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My Friend Sancho

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.


To buy it online from the US, click here.


I am currently on a book tour to promote the book. Please check out our schedule of city launches. India Uncut readers are invited to all of them, no pass required, so do drop in and say hello.


If you're interested, do join the Facebook group for My Friend Sancho


Click here for more about my publisher, Hachette India.


And ah, my posts on India Uncut about My Friend Sancho can be found here.


Bastiat Prize 2007 Winner

Category Archives: Sport

The Perils of Opening the Batting

In an email responding to my post on cricket commentary, BV Harish Kumar writes:

I have long held the belief that we haven’t had good opening pairs because the batsmen could never tolerate the partner during the between-the-overs chat. List of openers in the 80’s/90’s: Sidhu, Srikkanth, Arun Lal. I rest my case.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 April, 2008 in Journalism | Media | Sport


What Do Cricket Commentators Say When They Reach Orgasm?

Ans. It doesn’t matter how they come as long as they come.

Yes, I’ve been watching the Indian Premier League, and while the cricket is good, the commentary’s getting on my nerves. I wrote a few years ago on how cricket commentary (and writing) in India relies so much on cliches, and things haven’t changed. Having said that, the danger of some of these commentators not using cliches is that they start talking nonsense. Yesterday, for example, I heard L Sivaramakrishnan say:

It’s a hard man’s game – that’s why it’s a profession.

This was during Extraaa Innings, and its host responded to this by saying “yes, yes, you are right,” or something to that effect. I had been prepared for a long evening a couple of hours before by Ravi Shastri saying that VVL Laxman is “an excellent slipper”, but Siva never fails to surprise you. What a guy.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 April, 2008 in Journalism | Media | Sport | WTF


Celebrating Twenty20 Cricket

This piece of mine was published in today’s edition of Mail Today.

A few hours before writing this, I tuned in to watch the live telecast of the first match of the Indian Premier League. The Bangalore Royal Challengers took on the Kolkata Knight Riders. The stadium was full. The crowds were screaming. Imported cheerleaders danced. Some young men in the crowd, in their enthusiasm, held up their posters with ‘6’ written on them upside down, so that it now read ‘9’. That was apt. Twenty20 is cricket on steroids.

Purists – and I used to think of myself as one – often speak of Twenty20 cricket disparagingly, as if it has reduced the fine game of cricket to something absurdly simplistic, where sloggers rule, hand-eye co-ordination matters more than finely honed technique, and bowlers are irrelevant. If you’ve been watching, you’ll know that isn’t true. Twenty20 is not a dilution of the game but an intensification of it.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 April, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport


Irony and the Indian Premier League

Vikram Goyal wrote in to me yesterday with a screenshot of the IPL website: eloquently, it said “Server Active”.

He writes in again today pointing out that the problem has been fixed: the IPL website now says “Forbidden”.

In the context of this news, I think you will join me in applauding this masterful display of irony.

Posted by Amit Varma on 16 April, 2008 in Sport | WTF


Two Pakistans

I’ve always been amazed at how cavalier Pakistan is in squandering its cricketing talent. Consider these two Pakistan teams:

Team one:

1. Taufeeq Umar, 2. Imran Nazir, 3. Humayun Farhat+, 4. Hasan Raza, 5. Inzamam-ul-Haq*, 6. Naved Latif, 7 Azhar Mahmood, 8 Naved-ul-Hasan, 9. Mohammad Sami, 10. Shahid Nazir, 11. Mushtaq Ahmed.

Team two:

1. Salman Butt, 2. Nasir Jamshed, 3. Younis Khan, 4. Mohammad Yousuf, 5. Shoaib Malik*, 6. Misbah-ul-Haq, 7. Shahid Afridi, 8. Kamran Akmal+, 9. Sohail Tanvir, 10. Umar Gul, 11. Iftikhar Anjum.

The first team, of course, is the Lahore Badshahs from the ICL: Imran Farhat was also in that squad, and Abdul Razzaq plays for the side that beat them in the final, the Hyderabad Heroes. And while Inzamam might be past his prime, most of the rest are still worthy of playing international cricket. The second team listed above is the current Pakistan ODI side.

If they played each other, which do you think would win?

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 April, 2008 in Sport


The Lip Synchronisation of Rahul Gandhi

It takes extraordinary delusion to think that Indian hockey is not in a crisis, and KPS Gill is extraordinarily delusionary. Check out this excerpt from an interview of his in Tehelka:

Tehelka: Rahul Gandhi strongly criticised the hockey administration and the selection process.

Gill: The statement was carefully doctored. You watch the lip synchronisation. Immediately after he says it, he talks about cricket. The whole thing was taken out of context. The boys at the Orissa hostel (where the statement was made) will obviously say that the best players were not selected.

Tehelka: So it was irresponsible on the part of Rahul Gandhi?

Gill: I don’t think he made that statement. I don’t think the statement was made in the manner it was made out to be. [My emphasis.]

After all this, thank FSM for Sharad Pawar and Lalit Modi. Indian cricket has tons of problems, and some people cite a government takeover of the BCCI as a solution. I think that would make things worse. Look at Indian hockey. Look at any sport run by the government. Hell, just look at KPS Gill.

(Link via email from Nelson.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 March, 2008 in India | Sport


Not Used To A Plan B

The reason the Australian cricket team has floundered a few times in the recent past, writes Harsha Bhogle, is because they’re not used to being under pressure, and are thus not good at dealing with it.

It has long been my view that Australia are awesome when they are front runners, a great and often elusive quality in itself, but get a bit confused when they fall behind.

That will happen more often now that Adam Gilchrist, one of the greatest rescuers of cricket matches in history, joins Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath in retirement. Plan B will need to be pressed into service more often and opposing teams will be looking to see if that is an indicator of weakness.

[...] It reminds me of what Ian Chappell, a fine and astute observer, said some years ago. “I’d love to see these guys field against Kanhai and Sobers when not only are the wickets difficult to come by but the bowlers are getting a bit of a pasting”, he said.

