CRICKET’S NEW HEGEMONY AND HOW TO STOP IT

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What if the future of cricket is just watching more of these series. Over and over and over? Not that appealing, is it?

The other day while browsing a stats column on Cricinfo, I found something intriguing about whitewashes in a series involving four or more tests since 2011. It has happened an amazing four times as of writing which compares quite alarmingly to the fact that whitewashes involving four or more tests had happened only 12 times out of 207 series in the history of Test cricket prior to 2011. Andy Zaltzman, the writer of the said column in his usual delightful turn of phrase called it “A golden age of cricketing travel sickness”. But then, as I counted the whitewashes post 2011 something more remarkable stood out – all those four series involved either India,
Australia or England (India lost to England and Australia 4-0 in 2011 and 2011-12 and then Australia lost to India 4-0 and of course there was the 5-0 result in The Ashes recently). The Big Three. The marquee teams in cricket today. Or so they would like to believe.

The oddity of that stat really hit home when this week we found out about the proposal tabled at an ICC meeting that was essentially designed to abandon the Future Tours Program (FTP) and create a monopoly through a trifecta of BCCI, Cricket Australia and the ECB that would financially rule cricket by virtually making sure the only meaningful cricket and hence the only meaningful money comes from and remains with these boards in question because apparently “They are attaching the right of a country to rule the cricket world to its economic strength” as an ICC official put it. The proposal involves, among other things, a two tier Test system to replace the World Test Championship but one where while football league style promotion and relegation were possible. However, citing the “importance of those markets and teams to prospective ICC media rights buyers” (the report’s language) the Big Three would be exempt
from relegation. Imagine Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea demanding a clause like that when the Premier League was created. Or a bunch of countries getting together and calling themselves ‘permanent members’ of a security council of a league of nations kind of a body and then self appointing themselves the arbiters in all sorts of conflicts around the world. (Oh, wait, that may have already happened.) Bonkers, right?

Presumably, like some of the extractive financial institutions they have sometimes echoed in terms of their inclination for avarice, the Big Three are ‘too big to fail’. In Seventeenth Century England, monopolies were granted in virtually everything making it the dominant form of economic enterprised, a ruthlessly extractive agreement that would profit at the cost of the customer. Of course, to a large extent the Glorious Revolution and the Industrial Revolution changed all that but as Daren Acemoglu and James A Robinson write in ‘Why Nations Fail’

“These monopolies…gave individuals or groups the sole right to control the production of many goods. They impeded the type of allocation of talent, which is so crucial to economic prosperity.”

 

The current revelations about what the future of cricket might look like sound eerily similar. While the arguments are being made by these three boards that they have the best interests of the game in mind, they are facetious at best. (The proposed profit sharing arrangements distinctly place the poorer boards at a disadvantage. They get to produce less of the products because the Big Three would be busy playing (and based on the statistical evidence, maybe whitewashing) each other and they get a smaller cut too. The rich become richer and poor become poorer. Sound familiar?

Monopoly power and rent seeking, to use the typical economic terms to describe such a blatant cornering of the market, have been as old as time itself but there is only so much of the abuse of power that the game we love for its beauty can take. You might argue that if you go by a business yardstick or capitalist sentiment, these three boards have earned their keep based on the fact as to how their teams draw the crowds and fill the coffers while a West Indies v New Zealand test match goes empty. But there is a problem. Sport is not always business as usual. Major League Baseball in the United States faced a similar problem at the turn of the Millennium. Big market and rich teams were winning all the pennants and the World Series leaving smaller market and smaller budget teams in the lurch. (Those of you who have seen ‘Moneyball’ know the narrative.) In 2000, the commissioner constituted a blue ribbon panel to study baseball economics and suggest how the playing field can be leveled. It suggested quite pointedly:

“Sports leagues do not function as free markets. If they did, the clubs would be clustered in a few large markets. Rather, sports leagues are blends of cooperation and competition—cooperation for the sake of producing satisfactory competitiveness.”

Without this ‘satisfactory competitiveness’ people would simply stop caring about the sport. We need the West Indieses, the New Zealands, the Sri Lankas and the rest (and let’s not even get started on how South Africa have been ignored in the draft proposal, and they are the current No. 1!). As Jarrod Kimber notes in his plea to fans in another Cricinfo column, perhaps it is time to send the boards a message. As he rightly points out,

“We have no vote in cricket. All we have is our passion, which is what makes the money that gives these men their power…They are banking on you not knowing or caring about any of this… What this does is allow cricket’s most important men to run the game while no one is watching. Show them you’re watching.”

