Champions Trophy ’17: When Sri Lanka went full Pakistan

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How the eff did Sri Lanka lose that game? I have watched the highlights of the game thrice now. What was that one moment that took the game away from the Lankans? – I have struggled all night to answer that question because throughout the game, there were so many of them.  At Cardiff, Sri Lanka weren’t stupid, Angelo Mathews’ men were simply moronic.

The day though started well with Dickwella driving Amir through the covers and scooping Junaid over the keeper. They lost an early wicket but the ball didn’t do much and the Pakistani fielders did their best in converting ones to twos. Then Hasan Ali slipped one through Mendis. However, at 82 for 2, it was all cool. But Sri Lanka’s ‘Mr. Potential who never lived up to his talent’ Chandimal decided to throw the spanner into a smoothly rotating Lankan wheel. It was still cool because with a partnership of 78 runs, Mathews and Dickwella brought things back to normal. At the 30 overs mark, Mathews decided to throw down the gauntlet. He danced down the track, hoicked one over mid wicket and the match started to tilt the Lankan way.

Enter Pakistan’s green-eyed retro cherub – reverse swing. Pakistan shifted into Pakistan mode. Weirdly, Sri Lanka too did the same. The left-armer pacers union kicked in and with four down within the next six runs, Sri Lanka were lost, they were super lost. Somehow someone kicked some sense into them and Gunaratne and Lakmal realised, hey, there’s a semifinal spot at stake here.

236 isn’t a big score but with Pakistan chasing, you understand why I say that. But a good lunch break must always be followed by a comforting siesta. Understandably, the Lankan lions sleepwalked through the first 10 overs of the chase.

Except Lasith Malinga. He tried. He really tried hard. But how much more can a 33-year-old-creaking-joints-trying-hard-to-land-his-yorkers pacer do? He delivered his full range – the yorker, the slower, the slower bouncer – but the Lankan fielding was off the charts. Catches to the left of them, catches to the right of them, catches above them – they dropped them all. They even ruined Sarfaraz’s Steve Waugh moment. Just when Sarfaraz was about to walk past Thisara and deliver the Waugh-ish jibe, they dropped him again.

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But hey, you can never blame Pakistan for not trying. They are the only side in cricket who believes in total entertainment. Over the years, Pakistan have always maintained that you don’t need to play great cricket to entertain the audience. Mind numbing cricket does a better job. They take it up as a challenge. Whenever an opposition dishes out a sub-par performance, the Pakistan cricket team goes, ‘hold my Tarbooz ka Afraa…we can do worse.’ Then they sprinkle moments of genius over it to give it a tangy flavour.

At Cardiff though, the script looked different. After a terrific performance with the ball, Pakistan took the game by the scruff of the neck. Azhar Ali looked determined while a graceless Saeed Anwar-clone Fakhar Zaman tore into the Lankan bowlers. With the Pakistan openers rattling along, we all wondered, “Where’s the collapse?” Zaman reached his fifty. We waited. Zaman got out. Everyone sat up. Babar Azam followed.

With 2 for 92, Pakistan looked too comfortable. Hence, the senior citizens got to work. Mohammad Hafeez did his bit. Shoaib Malik obliged. Then Azhar Ali thought, “Why should they have all the fun.” With six down and 80 to get, the script was set. But Pakistan don’t read the script. The script reads Pakistan. Help arrived when Sri Lanka took a big step back… and literally, f****d their own face. As if they wanted to make a statement to Pakistan and beat them at their own game. And boy, they didn’t drop character ’till the DVD commentary.

As Sarfaraz ran towards his mates after hitting the winning runs, the camera panned on Angelo Mathews. The Sri Lankan captain stood still contemplating the moronicity of the situation. His sunglasses kept his expressions hidden but the tautness of his ferocious gum chewing jaws gave away his despair. He won’t sleep well for at least a week now. He will stare at the ceiling wondering how the Lankans looked like Sri Lanka but played like Pakistan, disguised as Sri Lanka. But more importantly, what exactly went wrong after a stellar win over India.

Here’s what went wrong Angelo, your mates went full Pakistan man. Never go full Pakistan.

