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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

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.


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.


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?


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.


(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


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.


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.


(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.


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.


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

Eating History, Writing Sport

This is a such a wonderful paragraph:

After dinner he’s back in his room looking out the window. He’s supposed to be in his room doing his homework and he’s in his room all right but he doesn’t know what his homework is supposed to be. He reads a few pages ahead in his world history book. They made history by the minute in those days. Every sentence there’s another war or tremendous downfall. Memorize the dates. The downfall of the empire and the emergence of detergents. There’s a kid in his class who eats pages from his history books nearly every day. The way he does it, he places the open book under the desk in his crotch and slyly crumples a page, easing it off the spine with the least amount of rustle. Then he has the strategy of wait a while before he brings his fist to his mouth in a sort of muffled cough with the page inside his fist, like whitesy-bitesy. Then he stuffs in the page and the tiny printed ink and the memorized dates, engrossing it quietly. He waits some more. He lets the page idle in his mouth. Then he chews it slowly and carefully and incomplete, damping the sound by making sure his teeth do not meet, and Cotter tries to imagine how it tastes, all the paper points and edges washed in saliva, becoming soft and limp and blottered so you can swallow smooth. He swallows not so smooth. You can see his adam’s apple jerk like he just landed a plane on a foreign shore.

This is from Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which begins with the resonant line, “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” The prologue of the book, also published separately as a novella, recreates ‘The Shot Heard Around The World’ with some of the most evocative sportswriting I have read. Here’s the third para of that prologue, about people gathering for the game:

Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trams, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day—men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts, going to a game.

What sentences! If only someone could write on cricket like this…

Posted by Amit Varma on 20 August, 2007 in Arts and entertainment | Excerpts | IU Faves | Sport

Intimidation in Indian cricket

The Hindustan Times reports:

HCA president G. Vinod confirmed to the Hindustan Times on phone that the concerned players have joined the ICL. “Yes, the news is correct, the players have joined the ICL,” Vinod said.

“But they should have intimidated us about it before signing. It is a serious setback to us.” [My emphasis.]

Reading Indian broadsheets all my life has made me used to sloppy redundancies like in that first paragraph, but the next line is just, well, intimidating. And no, it’s not relevant whether the official being quoted actually said ‘intimidated’ instead of ‘intimated’, or the journalist misheard him—something like that simply shouldn’t get published.

As for the new developments in the ICL, I’m delighted by them. As I wrote in my piece, “What Indian Cricket Needs,” our cricketers need more choices, and so do cricket lovers. I hope the ICL is a success.

Also in HT: “Cop thrashes rogue MLA.”

(First link via email from reader Praveen.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 17 August, 2007 in Journalism | Sport

A Sense of History

WTF Q&A of the day:

Cricinfo: Where does this victory rank in India’s cricket history?

Virender Sehwag: It is number two in my eyes, behind the series victory in the West Indies in 2006.

Sanjeev Naik, who sent me the link, points out that Sehwag isn’t exactly known for his knowledge of cricketing history. But still…

Posted by Amit Varma on 15 August, 2007 in Sport | WTF

What Indian Cricket Needs

This is the 26th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

The mandarins at the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) must be delighted. As the third Test between India and England gets under way today, India stand poised to win the series, already 1-0 up. This, the BCCI babus are surely telling themselves, will take the pressure off them.

After India’s early exit in the World Cup, immense scrutiny was directed at the cricket board. Such scrutiny is common—the Indian team often goes through crises—and the same solutions are advanced each time. “‘Corporatize’ BCCI,” say some, “hire a CEO.” “Do away with the regional system of selectors,” say others. Editorialists demand increased investment in domestic cricket, while some get micro and simply want to “punish the senior players and give youngsters a chance”.

All these sound splendid, but they treat the symptom, not the disease. The problem with BCCI lies not in its actions or omissions, but in its incentives. The tragedy of Indian cricket is that, at the moment, the incentives of BCCI office bearers are not aligned towards ensuring the good health of Indian cricket. Instead, they are aligned towards ensuring their own continuance in power. These two don’t often lead in the same direction.