This post is my contribution to let them know. (I have incidentally sent it across to all three boards.)

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MADIBA AND SPORT

“Sport can create hope where once there was only despair” – Nelson Mandela

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“He told me thanks for all we’ve done for South Africa,” – Francois Pienaar, South African rugby captain in 1995 on what Mandela said to him as he handed over the World Cup to him in Johannesburg

This afternoon at about 5, Anthony, my roommate at the Temple University residence hall received a call from his girlfriend, Kim. She wanted to know if he’d heard the news about Nelson Mandela passing away. Anthony said he just got a news alert on his phone. From ESPN. He expressed his surprise that the alert that came the earliest was from ESPN and not CNN and the like. I got the news on twitter and soon there was a picture from Liverpool Football Club’s official account showing Mandela in a reds jersey when he met the team. I couldn’t help but feel a deep sense of personal loss, as I am sure many others have.

Nelson Mandela, a man great for so many reasons, it’s futile to even attempt to list them, always had a special connection to sport. Whether it was during his days at the Robben Island prison following soccer scores, or inquiring with visitors if Don Bradman was still alive, there are few world leaders who have so genuinely believed in the power of sport to rekindle hope and leveraged it so well to make society better.

I have always marveled at how during his youth Mandela’s face so uncannily resembled Muhammad Ali’s. And unsurprisingly, Mandela was a big fan of Ali. He once said, “If I was in a crowded room with Ali, I would stop what I was doing and go to him. He is the Greatest.” That is high endorsement not just because of Mandela’s stature but the fact that Madiba was a boxer himself. When he became the president of South Africa in 1994, his immediate mission was to begin healing the scars of apartheid and reunite the nation of South Africa. One of the first things he did immediately after his inauguration as President was watch a soccer game involving South Africa and Zambia. South Africa, out of international sport because of apartheid, made its reentry, none more dramatic than that historic World Cup of Rugby in 1995.

Mandela took great interest in what was seen as the white man’s sport and used the event (South Africa were hosts) to unite the nation to rally behind the Springboks, as the rugby team was known. The Clint Eastwood film ‘Invictus’ (based on the book ‘Playing With The Enemy’) chronicles how the surprise South African title triumph acted as a breaker of barriers as Mandela handed the trophy over to the white captain of the team, Francois Pienaar.

We often talk about taking sport as a metaphor for life and being inspired to be better based on what we see on a sporting pitch. Mandela, like he did for almost everything he believed in, lived that spirit. He was instrumental is landing South Africa the soccer World Cup in 2010 and it turned out to be an amazing showcase for the people. Above all, for Mandela, sport represented hope and provided the opportunity to heal, two things he deeply believed in. Today’s generation and the ones to come will do very well to keep his legacy of hope and kindness alive through the language he believed everyone easily understood – sport.

“Sport has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.” – Nelson Mandela

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ZENDULKAR: ZEN AND THE ART OF SACHIN

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Now that he can shed his zen like silence, the best we fans can do is to just step back and let Tendulkar define his own legacy.

I began watching cricket in 1987, when I was six years old. Needless to add, I have followed the entirety of Sachin Tendulkar’s career (one of the first ever pieces of cricket action I saw on our own TV was his assault on Abdul Qadir in that exhibition game in 1989). And I have savoured and enjoyed every moment of what turned out to be a career spanning at least four different eras for Indian cricket. And now that he’s stepped off the field for the last time, the battle for his legacy and its definition has begun in earnest. I was 9,000 miles away as the events unfolded at the Wankhede in Mumbai and was resigned to catching highlights and YouTube clips of his last innings (Harsha Bhogle was so excited he blurted out ‘And a half century in his last test innings’ as Tendulkar got to his fifty with India still trailing the West Indies) and then, that speech.

The sheer honesty of emotion in that speech obviously floored everyone including yours truly (in fact, it just made me feel a little bit more alone as a frame of reference I have pretty much known all my cricket watching life dissolved). But here is the thing. The speech was stirring primarily because this was the first time we were seeing a Sachin behind that zen-like aura that he would exude as he went about his business on the cricket field. Whenever there has been a controversy or a talking point about him, the rest of the country has debated it to bits but hardly, if ever, we heard anything from him. In a way, it was a good thing. But the unintended consequences of always letting his bat do the talking were deeper than Tendulkar could have imagined. It polarized his fans (yes,everyone, even those who have made a career out of criticising him, is deep down, a fan) into two camps – the one that had nothing but divine reverence for him and the other that looked for ever sharper critical needles to puncture the Tendulkar myth.

