Sisyphus-esque Sachin

Whenever I have written about Sachin Tendulkar here it has mostly been about the joy he used to bring to all of us watching him bat (or, for that matter, just watching him play cricket, really). But with all the discussion about William Shakespeare (it being the Bard’s 400th Death Anniversary yesterday – 23 April 2016) immediately followed by Sachin talk on the Master Blaster’s 43rd birthday (24 April 2016) triggered in me the memories of when watching Sachin was like watching a story that was heartbreakingly beautiful in its inevitably tragic conclusion. 

Much like some of Shakespeare’s tragedies, which confronted us with the paradox of life where defeats and disappointments are plenty and yet we somehow want to believe we can defy them (my English prof told me that; I am not making it up), some Sachin innings I have seen and remember most vividly are ones where his efforts went in vain. India did not win, and it was pattern, particularly early in Tendulkar’s career, that would go on to spawn a thousand jokes. The days of Sachin batting along side the Fab Four were different in that Tendulkar had less of these Sisyphusian outings where he would wage a lone battle only to fall agonisingly short of the ultimate goal – an Indian win. 

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was the emperor of Ephyra who was punished by the Gods by being condemned to roll a heavy stone up a steep hill only for the stone to roll back down when he neared the top. He was to repeat this futile exercise for eternity, stuck in his own vicious cycle. Watching Sachin early on, as a young batsmen took on all comers and often single handedly fashioned wins, sometimes felt like that. Watching a tragic hero, not because he gave you hope or inspired but because there was something damningly beautiful about embracing tragedy, and letting anguish and suffering define some part of you. 

Mind you, I was not one of those who could grow numb to this idea that by now we should expect this. I lived and died by the tragedy afresh every single time I sat in front of a television and Tendulkar took guard and went about planting hope where it had no right to spout. Sports fans, much as they believe they are shaped by the glories of the team and players they support, are actually defined and shaped internally by the agony they suffer. I present to you four such Sisyphus Sachin knocks where the inevitability of eventual doom hung over you like a spectre from Hamlet but I as the watcher hung on despite the dread, dreaming fretfully that maybe this time, the stone does reach the top of the hill. 

1996. Wills World Cup v Australia, Mumbai. 

India had done well after a Mark Waugh century to restrict Australia to a seemingly gettable 258. But the Mumbai pitch had some life in it and a chase under lights (it was the first ever day night game at the Wankhede) was always going to be tough. Damien Fleming, he who shares his birthday with Sachin, decided to turn it on snapping Ajay Jadeja and Vinod Kambli while Glen McGrath started with 3 maidens in a row. Yes, in a one dayer. It seemed India had no way back till Tendulkar started the fight back – exquisite drives off McGrath for two fabulous fours. He would get to 90 off 84 balls with India at 143, seemingly taking the game away from Australia with a counterattack of the like I had not seen in Indian cricket in my almost a decade of cricket watching back then. And then he got stumped off a wide delivery off Mark Waugh. Pretty much in classically tragic style that would make the Bard himself raise an eyebrow. India would get close (242) but pretty much everyone knew the game was over with that stumping. And I got to know of it not while watching (there was a power cut thanks to a freak storm outside) but listening to it unfold on radio. The surreality of the storm and the cackling radio signal added to the drama and the tragedy in a way the Bard would be proud of. 

1997. Cape Town v South Africa 2nd Test match. 

India had been hammered and humiliated at Durban by the SA pace battery. South Africa batted first at Cape Town and declared at 529. India were quickly reduced to 58/5 by early Day 3 when Azhar joined Sachin at the crease. The two would put up a 222 run partnership that would be lit up by Azhar’s bravado (surely everyone who witnessed it remembers those consecutive 4s off Klusener) and take India to 280, still well adrift of avoiding follow on. At Azhar’s departure Tendulkar’s strokeplay seemed to acquire another dimension as he gave you the outrageous hope that India might even be able to push 450 odd. He made sure Indian went past follow on and his body language in that innings is closest to the physical embodiment of the cricketing equivalent of the burden of Sisyphus I have ever seen. He seemed invincible yet resigned to fate all at the same time. Eventually he would be the last man out at 169, and needless to add, India lost the test. 

