Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Short Lived : Life and 20-20

I have often voiced the forlorn faith as cricket’s romantic rooter.  The spirit sustaining sentiment that the game involving men in white on the greens reflect the drama that gets played out on the greater stage of life.

It is true. Seldom is any other game swayed by the slightest change of the wind, by the movement of the clouds, by the moisture in the atmosphere and turf. Few other sports combine the earthy ingredients of sweat, shine and spit to manipulate the laws of physics into esoteric outcomes as the reverse swing. Rarely in the arena is one treated to the thrills of diametric differences between the expected and the observed as the twist of the wrist unleashes a wrong 'un.  In no other sport is the inept asked to take on responsibilities that he is not born for, to walk out courageously to fend and prod as a night watchman, and still defy odds and logic to score a hundred the following day. And, as so often in life, we are given a second chance for consolidation or correction, when the openers trot out to begin the second innings, the fast men gear up with the second new ball.

While all that is true, can the attentive reader fail to detect in my words some tentative yearning for the good old days? Is there not more than a hint of what one misses in the modern day game?

Read again. Do I not say men in white as opposed to entertainers in multi coloured pyjamas? Do I not hint at night watchmen and stay clear of the antithetical aberration called pinch hitters? Do I not deliberately dwell on the game moving on from the day to the morrow instead of winding up in the course of a few overs? Do I not look longingly back at a time when the teams by default batted twice and even when the old ball changed into new, it remained as red as ever? Do I not make the cheerleaders shaking hip and more and the cash flaunting, club owning matinee idols conspicuous by their absence?

So, does the game in its modern manifestation, as the glitz and glitter wrapped Babel tower of corporate ambition, continue to echo the facts and fancies of day to day life?

Do Champions League and IPL or Stanford or 20-20 world cups kindle in the soul the same sparks of euphoria of seeing an allegory of life being played out in the forty or so overs?
It is true that I for one struggle to detect the finer nuances and delicate shifts of balance over and over again in the mini version of the game.

Life is faster, some argue, and time is squeezed into small boxes of instantaneous. 20-20 is nothing but a reflection of the jet age, where even the greatest aficionado of grounded beans has to succumb to the ersatz pleasures of instant coffee. Where in these hurtling times is the luxury to pursue a sport that moves slowly over five full days?  People fly across continents, send instant messages, close deals and make financial transactions at the click of a button. This is more than reflected in a game where even walking back to the pavilion is time consuming enough for a solution to be dug out.

And the incorrigible idealist that I am, I disagree. People may hurtle along, but lives are not getting shorter. It is less likely for instant cricket to reflect life than for a wolf whistle to generate the same sweet melancholy that fills up the soul when one hears a Beethoven Piano Sonata.

However, if one looks beyond just the game and focuses at the orbiting mayhem, one does find the reflection of modern times – a microcosm of modern madness.

The gradual conversion of all and sundry of the cricketers and the fringe players, the stars and the side characters, the men close in and in the outfield, into the forty over fold is the story of the current state of human affairs enacted through the hoops corporate cricket circus. As Fredrich Durrenmatt so masterfully demonstrated in his play The Visitor, lure of lavish and lucre engulfs all.

When ex-cricketers, once so vehemently against tarnishing a great game with this short lived incarnation, now flamboyantly wield the microphone doing pitch reports for the battle of corporate franchises, it mirrors the phenomenon of manufactured consent that is the working way of the world.  The commentary box loaded with heavyweights from the past days of glory, shedding their vestige of indignation and studiously analysing agricultural slogs do smack of propaganda akin to the diplomats who claim imperialistic expansions through financial bullying and bomb aided devastation actually liberate the underprivileged world or eminent industrialists claiming a little oil spill never hurt anyone.

When the respected journalists try to write out of their skin to create an illusion of benefit that the twenty over fracas brings to the mother game, one can see an allegory of similar parallels played out in so many levels of the media modelled modern world. In them I see the return of the editor of Illustrated Weekly, 'not a nice man to know', elevating Sanjay Gandhi to the stature of a demi god during the days of the emergency. I see Padma Shree winning journalists carrying their own motivated agenda into print as agents of a political party. I see a so called people’s paper solidly standing behind a nation trampling, crazy talking so called author.

