead of making them stand in a murga pose outside the ToI office for six hours, which is the only apt punishment.
My friend Nagraj Gollapudi has a delightful interview with Virender Sehwag up on Cricinfo, in which Sehwag, in his usual forthright manner, talks about the way he plays cricket. For example, about his Multan triple hundred:
[Sachin Tendulkar] always likes to chat and can get serious and caution you not to hit unnecessary shots. During that [Multan] innings he told me, “If you try to hit a six I will hit you on the bum.” He gave me a simple example - about my Melbourne innings in 2003, when I tried to hit a six on 195 and got out. Till then India were in a good position, but after that we couldn’t make a big score and we lost the Test. So he made me realise my mistake. That is why I didn’t hit sixes in Multan, but when I was near 300 I told him that I was going to hit Saqlain [Mushtaq] and he could hit me on my bum!
And on hitting sixes against spinners:
I was a middle-order batsman who was too good against spin and hit sixes consistently in Under-19 and Ranji cricket, and I still have the same confidence. Once Gary Kirsten asked me, “What would you do if there is a long-off, long-on and deep midwicket?” I asked, “Gary sir, do fielders matter to me?” He burst out laughing.
Any big hitter, like Yuvraj Singh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Tendulkar, all can hit a six but they don’t want to get out. There is a 1% risk.
Let me give an example: I was batting on 291 at Chepauk, against South Africa. I told Paul Harris, “Come round the wicket and first ball I’ll hit you for a six.” He accepted my challenge and the very first ball I hit him for a straight six, and there was a long-off, long-on, deep midwicket and a deep point. I was so tired and he was bowling on the pads and I was getting bored. So rather than spending 10-15 minutes to get to the triple-century I gave him good advice.
FSM bless such boredom.
Most cricketers, when they find themselves having to talk to journos and face press conferences, learn to master platitudes and banalities—but not Sehwag. He always says what’s on his mind, and can hit a stupid question for six with his earthy wit. I covered the 2004-05 series when Pakistan toured India, and Sehwag made 173 in the first Test and 201 in the third. After the latter innings, an over-eager journo asked him at the post-match PC, “Sehwagji, aapke is hundred aur pehle Test ke hundred mein kya farak tha.” Sehwag gave him a blank look and said, “Bas, kuchh tees run ka farak tha.”
I’ll never forget how seriously the journo in question copied this down.
Whenever Sehwag is done with playing the game, I hope he becomes a commentator. He’s likely to be the kind of no-bullshit guy who’ll take off the pants of his fellow commentators if they talk rubbish—and that should be fun.
South Africa reacted angrily on Friday to a report that tests on its world champion runner Caster Semenya had found she was a hermaphrodite, threatening a “third world war” over the affair.
Athletics’ governing body declined to confirm the report in Australia’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, which said the 18-year-old runner had both male and female sexual characteristics.
The IAAF said medical experts were examining the results of gender tests on Semenya, who won the women’s 800 metres at last month’s World Championships in Berlin. No decision would be taken until late November.
“I think it would be the third world war. We will go to the highest levels in contesting such a decision. I think it would be totally unfair and totally unjust,” said Sports Minister Makhenkesi Stofile.
That’s totally the wrong choice of words, and I bet the Taliban dudes are scratching their heads wondering who this new player in the game is. ‘We fight the West for so long,’ I can imagine Wali-ur-Rehman telling Hakimullah Mehsud, ‘and South Africa is in the news for threatening the third world war. WTF?’
‘I know what we can do,’ says Hakimullah Mehsud. ‘Let’s turn you into a woman, and when those filthy Americans question your gender, we’ll also declare a third world war. He he he.’
‘You insult me, fool,’ roars Wali-ur-Rehman, ‘and for this you must die.’
No, but really, the issue at the heart of this is quite complex. Reportedly, “tests had found Semenya had no womb or ovaries, but that she had internal testes, the male sexual organs which produce testosterone, and her levels of the hormone were three times that of a ‘normal’ female.” This led Pierre Weiss, the secretary-general of the International Association of Athletics Federations, to say:
It is clear that she is a woman but maybe not 100 percent.