It is said that ‘if you torture data long enough, they will confess anything’ and the data driven prosecution has been tirelessly on the case forensically slicing and dicing the extraordinary number of data points Tendulkar generated by just being around for so long. I am currently a doctoral program candidate and I know that in the social sciences large enough datasets can be used to pretty much demonstrate anything. I am not taking sides here – both parties have equally leaned on the data to make their case. That, as I wrote in an earlier post, has been a problem. The upshot has been an extraoridnary statistical zeal that whiffed the last remaining bits of romance out of watching Tendulkar. For those of you wondering why the swansong end of Sachin’s career felt so long, you need to look no further than ‘the-waiting-for-the-next-milestone-with-baited-breath’ syndrome for your answer. Everything had to be a round figure. 100 International centuries (whatever that means!). 200 Tests. Most this. Highest that. Sachin’s zen like silence didn’t help. And that is why I believe that now the burden is off his shoulders, there is a likelihood a more candid Sachin provides his legacy a new angle – one that comes from his point of view.

When Muhammad Ali took on George Foreman in the ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ in Zaire, many rightly reasoned that the younger and more brutal Foreman would have the edge. Ali, though, had a trick up his sleeve. And that was his ability to absorb the pressure and the blows and hit back as Foreman grew tired to score the knockout. And he knew who he was doing it for. The throngs in the stadium in Kinshasa and the millions worldwide who were screaming ‘Ali bomaye’ (Ali kill him!). Ali was an artist and despite his missteps and clumsy attempts at comebacks late in his career (a fight against Larry Holmes was particularly embarrassing) the moniker of The Greatest still sits well on him if go by his moves in the ring and his sheer willpower in terms of not giving up (the Thrilla In Manilla against Joe Frazier was such a fight). But Ali’s outspokenness, the very trait that made him such a sensation apart from his skill at boxing, became his enemy in his latter years. He was perceived and dismissed as a gloater, a trash talker who didn’t have anything left in the tank in terms of boxing.

In Tendulkar’s case, the very trait that made him the zenith of batsmanship in the modern cricketing era, his ability to shut everything out, was the one that acted against him towards the end of his career. The silence created enough space for all sorts of theories to flourish on either side of the debate; both the statheads and the worshipers jostling to impose their definition on a legacy that does not belong to either of them. But now that we know from the man himself how much he admires his admirers and as he sheds that zen boundary around him, I think it is time to just step back and let Sachin define that legacy himself.

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DISSENT IN THE RANKS

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Not getting the transfer you want? You should so talk to thousands of IAS officers. They exactly know how you feel.

Every football transfer season in Europe is an exercise in the irrational – Just ask Gareth Bale – and so pervasive is a herd mindset that it is no place to be looking for economic logic. Sure, player valuations are *supposed* to follow basic theory in terms of how much a team wants to pay for a particular player and which offer a player wishes to take up. But more often than not, football managers, agents and players simply don’t care about them.

One of this summer’s biggest most irritating sagas has been the selling of Luis Suarez. Numerous rounds of ‘will he, won’t he’ later we are still no closer to figuring out if he’s staying at or leaving Liverpool. The gist of the Suarez deal has been this – the Uruguayan striker apparently had mentioned that he would reconsider staying at Liverpool if the club did not qualify for the Champions League this season. Liverpool didn’t make it to the Champions League and rumors started swirling about a possible move to Real Madrid and then more concrete news about Arsenal making a bid. Of course, during transfer season the line between a rumor and concrete news is as blurred as the Beijing skyline on a particularly smoggy day. Nonetheless Arsenal put in a couple of bids. None of them seemed quite serious because they seemed well below the reserve price Liverpool were willing to pay. Also, Arsenal suddenly wanting to buy a big ticket player like Suarez (who despite recent controversies still remains a top notch, and thus expensive, striking talent) had the same amount of plausibility as someone who walks around with inexpensive clutches suddenly walking into a Louis Vuitton showroom demanding to know the price of that classic handbag displayed by the window inside the humidity controlled chamber.

Predictably fuelled by a media frenzy, the entire saga played out like a soap opera queered further by the fact that Liverpool (actually, the Player’s Association) pointed out that Suarez can’t simply opt for a transfer without permission because his contract did not quite allow this. Clearly, Suarez and his agent’s understanding of Contract Law was at least as limited as the striker’s understanding of the ‘do not bite an opponent on the playing field’ law.

