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.
A prosperous and successful plumber is an expert at plumbing. Someone who is a good source for accurate information on plumbing is an expert on plumbing. More generally, an expert at a topic is someone who has gained the most attention, praise, income, and so on via their association with the topic. But this may not be the best expert on that topic. He may have succeeded by not giving the most accurate information, but by telling people what they want or expect to hear, or by entertaining them.
We often rely on the heuristic of looking to an expert at a topic, when what we want is an expert on a topic.
Is this not a mistake our sports channels routinely make, hiring experts at cricket instead of experts on cricket? For example, I’d count the likes of Atul Wassan, Navjot Singh Sidhu and Chetan Sharma as experts at cricket, and Harsha Bhogle as an expert on cricket—and I think we all agree on who is a better commentator. Of course, there are some who are both experts at and on cricket, such as Richie Benaud and Sunil Gavaskar (when he’s switched on and is not on auto-pilot). But our broadcasters don’t care too much: they just want the experts at cricket because those people come into the television studio with the benefit of already being celebrities, and viewers crave familiarity. If they happen to also speak insightfully about the game, well, that’s a bonus.
Indian cricket has many problems, but imagine the following scenario: An investigative committee formed by the BCCI finds out that the reason many Indian players are unfit is pure ghee. On their time off, it seems, many of them eat food cooked in pure ghee, and as a result put on weight and become lethargic. It starts with Virender Sehwag, spreads to Sachin Tendulkar, and soon they all became pure ghee addicts and lost their vigour on the field.
The mandarins at the BCCI come up with an obvious solution: ban pure ghee! Or rather, ban the cricketers from having any food cooked in it, even in the off season. “Our cricketers are losing their focus on cricket because of pure ghee,” they argue. “We can only counter this with strong action.”
Don’t be taken in by all the activity that’s going on around Indian cricket. You’ll see movement all right, but it’s all headed nowhere.
PS: Of the glut of pieces out there on the subject, I recommend you read “The Real Culprits” by S Rajesh. It lays bare India’s shortcomings on the field of play. As for the dramas of the dressing room, we’ll never have the full story, though different versions of events will no doubt emerge. (You get a sense of Greg Chappell’s version of events here and here. Ian Chappell’s broadside against Sachin Tendulkar the other day now becomes explicable. Heh.)
Anyway, watch the dance if it entertains you. I’m not throwing any more grains.
Posted by Amit Varma on 06 April, 2007 in
This piece has been published in the April 2007 issue of Cricinfo Magazine. It was written the day before India’s loss to Sri Lanka.
Imagine a man, dressed respectfully, and a scruffy dog he owns. The man catches the dog and sets its tail on fire. And then, as the dog runs around frenetically, the man says smugly: “Look – mad dog.” He even sells tickets. He calls it: “The Mad Dog Show.”
Indian cricket is The Mad Dog Show. Indian fans are like that burning doggie. The media is the respectable gentleman. Every time I see footage of mobs burning the effigy of a cricketer, and the voice-over of an anchor droning sanctimoniously in the background, I am appalled by the hypocrisy. “That is a beast you feed,” I feel like screaming. For all their talk about crazed subcontinental fans, the crazed subcontinental media is no different.
If this is a leak by Chappell, then I really don’t see how he can continue to play a role in Indian cricket any more. Either you say what you have to say in public, or you deal directly with the board, and keep your report confidential. Playing games through the media is simply not on, especially when it is so blatantly done.
His allegations should be investigated, of course. But the substance in them is a separate matter from the issue of the leak.
The other night I caught a few moments of Viruddh, the much-advertised soap-opera starring Smriti Irani. It was awful: the screenplay was overwrought, the dialogues were cheesy, the characters were caricatures and the acting was hammacious enough to be beyond parody. “It can’t get worse than this,” I thought.
Devangshu Datta writes in Business Standard that India has begun a cricketing decline similar to the one it began in hockey. He writes:
The debacle against Sri Lanka re-emphasised that India is a cricketing generation behind in its approach. The Lankans planned the batting better and they bowled and fielded with far more sense as well as heart.
At least five teams—Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand—are now a clear generation ahead in terms of understanding cricket. Skill is not the issue—skill plus brains will beat skill almost every time. Will the intellectual gap ever narrow? The example of hockey leaves me feeling less than optimistic. Twenty years later, just as in hockey, India could be a fringe cricket outfit.