Sobers and Kanhai were geniuses, of course, and to push these Aussies at their peak, nothing less than genius would suffice. (Think Laxman and Harbhajan, 2001.) Now, however, with their best players retiring one-by-one, a good team can push them into Plan B by just playing consistently well, without needing to play out of their skins. That makes the next couple of years very interesting.

Harsha has some kind words for me and my piece yesterday towards the end of his article. I’m always flattered to read such praise, though I think Rohit Brijnath and Prem Panicker will no doubt be pissed at Harsha for taking my name in the same breath as theirs. Don’t worry, boys, I know my place!

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 March, 2008 in Personal | Sport


Bringing Competition to Cricket

I have a piece in Cricinfo today responding to many of the worries people have about the IPL: Opportunity, choice and the IPL.

If you’ve already seen it via their homepage, be warned that the picture alongside the headline is of Lalit Modi, not me. I only mention this because a reader wrote in wondering why I’m looking so doped out. (Update: The picture has changed!)

Also read:

There’s Nothing Wrong In Being ‘Commercial’ (Feb 24, 2008)
What Indian Cricket Needs (Aug 8, 2007)

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 March, 2008 in India | Sport


Dear Purba Dutt

Dear Purba Dutt

In a feature in the Sunday Times today, you refer to the IPL auctions as “human auctions”, and compare it to the slave trade. You invoke Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and speak of indentured labourers being sold in “a heartless transaction.” You miss something here.

Contrary to rhetoric, the cricketers were not on sale during the IPL auctions—their services were. The eight IPL franchises were effectively bidding for the services of the players as per contracts enabled by the BCCI that the players had willingly signed. This is quite unlike slavery—indeed, it is how you and me get by.

If you choose to leave the Times someday and look for a job, you will effectively put yourself on the market just as these cricketers did. You will evaluate prospective employers, and go to whoever makes you the most appealing offer. There may not be a formal auction setup for it, but it will effectively be just that: your services will be on offer, and different employers will bid for them.

So please, please, don’t compare this with the slave trade. Thank you.

Regards

Amit Varma

Ps. You might also want to read this.

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 March, 2008 in Economics | Letters | Sport


Symonds and Harbhajan Get Married

Well, that’s the first thought that came to mind when I saw this headline.

Then I realised that I’d mistakenly read ‘monkey’ as ‘maa ki’. Damn.

(Link via separate emails from Andy and Vipin.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 February, 2008 in News | Sport


There’s Nothing Wrong In Being ‘Commercial’

This piece of mine was published today in Mail Today (pdf link).

Wherever there’s big money floating around, politicians emerge and start squealing. The recent auctions at the Indian Premier League have roused the ire of both the Left and the Right of Indian politics. On the right, the inimitable Balasaheb Thackeray has described the IPL auctions as the “gambling of industrialists”. On the Left, Gurudas Dasgupta is complaining that this will make “every youngster not a good sportsman but a man hungry for money.” 

Sundry politicians and commentators are telling us that this obscene spending will corrupt the spirit of the game, that these players are selling their soul, and so on. They behave as if “commercialization”, a term used repeatedly by shocked observers, is The Great Indian Sin. I have a question:

What, precisely, is wrong with commercialisation?

If Thackeray and Dasgupta pondered the history of human affairs, they would note that human progress is possible only because of the profit motive. The only way to make a profit is to fulfill the desire of fellow humans, by manufacturing goods or providing services that they need. The search for profit fuels innovation and enterprise. It leads to new technologies and better service. People trade to their comparative advantage, they specialize, and this makes economies more productive, and raises everyone’s standard of living.

Without such “commercialisation”, we’d be stuck in the stone age.

Profit

If Thackeray really has a problem with industry - for that is what the industrialists he condemns are all about - then he should step wearing clothes. All the clothes he wears are produced for profit, by industrialists, who clothe him not because they care for him or want to defend Hindu culture, but because he pays them money. How vulgar!

If Dasgupta has a problem with people “hungry for money”, he should immediately go on a fast. The people he gets his groceries from provide it in exchange for money, as do the restaurants that serve him food. There is only one appropriate response to this shocking commercialisation and rampant consumerism: Stop eating.

One blogger bizarrely compared the cricketers up on auction to prostitutes. Firstly, in the absence of coercion, I don’t see what is wrong with prostitution, or why we should look down on prostitutes. Secondly, if selling a service makes one a prostitute, then I am unquestionably a lady of the night, and this is my short, black, leather skirt that you’re reading. We are all whores in our own ways - and there is nothing wrong with that.

Back to the cricket. Besides the mere fact that money is involved, many people are also complaining about the amount of money the cricketers are getting. Some say cricketers should not be so well paid when other sportspeople in this country are so poorly paid. Other say that it is an outrage that Ishant Sharma should get more than Chaminda Vaas, and Rohit Sharma more than Ricky Ponting.

Look, who determines these prices? In the long run, you and I do. The businessmen putting that cash on the table do so because they estimate that those are the returns they’ll get on their investment. Those returns will come from us: We’ll buy the merchandise, we’ll watch the matches - which determine the value of TV rights - and their appeal to us will determine the value of the endorsements that flood in.

What if the team owners are wrong, and overpay for some players? Well, then they’ll duly learn their lessons when their team’s performance doesn’t justify the investment, and their bottomline suffers. What if some players are underpaid? Well, if they perform beyond their renumeration, they’ll receive their rightful value when the transfer season begins.

Twenty20 is a new form of the game, and the IPL is a new venture. It will take some time for the market to start functioning smoothly, and getting the values right. Until then, there is no point begrudging these cricketers their earnings.

The argument that this money would be better spent on other sports is bogus. If you feel Indian football should get more attention than Indian cricket, then here’s what you should do about it: Go out there and watch some local football games. Put your money where your mouth is. If you contribute your eyeballs, advertisers will open their chequebooks. If other sports don’t have a following in India, it is not because people don’t put money into them - it is the other way around.

Competition

Back to the IPL. Despite the BCCI bungling up sp much of the process, I think the IPL, if it succeeds, will be revolutionary. The reason for that is that it introduces into cricket the best guarantee of quality and efficiency: Competition.