This brings up the thorny philosophical question of what makes a woman a woman. Do you have to have a womb? Is there a level of testosterone you cannot go over? Do men have to find you inexplicable? What is the meaning of a conclusion that someone is “maybe not 100 percent” as a woman? What’s the pass percentage?
And ya, sure, these peculiarities do give Semenya an advantage over fellow athletes—but there is no level playing field in sports anyway. Top sportspeople are often physically abnormal in some way or the other: Lance Armstrong’s heart is one-third larger than normal, for example, and his his aerobic capacity is twice that of a normal human. So is he more than 100 percent man, and therefore at an unfair advantage? If you start barring sportspeople for biological advantages they are born with, you’d cut down on a lot of the excellence and thrill of sport.
Anyway, I don’t care one way or another about the Semenya controversy. As long as Barack Obama doesn’t shift his troops from Afghanistan to South Africa, I’m okay.
Here’s Peter Roebuck talking about the three stages of a cricketer’s development—but I believe it also applies to writers:
It begins with natural ability that takes a fellow as far as it can. Then comes a period of introspection in which the complications of the game are encountered and, to a greater or lesser degree, resolved. Finally the player reaches the final stage of a hazardous journey, beyond complexity, towards full understanding. This third stage is called simplicity, but it is profundity.
The thing is, with a cricketer, it is easy to tell which stage he is at, with little scope of self-delusion. Phil Hughes and Mitchell Johnson know, from their results on the cricket field, that they need to work out a few things. But writing is a subjective matter, and many writers may not know when there are problems with their game. As a result, they’ll never then do the necessary introspection and hard work needed to take them to the next level. That is why, the most important quality for a writer is surely humility—writers must be brutal critics of their own work, and must ruthlessly employ what Ernest Hemingway called “a built-in bullshit detector.”
On the flip side, that often erodes self-belief. It’s a thin line.
“I know for a fact that some of the more sensational TV channels have told their anchors and reporters that they should treat cricket stories like they do crime stories. To do so, it needs a victim a day and unfortunately for Sehwag, it was his turn last week.”
Why is there this timidity in these reports? Why reveal all this stuff as if one is revealing some big, forbidden secret? Why are the names of the TV channels off limits? I’m sure there are plenty of practical reasons, but none of these are good journalistic reasons for doing so.
It would be very interesting to know what the conditions for the practice of sports journalism are. Sports journalism is an especially interesting phenomenon because it lies at the intersection of sport, entertainment and reporting. This i think is true for every publication from Cricinfo to DNA to The Hindu. The situation of the entertainment is what is at stake.
I think it is futile for the press to desist from reporting on its own. For example, i think there is a desperate need for a detailed report about how the recent Sehwag v Dhoni got reported - which publication first published the story, on what basis they did it, which journalists were involved, how the story gained momentum, what the repercussions of this momentum were etc. It is a story which will never be written by a regular cricket reporter for a number of reasons, none of which are persuasive in my view. In the absence of an ombudsman or a public editor at these newspapers/websites there is no other way to highlight these tendencies.
Just like there is a whole parallel economy that is off the record (black money), there also seems to be a potent parallel economy of news information that is off the record and lies within the community of professional journalists. This is probably true in every country in the world which has an free press run by news media conglomerates. Unlike the black money economy, this one is not illegal. Journalists are accountable to nobody and consequently are not required to have any standards, especially in cricket.
Well, in theory journalists are accountable to readers: if they report crap, readers will stop reading the publications they write for, which is incentive enough for those publications to avoid the crap. The problem is that readers out there want crap. They want man bites dog, they want Match Ka Mujrim, they want heroes and villains in their narratives, blacks and whites, and so on. There’s no getting away from that.
But such readers are everywhere in the world, and tabloids will always thrive. That is not the problem here. The problem is that here, we have little else. In England and the US, you have the tabloids, and you have the respectable press doing good, solid journalism. Here, only Cricinfo does quality cricket reporting and analysis—the broadsheets, with the exception of one or two reporters, are trite when they are not sensationalistic. (Full disclosure: I once worked for Cricinfo.) This is true of cricket commentary as well, where we privilege celebrity over competence, and where the mastery of cliches is considered a virtue.
