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Eighteen Till I Try

Pic Credit: Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

I am older than the combined ages of the two remarkable women who dueled at the US Open 2021 Women’s Singles Final. This is a trope I often use to keep a track of the passage of time. I used to check World Cup football team squads a few years ago to check how many players were older than I am. I still do the same, but only with the ages of the managers now. I had almost given up hopes of seeing anyone older than me at the World T20 to be held next month, but the squad announcements gave me one last hurrah (thank you, Chris Gayle and Ryan Ten Doeschate!).

It’s an almost natural instinct to compare your own state and age whenever one hears of a young achiever. It happened when tweens were winning skateboarding gold medals at the Tokyo Olympics last month, and it’s happening again as we try to comprehend the incredible achievement of Emma Raducanu, the 18-year-old Brit, who just 8 months ago was worried about her A-levels, and has now made history as the first ever qualifier to go on and win a singles title at a Major. It’s actually her first Tour level pro title, one that fetches her $2.5 million, a cool 100X upgrade on the last title prize money she won ($25,000 at a Satellite Event in Pune in 2019). Oh, to be a Grand Slam title holder and a millionaire at 18, as a friend on Twitter put it.

Now, before you go down the path of moping about because Emma is way younger than you are and has already achieved something that can only be termed a once in a generation event, it’s important to keep perspective. Someone pointed out that Raducanu has a title in only her second tour event (incidentally, both Grand Slams), while Nadal, when he won as a teen, had participated in 41 tournaments. It’s a needless comparison that clouds the more important and inspiring lesson that emerges out of Raducanu’s achievement. Her achievement is not a reminder or a highlight that you need to succeed while young. In a sport like tennis, particularly women’s tennis, players often turn pro fairly young and have relatively short peak playing careers, and given the nature of the economics of the sport, have to get the best out of their time on tour. So, it’s not a surprise that such preternatural teen achievers would emerge. Raducanu and her final opponent, Leylah Fernandez, had both not been born yet when two teens – Serena Williams and Martina Hingis – last battled in a US Open final. Maria Sharapova was all of 17 when she won Wimbledon in 2004. All this is not to take away from what Raducanu pulled off, but only to put it in sharper perspective.

You cannot halt the march of the unidirectional arrow of time, but there is one magical thing you can do – reset. And approach every reset like an 18-year-old would – as the opportunity for a fresh start. Markers of age shouldn’t be the benchmark of when you should enroll for a PhD, or change a job, or find love.

Raducanu had a dream run at Wimbledon earlier in the year reaching the Round of 16 where she was forced to retire on medical grounds, a set and 3-0 down. Her putting her mental well-being first was criticised by some (who I’d rather not name here and sully this post) on the basis of outdated paradigms of what sportspersons are expected to be like, but the pause she took back then seems to have paid off in how she approached things at Flushing Meadows. She won 10 matches in total (3 in the qualifiers) without dropping a single set and said after the final that “I’m just having a free swing at anything that comes my way. That’s how I faced every match here in the States. It got me this trophy, so I don’t think I should change anything.” Clearly, she had left the disappointment of Wimbledon way back into the rear view mirror.

Now, that is not always easy to do. We all face major resets in life, at various ages and not every single one goes our way (trust me, I know, because I have had at least three of them over the past 7 years, and I am batting 1 of 3 on those). But if there’s a lesson to be taken away from Raducanu’s win, it’s not the ‘I-am-not-even-a-millionaire-and-have-zero-grand slam-titles-what-am-I-doing-with-my-life’ mope, but the wish that I am able to handle my next major life timeline reset with the grace, gumption and enthusiasm of this 18-year-old. I don’t mean that you have to literally try to be biologically 18, obviously, but the mindset can change our outlook and your life. Remember, even Roger Federer won his most recent Major at an age that was higher than the combined age of these two finalists, long past what everyone had deemed the ‘conventional timeline’ of when tennis superstars are supposed to be past their peak.

Thank you Emma, for the reminder that your own timeline should be sacred to you, because only you know where the markers will be placed.

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Presidents of Skillistan

T – 10 seconds

May 7, 1995, Madison Square Garden, New York

It’s the closing seconds of Game 1 of the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals, and archrivals New York Knicks lead the Indiana Pacers 105-99. Reggie Miller, the Pacers’ shooting guard, who had built his reputation on shooting 3-pointers, gets the ball from teammate Mark Jackson.

