The Bodyline Chronicles

Harold Larwood was the chief weapon Douglas Jardine used to implement Bodyline, with the help of a packed leg side field.


Part IWeapon of Choice

The absurdly high importance of certain sporting contests have sometimes resulted in countries pushed to the brink of war (on rare occasions even actually starting a war) or at the very least strained diplomatic relations. The Ashes, the 70th edition of which gets under way next week, has been one such contest with stakes so high that it warranted England captain Douglas Jardine pushing the envelope on the spirit of cricket so much as to almost suspend diplomatic ties between England and Australia. His affront to the spirit of the game came in form of the Bodyline series of 1932-33 where he deployed intimidation tactics that put the Australian batsmen in the line of grievous physical harm. 85 years on, Bodyline still remains a scar on the game, one that led to much soul searching and became a cultural, sporting and political marker for both countries involved in the contest.

Dazzled by the Don

Since its inception in 1882 as the result of a mock obituary in a newspaper, The Ashes had been the most high profile contest in the cricketing world, and in 1930 England’s claim of a reasonable amount of superiority over the old enemy, Australia, had been severely dented by the emergence of a young phenomenon – Don Bradman. The Don had amassed 974 runs (average 139.14) in a series win for Australia where the English bowlers simply couldn’t seem to get him out. Australia won the series humbling the hosts. 

There was a return series in the horizon a couple of seasons later and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) needed fresh thinking for England to turn fortunes around and recapture the urn. They made their first move by deciding to appoint Douglas Jardine as the England captain.

New tactics

The new captain began in earnest to look for ways to dull the Aussies’ dominance. He expectedly trained his sights on one batsman in particular, Bradman. Jardine figured, based on what he had seen and discussed with fellow cricketers, that Bradman was vulnerable against short deliveries that darted into his chest. In those days when the batsmen had no helmets and relatively austere protective gear (chest, elbow guards etc were still sometime away), the realization that the unstoppable looking batsman could be cowered into submission with a sustained attack on his body was the cornerstone on which Jardine based his strategy.

He called it ‘leg theory’ because it effectively involved having the bowler direct a short delivery at the batsman’s body with a field that had a ring of fielders on the leg side, most of them standing in close. 

‘Leg Theory’ was not exactly a new invention; it had been used in cricket in England but not widespread because of two reasons – one, it was seen as running contrary to the spirit of the game (something that was more than empty rhetoric in the days of cricket yore) and two, you needed someone to be able to bowl at good pace to really make the tactic work in terms of fetching wickets. You needed a spearhead. 

Mining for talent

Jardine, who by consensus of historical hindsight, had already more or less trampled on the ‘spirit of cricket’ the moment he hatched the idea, needed a weapon to make it work. And his weapon of choice was a miner from Nottinghamshire – Harold Larwood. Larwood had achieved fame and notoriety in equal measure in the English cricket scene as a young tearaway fast bowler who was both viciously accurate and devastatingly fast. He was not averse to bowling the bouncer, a delivery that was sparingly used in the game at that time more as a consequence of a gentlemanly code of conduct than anything else. There were no speed guns around but numerous studies from later days peg his speed at 95 miles an hour or faster. That, for a modern perspective, is Jeff Thompson and Shoaib Akhtar territory.

His side on action would perhaps find a contemporary equivalent in Waqar Younis. Larwood had made his test debut in 1926 against Australia and captured six wickets in his first Ashes series and then impressed on his first tour to Australia in 1928-29 capturing 18 wickets. Then came the 1930 Ashes where Bradman ran amok and Larwood and his colleagues were reduced to mere spectators of pure batting awesomeness. But amidst the dazzle of Bradman’s willow, the England wicketkeeper had spotted a shadow of a doubt. George Duckworth mentioned to his teammates that the Don seemed unsure and hesitant when batting at the Oval where the ball was taking off on an uncovered pitch that had received some rain. 

This bit of tactical insight would balloon into the most controversial cricket strategy of all time. The wheels were set in motion as Larwood tried the tactics out for Nottinghamshire against their county opponents along with fellow fast bowler Bill Voce. Both of them were picked for the 1932-33 Ashes tour, half of the pace quartet assembled by Jardine to implement Bodyline. But there was no doubt as to who the spearhead would be – the 28 year old former miner from Nottinghamshire. Little did Larwood or his captain know the havoc their actions and tactics would wreak on the cricketing world as the RMS Orontes with the English cricket team aboard set sail for the Australian coast.

