The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta

LibraryThere is a lot of literature on what is literature that I ignore buying for my anti-library. What I enjoy is the user manuals: the novelists talking about the novel, talking about the history of the novel.

The novel is a passage towards truth. Some areas are dark, others semi or well-lit, there are novels that are breezy and those that are closing in on the reader and the possibilities for the novel remain as robust as ever. These truths are not categorical. They are not crisp and well-defined for someone to make a statistical list and are exactly the opposite of a typical yes and no answer. They are ambiguous and life-like. Franco-Czech novelist and modern master Milan Kundera says in his non-fiction work The Art of the Novel: “The more attentively we read a novel, the more impossible the answer, because the novel is, by definition, the ironic art: its “truth” is concealed, undeclared, undeclarable.”

Interviewer: What is literature for you? Julian Barnes in the Paris Review: “There are many answers to that question. The shortest is that it’s the best way of telling the truth; it’s a process of producing grand, beautiful, well-ordered lies that tell more truth than any assemblage of facts. Beyond that, literature is many things, such as delight in, and play with, language; also, a curiously intimate way of communicating with people whom you will never meet. And being a writer gives you a sense of historical community, which I feel rather weakly as a normal social being living in early twenty-first-century Britain. For example, I don’t feel any particular ties with the world of Queen Victoria, or the participants of the Civil War or the Wars of the Roses, but I do feel a very particular tie to various writers and artists who are contemporaneous with those periods and events.”

FB-PInterviewer: What do you mean by “telling the truth”? Barnes: I think a great book—leaving aside other qualities such as narrative power, characterization, style, and so on—is a book that describes the world in a way that has not been done before; and that is recognized by those who read it as telling new truths—about society or the way in which emotional lives are led, or both—such truths having not been previously available, certainly not from official records or government documents, or from journalism or television. For example, even people who condemned Madame Bovary, who thought that it ought to be banned, recognized the truth of the portrait of that sort of woman, in that sort of society, which they had never encountered before in literature. That is why the novel was so dangerous. I do think that there is this central, ground-breaking veracity in literature, which is part of its grandeur. Obviously it varies according to the society. In an oppressive society the truth-telling nature of literature is of a different order, and sometimes valued more highly than other elements in a work of art.

“My objection to his book is that The Good Is Too much absent,” said Sainte-Beuve in his review of Madame Bovary. Why, he asked, does this novel not have in it “a single person who might console and give ease to the reader by some picture of goodness?” Then he points the young author to the right path: “In a remote province in central France, I met a woman, still young, superior in intelligence, ardent of heart, restless: a wife but not a mother, with no child to raise, to love, what did she do to make use of her overflowing mind and soul? . . . She set about becoming a delightful benefactress . . . She taught reading and moral development to the children of the villages, often few and far between . . . There are such souls in provincial and rural life; why not show them as well? That is uplifting, it is consoling, and the picture of humankind is only the more complete for it. (I have emphasized the key terms.)”

In fact George Sand, in a letter some twenty years later, told Flaubert much the same thing: Why does he hide the “feeling” he has for his characters? Why not show his “personal doctrine” in his novel? Why does he bring his readers “desolation,” whereas she, Sand, would rather “console” them? As a friend she admonishes him: “Art is not only criticism and satire.”

70072Flaubert replies that he never sought to write either criticism or satire. He does not write his novels to communicate his judgments to readers. He is after something entirely different: “I have always done my utmost to get into the soul of things.” His reply makes it very clear: the real subject of the disagreement is not Flaubert’s character (whether he is kind or cruel, cold or compassionate) but the question of what the novel is.” Thus begins Kundera’s chapter Getting into the soul of things in his great non-fiction work called The Curtain.

“I was asked to speak to a short-story class at Sarah Lawrence College. I went, and I enjoyed the day, but it isn’t something I’d ever want to do again. I got very oracular and literary. I found myself labelling all the writers I respect. (Thomas Mann, in an introduction he wrote for The Castle, called Kafka a ‘religious humourist.’ I’ll never forgive him for it.) A writer, when he’s asked to discuss his craft, ought to get up and call out in a loud voice just the names of the writers he loves. I love Kafka, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Proust, O’Casey, Rilke, Lorca, Keats, Rimbaud, Burns, E. Brontë, Jane Austen, Henry James, Blake, Coleridge. I won’t name any living writers. I don’t think it’s right.” J D Salinger, July 1951.

BrothersThe map of novelistic knowledge is more real than say the history of the development of science. Science is a progression. New gadgets appear, old theories get revised, there are corrections made to equations that were thought to be perfect for years. Art is not a progression of that kind. Don Quixote is Don Quixote and will remain so no matter the proliferation of imaginary characters. Albert Camus said: “The real 19th century prophet was Dostoyevsky, not Karl Marx.” And it was Albert Einstein who said: “Dostoevsky gives me more than any scientist, more than Gauss.” That’s the range of a novelist, it goes way beyond a ‘theoretical social scientist’ and even ahead of a once-in-a-century kind of scientist.

Getting into the soul of things kind of defines the job of a novelist. Novelist (and his life): Someone asks the novelist Karel Capek why he doesn’t write poetry. His answer: “Because I loathe talking about myself.” Hermann Broch on himself, on Musil, on Kafka: “The three of us have no real biographies.” Which is not to say that their lives were short on event, but that the lives were not meant to be conspicuous, to be public, to become biography. “I hate tampering with the precious lives of great writers, and no biographer will ever catch a glimpse of my private life,” said Nabokov. And Faulkner wished “to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books.” Overfamiliar metaphor: The novelist destroys the house of his life and uses its stones to build the house of his novel. A novelist’s biographers thus undo what a novelist has done, and redo what he undid. All their labour cannot illuminate either the value or the meaning of a novel, can scarcely even identify a few of the bricks. The moment Kafka attracts more attention than Joseph K., Kafka’s posthumous death begins.

This piece is a sort of concluding part of the Kafka series I had done earlier and my main purpose here is to provide a mildly-edited second chapter called The Castrating Shadow of Saint Garta from Kundera’s musical evocation of the interior history of the novel called Testaments Betrayed.

Before we go into that long talk on novelistic discovery I am going to give a link to a great piece in the London Review of Books by Judith Butler titled Who owns Kafka? I quote from the article: The tone of The Trial is, after all, one in which a false or obscure accusation against K. is relayed in the most neutral terms, without resonating affect. It seems that the grief avowed in the letters is precisely what is put out of play in the writing; and yet the writing conveys precisely a set of events that are bound together neither through probable cause nor logical induction. So the writing effectively opens up the disjunction between clarity—we might even say a certain lucidity and purity of prose—and the horror that is normalised precisely as a consequence of that lucidity. No one can fault the grammar and syntax of Kafka’s writing, and no one has ever found emotional excess in his tone; but precisely because of this apparently objective and rigorous mode of writing, a certain horror opens up in the midst of the quotidian, perhaps also an unspeakable grief. Syntax and theme are effectively at war, which means that we might think twice about praising Kafka only for his lucidity. After all, the lucid works as style only insofar as it betrays its own claim to self-sufficiency. Something obscure, if not unspeakable, opens up within the perfect syntax. Indeed, if we consider that recurrent and libellous accusations lurk in the background of his many trials, we can read the narrative voice as a neutralisation of outrage, a linguistic packing away of sorrow that paradoxically brings it to the fore.”

KafkaThe extract: “The image of Kafka that is widely held these days comes originally from a novel. Max Brod wrote it immediately after Kafka’s death and published it in 1926. Savour the title: The Enchanted Kingdom of Love (Zauberreich der Liebe). This key-novel is a roman a clef, a novel with a key. Its protagonist, a German writer in Prague named Nowy, is recognizably a flattering self-portrait of Brod (adored by women, envied by the literati). Nowy/Brod cuckolds a man who, by very elaborate wicked schemes, gets him sent to prison for four years. We are instantly plunged into a story cobbled together by the most• improbable coincidences (characters meet by complete chance on a ship out at sea, on a Haifa street, on a street in Vienna), we witness the struggle between the good (Nowy and his mistress) and the evil (the cuckold, so vulgar that he fully deserves his horns, and a literary critic who systematically pans Nowy’s wonderful books), we are pained by melodramatic reversals (the heroine kills herself because she cannot bear life caught between the cuckold and the cuckolder), we admire the sensitive soul of Nowy/Brod, who swoons regularly.

This novel would have been forgotten before it was written if not for the character Garta. Because Garta, Nowy’s close friend, is a portrait of Kafka. Without this key, the character would be the most uninteresting in the entire history of literature; he is described as a “saint of our time,” but even about the ministry of his saintliness we don’t learn much, except that from time to time, when Nowy/Brod is having love troubles, he seeks advice from his friend, which the friend, as a saint with no such experience, is incapable of giving him.

KafkaWhat a marvellous paradox: the whole image of Kafka and the whole posthumous fate of his work were first conceived and laid out in this simpleminded novel, this garbage, this cartoon-novel concoction, which, aesthetically, stands at exactly the opposite pole from Kafka’s art.

Some quotations from the novel: Garta “was a saint of our time, a veritable saint.” “Perhaps his best quality was his remaining so independent and free, so saintly rational in the face of all mythologies, even though deep down he was akin to them and nearly a mythological figure himself.” “He wanted to live in perfect purity—rather, he could not do otherwise….”

Garta is presented as someone who writes. Nowy “had agreed to be Garta’s literary executor–Garta had asked him to do this, but with the unusual condition that everything be destroyed.” Nowy “sensed the reason for that last wish. Garta was not announcing a new religion; he wanted only to live his faith…. He required the ultimate effort of himself; as he had not succeeded, his writings (mere rungs to help him climb to the heights) had no value for him.”

Still, Nowy/Brod did not want to obey his friend’s wish, because in his view, Garta’s writings, “even as attempts, as mere sketches, bring to wandering humanity a presentiment of something irreplaceable.” Yes, it’s all there.

Were it not for Brod, we would not even know Kafka’s name today. Right after his friend’s death, Brod saw to the publication of his three novels. No reaction. So he realized that, to establish Kafka’s work, he would have to undertake a real and long war. Establishing a body of work means presenting it, interpreting it. Brod opened a veritable artillery attack: prefaces: for The Trial (1925), for The Castle (1926), for Amerika (1927), for “Description of a Struggle” (1936), for the diaries and letters (1937), for the stories (1946); for the Conversations by Gustav Janouch (1952); then the dramatizations: of The Castle (1953) and Amerika (1957); but above all, four important books of interpretation (take good note of the titles!): Franz Kafka: A Biography (1937), The Faith and Teachings of Franz Kafka (1946), Franz Kafka, He Who Shows the Way (1951), and Despair and Salvation in the Work of Franz Kafka (1959).

Through all of these texts, the image outlined in The Enchanted Kingdom of Love is confirmed and developed: above all, Kafka is primarily the religious thinker, der religiose Denker. True, he “never systematically set out his philosophy and his religious world view. Nonetheless, we can deduce rather clear fundamentals from his work, from his aphorisms especially but also from his poetry, his letters, his diaries, and then also from his way of life (from that above all)….”