Sir Ravindra Jadeja’s Excalibur: It cuts. It cuts deep

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November 5, 2009 brings back bittersweet memories for every Indian cricket fan. In a cliff-hanger against the mighty Australians, Sachin Tendulkar produced a modern age classic. Chasing 351 runs to win, Tendulkar scripted an epic knock of 175. But India fell short. India fell heartbreakingly short. India lost the game by mere three runs.

The superhero’s carnage made it into the history books but that night India found a new villain. A 20-year-old. He didn’t do much wrong. He scored a 17-ball 23 and looked steady. He almost took India home. He faltered at the finish line. He ran for a non-existent single and became the whipping boy for a billion people.

That was the start of a hate story.

It gathered wind in 2009. While chasing 7.5 runs an over, he blocked his way to a 35-ball 25 against England. It became worse in the 2010 World T20s. First, a walloping against South Africa. Then, an Aussie chastening. Finally, a pestering in the hands of the Windies. He single-handedly confirmed India’s exit from the tournament.

The ‘Rock star’ label peeled off and Sir Ravindra Jadeja became a cult figure. With every failure the legend grew. So did the boos. Sir Jadeja became the toast of the internet, the darling of the Twitteratti.

The axe came down in 2011. India won the World Cup and Sir Jadeja began his journey towards oblivion. But fate wouldn’t have it. Yuvraj Singh’s health gave in and India needed an all-rounder — a player who can blast the ball in the end overs and can chip in with valuable breakthroughs. Yusuf Pathan failed. As did Piyush Chawla.

The selectors turned towards MS Dhoni and the man from Ranchi fixed his gaze on IPL’s ‘rock star’. He threw Jadeja into the deep end. He made Jadeja swing his bat. He made his left-arm fall off his shoulders. He made him cover every blade of grass. Jadeja dropped short. ‘Aage daal Jaddu‘ – shouted Dhoni. Jadeja threw darts. ‘Ek chakka khake dikha’ – screamed the skipper. Then, Jadeja turned one off-the-track. ‘Howzaattt’ – Dhoni whipped the bails off in a flash. Jadeja failed. Dhoni pushed. Jadeja failed again. Dhoni pushed harder. ‘Are you out of your mind?’ – The nation wanted to know. But Dhoni never answered.

He didn’t because Merlin had found his Arthur.

He took him to England. With India struggling, Jadeja walked out at Lord’s. Moeen Ali was spitting cobras. Liam Plunkett had his tail up. Then, there was Jimmy Anderson. India needed a partnership but Jadeja decided to make a statement. Out came the sword from the scabbard and the ‘Saurashtra Bradman’ tore into the English bowling in true Rajput style.

That was the start of a new love story. Sir Jadeja’s cult was now official.

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“Some time ago people didn’t consider me a Test bowler. This season is a good response to them”, said Jadeja after picking up his Man of the Series award.

In December 2012, he was ranked 89 in Tests as a bowler. December 2014, he was at 20. 2015 saw him at 23. Then, he took off. December 2016, he chased Ravi Ashwin. Now, he isn’t Ashwin’s plus one anymore.

Sir Jadeja has finally taken over.

The ‘Jadeja story’ should be widely celebrated. It should be because he is scripting our story. He’s fighting those scorns after failure and the disapproving nose twitches. He taking on the bullies for us and explaining what m*d**c**d really means. He’s teaching us a power packed lesson on improvement and self belief. The best part, he’s doing it with aplomb — he’s put his arm on auto mode, picked up his Excalibur and is swinging it.

He’s swinging it bloody hard.

Arsene Wenger: For the Ned Stark of Islington, the winter has arrived

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“We are fully aware of the attention currently focused on the club and understand the debate. We respect that fans are entitled to their different individual opinions but we will always run this great football club with its best long-term interests at heart.”

Arsenal chairman Sir Chips Keswick released a statement after a horrid month for the Gunners. Someone had to speak. Someone, other than Arsene Wenger, had to say something.

Cue,  the Arsenal media management team.

Read the above statement again. The conclusion is crystal: Arsenal’s media management is worse than their first XI’s game management. No quality, no substance, no style; just dry words wrapped in corporate bullshit.