***

Part II

Fractures, friction and fissures 

Armed with the ‘fast leg theory’ plan that was to later be christened Bodyline, you would think Douglas Jardine and his handpicked set of fast bowlers, spearheaded by Harold Larwood, got down to business right away hurling short and uncomfortable deliveries at the Aussie batsmen in general and Bradman in particular from the first test onwards. In reality however, things did not quite progress like a heist movie script. Ironically, the Sydney Test, which began on December 2, 1932, didn’t even feature Donald Bradman who was left out after a row with the board. Larwood bowled accurately and menacingly though evidently not with any of the leg theory malice. In fact, Jardine did not even employ the signature feature of his tactic – the packed close in leg side field. 

Despite Stan McCabe’s 187 in the first innings, Australia lost thanks to Larwood’s heroics (he took 10 wickets in the match) and Australia’s poor second innings (they were all out for 164 just about avoiding innings defeat) which handed England a 1-0 lead. The superior side had won, and it wasn’t hard to see that a Bradman-less Australia had struggled to cope with absence of both his batting prowess and his leadership. 

The theory in practice

The perception of those looking back at Bodyline now is that it became a bone of contention right away when the series commenced. The truth is that there was barely even a murmur about it even as the second test began at Melbourne with Don Bradman back in the team. The Don’s return wasn’t exactly stellar; he scored a first ball duck in the first innings. But he more than made up for that blip in the second innings with a century on a difficult pitch and O’Reilly picked up 10 wickets to lead Australia to a series leveling win. England peppered the opposition batsmen with some short bowling – newspaper columns did talk about it – but the home team’s win and the dust of history masks the fact that the plan was already in action. Incidentally, Bradman counter attacked the short deliveries by getting inside the line and playing them on the unguarded off side for runs.

Neville Cardus would later write:

“Against Larwood, Bradman was beginning to reveal his genius in a more gallant light than it has ever been seen before: given a few more innings, he might have mastered it.”

Maybe Jardine’s tactic was not so effective after all. Maybe the leg theory wasn’t as impressive in practice. However, things were about to change dramatically in the next match.

Lighting the fuse

Bodyline would precipitate into a full blown crisis like most crises in history have precipitated, with an immediate and shocking event that jolted everyone out of their ‘all-is-fine-with-the-world’ reverie. Australia were batting at Adelaide in the Third Test when Bill Woodfull was struck just above his heart by a Larwood bouncer. The Aussie was taken aback and held up his hand to clutch his chest, clearly in discomfort from the pain. In a moment of competitive coldness that would make even the most rabid ‘sport-is-war’ kind of fanatic blush, Jardine rather than check in on Woodfull shouted out ‘Well bowled, Harold!’ This particular instance became the defining scene and lasting imagery of the acrimony of the tour thanks to the Bodyline TV series that aired in the 1980s. But it is easy to forget that Larwood had only bowled a ‘conventional’ bouncer and was not employing a ‘leg theory’ field till that delivery.

But as is history’s wont, nuances get obliterated in the quest for a straightforward narrative. Jardine did not help the cause by employing his leg theory field the very next ball that Woodfulll was struck. The Australians had been simmering from the second test onwards and when Bert Oldfield tried to duck under another Larwood bouncer and it struck him on the head causing a fracture, the baying crowd threatened to boil over onto the Adelaide Oval. 

The English players feared a crowd invasion (it is said that Larwood was speaking to a team mate about the possibility of using the stumps as weapons if the extreme need arose) as police was deployed along the boundary, an unprecedented instance. No wonder Wisden would note that this was “probably the most unpleasant Test ever played” terming the atmosphere a “disgrace to cricket”. Recalling that test in an interview with Australia’s 12th man that day – Leo O’Brien – David Frith wrote in the Wisden Cricket Monthly in April 1983 “the crowd was close to invading the oval to do Lord knows what to the England players, Larwood and Jardine in particular.” 

Later in the day, the English manager, Plum Warner visited the Australia dressing-room to check in on the injuries to Woodfull and Oldfield. What followed was one of the most immortal lines ever uttered by a cricketer. A furious Woodfull dismissed Warner curtly saying “There are two teams out there; one is trying to play cricket and the other is not.”

Escalation

The Australian board followed the next day with a cable to the MCC: “(Bodyline) is causing intensely bitter feeling between the players as well as injury. In our opinion it is unsportsmanlike. Unless stopped at once it is likely to upset the friendly relations existing between Australia and England.”

The controversy now had a name and it was officially on. The on field frictions and the unfortunate fracture to Oldfield’s skull (although the Aussie himself clarified that he got hurt because of his own fault) had led to a deep fissure between the players, their respective boards and threatened to escalate into a diplomatic incident (both countries’ cabinets discussed the issue seriously). Leo O’Brien, the 12th man in the Adelaide test, felt that the word ‘unsportsmanlike’ freaked the MCC out and they went into defensive overdrive. 