Further on: Kafka’s true importance cannot be understood “unless two currents in his work are distinguished: (l) the aphorisms, (2) the narrative writings (novels, stories, fragments). “In his aphorisms Kafka expounds the positive word [das positive Wort] that he gives to mankind, a faith, a stern call for each individual to change his own life.” In his novels and stories, “he describes the horrible punishments in store for those who do not wish to hear the word [das Wort] and do not follow the path of righteousness.” Note the hierarchy: at the top: Kafka’s life as an example to be followed; in the middle: the aphorisms, that is, all the meditative “philosophical” passages in his diaries; at the bottom: the narrative works.

Brod was a brilliant intellectual with exceptional energy; a generous man willing to do battle for others; his attachment to Kafka was warm and disinterested. The only problem was his artistic orientation: a man of ideas, he knew nothing of the passion for form; his novels (he wrote twenty of them) are sadly conventional; and above all: he understood nothing at all about modern art. Why, despite all this, was, Kafka so fond of him? What about you–do you stop being fond of your best friend because he has a compulsion to write bad verse?

But the man who writes bad verse turns dangerous once he starts to publish the work of his poet friend. Suppose the most influential commentator on Picasso were a painter who could not even manage to understand the impressionists. What would he say about Picasso’s paintings? Probably the same thing Brod said about Kafka’s novels: that they describe “the horrible punishments in store for those who… do not follow the path of righteousness.”

G2Max Brod created the image of Kafka and that of his work; he created Kafkology at the same time. The Kafkologists may distance themselves from their founding father, but they never leave the terrain he mapped out for them. Despite the astronomical number of its texts, Kafkology goes on elaborating infinite variants on the same discussion, the same speculation, which, increasingly unconnected to Kafka’s work, feeds only on itself. Through innumerable prefaces, postfaces, notes, biographies and monographs, university lectures and dissertations, Kafkology produces and sustains its own image of Kafka, to the point where the author whom readers know by the name Kafka is no longer Kafka but the Kafkologized Kafka.

Not everything written on Kafka is Kafkology. How then to define Kafkology? By a tautology: Kafkology is discourse for Kafkologizing Kafka. For replacing Kafka with the Kafkologized Kafka:

1) Following Brod’s example, Kafkology examines Kafka’s books not in the large context of literary history (the history of the European novel) but almost exclusively in the microcontext of biography. In their monograph, Boisdeffre and Alberes cite Proust rejecting biographical explication of art, but only to say that Kafka requires exception to that rule, as his books are “not separable from his person. Whether he is called Josef K., Rohan, Samsa, the Surveyor, Bendemann, Josefine the Singer, the Hunger Artist, or the Trapeze Artist, the hero of his books is none other than Kafka himself.” Biography is the principal key for understanding the meaning of the work. Worse: the only meaning of the work is as a key for understanding the biography.

2) Following Brod’s example, in the hands of the Kafkologists Kafka’s biography becomes hagiography; such as the unforgettable bombast with which Roman Karst ended his talk at the famous 1963 conference on Kafka in Czechoslovakia: “Franz Kafka lived and suffered for us!” Various kinds of hagiography: religious; secular–Kafka, martyr to his solitude; leftist–Kafka “assiduously” attending anarchist meetings and “very interested in the 1917 Revolution” (according to a mythomaniacal assertion frequency cited but never verified). To every church its apocrypha: Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janouch. To every saint a sacrificial gesture: Kafka’s wish to have his work destroyed.

3) Following Brod’s example, Kafkology systematically dislodges Kafka from the domain of aesthetics: either as a “religious thinker” or else, on the left, as a protester against art, whose “ideal library would include only books by engineers or mechanics, and declaratory jurists” (in the book by Deleuze and Guattari). Kafkology is tireless in examining his connections to Kierkegaard, to Nietzsche, to the theologians, but ignores the novelists and poets. Even Camus, in his essay, discusses Kafka in terms one would use not for a novelist but for a philosopher. His private writings are treated the same way as his novels, but with a marked preference for the former: taking at random the Kafka essay Roger Garaudy wrote while he was still a Marxist: fifty-four times he quotes Kafka’s letters, Kafka’s diaries forty-five times; the Janouch Conversations thirty-five times; the stories twenty times; The Trial five times, The Castle four times, Amerika not once.

K24) Following Brod’s example, Kajkology ignores the existence of modern art; as though Kafka did not belong to the generatien of the great innovators–Stravinsky, Webern, Bartok, Apollinaire, Musil, Joyce, Picasso, Braque–all born, like him, between 1880 and 1883. When, in the 1950s, someone proposed the notion of his kinship with Beckett, Brod immediately protested: Saint Garta has nothing to do with such decadence!

5) Kafkology is not literary criticism (it does not examine the value of the work: the previously unknown aspects of existence that the work reveal, the aesthetic innovations by which it affected the evolution of the art, etc.); Kafkology is an exegesis: As such, it can see only allegories in Kafka’s novels. They are religious (Brod: the Castle = the grace of God; the surveyor = the new Parsifal in quest of the divine; etc., etc.); they are psychoanalytical, existentialistic, Marxist (the surveyor =a symbol of revolution; because he undertakes land redistribution); they are political (Orson Welles’s The Trial); Kafkology does not look to Kafka’s novels for the real world transformed by an immense imagination; rather, it decodes religious messages, it deciphers philosophical parables.

“Garta was a saint of our time, a veritable saint.” But can a saint go to brothels? When Brod published Kafka’s diaries he censored them somewhat; he deleted not only the allusions to whores but anything else touching on sex. Kafkology has always expressed doubts about its subject’s virility, and it delights in discussing the martyrdom of his impotence. Thus Kafka long ago became the patron saint of the neurotic, the depressive, the anorexic, the feeble; the patron saint of the twisted, the precieuses ridicules, and the hysterical (in the Orson Welles film, K. howls hysterically, whereas Kafka’s novels are the least hysterical in the entire history of literature).

Biographers know nothing about the intimate sex lives of their own wives, but they think they know all about Stendhal’s or Faulkner’s. About Kafka’s I would dare say nothing but this: the (not very easy) erotic life of his time had little resemblance to ours: girls in those days did not make love before marriage; for a bachelor, that left only two possibilities: married women of good family, or easy women of the lower classes: shopgirls, maids, and of course prostitutes.

The imagination of Brod’s novels drew on the first source; whence their kind of eroticism–rapturous, romantic (involving dramatic cuckoldries, suicides, pathological jealousies), and asexual: “Women are wrong to believe a good man cares only about physical possession. That is merely a symbol and is by far less important than this feeling: the woman loves me, and so she is entirely well-disposed toward me. All of man’s love seeks to win woman’s good will and kindness” (The Enchanted Kingdom of Love).

The erotic imagination in Kafka’s novels, on the contrary, draws almost exclusively on the other source: “I walked past the brothel as though it were the house of a beloved” (diary, 1910, sentence censored by Brod).

Masterful as they were at analyzing all the strategies of love, nineteenth-century novels left sex and the sexual act itself hidden. In the first decades of our century, sex emerged from the mists of romantic passion. Kafka was one of the first (certainly along with Joyce) to uncover it in his novels. He unveiled sex not as the playing field for a small circle of libertines (in eighteenth-century style) but as a commonplace, fundamental reality in everyone’s life. Kafka unveiled the existential aspects of sex: sex in conflict with love; the strangeness of the other as a condition, a requirement, of sex; the ambiguous nature of sex: those aspects that are exciting and simultaneously repugnant; its terrible triviality, which in no way lessens its frightening power, etc. Brod was a romantic. By contrast, at the root of Kafka’s novels I believe I discern a profound anti-romanticism; it shows up everywhere: in the way Kafka sees society as well as in the way he constructs a sentence; but its origin may lie in Kafka’s vision of sex.

castleThe finest erotic scene Kafka ever wrote is in the third chapter of The Castle: the act of love between K. and Frieda. Scarcely an hour after seeing that “unprepossessing little blonde” for the first time, he is embracing her behind the bar, “among the beer puddles and the other filth covering the floor.” Filth: it is inseparable from sex, from its essence.

But immediately thereafter, in the same paragraph, Kafka sounds the poetry of sex: “There hours went by, hours of mutual breaths, of mutual heartbeats, hours in which K. continually had the feeling that he was going astray, or that he was farther inside the strange world than any person before him, in a strange world where the very air had in it no element of his native air, where one must suffocate from strangeness and where, in the midst of absurd enticements, one could do nothing but keep going, keep going astray.”

Frieda at the bar counter in the inn

Frieda at the bar counter in the inn.

The length of the coition turns into a metaphor for a walk beneath the sky of strangeness. And yet that walk is not ugliness; on the contrary, it attracts us, invites us to go on still farther, intoxicates us: it is beauty.A few lines later: “he was far too happy to be holding Frieda in his hands, too anxiously happy as well, because it seemed to him that if Frieda were to leave him, everything he had would leave him.” So is this love? No indeed, not love; if a person is banished and dispossessed of everything, then a tiny little woman he hardly knows, embraced in puddles of beer, becomes a whole universe–love has nothing to do with it.

In his Manifesto of Surrealism, Andre Breton speaks severely about the art of the novel. He complains that the novel is incurably hobbled by mediocrity, by banality, by everything that is contrary to poetry. He mocks its descriptions and its tiresome psychology. This criticism of the novel is immediately followed by praise of dreams. Then he ends by saying: “I believe in the eventual fusion of these two states, dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality, if one may so speak.”

Paradox: the “fusion of dream and reality” that the surrealists proclaimed, without actually knowing how to bring it about in a great literary work, had already occurred, and in the very genre they disparaged: in Kafka’s novels, written in the course of the previous decade.

It is very difficult to describe, to define, to give a name to the kind of imagination with which Kafka bewitches us. The “fusion of dream and reality”–that phrase Kafka of course never heard–is illuminating. As in another phrase dear to surrealists, Lautreamont’s about the beauty in the chance encounter between an umbrella and a sewing machine: the more alien things are from one another, the more magical the light that springs from their contact. I’d like to call it a poetics of surprise; or beauty as perpetual astonishment. Or to use the notion of density as a criterion of value: density of imagination, density of unexpected encounters. The scene I cited, of the coition of K. and Frieda, is an example of that dizzying density: the short passage, scarcely a page long, encompasses three completely distinct existential discoveries (the existential triangle of sex) that are stunning in their swift succession: filth; the intoxicating dark beauty of strangeness; and touching, anxious yearning.

The whole third chapter is a whirlpool of the unexpected: within a fairly tight span come, one after the other: the first encounter between K. and Frieda at the inn; the extraordinarily realistic dialogue in the seduction, which is disguised because of the presence of a third person (Olga); the motif of a hole in the door (a trite motif, but it shifts away from empirical plausibility), through which K. sees Klamm sleeping behind the desk; the crowd of servants dancing with Olga; the surprising cruelty of Frieda, who runs them off with a whip, and their surprising fear as they obey her; the innkeeper, who arrives as K. hides by lying flat under the bar; the arrival of Frieda, who discovers K. on the floor and denies his presence to the innkeeper (meanwhile amorously caressing K.’s chest with her foot); the act of love interrupted by the call from Klamm, who has awakened, outside the door; Frieda’s astonishingly courageous gesture of shouting to Klamm, “I’m with the surveyor!”; and then, to top it all off (and here empirical plausibility is completely abandoned): above them, on the bar counter, sit the two assistants; they were watching the couple the whole time.