Posted by Amit Varma on 08 August, 2007 in Economics | Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport | Thinking it Through

History the Punisher

Line of the day:

History has a habit of punishing those that don’t take their chances.

That’s Geoff Boycott to Mike Atherton, and it seems especially apt in the light of how this India-England Test series is going. Allow me to quibble by pointing out that this alleged habit of History is not a compulsive one—India missed plenty of chances through last year’s tour to West Indies, but ended up winning the Test series regardless.

As my default mode is cynical, let me also add that History punishes everybody anyway. As John Maynard Keynes once said, “In the long run, we’re all dead.” Everything ends, so why bother taking chances, just go through the motions.

Or maybe I’m low today because my broadband is down and this dial-up is slow. With such mundane matters do existential crises reach a head. Maybe I’ll be chirpy again when the broadband’s back, who can tell?

(Link via email from Rahul Bhatia.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 05 August, 2007 in Personal | Small thoughts | Sport

Sreesanth writes a letter to God

Remember how Sreesanth had outsourced his meditation. Well, at least he writes his own letters. His latest gem:

Yes, I did write a letter to God before the fourth day of the Test. I wrote in that, ‘Tomorrow I will win the Test match for my country. I will be the one, God please help me.’ But it didn’t go that way. Well, maybe I didn’t write my name in the end and God thought it came from Zaheer bhai.

I don’t get it: if they can be witty, why can’t they be smart? Pah!

(Link via separate emails from Sanjeev Naik and Bongo P’o'ndit.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 02 August, 2007 in Sport | WTF

On Trent Bridge and jelly beans

The Guardian’s Comment is Free blog, for which I’m an absconding contributor, asked me to write a piece yesterday on the jelly beans incident in the Trent Bridge Test. I felt it had been blown out of proportion, and wrote up a piece that gives British readers, who may not have followed the Indian team’s progress over this decade, some historical perspective on our journey so far. The piece is called “It’s Not About The Jelly Beans.” There’s nothing in there that Indian fans won’t know.

I threw in a provocative last line just for fun. See the young lads jumping up and down in the comments there!

PS: I disown that picture. It is not me. I look nothing like that now.

Posted by Amit Varma on 01 August, 2007 in Sport

Team India?

Prem Panicker reveals what ‘Team India’ is all about. Heh.

That said, of course, we’re rocking in the Trent Bridge Test. Now if only our batsmen can do the job…

Posted by Amit Varma on 28 July, 2007 in India | Sport

Will cricket decline in India?

This is the 24th installment of my weekly column for Mint, Thinking it Through.

As the first Test between India and England moved towards a finish earlier this week, one of my friends announced that he was singing Raga Malhar. This is a legendary raga that is supposed to draw rain from the sky. And indeed, rain fell. If causation could be established, my friend would be a national hero, for millions wanted precipitation.

Like most Indian men, I’m crazy about cricket. Like unrequited love, this passion often seems futile and self-defeating. It’s also mysterious. Why do we invest so much time and energy into following this sport and no other? Why is it the only sport that Indians excel at (relative to others, of course)? In a globalized world, can cricket survive?


Posted by Amit Varma on 26 July, 2007 in Essays and Op-Eds | India | Sport | Thinking it Through

Joe Lindsey’s Boulder Report…

... is my favourite sports blog at the moment. Lindsey covers cycling, and his posts on the Tour de France are crisp, sharp and insightful.

Despite all the doping controversies, the Tour is my favourite sporting event by a long way. Cycling is an elemental sport—the machines don’t make much difference, as man goes against man and the elements with not much else in between. These three weeks of racing test the body and the character more than any event in any sport that I can think of, and you can see the effort, the pain, the despair, the ecstasy in the faces of the riders as they ride, even on their bodies. It is pure sport.