In some way it depicts the rot that runs through the club. It sheds light on the poor governance that’s led to the decade-long stagnation. The fans are angry. The players unsettled. The manager weary. And the club comes out with a ‘we-know-what-we-are-doing’ press release.

It’s absurd. It’s hilarious. It’s a new low. But hitting new lows is the ‘in’ thing for this Arsenal. If anyone thought 8-2 was bad, try wrapping your head around 10-2. Yes, that’s the new banter number for the Gunners.

Teams lose all the time. In sport, you lose more than you win but what sets teams apart is the way they lose. Arsenal aren’t just losing. Arsenal have lost faith. Arsenal have lost substance. Over the last decade, Arsenal have struggled. Arsenal have struggled bad. But Arsenal never grovelled.

Arsene Wenger is adamant about ‘the good shape’ of the club. Financially, Arsenal are stout. Debts under control, stadium liability paid off, money in the bank — the Gunners are one of the most stable corporate set-ups in European football.

Sportingly though, they are on their knees. They lack a blueprint for sporting success and that impotence has created an unrest amongst the fans. Player rifts have raised their ugly heads and Arsene Wenger isn’t in charge of the dressing room anymore.

Once upon a time, he was. He never was tactically brilliant but his vision, innovation and man management skills catapulted Arsenal into the top tier. His arrival ushered a new era in the Premier League. His teams created history and his ideology changed the way football was played in England.

20 years on, he forgot to change himself.

Now, he’s the Ned Stark of Islington – a man stuck in an infinite loop of his own ideals, morals and the code of honour. Great qualities to admire but we all know how it ended for the Warden of the North.

However, the Professor’s delusion isn’t the biggest problem at the Emirates. It’s the set of self-serving Greyjoys he has fostered at the London Colney.

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Over the last month, experts and social media have waxed lyrical about Alexis Sanchez’s fighting spirit, his winning mentality. People writing Arsenal’s obituary have gone on about how a ‘loser’ club doesn’t deserve the Chilean. May be they don’t. But after the second leg against Bayern Munich, neither does he deserve to wear the crest on his chest.

Alexis is a great player but his smirk that night left fans around the world in shock. You want to leave, fair enough but why ridicule those who made you a superstar? The Catalans didn’t care about him because they had Lionel Messi. Alexis was Arsenal’s Messi. Alexis is a winner but he wants to win alone. A real ‘winner’ never whines and gives up on his troops, no matter how inferior they are. He digs deeper, takes control and fights harder to elevate the ones around him to the next level.

The Theon of the team, Mesut Ozil, has the ‘Fabregas’ flu. He goes bowling the night before the game but is never fit enough to play. He’s taken advantage of Wenger and hid behind his trust. And now with the club on stranger tides, even £ 280,000 per week isn’t enough.

The less you talk about rest, the better. They aren’t Arsenal quality. They have the skills but they haven’t got the shoulders to carry legacy of the heavy cannon.

Hence, it’s not November pain or flimsy February  anymore, Arsenal are in free fall. The season’s gone bust. Even the ‘top four’ trophy is eluding their grasp. For the first time the furrows on Le Professor’s forehead are deeper and are crying out for help. Sadly, the Tomas Rosickys aren’t on the bench anymore.

Can Arsenal survive this? Of course. They are too big a brand to fold and have deep pockets.

Can Arsene Wenger survive this? He might. A new contract is on the table but signing it might destroy him forever because for Arsene, the winter isn’t coming anymore, the winter has well and truly arrived.

Keep playing Rafa, Roger needs you

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‘@Jaideep_18 Nadal is unfortunately going to wrap this up in the next 20 minutes.’ – Read the tweet with Roger Federer 2-0 down in the fifth set.

The game was wrapped up in the next 20 minutes but it was the Swiss maestro who reigned supreme at the Rod Laver Arena.

Roger Federer versus Rafael Nadal isn’t a rivalry. It’s a ritual; hence every face-off is a classic. Surface doesn’t matter. Form doesn’t matter. This Australian Open, even age didn’t matter.

As soon as Grigor Dimitrov was conquered in the semis, the hype hit the roof. Nostalgia was at all time high but there was always a doubt lurking – can they turn the clock back to script another classic?

