IN THE HEAT OF THE HOT TAKE

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In my time in the United States as a Graduate student, I became familiar with a style of American sports analysis that was called the ‘hot take’. A hot take was essentially a viewpoint idiosyncratic to a pundit or a talking head on the panoply of channels on talk radio or on television in programs like ESPN’s ‘Around The Horn’ which used to usually idly play in the background during most afternoons I was home. The ‘experts’ on these programs would talk about players, teams and coaches discussing endlessly what they thought of their latest performance or failure. Some segments specifically put the pundits in the spot to express his or her viewpoint one way or another, often right after something has happened – say a fancied team lost a playoff game – giving them no time or chance to reasonably and critically analyze the event.

The hot take is a much derided style among those who care about things like facts, data, objectivity and sanity. After India’s semifinal loss to eventual champions Australia at the World Cup last week, the hot take syndrome hit right home when one of the major Indian cable news channels, Times Now, (owned by the same group who owns The Typo Times Of India) started viciously crticizing the team in general and captain M S Dhoni on particular for the defeat and branded their bit of analysis, as is their wont with most stories they cover, with a banal and stupid Twitter hashtag. The hashtag #ShamedInSydney did not go down well with grieving fans coming to terms with a hard loss to a tough opponent.

An exit from a major tournament for a fairly talented team will always attract post mortem, some of the criticism will be justified, some just rants and hot takes. You don’t usually expect mainstream media to go the way of hot takes and that is the line Times Now crossed. Most of their criticism went ad hominem, attacking or example, Dhoni’s purported lack of emotion after the loss. But most hot takes work because they find some support among some segment of fans. In this case the uproar against the hot take was instantaneous and there was virtual consensus.

The casualty as usual was the idea of a measured and objective debate and critique of where India may have gone wrong in that game. This is a worrying trend, not because we need to eliminate armchair fans debating their team (it is one of the quirks of sport that keeps it so exciting and entertaining), but because it begins to erase the line between vendetta and critique. Lost in the hunt for TRPs, eyeballs and the need for instant incitement and ‘outrage’ is the art of actually having a debate.

I have been watching cricket for over 25 years now. Defeats still hurt. Wins still give me a heady high. I vent frustrations out at the television and social media often during games. And I am acutely aware of how they represent my failings from being an ideal cricket fan. But that doesn’t mean I’ll stand to see the same thing becoming institutionalized. I stopped watching the news almost 15 years back. Maybe you should too.

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ON THE WINGS OF ICARUS

There comes a moment in every sports fan’s life when she is faced with confronting her idol’s mortality, a moment of painful unmasking that reveals that the idol is human, after all. The moment when after floating in the clouds for an epoch on the wings of Icarus, the heat of time begins to melt the wax wings. Today, a minute or so into the second half at Anfield in the game between Manchester United and Liverpool, that moment arrived for me, a lifelong Steven Gerrard fan.

Gerrard had been a halftime substitution, meant to inspire and prop up a listless Liverpool trailing 0-1 to a determined United, but within barely 60 seconds of his introduction got entangled into a challenge with Ander Herrera, and retaliated by stamping on his foot which meant referee Martin Atkinson went straight for his red card.

This was a potentially season defining match up. A win for Liverpool would have lifted them over United into fourth place and Champions League spot contention. It was a big home game. And in one tiny moment of madness, everything came unhinged. It was always the opposite case for almost the entirety of Gerrard’s career at Liverpool, especially as captain. He was the talisman, the glue that held a rickety performance together, and often producing sublime moments of magic to rescue a win or at the least a draw. This was not to be that day. In a game that needed them to be calm, calculative and composed, Liverpool gave into the temptation of chaos and adrenalin and lost their collective minds, the epitome and the nadir of which was the Gerrard sending off.

Balotelli tried his hardest to follow suit, at one point the Anfield faithful literally intervening at the sidelines to restrain him from entering into a scuffle with Ashley Young. Martin Skrtel crossed that dangerous line between being aggressive and being malicious with a stamp on David De Gea, the United keeper at the fag end of the game, an incident the referee did not notice (but might be retrospectively reviewed by the FA).

Liverpool lost the game 2-1. As a fan, a loss always rankles. A loss to a bitter and competitive rival even more so. That is the pathos and ethos of sport and being a sports fan. But when you see your heroes puncture the notion of the game that you want them to uphold, it rankles even deeper.

Gerrard’s antics today will add an asterisk to a stellar career (and I am not here to discuss if he could, or should have won a league title etc.) not because he and his team failed, but because they seemed to be at war with themselves. There will be some amount of Schadenfreude from the fans of Manchester United and assorted clubs, but that is to be expected.