Portrait of Frieda from the movie based on The Castle

Portrait of Frieda from the movie based on The Castle

The two assistants from the castle are probably Kafka’s greatest poetic find, the marvel of his fantasy; their existence is not only infinitely astonishing, it is also packed with meanings: they are a couple of pathetic blackmailers and nuisances; but they also stand for the whole threatening “modernity” of the castle’s universe: they are cops, reporters, paparazzi: agents of the total destruction of private life; they are the innocent clowns who wander across the stage as the drama proceeds; but they are also lecherous voyeurs whose presence imbues the whole novel with the sexual scent of a smutty, Kafkaesquely comic promiscuity.

But above all: the invention of these two assistants is like a lever that hoists the story into that realm where everything is at once strangely real and unreal, possible and impossible. Chapter Twelve: K, Frieda, and the two assistants camp in a grade-school classroom that they have turned into a bedroom. The teacher and the pupils come in just as the incredible menage a quatre are starting their morning toilet: they get dressed behind the blankets hung from the parallel bars, while the children watch–amused, intrigued, curious (voyeurs themselves). It is more than the encounter of an umbrella with a sewing machine. It is the superbly incongruous encounter of two spaces; a grade-school classroom with a dubious bedroom.

This scene with its enormous comic poetry (which should head the list in an anthology of modernism in the novel) would have been unthinkable in the pre-Kafka era. Totally unthinkable. I stress this in order to make dear the full radical nature of Kafka’s aesthetic revolution. I recall a conversation, by now twenty years back, with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who told me: “It was Kafka who showed me that it’s possible to write another way.” “Another way” means: breaking through the plausibility barrier. Not in order to escape the real world (the way the Romantics did) but to apprehend it better.

Because apprehending the real world is part of the definition of the novel: but how to both apprehend it and at the same time engage in an enchanting game of fantasy? How be rigorous in analyzing the world and at the same time be irresponsibly free at playful reveries? How bring these two incompatible purposes together? Kafka managed to solve this enormous puzzle. He cut a breach in the wall of plausibility; the breach through which many others followed him, each in his own way: Fellini, Marquez, Fuentes, Rushdie. And others, others.

To hell with Saint Garta! His castrating shadow has blocked our view of one of the novel’s greatest poets of all time.

On Greg Chappell’s deliberately-defective timing

A few selective leaks have come out of Greg Chappell’s new book called Fierce Focus and are doing the rounds in the international sports media. What Chappell has said is not a startling insight into the secret world of Sachin Tendulkar as the lead paragraph of the Herald Sun story proclaims.

Allow me to show how it is, in fact, another glimpse into the twisted mind of Greg Chappell. Of course, Chappell and his opinion don’t deserve all the attention but Tendulkar does and so all these weird innuendos about him that keep coming in at significant moments from the two brothers must be seen as a whole. Tendulkar has lately been front page news for all the wrong reasons—extracts from Shoiab Akhtar’s book, articles culled from Jayant Lele’s recent book and the Chappell insight have all come at a time when he’s had a rare failure in a high profile series after a long time.   

Guru Greg has an old habit of dealing in obvious statements for not-so-obvious reasons. It is plain that Tendulkar would have been beset with self-doubts and frustrated with his form not once but perhaps many times in his career so why is Chappell harping on it now. 

Back in mid-September 2010 Shekhar Gupta interviewed Harbhajan Singh for a TV show and the transcript headline captured the most-important point: “Chappell was a disaster. He was after Sachin. He wanted Sachin to retire.”

Much before Fierce Focus Harbhajan said: “You couldn’t go and talk to him about anything. As a player, if I go to the coach and tell him, ‘Sir, my hand is not coming like this, what do you think’ or ‘I am not confident, what do I do’, his job is to give me hausla (courage). But he, instead, would go to the press and say that he is not good, he lacks confidence.”

There is something about Tendulkar that sends the Chappell brothers into a spin though they are loath to admit it. The pattern is to come out with a frank and stinging comment and then when proven wrong to either retract or concoct some other story. When Greg Chappell took over the team in the spring of 2005 Tendulkar was in London having a surgery for his tennis elbow.

Just two days after his appointment as India’s coach Australia’s Sunday tabloid Sun Herald along with The Sunday Age (both belonging to Fairfax Media) carried a story by journalist Will Swanton based on a telephonic conversation with Greg Chappell in New Delhi.

The story wasn’t a non sequitur and what Chappell said was within the realm of rationality. It was the timing of the story that was odd and the need to say what he said before he had actually taken formal charge of the team (only his appointment had been finalised) put a question mark, in hindsight, on his man management skills.   

The lead paragraph said: “Greg Chappell doubts whether Sachin Tendulkar can return to the dizzy heights of his pomp, but India’s new coach will do everything in his power to get the little master back on track as he tries to guide his adopted country past Australia as the finest in the cricketing world.”

The story was candid and perhaps honest as well but you have an extraordinary player who has had a protracted ordinary period and even if you believe completely what you feel about the situation your spelling it out as the coach of the team is another dampener that Tendulkar has to deal with along with all his other demons.

From April 2004 Tendulkar had gone flat in Test matches and then for over three months he was sidelined when tennis elbow first struck him as a freak injury. He returned against Australia on a green top in Nagpur and failed in both innings. Then he conjured a minor gem of 55 on a rank turner in Mumbai where India won. Then he went flat again.

Surprisingly his ODI form was resplendent. After the surgery in 2005 he returned in an ODI to play his first game under Chappell against Sri Lanka in Nagpur. A score of 93 in 96 balls was Tendulkar’s riposte to speculations about his future. Tendulkar’s 95 on a seaming wicket in Lahore where Mohammad Asif and Umar Gul were operating like venomous Cobras and had reduced India to 12 for two was an innings for the ages. Imran Khan was floored with the performance and captain Dravid was lavish in his praise.  

Then the whole fiasco of the 2007 World Cup, and Chappell later saying that we came here with a flawed group and got the result we deserved. Ian Chappell poured some acid in his column for Mid-Day and said that Tendulkar was history and should hang his boots.

In February this year Greg Chappell admitted his mistake and said that if the same situation of Tendulkar batting down the order confronted him again he would handle it differently.

This is what the Sri Lankan captain had to say about Tendulkar’s wicket the day India crashed out. “Then came the key scalp: Sachin [Tendulkar]. His loss was a huge blow for the Indian dressing room, sapping them of precious team-belief. That was a major turning point.” Kumar also said he felt bad for India’s cricketers—a favour that the same core unit returned with interest in 2011, this time chasing an even bigger score in a World Cup final.

March 23, 2007 India was out of the World Cup in the first round and Chappell resigned. The difference between the team that played with fear in Port of Spain and the one that played with fire in Mumbai is just four players and only two of them were regular seniors. Robin Uthappa, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid and Ajit Agarkar were replaced by Gautam Gambhir, Virat Kohli, Suresh Raina, and Sreesanth. The other big difference was that the man behind the scene this time was Gary Kirsten.

The 2007 coach reportedly questioned the Master’s attitude and an angry and teary Tendulkar let go. The Board made Tendulkar retract. In the Feb. 2011 story Chappell also clarified that he never questioned Tendulkar’s commitment. The timing: right before the World Cup.

This is what Gary Kirsten had to say after his last match with India: “Sachin is the greatest sporting role model I’ve met in my life,” Kirsten said. “He’s had an incredible last three or four years, and he’s enjoying his cricket even more. I don’t think he is going to stop.”        

Greg Chappell’s timing in coming out with sensational or not-so-sensational stuff is a fascinating study. In mid-November 2007, the Herald Sun carried a long-story with the headline ‘India old and selfish, says former coach Greg Chappell.’ The lead: “MANY of India’s cricket superstars are well past their best and need to be replaced by fresh faces for the coming tour of Australia, former coach Greg Chappell has warned.

Chappell’s honest opinion has poured cold water on the hopes of many cricket fans that the Indians would provide a more competitive series against the Australians in an already dull summer of cricket.” Chappell expected India to be well-beaten. The story by Ron Reed just before the four Test series is classic Greg Chappell—embittered by his own failure as a coach and spewing venom.   

Brother Ian is a more interesting guy to listen to purely because he’s been a successful captain and his frank observations must be considered carefully by opposition captains. Not that he’s always right. 

India lost in Melbourne and won in Perth; the den where Australia used a four-pronged pace attack. Adelaide was a draw. And Sydney was the whole point. The first innings scores of the old man and their strike-rates were 62 at 80.51 in Melbourne, 154 not out at 63.37 in Sydney, 71 at 55.46 at Perth, and 153 at 74.63 in Adelaide. He finished as the top-scorer of the series.

Talk about dizzy heights of the past turn meaningless when you do things even better than the past. Tendulkar had never scored so-consistently at such-high strike rates in any of his previous three tours Down Under. Only his demolition of Australia at home in 1998 had been more brutal.

Hey, what about Sir Donald Bradman. This is his dream team including (in batting order with twelfth man)— Barry Richards (South Africa), Arthur Morris (Australia), Don Bradman (Australia), Sachin Tendulkar (India), Garry Sobers (West Indies), Don Tallon (Australia), Ray Lindwall (Australia), Dennis Lillee (Australia), Alec Bedser (England), Bill O’Reilly (Australia), Clarrie Grimmett (Australia) and Wally Hammond (England) (12th man).

Sorry, no one from the four Chappell family members who played for Australia was good enough in the Don’s estimation. My views are contrarian and so Bradman is not an infallible authority in my book but the Chappells worship him and have an obligation to fall in line.      

After the Sydney Test Australia has lost five Tests against India and managed a few draws but a win has eluded them. Chappell’s words came back to bite Australia as there were no immediate casualties for India but Australia lost a lot of men after the 2007 series against India.

Out of the teams that lined up for the 2008 New Year Test in Sydney, Australia has lost Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Brett Lee, and Brad Hogg due to retirements; Phil Jaques and Stuart Clark due to selection; and Andrew Symonds for fishing. India has had retirements of Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble while Wasim Jaffer has been dropped.              

The lead can be written differently: MANY of Australian cricket’s superstars were ageing and needed replacement and this fact dawned on them after they lost two back-to-back Test series’ against India with the core of the Indian team remaining intact.

Hogg and Gilchrist retired right after the 2007-08 series and within a year’s time, at the end of the 2009 New Year Test against South Africa; Hayden, Lee, Jaques, Clark, and Symonds were all out of reckoning. 

After Ian Chappell’s Mirror, Mirror on the wall piece at the end of the 2007 World Cup Tendulkar has been peerless. Since Jonathan Trott has been one of the more-successful international players though in a limited period I’ve picked him as a yardstick vis-à-vis Tendulkar to see where the Master is.

In 23 Test matches Trott has made 1965 runs at 57.79 with a strike rate of 48.51 with six hundreds and seven fifties. In ODIs he’s played 40 matches for 1798 runs at 51.37 with a strike rate of 78.51 having scored 3 hundreds and seven fifties.

The Master has played 46 Test matches for 4297 runs at 60.52 with 16 hundreds and 18 fifties. Tendulkar has played 69 ODIs for 3264 runs at 51 with 7 hundreds and 18 fifties. The comparison is not fair to Trott as he is still a rookie and can’t be compared with the greatest-ever but it is done only to show that Tendulkar is still one of the best in the business after 21 years of cricket. Dwelling into strike-rates is going into the obvious as the career strike rate in the ODIs for the Master is 86.32 and from the 2008/09 season onwards he’s struck at a rate of 95, 95.47, 100, and 88.60. The Test strike rates also bend decisively towards Tendulkar.