June 22, 1986, Estadio Azteca, Mexico City

Argentina are leading England 1-0 on the back of a controversial goal in the World Cup Quarterfinal but the fired up English side is trying to jostle its way back into the game. Hector Enrique passes the ball to a certain Diego Maradona deep inside Argentina’s own half. The game hangs in the balance.

August 16, 2009, Olympic Stadium, Berlin

Usain Bolt is in the set position at the starting block of the Men’s 100m final at the World Championships. Exactly a year back the Jamaican had won Olympic gold in a world record time of 9.69 seconds, but when the starting gun goes, he starts a full 0.01 seconds – a lifetime in a 100m race – behind fellow countryman Asafa Powell.

September 6, 2021, The Oval, London

Jasprit Bumrah is at the top of his bowling mark. England are 146-4 in a final day pursuit of a target of 368 and the series against India hangs in the balance on a pitch that’s not offering much to bowlers even on the fifth day. Facing him is Jonny Bairstow, the one batter who has the potential to change the mood of this chase from survival to swashbuckling.

T – 6 seconds

The first glimpses of something incredible unfolding in New York, Mexico City and Berlin are in plain sight. Reggie Miller does what he has done best all his life – sink a three pointer under pressure. He gets the ball from Jackson, pivots around in one smooth motion and lets go, sinking the bucket even before the opposition realises what just happened. Miller was among those who had redefined basketball when the three point shooting line was introduced in the 1986-87 season. He sunk 69 three pointers that season for his college team – the UCLA Bruins – and when he got into the NBA that became his signature shot. However, in that Knicks game, while the 3 pointer pulled the Pacers to within three of the Knicks, time was running out and the Knicks had the ball.

Speaking of having the ball, it is almost magically tied to the feet of Diego Maradona who has set off on a solo run under the scorching afternoon sun in Mexico City, leaving in his wake Peter Beardsley and Peter Reid as he crosses into the England half. In Berlin, Bolt may have started slow, but the lanky legs of his on a 6’5” frame are generating superhuman speed and as the halfway mark of the track approaches, he is gaining on Powell. Also just past the halfway point of his run is Jasprit Bumrah, about to go into his hop and skip routine of a unique bowling action, his right hand jutting out like a catapult askew, waiting to unleash.

T – 3 seconds

Magic happens next. In pro sport, we often are witness to superhuman feats at the highest levels, but there is a thin line between superhuman and downright magic. That line is about to be crossed in Madison Square Garden, at the Azetca Stadium, inside the Olympic Stadium and at The Oval. Miller, knowing the Pacers need to regain possession to pull even, hustles as the Knicks try to inbound the ball after his three; Anthony Mason hesitates on the inbound pass and Miller is there to collect it in the paint and at rocket speed spins out of the 3-point arc, turns around and shoots again. THREE! Just like Miller has single-mindedly taught himself to be able to do. A singular skill that sets him apart from the rest. A skill – shooting over a long arc – he picked up because his jumpers kept getting blocked his taller sister (Cheryl Miller, a hall of famer herself) when he was young. The game’s tied and the crowd at the Garden is stunned.

Maradona had picked his dribbling skills up in the hard knock games of his Argentinian childhood and seeing no space to pass the ball he has set off all by himself and finds himself in England’s penalty area. Bolt’s 0.01 second delay at the start has been rendered meaningless because past 70 meters on the track he is running the greatest 100m ever, he now has a lead of 0.13 seconds over his nearest competitor – compatriot Asafa Powell. The physics defying acceleration is being powered by a sprinter who originally trained for the 200m, but somehow astonishingly found a way to accommodate his recoil and release within the compact format of the 100m. Bolt wanted to play cricket and be a fast bowler. He is, in that moment, simply fast.

Also simply fast is a thunderbolt of a bright red Dukes cricket ball that’s swinging into Jonny Bairstow, having left Bumrah’s palm less than half a second earlier. It’s darting in at that almost impossible to play length – the yorker. The pitch has offered no assistance, so Bumrah has reverted to his original instinct – take the pitch out of the equation. A yorker is the toughest of deliveries to bowl in the game. To get it that perfect requires a special skillset. Bumrah has cultivated that skillset and then elevated it to an art from the time in childhood when he would think the only mode of dismissal that existed in cricket was to bowl a yorker and getting the batsman bowled. In his own words, when he used to play even with a tennis ball it was – hit the toe or the base of the stump. Bairstow’s toes have no chance.

LONDON, ENGLAND – SEPTEMBER 06: Jonny Bairstow of England is bowled by Jasprit Bumrah of India during the Fourth LV= Insurance Test Match: Day Five between England and India at The Kia Oval on September 06, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

The pace and the accuracy rip through him like a spear from a trained hunter and the ball crashes into the base of his middle stump.