The constant focus of all media on the events, innovating beyond themselves to pitchfork as many tenuously related programs, articles and features as possible into circulation plays out the same drama of FM Channels playing the same number over and over again to make it a hit, books and movies publicised as best sellers and box office hits before release.

In this mad rush for profits, bottom line and mass media brain manipulation, the Lalit Modis of the cricket world so closely parallel the unfettered greed of Satyam, Enron, Lehmann Brothers and later the banking institutions that brought the world to the brink of financial collapse.

Can anything be more demeaning than players themselves being auctioned, put up for sale, much like the medieval slaves who were made to fight as gladiators, with the colloseum madly baying for bets and blood?

Most of the parallels that one can draw with life no longer deal with the noble foundations of human endeavour and pinnacles of achievement that test cricket embodied, but do so with the murky marketplace that the world has been transformed into. And as mentioned earlier, the similarities are to be found more in the action in the fringes than in the middle.

In the larger than life figures of the ShahRukh Khans rooting for their sides from beyond the boundary, one can see the reflection of God and George Clooney selling Nespresso in tandem. The game is now nothing more than a commodity pandered to public with semi naked cheerleaders prancing around at each important and not so important landmark. Much like similar renditions of feminine sex appeal which crop up on billboards and television screens to sell everything from cars, watches to holiday packages. The esoteric essence of the brand has entirely overtaken the action in the middle.  The focus is on weaving it into the fabric of life. Akin to the Just Do It slogan that relegates the shoes and tee shirts manufactured in the sweat shops of Asia by malnourished children into the background, just like the yellow arches that eclipse the undone meat shoved between stale pieces of bread.

As fans flock to cheer the teams named in baseball style, across as many tournaments as can be crammed into a calendar stretched to limits, test matches are neglected by administrators and adherents alike. And here too one notices a curious parallel to the ironies of existence. The milkman has to vend his products from door to door, but the liquor den is always full of rabble.

To me, tweny twenty divides the cricket world, into the connoisseur and the commoner.

In this world, there will always be toddy and milk, Harold Robbins and Shakespeare, masala movies and magic on celluloid, a handful of readable magazines amidst two hundred gossip tabloids. Which will sell more is less than a rhetoric question, in the realms of an axiom. However, it is subtlety and sophistication repelling the hordes that go on to make something special.

I would rather continue my romance with the game than give in to the urges of a wham bam affair.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Oh for a Cardus in the Covers

The reason I write these blogs is that I am an incurable romantic.

To me cricket is not just a game in which a battle ensues between two teams armed with the willow and the leather and in the end there is a winner and a loser.

Cricket is much more than that. It is a game of infinite refinement, of perilous swings of fortunes, of subtle changes of balance, of rising hopes and of breaking hearts. It has adequate room in the great green fields to welcome swaggering heroism and ubiquitous workmanship, sophisticated stroke play and raw energy of the tearaway paceman, the creatively casual leg spinner and the ever busy poucher behind the stumps. Each one has to perform roles they are capable and not so capable of. The fortunes depend on the vagaries of soil and sun, clouds and wind, perfection of technology and the frailty of human decision. In its versatility, cricket is life itself encapsulated in a story that unfolds over five days, a symbolic allegory of existence, scripted in poetry, drama and skilful performances.

Thus to me, the game should be described in a language befitting its appeal. In the lyrical lilt of words that were used when poets wrote ballads about heroes. The poignancy of an  impressionist paintbrush to mix the dollops of colours spreading on the canvas to describe a starry night, a field of poppies or a party on a boat.

Hence I yearn for the good old days when a Neville Cardus merged music and reportage into compositions which played on the pages of print and struck a chord of symphony in the psyche of the reader, enticing him to the grounds in the want of encores.

Here is what he writes about Archie McLaren on an innings of the master as he neared his final days as a batsman., "He was the noblest Roman of them all. The last impression in my memory of him is the best. I saw him batting in a match just before the (1914) war; he was coming to the end of his sway as a great batsman. And on a bad wicket he was knocked about by a vile fast bowler, hit all over the body. Yet every now and then one of the old imperious strokes shot grandeur over the field. There he stood, a fallible MacLaren, riddled through and through, but glorious still. I thought of Turner's 'The Fighting Temaraire' as MacLaren batted a scarred innings that day, and at last returned to the pavilion with the sky of his career red with a sun that was going down."