The upshot was and still remains a massive amount of uncertainty over the fate of Luis Suarez. Now, many believe, even if he stays at Anfield, it would be counterproductive for Liverpool because you shouldn’t start a disgruntled player as it wrecks the morale of the team. (Suarez was made to train alone for a while and there was even talk he might apologize to the fans; he hasn’t.)

A Liverpool supporter and Twitter friend Nirav Karani made an interesting point about busting this ‘disgruntled player’ myth. He tweeted: “I think the ‘not keeping unsettled players’ theory is flawed. Players have to perform to maintain their market value.” hashtagging Liverpool and Manchester United. Everyone knows the Wayne Rooney situation at United and has similar theories about whether David Moyes should bother keeping him in the squad.

Nirav’s point draws from the basic issue of ‘agency theory’ and the economics idea of rational players (football or otherwise) always looking to maximize their gains. Agency theory basically says that incentives allow agents (not the player’s agent but the player himself here) to act in the interest of their principals (teams, in this case) thus benefiting both.

So if a Suarez doesn’t get the transfer he wants (he should totally speak to a few IAS officers here in India to understand how *that* feels!) and ends up staying at LIverpool, playing anything less than his usual game would prove to be damaging to the value he can extract from a new contract, say next season, at another club. It is a fair point insofar as the conventional theories go. All players are professionals after all. But football is nothing if not a game that’s deeply embedded with the classic flaws of the human condition that would have made Willie Shakespeare proud. And therein, as the Bard himself would say, lies the rub.

Suarez is known more his petulance than professionalism. And his on field bite is mostly worse than his off field bark about transfers. Could we expect him or even a Wayne Rooney to make cold and calculated decisions about what would maximize their lifetime contract values? It is admittedly a bit difficult to fathom. But the interesting point is that would a manager be willing to stick his neck out, give a pep talk to the player in question in the exact same terms (‘Son, if you still want to be on the market at a fair price next time, do what is expected of you as a professional.’), and include him in the starting eleven? Marquee performers going rogue is nothing new. But, perhaps, as Nirav suggests, the time has come to look at the theory in new light, keeping aside Football’s foibles. If the fans choose to be just a tad less emotional and a tad more pragmatic it would probably result in what management consultants love – a win-win situation.

P.S. : Suarez perhaps has realized the point Nirav made and is meeting the Liverpool manager in the next two days. In that case, I would say ‘Your move, Brendan Rodgers.’

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FED, RAFA, AND RUSHED JUDGMENTS

It could have happened last year. When Julien Benneteau held a 2-0 lead in the third round at Wimbledon against Roger Federer, with Rafael Nadal having been eliminated in a thriller by Lukas Rosol, the possibility of a second week at a Wimbledon without Federer AND Nadal looked very plausible. Obviously, it didn’t happen because Federer went on to win Wimbledon 2012.

In 2013, though, that dreaded scenario has materialized. And this time rather than being taut thrillers, two relatively tame submissions from the champions who in 2008 played one of the greatest finals of all time in any sport. It was like watching Sholay and seeing Jai and Veeru die before even the second song, let alone the interval.

Tumultuous the turn of events may have been, what it really has brought out is also our rush to judge. Over eager as always to make facts fit their grandiose yet bland narratives, the media seems to have gone on a tear against Nadal (claiming his clay legs didn’t work on grass; when, clearly he was physically struggling in the match v Darcis) and Fed (The Times Of India’s lead sports story had them bringing up Adele’s ‘Skyfall’ lyrics ‘This is the end…’).

It is easy to pitch it that way; easier to make the current statistics fit that pitch but for me as a tennis fan who is rational and emotional in equal parts, impossible to digest. Dwell on the poignancy of the twin exits all you want, but I don’t see where the question of their time being ‘over’ at Wimbledon comes from. This post is not a defensive rant from a fan. It is just an acknowledgement of the irritation one feels at the romance being sucked away from sports in general phrase by lazy explanatory phrase from the media.

P.S. As if to almost underline the point, a friend shared this today morning.

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STICK IT TO CSK

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Well done, haters and lovers alike! You make us tick.