T – 1 second

Miller’s incredible display of his core skill has stunned the Knicks enough that they miss their next two free throws and the Pacers score two at the other end (who else, but Reggie!) to eke out an improbable win. Miller scores 8 points in 9 seconds. Maradona has beaten a charging Peter Shilton and a desperately diving Terry Butcher to score the goal of the century, 10 seconds worth of breathless wonder of seeing a diminutive man launch a virtuoso performance of football’s most mesmeric skill – the dribble. Usain Bolt is uncatchable racing to a new World Record of 9.58 seconds, Tyson Gay runs the third fastest 100m of all time (9.71s) only to finish more than a body length behind Bolt. Bumrah’s perfection meanwhile has snuffed out any hopes of an English resistance, and on a deck that looked flat and dead for the most part, England eventually crumble and stumble, to a 157 run defeat.

An oft quoted Bruce Lee line goes “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”. In each of these four instances, a singular piece of sporting skill, crafted to the brink of perfection by an artisan dedicated obsessively to it, produced not just a wow moment, destined to be frozen forever in time, but also turned these contest on their heads and into legendary territory.

It is the rarest of things to see pieces of skill distilled down to their purest form while still forming a part of the larger tapestry, but once you spot them, the awe they hit you with is irresistible.

The awe that, at least for me personally, seals their nomination and election on to the Mount Rushmore of incredible moments of skill in sport.

Welcome to the club, Jasprit Bumrah.

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Stick Check

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India’s Neha Goyal is consoled by Great Britain goalie Madeliene Hinch after India lost to GB 4-3 in the Olympics bronze medal playoff

On the morning of August 6, 2021 at around 8:50 AM India time, I felt my heart break at a sporting loss.

The Indian women’s hockey team had lost the bronze medal playoff at the Tokyo Olympics 3-4 to Great Britain. As a sports fan (and a Liverpool FC fan at that), I am used to heartbreaks, but for the first ever time in a virtual lifetime of watching sport, my heart did not break for the selfish reason that I had been denied the happiness of reveling in a win from my favourite team or player. My heart broke on behalf of those players, clad in blue, who had just played their hearts out in the game of their lives – a historic shot at a first ever Olympics medal – and had come agonisingly close to winning it.

Let me try and frame that better – I was emotionally invested in the success of this team, not because of the emotional payoff I would get from seeing them do well (as is the usual case) but because of what it would mean for them. You see, I was not necessarily thinking what, say, winning the 2018 Australian Open would mean to Roger Federer when he served for the title against Marin Cilic. Yes, Roger would make history, but I, as a Roger fan, was looking forward to bask in his reflected glow. In the case of this Indian women’s hockey team, I was rooting for them and only them, because, quite simply, I wasn’t worthy of claiming a single lumen of that reflected glow, lit as it had been by an inner flame which every player brought to this team, this effort, and this achievement.

I would like to consider myself an empathetic person, but I had a hard time processing why I felt so much for them. I am fond of the teams and players I cheer for and follow, I like to even see some of the universally beloved ones win, but where had this affinity to the aspirations of a team at a deeply personal level come from? Maybe because I had subconsciously internalised what representing the country at a global stage meant to these women from a social standpoint.

The skipper Rani Rampal had said in an interview that she wanted an escape from her life that was marked by shortages – whether it be electricity or food or even proper drainage. She felt desperate enough to insert herself into a winner take all market – professional sport is notoriously tough where top level success, and disproportionate levels of rewards accrue to a fraction of those who aspire to make their mark through it. Even without being able to afford a hockey stick, or a clock (to wake up at the right time to head to training) or the daily amount of milk each player was required to bring to the academy, she managed to break through, making her national team debut at just 15 years old. For someone like Rani, even a tiny handout at winning a local tournament was more money than her father had ever seen from his profession as a cart puller.

It’s a familiar story that repeats for quite a few of the rest of the players in the squad, who after being drawn in a nightmarish group at the Olympics – they had to face the three medalist teams from Rio in their first three games in Tokyo, Netherlands (silver and World No. 1 team), Germany (bronze) and Great Britain (gold) – shook off defeats in the first three games to win their last two and make it to the quarterfinals, where they would cause a sensational upset beating the world no. 3 team, Australia, 1-0. For 60 glorious minutes on the hockey pitch against the Aussies they seemed to express their true and best selves while nothing else mattered.