The timing of Chappell’s story is again interesting as India gets ready to tour Australia, just like he came up with a story that India would be well-beaten in November 2007, and quite like his undermining of Tendulkar as soon as he had joined, and then his sudden about turn before the 2011 World Cup. This time Chappell might be expecting Australia to be well-beaten as he’s also given a clarion call to Australian cricket in his book, an extract of which has been published: Chappell says be bold or fail.

The Mid-Day ran a story saying ‘Don’t read too much into it’ and gave one-half of the answer as there are only two ways that make complete sense: either look into nothing or into everything.

India can do without the diversionary screeds of Greg Chappell. They must prepare well, have the right guys fit and fresh, get the maximum out of the two tour games, remember the lessons learnt from the England series and throw the rest of the baggage. Players must stop reacting to whatever Chappell has to say and just concentrate on winning the series. A win is always the best answer.

The Joker’s New York Redemption

For years the cheeky impersonator, Novak Djokovic is finally discovering the joy of being oneself. Remember the exuberant 20-year-old who came to the Big Apple in 2007 and had everyone at Arthur Ashe in splits with his impersonations of some of tennis’ biggest stars. His ingenious acts starred Maria Sharapova, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Roddick. Djokovic entertained people and didn’t mind playing the fool. The great Charlie Chaplin once said“Failure is unimportant. It takes courage to make a fool of yourself.”

That year Djokovic created ripples in the tennis world despite the fact that he didn’t win a Grand Slam. He made it to the semi-finals of the French Open and Wimbledon, losing both to Nadal—the eventual champion in Paris and the runners-up in London.

At the US Open, Djokovic defeated Del Potro, Carlos Moya, and David Ferrer to book a championship date with World No. 1 Roger Federer. The Swiss knifed him in straight sets but it was a big boost for the Serb to get past the field and reach the final of what is considered as the most-grueling of all Grand Slams.

The Start

It was a prodigious start and Djokovic soon fired his first salvo at the Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. He defeated Federer in straight sets in the semis before dismantling Jo Wilfred Tsonga in the final to lift the 2008 Australian Open.

It gave Djokovic a record that still stands: He became the youngest man in the Open era to reach the semi-finals of all four Grand Slams and he had a title to show. A flattering result for someone new to a tennis league dominated by a duopoly comprising two of the game’s all time greats. This made everyone sit up and take notice and the young Serb nicknamed Nole was billed as a potential world number one.

The vital psychological landmarks in Djokovic’s journey can be seen wearing New York glasses. He may only have prevailed here for the first time on a mid-September Monday this year but that does not detract from the significance of his campaigns in New York. The US Open for him has always been like a point reached, like a stop in the movement of his life.

Djokovic returned to Flushing Meadows in 2008 on the back of a pretty good year—an Australian Open title, a hard court win at Indian Wells, and a clay court victory at Rome. Then everything started unraveling. During a five-set victory in the fourth round against Tommy Robredo, Djokovic took a couple of medical timeouts and later spoke about having two achy ankles, a sore hip and an unsettled stomach.

When Roddick, a subject of his mimicry the previous year, was asked about Djokovic’s injuries that night, he sarcastically suggested that Djokovic might also be afflicted by cramps, bird flu, anthrax, SARS and the common cough and cold.

The Serb wasn’t amused and after beating Roddick in a hard-fought quarterfinal came off as bitter and ungracious when he could easily have been relaxed and playful. The on-court microphone carried his unsavory response to a largely pro-Roddick crowd that booed him no end. Roddick said he was surprised by Djokovic’s reaction, pointing out that someone who mimics others should be able to recognise a joke when he hears it.

The quarter-final was just a gentle opening act compared to the crescendo of his semi-final against Federer two days later. The New York Times reflected on it a year later and said: “In the semi-final against Federer, Djokovic was heckled by the mob into a shell, where he seems to have remained for most of the 11 months since. Djokovic, 22, sounds as if he has aged a decade in the last two years. That’s what tennis, a brutal grind of unyielding expectation, can do to even the most carefree of spirits.”

The Fall

The 2008 semi-final was not exactly a low point but it was a significant point; something akin to a break point. It was a border. There was a confident brash upstart on one side of it and on the other emerged a confused, desultory figure rapidly going down the hill. Having impersonated others for fun, a cruel irony settled like a chill on Djokovic: He forgot his own game.

It reflected in his appalling 2009 season. Australian Open: A quarter-final loss to Roddick. French Open: A straight-sets loss in the third round to Philipp Kohlschreiber. Wimbledon: A demoralizing exit in the quarters at the hands of 31-year-old Tommy Haas.

“I think I get nervous a little bit more than I used to,” he said. “And I guess that’s probably pressure that I feel. But I shouldn’t.” Capping his woeful year was another straight sets loss to Federer in the semi-finals of the US Open.

The ATP tour in 2009 also left Djokovic heartbroken although he and Nadal slugged it out for more than a few finals. Nole lost the finals in Miami, Monte Carlo, Rome, and Cincinnati before picking up his solitary title of the year at the last event in Paris.

When Nole had defeated Federer on way to the 2008 Australian Open title, his mother, Dijana, had infamously said, “The king is dead”. In just a little less than three years Federer and Nadal accounted for 10 of the 11 Slams after Dijana’s exuberant prophecy; with Nadal winning 6 and Federer 4. The duopoly still had a vice-like grip on the majors and there was no sign of an impending storm in the distant horizon.

Djokovic had to do something special to shake things up and his odds were challenging to say the least: In the 28 Grand Slams played in the seven-year period from 2004 to 2010, Federer and Nadal accounted for 25. Everyone else on the tour was living on scraps. A look at the two men he had to subdue shows the magnitude of the challenge he confronted.

The Swiss Artist

Jimmy Conners summarized the versatility of Federer saying: “In an era of specialists, you’re either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard court specialist… or you’re Roger Federer.”

The early exchanges of Djokovic and Federer were dominated by the Swiss. Till as late as the end of 2010, Federer led the head-to-head by 13-6.

A few of Federer’s numbers illustrate how he made the Mt Everest of tennis his own little home. Federer held the ATP number one position for a record 237 consecutive weeks, and 285 weeks overall. By comparison the longest consecutive period as number one for Nadal is 56 weeks and when he claimed it back it lasted for just 46 weeks.

His crazy streak of reaching 23 consecutive Grand Slam semi-finals starting 2005 and ending with his quarter-final loss at the 2010 French Open is an achievement that in all probability would never be eclipsed (He won 12 majors in this period and reached 18 finals).

A New York Times story by Greg Bishop about Federer’s footwork talks about ballet and tennis and quotes Kathryn Bennetts, who runs the Royal Ballet of Flanders in Belgium and finds a correlation between the two passions.

“Elite dancers combine speed, dexterity, power and coordination. Grace stems from their awareness of their feet and the way movement flows from there. They move easily, in balance, made to appear that way through thousands of hours of repetition. In Federer, Bennetts found the Mikhail Baryshnikov of tennis.”
“He has this smoothness to him,” she said. “He’s an artist, so refined. Like how dance transports you to a different place, so does he.”

Nadal: The Street Fighter

An athletic rebel on the tennis court and a humble and charming man outside it, Rafael Nadal picked his first Grand Slam as a 19-year-old at the 2005 French Open.

The French Open became his bastion from 2005. A pattern emerged in the Grand Slams where Federer would win the Australian Open, the Wimbledon, and the US Open and Nadal would win the French Open. From 2004 to 2007 Federer picked 11 Grand Slams missing just the 2005 Australian Open where he lost in the semi-final to Marat Safin. Nadal picked up every French Open from 2005 to 2007.

In 2008, the rebellious Nadal was ready for a mutiny and he crushed Federer on Paris clay 6-1, 6-3, 6-0. The magnitude of the loss shook Federer and the pattern was broken with a tectonic shift in London. Nadal ended Federer’s five-year reign at Wimbledon in a final hailed as the greatest match in tennis history, a tight five-setter that ended in near darkness.

The 2010 season saw the return of a stronger and fitter Nadal. Rafa made a first-ever clean sweep of the clay court season in the Open era, with titles in Monte Carlo, Rome, and Madrid before being crowned as the King of Clay at Roland Garros. He reached London high on self-belief and possessing a game that was, incredibly, a few notches higher than even the best that he had showcased in 2008.

Oliver Holt, the award-winning sports columnist of the Daily Mirror captured the zone that Nadal was in after his semi-final win against Murray: “The bloke that Andy Murray played on Centre Court yesterday wasn’t any ordinary tennis player.

It was Conan the Tennis Player. It was a barbarian who bludgeoned Murray into submission with brute force and murderous strength. It was a man whose displays of raw power made the genteel crowd titter nervously in their seats.

Sometimes it felt more like a fight than a tennis match. Murray knows boxing. He must have felt like Trevor Berbick on the wrong end of a Mike Tyson left hook.”

 

It was Nadal’s magic year and there was no one even remotely close to him: he completed a career Grand Slam in New York and bagged three titles in a year to send a resounding primal cry that the time for his complete domination had arrived.

A Ray of Hope

Djokovic did not reach the finals of a single ATP Masters event in 2010. In Indian Wells he lost to Ivan Ljubicic and then suffered a shocking loss in the first round in Miami to Oliver Rochus. In Monte Carlo and Rome, he lost to Fernando Verdasco and said that his recent form has been hindered by allergies.

He lost the Rogers Cup to Federer and the Cincinnati Masters to Andy Roddick. Federer defeated him at the Shanghai Masters and also accounted for him in the semi-finals of the ATP World Tour Finals at the O2 in London. In just over two years or so the talented, carefree, and entertaining Joker had become a sick joke.

After losing three times in as many years to Federer at the US Open, Djokovic finally found a way in 2010. Nole traces the start of his extraordinary run back to that US Open. He lost the final to Nadal but once again it was New York that gave him a fresh lease of life.

Even imagining that Nadal could be derailed after the ruthless level he had displayed in 2010 seemed irrational. Only one man had different ideas. Marcus Aurelies said: “To the wise, life is a problem; to the fool, a solution.”

The Crew

From June 2006 Djokovic has been coached by former Slovakian tennis player Marian Vajda. Nole refers to Vajda as his ‘second father’. And both men talk about being emotional people and how that helps them understand and work together.

In July 2010, Nole added nutritionist Igor Cetojevic to his team. Igor discovered that Djokovic suffers from Celiac Disease and cannot eat gluten and removed it from his diet. This worked as Djokovic began feeling stronger, quicker, and fitter.

Vadja has said that some of the keys to his success are improved strength and fitness, his ability to stay positive when he doesn’t play well, as well as a harder forehand. The diet, power and fitness fell in place but the most important thing that has changed is Djokovic’s attitude. He has got back to being the same refreshing character he once was.

Djokovic began 2011 by winning the Australian Open beating Federer in straight sets by relentlessly attacking his single-handed backhand and drawing errors in the semi-final and then beating Andy Murray in straight sets in the final. He then won Indian Wells and Miami to become the first player after Federer in 2006 to achieve the triple. He withdrew from Monte Carlo due to a knee injury.

Then Djokovic dragged Nadal out of his seemingly-impregnable clay court fortress and bludgeoned him in the finals of the Madrid and Rome Masters in straight sets, extending his winning streak to 39. Djokovic’s crazy winning streak ended at 43 matches when Federer defeated him in a classic semi-final at the French Open.