And so we have cricket as crime, and poor Dhoni as the criminal of the day, until India wins again and he’s a hero again. No wonder the poor chap’s hair is graying.
At an IPL-and-beer party a few weeks ago at my friend Prem Panicker‘s house, the wise Anand Ramachandran described Yusuf Pathan as “a man-beast”. The reference, obviously, was to his batting—for Anand is not intimately acquainted with Pathan’s personal life—and it fit like a glove. We then got to talking about other man-beasts in the game, and came up with the usual suspects like Matthew Hayden, Chris Gayle, Herschelle Gibbs and Shahid Afridi. Oh, and one Adam Gilchrist.
But Gilchrist is subtly different from the others in one way—he is not just brutal, but also beautiful. I like watching Pathan and Hayden and Gayle smash the ball around for visceral reasons—but with Gilchrist, it’s also a matter of aesthetics. He can do hammer and scalpel at the same time, and I can’t think of too many other players in world cricket who can combine the two so perfectly. Oh, and did you watch his innings yesterday?
That said, immense nostalgia is already coming that his next innings might be his last on this stage. (He is 37; who knows if he will return next year?) I hope it doesn’t end in an anti-climax.
Cricinfo states that you have objected to an SMS competition being run during the IPL on the grounds that it is “akin to betting and gambling.” I have two questions for you:
One, do you not gamble? If you have ever invested in the stock market, or in property, you have gambled. Indeed, every career choice you have made is effectively a gamble. We face choices at every stage in our lives, weigh up the risks involved, and make decisions. All of that is no less gambling than, say, betting that Matthew Hayden will score 10 runs in the next over.
Two, who are you (or the government) to tell people what to do with their money? You are there to serve us, not to rule us. Before you lecture us on how we spend our time and hard-earned money, consider that our taxes pay your salary and perks. What have you been up to as sports minister? Why is every sport administered by the government in India in such a complete and utter mess?
I’ll stop now. The Ministry for Self-Righteousness hasn’t given me a license to be sanctimonious, so I’ll leave that to you.
Sports Minister M S Gill on Thursday flayed the ‘casualness’ of India’s cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Harbhajan Singh for skipping the Padma Shri function and said the Ministry would soon issue a circular to ensure sportspersons treat national awards with utmost respect.
Dhoni and his India teammate Harbhajan were conspicuous by their absence at the Rashtrapati Bhavan [Images] ceremony, where they were expected to receive the Padma Shri from President Pratibha Patil.
[...] The Sports Minister… said he would not brook such casualness by anyone. [...] And to ensure it does not happen again, the Ministry would issue a new circular soon, he said.
I don’t get this crap about issuing a circular to “ensure it does not happen again”. Gill makes it sound as if Dhoni and Harbhajan thrive under the patronage of the government, and are therefore beholden to it. That is not true. On the contrary, the taxes that Dhoni and Harbhajan and you and I pay are responsible for keeping Gill’s AC running and the fuel tank of his official car full. He talks as if he is our master, but really, a minister is no more than the servant of the people. Our government is notionally there to serve us, but behaves as if it rules us.
In my view, Dhoni and Harbhajan bring honour to the country, and the Padma Shri, like other government awards decided by an essentially political process, do not bring any additional honour to these fine sportsmen. Their fidelity is to their sport, not to the politicians running the government, and that is how it should be. Sure, Gill is entitled to hold the opinion that it was tasteless on the part of these two to not receive the award personally. But a circular? Give me a break.
And do note that these circulars and awards are all paid for by the sacrifices you and I and my maidservant are forced to make. Do you think it’s worth it? I don’t.
PS. In case you’re wondering whether I’m against the government spending taxpayers money on sport, well, I am. The reasons for that are pretty much the ones I’d articulated against government spending on the arts in my piece, Nadiraji Wants Your Money. If you think Padma Shris and sports ministries are a worthy cause, you fund them with your money. Why force me to pay?
According to the ICC, Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) were unable to provide a guarantee during a teleconference on Wednesday that there would be no rains in Colombo during the tournament which runs from September 24-October 5.