Everyone in this team has spent most of their lives trying to break free from something – whether be it from difficult circumstances, from the stigmatisation because of the caste they belonged to, from an abusive household, or from abject poverty.

The sport had afforded them social mobility, and their shining on the brightest stage of them all – the Olympics – could potentially provide it to thousands of others. A fourth place finish does not take away from the joy and hope they gave us, in particular with that near perfect performance against Australia, but as I said at the beginning, it wasn’t about just that for me. The pain came from a different corner in my heart. The corner that otherwise lights up just seeing someone realise their dreams, the corner that wishes everyone could live their best lives, and also naively holds on to hope that it’s possible. I was holding up alright despite the defeat until I saw pictures of Savita (who had been stellar as a goalie) and Rani in tears, while Neha Goyal was being consoled by the Great Britain goalie as she sank to her knees.

Savita narrated an instance of how her grandfather, who had never been to school, learned to read just to be able to read articles about her in the newspaper even if it took him hours to finish a couple of paragraphs. Their success seems to have had a knock on effect on everyone in their orbit, inspiring them to try and be their better selves. That is why, this morning, I so wanted them to win a medal. A medal would have meant so much for them, not just a tangible souvenir to what has been an incredible week, but so much more in terms of changing their lives. It was not meant to be. But as I look at those heartbreaking pictures again, I realise that each one of them eventually picked themselves up, leaning on their trusted hockey stick for support. And they will be back again to keep fighting, because in some form or the other that’s what they have done all their lives.

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Fairytale endings sometimes have the insidious effect of lulling us into complacency. Maybe those pictures of the 16 incredible human beings who gave India their best ever Olympics finish in women’s hockey hunched over their sticks will serve as a reminder that hockey is one sport where leaning on a stick is not a sign of weakness.

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The Olympics Pop Quiz

Been paying attention to the Olympics in Tokyo? Good. Now that we are at the halfway mark of the first ever Olympics to be held in an odd numbered year, it’s time to sharpen your pencils, mask up, socially distance yourself from the other quiz takers and test your knowledge on the Olympics pop quiz.

Q1. If the same proportion of the Indian population won Olympic medals as San Marino’s have so far, our medal haul would be:

A. 78

B. 780

C. 7800

D. 78000

Q2. Allyson Felix, the legendary track athlete from the US found that she had a sore neck and back from sleeping on the cardboard beds provided at the Olympic Games Village in Tokyo, so she decided to

A. Withdraw from her track event in protest

B. Order a memory foam mattress from Amazon and add some more cardboard to make a comfier bed

Q3. What role is Seigneur Medicott playing for India at the Olympics? Seigneur Medicott is:

A. The team psychologist

B. The team astrologer

C. The only horse from India in the equestrian event

D. A french seer hired to predict how India will fare in Paris 2024

Q4. Brazillian Rayssa Leal created history by winning the skateboarding gold at just 13 years old. She first shot to fame in 2015 when a video of her heelflip went viral on what social media platform?

A. Instagram

B. TikTok

C. Vine

Q5. The combined number of individual Olympics medals in this picture is:

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A. Zero

B. Besides the point, because it features a history maker and trailblazer, and also Novak Djokovic

Q6. Lovlina Borgohain (the Indian boxer who has a shot at the final in the women’s 51 kg boxing event) has an amazing origin story in the sense that she first got interested in the sport because her dad brought home some sweets wrapped in a newspaper and she decided to read the wrapping which contained a story about another Olympic medalist boxer. Who?

A. MC Mary Kom

B. Rocky Balboa

C. Muhammad Ali

Q7. How many Olympic medals in total has Russia won in the Artistic Gymnastics Women’s All Round Team Event?

A. 17

B. 3

C. 1

D. 0

Q8. Park 24 Co. – a Japanese car-park and vehicle-sharing operator – saw its stock rise by over 6% after what happened last week?

A. A typhoon swept across Tokyo

B. More visitors than expected showed up at the Games even though the events are happening sans spectators

C. The Japanese Judo team members won gold

D. Godzilla was made their brand ambassador

Q9. How is Dr. Anna Kiesenhofer who has a PhD in mathematics and studies “non linear partial differential equations” significant in context of the Tokyo Olympics?

A. She devised an algorithm to compute accurate trajectories of projectiles in uncertain wind conditions in Japan that is being used by elite javelin throwers and archers participating in the Games

B. She won gold in the women’s cycling road race event.

Q10. Men’s 100m breaststroke Olympic champion Adam Peaty defended his gold medal from Rio at Tokyo. In between those two events, the man who has the 17 fastest times in history in his event, added what appropriate tattoo on his forearm?