The market for cricket has so far been a monopsony: There has been only buyer for a cricketer’s services. An Indian cricketer who wants to play cricket at the highest level can only sell his services to the BCCI, and is dependent of its selectors picking him - an imperfect process open to politics and the whims and fancies of individuals. That will change if the IPL takes off. A young, talented cricketer will have a number of people he can sell his services to, from the Bangalore Royal Challengers to the Delhi Daredevils to the Chennai Super Kings. If he is good, they will compete for him, thus guaranteeing him his true market value.

The BCCI, when it comes to cricket in India, has essentially had a captive market. The IPL teams will have to compete. The competition will threaten their existence, and they will have all the right incentives to excel. They will eschew the local politics of selection. They will search for differentiators in terms of training and scouting new talent. Like some football clubs do in Europe, they might establish youth academies to find and hone new talent. They will do so not out of love or duty to the game, but with regard to their bottomline. Cricket will benefit, as its machinery will flow that much smoother. 

Tests?

For a cricket purist like me, there is a flip side to this: What will happen to Test cricket? If the IPL succeeds, Test cricket will surely suffer. Already, one hears rumours of the ICC schedule being subject to the demands of Lalit Modi and his men. Given the amount of investment, in terms of time, that Test cricket requires from its viewers, it is possible that Test cricket will slowly die out.

Hordes of commentators and politicians will then start squealing about how the demands of the market have killed Test cricket, and how the market is a cruel, malign force.

Personally, I believe that Test cricket will have enough of an audience to survive—even if it ends up being a niche audience. But if it doesn’t, here’s my question: Should people who don’t watch Test cricket be forced to subsidize it? Remember, commerce is all about giving you what you want. If Test cricket dies, the killer won’t be commercialisation, or the IPL, or the greed of businessmen - it will be us.

*  *  *

Also read:

Dear Navjot Sidhu
The Twenty20 Age Begins

IBNLive and Rediff links via email from Praveen Krishnan.

For more, check out my essays and Op-Eds archive.

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 February, 2008 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport


How the ICC Spawned the IPL

Rahul Bhatia explains how the IPL arose out of the unintended consequences of something the ICC did way back in 2000. Immense irony.

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 February, 2008 in Economics | Sport


Dear Arvind Swaminathan

Dear Arvind Swaminathan

Assuming there is no coercion, what’s wrong with prostitution?

Regards

Amit Varma

(Link via Smoke Signals.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 February, 2008 in Economics | Letters | Sport


Cover Drive

Rahul Bhatia captures MS Dhoni’s cover drive:

Dhoni hurls himself into that shot so hard that he leaves his skin behind.

Rahul’s blog has shifted here, and I recommend you bookmark it. His blogging is infrequent, but his insights on cricket, in particular, are sharp. Blog-to-watch types.

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 February, 2008 in Sport


The State of Indian Sport

This story says it all:

India have scrapped a training camp for this month’s Thomas and Uber Cup qualifiers because of a lack of shuttlecocks, badminton officials said on Thursday.

The federation sent home over 30 players due to start training on Thursday, blaming the state-run Sports Authority of India (SAI) for not supplying the stock or allowing them to import.

The emphasis is mine.

Apropos of nothing, I’m reminded of the Amartya Sen Fallacy.

(Link via email from Shruti.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 February, 2008 in Economics | India | News | Politics | Sport


Harbhajan Aur Symonds Ki Ajeeb Dastaan

Heh.

(Link via email from R Mahajan.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 February, 2008 in Sport


The Shah of Entertainment

Indian cricket provides us with the best of sport and entertainment. The cricketers provide the sport; the cricket administrators provide the entertainment. The tireless and brave Prem Panicker trawls through mountains of cricket coverage every day to bring us the very best, and nothing beats this remarkable interview of Niranjan Shah, BCCI’s secretary, by Mihir Srivastava of Tehelka:

Tehelka: For the sake of argument, what is the more important criterion for selection: performance or rotation policy? Would you drop the best performing players for rotation policy?

Shah: Rahul’s performance is not there. Lakshman’s performance is not there.

Tehelka: I am talking about Ganguly. He has done well.

Shah: Lakshman has done well too.

Ignore the misspelling of VVS Laxman’s name—isn’t this just priceless? Who needs Bollywood?

Update: Actually, the excerpt quoted above isn’t remotely as funny as the last answer in that interview, which reminds me of this young lady. It is incredible. It is so good that no one could have made it up. Wow.

Posted by Amit Varma on 31 January, 2008 in Sport | WTF


Taking Care Of Shaun Tait

Shaun Tait’s had too much. And just see how the Aussie cricket establishment has stepped up to help. Can you imagine the Indian board helping an Indian player out in a similar situation?

(Link via Smoke Signals, where Prem Panicker repeatedly produces the most trenchant commentary on the game. Here’s his latest on the Harbhajan saga.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 January, 2008 in News | Sport


Sathya Sai Baba Stops Match…

... by not turning up to bless the players. Sigh.*

(Link via email from The Not So Talkative Man.

*Pun not intended.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 January, 2008 in India | News | Sport | WTF


Mike Procter Violates ICC’s Code of Conduct

Despite being at the center of so much controversy, the full text of Mike Procter’s decision against Harbhajan Singh hasn’t been available to the general public—so far. The excellent law blog, Law and Other Things, links to a copy of the decision, which I reproduce in full below the fold.

Vivek Kumar, in an analysis, points out that wherever Procter states the conclusion he has come to—“I am satisfied and sure beyond reasonable doubt that Harbhajan Singh did say these words” etc—he does not give any reasons for it. This, Vivek writes, is “in direct violation of ICC’s Code of Conduct [pdf link].” (Scroll down to page 17, and check out section H.)

No one has yet produced any evidence that Harbhajan Singh violated ICC’s Code of Conduct. However, it is evident from Procter’s statement that Procter did. Who should be punished, you think?