I can understand the ICC’s concerns about the weather, but why on earth go through the charade of asking for a guarantee that would be no rains during that time? It is a characteristic of our species to assume certainty about matters that are inherently uncertain, but surely no one could possibly think that the weather is one of those things.
You know what the SLC dude should have said when the ICC fellow asked him for a guarantee?
“Sure, I can give you a guarantee,” he should have said, “but first you have to give me a guarantee.”
“You have to give me a guarantee that no one from the ICC will fart between now and then.”
“Excuse me? Why?”
“Because if you fart, the massive amount of methane produced might upset the balance in the atmosphere, thus causing rain in South Asia. You get what I’m saying? Go easy on the rajma.”
Poker is eminently human. Its strategy and parameters are based not merely on cards but on personalities, the tics and habits revealed over years of acquaintance. In my group, the Bad Loser growls and slams down his hand. The Bluffer blithely raises and, when called, fans out his cards in good-natured surrender, announcing, “I’ve got shit.” The Bottom Feeder taciturnly sticks around, hoping to sneak away with a piece of a cheap pot. Mr By-the-Book, glancing down into a winner, raises and telegraphs his hand and everybody folds, except for the Long Sufferer, who says, “Well, it’s only money,” and yields up another dollar with a sigh.
Always being in character is a bad ploy. Never making a mistake is a mistake. A failed bluff may pay off a few hands down the road, when you really have the goods, and everyone, remembering the failed bluff, stays against you. Poker, like statecraft, tends to steer by the last miscalculation, trying to avoid it this time. Which can also be a mistake. Our group has given up, by and large, on poker faces; we know each other too well—how we fold, why we stay. We’ve given up, too, on insisting that a player call his card correctly; we’re getting senile, and let the cards speak. It’s a comfortable group. Many the Wednesday evening, escaping from a domestic or professional crisis, I settled at the table as if my noisy buddies would protect me from life itself. In my one poker story, the hero has just been told he is fatally ill, and decides to go to poker anyway, and takes comfort by looking around and realizing that we are all dying—reaching out, gathering in, relinquishing. It was a story based on real life, though I didn’t die; I was simply scared that I would some day.
Vinjk points me to a list compiled by The Telegraph of the top ten irritating phrases in the English language. Some of them, I am ashamed to say, I find myself using in everyday speech—though I try to avoid them in my writing. Nevertheless, when I am lazily blogging in the middle of the night, a careless phrase or two may slip through.
In an old essay, The Dialect of a Cricket Writer, I’d written about how cricket writing in India is full of clichés, and how it is every writer’s duty to avoid them. When I wrote about cricket, I tried to do just that. But I hadn’t, at the time of writing that piece, done any live commentary.
A few months after that essay came out, I covered India’s tour to Pakistan for the Guardian, during which I also gave hourly radio updates for the BBC. Those updates were 60 seconds each, and a dude who ran a local Pakistani radio station heard me at work and invited me to do a stint of live radio commentary for him. When we are young, we are foolish, and I agreed.
What a disaster I was! Whenever I needed to say something, only clichés would pop into my head—and being live on air, I had no time to think of alternatives. A batsman french-cut a ball for two, and after describing the shot, I said, “it doesn’t matter how they come, as long as they come.” The game reached its final stages and I said, “Every run is crucial now.” By the time the game was over—I forget who won that one—I was more despondent than the losing side. Amit Varma the writer witnessed Amit Varma the radio commentator in action and unleashed a series of angry WTFs. Amit Varma the radio commentator, duly chastised, resolved never to do live commentary again.
That doesn’t mean that I will go easy on cliché-mongers—professionals have a duty to work at their craft till they get it right, and you will never hear a tired phrase from Harsha Bhogle when he does radio commentary. But it did make me empathetic towards writers who use clichés in their writing. That said, just as I never did radio commentary again, they too should give up writing and find some other work.
In a curious case of mistaken identity that could cause serious embarrassment to national selectors, a Saurashtra Cricket Association official on Sunday claimed that little known Punjab player Ravi Inder Singh was thought to be prolific all-rounder Ravindrasinh Jadeja and got selected for the Challenger Trophy.