A. Aquaman

B. Poseidon

Q11. 18-year-old Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado (the first from her country to qualify for the Olympics) added what unique element to her floor exercise routine that drew a lot of praise?

A. A double somersault triple pike landing

B. Her floor routine was set to a piece of music she had herself composed

C. She worked in the kneel down and closed fist up in the air symbol of the Black Lives Matter movement into her routine to skirt around the IOC banning protest or political demonstration on the field of play or the podium.

Q12. An San, the Korean archer who won all the three gold medals she competed for this Games, in the mixed team event final shot her arrow so accurately that it looked like a scene straight out of:

A. Compton

B. The Hunger Games

C. Robin Hood Prince of Thieves

D. Rambo: First Blood

BONUS QUESTION

In this photo, Elaine Thompson-Herah has just

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Hip hip Herah!

A. Completed this quiz in record time

B. Completed the women’s 100m in Olympic Record time

ANSWERS

  1. D (yeah, the math checks out). Incidentally, India are on pace on to have 0.00000015% of the population win a medal at Tokyo. San Marino is home to just 34,000 people but they have picked up a silver and a bronze in mixed trap shooting and women’s trap shooting respectively.

2. B. When in doubt, DIY!

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Felix’s Instagram story has the step by step!

3. C Fouaad Mirza (the silver medalist at the Asian Games in 2018) is only the third ever Indian to participate in an equestrian event at the Olympics. His father is a seasoned veterinarian and an equine specialist who calls the horse ‘Mickey’ as a nickname.

4. C Yeah, Vine! And look at her now, all of just thirteen with an Olympic gold while Vine is history. Digital economy, eh? This was the video (which was also shared on Twitter by legendary skateboarder Tony Hawk, among others)

5. Yeah, Djokovic had a tough Olympics, but let’s take a moment to talk about Bhavani Devi who made history as the first fencer to represent India at the Olympics and only bowed out after a tough loss to the World No. 3 in the Round of 32.

6. Evidently, C. The Greatest is The Greatest for a reason!

7. D. Trick question!! Between 1950-1980 and then 1988 all were won by the USSR, the one in 1992 by the CIS or Unified Team and the one in 2021 is under the banner of Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) since Russia is banned from the Olympics.

8. C (Apparently quite a few members of Japan’s Judo team work there so the hyperrational stock market decided that’s a buy? Newton was right. I’ll never understand stock markets.)

9. B. She is a remarkable person!

10. B (for badass)

11. C

12. C Her arrow split through her compatriot’s shot. Ring a bell?

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An San shoots to thrill!

Now?

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The waiting

It was probably with five minutes remaining in extra time that Gareth Southgate had realised that it was inevitable that the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy would be decided by penalties. He readied his last two changes – Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho – subbing them on with the express purpose of taking penalties in the high stakes crapshoot that is a shootout. But Rashford and Sancho have to wait; the ball is still in play and there is no window for them to come on. The seconds must feel like an eternity for the two young England players, as they become the final gambit of Southgate’s redemption endgame at the very venue where he had himself missed a penalty. Southgate’s wait has been much longer. He has had to wait a quarter of a century to get this poetic shot at exorcising those ghosts. Meanwhile the seconds tick away as Italy refuse to let up possession in England’s half and Sancho and Rashford wait.

The waiting, as Tom Petty once wrote, is the hardest part.

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For England fans, the wait has been 55 years. The 1966 World Cup win at Wembley was their last major international trophy. For the fans of their opponents on this night – Italy – the wait has been 53 years, 1968 was the last and only time they had been European Champions. And it was 15 years ago, in 2006, that one of the most decorated international sides had won their last major trophy. For players like skipper Giorgio Chiellini and centre back Leonardo Bonucci, the wait has been almost their entire careers, both on the losing side that was swept aside by Spain in 2012, and then a horrendous outing at the World Cup two years later. In 2018, they, along with the rest of the national team didn’t even make it to the World Cup. Their manager, Roberto Mancini, knows a thing or two about ending long waits – he coached Manchester City to their first League title since 1968, in 2012. But he has had a personal wait of his own, to make a mark for his beloved Azzurri, having spent most of his time in Italia 90 waiting on the bench.

The waiting is the hardest part.