1999. Chennai v Pakistan First Test Match

Every Tendulkar and/or cricket tragic knows this knock all too well. So, I’ll not go into a recap of how a 4th innings 136 on a crumbling track and against a top of his powers Saqlain took India painfully close to victory only for the familiar script to unfold as soon as Sachin fell. But I’d like to mention how I felt. No, not just emotionally but physically felt. Tendulkar batted through back pain and watching him grimace, stretch and soldier on made my back feel heavy. I could feel, I kid you not, something pricking on my back. Perceiving and empathising with pain is one thing but to feel it? I have never had that sensation while watching sport. Ever before. Or ever again. After every pull of Sachin’s I would look away, lest I see our tragic hero well again. I have never felt so physically and mentally exhausted after watching a cricket match as I did on that day. And it was the innings that taught me how things can be heartbreakingly, even soul crushingly, beautiful. 

2009. ODI series v Australia, Hyderabad

It had seemed that Tendulkar’s fruitless one man battles doomed to fail like the Light Brigade’s charge in Tennyson’s poem had become a thing of the past. And then Hyderabad happened. In a singularly remarkable innings that for me was one of the picks of the last quarter of his ODI career he posted a sublime 175 off 141 bossing a chase of 350 (these were days before T20 would redefine the limits of chases) in which he had literally scored half the runs. But he got out with just 19 more needed off three odd overs. And India, in almost an homage to the 90s template, conspired to lose by 3 runs. 

I loved the knock and I know that maybe Sachin should have closed the chase but the game brought that feeling back. That feeling of dread of having to confront life’s paradox like my English prof had said. 

I am not trying to romanticise pain or loss here, just putting on the record how I am as richer in life for watching and being affected by the tragic hero side of Sachin Tendulkar as I am from having watched the super hero side of Sachin Tendulkar. That however bad things may seem, as Stephen Hawking put it in The Theory Of Everything, “there is always something you can do…while there’s life, there is hope.” 

Happy 43rd, Sachin! 

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Pitching for the little guy

WT20-2016-CRICKET-AFG-ZIM

Afghanistan cricketers Shahzad Mohammadi (C) and Gulabdin Naib (R) celebrate after winning their T20 World Cup cricket match against Zimbabwe at the VCA stadium in Nagpur on March 12, 2016. ((c) Getty Images)

It has been a bit of a strange week. While picking my bracket for the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament (the knockout competition that each year in March decides who the national college champion is in the US and is given a very American moniker of March Madness) I ignored the seedings, form, statistical analysis from ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight, and common sense to pick Temple University, the No. 10 seed in the South Zone, to win it all. That’s because a) I have an alumni obligation to back the University I have attended (picking the NCAA bracket is a national pastime in America and almost everyone picks two brackets, one that has their Alma Mater winning it all, and another that is the logical one) and b) we all love backing the underdog.

I have found myself cheering for Afghanistan in the World T20, even as debates raged on about how much opportunity smaller “associate” nations should get to play against the big boys of international cricket. I have been almost as excited as Gary Lineker (“I don’t think I have ever wanted something to happen more in sport in my entire life.” he wrote in The Guardian last week.) about the most improbable of English Premier League title charges in recent history, that of Leicester City, who as I write this sit on top of the EPL table by 5 points with just 8 more games to play. To put the underdog in perspective, Leicester were a team sitting at 20th (yes, 20th, that is the bottom spot) of the EPL at around a similar time last season and were prime contenders for relegation. Not only did they survive, continuing an improbable run, they refuse to regress to any kind of mean sports statisticians are imagining having gone from 5000-1 long shots at the beginning of the season to favorites now.

We all love to root for the underdog. We always have. The Biblical references to David defeating Goliath are no coincidence but probably a demonstration of the fact that there always has been sympathy for the underdog. In most spheres in life, we have to compete – education, jobs, finding a mate, raising children – and watching a sporting event where an unfancied opponent puts up a great fight, or better still, puts one past the higher ranked opponent makes for a great narrative we subconsciously superimpose on to our lives giving us the glimmer of hope that however insignificant we are, on an even playing field, we all have a shot. (Remember Rocky? Ben Hur? Cool Runnings?)