SO, whatever way you look at it, Sunday’s IPL 6 final will once again involve a familiar face – the Chennai Super Kings (CSK). Finalists in every edition bar one of the IPL and semifinalists every time, the Chennai franchise is as close as it gets to a dynasty in the still nascent (by league longevity standards) Indian Premier League. And by virtue of being the virtual dynasty team, CSK also have now pretty much become ‘India’s Team’, as much as the New York Yankees are ‘America’s Team’ when it comes to baseball in the United States. And of course they seem to be in the midst of everything that comes along with being the preeminent (and, by extension, the most successful) team of a league in an era – the haters (think Manchester United, Barcelona), the conspiracy theory and theorists (think Manchester United again – more on this in just a bit), the financial muscle (think Yankees) and their name up on the marquee in bright neon lights.

Let me elaborate. The Yankees are the richest team in baseball. (Those of you who saw Moneyball probably know just how rich and how that un-levels the playing field) Their payroll is a ridiculous $200 million and upwards. They have all the superstars. And towards the late 90s they were demolishing opposition with three back to back World Series (one, the 1998 season, which included a record number of regular season wins). They were almost a shoo-in to be in the playoffs and then in the World Series, the final showdown. They had the Most Valuable Player in the league. Now think about Manchester United in the last decade and a half in the Premier League. I could simply replace World Series with Champions League and you would have similar facts. Ditto with Barcelona. And of course, now that you have started connecting the dots, CSK.

Each of these super successful franchises and the dynasty they build in the wake of their successes naturally breeds haters. And conspiracy theories. You wouldn’t need to be very perceptive to realize that the Yankees wield major influence on Major League Baseball and don’t even get me started on the number of times fans of other teams would conveniently (and sometimes, with legitimate reasons to be aggrieved) blame a defeat on the fact that Alex Ferguson ‘owns’ the Football Association (Fergie’s Association is a common joke) or Michel Platini, the head of UEFA, Europe’s football governing body is just a puppet being controlled by the all mighty Barcelona (UEFALona is the joke here).

Some of those concerns may even have a grain of truth. But that’s not what I am trying to investigate here. It is just the phenomenon of why society always feels the need to create the big guy first in order for the little guy to have a cause. Without a dynasty, it is not easy to direct blind obedience or deep seated hatred. If you ask the Yankees how they are ‘Americas Team’, they have a simple reasoning – they are a successful franchise who give the casual fan (or a bandwagon fan, if you want the more derogatory vernacular) someone to root for because he/she does not have a team otherwise. Surely, 99% of Manchester United fans in India fall into that category. A friend of mine told me a story once. They were watching a Man United game in a shack in Goa three seasons back (he’s an Arsenal fan) and got into an argument with some United fans at the bar. The United fans glowered at one point and one of them, young enough that maybe the bartender should have asked for an ID before serving him, offered ‘Oh please…tell me which other team is there that have won the English League 18 times? 18 times! No one!!’. My Arsenal fan friend calmly replied, ‘Uh, Liverpool?’ Anyway, I digress. So these are the casual lovers, the worshippers at the altar of success who’d readily change their god if the success dried up. What about the haters? The Yankees would say yes, we are ‘America’s Team’ for them too giving them someone to root against and fuelling their interest in the game because they want to see us lose, and if we don’t they come back to watch again and again. Chennai Super Kings followers would probably identify very readily with sentiment.

So, the dynasty team in a perverse way is essential to the sustenance of the league. Whether you put the reason as CSK’s influence on the board and its inside connections, or their ‘luck’ in the auctions and the easier fixture lists for them, and whoop like mad when they lose (and even update your Facebook status maybe) you are also being drawn at the same time into what they called ‘sticking it to the Man’ in the rock n roll era.

And as the modern generation loomed and ‘the Man’, the all controlling and regulating government started taking the backseat, Rock n Roll fell off a cliff. It was easy to be in the Federer camp or against him when he was the best player on view in the men’s tennis circuit by a country mile. But now that you have about four players (including Fed himself) vying for that top spot I find it difficult impossible to hate any of them. In that sense, if you are a CSK hater and are reading this, might as well enjoy your ‘sticking it to the Man’ moment while the dynasty lasts. Because, fans and haters alike, congratulations. You just made CSK ‘India’s Team’.

DISCLOSURES

1. I do not own shares in India Cement.

2. I do not own a CSK jersey.

3. No, Dhoni’s hair stylist and me are not on first name basis.

4. I have never been to a party organized by Ravindra Jadeja.

5. No, I wasn’t asked by Suresh Raina to look after his phone when he is on the field.

6. No, I don’t know Gurunath Meiyappan. By the way, who the f*** is Gurunath Meiyappan?

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SIX AND OUT

She ran her first race at 6, when she persuaded (her father) to let her enter a local 5K. Alana kept referring to the events as “carnivals,” because she was enthralled by the atmosphere: the fun and games and food vendors at the finish.