On one hand, I fear that the Ganguly-Wright years, with Dravid the best Test batsman in the world and Sehwag and Kumble and Harbhajan and Laxman all having their moments, might turn out in retrospect to be the pinnacle of India’s cricketing achievement. Once the Dravid-Tendulkar-Ganguly-Laxman generation is gone, we’ll be left with the likes of Yuvraj and Raina and Kaif in the middle order. I’m not looking forward to that.
On the other hand our younger players, brought up in an age of satellite television, might just turn out to have the values that Devangshu refers to embedded in their DNA. Our younger guys all field superbly and run well between wickets and are fitter than the past generation. Maybe the future isn’t so dark after all.
What do you think? Do read Devangshu’s column, and leave your thoughts here. Comments are open.
After reading my piece, “Don’t Punish Victimless Crimes,” and the follow-up post to it, my friend Devangshu Datta was kind enough to send me an old article of his on legalising betting. It’s a wonderful piece, and was first published in Business Standard, though they don’t have it online anywhere. With Devangshu’s permission, I’m reproducing some paras below the fold. Note that it was written in January 2001, but though the absolute numbers would have changed, the arguments and the macro percentages probably remain valid:
In my view, there are only two questions that need to be asked as far as Tendulkar’s retirement is concerned:
1. Is he still good enough to be in the Indian side?
2. Does he have the desire to play international cricket?
As long as the answers to both these questions are “yes”—and I believe they are at the moment—I don’t see why Tendulkar should retire. Comparing him to Brian Lara, as Chappell does, is pointless. Comparing him to his own past self, as Chappell also does, is equally pointless. If he’s good enough to be in the current side and wants to play, he should carry on.
If only Sachin’s brother would now write a piece on Greg Chappell. Fun, no?
A common thought being expressed these days is that the Indian cricket selectors should be as ruthless as the Australians. See how they ended Steve Waugh’s ODI career, we are told. See how Michael Bevan was given the boot, and how Ian Healy wasn’t allow a farewell Test at his homeground. And so on.
There is a crucial difference to be noted between India and Australia, though. Australia have enormous bench strength. They could fire Healy because Adam Gilchrist waited, sack Michael Slater because Justin Langer was around, let Mark Waugh go because Damien Martyn had been kept out for too long. Outstanding talents like Stuart Law and Matthew Elliott and Stuart MacGill, who would have played a hundred Tests in any other country, spent ages waiting in the sidelines. If Mike Hussey and Brad Hodge played for any other team, they’d be international cricket veterans by now.
India, on the other hand, have a problem of who to bring in, not of who to leave out. Indeed, a common criticism against Greg Chappell in the last year was that he tried out too many youngsters. And now some people want to sack all the seniors. Strange.
Indeed, I count myself lucky as a fan of Indian cricket that players like Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and VVS Laxman happened to be in the same team for so long. A couple of years from now, they may all be gone. I’m sure a couple of youngsters may step it up a level and surprise us, but I’m nevertheless already feeling nostalgic on behalf of my future self.
That is not to say that if our big guns don’t perform they should be kept on indefinitely. But let’s be realistic about the options we have at any given point in time. And let’s not keep comparing ourselves to Australia. That way lies self-delusion.
I see Nandigram in the same light as the horrific events in Gujarat. Yes, the number of deaths is less but it is the state machinery that went out to hunt the minority. In Gujarat, it was the Muslims, here they were poor peasants. Show me the difference? Both are minorities.
Ayn Rand once said, “The smallest minority on earth is the individual.” But some minortities, of course, are more equal than others. My thoughts on Nandigram are the same as my thoughts on Singur, which I’d expressed here.
Last link for this post: Old pal Rohit Gupta, who now calls himself DJ Fadereu, is writing a book, of which the first chapter can be downloaded here. If you like it, he is asking you to donate money that will help him write more of the book. I like the model: doodh ka doodh, paani ka paani.
Who owns cricket in India? That is a difficult question. Legally, only the BCCI can put out a cricket team that purports to represent India. So who owns the BCCI, and who is it accountable to?
The BCCI is not owned by the government, and so is not accountable to taxpayers. The BCCI is not a public limited company, and so is not accountable to shareholders. The BCCI is, effectively, controlled by the regional cricket associations, whose interests are entirely different from that of the cricket fan or cricket player, and which are similarly accountable to no one.
So if the BCCI is not accountable to us, is there any way by which we can make them get their act together? My answer to that is an emphatic “Yes”.