And this is where a disconcerting line of thought has emerged in the past week with a lot of soul searching about the point as to whether sports exist to make money or make money in order to exist. The purpose of sport in society itself has been reduced to just a form of paid entertainment where money calls the shots. In the World T20 in cricket, associates had to qualify for a qualifying tournament which saw only two teams making it to the main stage from 8 to join the 8 biggest teams in World cricket. The reason was barely disguised no matter how the logic behind the format was sugarcoated – guaranteed big ticket viewership games get priority, equal opportunity be damned.

Charlie Stillitano the chairman of a company called Relevant Sports recently caused a furor by suggesting the UEFA Champions League, for example, does not need “the likes of Leicester” laying down plainly his money making argument behind creating a European Super League that recruits the biggest clubs in the continent and does away with things like promotion and relegation creating effectively a closed league –  “I could make a lot more money, I can be a lot more visible, I can help my sponsors out but right now I am locked into doing certain things that are really historic.” On the football podcast, Men In Blazers, Michael Davies, who works with NBC, defended Stillitano’s ambitions saying it is money that talks in the game nowadays.

The problem with money is not that it’s not needed in sport – teams and leagues need to be financially viable to survive – but that when money creates an entertainment product out of sport that is controlled end to end by commercial considerations, you get something like the NFL, a body as powerful as it is rich and with a disturbing ability to sweep concerns such as player safety under the carpet while vacuuming every cranny of the sport for “business opportunities”.

Even if you don’t know anything about baseball analytics you liked Moneyball because of its theme of the little guy being able to take on the big guy, the Oakland Athletics and Billy Beane eliminating the advantage money gave to big market teams like say the New York Yankees. And even a cold calculating Billy Beane concedes that it’s “hard not to be romantic about baseball”.

moneyball

In the NCAA Tournament, every year there is at least one Cinderella team, a team that defies odds to go deep into the tournament, warming the romantic side of our hearts. If it was just about her privileged twin step sisters, Cinderella would have been a much less compelling story and for the same reason sport would be much less compelling without the underdog. And the windows of opportunities for the underdogs seem to be getting smaller every year. But here’s to the rebels, the underdogs who keep fighting – the Leicesters, the Afghanistans and the NCAA Cinderella teams of the world – to smash one past that narrow window and keep it forced open a little while longer.

For they are purveyors of hope by proxy for us all, or at least the vast majority who wake and tune into the world to look for some sign that tells them ‘it’s going to be all right”.

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Of Angels, Demons & Spirits

Mankad

Spirit schmirit. It’s the law, is it not?

To paraphrase Meatloaf, stop right there, I need to know right now…before you go any further, do you expect this post to pontificate and decide whether what the West Indian bowler did today on the last ball of their U19 World Cup game against Zimbabwe right? If yes, I am sorry to disappoint you. This post will not dwell on that, though it has been triggered by the reactions that incident solicited.

Those reactions have been seen before – during Jos Buttler’s dismissal, during the Ian Bell incident, for Inzamam Ul Haq, and even during Underarmgate. To cite a different sport, something similar happened in Game 3 of the World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers. A friend of mine and fellow blogger wrote this piece about how the spirit of cricket is nonsense and should be done away with. His anger is not directed at the idea that people in a competitive arena can be sometimes (and are often) touched by the better angels of their nature and do what ‘feels right.’ His anger is directed at the hypocrisy every such event exposes where self professed defenders of the ‘spirit of the game’ go all righteous about something that is not illegal as per the laws that govern the game. My friend should know. He is a lawyer.

But that’s another thing about laws – ever since they have existed in any sphere in life, there has been an eternal battle between the letter of the law and its spirit. Everyone sneers at those who exploit a loophole in a law for their advantage but is quick to rush to do so themselves if given the opportunity. But isn’t every bit of incremental advantage important when you are in a high stakes competition? The idea of ‘spirit’ exists in this grey zone between what’s legal and what’s not which is why it is hard to judge a violation  of it or even more fundamentally, it’s very existence.

Sports, as a human endeavor, has mixed history in terms of whether it is a tool that builds character or one that merely reveals our true self. In 1987 when Courtney Walsh refused to Mankad Pakistan No. 11 Saleem Jaffar, he was hailed precisely because we did not expect him to do that. With 2 to win for Pakistan off the last ball and a semi final place at stake, we expected him to take that incremental advantage that was available to him. Maradona punching the ball in against England in 1986 did that.