Compare and contrast this to the convoluted hash of similes  "Amir is a bee, Asif is a snake" and atrocious adjectives such as "ballsy stroke" inflicted on  thousands of readers in the form of current tripe that passes for sports writing.

It is this aspect of the modern day game that grieves me most, even more than the cheerleaders who swing their hips and more to the boundaries in a 20-20 game as Lalit Modi and company count the money to be made on greedy, grubby fingers. The game is popular as never before, in all its different time and over bound manifestations. To touch upon an obvious and unpleasant topic, cash in cricket is more abundant than ever, the once pleasurable pastime of amateurs is literally lolling about on lucre. Media frenzy has taken it over in a wave of capitulation. Words uncountable fly about on the happenings on the field and even more depicting the intriguing stuff that transpires away from it. And to me it seems that most of these written words stink from severe smear of mediocrity, even ineptitude, that has become the hallmark of columns and bylines.

When Jack Hobbs got out to an edge, even in the dismissal Cardus would pay him a tribute. His peerless observation would be, "A snick by Hobbs is a sort of disturbance in the cosmic orderliness." Now we have self important columnists earning their living by writing "Tendulkar got out to a foolish stroke". A noun, a verb and an opinionated adjective do make a sentence. Add a senile ex Australian skipper behind it and it may even venture into being lousy reporting. But it does not amount to writing in the slightest refined sense of the word.

With articles aplenty in the effort to grab TRP, sound bytes, column space, page hits, there is a mad rush for converting unstructured thoughts into half baked pieces and forcing them through the eyeballs of the readers. A lot of the masses are satisfied with the cliche ridden news and opinions even as the discerning hurt, ache and pine for the days of Cardus and Arlott. The sheer numbers make the industry overflow with scribes of impotent pens, who need a lot of careful handling to rise halfway to the occasion, ejecting their pitifully meagre creative juices. The ones promising much tend to get shrouded by the multitude or lend their names to too many bylines.

Cardus produced a heady mix of cricket and music while John Arlott brought poetry into reportage. Both of them have departed beyond the far pavilions, to the world where timelessness is not bound by editorial deadlines. Nowadays a Scyld Berry comes few and far between, a Peter Roebuck makes for rewarding reading with interludes while much of Harsha Bhogle is limited to halting words about topics his heart does not care for but his employers do. An epic test match can move one to Homeric epithets, as the match winning 73 by VVS showed in the recent past. But, can anything but drab, calculating financial articles be drafted about the Champion's League? Yet that is what seems to be Bhogle's main theme nowadays.

So, while in the yesteryears, a late cut by Don Bradman would be described as 'dismissed the ball from his presence', a Frank Worrell drive to cover point would be 'persuading the ball to go on its way', today most often even a sublime flick of the wrists from the blade of the most graceful of batsmen would be put down in time tested cliche as 'finding the gaps with ease'.

The problem is that while Cardus believed that  "We remember not the scores and the results in after years; it is the men who remain in our minds, in our imagination.", the universe is changing rapidly. What remains standing in memory and history is rapidly becoming the career earning of a cricketer and the franchise that employs him.

The situation can be summarised through a thought experiment. In these days, when the corporations, the media, the sponsors, the franchises, the betting syndicates, the political bigwigs, film actors and cheerleaders – everyone hangs on to the outcome of a match, imagine the reaction when the event is washed off by inclement weather. Disappointment. Anger at the gods of rain for inflicting losses all around? The tabloids masquerading as newspapers and websites reporting it as 'Match washed out' or the more imaginative 'Rain plays spoilsport' or the incisive 'Lack of foresight on the part of organisers leads to losses'.

Who in these materialistic days can combine beauty, lyrics, music and philosophy to describe the event as Cardus would have done in one sentence?  'The elements are cricket's presiding geniuses' ... Oh for a Cardus in the covers.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Importance of a Harbhajan Hundred

Harbhajan Singh's rollicking century on the last day of the Ahmedabad test match is one of those unique facets of the game that make it fascinating.