On Sunday till the fourth set, they couldn’t.

There were flashes of genius. Federer flew off the blocks in the first. Nadal put him in place in the second. Federer stomped back in the third, only to be humbled in the fourth.

The match tipped towards the other whenever one made a mistake. But the two ‘ageing’ megastars dug their heels in. They knew at this point of their career, skills won’t be enough. So, they added some old-fashioned grit to it. Federer’s forehand deserted him but the backhand kept him going. Whenever his intensity dropped, ‘Vamos‘ – sprang back Rafa. They spurred with caution. They maintained safe distance. They kept coiling their springs to last the distance, gathering all the potential energy for that one final thrust.

The fifth set finally unleashed the beasts.

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Rafael Nadal rode the momentum and charged in like a bull, swinging his forehand like a rapier. He gained his second wind, found new legs and the Rod Laver Arena looked set to hand him his 15th Grand Slam.

The next three games weren’t tennis anymore. It was knife fight between two seasoned assassins.

They knew the rules. There were no rules.

As the swishing forehands of Nadal met with the screaming backhands of Federer, the surface scorched. It begged for mercy as the two old pros matched each other’s intensity, shot for shot. Even the net cord wasn’t spared.

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The game ended with Federer lifting his 18th Slam but the 2017 Australian Open final will not go down in the history of tennis as one of ‘the’ #Fedal finals. It lacked the drama. It was nowhere near the 2008 ‘twilight’ Wimbledon final. It lacked quality. It wasn’t as pristine as the 2009 Melbourne final as both Federer and Nadal made mistakes. Glaring mistakes.

This final wasn’t even on the cards. They weren’t even supposed to be there. They were making comebacks from serious injuries. They were there to be fodder for the Sir and the Djoker.

But then, they were there and the 2017 Australian Open final will go down in the history of tennis as one of ‘the’ #Fedal finals. It etched itself amongst the classics because both Federer and Nadal were there protecting their legacies. They were there satisfying their hunger. They were there fighting a dodgy knee and an uncomfortable wrist. They were there healing their bruised egos.

They were there because being there is the best thing that they ever did.

The hawk-eye handed the match to Federer. He went down on his knees with tears in his eyes. Five years is a long wait. It’s longer when you are an ailing champion. The world looks at you with pity. The body gives in even if the mind refuses to. The spirit never wanes but the powers do.

Nadal was no different.

This #Fedal Final wasn’t about ‘Bel18ve’ or ‘H15tory’. It was about showcasing the undying spirit of two champions. It was about meeting your age-old foe at the highest stage for one more time, for one more round.

“Keep playing Rafa, please. Tennis needs you” – Federer lied. Rafa needs to keep playing because more than tennis, Roger needs him to. Roger needs Rafa to keep playing because he’s his greatest asset. He needs him to keep playing because at the end of the day, beating your greatest rival is what sport is all about.

Lionel Messi, Murtaza Ahmadi and the magic of being a fan

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Murtaza Ahmadi is one lucky, lucky boy.

If you don’t know who he is, go to Twitter or scroll down your Facebook timeline. Murtaza is everywhere. He’s just six years old but today, he’s the biggest sport story of every publication.

For those who are still living under a rock, here’s some context.

Murtaza is a football fan from Afghanistan. Last January, he became an internet sensation. No, he doesn’t have stunning skills with the ball. No, there was no video of him going past eight defenders either.

His claim to fame was his jersey. Back up, it wasn’t his jersey. It was what he did with a plastic bag to turn it into a football jersey. Murtaza gathered an Argentine coloured (white and blue striped) plastic, scribbled the name ‘Messi’ and his number on the back and was photographed playing football.

The internet, staying true to its nature, went “aww…” over it as it does over every good looking chaiwala or senseless kitten posts and dubbed Murtaza as Messi’s ‘fan number 1’. However, after a few click bait headlines and thousand page views, the story should’ve ended there.

It didn’t.

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Murtaza was tracked down and last night, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, made his dream come true.

Murtaza met Lionel Messi.