There are many laws across sports where they are open to interpretation and consequently potential abuse. There is a rule in tennis about time taken by players between points but umpires are often discretionary about it considering the flow of the game. When Novak Djokovic became notorious for overshooting those lax time limits in the name of bouncing the ball a gazillion times before serving, they did intervene. Golf too relies on such generous interpretations at times. As Mark Twain once put it ‘It’s good sportsmanship to not pick up lost golf balls while they are still rolling.’ As long as there is room for interpretation the question about whether or not spirit should play a role will never be settled.

I had gone to an exhibition at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne in 2005 called ‘Angels or Demons: The choice of fair play’. It looked at why people cheat in sport and what such behavior tells us about ourselves. I remember a line I had seen there – “Over the centuries, demons and angels alike have lost their independent reality. They have become powers inherent to the person, a symbol of his or her quest for perfection or of personal weaknesses.” The impression I came away with was that it ultimately was myriad factors that inclined someone to act one way or another where the rule left either real or perceived room for interpretation. Things are even more complex for context based individual situations like today’s.

That is precisely why now is not the time to have a debate about the spirit of cricket (or any other sport for that matter) by precipitating the whole debate on this one instance where a teenage kid did something perfectly within the rules during a high pressure situation. And like Lincoln had said in his inaugural address, we can always hold up hope that in the long run we can be touched in the sports arena or outside, by the better angels of our nature. Like Nicholas Hogg wrote on Cricinfo a while back – “Like religion, the Spirit of Cricket is a concept universally understood but not universally practised.” And those exceptions like a Courtney Walsh lend the appeal that the idea has.

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Decoding Djokovic’s Halo

Novak-Djokovic 16 Trophy

First they ignored him, then they ridiculed him, then they hated him, and then he won.

The last time I wrote about Novak Djokovic was in 2012 after THAT Australian Open final against Rafael Nadal. I had pointed out then how Djokovic’s remarkable success seems to stem from the fact that he does not take things too seriously but at the same time works very hard on his game. Four years is a long time in modern tennis. Since the Australian Open in 2012, Djokovic has won 6 more Grand Slams including this tournament 3 times. He has been at a peak level seldom seen in men’s tennis in the Open Era just falling short of a calendar Grand Slam in 2015. Except for the Australian Open in 2014, he has not done worse than the semifinal in any Grand Slam since the 2010 French Open. By any standards that is exceptional.

In 2015 he was nearly invincible even when compared to greats in other sports that year.

Djoko’s 2015

W-L 82-6 (93%)

Grand Slams: Australian Open, Wimbledon, US Open

ATP Ranking Points earned: 16585 (most ever accumulated in a year, more than the No.2 and No.3 that year COMBINED)

Prize Money: $21 million (largest ever earned in a year)

His performance and consistency were so phenomenal people were running out of adjectives to describe them. Yet, somehow Djokovic never evoked the kind of flowery prose that flowed from sportswriters’ keyboards for Roger Federer or the respect that an assessment of Rafael Nadal in his prime commanded. Somehow in a Golden Age of men’s tennis where we swooned over the artistry of Federer’s Da Vinci or Nadal’s Michaelangelo had entered this impostor who did not as much do art as he painted by numbers. But he outshone his peers in a way that was unimaginable even when Djokovic had a breakout year in 2011 and that performance at the 2012 Australian Open where he beat Nadal.

So, what is the deal with Novak Djokovic? The once showboaty, standoffish player who used to grind opponents into exasperated submission with annoying tactics (his ridiculously long ball bouncing before his serve routine was particularly despised) now suddenly appears an island of calmness, composure, great skill and humility. Did the Djoker suddenly stop being an agent of chaos? Did the painter by numbers suddenly start producing brushstrokes of extreme beauty spontaneously? The short answer is no.