England concede a corner with barely 60 seconds remaining in extra time and Sancho and Rashford can finally be ushered on to the field. Their wait is over. Or is it? What’s really started is another agonising wait – for their turn to shoot from twelve yards away. The final whistle goes, and Wembley holds its collective breath as the teams line up for the shootout – a footballing spectacle that’s part gladiatorial, part ‘getting-crushed-in-the-trash-compactor-aboard-the-Death-Star’ feeling. Italy blink first, as Andrea Belotti misses the second kick. Harry Maguire takes a near perfect penalty to convert that advantage. Bonucci scores Italy’s third kick. It’s balanced on a knife edge at 2-2 as Rashford walks up to take his kick. He approaches, and then slows down, making Gianluigi Donarumma wait. This is tactical. The striker is trying to get the goalie to show his hand. Which way is he going to go? Time seems to be passing in slow motion as Rashford has another mini pause. This one achieves its objective. Donarumma commits to his left and Rashford goes right. But he seems to have waited just a tad too long before pulling the trigger. He makes contact maybe centimeters ahead of where he ideally should have. The ball just overshoots and hits the post.

The waiting is the hardest part.

Earlier in the night, England make an electric start to their first major final in over half a century. A Luke Shaw stunner created by a perfectly placed pass from Kieran Trippier from the right side of the box puts them ahead in the second minute. The fans are ecstatic. They barely had to wait to see how England would approach this. But then begins a waiting game. England seem to be making their minds up to wait this out, to drop back deep, to defend their early lead and to frustrate their opponents by simply stonewalling them. Their opponents know this trick. After all, the Italians perfected Catenaccio. And despite being outplayed in the first half, they are willing to wait too, wait patiently to have the ball at their feet, and then take their time to build up runs towards England’s penalty area. It’s a fine balance. As the night wears on, England’s wait seems to become more fidgety, Italy’s more determined. With England barely even attempting a shot in the second half, it’s only a matter of time before Italy capitalise on a goalmouth scramble from a corner and equalise. Gareth Southgate’s ploy of waiting it out seems to have backfired.

The waiting is the hardest part.

England choose to wait, but Italy capitalise in a moment that frozen on camera seems like a Renaissance painting

Gianluca Vialli is making the whole team wait. He is late to get to the team bus as it is about to depart to the Stadio Olimpico for Italy’s opening Euro 2020 game against Turkey. They win that game 3-0, and a superstition is born. Vialli makes the team ‘wait’ for every match departure from then on. Italy continue their winning streak. Meanwhile back in Italy, as the final unfolds in London, there is a waiting of a different kind. A waiting for things to slowly get back to normal after the devastation of the pandemic in the last 18 months. A waiting for exhalation, the desire to, as Chiellini put in a Twitter post after the game, “come back to life”. Vialli himself is an embodiment of this. He has warded off cancer, an episode he has seen through the lens of time and a wait to emerge free from, rather than something that would limit him. The legendary former footballer is one of the first ones to rush on to the field to congratulate the players as Buyako Saka, barely old enough to drive, misses England’s final kick.

Chiellini was on the losing side in the 2012 final and was playing in what most likely is his last European Championships

As someone who has been a fan of the Azzurri and their players since Italia 90, a personal wait comes to an end for me as well. Earlier in the morning, I had watched Lionel Messi end his international trophy drought along with Argentina’s (they had not won one since 1993) by lifting the Copa America. The rush of emotions that followed tell you what the end of that wait means to a footballer who has otherwise won everything there is to win. I am a Liverpool fan. I know a thing or two about waits. I support India in cricket. A 28-year-long wait for a major trophy is not unfamiliar to me. Waits are incredibly hard. All of us have collectively been waiting for something (lockdowns to end) or the other (vaccines to be available) over the last year or so, and it has naturally tested our patience and our character in many ways. The same is true of elite athletes. The waiting is indeed the hardest part.

Three young English Lions – Rashford, Sancho and Saka, superb footballers all three – miss penalties on the night, and for now on their international CV that becomes a defining high lowlight. They are young and they will have many more chances to earn glory for their country on the international stage. They will have to bide their time, and wait their turn. For now, it might seem hard to them; an almost impossible task to lift them from this despair. But if they look to the other side they will realise that at the end of the wait is a rainbow that’s not out of reach yet.

As Alexander Dumas had written in The Count of Monte Cristo –

“…never forget, that until the day God will deign to reveal the future to man, all human wisdom is contained in these two words, ‘Wait and Hope.”

It’s just that, the waiting, is the hardest part.