The MCC stood by their captain and replied that they were convinced “that they (the captain, team and manager) would do nothing to infringe either the Laws of Cricket or the spirit of the game.” They also pointed out that the Woodfull and Oldfield instances, while regrettable, were not the bowler’s fault. Despite rising tensions amidst accusations and counter accusations from the boards, the series went ahead, mainly because the Australian board did not want to risk a financial disaster. 

England went on with their strategy firmly in place and won at Brisbane and also the final Test at Sydney recapturing the Ashes with a thumping 4-1 series victory and having successfully curtailed Bradman’s series average to an ‘ordinary’ 56. Larwood took 33 wickets at 19.5 in the series leaving no doubt statistically, and anecdotally, as to who the wrecker-in-chief was.

But Larwood and his captain’s actions had caused other seismic shifts in the world of cricket, something they would have to reckon with once they were done soaking the hero’s welcome they received on their return home.

***

Part III

The aftermath and the legacy
The reclamation

England and Douglas Jardine had recaptured the Ashes in spectacularly controversial fashion but the controversy over their tactics overshadows the fact that England were indeed a very good team on that tour. “Nobody will deny that the better side won the rubber” wrote Cardus. In each test Australia put up decent first innings totals (1st Test – 360 followed by 228, 222, 340 and then 435 in the final test) but England’s riposte in each case (524, 169, 341, 356 and 454) put them in a better position. Curiously, Australia’s poor run of second innings scores (they never crossed 200) was what let them down.

Looking back now, it is easy to think of the series as one where England kept bowling short deliveries at the bodies of the Aussie batsmen with a packed leg side ring which fetched them a majority of the wickets winning them the series. That narrative is dodgy. Firstly, among the English bowlers, Gubby Allen refused to bowl to the ‘leg trap’ or Bodyline. Secondly, Larwood was devastatingly accurate but even he did not bowl Bodyline all the time and quite a few of his wickets among the 31 he took in the series were bowled, hardly a dismissal you get off a bouncer aimed at a batsman’s body. Thirdly, Bill Voce did not have the pace and accuracy to match Larwood. And finally, 11 key wickets were picked up by the spinner, Hedley Verity.

Jardine’s secret lay in the fact that the balls that were bowled to the leg theory field planted the doubt and the apprehension in the mind of the batsmen, which is exactly what he wanted. Tight and disciplined bowling mostly did the rest. He silenced the Don’s superhuman flow of runs but even then the Don scored at a strike rate of almost 75 in the 1932-33 Ashes. It was eventually a team effort that won England the Ashes, but one that did at some points stretched the boundaries of propriety as defined by cricket’s law and spirit back in the 1930s.

Heroes and villains

Once back in England, the captain, Jardine, and his weapon of choice, Larwood, were called to appear before the MCC to explain why the Australian Board had been sending alarmist cables about this new ‘Bodyline’ tactic. The hearing did not have any immediate consequences, although the MCC did later accede to Australia’s stipulation that neither Jardine nor Larwood should feature in their tour of England in 1934. Larwood would not play another test for England ever again and later (in 1950) emigrated to Australia. Jardine retired from first class cricket in 1934.

Towards the end of the 1933 season, MCC finally put a revision down on paper passing a resolution declaring “any form of bowling which is obviously a direct attack…upon the batsman” violated the spirit of the game. It would also later amend laws to restrict the number of fielders behind square on the leg side to a maximum of two, thus obviating the possibility of a leg theory field. While the spirit of cricket remains an important cornerstone of the sport’s history and heritage, Bodyline’s aftermath did prove insidious. As Jon Hotten wrote for The Guardian in 2013 “part of Bodyline’s devastation was its newness, its intimations of the future.”

Bodyline reborn

Generation of bowlers to come, from the West Indian pace quartet to Jeff Thompson and Dennis Lillee would go ahead and terrorize batsmen bowling fast and short at their body. Granted, by that time protective gear had evolved for batsmen (During the Bodyline series, they barely had much protection – imagine if Woodfull had a chest guard on or Bert Oldfield was wearing a helmet) making such tactics to some degree less dangerous than in 1933 but the intimidation became a part of the game, restrained by later day laws like the two bouncer rule but enough of a menacing presence to inject both thrill and scandal in many a series to come. The West Indian team of the 70s turned it into a virtual art form. A A Milne wrote a memorable ‘In Defence of Bodyline’ letter to the Times on January 20, 1933 where he attacked the hysteria over sportsmanship:

“It is definitely the laugh of the year that season after season, batsmen should break the hearts of bowlers by protecting their wickets with their persons, and that, at last when the bowler accepts the challenge and bowls at their persons, the outraged batsmen and ex-batsmen should shriek in chorus that he is not playing cricket.” 