You see, sporting bodies throughout the world have a similar effective monopoly over the sport, and enjoy a similar absence of direct accountability. What keeps them efficient then? Competition does. In most other countries, cricket is not the only popular sport. If English cricket is mismanaged, and the team starts to decline, the fans will watch more soccer. In Australia, they’ll watch more Aussie rules football. Or rubgy league. Or hockey. And when they do that, the cricket board makes less money. Eventually, if the board doesn’t get its act together, the fans will turn away completely. Because that possibility exists, we see that the cricket boards in those countries are actually quite efficient.
In India, though, there is virtually no competition to cricket. It is the only sport that people watch in large enough numbers for it to matter commercially. The BCCI knows that regardless of how well it runs the game, millions of people will still tune in to watch India play. Who is responsible for giving them that sense of complacency? You and I.
Why do we spend our time—and remember that time is money—on watching hours and hours of unsatisfying cricket? How many of us complaining about India’s performance in the World Cup will switch their TV sets on when India play their next series? Do we not need to get a life, and watch something else? The only way we can hold cricket administrators and players to task is by voting with our eyeballs. Nothing else will work. Only commerce matters to our administrators, and the money in cricket comes because we watch the game.
So the next time India disappoints you in a cricket match, don’t whine, because the power to make a difference is in your hands. It’s the remote control.
I’m travelling for the rest of the day, and won’t get to blog much. Before I go, a couple of quick thoughts on the India-Sri Lanka game.
One, why do so many Indian fans have such a strong sense of entitlement? They behave as if they were entitled to a win, as if they paid good money to see a film, went into the hall, and were shown a film with a different ending than the one they were promised. This is not cinema, dramatic as it is. This is sport. Shit happens. No one betrayed anyone. One team played better than the other on the day, that’s all. Having said that…
Two, it was clear that India weren’t merely unlucky, but were simply not good enough to win the World Cup. The reasons for this have to do with preparation, not ability. Contrast our fielding with Sri Lanka’s. Contrast the number of dot balls we faced with how Sri Lanka did. These don’t depend on the vagaries of the day, but on how well one prepares for the event.These two things are the most tangible reflections of a coach’s impact on the team. I don’t see how even Greg Chappell, if he is honest with himself, can deny that he has failed.
But here’s the thing, O Crazed Fans: it was not a wilful failure, but a human one. Chappell certainly wanted India to progress as much as any of us did, and he and poor Rahul Dravid must be terribly gutted now. There is certainly cause for us to feel disappointment. But anger?
And that brings me back to my first point…
(Comments are open.)
Posted by Amit Varma on 24 March, 2007 in
“The subcontinental cricket fan,” writes Mukul Kesavan, “is a lazy, pampered know-nothing who thinks he owns the cricket teams that he supports.” Kesavan compares the Barmy Army to subcontinental fans:
Why are they [the Barmy Army] different from desi couch potatoes who never leave their rooms, never exert themselves except to find their remote controls and yet treat every Indian defeat as a conspiracy against the Nation Recumbent? They’re different because India is a nation of losers: its teams win at nothing but cricket. Two, because cricket fans from outside the subcontinent have generally played some outdoor sport, they have some practical experience of how difficult competitive sport is. If you’ve never played cricket and if the reason you watch it is because it’s on television, your expectations are radically different. You’re a voyeur: the sort of person who watches other people do it. It is a ‘virtual’ condition, unmediated by experience or empathy.
Well, I must point out that finding the remote control can sometimes be quite a testing sport. In my living room, as I look around me, I see cushions, stuffed toys, books, newspapers, magazines, handkerchiefs, DVDs, CDs, a discman, a mobile phone, a laptop, many wires and a blanket lying around. I suspect Kesavan has a tidier living room, and has clearly no understanding of the skill and endurance that goes into finding a remote control, especially when a particularly irritating commercial is on. Compared to that, Dravid’s got it easy.
No, but Kesavan is spot on about most subcontinental fans, and I’ve expressed my own thoughts on this in my essay, “Do We Really Love Cricket?” As we speak, I am at work on my next essay, “Do We Really Love Remote Controls?” On reading Kesavan’s piece, I am forced to conclude that perhaps we don’t. Alas.
And yet, quite apart from the human tragedy of Bob Woolmer’s death, it is a thrilling World Cup, a few matches earlier than one would have expected. I can barely wait for Friday’s game between India and Sri Lanka.
Update (March 19): Bob Woolmer is dead. For anyone involved with cricket, this is shattering news. It puts the word ‘tragedy’, so loosely used sometimes with reference to mere cricket matches, in perspective. It will be hard to enjoy the cricket in the World Cup now. (Original post below. News via email from reader Jayakamal Balasubramani.)
