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.
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?
Chip Reese said something I’ve always remembered. He said when he’s playing his A-game, he’s not any better than the rest of the guys that are playing their A-game, ‘but my D-game is about the same as my A-game,’ and that’s where he was different. I think the mark of a great player is when things start going bad, not when they’re going good.
For some reason, Sachin Tendulkar comes to mind here. He’s been off his A-game for a long, long time, but he’s still been scoring the runs at a decent average. I can think of other players in the Indian cricket team, though, who look terrible on their D-game.
This applies to the arts as well. How horrible Salman Rushdie’s D-game is. How very good the Beatles D-game was. And so on. I’m sure you can think of many more…
Barely a couple of hours after slapping his India teammate S Sreesanth, a repentant Harbhajan Singh had a quiet dinner with the Kerala pacer to get over the unsavoury incident. Senior sources in the team management reveal that the bowlers had terrific make-up sex, with Bhajji, of course, on top.
Ok, fine, I made that second line up. But you believed me for a moment, didn’t you?
I think all that is left now is for Mahesh Bhatt to make a film on these two men, so much funnier than any comedian in Bollywood today. What about a triangle with Savita Bhabhi?
The WTF quote of the day comes from Shoaib Malik, who, when asked about “Pakistan’s recent performances and whether morale is down,” says:
Are you sitting in my heart? The Pakistan team is famous for comebacks. My form if it wasn’t good, at least I am still the best allrounder as far as I know.
I want Freddie Flintoff to visit Malik someday and sit on his head. Malik should then ask him: “Why are you sitting on my head?” And Freddie should reply: “So should I sit in your heart then? Huh? Best allrounder?”
Posted by Amit Varma on 28 June, 2008 in
He should come more often to the net, because he has the reach, the agility, and the dexterity to volley for an outright winner, or to make a strong opening for it, and with the next volley, finish it. The Sun and versatile Mercury in Leo, is the key to it.
I dispute Daruwala’s contention that Mercury is versatile: it cannot play guitar. It’s mercurial, that’s all.
I asked him if would be able to even see the balls of West Indians. He asked me what do you mean by ‘the balls of the West Indians?’ I told him the cricket balls that will be bowled by Marshall. I had not faced West Indians then and Sunil told me that you have faced Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thompson; you will be able to see the balls. I saw the ball and I hit a six.
My favourite bit in the interview, though, is when Sardesai asks what Kapil Dev said to his team in the dressing room after India was dismissed for 183 in the final. Kapil replies:
I just said c’mon Jawaano, let’s fight it out.
Through a nostalgia-tented lens, of all this seems charmingly uncomplicated. But in my view, the politics is less today and our cricket is much better. (Not the West Indies’s, sadly.) Still, it’s good to remember.
Many readers of this blog, shameless young kids all, were born after that 1983 World Cup. Those of us born before it are often asked where we were when the final was won. I was nine at the time, and hadn’t yet begun following cricket. I vaguely remember being in a room with many family members, all of them rather excited. When they began jumping up and down at the fall of the tenth West Indian wicket, I looked at the screen and sagely remarked: “But they still have one batsman left.”
Aishwarya emails me the quote of the day, and what a quote it is. Rio Ferdinand of Manchester United says about Yakubu Ayegbeni of Everton:
He is strong. He is like a Dinosaur and scores with the precision of chameleon when he targets his victim. I have followed him from his days in Israel and he has not disappointed me with his Yak-like behaviour. In short, Nigerian players have strength, speed and power and I admire them so much.
Since reading this quote, I have researched Yak behaviour to find out what it is that Ayegbeni does. After reading this source, I have concluded that he mates in September.
Posted by Amit Varma on 11 June, 2008 in
A senior Punjab Police officer on Sunday lodged a complaint against Kings XI Punjab co-owner Ness Wadia for allegedly publicly insulting and using derogatory language against him during Friday’s IPL match between the Punjab team and Deccan Chargers at PCA stadium at Mohali.
Mohali police chief Ranbir Singh Khatra lodged a complaint with Mohali deputy commissioner that Wadia had used “insulting” language on him.
Expressing displeasure at the treatment meted out to him by Wadia, Khatra said, “What hurt me the most is when Wadia said he didn’t want to talk to small and mean people.”
And this presumably adult police officer filed a police complaint for that? How small and mean.
A ToI report elaborates that Wadia accused the cops “of selling tickets for the IPL matches in the grey market and also ignoring unauthorized entry of people into the stadium.” He also “charged policemen on duty at the pavilion of stealing several liquor bottles and Mohali team T-shirts.” Obviously I can’t comment on this particular case, but from what I know of the system, his accusations seem plausible to me. You?
The report ends:
In a related development, police sources confirmed that the Mohali police had recorded a complaint against IPL commissioner Lalit Modi for smoking at a public place in the stadium.
And before you imagine similar satire in an Indian context, do note that Lalu Prasad Yadav’s son, Tejashwi Yadav, is part of the Delhi Daredevils squad. His cricketing experience before this is summarized here.