The readers of this blog know me to be a purist. I am someone who closes his eyes after each Tendulkar straight drive or a Laxman whip to the mid wicket, to allow the sensation to sink into the senses, to deposit the memory of the strokes forever into accessible chambers of remembrance. Isn't it odd for me to revel in the brutal launch of counter attack where caution is perpetually projected into the wind and the bat is as much a tool of artistry as a chainsaw used in the Texas massacre?

Perhaps it is not that  unnatural to be moved. The delights of cricket go beyond dexterity and skill.

While artistry and technique are very much the elements of batsmanship that makes us return to the ground over and over again, almost willing our maestros into orchestrating spontaneous encores, the raw excitement of engaging in a game of chance and coming out the winner has its own attractions. During this recent innings, Harbhajan manufactured yet another stroke from unwritten handbooks that will never share shelf or library with coaching manuals, the spectators went through the same thrill that one feels when a pair of dice rolls on the green velvety surface of casino tables, the closing bell rings on the day's business of stock market  or the notice board puts up the result of an entrance examination.

In many a sense, test cricket resembles life. As in events outside the stadium, not everything plays out according to script. A lot depends on chance.

In life, many a times we have to stick to endeavours not entirely suited to our skills and potential. Circumstances in life make us work at jobs that we hate, sometimes live with people we abhor, make career choices based on wants and not desires, take up unwanted responsibility because of personal situations. Hence we tend to look at sportsmen with diversion from drudgery, touched with a tinge of envy, grudgingly accepting that here is someone who is doing what he loves, someone blessed with the choice of fate.

However, here is where cricket brings shades of realism into the proceedings. Especially when a tailender walks out to bat or when a part time bowler rolls his arm over.

Seldom in any other sport is a player called upon to perform something that is not his craft. Few other tussles in the arena has participants in the middle trying to grope their way through something they are not comfortable at, while being under the spotlight, with millions watching across the world. A Michael Johnson is never asked to run the marathon. A Diego Maradona is never asked to stand under the bar as ten others romped around the field. Michael Schumacher is asked to drive and not to change the wheels in the pit. The closest one can think of is Ivan Lendl huffing and puffing on grass, trying to get his hands on that elusive Wimbledon title.

But, in cricket, Harbhajan Singh has to put his pads on and go out to bat. So does Chris Martin and Monty Panesar. So in the days of yore did Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Phil Tufnell, Bob Willis and Glenn McGrath. On the other hand, sometimes critical circumstances propel Sachin Tendulkar into bowling his leg spinners and Ted Dexter to try out his little swingers and cutters. And when the not so gifted men battle the guile of the masters of the trade to end up on top, the spectators are treated to a sight of hope, the victory of the underdog.

The charm of cricket lies as much in these small sidelights as in the triumph of talent. Not one of  the seventeen five wicket hauls contributing to 307 test wickets delighted Fred Truemann more than any of his three first class centuries. 'Scratch the surface of any fast bowler and you will find a very frustrated batsman' he used to say in his inimitable Yorkshire drawl. And for the hundreds of tormenting deliveries bowled by Glen McGrath, his brightest smile was flashed the day he got his only fifty at the highest level. I wonder whether either of his triple hundreds made Virender Sehwag as happy as his five wicket haul.

Life is a struggle against destiny. Men keep trying to ward off the unseen reverse swings and googlies of  fate bowled at them on the wicket of life, pitching hesitant decisions into the fray, hoping fortunes won't come striding out to hit them out of the ground. Here a nightwatchman scoring a century, the tail ender hanging in for four hours to save a test match, the part time leg spinner bowing on the fifth day footmarks and picking up vital wickets in the fourth innings are symbols of faith. Proof that one can survive and succeed even against intimidating odds. It is the coup of hope over destiny, of grit and luck against the odds of logic and nature.

And when Harbhajan Singh strokes his way to a hundred, we can rejoice. It restores belief that turning the table on fate can be achieved with a sense of frolic, with unrestrained relish for impossibility, with a bubbling sense of humour, a twinkling eye on the lighter side of life.