- The New York Times profiling Alana Hadley, a 16 year old who is currently the top teenaged long distance runner in the United States

I am not exactly up there with this kid’s superserious standards (100 miles a week is her running schedule. To which I say ‘Mother of God!’) but whenever I have run the World 10K here in Bangalore, I have also always been blown away and enthralled by the carnival like atmosphere of the race. In fact, year after year that has been what has kept me coming back. Again. And Again.

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Thanks for the memories :)

For Six consecutive times. Intrepid Bangaloreans would come out, participants and spectators alike, and enthusiastically and tirelessly cheer each other on in a massive show of what Bangalore is all about.

I wanted my sixth edition this year to be a good race. A lot of it was in my own hands. I could train better, prepare smarter and give the race my best shot. But I let my destiny slip out of my own hands because once again, I had patchy training and almost non-existent preparation. But who needs training when the race, its participants and the absolutely amazing folks of this city are at hand to give you the requisite adrenalin?

Let me put it this way: 2013 was easily the grandest World 10K yet. Bangalore, you outdid yourself again!

* * *

With the prospect of my sixth running of the World 10K being my last (I am most likely moving out of the country this Fall), there was a certain feeling of a circle closing. Sachin Tendulkar has played six World Cups. George Lucas stopped after six episodes in the Star Wars saga. And if you go by the Biblical accounts, even God Himself rested after six days of creation.

My mind was cast back to 2008 when I was contemplating participating in the race for the first time. I was naturally apprehensive at such a long distance (for an entirely novice runner) and asked my mom about it. She promptly told me a story of how in my tiny hometown they had organized an open long distance race once;  the winner crossed the finish line and no sooner he had put his hands up in the air to celebrate than he collapsed out of sheer exhaustion. And then she helpfully added, ‘Well that was a 20k race though; you should do fine in a 10k’.

I was conflicted about whether to classify that as encouragement or aspersion casting , but then, as the saying goes – Mother knows best.

BORN TO RUN

“If you don’t think you were born to run you’re not only denying history. You’re denying who you are.”*

That race in 2008 changed everything and gave me a cherished pastime, an activity that impacts me at a fundamental level no matter how casually and intermittently I indulge in it – running. It’s the in thing, so in vogue nowadays that apparently the fitness company FITiST holds its meetings literally ‘on the run’. (Its co founder Caroline Limpert explained to the magazine ‘Fast Company’: “When you’re running, your endorphins are up, you’re out of a traditional office–out of your element. You’re able to talk about things more openly and candidly.”)

But running goes much deeper than that. Just how deep is something you’d appreciate if you read Chirstopher McDougall’s 2009 book ‘Born To Run’, where he details his experiences with a running tribe in Mexico, the Tarahumara and their astonishing ability to just run, mostly barefoot and often for days! For now, I hope this quote suffices: “There’s something so universal about that sensation, the way running unites our two most primal impulses: fear and pleasure. We run when we’re scared, we run when we’re ecstatic, we run away from our problems and run around for a good time.” (*Perceptive readers must have already noticed that the section opening quotes throughout the post are all taken from McDougall’s book.)

So it was ritual as usual for me as I woke up at 5 on a humid Bangalore Sunday morning, my alarm tone specially set as the ‘Chariots of Fire’ theme music. (Yep, I am filmy like that.) By 6:15, I was at the Kanteerva Stadium where this time there was a crucial change – this time, the Open 10k race would begin at 7:22, barely 15 minutes after the Elite women’s race (usual start time previously was 8:10 am, after the end of the Elite women’s race).

The early start meant we’d probably be able to avoid the sun for the most part. As it turned out, the 8000 odd of us running the Open 10k needn’t have worried, the cloud cover was thick enough for the sun to not show up even past 10am and these turned out to be the most humid conditions I had ever run a 10k in. As a fellow runner later commented ‘I almost thought I’d melt into a puddle.’ The gates opened at 7:20 and the rush toward the start line began.

* * * 

“You don’t have to be fast. But you’d better be fearless.”

With the organizers deciding to classify us according to times taken to finish a 10K race, this time the early traffic was a wee bit better and there was no massive congestion at the start line. But as we hit the first bend out of the gate and towards the right on to Kasturba Road, the elbows started flying. Racing etiquette seemed to have been jettisoned by some of the fellow runners who could well have been enrolled for a Masters program in the Virat Kohli Institute of Subtleness and Sensitivity in Sport.