Not only did he meet him, he walked on to the pitch with him, hugged him and refused to let him go. It was Murtaza’s night and Messi and his Barcelona colleagues played second fiddle to perfection.

The video, as expected, went viral and it brought a smile on everyone’s face. But more than its virality, the video re-established the power that sport possesses and how it can touch people’s lives.

But it’s a difficult time to be a fan. Especially, a football fan. Trust me, under the glamour of the Premier League, the dark underbelly of football makes for a terrible reading.

Don’t believe me? I didn’t believe it either.

Till last October, football, for me, meant the footballing elite of Europe. Then, I came to know about clubs in Eastern Europe who fail to pay the salaries of their players. I came to know about clubs in the ‘stan region where players are made to sign contracts under duress.

Football has changed. It has changed too much, too quickly. Money has become the driving factor and that has taken away the simple pleasures of the sport.

Nowadays, everyone wants to make money. Nothing wrong in it. The football economy should grow every year but it shouldn’t take away the sheer joy of a sensational first touch. Players should earn more money. Nothing wrong in it. But their agents shouldn’t hold their clubs to ransom. Big money transfers should happen. Nothing wrong in it. But that shouldn’t deter a fan from being a student of the game and get lost in the clamour.

I came to study football business because I wanted to know more. But after the last couple of months, I think ignorance was bliss for me.

I have started looking at the game differently. Now, a late substitution makes me smirk – more appearance fee, I think. Every Anthony Martial goal means more bonus money for Monaco and every Alexis step-over is one more zero added at the end of his contract.

The more you know the bigger cynic you become.

Last night, Murtaza fulfilled his biggest dream. He also washed away my cynicism. His warm hug to Messi reminded me why I started watching the game and Messi’s candid behaviour re-ignited the magic of being an illogical fan that I really am. A fan who can’t do anything but worship his heroes. A fan who can’t do anything but support his ‘loser’ team. A fan who can’t do anything but dream.

And boy, dreams do come true.

Winning is great but is it enough?

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Finally, Lewis can be the prom queen.

What Nico Rosberg did this season requires immense talent, perseverance and hard work. He made the title his own when everyone stacked their chips on his  much decorated colleague/competitor.

He defied the odds. He won.

Then, he quit.

The world was shocked. Tweets of ‘Oh Nico, why so soon?’ poured in but his decision shouldn’t have surprised anyone.

He did exactly what he has done over the years – play a safe hand.

Make no mistake; he’s a fabulous driver – one of the best around. He tight with his team, knows his car, got skills and this season, fought his guts out to put Lewis Hamilton, a much faster driver, in his shadows.

But he always missed an extra gear. Both on-the-track and off it.

He retired for the right reasons though. He said, “I’m following my heart. My heart is telling me this.”

It’s important to ‘follow your heart’ in sport. Because if you didn’t, you won’t be in sport anyway.

But that statement was for fans who romanticise the ‘quit when you’re at the top’ concept.

‘Retiring on top’ is the most boring cliché in sport. If it was so appealing Roger Federer wouldn’t have stuck around for number 18. Diego Maradona would have hung up his boots after 1986. Sachin Tendulkar would have waved goodbye after 2011. Michael Jordan wouldn’t have made god knows how many comebacks and Michael Phelps would have never bothered about his 23rd Olympic Gold.

Every athlete longs for a fairy tale ending. But the great ones desire a scrap — a fight so dirty that it demands them to strip off their aura and makes them go through the wall. Again.

The greats don’t walk away easy, they go another round. And then, another. They keep pushing the bar higher because just being the best isn’t good enough for them. They want more. They want more because of an insatiable hunger for being at the top. They want to stay there and hold on to their top seat until the last sinew in their body snaps.

Even when their skills and physical ability starts to give up on them, they refuse to give in. They double the odds and go all in to try one last time. It’s what makes a sportsperson so different — the ability to believe that things will work out.

It brings them criticism. They are written off. Their legacy threatened. Their glorious past questioned. But they don’t stop. They don’t until they have gone that one more round.

Rosberg took 11 painful years to climb the summit. This season, he pushed his limits and won.

But when was winning enough?