“Djokovic is having the greatest year in the history of our sport, there’s no doubt about it,” John McEnroe said. “He bewildered Nadal. I’ve never seen Nadal look as if he doesn’t know what to do—and even on clay in Rome, Djokovic made him look like that. Wimbledon was where he separated himself and took himself to a whole new level. He beat Nadal six times in one year and, considering the year Nadal had in 2010, that’s pretty hard to do.”

The Joker Owns New York

Most tennis coaches and experts would concur that having a great serve is not enough as you can’t win matches just on aces. What you do with the opponent’s return determines the outcome of the rally in most instances and it is here that Djokovic has gone miles ahead of the competition.

“Djokovic created miss-matches all over the court, but the engine room of his stunning victory centered around his rally position standing in the Ad court hitting backhands,” Craig O’Shannessy, the creator of a tennis strategy website and the director of Life Time High Performance Tennis Academy in Dallas said in his New York Times blog.

By playing real close to the baseline Djokovic defused Nadal’s vicious forehand, which pushes opponents back and fetches shorter returns for him to kill. Standing up also gave Djokovic the opportunity to go down the line and find Nadal’s backhand at will.

“Nadal’s most potent weapon, the run-around forehand in the deuce court, was a non-factor as Djokovic forced Nadal to hit backhands in the deuce court instead,” O’Shannessy wrote.

This is such a massive blow to Nadal as his potent weapon instead of eliciting a short defensive reply is attacked by Djokovic forcing Nadal to somehow stay in the rally. One can’t overemphasize on what it does to Nadal as his backhand reply to the deuce court presents Djokovic the opportunity to unleash his lethal forehand to the other side—the edge of the Ad court. Djokovic in effect is always in control of the point while Nadal is running side to side just defending. This is why Nadal looked so powerless in the game.

Djokovic’s way superior return game has been another crucial factor. The Serb returned with amazing depth consistently and deprived Nadal precious reaction time. The depth also meant that Nadal couldn’t hit his hard forehand laced with heavy top spin as there was no room and closer to the baseline the bounce of the ball cannot be so easily trusted.

Djokovic toyed with Nadal’s service games and broke him 11 times from 26 opportunities while Nadal’s break point conversion was 6 out of 14.

The third set slipped away from Djokovic in a tie-breaker and he developed a back problem. He came out all guns blazing. The stats of the fourth set illustrate the story. It was over in just 42 minutes compared to the 84 minutes that the third set went on for. Djokovic hit 17 winners and made only four unforced errors to win the set 6-1. His first serve percentage was up 84% and he was winning 71% of those points while maintaining a wonderful 75% winning percentage on second serves. By contrast Nadal was winning just 44% on first serves and 40% on second serves.

Graphic novelist Frank Miller referred to Gotham City, the fictional US city appearing in DC Comics, as New York City during the night time. Unlike fiction, real life characters can change their destiny and on the mid-September Monday night this year it was the Joker who owned New York City. And the way he is going it would take Batman as well as Superman to stop him.

Down 3-5, 15-40 with Federer serving for the semi-final what is the Joker thinking: “The only sensible way to live in this world is without rules.”

(First published for my blog on the Times of India Website)

Sources: The New York Times, NYT Archives, The Brain Game, The Daily Mirror, Craig O’Shannessy, The ATP Masters Websites, Grand Slam Match Statistics, and Wikipedia

Stuart Broad was relentless against India

Brutally hammered India must make radical changes

The aftermath of the Test series in England must lead to India questioning the ethos of its cricket. The basic building blocks from where players emerge. In the practice nets a couple of decades ago the batsman was given the last few minutes to open his shoulders and hit out. That fun time has become the serious business and the tour of England has shown the results.       

This was going to be the year of reckoning for India and its number one Test ranking that it had managed to keep for around 20 months. The English summer was the marquee clash after England had crushed Australia in Australia to defend the Ashes in spectacular fashion.

The summer has unfolded like an ongoing nightmare for India; like a horror movie that as soon as you think you’ve seen the worst keeps getting more and more gory. What stands exposed is the complacent approach of India’s cricket establishment and the tag of the top side has only added insult to injury. The facts speak for themselves but a trifle more vulgarly than facts even usually do.

The words of the wrecker-in-chief were spoken for England though the irony could not have been keener if they were applied to India. Stuart Broad felt England’s pre-series planning was the main reason behind their whitewash of India. India didn’t look like they had a pre-series plan. They were, to use an Australianism, cruising for a bruising.     

It’s difficult to contemplate, and it shows the strength of England, that four weeks ago Broad was struggling for a place in the side and was tagged as the team’s enforcer, whose main job was to soften up batsmen by bowling short. He wasn’t getting wickets. A match he played for Nottinghamshire against Somerset changed that as he picked up five wickets bowling a fuller length.

In his words: “To go away and play for Notts and get a five-for pitching the ball up a week before the Test gave me a lot of confidence. That was how I wanted to bowl in this series but then for it to happen straight away at Lord’s, to pick up four wickets and could have potentially had more, that length showed me the way to go.”

No team or player is absolutely-certain that a particular plan would work out but having one usually helps, like it did for Broad. When he is fit, Zaheer Khan always bowls to a plan but what should be unacceptable is that he never plans in order to stay fit.

It’s baffling how India just turned up without the most important factor of having a settled side for such an important series. Their best batsman of the series had to open the innings more often than not. On the first day of the series MS Dhoni had to leave his gloves and bowl. A Test is too precious to be used as a practice game but Indian cricket has learned to accept it that way and has nurtured a belief of being competitive as the series progresses.

It is an approach that leaves half the battle to chance and this time the team has seen and hopefully the Board has learned that you don’t win games having some arcane belief in numerology. One can’t go on and on so let’s just stop and say they’ve been pathetic, abysmal, and totally lacking the stomach for a fight. They’ve played with a defeatist mindset and, of course, it’s largely because England have been superb and unrelenting.

If I have to put my finger to where India were ambushed and trampled then it has to be England’s second innings at Trent Bridge. India had their chances in the game and they could have leaped ahead twice but England stayed with them and then surged ahead when they had the chance.

Allowing Ian Bell to bat again was an indication that India had lost the belief and England pounced on them like a tiger leaps on an unsuspecting prey. There was no moral issue or a spirit of the game question on the Bell dismissal as Praveen Kumar had done a sparkling job on the boundary and the ball was still in play.

Bell leisurely jogged for a few yards and then realized that he was in no man’s land. The bails went off but Bell smartly indulged in some histrionics by showing disbelief. India was in the game at that stage and that friction coupled with the crowd’s booing could have been used by Dhoni to awaken his slumbering side.

It was not to be and Strauss and Andy Flower visited the Indian dressing room during the tea break to ask India to withdraw the appeal. One down in the series, their main bowler out for weeks, and their batting line-up still not settled, England would have understood their desperation. Bell himself admitted to being naïve.

For that one brief moment luck had changed its dressing room and India refused to give it respect. It returned to where it had been sitting comfortably since the start of the series and didn’t shine on India again. Quite rightly too as the harder you work, the luckier you get and England has really worked hard to get to the summit.

England’s rise has lessons for India

India must take the full impact of the blow and not hide behind any excuses. Humiliation is all they can take from the Test series and they must accept it as their due. They went as World Champions and as the number one Test team and were completely demolished on the field by Strauss’ men and ridiculed off it by the media.

Complete ruin can destroy a team, sow seeds of inferiority and bitterness but it also comes with an opportunity that can lead to regeneration. That is what India must learn from this English team. A look at the 20 series’ played by both the teams prior to this one has all the lessons.

India has won 12, lost 3, and drawn 5 while England have won 11, lost 6, and drawn 3. Three times the two teams have played each other and twice India has won (home and away) while one series has been a draw. Seven players from each side that squared up at Trent Bridge in July 2007 have played at some point in the XI’s of England and India during this 2011 debacle. Seven players of England and XI of India that played the December 2008 series that England lost in India have played some part in this series. It begs the question that from where has this massive gap between the sides come.

England has had big failures while India has had moderate success. Since Mike Gatting led England to an Ashes triumph in 1986-87 the England team lost every Ashes series for almost 18 years. Just sample some of these quotes by England players and journalists. “Before I joined Channel 4 I played for a team that won f*** all for 15 years”—Mike Atherton.

This is what Nasser Hussain, arguably the best thing to have happened to international cricket commentary, said on the essential problem with English cricket: “Here, everyone loves a loser.” And this by the brilliant cricket writer Matthew Engel: “The England cricket team has always been a bit of a joke. That is its fascination.”       

 The tide turned in 2005 when England, having had great success for the past 30 months or so, took on Australia at home. England won the nerve-jangling series 2-1. It was supposed to be the beginning but it turned out to be another end. England lost in Pakistan, drew in India and Sri Lanka and then defeated Pakistan at home before getting ready to defend the Ashes in Australia.

Australia massacred England to a 5-0 whitewash with the Adelaide defeat in the second Test being the kind that needed a shrink and not a coach to decipher. The survivors from that debacle are Strauss, Cook, Pietersen, Bell, and Anderson while the learners would surely be much more than that. 

India has not felt that abyss in the past two decades and apart from that 3-0 wipeout against Australia in 1999 they haven’t had massive low points. And to their credit during both the decades they have to a large extent been the only team to consistently challenge the all conquering Australians.

England’s rise is based around being brutally honest with their misery. If India can begin by realizing how washed out, shallow and mediocre they are at this moment they have a chance to rebuild. The scary part is that the regeneration depends a lot on the vision of India’s blind Board. The golden generation that has held the team for a good part of the last two decades is on its way out and there is the terrifying possibility that the new crop doesn’t know how to play old fashioned cricket. India is confronting a tremendous opportunity that I fear they are going to completely squander.

(First published in my Times of India blog)

Gary Kirsten with MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar

Spoilt By The Cricket World Cup

The hangover of that historic Saturday in Mumbai refuses to leave the bloodstream so soon. There has been little time to ponder over it and to enjoy its aftertaste. Cricket albeit has moved ahead with such nauseating speed that in less than a fortnight since that spontaneous eruption of joy on the streets of the country a different buzz is trying to force its way in.

American author J.D. Salinger didn’t have much to do with cricket but an anecdote in his novel Franny and Zooey, recounted by Buddy Glass in a letter to his youngest brother Zooey, metaphorically captures the plight of a discerning cricket fan. Buddy writes about a day three years ago when he had flown to Florida in order to bring back the body of his eldest and most-gifted brother Seymour, who had committed suicide by shooting himself.

On the plane Buddy weeps like a slob for five solid hours, taking care that no one across the aisle is able to see him. Just before the landing he becomes aware of people talking in the seat behind him and hears a woman saying,…“and the next morning, mind you, they took a pint of pus out of that lovely young body of hers.” Minutes later as the bereaved Widow passes him at the departure gate he has the wrong expression on his face. He is grinning.

He concludes his thoughts saying: “Against my better judgment, I feel certain that somewhere very near here—the first house down the road, maybe—there’s a good poet dying, but also somewhere very near here somebody’s having a hilarious pint of pus taken from her lovely young body, and I can’t be running back and forth forever between grief and high delight.”