They came from all directions overtaking indiscriminately and generally disrupting rhythm without even being remotely apologetic. Granted, no one exactly takes formal running etiquette lessons to participate in the race but even common sense dictates that you do not almost punch your fellow runners in the face as you jostle for an early position. Thankfully by the first kilometer marker, like usual, the early enthusiastic crowd had stopped at the water station like a road tripper stops at a dhaba when hungry.

I was concentrating on getting into my running rhythm and as my iPhone belted out Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born To Run’, the muscle memory instantly responded and I was back on familiar turf, physically and psychologically. Springsteen’s song is about greater existential angst and struggle than a mere 10k race, but somehow the urgency in his voice when he sings “…tramps like us, baby we were born to run” always eggs me on.

From my very first race I have learnt one critical lesson – the pace can wobble around in a race but you cannot let the rhythm falter. I used the idea to fashion my personal running style – relatively short steps (I do not have the calf muscles or the hamstring to take high and long strides) and an even breathing rhythm (I believe the technical term for this – I swear I found this out just today – is called breathing ‘below your aerobic threshold’). It uses up less oxygen and thus your muscles don’t tire as quickly. It has served me well everytime but this time I tried a little dare.

In Formula One parlance, this is what you would call a multi pit strategy , where you take more number of pit stops than usual but run the car harder in between the stops – burn the fuel and the tires faster – so as to achieve a greater pace. I had decided to run hard as and when I could and take quick cool down breaks before doing that again. It worked perfectly as I realized I had reached the three kilometer marker without much fuss and that too at a pace close to 11 km/hour!

* * *

“You don’t stop running because you get old, you get old because you stop running.”

Once I passed the 3k mark I picked up an Enerzal packet and the glucose brought the spring in the step back. But the mind had started playing its tricks. Anyone, especially first timers, (a one time colleague Madhu, ran the 10k purely inspired – that’s what she said! – by me!) who comes to me for running advice (Yes, I will never know why anyone would consider me worthy of dispensing advice on running!) I always tell them one simple thing – your muscles are perfectly fine with a 10k run, it is your brain that needs convincing.

The problem with our brain is that it can’t stop thinking about the elephant with the red hat precisely when you told it not to think about an elephant in a red hat. In a famous experiment about discipline, researchers gave children (aged about 4-6 years) a marshmallow and locked them in a room with the promise that if they don’t eat the marshmallow in the next twenty minutes, they will give them another marshmallow as a reward. Naturally, most kids couldn’t resist and ate the marshmallow. But some showed great self control. A follow up study apparently showed these kids went to become better achievers in life.

So, clearly discipline and Zen like mind control were important, but how did the kids manage to not eat the marshmallow? The researchers studied the video footage and found the kids were able to divert their focus on to other things and away from the marshmallow. Runners have to constantly grapple with the same thing. Thus, they will resort to a lot of things to focus attention away from paining legs and shallow breathing. For example – strumming some air guitar to their favourite AC/DC track; admiring the gait of the elite women athletes returning for their race’s home stretch on the other side of the road; looking at the antics of fellow runners, returning the smiles of the kind strangers applauding on the sidelines; maybe even a little bit of Gangnam style. (Yep, you guessed it. Yours truly is guilty as charged on all counts.)

As the race began to take its toll (the early pace was becoming difficult to sustain; it’s like having Chris Gayle blast early in the innings and then suddenly his wicket falling) by the halfway mark, I was still doing good time and I tried everything to keep the mind focused. Meanwhile there were runners overtaking me from all sides. Either I had gotten slower over the last year, or Bangalore had become faster somehow. I would soon find the answer.

* * *

“The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other,… but to be with each other.”

The sixth kilometer marker which is usually near the Army Canteen opposite the Manekshaw Parade Ground brings back my fondest memory of the race over the years. In the first year as I sagged along looking as graceful as a malnourished gorilla trying to waltz, an army physical instructor was watching the race from the sidelines in his vest and shorts. He took a look at me as I was about to stop and shouted ‘Ruk kyun gaye jawan…daud daud!’ (‘Why have you stopped, young man? Run! Run!’). Maybe because he sounded a bit like my PE teacher or maybe some other complex chemical reaction his words had shaken me out of my laziness and gave my race a second wind.

This time around, while the PE teacher was not there, his words still echoed in my head as I almost stopped and a torrent of happy memories came back telling me to carry on. I saw a lady run past in a burkha. And she wasn’t being held back by her hijab, in fact she was running as superbly as any other runner I had seen in the race so far. Meanwhile another unusual runner sped past. I noticed he was running barefeet.