Here’s the text of Procter’s decision:

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 January, 2008 in Sport


Australia—A Lesbian Cricket Team

According to Will Buckley, Ricky Ponting’s men, like Norman Mailer, have “crossed the line from macho to butch.”

Then they should just sledge each other, no?

(Link via email from Gaspode.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 January, 2008 in Sport


Who Dropped Ganguly?

The trains.

(Link via email from Gaurav.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 January, 2008 in India | News | Sport | WTF


How To Save The Hapless Cricket Umpire

This piece of mine was published today in Mail Today under the headline “High tech input can give better umpiring”.You can download a pdf here.

I feel sorry for Steve Bucknor. In 2004, he had a horrid Test at Sydney, making a series of errors that prevented India from winning the series. A few months ago, he had a lousy World Cup final, displaying a shocking ignorance of the rules. And now, after another Sydney Test full of blunders, his career is close to winding up. It’s been tough, but my pity isn’t based on the brickbats flung his way being undeserved – he has long been an incompetent and arrogant umpire. I feel sorry for him because all this is really the ICC’s fault.

In 1988, Bucknor was a FIFA referee at a World Cup qualifier between El Salvador and the Netherlands Antilles. Why isn’t he still a FIFA referee today? Well, FIFA has a compulsory retirement age of 45 for its umpires. They feel that a referee’s job imposes physical demands that make it hard for someone above that age to do the job effectively. So they say, “Thank you, you were good, but run along now.”

The physical demands on a cricket umpire don’t seem to be so great. He may be on the field of play longer, but has no running around to do. Nevertheless, it is my contention that umpiring requires an extensive use of physical faculties that decline with age. And for a man is his 60s to be doing the job is ludicrous.

Consider what an umpire has to go through. He has to stand on the field and concentrate hard for six hours of play – this sometimes for five days in a row. His eyesight has to be perfect. He has to be quick – the shift in focus from the bowling crease, which he needs to watch for a no-ball, to the batsman isn’t easy. He has to evaluate what he sees within split seconds, factoring in all the optical illusions that typically come into play, such as the parallax error. (Because the umpire stands at a height above the stumps, balls that would go over the stumps appear to be hitting.) His depth perception has to be perfect, and his brain has to process all these multiple inputs to come up with a correct decision.

Age

The faculties required for all this diminish with age. You wouldn’t put a 60-year-old man in a Formula One race, because he could kill others, and himself. (Besides, he would be no good.) A 60-year-old man umpiring a cricket game can end careers, or decide matches, and series. (Besides, he would be no good.)

What is happening to Bucknor is not new. We saw this happen to David Shepherd as well. Shepherd, one of the great umpires of the game, declined rapidly towards the start of this century, making a series of infamous howlers in the 2001 England-Pakistan series. It was all downhill from there – and what a pity it was.

Should the ICC have a mandatory retirement age, like FIFA does? While it would act as a safeguard, I will be perfectly happy if they don’t. While Bucknor and Shepherd felt the ravages of age, some remarkably well-preserved umpire might not. But what ICC does need to do is recognise that a good umpire isn’t good forever, and have regular tests and evaluations carried out. The ones it has in place are obviously not good enough.

And it should also pay attention to the feedback that captains are required to give on umpires at the end of every series. Sourav Ganguly, India’s captain in the 2003-2004 series against Australia, gave Bucknor an extremely negative report. The ICC should have paid attention to it then. I wonder why they didn’t.

Technology

Let us consider the role of umpires in cricket. Are they participants in the game of cricket? Do the crowds come to see them at work?

My answers are no and no.

Umpires are nothing more than facilitators. Eleven men take on 11 other men, and the sport is about them. Umpires are there to enforce the rules of the game, so that the result is fair, and the team that plays better wins.

So when the attention of the commentators or the crowds is on the umpires, something is wrong. It means they made a mistake. It is an aberration, something that should not happen. The ICC should do everything within its power to prevent it.

The ICC should recognise that umpires are just the means to an end. They are not the point of the game. It should also recognise that they need help. And the technology exists to help them.

How do we know when umpires make mistakes? Some mistakes are visible to the naked eye. But for others, we go to technology. We see a ball hitting middle-stump on Hawk-Eye and exclaim, “That’s plumb, how could he not give that?” We see a snick via the Snickometer, or notice via the tram lines on the screen that the ball pitched outside leg, and we go, “What lousy umpiring.”

We judge the umpires using technology. Would it not be fair, then, to make that same technology available to them?

Critics have created a false dichotomy between umpires and technology. Using technology does not mean doing away with umpires or having androids on the field. It simply means giving umpires the tools to do his job better. We make his life easier, and ensure more accurate decisions. Isn’t that the whole purpose of umpiring to begin with?

Hawk-Eye

But is some of the technology out there accurate enough? Some of it – using TV replays for line calls, for example – is non-controversial. Some isn’t. Hawk-Eye has been at the center of much controversy, and is mocked by many who then, ironically, use it to point out umpiring errors. Many of the objections against it, though, are based on misconceptions. I think Hawk-Eye would be a fantastic tool for umpires, and would make contentious lbw decisions a thing of the past.

(Disclosure: I used to work for Cricinfo, which was owned by Wisden, who acquired Hawk-Eye in 2006. I’m no longer associated with Cricinfo, which was sold to ESPN last year and is no longer associated with Hawk-Eye.)

The predictive technology behind Hawk-Eye is similar to that used in missile-guidance systems and instrument guidance for brain surgeons – it’s designed for extreme accuracy. To answer the objections against it in detail would require a full piece, but suffice it to say that whatever the umpire can do, Hawk-Eye can do with greater accuracy. Experts of the game implicitly acknowledge this by turning to Hawk-Eye whenever lbw decisions need to be evaluated.

The most popular misconception about Hawk-Eye is that it would take time to get a decision, as one goes to the third umpire for a replay, and so on. This is not true. What we see on television is a just a graphical representation of Hawk-Eye, and Hawk-Eye’s decision would actually be delivered within a second or two to the umpire, via a handheld device: out or not out, pitching outside leg or on line, and so on. At the click of a button, umpires would save themselves much embarrassment.