The righteous anger that Bodyline stoked ultimately led to a fundamental shift in cricket but its unintended consequence was that it broke the taboo of what aggression meant on the cricket field. Tactics like these in today’s more cynical world would be seen as strategic, genius even, by talking heads and cricket pundits. But back in the day when the MCC was worried about how best cricket can represent the very British values of gentlemanliness and fair play across the Empire and the Commonwealth, it was seen as blasphemous.

If the series was being broadcast live on television, maybe the MCC would have seen that the Australian cables were overstating the case. Maybe if Jardine had not threatened to withdraw his team after the acrimonious third test, the matter would not have escalated to a diplomatic level. Maybe if Bradman had played that first test, the series would have been closer. But those are what ifs we can simulate and pontificate about in our heads. 

For the Australian batsmen standing out there in the heat of that Australian summer in 1932-33 with minimal protective gear, the thought of whether the next delivery is going to be aimed into their rib cage gnawing at the back of their minds, the danger seemed very real. And that feeling of clear and present danger is the real lasting legacy of Bodyline.

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Watching Liverpool: A Personal history

I have been a Liverpool fan for almost two decades now. And while I have articulated elsewhere what it means to be a fan of a club and how, through mostly random factors, I got tied to Liverpool, my actual fan experience has been shaped by what I have seen the club do and what I have discovered about its history and legacy over the years. If you are a new fan, it can sometimes be overwhelming and confusing; the entrenched and accumulated knowledge and wisdom of more ‘senior’ fans may seem complex inducingly superior. But that shouldn’t deter anyone from getting with the program at their favorite club. 

Just like one gets into a TV show, it is possible to ‘get into’ a club’s narrative. And just like there are gateway episodes that fans will suggest for you to get the real essence of a show, there are gateway moments that you experience about your favorite club that make you, to borrow from Meatloaf’s I Would Do Anything For Love, “take a vow and seal a pact”. What follows is a personal narrative of 8 matches that define my relationship with Liverpool, some which I watched as a fan as they unfolded, and some that I have lived vicariously through second hand accounts or their fallout but have taught me something equally critical about the club, its culture and what it stands for.

Watching football and living the triumphs and the disasters your favorite team faces are not an escape from life for a fan, they define and inform the living experience for them. Which is why, tucked among these 8 you will find not just wins, but also heartbreaking results and some hard moments. Because if there were no valleys to contrast it with, you wouldn’t realise the significance of the mountain. 

Episode I: Night of Destiny


Liverpool 3 Olympiakos 1, Anfield, 8 Dec 2004

Everything I know and love about Liverpool was packed into this one game. It was the group stages of the UEFA Champions League, a competition that Liverpool lorded over in the 80s so magnificently that they would earn the honorific ‘European Royalty’. European football nights at Anfield were always intense and special but in this one, the Reds needed every ounce of egging on they could get because it was a must win game. Lose or draw and they would be eliminated. They had to beat the Greek side Olympiakos and by a margin of at least a couple of goals. 

The halftime score read Liverpool 0 Olympiakos 1. The home team, though, stirred on by the 42,000 or so faithful at Anfield, launched a fight back scoring almost immediately after the second half began. But as the time ticked away and the match entered into the last 10 minutes, it looked like the European dream was about to go up in smoke for that season. Then Neil Mellor scraped a goal and with Liverpool leading 2-1 and hope ignited again. The Reds still needed a goal otherwise they would bow out because of an inferior head to head record against Olympiakos despite having the same number of points as the Greek team. 

With just 3 odd minutes left on the clock, and Anfield collectively holding their breath, biting their nails and saying their prayers, all somehow at the same time, up stepped a young Steven Gerrard and thumped an unstoppable 30 yarder off a soft header that had fallen his way. 

The goal is to be seen to be believed, the reaction too, including Andy Gray’s immortal line of commentary – “Ooohhhhh ya beeaaauuuuttyyyyy! What a hit son! What. A. Hit.” 

Believe.


I get goosebumps watching reruns of this just like I did that night watching this live. This was all of Liverpool’s magic captured in one moment. The unwillingness to ever give up and the will to make something happen no matter how arduous the odds, a hallmark of the city and its people and by extension something the supporters of the club identify with, was embodied in Gerrard’s never say die efforts that night despite him being not completely fit. The raw passion of the crowd that egged the team on believing. The Anfield crowd and again by extension Liverpool fans don’t need a reminder from Journey and their answer to Al Michael’s ‘Do you believe in miracles?’ is always yes, because how can you not when you saw this unfold before your very eyes. 

The goal, its audacious nature and its preternatural scorer would all combine to inject new life into the European campaign for Liverpool who would go on to lift the trophy in an extraordinary final at Istanbul (that’s whole another story).  Gerrard himself would say at his farewell press conference some 10 years later that this goal was seminal for the team – “If you’re talking about one individual goal that was so important for the team and the club, that helped us progress to that incredible night in Istanbul, it’d have to be Olympiakos.” 