A critical thesis in McDougall’s book and an important debate in the world of running is whether running barefoot is better than running with shoes. As Dr. Mercer Rang, a legendary orthopedic surgeon had put it (thus setting the barefoot cat amongst the multinational running shoe industry pigeons) “Shoes do no more for the foot than a hat does for the brain.” McDougall himself says on his blog “I began drilling into running-shoe research, and the further I went, the less I found. There’s nothing there. Nothing. No evidence whatsoever that running shoes do anything.”  

But while the debate rages, I wondered about our friend who had just overtaken me. Where does he have his timing chip then? Initially I couldn’t see it and assumed what any normal human being who watches a lot of Hollywood sci fi trash would assume – it had been implanted inside his foot!  The answer turned out to be different but fascinating – he was holding on to the timing chip between his big toe and the adjacent toe! The burkha lady and the barefoot runner’s presence reminded me of the race’s all inclusive spirit.

And it also reminded me that it was time to make a push for the final frontier. I hit the tar running as the iPhone playlist cued ‘Burning Heart’ from the Rocky IV soundtrack. ‘In the warrior’s code, there is no surrender…’ went the classic 80s tune. I was still doing great on time but I suddenly remembered my own motto – it was never about the time. It was about the will and commitment to finish the race, come what may.

* * *

“Suffering is humbling. It pays to know how to get your butt kicked.”

Things seemed to be heading swimmingly as I went past the seventh km marker (the real race begins now, is what I always say), the place where I had found myself horribly behind schedule in the last race. I pushed on till the next half a kilometer or so but the feet seemed to be giving away. In fact as we approached the Vidhan Soudha, everyone seemed to be having the same reaction that lawmaking seems to have when it reaches the Assembly – everyone was slowing down.

It is always the most brutal stretch of the 10k race, like that purgatory that Dante had to cross to get through Hell and ascend into Paradise. I hobbled and made it to the 8k mark. A lady and her 3 year old daughter waved and applauded. I returned a tired smile and picked myself up with more pace. Let’s bring this race home. Just then, sort of like how Kimi Raikkonen’s front wing was damaged in the second Grand Prix of the year, the sole of my right shoe came clean off. There was no time to waste in sole-searching. I yanked it off the shoe and deposited it into the nearest dustbin. It looked like I had to finish the race without the right sole but amazingly I hardly felt any different. Like Raikkonen’s expert manouvre of driving the car till the next pit stop with a broken wing, I had also decided to go on.

The 9k marker went past. I saw someone on the sidewalk being attended to by medical staff for cramps. I felt a pang of immense sadness; his dream of finishing the race cruelly cut short less than a kilometer from the finish. But nothing prepared me for what I saw 200 meters ahead. On my left was a runner (mid thirties perhaps) lying flat on his back being tended to by the meds treating him for what appeared like a heat stroke and just ahead on my right was another runner (mid forties I suppose) being administered CPR. My heart almost stopped.

But there was really nothing I could do. I worked hard to block the sights out of my mind and slowed myself down. The last 300 meters. I knew now that I will finish this easily within the one hour barrier. But I had set my sights on my best time ever at the World 10K. As my breath came back I sprinted with the long strides, the high knees, the Jamaican flair – the whole shebang. A minute later I was at the finish waving to the photographers. I did a Ronaldo. I did a Messi. And about another three dozen sports celebrations.

Because I had just finished the race in my fastest timing ever (official records would put it at 56:46). This is that moment when the pain and every other hurdle seems worth it. The iPhone almost presciently had started playing Boston’s ‘More Than A Feeling’. And that’s exactly what the Runners High is.

I would later find that my best time wasn’t good enough to give me a rank better than the previous year thus confirming my suspicion that Bangalore had indeed gotten faster. Everyone ran an absolutely amazing race and at times like this the ranking does not truly matter. You just feel privileged that you could give the last race your best shot and ran with folks who were so competitive yet encouraging at every step.

I will, of course, continue running. Just that the Bangalore 10K might not be on my list due to limitations of geography. But the race will always remain special. Because it was in this race that a novice and naïve runner learned whatever ropes he knows about running. Because this is where I have seen and met some of the most amazing and inspirational people, all bound together by their sheer love of running; people who embody the idea “We were born to run; we were born because we run.” And no amount of thanks to those anonymous folks and the volunteers who make this magic possible will suffice,

Because, for me, this is where it all began. 

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