And today’s the finest stage, where the hardest mountains loom. Back to television!

Posted by Amit Varma on 25 July, 2007 in Blogging | Sport

Michael Vaughan as India would like him


I fear we won’t see this again for the rest of the summer, though.

(Pic from BBC, link via Jitendra Mohan.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 24 July, 2007 in Sport

Sreesanth outsources meditation

WTF lines of the day:

Sreesanth is an excitable fellow on the field but off it he believes in the calmer things of life. He had told TOI that the part-secret behind his recent success was transitional meditation. To put it simply, it means his guru (Pratyachch Mishra) meditates for him and helps him to stay positive.

Such facilities! There are more details here.

One wonders mischievously: Will he next want someone to bowl for him as well?

Posted by Amit Varma on 23 July, 2007 in Sport | WTF

Quote of the day

I now realise that my belief in God was sports psychology in all but name.

—Jonathan Edwards, quoted in a story by Matthew Syed on how Edwards, once a devout Christian who used his faith to drive himself towards sporting excellence, became an atheist after he retired. Syed quotes him as saying:

It was as if during my 20-plus-year career in athletics, I had been suspended in time. I was so preoccupied with training and competing that I did not have the time or emotional inclination to question my beliefs. Sport is simple, with simple goals and a simple lifestyle. I was quite happy in a world populated by my family and close friends, people who shared my belief system. Leaving that world to get involved with television and other projects gave me the freedom to question everything.

Once you start asking yourself questions like, “How do I really know there is a God?” you are already on the path to unbelief.

It’s a fascinating piece, and Edwards is spot on when he says of the difficulty of coming to terms with the obvious absence of a higher power:

Just because something is unpalatable does not mean that it is not true.

Indeed, the thought of a world without God is terribly scary: It means coming to terms with your own mortality, and the fact that there is no higher meaning to anything. It isn’t easy, and I suspect it’s the reason why many atheists or agnostics take to religion as they grow older. It’s hard to accept how insignificant and impermanent we are. But we are.

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 30 June, 2007 in Miscellaneous | Sport

The consequences of cricket

Salil Tripathi has a wonderful piece in the Wall Street Journal today celebrating 75 years of Indian Test cricket, in which he writes:

What the British didn’t realize was that once introduced, cricket’s consequences couldn’t be predicted, nor controlled. Just as the introduction of railways in the 1850s not only sped up communication but also united India, and as Lord Macaulay’s “Minute on Education” not only taught simple English to clerks but also ideas of self-rule and democracy to other Indians, so cricket—with its notion of fair play—gave currency to the idea of justice and unity.

I agree about railways and English, but I wonder if we romanticize the role cricket played in India’s independence struggle. In my admittedly limited view, cricket began to play a role beyond that of an ordinary sport after independence—especially from the 1970s onwards—when we actually started doing well at it, and it served as a source of national pride when there were few others. Similarly, India’s post-liberalization assertiveness was mirrored in the Indian team that Sourav Ganguly and John Wright nurtured, with its refreshing aggression and self-belief. But I’m not sure that cricket’s notions of fair play have ever meant anything to more than a few elite Indians.

That quibble aside, it’s a lovely piece, and I’ve become a fan of Tripathi’s lucid prose—He’s both insightful and readable, qualities few Indian journalists have.

Also read: “Do We Really Love Cricket?”

Posted by Amit Varma on 22 June, 2007 in India | Sport

Is there something you’d like to ask…

... John Buchanan? Prem Panicker is due to interview Buchanan, and will incorporate reader-submitted questions that he finds interesting. Almost a Web 2.0 interview, you could say, without the anarchy of a chat. Hop over to leave your suggestions.

And by the by, I’m quite delighted to see Prem blogging regularly on his own space. He’s a magnificent blogger, though he’s often been too busy running large teams of journalists to blog regularly. I’m going to watch that space.