The match, the goal and that night impacted me personally because until then while I had seen Liverpool win on many occasions, never had I felt closer to the fortunes and the destiny of the team. The clipping of the tense moments leading up to Gerrard’s goal and the explosion of emotions immediately following it is still my go to motivation video. At times, when I am feeling the weariness of the world sitting heavy, I watch it and just remind myself of the belief. 

Never had I experienced the exhilaration of believing that somehow I was a part of what happened and I was a part of what made it happen. The match that made me realise – schmaltz alert – that I actually LOVED this team. 

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THE MAYOR OF TENACITY

The most electrifying move in tennis entertainment history.

Watching an individual sport like tennis draws your attention to idiosyncrasies of players on court like no other. Every great tennis player I have enjoyed watching as a fan had their iconic move – whether it is Steffi Graf’s booming forehand, Boris Becker’s dive, Roger Federer’s one handed backhand while he’s on his toes. Those idiosyncrasies can define the image you have in your mind of a player; maybe even form the core around which you build your connection to the athlete. But I don’t have a similar equivalent for Rafael Nadal. 

That’s not because he doesn’t play any scintillating strokes (he plays some outrageously brilliant ones, almost as a matter of routine), but because the mental image I have of Nadal is from looking at him after a match ends, specifically one that he wins. There is nothing in the world more electrifying than a Nadal exult after he emerges victorious in a tennis match, his every muscle stretched, every sinew working overtime. It is a magnificent sight because it comes from somewhere deep within the player and the fundamental force that shapes him – the will to keep going. 

Watching a young Nadal pound away with a bruising array of groundstrokes (on all sorts of surfaces, not just clay; his current grand slam finals tally is 23, 13 of them on non clay surfaces), I had always imagined that the toil would take terrible toll on his body. And it did. Nadal, over the last decade, has had layoffs totaling almost 2 years because of injuries, particularly his knees that have required major attention. Imagine having to take 20% of your time off at work because of sick leaves. It would not just take a toll on opportunities but on your own self belief. But while chronic injuries like these may have broken a mere mortal, Nadal’s willpower and sheer tenacity is not that of an ordinary mortal. 

The injuries actually define him. He is a surreal mix of the proclivity of Mr. Glass to injure himself and the superhuman strength of David Dunn in fighting back. Or, as Chumbawamba so elegantly put it – I get knocked down, I get up again. He had said after his win at the 2017 French Open (a scarcely believable 10th title at Roland Garros) that the doubts injuries plant in him become the motivation he uses to climb back up. “I have doubts every day but that’s good as it makes me work hard with more intensity.” 

But being a fighter who never gives up is not an easy defining quality to have. As he puts it:

“You have to be humble and accept that you have to work to improve things. I have doubts today, I had doubts in the last three years, I will have doubts in a few days. Life is never clear. If you have no doubts, then you are very arrogant. I am not an arrogant person.” 

In my early days of watching him on court, I had always thought the intensity and the Rock You Like A Hurricane game he brought to it welled from a deep desire to be the best. It only dawned on me after watching him for about a decade that this is a man who purely and unconditionally loves this sport and is willing to put everything on the line because he loves the competition so much. That journey for him is the destination; the 16 Grand Slams are incidental, although richly deserved. Consider this – despite his injuries he has never fallen out of the World Top 10 since he entered it over 12 years ago. In the brutal world of professional tennis that is a ridiculous statistic, one highlighting staying power that comes from a source more powerful than Adamantium & Vibranium combined. 

So what is Rafael Nadal’s superpower? It is, as all of his fans will point out to you, the tenacity of his mind. Mental strength has been reduced to a cliche in most sports discussions but you need to take only one look at his post match exult to see the physical manifestation of what that means. And that is why, even for me, a card carrying Roger Federer fan, it remains the most electrifying sight on a tennis court. 

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Turning to Cruyff 


The all time greats in football – in any sport, really – are mesmerizing to watch but tend to be completely inarticulate about the essence of their sport or annoyingly garrulous about it. That is why Johan Cruyff, the Dutch legend and football’s greatest thinker (in my opinion), stands apart. His economy of expression when expressing his philosophy of football defined him as a player and then a coach and administrator. 

His signature move – the Cruyff turn – was not a parlour trick invented to amuse fans. 


It was, as he writes in his autobiography, a solution to a practical problem – he was trying to create some space where he had none and his brain spontaneously came up with that move. 


With Cruyff, there was nary a wasted movement or a squandered moment. Both on the pitch as a player and off it as a manager he understood the need for style (in his and his team’s play) and the importance of substance (in terms of results and trophies). To borrow from his words – ‘Quality without results is pointless. Results without quality is boring.’ I needed a 100 words to explain that; Cruyff needed exactly 10. This sensational economy of expression is not an accident. 