That is how the ongoing IPL makes me feel. The television in our place has not been turned on for an IPL match as of now and I dread the disgust that would engulf me by watching this festival that celebrities and corporate bigwigs want the world to embrace. I can, of course, watch Tendulkar bat but that has nothing to do with the IPL as I can happily watch him practising in the nets for hours or getting ready for a match with throw-downs. Watching a genius ply his trade is a pleasure independent of the stage. As for the IPL, I do secretly wish that it goes to hell.

It does have some advantages that I must admit. One of the benefits of my having a glued-to-cricket way-of-life is that my family is completely-aware that I maintain a well-organised neurotic’s calendar. My next retreat is a five-day one that begins on July 21st at Lord’s and that is a good rest of three months to again work up a natural appetite.

Writer Harold Pinter once described the subtle beauty of the game eloquently: “Sometimes, when I feel a little exhausted with it all and the world’s sitting heavily on my head, I pick up a Wisden and read about Len Hutton’s 37 in 24 minutes in Sydney in 1946.”

Such a beautiful statement can only be made when cricket is at its zenith and not languishing with brutal assaults that make 50-ball hundreds a routine affair. The truth in Buddy Glass’ statement therefore does come as some consolation and if the sublime and the ridiculous have always existed as next door neighbours then it would be wise to just grin and put up with it.

What a marvellous World Cup this has been and what an exquisite delight for the Indian cricket fan. The win in 1983 led to a massive explosion of the game in India but it was a different kind of victory. We upstaged the champions but our achievement was more of being better on the day. The West Indies had the best team by a mile and after the Cup they toured India and routed us 5-0 in an ODI series. This victory is cut out of a different cloth. India began as the firm favourites to win the Cup and despite home pressure they lived up to that billing.

This is a time of unparalleled joy and pride for the Indian cricket fan. The war chest of the BCCI has been no consolation for the cricket lover and it has instead brought him embarrassment on occasions when the team was floundering and the cricket world was calling India out for using its financial clout. The number one Test ranking for a sustained period now gives us richly-deserved bragging rights.

After the acrimonious 2008 New Year’s Test in Sydney that took relations between Indian and Australian cricket to an absolute low it was the Indian team that surged ahead. India won the third Test in Perth and has not looked back since then.

Perth was a tremendous fight-back. And in an epochal coincidence the man who has made the biggest contribution in the rise of this team flew from Johannesburg with his wife Deborah to join the team for the first time before that Test in Perth. Coach-designate Gary Kirsten was to formally join in March 2008 but he made an entry as a Consultant to the Indian dressing room at that juncture in the series in Australia. India became the first team from the subcontinent to win in Perth that week and later went on to win the Commonwealth Bank Series.

Under Kirsten the Indian team has won in seven Test series’ and lost just one while four hard-fought campaigns have been drawn. Australia has not won a single Test against India after that Sydney game and has lost five Test matches and two Test series’ to India. And now to top it all is the World Cup. Gary Kirsten, Paddy Upton, and the entire support structure have a billion good wishes for giving Indian cricket and its fans this mighty side and the most-glorious period of their cricketing history.

MS Dhoni had said during the initial stages of the campaign that in a long tournament like the World Cup it is important to peak at the right time. The knockout stage saw a clinical Indian team dismantle reigning champions Australia, then an in-form Pakistan, and the dominant team of the other group, Sri Lanka, in the final. The fielding of the unit was exceptional and in all three games India wrested the advantage well before the formalities were completed. Plenty of balls and wickets in hand while chasing against Australia and Sri Lanka and an adequate buffer of runs in the bag while defending against Pakistan.

In the group stage India lost its most-important clash against South Africa in Nagpur. The loss in effect tightened India’s approach. The team did not attempt to overreach even once in the knockout stage and the best part was that the loss did not make Dhoni a risk-averse leader.

There was a lot of criticism about his obdurate approach with regards to selection and his match tactics came under the scanner. A story in the wires said that the BCCI had spoken to Dhoni about getting the combination for the West Indies game right. For the first time since he had taken over the reins of the team there was a cloud over Dhoni’s leadership. Impressively, it didn’t get to him at all.

Dhoni didn’t flinch when he had to take a gamble he believed in. Cricket experts discussing the combination said that because India had given all the initial games to Pathan they must now stick with him and leave Raina as he had just had one failed outing.

Dhoni though went ahead with Raina in the quarter-final against Australia. And Raina stitched the highest partnership of the match with Yuvraj Singh. The unbeaten 74-run partnership for the sixth wicket in which Raina made 34 in 28 balls took India past the finishing line with 5 wickets and 14 balls to spare. In the semi-final against Pakistan, Raina walked to the crease with India in a spot of bother at 187 for 5. Soon one end became open as Dhoni was dismissed with India precariously-placed at 205 for six. Raina marshalled the tail and made another crucial 36 not out to guide India to relative-safety at 260. They successfully defended it.

The captain didn’t think about what was being said outside the team environment and proved that he knew how to get the ticket to Mumbai and beyond. He is now being hailed as the best Indian captain ever. The final was a great day for MS as India played their most-perfect game of the tournament and despite two big early wickets they chased down 274 without breaking a sweat. Personally Dhoni peaked at the absolute right moment and that winning six over long on is still up in some orbit. Many more sixes will be hit this season but they have all been eclipsed in advance by the one that sailed into that Mumbai night.

Yuvraj Singh (L) and Mahendra Singh Dhoni after winning the 2011 World Cup in Mumbai.

Dhoni’s Audacity Won The Cup

It wasn’t a hundred. Though it was by far the innings of the tournament considering the odds stacked up against its possibility and the fear of falling at the last hurdle if it didn’t come off as its background. What Indian captain MS Dhoni showed late on Saturday evening at the Wankhede Stadium in Mumbai was courage under fire.

To be nervous in the kind of situation he came out to bat in is natural and he did say after the game that the decision to go out at number five was taken under a certain kind of pressure because of the risk involved. “It was a big decision, I knew that if I promoted myself and didn’t score runs I would be asked why I couldn’t stay back? If I promoted myself there would be two left-hand batsmen after me and if I got out the side may have been in trouble.”

His dismissal would have meant that the side would have had only three left-handed batsmen to rely on against a Sri Lankan attack that had plenty of off spinning options that could, as away going deliveries, cause problems to the line-up. Dhoni also had no runs behind his back before he took the gamble in the biggest match of his life as of yet. The guts to go out when the heat was turned full blast is what turned out to be more important than the situation. Dhoni demonstrated that courage is a step ahead of fear.

In the afternoon Sri Lanka had elected to bat after some confusion at the toss where the coin had to be flipped twice. It was advantage Sri Lanka as both sides wanted to bat first. India responded well with the ball and neutralised the advantage by brilliance in the field. The off side cordon that had Kohli, Raina, and Yuvraj was like an impregnable wall and the outfield patrolling was also impressive. They easily saved 30 runs in the field. It kept Sri Lanka in check for the major part of the innings and it seemed that India may get to chase a sub-par total of around 240 on a wicket that was playing true. A sublime hundred by Mahela Jayawardene and some fierce hitting in the death overs by the lower middle-order took the score to 274 and the momentum to the Sri Lankan dressing room.

The toss had gone Sri Lanka’s way and now they also had a big total on the board. It was an ideal situation for them as it played right into their hands with asphyxiating sides chasing as their tried-and-tested winning formula. History was loaded against the team chasing at the Wankhede, loaded against chasing a high score in a World Cup final, and loaded against the host of the World Cup winning. All advantage Sri Lanka.

Even then India’s performance upfront in its matches against the Test sides in the World Cup gave a lot of hope. They had an in-form top-order that had built solid platforms by the time two wickets were lost in the entire tournament starting with 152 for two against Bangladesh, 180 for two against England, 267 for two against South Africa, 51 for two against the West Indies, 94 for two against Australia, and 116 for two against Pakistan in the semi-final.

The final required India to chase the highest in the entire tournament and the team had also lost momentum and needed a good start to calm the nerves in the dressing room. A routine start by India’s standards would also have been welcome. It turned out to be their worst start against a big team in the entire tournament and 0 for 1 in the first over became 31 for two in the seventh as both Sehwag and Tendulkar departed. It was massive advantage to Sri Lanka at that point.

Two days before the final the Sri Lankan coach Trevor Bayliss said: “We have played good cricket through the tournament and have done well against India in the past. The pressure will be on India since they are playing at home, but we are familiar with the conditions in Mumbai.” He then betrayed nerves by saying that “if we play good cricket we are going to be very difficult to beat. This match is 50-50 at this stage.” Difficult to beat is a false positive as it puts emphasis on getting beaten rather than on winning.

Dhoni used a different yardstick and said, “We’ve been tested.” Obviously he meant to sow seeds of self doubt in the Sri Lankan camp by implying that they weren’t. And they weren’t. Not to the intense degree needed for the Saturday in Mumbai. Their match against Australia was washed out, they lost chasing 277 to Pakistan, cantered home chasing an insipid target against England, and had beaten the Kiwis comprehensively before they met them again in the semi-final. India had a trial by fire before the final as they chased 260 against defending champions Australia and then defended 260 against in-form Pakistan.

Lasith Malinga said that the wet ball hampered him in bowling yorkers during the later part of the match. Perhaps it did but by then the match was pretty-much sealed and it sounded like an excuse considering the position from where India had grabbed the initiative. The toss was an advantage with the dew factor built in and Sangakkara’s post-match comments reflected it correctly. “When you look at this Indian team anything less than 350 looks less. They deserved this title, the way they played in front of a great crowd.”

It was a match where no matter what Sri Lanka had done India would have come up with something better to turn the tide. This was evident in the way the game panned out. The toss didn’t go India’s way but rather than going flat they lifted their fielding to another level. Then the score swelled to what Sri Lanka would have taken any day of the week and in a World Cup final without doubt. Given the choice of getting two Indian wickets cheaply any international side would without a shred of doubt pick the two that Malinga took out. What more did Sri Lanka needed to go its way? Despite the odds India powered its way to the Cup convincingly with 10 balls to spare and a backup batsman still in the dressing room.

From the moment Dhoni got his first boundary it was all one-way-traffic and the Lankans were reduced to mere spectators. Their body language betrayed a sense of helplessness and it was Dhoni who controlled the show. Generally among the better fielding sides from the subcontinent Sri Lanka surprisingly were completely ragged in the field. The end came in real style. Two amazing back to back boundaries by Dhoni off Malinga brought the target down to single figures and with just four needed he smashed Kulasekara Dharamshala-style for a thunderous six over long on.

Tendulkar accepts the generous applause.

On That Day In Sydney

In a few months from now this blog would celebrate its second birthday and I may miss the occasion so I am having an early party to mark a different milestone. This is the hundredth post of the blog and I pause for a moment to think of all the effort that has gone in reaching here and then I think of one of my favourite subjects or rather the favourite subject and words fail me because how do you describe what is even impossible to comprehend.

That cherubic-faced sixteen-year-old boy who went to Pakistan in the winter of 1989 to face a hostile bowling attack on green wickets that the rival captain Imran Khan called tailormade for the home side stands on ninety-nine at this monumental moment with potentially two upcoming chances to get to a hundred hundreds.

Imran in an article in 2009 wrote: “As far as Sachin was concerned, there was one shot he played right through that series that has stayed in my mind. It was off the backfoot between point and cover. The pitches were green, the ball was moving and it struck me that it was remarkable how he was timing this drive and getting it right so often.”         