And contrary to an old canard, technology does not take “the human touch” out of anything. People like “maa ke haath ka khana” even when she uses a microwave. Umpires who use technology will remain human – but they will get more decisions right. We should give them the tools to make that happen.

*  *  *

I wrote a piece on exactly the same subject four years ago after the last Sydney Test: “On age and technology.” Such hopes of change I had…

I also argued for Hawk-Eye in a series of posts on 23 Yards, which I now find long-winded and poorly written, though I hold the same opinions: 1, 2, 3.

Also on Hawk-Eye, read these two pieces by my ex-colleague, S Rajesh: 1, 2.

You can read more essays and Op-Eds by me here.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 January, 2008 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport


Abey Maa Ki…

... can be mistaken for “big monkey” by someone who doesn’t know the language, no?

I’d heard this theory joked about, and Mihir Bose now reveals that sources have told him that this, indeed, is what happened at Sydney.

Gosh.

(Link via email from Mahendra Shikaripur.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 January, 2008 in News | Sport


“It is possible to love a country and not its cricket team”

Peter Roebuck calls for Ricky Ponting to be sacked. He seems to like Harbhajan Singh, but I’m sure even young Bhajji would be amused at being called “an intemperate Sikh warrior.” Still, that’s Roebuck!

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 January, 2008 in Sport


A Picture For Mr Ponting

WTF quote of the day:

There’s no way I grounded that ball.

So says Ricky Ponting, referring to this:

(Quote and pic via Prem Panicker at Rediff. Prem has more to say here.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 January, 2008 in Sport | WTF


Brett Lee’s Bottom

Joyful sentence of the day:

The Queenslander had questioned why Harbhajan, in his match-turning innings, had touched fast bowler Brett Lee on the bottom when the fireworks erupted.

Laws about racism are all well and good, but what are we doing about sexual harassment, that’s what I want to know. Also, was the touch consensual?

(Link via email from Rohan D’Sa.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 07 January, 2008 in Journalism | Media | News | Sport


Caste in the Indian Cricket Team?

In the WTF piece of the weekend, Andrew Stevenson writes that “caste could play a role in who represents India [in cricket].” Thankfully, Salil Tripathi’s around to set the record straight.

Also inspired by Stevenson’s piece, Nitin Pai gives us “a brief guide to writing articles about India that people will notice.”

Update (January 7): Sorry, I forgot to mention that I got the link to Stevenson’s piece via email from Mahendra Shikaripur.

Posted by Amit Varma on 06 January, 2008 in Sport | WTF


When a Red Card is Not Enough

Heh.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 December, 2007 in Miscellaneous | Sport


Leveling the Playing Field

Natalie Angier writes in the New York Times:

Perhaps no example of steroid doping so closely matches our own as that practiced by mother birds eager to give their offspring a wing up in the world. In the last few years, scientists have discovered that many female birds will fine-tune the dose of testosterone and other androgens they inject into eggs depending on a range of environmental cues.

According to Kristen J Navara, a biologist at the University of Georgia, female bluebirds mated to drab males deposit four or more times more testosterone into the yolk of developing eggs than do bluebirds paired with enviably cerulean males. Among black-headed gulls, said Ton Groothuis of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, mothers supply the later-laid eggs in a clutch with significantly more testosterone than they donate to eggs they laid early on.

Whatever the species, the impact of the testosterone spiking is clear: chicks of either sex emerge from their shell beefier, more aggressive and more demanding of food than their peers from lower-T prenatal pools. Through hormonal enhancement, then, chicks sired by undesirable males can compete with the young of princes, and later-born chicks peck it out better with their older and bossier siblings.

Just imagine if there was an Olympics for bluebirds. But then, that’s what life is, no?

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 December, 2007 in Miscellaneous | Sport


Cricket Beats Paris Hilton

Google’s Zeitgeist for 2007 is quite fascinating. It reveals that “cricket world cup 2007” was the fourth-most popular search of the year in Google News, while “paris hilton” came eighth. Hooray for one-day cricket.

Having said that, if any of Hilton’s sex tapes had lasted a day…

(Link via Smoke Signals.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 December, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Media | Sport


More Thoughts On Doping

One of my favourite books of introductory economics is Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics. I don’t agree with his latest column, though: Say It Ain’t So. In it, he comes out hard against the MLB dopers recently named—and against doping in sport.

My recent column, Let’s Rethink Doping, was not a defense of those sportsmen, as some emailers have assumed. I believe in the sanctity of contracts. When a sportsman signs a contract with a particular body, he is clearly cheating if he doesn’t abide by the rules of the contract. If the rules say no doping, and he dopes, he’s a cheat. But my basis for that statement is the contract he has reneged upon, and nothing beyond that.

In my column I tried to question whether the rules on doping that most sports have are practical. Those rules might have seemed sensible when they were first framed, but I believe they need to be re-examined, because the context has changed. I covered some of my reasons for believing that in my piece, but the 800 words I was limited to didn’t allow me to touch a few bases. Let me do so now.

A few readers have written in protesting that doping should be banned because of the dangerous side effects some drugs have. This is a common refrain, so let me respond with two points:

One, modern doping has become less dangerous than the primitive steroids of the 1980s. Gene doping, once it is mastered, might have no side effects whatsoever. If medical reasons are the sole reasons for banning performance-enhancing drugs, then the debate might soon be moot. Indeed, given how science develops, medical reasons are bound to lose their validity. What then?

Two, even if we were to assume that medical science comes to a standstill, or regresses (!), and doping has serious side effects, should that not be a choice left to the individual? Outside of sport, I’d hold that what I do to my body, as long as I am an adult, is my business alone. Why should I have to cede that right when I become a sportsman?