Cruyff looked at the game and tried to distill it into its essence and no one in the history of football has done it better than him. Like a preternatural rock guitarist of the 1960s belting out unearthly solos with just four chords to work with, Cruyff’s artistry stemmed from a deep, almost zen like understanding of the game. “Everything in football is a function of distance” he writes in My Turn and reminisces of how an early lesson he learnt from his coach (Michels) was that “when you have possession of the ball you have to ensure you have as much space as possible and when you lose the ball you must minimise the space your opponent has.” This might seem obvious and simple but to distill it and incorporate it into your game is where Cruyff’s footballing mind was a marvel. 
I never watched Cruyff play but I was introduced to him by a football mad uncle who adored the Dutch team of the 70s and 80s and I was struck by how, even when I heard second hand accounts or read about him, it was easy to admire his brilliance. The best insight I had into his thinking mind, always looking for perspective (safe to say he never missed the woods for the trees), was relatively recently though. I was reading his autobiography where he describes how he used to play baseball and the lesson he learnt in it – to take a total overview of the field and the game – came to his help when he was playing football professionally. Distilling ideas to an essence of simplicity that makes effortlessly transferable is hallmark of some of the greatest scientific minds on the planet throughout history. 

And on this day as we remember A Beautiful Mind of this beautiful game, it feels unfair that football doesn’t have a Nobel Prize.  

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Anatomy of a masterpiece


It has been 24 hours and I am still emotionally recovering from the Roger Federer v Rafael Nadal final at the Australian Open 2017. The contest in Melbourne went to the Swiss, giving him his 18th Major as he extended his lead on that count over his contemporaries and the greats (Nadal is at 14, Sampras finished with the same number, Djokovic is at 12), after Federer won a thrilling five set match that ended on a dramatic challenge by Nadal. You could cut the tension with a knife at the Rod Laver Arena, witness to many an epic battle (remember this?) but even among those and the epic battles arguably the two greatest tennis players of all time have themselves had between them, this one stood out for the universality of how it was hailed as something spectacular, extraordinary and special. Experts seem to concur that the quality of tennis at their famous 2008 Wimbledon final was better, or Nadal’s counterattacking in the 2009 Australian Open final more thrilling, but still everyone has put this one down as one down for the ages – a memorable and beautiful encounter. 

Unquestionably why the 10th meeting between Federer and Nadal in a Grand Slam had everyone transfixed had a lot to do with their storied rivalry on court (and their exceptional mutual respect off it) and some romanticism and nostalgia (it was a dream run for two players not given much of shot – even by their own selves! – at the tournament) which had a lot to do with the fact that many fans did not ever expect them to be competing in a Grand Slam final against each other and when it did become evident that they will here, most considered it the last chance to catch a glimpse of the peak of tennis perfection. But all of this was *before* even a single serve had been sent down in the final. The final battle itself would leave everyone breathless going beyond their wildest dreams (although, to be fair, Grigor Dimitrov, after being beaten by Nadal in the semi had predicted a ‘freakin amazing match’). 

I thought the final would be good but likely one sided with whoever gets going early snuffing the other out, because that’s how their games seemed to be matching up. Boy, was I wrong and boy, was I delighted. It was not just about witnessing history, not just about the fact that as a Federer fan I finally saw that 18th Major arrive after an agonizing 1,666 day wait since Wimbledon 2012, or not even just about how for the first time in my career of being a card carrying Federer fan my heart beat for Rafa and I lived and died either way with every stroke towards the end. It was, in my opinion, about getting an inner glimpse into how a masterpiece gets made. 

They both brought their biggest strengths on court – Nadal letting those forehands fly and working out astonishing angles, Federer floating like a butterfly before bearing down on the tennis ball for a ground stroke that stung the surface like a bee. But it wasn’t all flawless – in the final set, Federer lost his serve on a terrible down the line error, one that would have made 1998 Federer playing the qualifiers at this very Major blush; in the next game, he hit a volley long on the baseline despite having an open court in front of him, the chair umpire with a higher probability of getting to a ball put in court than Nadal who was at the other corner. Nadal made similar errors and served indiscriminately at times, like he was nervous. But at other times, the tennis was sensational to the point of making every adjective pale in comparison to how good a shot actually was. Nadal reached and managed to convert a precisely placed Federer backhand baseline corner bomb into a cross court winner, the only thing the commentators could blurt out at that moment was that it was like a squash shot. Talk about transcendent tennis. 