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All Along The Watch Roger

The nature of sport, coupled with the nature of time, often give us moments that become markers of the inevitable changing of the guard. As Hubert Hurkacz approached to shake hands at the net with the man he’d just beaten on Centre Court, you felt this was one of those moments. Because the man at the other end was Roger Federer. Oldest Wimbledon men’s singles quarterfinalist in the Open Era Roger Federer. Weeks away from turning 40 Roger Federer. Not in this entire century had Federer lost a set 6-0 to anyone on grass. Today, he did. For a neutral, it was the romanticism of sport writ large over this seminal moment. A young new contender – who could be the next superstar – emerges with a statement performance. Federer would know. He himself was that guy against Pete Sampras at the very same place excatly two decades ago.

It’s not perhaps a final goodbye, but a circle sure closed at Centre Court today.

But what does this moment make a lifelong Federer fan feel?

Is it bittersweet, knowing we got to watch him longer in this spiritual home of his than his previous form and the condition of his knees would have suggested but watching him being helplessly schooled at his own game in the third set?

Is it dread, amplified by the gnawing unease and uncertainty over whether we will see him at Wimbledon again? Is it pure disappointment, that the clutch Federer we have all come to take for granted at Centre Court did not show up today?

Is it guilt, at expecting so much out of a man who has given his fans everything one could ask for, and yet we somehow, despite whatever we console ourselves with, demand even more from him? Is it frustration, at our own selves, because Roger’s seeming infallibility had become a proxy for our own feeling of invincibility and now we are left to deal with the sensation of our own mortality, laid as naked in front of us as a 6-0 scoreline?

Federer has played 119 matches at SW19 and before today, he’s never ended with nothing in a set. I have often compared Federer’s reinvention of himself and his game (to be able to pull off competing this long at the highest level) to how an economy with dwindling resources might continue advancing at a great clip by more cleverly combining those resources – a phenomenon the great economist Robert Solow would call maximizing Total Factor Productivity. But while that was always inspirational to watch, we all knew there are physical limitations to how far this can go, or to borrow an economist’s phrase again – how far the production possibilities frontier could be stretched. What happens when that frontier hits a wall? The world as a whole is facing that question and that dilemma right now.

Roger’s travails but represent a sporting microcosm of it in us fans’ minds. What phoenix can possibly rise from the ashes of our secret hopes when the tears of disappoint meet them? Economies have long measured quality of life by material means, using the growth of output as the accepted metric, just like we have been awed and impressed by Federer’s trophy count, and his stats. As we hit the limits to the obsession with growth however, the paradigm is changing to recognizing that material aspects are but just one dimension of what we call the quality of life. Federer himself has recognised it, which is why he still carries on. Not necessarily hunting for more trophies but, to soak the sport he has loved all his life, in. For the pure love of the game, its drama, its thrill and its theater. And in being able to live with that feeling lies both hope and wisdom.

This afternoon at Centre Court, whether it is his final appearance or not, it felt like things had come full circle. We were given a glimpse of what lies on the other side of the wall. It is that moment when the realisation of what Joni Mitchell wrote in The Circle Game hits – we are captive on the carousel of time, we can’t return, we can only look, behind, from where we came, and go round and round and round, in the circle game.

Allez Roger! We move forward, a touch bruised, but much wiser.

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Dystopia and dichotomy

Sport was one of the first casualties of the current pandemic. In the initial days we missed it because it could and would have served as a salve for the anxiety and uncertainty as we battled an unknown virus. Like sport always has. Offering a refuge to escape reality, with you, the fan in control of how deep down that rabbit hole you wished to go.

But as I sit down to process this current hellscape around us, where the woes of a pandemic have been compounded by a collapsing healthcare system and an administration that can charitably be described as apathetic I can only see people driven to the edge of despair. And that salve, the rabbit hole of escape itself has become a dystopian mirror of precisely how the rest of the social order is crumbling around us. The IPL was always billed as a great summer evening escape, but now, do you idly talk about powerplay strategy and batter-bowler matchups, or sit by your phone with the dread that someone you know is about to ping you with some bad news. Let alone folks you know, just hearing of the human toll that a second wave of the pandemic is extracting is in itself enough to wreck your mental state enough to wean you off food and off sports. Nourishment almost feels moot as you sink into a pit of helplessness and despair, wallowing in the feeling that nothing seems right at the moment.