I was particularly impressed by Bangladesh. All their past upsets have been caused by the side opposite them getting a bit complacent, and the wins have seemed like flukes, a judgement backed up by how rare those wins have been. But today they outplayed India in every department of the game: their bowling was exceptional, their fielding was the sharpest of the subcontinental teams, and their batting was positive and purposeful. They didn’t look like a weaker team playing out of their skins, but like one that belonged at this level. What was most remarkable was that many of them, including their three half-centurions today (1, 2, 3), are teenagers.
Bangladesh’s age-group cricket is exceptionally well-organised, and they seem to be getting the fruits of that now. Besides Habibul Bashar, whose captaincy has actually been lacklustre, and Mohammad Rafique, all their key players are young: Mashrafe Mortaza looks a positive veteran at 23. Their coach, Dav Whatmore, has surely had a lot to do with making them believe in themselves and concentrate in doing the basics well. He coached Sri Lanka when they were considered a second-rung side, and took them to a World Cup win. I’d keep a close eye on Bangladesh in 2011. (Or even 2007? Who knows? Remember 1983?)
And what about India then? Well, we can still make it through by winning the next two games comprehensively, and this rough start might just have been immensely valuable in making the side play with greater intensity, as happened to Pakistan in 1992. But Sri Lanka’s a fine team, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they manage to stop us. That will be the end of Greg Chappell as Indian coach, of course, though I feel much more sorry for Bob Woolmer, a fine coach who was always working against the odds within the Pakistan system. And consider the irony that he recently wrote the following words:
Ireland, in particular, have shown a rapid improvement, captained by an Australian, Trent Johnston, a medium-fast seamer and, with a number of players who have county experience in England, they have a very good team. Any side underestimating them will be doing themselves few favours.
Ah well, what to say now?
By the way, Comments are open on this post, feel free to express your feelings about these two games. Did India screw up or did Bangladesh just play too well? Will India qualify? What do you feel about Pakistan’s early exit?
Yesterday, when I was re-reading C Northcote Parkinson’s excellent book, Parkinson’s Law: The Pursuit of Progress, while researching my column for Mint, it struck me that the central insight of the book applies beautifully to cricket. The insight is this:
Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.
Now, when teams chase low totals in one-day matches, the way they chase the target changes entirely from the norm. A team that would normally chase 250 easily approaches 180 differently. The tempo of their batting adjusts itself to the low target, and while they might normally look to reach the 180 mark by the 40th over, the task expands itself “to fill the time available for its completion.”
And if that new tempo is an unnatural one for the side, it might just backfire on them, and they might lose. This is why it now strikes me that India might have been lucky to get dismissed for 183 in the 1983 World Cup final. Had we made 250, we might have lost.
Do note that this doesn’t mean that teams should deliberately make low scores. That’s pushing it!
As much as the next two months will showcase some great cricket, there will also be lots of great cricket writing on offer. Don’t look at the Indian broadsheets for that—they will make mediocrity seem like a standard to aspire to. Cricinfo, where once I worked, will have some excellent stuff amidst much ordinary writing, as will the British and Australian papers. Now is when the cricket writers will strut.
Not moi! I’m so happy to just be able to watch, without the pressure of having to write, when much of the romance is sucked out by the need to find words for it. Joy.
This piece of mine has been published in the March 9, 2007 issue of Time Out Mumbai as “Field Days.”
Television was the best thing that happened to Indian cricket, and then the worst.
Once upon a time television pushed cricket into the modern age in India. As India opened up to the world a decade-and-a-half ago, in more ways than one, kids in small towns throughout the country tuned into satellite television and saw a brave new world. Instead of homegrown DD commentators uttering banalities in two languages, they saw the best cricket broadcasters in the world educating them on the game: From the likes of Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Geoff Boycott and Martin Crowe, they learned to appreciate the nuances of the sport. They picked up the values that would help them thrive in international cricket: once, pot-bellied Indian cricketers would saunter between wickets and refuse to dive while fielding because, apparently, Indian grounds were hard. Look at any Indian cricketer below the age of 25, and you shall see the good that television has done.
But television also made itself a slave to the monster it created. In a celebrity-obsessed era, viewers craved the familiar, and broadcasters stopped taking chances: at a certain point in time, it became default policy to hire ex-cricketers as commentators. Sometimes ex-cricketers provide the insight only a player can. But most ex-cricketers who have turned to commentary in the last few years have been hired for star value. They know it, and don’t work as hard at preparing for a game as they should, and it shows. Cliches abound, as they work on auto-pilot. It is no coincidence that India’s only world-class commentator is the only non-player who’s made a place for himself in the commentary box: Harsha Bhogle. It is unlikely that too many others will get a chance.