Usually, we see the beauty of a creative piece of work – a book, a painting, a movie, a song – only after it is out there in its finished form. We are never really privy to the creative process, like how does that perfect lyric, note or brushstroke come to be. Yesterday at the Rod Laver Arena, watching Federer and Nadal exchange 26 high quality strokes in a rally for the ages was like watching two of your favorite impressionist painters (mine are Van Gogh and Monet, for the record) landing brush strokes upon brush strokes as a part of the painting emerge. Like two rappers free styling with unparalleled intensity, the creative genius emerged one tiny piece at a time. If you are thinking I am getting hyperbolic, remember that watching creativity in action is messy. So for every shot placed, angled or whipped to perfection that we saw there also were the misfires (the “howlers with the howitzers” as the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay described it) but if you have ever written something and scratched it off or rolled the paper into a ball and dumped it into the bin, or used the backspace key, you know it is part of the process; these make the masterpiece as much as the actual things that were left in. In sport the only thing is it all unfolds in real time as Venus Williams so beautifully reminded us earlier in the tournament. 

Nadal v Federer clashes have always been exceptionally creative, maybe because of their contrasting styles, and like how the conflict between Paul McCartney and John Lennon left its unique and immutable creative stamp on so many Beatles songs, their clashes have done the same for tennis. Wimbledon 2008 will remain the pinnacle, like two musicians waked in, and on the fly composed and played note for note a perfect symphony and left. But Australian Open 2017, where they raised their games for each other again, their fallibility allowed us, the audience that extra time to glimpse into the process of how these two cook up such outrageousness on the tennis court evoking beauty and ferocity of the levels of a Borg v McEnroe in their prime (albeit with fewer cuss words and way less screaming at the umpires). 

And while the history, rivalry and the other context will remain in making this final special, why I will cherish it for ever is for being given the opportunity to watch geniuses at work, foibles and all, and being reminded that not all superheroes wear capes – some wear a bandanna and carry a tennis racquet. 

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Two of a kind 

Everything I know about tennis I have learnt from watching the sport since I started [as a wide eyed kid trying to figure out who won the point based on who the camera zoomed on] way back in 1987. Everything I know about life, I have learnt by stumbling along, to quote Prince, ‘this thing called life’. But everything I know about the intersection of tennis and life, I know because of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. 


I have always been a Federer fan, his aesthetics and artistry easy to get used to, his natural talent so blazing bright that the moth of fandom is effortlessly seduced by it. I enjoyed watching him play tennis at ridiculously brilliant levels, almost on a different plane to everyone else as he won almost everything that came his way. It was around then that I got commissioned to write my first ever sports piece for a magazine back in 2006 – a small piece in their year-end issue on the rise and rise of Rafael Nadal, a feisty Spanish teen. He had had a breakthrough year and I had predicted that his tenacity is likely to pay off in terms of finally breaking Federer’s iron grip at Wimbledon. Nadal tried gamely in 2007 and came oh, so close. He couldn’t quite get there, but it was a heck of a fight.

Back then I had written

They faced off at center court and the contrast couldn’t have been starker. Federer, expressionless, composed, calm and at home with the surroundings had the air and smoothness of a Swiss Investment Banker while Nadal, gingerly daring to dream on a surface not quite dear to him had the attitude of a risk taking, adrenalin driven derivatives trader on Wall Street. And amazingly, the risk taking almost worked with Nadal working up confidence after losing his first service game (the only time he was broken till the 5th set!). The strategies were just like that of a trader, smartly hedging his bets of the runs to the net with punishing cross court winners that would have made Federer proud. Nadal showed that he was willing to learn as he gave a dose of his own medicine back to the ‘Federal Express’. The ‘Fed’ meanwhile trudged along with the solidity and conservatism of the ‘Federal Reserve’ chairman and edged himself ahead with two key tie break wins (Federer came in with a 12-3 record in the breaker and Nadal was at 9-6). 

But Nadal turned the tables once more breaking Federer twice in the 4th set. But that’s where the risk trader’s luck ran out. Federer was in his element in the fifth and finally managed to break Nadal at 3-2 in the final set. The juggernaut rolled from there as the ball did not even cross the net once in Roger’s next service game. Nadal the trader still took a couple of brave bets (running to the net with renewed vigor), but by then Federer had sniffed victory and he sealed it breaking Nadal again. 

The old adage that the more solid investments (in a Warren Buffet or Benjamin Graham sort of way) will outperform the market (or in this case competition) over the long run proved true again! But Nadal, like the cyborg ‘Terminator’ has been picking up skills and adapting himself to the fight as he battles more, and soon enough the trader might strike it rich on the floor. The only thing is that time wasn’t 2007.


You all know what happened next. There has literally been a book about it. But it was in 2007 when I watched Nadal battle with incredible tenacity even as I high fived a fellow Federer fan [a complete stranger at the café] during that final set when Roger broke, that I realized that while my card carrying Federer fan cred will probably endure, Nadal had just carved his own niche in my tennis loving part of the brain. 