One of the selectors ... conceded that it’s a bloomer from their part but there was hardly any time to get it corrected.
Ravi Inder played in Blue’s first match against the Red and scored 17 before being bowled by Laxmipathy Balaji.
This reminds me of the famous mix-up between JP Yadav and Jai P Yadav. And Abhijit Kale once reportedly missed out on selection (I forget whether it was for a Ranji team or a zonal team) because the then-selector Chandu Borde couldn’t remember his name. Borde was famous for mangling names, and had there been an Indian player named Gaurav Ganguly when Borde was chief selector, India might well have suddenly found itself a new captain.
Anyway, I wish Ravi Inder Singh all the best. And I also wish Ajay Jadeja all the best, for who knows what mistake the selectors will make the next time they want to select poor Ravindrasinh.
An article on Cricinfo about Sourav Ganguly being dropped from the Rest of India side for the Irani Trophy contains the following words:
Meanwhile, Ashok Dinda, the Bengal medium-pacer, got a surprise call-up to the squad…
Surprise? It ain’t no surprise to me, given the kind of horse trading that happens on zonal considerations. One east zone man, Ganguly, got dropped; compensation was due. And since Ganguly was replaced by Mohammad Kaif, I’d wager that the central zone selector supported the east zone selector on picking Dinda.
This kind of horse-trading happens when it comes to picking the marginal spots in a squad, the four or five players left after the certainties are picked. Dinda bowled well in the IPL, and I hope he makes the most of this chance. But I absolutely hate the zonal system of selection. And I remember what Sharad Pawar, the president of the BCCI, said on the subject a couple of years ago:
If I have to change the zonal system, I have to amend the constitution. And ultimately if I have to amend the constitution, then I have to get support from zonal representatives. (Laughs).
I am often asked if the Olympic village - the vast restaurant and housing conglomeration that hosts the world’s top athletes for the duration of the Games - is the sex-fest it is cracked up to be. My answer is always the same: too right it is.
I am not implying, for one moment, that every athlete in Beijing is at it. Just that 99 per cent of them are.
I wonder why Abhinav Bindra was in such a hurry to return home. Also, I wonder how our four hockey coaches, who went to Beijing even though there was no hockey team for them to coach, are doing there. I hope they’re learning a lot by watching the moves of the other teams.
A shorter version of this piece was published in Friday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal Asia.
It was a gunshot heard across a subcontinent. On Monday, Abhinav Bindra, a 25-year-old shooter from India, took aim for his final shot in the 10-meter air rifle event at the Olympic Games. The pressure was intense, but Mr Bindra shot an almost-perfect 10.8 to win the gold medal. His fans and supporters jumped up in delight in the stands, as wild celebrations began across the country. India’s 24-hour news channels became 24-hour Bindra channels, and there was much talk of national pride.
Mr Bindra’s achievement warrants such celebration. On a national level, this was, astonishingly, the first gold medal India has won in an individual sport in any Olympics. And on the more important personal level, it was a testament to the years of single-minded hard work Mr Bindra dedicated to his sport. Not surprisingly, the government immediately took credit for his achievement.
India’s sports minister, Manohar Singh Gill, came on television and said, “I congratulate myself and every other Indian.” But while India’s shooting association is better than most of the bodies that run sport in the country, it was Mr Bindra’s family that enabled his success. Mr Bindra was lucky that his father is an industrialist who dipped into his personal wealth to support his son. He built a shooting range for Abhinav in his farmhouse in Punjab, and made sure he never ran out of ammunition, which is not made in India and has to be imported.
India and China are studies in contrast. The full might of the Chinese state goes into creating sportspeople who will bring it pride. The Indian government, on the other hand, does a pathetic job of administering sports in the country. Rent-seeking bureaucrats run the various sporting federations – or ruin them, as some would say. A great illustration of this is hockey, a sport once dominated by India, which failed to qualify for Bejing. Even though there is no Indian hockey team at these Olympics, four hockey coaches have duly made their way to Beijing. Franz Kafka would feel at home as an Indian sports journalist today.