May be for him it was. May be, he didn’t want another dirty fight. Rosberg knew he wasn’t the fastest and next season, he would be up against a wounded Hamilton and a hungry Max Verstappen.

He did the intelligent thing.

Rosberg is one of the likeable sportsmen around. Down to earth and always with a smile lurking. Even during the ‘Lewis pressers’, he managed to hold his poise. He hardly went overboard both on and off-the-track. His anger was measured. His frustrations were measured. Even his celebrations had little madness about them.

No wonder, Rosberg didn’t want to start again. He wanted to leave as the champion.

Hence, he walked away. Sadly, so did greatness…Away from him.

500th Test, the Monk’s cap and a ’90s Test cricket loving hopeless hipster

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Cap on against the Black Caps: Vijay goes old school at Kanpur

First things first, Kane Williamson will become one of the finest modern era captains. Not that he has much competition but the diminutive Kiwi displayed immense leadership to snatch the control from India on Day 1 at Kanpur.

Then again, he might end up being whitewashed in this series.

Test cricket is back in India and after a long time, I did nothing but watch cricket. I did express my ‘expert’ opinion on Twitter but I had no alerts to send, no ticker to fire, no copies to write, no galleries to compile and I couldn’t care less about Virat Kohli’s new hairstyle.

Instead, the day was spent admiring Neil Wagner’s doggedness, Cheteshwar Pujara’s comeback, Mitchell Santner’s accuracy and Kane’s spirited kaptani.

However, my biggest takeaway from Day 1 was Murali Vijay’s cap.

The Indian opener went past his fifty and asked for his cap to continue his innings. There were two spinners bowling in tandem but nowadays, not many cricketers ask for the cap while batting.

They shouldn’t, especially after the Phil Hughes incident. But, there’s something enthralling about a batsman when he removes his helmet to opt for his cap.

Cricket is a dangerous game because there’s a hard spherical object hurled at a batsman six times an over. The helmet is a must but the cap brings the batsman closer to the audience. It conveys the message, ‘Don’t worry, I got this.’

It also portrays a dash of arrogance.

Remember Michael Clarke, standing on the verge of a hundred on Test debut, asking for his Baggy Green?

For all the strategies and number crunching, it’s hard not to be romantic about Test cricket.

But over the last couple of years, my interest in cricket has dwindled. Not because of T20s. The game has just failed to deliver on the promises it made to me.

Growing up, Test cricket was serious education. As Ian Chappell often says, “Test cricket is aptly named because it tests your skill, your courage and your intelligence.”

And all my life, I’ve been a humble student of Sachin Tendulkar’s hunger, Wasim Akram’s skill, Shane Warne’s showmanship and Rahul Dravid’s determination.

Don’t get me wrong, the modern greats like Virat Kohli, Joe Root, Ravichandran Ashwin, David Warner and AB de Villiers are no less. They’ve taken the game to the next level and Kohli in particular, has set unbelievable fitness goals for every sportsman.

But the education isn’t there anymore.

The sweat’s there. The blood’s there. But, the tears have gone missing.

Cricket, as a game, has become a tad plastic. It’s too perfect. It’s too elaborate. It’s too gaudy and everything is directed towards one goal – winning. Winning is important, trust me it is, but to my limited understanding, Test cricket was not designed with a ‘winner takes it all’ objective.

Test cricket was played to inspire excellence.

At the end of each day, a player came out with a better understanding of the game. A fan came out with a better understanding of life.

India are currently playing their 500th Test match and I, being an ardent Tendulkar fan, have bore witness to almost 200 of them. After Day 1 at Kanpur, I closed my eyes to recollect my favourite memories.

The last few years drew a blank.

It did because now Team India, like most teams, play Test cricket the wrong way. They have got the strategies spot on. They have assembled a strong team. They have Virat Kohli. But somehow, they have failed to keep the heart of Test cricket in place.

Murali Vijay didn’t last long with his cap on but those 10 minutes were a major #Thursdaythrowback to a different era – an era where the finer touches had more meaning than the broad strokes.

India might go on to win the series emphatically but those 10 minutes were special.

Thanks Monk for adding a small image to the imaginary sepia tone montage of a ’90s Test cricket loving hopeless hipster.