Federer had always been classical music, the movements orchestrated to almost a fault, beauty almost a requirement rather than a byproduct of how he played. The contrast Nadal provided with his tennis, so ferociously beautiful that I fondly call it poetry set to punk rock music, was a new experience for a fan who had already been seduced by the aesthetics of Federer. Till then, fandom to me was mostly about dichotomy. Nadal introduced me to the idea of the abundance of ‘and’ rather than the tyranny of ‘or’; that it was ok to have a soft corner for another star even though my wagon remained firmly hitched to the other. That’s probably because how they have carried themselves on and off the court has helped me assimilate their statesmen like understanding of what their legend means for the sport of tennis, which they clearly hold dear above all else. 

Come Sunday, they will take on each other in another Grand Slam final and my mind drifts back to a decade back, when in a café, I was distinctly partisan in cheering Federer. This time again, the fan in me will cheer Federer on, but the wizening time that has elapsed in between will intervene and let me know, that it’s all good and I’ll probably feel just as happy if Nadal wins. That’s not a hedged bet. It is the most important lesson I have learnt about tennis and life from these two – about enjoying and appreciating the beauty of what you have and being in the moment. 

Vamos Rafa! Allez Roger! 

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To not have and to heal…

The purpose of a tragedy as Aristotle had famously remarked, is to evoke a wonder born of pity and fear, the result of which is cathartic. I have personally found that tragedy often throws life in sharp relief, helping us discover compassion and empathy that often gets lost in our habits and patterns that we take for granted. Today’s tragic incident at Medellin where a plane carrying players, staff, coaches, journalists and guests of the Brazilian football team Chapecoense crashed resulting in the deaths of 75 of the 81 on board is another such reminder. There is tragedy all around the world on a daily basis, but when it strikes, whether directly or obliquely, at sport – something that almost universally represents an  escape from life’s worst and sometimes a coping mechanism for those struck by tragedy – it becomes extremely hard to come to terms with.

The scars events such as Capecoense’s leave can be deep and do not heal easily. Because sometimes we cope with our own scars and personal tragedy through sport, but where do we go when sport itself becomes tragic? That was the question that faced Matt Busby in 1958, after 8 of his ‘Busby Babes’, talented young footballers from the sensational Manchester United team of the early 1950s perished in a plane crash in Munich. That was the question that faced the world in Munich again when terrorists struck at the 1972 Olympics. That was the deep turmoil that the town of Marhsall faced when the Thundering Herd of Marhsall University, its football team, a matter of huge pride for the town, was all but wiped out in a fateful plane crash in 1970.

chapecoense

Any tragedy brings with it the painful prospect of having to get over it and rebuild, and that usually turns out to be the hardest part. The 2006 film We Are Marshall starring Mathew McConaughey captured that aspect rather well, showing how, as everyone deals with those typical stages of grief, ultimately lets the sport, the team and what the whole community experience of sport stands for do the healing. It sounds easy when you see a 2 hour movie, but in reality it is extremely difficult. But it also often brings to the fore the humanity we think we are missing. In the light of the Munich air disaster, Real Madrid dedicated their European Cup win of 1958 to the Busby Babes, and even played friendlies with the team to help raise funds. Liverpool, who were and still remain United’s fiercest rivals, set all that aside and offered five first team players as they rebuilt the team with legendary manager Bill Shankly stating that Liverpool would foot their wage bill. In case of the Brazilian team, who had shown remarkable progress in getting to the top tier of Brazilian football in less than a decade, steadily promoting themselves up from the fourth division, the French giants PSG have already offered financial aid to the tune of 40 million dollars. The material help doesn’t make the tragedy go away, but it does open the door to begin the process of recovery and healing.

Medellin, the Colombian city where the tragedy occurred on 29th November 2016, knows a thing or two about healing. Chapecoense were here to play Atletico Nacional, a team that had among its ranks Andres Escobar, a talented defender who was part of a golden generation of players who helped Colombia storm into the 1994 World Cup, but with complications created by the narco links to football in Colombia at that time with the long shadow of the other Escobar, Pablo, looming large, the campaign ended in disaster with a first round exit. Andres Escobar paid with his life for an own goal that he unfortunately scored in the final league game against the hosts USA. Colombian football faced a death spiral and was slipping off the world map until a new generation unveiled themselves in Brazil in 2014. That the tragedy had to happen in Medellin makes it infinitely more painful to come to terms with, but at the same time it is also perhaps a reminder that, as a friend of mine put it, ‘football has been here before, and football will rise. For these players. Forever Champions.’

Sport, as it always has, will finally help us heal. But until then, Forza Cahapecoense, you are in our thoughts and prayers, because if sport and the emotions it triggers are not universal, it is nothing.

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