What does the cricket World Cup have to do with China and Taiwan, you may ask? Plenty. Sam Sheringham reports on Bloomberg:
More than 8,000 miles from Beijing, Chinese workers are putting the finishing touches on stadiums for a sport they’ve never played.
Living in temporary plastic huts and taking a single day off each month, about 1,000 employees of state-owned Chinese companies have sweated away the past year on the Caribbean islands of Jamaica, Antigua and Grenada as the West Indies prepare to host the Cricket World Cup, the game’s premier international event.
Their presence has more to do with China’s drive to isolate Taiwan, the democracy it considers a breakaway province, than with what the Chinese call shen shi yun dong, or “the noble game.’’ China is using its economic might to break alliances Taiwan forged in the Caribbean to counter its status as a diplomatic outcast.
Later in the piece Winston Baldwin Spencer, the prime minister of Antigua & Barbuda, is quoted as confessing, “They knew we didn’t have the money. If we didn’t have the Chinese workers we wouldn’t have been able to complete the stadium.”
I knew geopolitics and sport often collided, but I never imagined that China could use cricket to isolate Taiwan. I just hope the sport doesn’t get into any more crosshairs now. How disastrous it would be if Islamic terrorists were to chose a cricketing stage to make a political statement.
Greg Chappell walks into his hotel room after a hard day’s play. To his immense surprise, there is a Bong bombshell on his bed, in an elegant tanter sari. She smiles at him, raises one eyebrow seductively, and lets her palloo drop.
Chappell: My goodness, what is this? Who are you?
Bombshell: Greg-da, I’m a huge fan of yours, and I’ve come to express my admiration for your sexy, ahem, coaching!
Chappell: Take off your sari immediately!
Bombshell: What, so fast? I thought you were into ‘process’ and all.
In 1983, the combination in the Indian team was that of Capricorn (Kapil Dev), Cancer (Sunil Gavaskar) and Libra (Mohinder Amarnath), which worked wonders. Even this time, captain Rahul Dravid (Capricorn), Sourav Ganguly (Cancerian) and Virender Sehwag (Libran), may repeat the success story.
With 15 guys in each squad, you can probably get any combination of sun signs that you desire, and it is not unlikely that all the squads may contain a Capricorn, Cancer and Libra. Note that both gentlemen are being cautious, though Jumaaaaaaani more or less counts Australia out of the running. No matter what happens, though, I’m sure believers will note only the parts of their prediction where they seemed to have got it right. Always, the confirmation bias.
My take on the World Cup: After a close perusal of some fine coffee beans (followed by their consumption, as is necessary for the ritual to be successful), I have come to the conclusion that my earlier post on this subject, written months ago, was somewhat off target. To my list of seven favourites, I add an eighth: New Zealand. I don’t think I can get any more precise than that.
A version of my story below was published today in Mint.
Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it?
The historian Ram Guha once compared cricket in India to football in Brazil. It is easy to disagree with that, but hard to figure out which hairs to split. On one hand, cricket in India is surely followed more fervently, with temples made for some cricketers, with an obsessive passion that Brazilians, for all their lust for football, surely can’t match. People have even speculated, not entirely flippantly, on the economic impact cricket has on India because so many people stop working when a cricket match is on.
On the other hand, football matches between minor club teams in Brazil can attract tens of thousands of spectators, while Ranji Trophy games in India generally draw so few people that you could fit them all in a bus. Much of the following of the game in India revolves around celebrities, with few fans concerned about the nuances of the game.
Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it? Do Indians really love cricket? It is futile to generalise about an entire country – each individual has his own relationship with the game – but certain patterns of love and longing for cricket run through the country. And outside it.
Yesterday I was at dinner with some friends at a restaurant, and there was a television set near us showing some tennis. One of us looked at the menu and, making her mind up about what to eat, said, “Lasagna!”
Another friend, gazing at the TV screen, remarked, “Yes, she’s winning.”
THE next time you watch a cricket match, listen to the phrases that pop into your head with every piece of action. Have you heard these words before? I don’t know about you, but I am assailed by familiar phrases and sentences when I watch cricket, and I recoil each time one pops into my head. I am a cricket journalist, and it is my job to describe every game of cricket that I write about in a fresh manner, to give the reader a clear picture of what happened. And yet, that is so difficult.