Posted by Amit Varma on 21 June, 2007 in Blogging | Sport

Chandu Borde takes over

Two cricket links for the day:

One, Chandu Borde has been appointed the manager of the Indian cricket team.

Two, for no reason at all, out of the blue, I remember this old post I made back in January. Apropos of absolutely nothing.

Every circus needs quality clowns. Why should Indian cricket be denied?

Posted by Amit Varma on 13 June, 2007 in Sport

The next Indian cricket coach: APJ Abdul Kalam

Now that Graham Ford has turned down the chance to coach India’s cricket team, who should the BCCI turn to? Himanshu Gupta writes in to suggest APJ Abdul Kalam’s name. His reasons:

1. Abdul Kalam can give inspirational speeches (not like mangoes), so he can do a better job of India coach rather than Graham Ford who was supposed to give speeches only to players.

2. He’ll write one bestseller book: Indian cricket team in 2020. Revenues will give the BCCI huge financial strength and money through legal avenues.

3. He’ll make Dhoni realize that there’s more to cricket than growing long hair by giving him sufficient competition.

4. A coach’s job can’t be scrutinized through RTI. So, as is obvious, Abdul Kalam also will love to have this job.

I agree with Himanshu, and have an addition to make to his list of reasons: Kalam can continuously motivate his players by reading out his poems in the dressing room. There’s no way a batsman out in the middle would then want to return to the pavilion.

I also suggest that the BCCI give Kalam a large enough budget to conduct a space program on its behalf. He can then send some of our players to Mars, which would not be entirely a bad thing.

On the other hand, even a Mango would make a good coach.

Posted by Amit Varma on 12 June, 2007 in Miscellaneous | Politics | Sport

Lionel Messi and the Hand of God

If Lionel Messi can remind us of the best of Maradona, he can also remind us of the worst of Maradona. Here:

On a tangent, if God existed and had a hand, She’d have a finger in every pie. We’d all be buggered then.

So maybe…

(Link via email from Prabhu.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 11 June, 2007 in Sport

“Natives with Bats versus Officers with Umbrellas”

Quizman emails to respond to my post, “Cricket and the Veshti,” and points out that DB Deodhar used to play cricket in his dhoti. He also points me to a historical piece by Ramachandra Guha which contains this passage:

At first, the British thought little of the attempts by their subjects to take to their national game. They sneered at the Indians’ clothes and their technique, a Bombay journalist remarking of some Hindu players, in the 1870s, that `their kilted garments interfered [when batting] with running, and they threw the ball when fielding in the same fashion as boarding school girls’. At this time the gulf, admittedly, was huge, so much that some early matches were billed as `Natives with Bats versus Officers with Umbrellas’. Slowly the Indians began acquiring proficiency, helped by their decision to discard the cumbersome dhoti for the cricketer’s flannel trousers.

Those, I am most certain, were the days. Though I am sure some of you would argue that our players still field like boarding school girls. Tsk tsk.

Update: Reader Shastri points me to this picture.

Posted by Amit Varma on 09 June, 2007 in India | Sport

Cricket and the Veshti

CNN-IBN reports that a “prestigious cricket club” in Chennai did not allow a civil servant to enter its premises because he was dressed in a veshti.

On a tangent, I wonder—and I know I can check this with two mouse-clicks, but it’s more fun to wonder—whether you’re allowed to play cricket in a veshti. Why should cricket only be played in trousers? Indeed, with a veshti, you could actually catch a ball between your legs without the risk of scraping the skin on your fingers. If you have a really long veshti, you could let it loose in the breeze while running a single, possibly ensuring that you’re inside both creases at the same time. And if you’re at the non-striker’s end, and your partner’s having a problem with the sightscreen, you could stand on your head.

I hope the BCCI takes this matter up with the ICC. The colonial hangover must go, and air must circulate.

(Link via email from Gautam John.)

Posted by Amit Varma on 08 June, 2007 in News | Small thoughts | Sport

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