Around the middle of the last decade it didn’t look like a possibility that we would come to this day and there was a growing chorus in the cricketing circles that Sachin Tendulkar was going to hell in a handbasket. The slump started with a freak injury in 2004 when Tendulkar was in Holland for a tournament before the Natwest Series and the Champions Trophy in England.

Tennis elbow sidelined him for a few months in 2004 and it was a painful period for him as he could not even pick a bat. Imagine Tendulkar without a bat and you can almost feel the pain. He took some shockwave treatment and was advised rest for an indefinite period. He was quoted as saying that it was tough to accept and that he got frustrated. Sometimes he went out for a drive alone at 3 am in the night. The nation waited with bated breath and celebrated every incremental progress, like his slowly gaining strength to pick up the bat, then his 10 minute knocking on simple throwdowns, and his having the first serious nets.

He made a return to the side in end October in the third Test of the 2004 series against Australia on a green top in Nagpur. He failed in both the innings with single digit scores and India lost the match by a massive 342 runs and the series with a game still to play. For Australia, it ended a dry period of thirty five years since Bill Lawry had departed Madras with a 3-1 win in December 1969.

Tendulkar hit the ground running and on a vicious turner in Mumbai played a minor gem of 55 and combined with Laxman (69) to give India 107 runs to defend; which proved to be enough as Australia got bowled out for 93. He was shaky after that despite a few big scores. Speculation and expert advice became the order of the day with all and sundry weighing in on his struggle to get runs. Sportstar carried a story advising him what to do. Some former cricketers had stinging observations to make. Tendulkar became a has-been and Test bowlers were delighted to see him as it meant everyone had a chance to get a cheap wicket.

A story praising one of his double hundreds tells you the state of things: “Despite the two chances he offered, this was one of his more fluent efforts in recent times—the footwork was decisive and the mindset aggressive from the moment he came out to bat. It showed early in the piece too, when he launched into a pull off Mortaza when his score was still in single digits. Too often in the recent past, Tendulkar has come out to bat in an inexplicably defensive frame of mind, allowing bowlers to shackle him up and dictate terms.” It was against Bangladesh.

Then out of the blue a fluent innings came and was cut short by a horrendous umpiring decision. At Eden Gardens against Pakistan, Tendulkar was batting in total control in the second essay when an Abdul Razzak delivery in fading light swung prodigiously after it had passed the bat and umpire Steve Bucknor raised his finger without much of an appeal.

Razzak couldn’t believe his luck and neither could Tendulkar. A story quoting an unnamed team member said that Tendulkar was in tears in the dressing room. It caused a furore in India with a leading daily coming out with a broad bold headline saying ‘Buckonered’. As it happened it was just the beginning of a long cursed period for the Master and his fans.

From the New Zealand tour in December 2002 to December 2007 Tendulkar had an iffy period despite the fact that he played a few assured knocks against good bowling attacks. Tendulkar scored just six hundreds in these five years; and out of them the early 2003 scores of a not out double hundred against Australia in Sydney and a 194 not out against Pakistan in Multan were perhaps the ones that he may have been happy about. Of the four other hundreds three came against Bangladesh and one against Sri Lanka at home.     

In 2005 Tendulkar played what can now, in hindsight, be called a masterstroke. He went to London for a surgery to prolong his cricketing career and protect his vulnerable left elbow tendons. Authority still eluded him after recovery and for two more years he played like any good batsman and not like Sachin Tendulkar.  

The absolute low was breached by his home crowd in Mumbai as he was booed after getting out for a run in 21 balls against England. To compound matters he suffered a shoulder injury that required another surgery and another few months of rest. He was also hurting and it came out in some of the post-match presentations. He had been in cracking ODI form prior to the shoulder injury and his 95 in Lahore on a seaming wicket against a potent bowling attack was an innings for the ages. He came back and scored a 141 not out against West Indies in Kuala Lumpur and was asked how the body is holding up. Replying in an affirmative manner, Tendulkar then said that after so many years he knows a little bit about his own game and suggestions about a light bat and other things should be left to him.

The team was supportive and always ready to defend him but Tendulkar needing a defence in itself was an abnormality. Entirely to his credit he bided that time and came out as a personification of perfection. Sir Donald Bradman was not a classically-beautiful batsman though he was always effective and Neville Cardus’ words may well have been written in anticipation of a Tendulkar: A devastating rarity: a genius with an eye for business.

His brilliant second run started with his 2007-08 tour of Australia where he discarded the curse of the 90s—which was following him like a shadow for over a year—with complete nonchalance. After the 2007 World Cup six times in the ODIs and once in the Tests he was out in the nineties and then on a beautiful sunny day in Sydney he turned the tide.  

Batting on 98 in the Sydney Test he punched Stuart Clark off the back foot through cover and knew that he had got there with an easy two and Sunil Gavaskar in the commentary box stopped in the middle of saying that he’s got out a lot of times in the nineties lately and jumped to ‘but not this time; not this time’. Tendulkar had a muted celebration at first that almost gave the impression as if he was embarrassed. What followed was pure delight as he embraced Harbhajan and took out his helmet, raised his arms to acknowledge a standing ovation at the SCG, and then looked at the skies for what seemed like a very long time. The applause was tremendously-heartening and it must have felt like home. It went on for a while and then the Master responded quite unlike himself. He stood at the strip like a Gladiator; and with his arms raised, his head thrown back, soaked the adulation.

Siddhartha Vaidyanathan of Cricinfo was there and wrote a copy that captured the essence of the effort: “When a bunch of school boys, sitting in the Monty Noble stand, were being noisy after lunch the teacher who had accompanied them screamed, ‘Nobody talks when Tendulkar s on strike’. Soon the boys started chanting: ‘Nobody talks when Sachin strikes’. The heartfelt applause when he reached hundred carried on for close to two minutes. First there was a cheer for the couple, then an even bigger one for the celebration. Sydneysiders knew they were witnessing something special; importantly they knew they may never see him again. Here was an expert innings from a batsman in control, someone who knew what the situation demanded. Tendulkar’s dazzling array of strokes make him the icon that he is but it’s his consolidation skills that make him revered. Some batsmen give you a chance, Tendulkar, in this mood, gives you no hope.”

There was a transformation on that day and he came out of it a different man. The fourth of January 2008 was the day the heavens opened again for the Little Big Man. Everything about him has been different since then and he has added 13 Test and seven ODI hundreds—not to mention the substantial half-centuries. A lot of them have been big hundreds and three of them double including one in a limited overs game.

Tendulkar is at a level where what the opposition does is no longer as important as how he turns up on the day. It seems like a divinely-set stage now and it would be worth the wait to see what the Lord has in store for his favourite son.

Yuvraj Singh, Take A Bow

Nairobi, the seventh of October 2000, a still under 19-years-old boy walked out to the crease in the 19th over of India’s quarter-final innings against Australia in the ICC KnockOut tournament. The score was 90 for three and Tendulkar, Ganguly and Dravid were back in the pavilion. It was the first time Yuvraj Singh came out to bat in an international fixture and Glenn McGrath, Brett Lee, and Jason Gillespie were among the bowlers he had to face.

It wasn’t a particularly rich period for the Indian cricket fan and wins against Australia with their menacing bowling and depth of batting were like an oasis in a vast and arid desert. India had lost seven previous matches to Australia and one had to go back two years to search for the two consecutive wins they had in 1998.

In October 1998 at Dhaka and in April 1998 in Sharjah and the one man who made it possible through three consecutive innings that blasted the Australians. The 143 that Sachin Tendulkar made to take India to the final of the Coca-Cola Cup, the 134 he made that brought the Cup home, and then the 141 he made in the Wills International Cup.

On that day in Nairobi, with three wickets down it looked like India was headed for an eighth consecutive loss. You couldn’t have blamed Yuvraj had he struggled in his first outing with the bat against a top-class attack of the dominant team of that period—which is also the reason why he richly deserved every bit of praise that came his way. It was a sensational innings in which Yuvraj made 84 runs in 80 balls to propel India to 265, a total they successfully defended to break a long losing streak.

Yuvraj is a player capable of producing a match turning performance and it is a quality that he has had since the beginning of his career. He has had an awful 2010 with injuries and indifferent form giving way to lack of confidence and then almost everything going in a downward spiral. Inhospitable reality became Yuvraj’s constant companion starting from the 2007-08 Test and ODI tour to Australia and he came through nicely in a couple of series’ after that but after the knee injury it became doubly difficult for him.

After years of reckoning when a permanent slot opened up for Yuvraj in the Test side he missed a game due to injury and replacement Suresh Raina sealed his spot with a dynamic debut hundred followed by a crucial half century. Yuvraj got dropped from the squad and was reported to have even contemplated retiring. He wasn’t even a certain starter before the first World Cup game and it was his bowling that increased his chances.

Yuvraj knuckled down to get some form in the initial Group stage matches and absorbed pressure to play effective rather than flamboyant innings. The fluency then returned and he has picked up four man-of-the-match awards in the seven games that India has played. He made a good hundred in India’s last group game against West Indies.

Then he entered the big stage and the big pressure moment with India wobbling in the middle part of hunting down Australia’s 260 runs on a wicket that was difficult to bat before getting set. And Yuvraj Singh displayed nerves of steel at a time when the Australians were charged up and knew that one more wicket after Dhoni’s dismissal would have had India in deep trouble. With 74 runs still to get and just a wicket standing between Australia freeing one end up for the tail to come Yuvraj and Suresh Raina combined to see India home with five wickets and 14 balls remaining. Raina came to the crease and played a fearless gem that left the Aussies stunned. And like a seasoned campaigner Yuvraj went about his business by playing safe yet attacking cricket. Yuvraj dealt with the bad balls ruthlessly and kept the good ones out carefully.

Take a bow, Yuvraj Singh. This is your moment and no one can ever take it from you. It has been tough for you in the past few years and it could even be argued that the 19-year-old boy who took it to the Australians in Nairobi could not do justice to his immense talent. However, the present fact is that this one inning has raised you above all of that and a billion people are smiling today because of the tears that you have had to shed in order to become steel.

Sachin Tendulkar and MS Dhoni at a practice session.

India Hold The Aces If They Keep Their Nerve

A knockout game comes with its own pressure and the recent past is the reservoir from where a team draws its strength to seize the contest. The big day though can throw surprises and even best laid plans can come to nothing. And the history of the World Cup is a testimony that tells us to embrace form and draw belief from it but not to get complacent or cocksure.

Tonight another facet would be added to the rivalry between Australia and India. It has been the battle of the decade with India consistently challenging Australia in the Test arena. The limited over game was in favour of Australia till the end of 2007 and the balance in both forms shifted towards India in the last three years or so.

India has had its share of problems in the Group stage with a couple of late innings collapses and problems defending decent totals but they have sailed much better when compared to a disastrous Group stage for Australia. Australia’s game against New Zealand happened a month ago, the Sri Lanka encounter got washed out, and in their most-recent game against Pakistan they crumbled to a meagre total that even the suspect batting of Pakistan overhauled quite easily in the end.

India piled a huge total against Bangladesh and then another one against England that resulted in a tie and against the side considered as having the best bowling attack in the World Cup, India were 144 for 1 after 18 overs during which largely South Africa’s best bowlers operated. The collapse was an attempt to overreach when the situation at 267 for 1 in 38.3 overs looked impregnable. After a nightmarish collapse where most wickets fell in an attempt to go for big shots India managed 296 runs and were in the game till the last over. Despite the disappointment they can take some heart from that performance.