Djokovic never plays beautiful shots in the conventional meaning of the term. If a Federer’s backhand is the maple wood hand crafted Grand Piano, Djokovic’s is a note crafted on the piano app of Apple’s Garage Band software. Nadal’s aggression is a majestic Concorde to Djokovic’s quiet Airbus A300 like efficiency. Djokovic’s secret to success and the longevity of that success has been, well longevity. He learnt to outlast his opponents on the court. He was both physically and mentally impossible to tear down. A wrong call or a poor challenge could easily fluster Murray, even irk the usually dignified Federer, but not Djokovic. ESPN profiled his fitness regime in a 2012 article where Eli Saslow observed:

In his rise to the top of his sport, Djokovic has turned himself into a case study of what it now requires to be No. 1. Every detail is crucial. Every angle is considered. Every moment a chance to gain an incremental edge.

Dojokovic himself was asked this question after he had won his latest grand slam, the Australia Open 2016. He said he couldn’t “pick one thing and say that was the secret of success”

[I]t’s not that easy. If it’s that easy and simple and say one or two things, then I think many people would do it. It’s actually many years of obviously commitment, hard work, sacrifice and dedication, not just to training sessions, you know, the things that you are obliged to do as a tennis player, but also to a lifestyle. Trying to devote most of your time, energy, thought to make yourself the best person and the best player possible.

He has always been good at understanding that success on the court is paradoxically a complex mixture of things but also keeping things straightforward when on the court. So, while a Federer tries his SABR (Sneak Attack by Roger) or a Richard Gasquet almost exclusively deals in elegant backhands, and Angelique Kerber tries to get most value out of her drop shots,  Djokovic just looks at returning the ball deep into the opponents court and wait for them to make a mistake. He is one of the best of all time in absorbing pressure and turning defence into offence. He has built that patience and discipline in his game (and he himself admits that taking up Yoga has helped).

The problem is all these tiny bits add up insidiously, behind the scenes and there is no Grand Design to hold forth and celebrate Djokovic as a champion. Which is why he’s never been the easy crowd favourite. But even there he has built a wall brick by brick, winning fans over one tiny improvement at a time. Now his success has become the banner under which his popularity rides. As he himself says,“staying respectful to all my opponents and my colleagues and to this sport is a key to continue on and maintain this level of success and performance. I hope. This is kind of approach to help me to get to where I am. I don’t want to step away from it.”

Clearly Djokovic 2.0 has found an inner balance that comes not from detachment, but from blending the different facets of your life – professional and private. He said at the post match press conference after the 2016 Australia Open final, “you can’t separate yourself professionally and privately. You’re the same person. So all this emotions that are maybe trapped, you know, that occur in your private life, the issues, the problems that we all face, you need to surface them.”

His tennis might not be the most beautiful to watch, but that balance and humility he has cultivated certainly is.

I’ll leave you with Djokovic’s smile at the 2011 Australian Open and in 2016. See if you can spot the one which is of a man with a sense of inner balance.

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Dhonilytics

I don’t often write about physics here, but when I do it’s because I remember what my favorite physics teacher had told me – to keep find physics in the everyday. Given that I spend a heck of a lot of time following sports, everyday does turn out to be sports.

Eariler in the day today, Indian T20 captain and wicketkeeper M S Dhoni effected his 140th stumping, thus establishing a world record for most stumpings in international cricket matches (89 in ODIs, 13 in T20s and 38 in Tests).

In the T20 match between India and Australia at the MCG today, his first stumping of Glenn Maxwell off Yuvraj Singh was particularly impressive because he hardly had any reaction time. Cricket writer @Sampath_B24 posted a nice slow motion video of the dismissal with the claim that the reaction time was 0.1 seconds.

But Sampath was worried about the veracity of his number so I did a little bit of digging.

First, a quick primer on slow motion – essentially slow motion is video that was shot at a much faster rate (say a camera took 120 frames per second (fps) to construct a picture) but then played back at a much slower frame rate. Ordinary film is recorded at 24 fps so what we call video is really a set of pictures rapidly shuffling before us, much like a flipbook.

Remember Ishaan’s in Taare Zameen Par?

But if we play that back in slow motion we might find that there is a lot of blurring because pictures of high speed sporting action may have missed microsecond transitions.

The puzzle for me was to time how much time Dhoni had to react i.e. from the time the ball reached his gloves to him taking the bails off. Of course I had joked during the one day series where he made another smart stumping that:

Dhoni

But this had to pass scientific scrutiny. Unfortunately the broadcaster had not given us the reaction time (like they sometimes do when they show a good reflex catch being taken) but Sampath’s 16 second clip had enough clues to check at least crudely if his claim of 0.1 second was broadly correct.