It’s worse when you find out that football, the one other escape that truly was one, has its own raging existential dumpster fire that has been lit by the spark of rebellion from a dozen profit hungry club owners who are looking at forming a cash rich cabal of their own, to serve as the bread and circus show, sans the bread. What do you take solace in when the one thing you took solace in becomes untenable. Sport was supposed to offer us glimpses of meritocracy, a glimmer of hope of what egalitarianism would look like, a flash of beauty and purity for beauty and purity’s sake. It was supposed to make us perceive the world as more hopeful and beautiful than it is. It was supposed to counter the narrative of creeping dystopia we have been feeling for the last couple of decades now. But as the European Super League episode shows and the ongoing IPL with special exemptions and exceptions for the participants in the service of sponsors and commercial stakeholders as normal citizens literally gasp for breath highlights, the dystopia we have been dreading has invaded our perceived hallowed turf ages ago. It only is merely reflecting the levels we are sinking to now, as its sacrifices at the altar of commercialization (which by itself wasn’t necessarily the worst thing) overshadows its utopian duty towards the community.

In the face of failing governments and crumbling systems, we needed the reassurance of community more than ever. That illusory rug was cruelly pulled out in full public view over the past week. I am jaded, physically and mentally spent, as I write these words because for the first time in 14 months the realisation that there will never be normal again has begun to sink in. I have and probably will incorrigibly remain romantic about sport in general, but I fear that this week has forever severed the silver lining of hopefulness for the world that I held while seeing everything through the lens of sport.

I have no wisdom to offer, or morality to pontificate. Just that I needed to put these words to paper, because there was no other way to process what the emptiness I feel inside was.

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Close of Play

February 9th, 1997, was when I thought I had learned something significant. I had figured out how to calculate Net Run Rates. In the next 100 hours or so, I would learn stuff that was far more significant and consequential. Stuff that would irreversibly shape who I was and my equation with a sport that at that point I followed mostly as entertainment.

It was the final group game of the tri-series in South Africa, featuring India and Zimbabwe. India needed to win, and by a margin good enough to tip Zimbabwe on net run rate and make it to the final. They batted second, and managed to chase the target down within the number of overs to make it to the final to face the hosts. Our entire family watched the game, with one exception – my dad, who had been confined to the bed for almost two months now. In the wee hours of the morning at around 5AM on the 10th of February, we lost him. It was as devastating a blow as anyone can imagine. I had forgotten all about the game (which would otherwise have been the hottest topic of discussion the next day) and was wondering if I would ever be able to bring myself to watch another match. Because at an age when I was too young to even know what the term north star meant, I had lost my north star.

Practically the entirety of my ties to the sport at that point was due to my father – from getting me a Sunny Gavsakar style floppy hat when I was five, to teaching me how to tune in to the commentary on radio, to waking me up a 3AM during the ’92 World Cup, to ungrudgingly wading into a hyacinth filled pool to recover the ball I had hit there for the fifth time that afternoon, to showing me how to grip the ball to bowl a legspinner (he was a mean leg spinner at university). It was almost impossible to imagine that I would now have to watch the game without him around. Without him around to explain what a follow-on meant, without him around to tell me tales of cricketing giants past, without him around to reassure me when India were in trouble, without him around to scream at the TV at a poor piece of fielding. It was impossible to process, but it had begun sinking in, when my best friend from school came to the funeral, and as he hugged and comforted me, said ‘Just last night we watched India pull off a miracle, and from that high you suddenly have to face this. It’s unfair.’ I knew the final was in three days. I didn’t picture myself being able to watch it.

Ironically, everyone around me (with the sincerest of intentions) actually encouraged me to watch it thinking it would take my mind off things just a little bit. They didn’t know the inner conflict that bore. I almost felt guilty. But then when I sat down to actually watch India bat and try and chase down a challenging target against a formidable bowling attack in difficult conditions, a miraculous catharsis happened. I was not invested in the result, but I became very invested in the process. Watching Rahul Dravid pull Shaun Pollock and then deposit an Allan Donald delivery for a six over long on injected me with a fighting spirit. Here India were, distant second favourites in the final, at a venue they had a horror test match at just a few weeks ago, faced with an almost impossible task and yet refusing to back down or give up. I wasn’t getting much sleep those few days anyway, but that night, after the match finished, the quiet contemplation in bed with my eyes closed made me stumble upon an important realisation that I could (and should) use the game that shaped my childhood and my relationship with my dad, as an emotional bedrock. And invest into it all kinds of emotions and not just the ecstacy of victory or the agony of defeat.

The two matches themselves remain an unremarkable footnote in the cricketing annals, but because of what transpired for me personally in between, they will remain the two most significant games in my life.

Because it was then that I realised that life goes on. And so does the cricket.

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