The eminently sensible argument can be made here that all sportsmen will then be forced to dope because some do, and therefore the organising body of every sport has a responsibility to keep it clean. In an ideal world, I’d agree with that sentiment. But banning doping doesn’t take doping out of sport—it merely takes it underground. In a sport that makes the kind of demands on the body that cycling does, for example, there is clearly a vast amount of hidden doping that goes on that cannot be detected by testing. Just look at the number of top names involved in Operación Puerto, for example. A young cyclist who comes into the sport is likely to find that he cannot possible excel in it without joining the dopers.

If doping is illegal, your average young athlete who feels the need to dope will do so in seedy, hidden clinics, away from the protection that his sport’s administrators could provide if it was legit. That’s the real world, and banning doping doesn’t make those seedy clinics go poof and vanish. Also, if it was legit, you’d have better institutions and scientists doing more sophisticated research into doping, benefiting everybody, and making the whole process much safer for the sportsmen involved.

It is also untrue that doping will take the charm out of sports by producing beefed-up androids. Take cricket, for example. If doping had been allowed in cricket in this decade, my contention is that exactly the same players would have dominated it. The best bowlers would still be Shane Warne, Muttiah Muralitharan and Glenn McGrath, because it is their remarkable skills that set them apart. Only they’d have more stamina, would recover from injury faster, and because they’d tire less easily, would bowl fewer bad balls.

That would make life more challenging for the batsmen—who wouldn’t be hulks out of WWF, but talented sportsmen who spent thousands of hours in the nets getting that elbow just such. Ricky Ponting, Rahul Dravid and Brian Lara would still be your best batsmen, for the same reasons that they were the best without dope: a combination of their skills and their character. If they chose to dope—and in a skill-based sport like cricket there is less reason to—it would help them last longer on the crease and hit the ball a little harder on the rare occasions when they chose to slog, which the best batsmen rarely do.

The sports that would be affected most would be the ones that place a premium on strength or stamina. So sure, your 100m sprinters and your weight-lifters would benefit hugely—if they don’t already—and records might tumble. But then, sportsmen in those sports already do a lot of perfectly legal performance enhancement. They can take creatine but not growth hormone. They can do altitude training to boost their count of red blood cells, but not take EPO. What is the sense behind such arbitrary distinctions?*

Back to Sowell’s piece. His main grouse was that “many young people will imitate their sports heroes—and pay the price.” Well, I think we need to re-examine if their sporting heroes are really doing something so wrong (apart from the obvious violation of their contract, which I do not condone). If not, then why not let the “young people”, who can presumably think for themselves anyway, follow in their footsteps?

(Link to Sowell’s piece via email from Jim O’Neil.)

*  *  *

Update: *My question about arbitrary distinctions is not a rhetorical one. If you oppose doping in sport, you need to be able to define doping to begin with, and answering this question is necessary for that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 December, 2007 in Sport


Let’s Rethink Doping

This is the 45th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

“Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play,” George Orwell once wrote. There seems to be plenty of recent evidence to back that up. Former US senator George Mitchell recently released a report on performance enhancing drugs in Major League Baseball (MLB) that revealed that 78 past and current players had used banned substances. Last week, Marion Jones was stripped of the five medals she won in the 2000 Olympics, following a confession that she had taken steroids at the time. Earlier this year, the Tour de France was beset by controversy, with Michael Rasmussen withdrawn by his team while he was leading the race on allegations of doping, and pre-race favourite Alexander Vinokourov busted for an illegal blood transfusion.

You could look at the glass half empty and bemoan the fact that doping seems to be so widespread in sport. You could look at it half full and feel glad that the cheats are finally being caught. I believe that we’re looking at the wrong glass.

In my view, doping in sport will be an issue no one bothers about in a couple of decades time.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 December, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | Sport | Thinking it Through


Saluting Sourav

Sambit Bal, at the end of a superb piece on Sourav Ganguly, writes:

There are many, me included, who believed Ganguly’s time as an international cricketer was over. We owe him an apology and a salute.

Ditto.

(Link via email from Sanjeev.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 December, 2007 in Sport


The Republican

Sally Feldman tells us of Benjamin Franklin’s obsession with chess:

[Franklin’s] essay “The Morals of Chess” asserted that it improved basic human qualities such as foresight, caution and perseverance.

At a game in France during the American struggle for independence, Franklin ignored his opponent’s check because he refused to defend his tyrannical king. “Take him, if you please,” he told his opponent. “I can do without him, and will fight out the rest of the battle en republicain.”

Checkmate was probably inevitable—but it’s a lovely story anyway!

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 November, 2007 in Freedom | Sport


Playing For The Boy

When Rohit Brijnath is on song, he’s a heck of a writer. His latest piece on Sachin Tendulkar is wonderful, and I love the way it ends:

What does Tendulkar play for? Team, himself, pride, records? Maybe he plays because part of him is just a boy who finds himself when bat meets ball. Maybe he plays because of a boy agog in the stands. Maybe he has summoned this last reservoir of energy to show a kid, now old enough to understand, why, for 18 years, the world has made such a fuss about his father.

Read the full thing.

(Link via Prem Panicker.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 November, 2007 in Journalism | Media | Sport


Sachin Tendulkar is a Buffalo

In the WTF story of the day, Bejan Daruwala, speaking to Rajesh Pansare of DNA, suggests a cure for Sachin Tendulkar’s “nervous 90s”:

It’s well known amongst the astrology community that Sachin Tendulkar is a Taurus and that numbers 3, 6 and 9 apply to him.

But according to Chinese astrology, Tendulkar is also a Buffalo, a cousin of the bull — and these two systems combined make him a Double Bull.

The Bull is steadfast, a sign of strength and consistency. The weakness of Bulls and Buffalos is that they get into a rut and often cannot think out of the box, something which applies to Tendulkar. [...]

Because he is a loving and faithful husband, to get out of his nervous 90s, I would suggest that Tendulkar follow four steps:

1. Sleep in the lap of his wife and tell her to love him sweetly and gently

2. Cook his own mutton cheese burgers and eat them

3. Have a terrific bath

4. Jump in his Ferrari and go for a drive

There is no indication on that page that this is a joke of some sort. It reads like a parody, but Daruwala always reads like a parody of himself. Anjali Tendulkar, of course, must be befuddled at what Sachin means when he asks her to love him “sweetly and gently.”