Most of India’s finest sportspeople are self-made athletes who owe nothing to the system – Viswanathan Anand, the world chess champion, is a case in point. The sport where India has been most successful, cricket, is not administered by the government. Surely, nationalists would argue, there is a case to be made for pumping more money into our sport.
Such arguments are wrong. India’s leaders need to have a clear sense of priorities, and there are two things they would do well to consider. One, despite the gains sections of our economy have made since the liberalization of 1991, India remains a desperately poor country. Two, unlike China, India is democratic, and its government thus carries a certain responsibility towards its people, and the taxes it collects from them.
Any money that the government spends on sport could be better spent on building infrastructure: roads, ports, power-generating units etc. It would also do a lot of good simply left in the hand of the taxpayers, who would then spend it according to their own individual priorities. Hundreds of millions of Indians are forced to part with their hard-earned money through direct or indirect taxes, and it is perverse if that money is spent towards something as nebulous as an outdated notion of national pride.
For too long now, India has been an insecure nation craving validation from the West. Even many of us who speak of India as a future superpower have one ear cocked towards the west, straining to hear similar forecasts in a foreign accent, ignoring the condescension that such pronouncements sometimes carry. Similarly, we look to the sporting arena for affirmation of our self-worth. That attitude might have been understandable during the days of the cold war – but it no longer is.
Sport is a zero-sum game – for one nation to win, another must lose. But real life is non-zero-sum, and nothing demonstrates the win-win game of life as well as globalisation, with nations (and individuals) trading with each other to mutual benefit. In these times, it is clear we do not need Olympic medals to be a great nation, but economic progress that all Indians have access to. It is beyond the scope of this piece to spell out the many reforms that are needed for that happen – but spending taxpayers’ money responsibly is a key part of the puzzle.
I shall go against the prevailing wisdom, then, and say that I don’t mind if our government spends less money on sport, or even none. Where will our Olympic medals come from then, you ask (as if the last few decades have brought us a slew of them). Well, lift enough people to prosperity, and the sporting laurels will roll in. Ask Abhinav Bindra.
“Don’t look now,” Rohit Brijnath wrote more than a year ago, “but this 24-year-old who looks like a cover boy for an accountancy magazine, who pursues a sport where stillness is a virtue and muscles can get in the way, whose rare moment of recognition came from, get this, a Thai airlines purser (‘Hey, you’re the shooter’), is possibly India’s best chance of a medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.”
Brijnath was talking of Abhinav Bindra, and boy, did he get it right. Read the full piece; this bit sent a chill up my spine:
In 2004, at the Athens Games, he got his heart torn out. He broke the Olympic record in qualifying, but shot so poorly in the eight-man final it astonished him. Later, a coach goes back to the range, to position No.3 where Bindra shot from, and finds the floor wobbly, finds it being fixed for the next final. Too late.
Bindra calls Athens “tragic” and says, honestly, painfully, “Athens bothered me for a long time”. He breathes. “But that’s life, everything’s not fair always.” Now, he insists, Athens is forgotten. At the world championships last year, he found himself, ominously, again at position No.3. Athens came flooding back, but he wore the pressure and won.
But perhaps Athens will finally be interred in Beijing.
So there you go.
In related news, the Times of India quotes AS Bindra, Abhinav’s dad, as relating the following anecdote about when Abhinav was five years old:
He kept a water balloon on our maid’s head and began shooting, knowing little that a slight mistake could have proved fatal. But his aim was so perfect that I couldn’t think about anything else but make him a pro.
I wonder what the maid felt when the boy who once shot at her ascended the podium. Relief all over again?
(ToI link via email from Subhash Kalbarga. Many other readers have asked me to comment on the rewards being bestowed on Bindra with taxpayers’ money. This old post covers my feelings on the subject, I guess.)
Earlier today NDTV 24x7 asked MS Gill, India’s sports minister, for his reaction to Abhinav Bindra’s gold medal. He said:
I congratulate myself and every other Indian.
I’m not sure what I contributed to Bindra’s fine achievement, but if the minister congratulates me, I must have done something. Yippee. If Bindra melts the medal one day, do you think I can ask for a share?