The World Cup has deceived the favourites on many occasions from its first edition in 1975 although Australia has found life to be very easy when the crown was on its head. West Indies slipped in 1983 as India defended 183 runs at Lord’s. The Kiwis had won seven out of their eight games in the 1992 edition and lost just the last game in the qualifying round that allowed Pakistan to sneak in as the fourth semi-finalist. Pakistan outplayed the favourites in a memorable semi-final and went on to win the Cup. The Cup was South Africa’s to lose in 1999 and they went down in a bizarre fashion that started Australia’s long and as yet unbroken reign at the top. The Australians were favourites in 2003 and they won without a hiccup and when the tournament was billed as being more open in 2007 Australia again went through the Cup unbeaten.

This time they are certainly not the favourites but a formidable team in disarray. The good thing for them is that they do know how to win big matches but a comparison with the 2003 final is completely flawed. Watching the recordings of that final could backfire for Australia as it detracts from what are the strengths of this Australian team. India decided to field first on a batting beauty that day as the only match they had lost in the previous stage was when they were bundled out for 124 batting first against Australia.

Coming closer to the spectrum India can look at a lot of positives. Australia in 2008 lost the first two of the best of three Commonwealth Bank Series finals to India. In the 10 previous Test matches Australia has won two with the last being the 2008 New Year Test in Sydney and have lost five to India after that. India has won five of the last 10 ODI games and lost four against Australia and there have been only two finals in these games, both of which India has won.

The big problem for Australia is the Little Master as he has single-handedly stamped his authority over the Australian team in this three-year period. In the last 10 Test matches Tendulkar has scored 1292 runs at an average of 76 against the Australians with four hundreds and six fifties. This includes two big hundreds and one magical double hundred and there has been just one Test against the Australians in this period where he hasn’t got a score of 50 or above. Although he didn’t miss out by much and made a patient 49 to save that game in October 2008 in Bangalore.

Starting from the first final of the Commonwealth Bank Series Tendulkar has scored 483 runs at an average of 69 with two hundreds and a fifty in the ODIs against them. It is befitting to say that he has had Australia’s number in the last three years. India would be hoping that he gets a start in Ahmedabad while Australia would know they can’t afford to let that happen. Tendulkar has also made it a habit to rise higher than the occasion and his flawless hundreds against the two big sides in Group B are a testimony to it just as the mountain of runs that he has scored in all kinds of situations against every opposition on varying surfaces are proof of his excellence.

The big hurdle apart India has quality in the top order and the depth plus hard-hitting skills in the middle-order and if they play to potential they should get through. MS Dhoni has the advantage of being a leader in command of his team and the team does not have to come out and say that he has their backing. Despite a few slip-ups and the odd instinctive decisions of Dhoni that have failed he is an excellent captain with a cool head. Australia has quality fast bowling stock but their spin options are thin and if their fast bowlers go for runs like the South African ones went then it would be advantage India. India has quality spin bowling options and a crafty left-arm seamer as the spearhead of the attack.

The mindset that the team brings to the game would be extremely important and for India it would be great if they come out with a frame of mind similar to the October 2008 Test in Mohali, where they were relentless, aggressive, professional, and positive. The balance sheet favours India but matches are not played on sheets and if there is one team that can never be written off it is Australia. It promises to be a mouth-watering contest and it is about to begin.

The Nagpur Nightmare Can Haunt India

In the build-up to India’s most-crucial Group stage clash, captain MS Dhoni in his pre-match talk a day before stressed on the importance of a start from the trio at the top that could then allow the explosive middle-order to play its A-game. “If we have slightly longer partnerships at the top, the explosive power of our middle and lower-middle order can be used more in the positive way,” he said.

Sachin Tendulkar, Gautam Gambhir, and Virat Kohli form the technically-accomplished core of India’s top order and Sehwag as a devastating plunderer completes the picture. On Saturday, when India came out to bat in front of a full house the tension in the atmosphere was palpable. Sehwag hit a boundary off the first ball and was then beaten a couple of times in the opening over by Steyn. Morkel came from the other end as Tendulkar took guard to face his first ball of the match. Unlike Sehwag, the Master betrayed no nerves and played his first ball on the up, right under his eyes, with his front foot movement so precise that it looked calibrated to the last millimetre. He opened his account with a single of that first ball and Sehwag was back on strike. The third ball took the edge and went slightly to the right of van Wyk, who couldn’t move a muscle as the ball raced to the fence and Sehwag got a reprieve.

Morkel was bowling with good speed and extracting disconcerting bounce making it difficult for Sehwag but Steyn leaked runs from the other end. Lance Klusener had said the previous day that playing at home India would feel the heat but it was the South Africans who looked dazed at the start. A regulation catch was dropped in the second over and the third over went for 14 with an overthrow that cost five and a huge wide by Steyn another five. Morkel overstepped in his second over and was lucky India couldn’t cash in on the free hit. It was a frenetic start despite Morkel keeping things tight by giving just 9 of his first two overs.

The momentum shifted decisively in Morkel’s third and the innings’ sixth over when the floodgates opened with three hits to the fence. At the end of 5 overs India had 33 on the board and they leaped to 70 in just three more overs with the help of eight boundaries; Morkel conceding six of them in his two overs. At the end of 15 overs the scoreboard read 128 for no loss; Sehwag was 62 in 54 balls and Tendulkar was 57 in just 37 balls.

On the big stage of a pressure game Tendulkar was at his absolute best and it is difficult to describe how beautifully and brilliantly he batted from that first ball onwards. It was a knock that had the stamp of inevitability. He knew he was going to get the runs and if getting them had meant dodging bullets he would have done that and yet stood his ground. Even by the lofty standards of the Master this was a special knock in a crunch game where the nerves could have been frayed at the start. A commentator reflected on the first 25 overs or so saying that amidst all the commotion at the centre—where catches slipped, the South Africans conceded extra runs on more than one occasion due to overthrows, the world’s premier fast bowler lost it in the third over of the innings and conceded 14 runs, and Graeme Smith didn’t know where to hide—one man was calmness personified.

There has been a lot of useless talk before the World Cup about doing it for Tendulkar; useless because the World Cup is not about individuals. But if one were to just consider it for argument’s sake then here was a perfect stage set by the genius and it only needed some backing up. India’s veteran cricket writer R. Mohan in his beautiful piece said, “It takes far more than the world’s greatest batsman to swing an ODI even if he is Superman who once scored a double century to seal a game.” In the 90s Tendulkar did it alone on many occasions as he knew that his wicket meant the game was done for India. This is a different team though and he may well have been under added pressure to play the big shots in the powerplay with the knowledge that traditional accumulation would deny his team extra runs as the power-hitters were in the dressing room. He now knows better.

Dale Steyn, the man of the match in Nagpur, picked up 5 wickets but for his first seven overs he toiled hard and went for 46 runs without a wicket to show. His partner Morkel bowled six overs for 50 runs with the wickets column being empty. The threat was not just taken care of but had been dismissed out of sight.

What then happened to India? How come the explosive batting line-up Dhoni was referring to went off like a cheap cracker? It wasn’t a choke as umpteen newspapers proclaimed in bold and big headlines on the front as well as the sports pages. A choke happens in a situation where a team has victory in sight but to get there it has to absorb some pressure (little or big) and not let the situation, the opposition, or its own hesitancy/lack of belief get to it—when it gets to the team you can say they choked. At 267 for 1 in 39.3 overs with Steyn having just three overs left and India having nine wickets in hand even the remote possibility of pressure had been taken out of the equation. What unfolded was far worse than a choke as India imploded without any pressure at all. And unlike a choke, where a team loses wickets by being tentative, India blazed its way to hell. They fuelled and lit their own pyre.

The first problem was the batting order and it started with number three. Gambhir is a really good player and if an early wicket had fallen he was an ideal choice but he has not been in the best of form and a crunch game was not the time where he should have been sent up to find his feet, especially after a blazing start. Virat Kohli has been in terrific touch for more than a year now and he also did exceptionally-well in South Africa earlier this year and India needed a player high on confidence and scoring freely without risk to allow Tendulkar to breathe easy for a while. Kohli at number seven is a complete waste as he is not someone who bludgeons the ball but plays conventional and smart cricket.

The combined average for Kohli at number 3 and 4 is 52.90 while at number 6 and 7 it drops to 12.66. Dhoni picked on the top order needlessly as they have done reasonably-well in the tournament and his emphasis on the explosive game of the middle-order belies its fragility and builds a case for wanton hitting.

South Africa was under the pump at 144 for 1 after 18 overs and Smith would have given his life for a sedate partnership compared to the carnage that had taken place. The next 18 overs yielded just 93 runs and South Africa clawed their way back into the contest. Even Tendulkar lost the pace of his innings with Gambhir finding it difficult to break free.

The bigger mistake was to send Yusuf Pathan up the order and I am not saying this out of retrospective intelligence. The move was disastrous for two reasons and the first is that the team management should have considered how Pathan has done in different situations. In 9 innings before Nagpur where he has batted up the order (batting positions number 3, 4, and 5) Pathan averages 14.11 with three ducks and two single-digit scores and not a single half-century—that average has now fallen to 12.70. In 26 innings at number 6 and 7 Pathan has an average of 42 with two hundreds and three fifties.

It is no secret that Pathan struggles against fast bowling and since India had already taken a powerplay, South Africa was always going to use their strength and would not have foolishly obliged the Indians by bringing on a spinner against Pathan. The other reason why his promotion was a mistake has to do with the message that it sends to the dressing room. It means that we are going hell for leather even at the cost of digging our own grave. Was the middle-order under undue pressure to cash in big time after a great start to demonstrate that the captain’s belief in their explosive abilities was not unfounded?

This game has made it clear that the explosive middle-order can implode any moment and they should be chastised for their approach rather than given encouragement for their suicidal ways. India’s middle-order showed a complete lack of understanding of the game’s situation. Dhoni himself could do nothing to take charge of the situation and shepherd India at the finishing line. It wasn’t an epic fightback that brought South Africa back into the game and Steyn didn’t bowl a hostile and unplayable spell. It was a complete abrogation of responsibility by everyone bar the trio at the top that let South Africa in.

Tinkering with the batting order was not a good example of out of the box thinking. A good one would have been to take the batting powerplay right after 15 overs with the instruction of playing normal cricket to Sehwag and Tendulkar. That would have caught the South Africans by surprise and it would have forced Smith’s hand to either bring back his strike bowlers, who had gone for plenty, or operate with lesser bowlers to two set players in a powerplay. Either way India would have benefited and could have been above 170/180 in 20 overs without breaking a sweat. And South Africa would have been gutted with the game killed for them.

Instead this game has thrown India’s campaign in disarray and though this team has shown character and bounced back on several occasions the biggest disadvantage here is the lift that the South African team would have got from it. They were dead and buried after the England game and were down and out against India after just 25 overs before India handed over the impetus to them. Graeme Smith saying that it is a massive win for us is actually an understatement.

There are matches that have little bearing on a team’s campaign bar their result and there are those that have psychological implications that go well beyond the immediate and sow seeds of self-doubt in the camp. This match potentially has the power of going beyond the Saturday and India would do well to remember the lessons and forget the game. How they bounce back from here would be the thing to watch out for and it would be very interesting to see their approach if they meet South Africa again in the tournament.