“What do you mean, sweetly and gently,” she could respond. “How else have I been loving you all these years? You can cook your own damn mutton burgers from now on. And take a bath, you’re stinking—now wonder Dada likes to run you out.”

(Link via email from reader Gokul. Earlier posts on superstitious nonsense: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 19 November, 2007 in Old memes | Astrology etc | Sport | WTF


Pink Balls and Red Ribbons

Rediff reports:

The colour of balls used in the English one-day game could change from white to pink if trials by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), guardians of the laws of cricket, prove successful.

They are also planning a dress code that will make it mandatory for all cricketers with long hair, such as Mahender Singh Dhoni, to wear a red ribbon on their head.

Ok, fine, I made that second line up. But not the first one.

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 November, 2007 in News | Sport | WTF


Isn’t it Ironic…

... that after Sachin Tendulkar declined the captaincy ostensibly so that it would go to a younger man, it ended up going to an older man?

Still, I think both Tendulkar and the selectors made the right decision. Whatever the stated reasons, Tendulkar probably declined the captaincy for the same reason that Rahul Dravid gave it up—the baggage that comes with the job isn’t worth it. We’re all better off having him focus on his batting. As for Kumble, an under-appreciated giant of the game, he both deserves it as a reward and can do justice to it as a responsibility.

More from friends: Prem Panicker gives us the background to Sachin’s decision; and Anand Vasu writes:

This is no “parting gift” to Kumble in the evening of his career; if anything it is handing him a tough job at a time when, given all the circumstances, he was the best man for the job.

Tough job. Best man. I agree on both counts.

PS: The succession isn’t inevitable, by the way. If MS Dhoni has a bad run of batting form in Tests, and India start losing because of not getting enough runs on the board, the team management might be tempted to ask Dinesh Karthik, already in the side as an opener, to keep wicket, so that they can play a specialist batsman in place of Dhoni. If that then becomes the settled combination, who succeeds Kumble? Yuvraj Singh emerges as a candidate—but only if he’s in the side. Such excitement.

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 November, 2007 in India | Sport


Sreesanth the Actor

The quote of the day comes from S Sreesanth:

I know I am handsome but all the actresses can wait.

Sreesanth said this while responding to questions about a possible film career. Frankly, the only film I’d like to see him in is one where he’s locked inside a room with Andre Nel and Andrew Symonds, and there’s no one to shout “Cut.” I’d pay to watch that.

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 October, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | News | Sport | WTF


“Given Enough Time…”

Tim Harford is asked, “Is there an economic justification for cricket’s superiority?” Here’s what he has to say.

(Link via email from Anand Krishnamoorthi.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 14 October, 2007 in Economics | Sport


Gentle Symonds, Leering Sreesanth?

S Sreesanth’s behaviour has been quite over the top recently, but nevertheless this piece of reporting by Peter Lalor is outrageous:

If Andrew Symonds wasn’t such a gentle fellow, India’s Shanthakumaran Sreesanth’s nose would probably be plastered all over his leering face.

The Hindu and occasionally Christian bowler can thank all his gods that the secular Queenslander is a man of peace and tranquility.

There are different kinds of tough guys: you can be tough and dignified, and you can be tough and boorish. Sreesanth falls in the second category, and with such poor reporting, so does Lalor. But at least Sreesanth’s a sportsman, and adrenalin flows and one gets carried away, which makes his behaviour understandable though not justifiable. What’s Lalor’s excuse?

(Link via email from Mahendra Shikaripur, who blogs about it here.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 10 October, 2007 in Journalism | Media | Sport | WTF


How to Popularize Cricket in America

My friend the uber-journalist Salil Tripathi, reacting to my column this morning, The Twenty20 Age Begins, writes in:

One area worth exploring is whether cricket will finally break through the great wall of indifference in America. This version is so close to baseball, and in some ways, has greater guile and variation (compared with baseball, but not with the longer version we love) that it just might get Americans interested. Those who have seen it, and don’t like it, usually complain about the lack of action and the eternal nature of the five-day and even one-day version. These games are shorter than a standard baseball match, and with more action. I saw two baseball matches this year, one in Boston and one in San Francisco, and even saw Barry Bonds, the steroid-enriched world record holder; and all he does are hoicks. Compared to that, Yuvraj’s six sixes were far more elegant.

Oh yes they were. And Barry Bonds can’t do the delicate glance to fine leg, the artful late cut or the back-foot cover-drive, all strokes of great beauty that, contrary to many expectations, are not alien to the nature of Twenty20 cricket. Let’s take ‘em on!

Update: Arun Simha writes in:

An additional aspect that may be of commercial interest to the organizers is that the game of cricket offers a 360° view of the game, thus enabling oval or circular stadiums to be built. In other words, you can fill the entire ground. This is unlike baseball, where seating is limited to the areas behind the “foul lines” and directly in front, in most stadia.

More importantly, the 6-ball overs offer a predictable slot for advertisers on TV every 5 minutes or so, again, unlike baseball.

That said, this game will only make inroads where there exist a substantial mass of emigres from the cricket playing nations.

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 September, 2007 in Sport


The Hardest Kind of Politics

Quote of the day:

We are not trying to win the elections, we are trying to have elections.

That’s Garry Kasparov, the greatest chess player ever, who is engaged in his hardest game yet—against Vladimir Putin, who has the equivalent of eight queens to begin with. Can Kasparov win?

If you’re interested in both chess and politics, as I am, I recommend you check out Kasparov’s book, How Life Imitates Chess. I found it immensely fascinating for his explanation of how his early matches against Anatoly Karpov taught him lessons that he is now using against Putin.

(First link via Instapundit.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 September, 2007 in Freedom | Politics | Sport


The Twenty20 Age Begins

This is the 33rd installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Monday has long passed, and the immediate elation around India’s victory in the Twenty20 World Cup has abated. Yet, I still feel excited, and certain of the historical significance of this win. In 1975, when the first One Day International (ODI) World Cup took place, it seemed like a tamasha to everyone, a passing fancy. Today, it is a huge deal, and West Indies are inscribed as its first winners. I’m certain that the Twenty20 World Cup will be as important one day, and India will be remembered as its first champions. That’s quite something.