I asked my go to physics person on twitter and he said sports cameras usually record at about 120 fps.

I confirmed that from an ABC page on how slow motion works and confirmed the general math with another article on baseball physics. So assuming the Channel 9 cameras covering the game at the MCG were recording at 120 fps (the broadcast standard) and playing it at 1/5 the speed (24 fps), the real time as compared to what you see in the video should be 5 times faster.

I timed Dhoni’s reaction time and on the slow-mo according to my stopwatch it was between 0.5-0.6 seconds (I did this three times to get an average number to round off errors). The real time then would be 0.5 or 0.6 divided by 5 which is roughly between 0.1-0.12 seconds.

I am happy to report that Sampath’s eyeballed claim more or less stands. As does the general claim that Dhoni is one of the best when it comes to reaction times behind the wicket.

Maybe someone can look at this a little more scientifically and analyze some Dhoni slomo videos. Or just hand a physics class a project. That should, as with anything Dhoni touches, make physics just a tad bit more  interesting.

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Thoughts on today

When I got up this morning, I was really excited and looking forward to watching some test cricket in Bangalore after a gap of three years. And then I read about Paris. Every act of terror sickens me to the core, the immediacy and juxtaposition of the events in Paris against my eagerness to catch the sporting action made it worse. There was a feeling of dread mixed with guilt gnawing at me, forcing me – some might think frivolously – to consider whether to go to the game or not. 

The terrorists had triggered a bomb just outside Stad De France as a France-Germany friendly was going on inside. All these details made it a terribly complicated morning. I have often used sport as a port in an emotional storm – I remember during one of my greatest moments of personal tragedy and loss, a friend hugged me tight and calmly whispered the news that India had qualified for the tri series final (this was in 1997). This was not his attempt to trivialise my tragedy; knowing me far too well, he knew I’d interpret this as code for ‘life goes on’. 

This morning, I did make it to the stadium partly because I had to hand tickets over to a couple of friends of mine, partly because I felt deep down that sport will provide some succour to that feeling in the pit of my stomach. I am not writing this to make any arguments about what happened in Paris (or for that matter in Beirut just two days ago and in Ankara two weeks back and so on); neither am I offering a point of view or pseudo-expertise comments on how to deal with this. I am only writing this as an intensely personal record of how I coped today. 

I went to watch a sporting event. One where the moment I was entering I noticed a lady from South Africa, toddler strapped to her back, and 6 year old son alongside also making her way to the stands. She stopped by at a street vendor and bought her son an India flag, encouraging him to wave it and smile at everyone around. One where as I took my seat South Africa were 15/2 and soon Varun Aaron bowled Hashim Amla with a beauty of a delivery to leave them at 45/3 and in walked A B DeVilliers playing his 100th Test Match. One where the entire crowd at the Chinnaswamy Stadium got to its feet spontaneously and clapped and chanted his name along with the standing ovation to welcome him to the crease. He was walking to the middle in the capacity of an adversary and South Africa’s key asset. And yet, there was so much love and warmth for him all through his innings. It was a remarkable sight, a testament to the unifying power that sport yields. 

That moment as DeVilliers walked out to the middle is what lent perspective to my sullen mood. No, it did not solve any problems. It did not make the terror and its horrors go away. But it was life affirming and it helped me cope. Just like that news of India making it to the final was, I interpreted this to be code for ‘life goes on’. 

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VIRU PAAJI, ME & THE GMAT

I don’t know about anyone else but besides the joy and thrill of watching Virender Sehwag bat, there was something I learnt from him that had a direct impact on my career. It was when I took my GMAT.

In the test it is a waste of effort to figure out if you got a question right or wrong. You do your best on every question and move on (in the GMAT you have to answer a question to get to the next question; there’s no skipping) and forget about the last question. That bit of mental block was erased when I realized that’s exactly how Virender Sehwag bats. He may have gotten beaten on the last delivery but it makes no difference to his approach to the next one. And that’s exactly what I hadn’t been doing while taking the practice tests!

So long, Viru! And thanks for the fish!

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