My excitement is not just about India winning. I am as charged up about Twenty20 cricket, though it is a format I was initially suspicious of, being a purist in love with the intricate and elongated dramas of Test cricket. My preconceptions about Twenty20 cricket have been—forgive the cliché, but I can’t resist this one—knocked for a six.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 27 September, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport | Thinking it Through


The BCCI Inbox

Humongous hilarity howls!

(Link via email from reader R Mahajan, who found it here.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 September, 2007 in Sport


Where Your Taxes Go: 25

The Indian cricket team.

Yes, the Maharashtra government is giving Rs10 Lakh each to Ajit Agarkar and Rohit Sharma, and the Delhi government is handing out Rs5 lakh each to Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir. This is disgraceful. If Vilasrao Deshmukh and Sheila Dikshit wish to use India’s victory to make a statement, they should spend their own money. All poor people in this country, from maids to chaprasis to cycle-rickshaw drivers, pay taxes every time they buy anything. It is ludicrous that their hard-earned money, coercively collected by the state, should be spent on cricketers with endorsements that are worth crores.

(Link via email from Jitendra Mohan. Where your taxes go: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24. Also see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.

My essays on taxes and government: Your maid funds Unani, A beast called government, A Business Proposal.)

Update: Speaking of endorsements...

(Link via reader Surendra.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 September, 2007 in Economics | India | Old memes | Taxes | Politics | Sport


Sreesanth the Batsman?

Salil Tripathi, via email, points me to a piece on Twenty20 cricket by Somini Sengupta that is a surprisingly atrocious piece of work—indeed, a classic example of a journalist tackling a subject without gaining adequate familiarity with it. Salil had commented on it on the SAJA list, and as I agree with all of what he said, I’m reproducing it here with his permission:

Somini Sengupta, whose work I usually admire, has written an unusually hastily-put-together piece about India’s victory in the Twenty20 World Cup cricket final in South Africa yesterday.

When you read this ... you will notice that it seems Somini has slept through the creation and rise of one-day cricket. Twenty-20 is the shorter form of one-day cricket; all the criticisms leveled on five-day cricket, as seen in her piece below, led to the creation of one-day cricket; that has neither died, nor is it dying. (The format of the ICC World Cup is a different matter). The sociological observations, about the rise of a new India, were all made when Sourav Ganguly took India to the world cup final in 2003, the post-liberalization, assertive India and all that; and Dhoni is not the first to go topless; Ganguly famously did it from the balcony of the Lords in London after India won the Natwest Trophy. So many of the observations in this piece remind me of things Amit Varma has been writing about on his blog, or Mukul Kesavan himself elsewhere, and, dare I say it, stuff I have written in WSJ in the past. And then, the unkindest cut, she calls Sreesanth a batsman.

Going beyond the immediate: how could the piece miss commenting on how India reacted after losing to Bangladesh (the same Dhoni’s home in Ranchi was stoned, and Zahir Khan’s restaurant was attacked); or, that the same Indian team gave a middling performance in England barely two weeks ago; and, finally, how the rise of cricketers from the smaller towns is because of greater leisure alternatives in the bigger towns (from which India traditionally selected its players)?

There are many other things wrong with this piece, but why enumerate the obvious? I’ve heard good things from common friends about the meticulous research Somini does, and sometimes journalists are given unexpected assignments on crazy deadlines, so perhaps there are mitigating circumstances. It’s a pity, though, that often journalists are remembered for one poor article, and a hundred good pieces before that are forgotten. I hope that doesn’t happen to Somini.

PS: Readers have written in asking about my reactions to the Twenty20 World Cup. As it happens I wrote a long post on it yesterday, but before publishing it, decided that it would make more sense to save it for my Thursday column. So it appears tomorrow.

Meanwhile, here’s an old essay I’d written about India’s relationship with the game: Do We Really Love cricket?

Posted by Amit Varma on 26 September, 2007 in India | Sport


The State of the State

My buddy Rahul Bhatia messages me a newsflash he’s seen on CNN-IBN:

PM expresses concern over welfare of people’s welfare.

Indeed, the problem with India is that we are more concerned with the “welfare of people’s welfare” than with people’s welfare. If you know what I mean.

*  *  *

In other Rahul Bhatia news, the man has an excellent piece in the Wall Street Journal about the ICL and the BCCI. He had earlier written an editorial for Mint on the subject.

More: My take on that subject, “What Indian Cricket Needs.”

Prem Panicker’s post, “Cry Havoc.”

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 August, 2007 in India | Journalism | Media | Politics | Sport


Dear Navjot Sidhu and Hu Jintao

This is the 28th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

Dear Navjot Sidhu

Recently on a television show, I am told, you criticised the Indian Cricket League (ICL), and the players signing up with it, on the grounds that “they are in it for the money.” You found this reprehensible, clearly feeling that the profit motive was a bad thing. I wish to congratulate you on your beliefs. They were once shared by no less than Jawaharlal Nehru, who described “profit” as “a dirty word.” Indeed, I have heard that when he got angry at someone, he would abuse him or her by shouting, “You, you… you Profit!” But that could be apocryphal.

Mr Sidhu, allow me to express how much I admire your values. Shunning profit, as you surely do if your actions mirror your words, takes immense fortitude. You are always smartly dressed, with your turban matching your tie, despite buying clothes only from people who manufacture and sell them as a social service. When you eat out with your better half, who is also named Navjot and is therefore the better Navjot, you only eat at restaurants that were not begun to make a profit, but to help needy diners like yourself. Indeed, you buy no goods or services manufactured with the profit motive, and I really must ask you sometime where you shop. You also clearly accept absolutely no money for the entertainment you provide us on television, which is very kind of you. Your magnanimity has moved me.

Read more...

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 August, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | Freedom | Letters | Sport | Thinking it Through


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