All of us have probably been in heated and competitive situations and we are biologically wired to have our blood pressures and heart beat rise as the brain senses danger or clouds out of anger and frustration. The survival instinct takes over and our primal side surfaces, metaphorically converting our Bruce Banners into the Incredible Hulk. When the dust settles, we often see our folly as Gerrard did and apologized. But for the countless number of times that I have always brushed his foibles aside because he was truly superheroic in my eyes, this time is when that cookie crumbles. I still absolutely love him of course but now with the acutely painful realization that I saw the ugly verses of his closing chapter at Liverpool begin with my very own eyes.

This is not the first time a hero of mine or for that matter any one of yours has done something stupid that has punctured his halo if not vaporized it. This will not be last either. But every time it happens, your happy bubble floating in dreamland bursts. And sport, which is meant to be a rabbit hole of escape, hurts for a bit. And then we hope to heap new memories to make that go away.

We pick ourselves up from that fall, our Icarus wax wings melted in the heat of reality, and down that rabbit hole, we go again.

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KOKABURRAS IN KABUL

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George Orwell’s metaphorical classification of sport as war minus the shooting is well known, but lost in that over quoted line is its ability to heal. For proof, look no further than today’s historic win for Afghanistan’s cricket team, their first in their debut World Cup. That they are there on cricket’s biggest stage is a fairy tale against all odds in itself but it is beyond heartening to see them competing the way they are and what it means to their countrymen back home.

I have written about the healing power of sport here before, in the context of Colombia at football’s World Cup last year. But to see folks out on the streets of Kabul celebrating a win is exactly the reason I fell in love with sports in the first place. Its ability to inspire hope amidst the bleakest of settings should never be underestimated.

Since the Taliban took over the country, Kabul, a once great world city has been under a constant stage of siege. If the Blue Tigers’ fighting spirit (they were 97/7 in a chase of 211 against Scotland before recovering to win a thriller by one wicket in the final over) provides even a fleeting moment of unadulterated joy, their long, winding and often dusty journey to the World Cup would have been worth it. For a country repressed by extremism and violence, the national cricket team is that rare opportunity for self expression without fear of retribution. And in a Shapoor Zadran’s headband it finds that expression.

Mohammed Nabi, the captain, like a lot of the others in the team used the game as an escape in the refugee camps in Pehsawar where he grew up. The motley crew got together as the Taliban allowed, in what must be a rare show of clemency, cricket when it cracked down on and banned other sports. For a proud and sport loving people it became a chance to prove themselves worthy as they set out with a mission to rub shoulders with the top rung of cricketing nations by competing in the World Cup.

From the fifth division of international cricket with barely any facilities in 2008 to the World Cup in 2015 has been a giddy rise for the Afghan Cricket Board and its players. As their former coach says in the documentary ‘Out Of The Ashes’ that the country has so many problems and the solution to those is…cricket. He may have been specific there but his larger sentiment was really hinting at sports in general and their capacity to germinate a ray of hope.

For every kid who picks up a bat in the dusty or muddy bylanes of Kabul cricket represents an escape that is not beyond the realm of possibility. If that kid dons the Blue Tigers’ shirt and imagines himself for one moment to be under the spotlight as his team beats Bangladesh in Bangladesh at the Asian Cup or gives Sri Lanka a scare at the World Cup or that magical moment when they hit the winning boundary against Scotland it provides him with that one moment of magic.

And that’s why we love sport. Because the magical realism of it can leap right out of the pages of fiction and right into our lives.

Go Blue Tigers.

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REMEMBER THAT ONE TIME…? – INDIA v PAKISTAN AND THE AVAILABILITY BIAS

[DISCLAIMER: If you are a non cricket follower let me apologize in advance for some of the inside references I will be making. I will write a longer and more universally accessible post, I promise. But for now, my brain is a slave to cricket.]

During the innings break of the supercharged World Cup match battle that is India v Pakistan, while everyone fretted over how India may have been short of a matchwinning total by about 20 runs, a friend of mine asked me on Twitter if Pakistan had ever chased down a target of 300 or above (India had scored 300-7 in the first innings) in the World Cup. I replied to him that I didn’t think they ever had but added the disclaimer that I was purely relying on my memory. Luckily he soon got a statistically verified answer from someone else that said that they indeed hadn’t. I may have looked very omnisciently clever in a cricket nerd sense but I was never very confident of my answer. And that is because our memories are not like a computer’s which can flawlessly recall any piece of data you call up from a storage point. Our memories and cognition are coloured by what in behavioral economics are popularly called biases. And in this instance I was worried about one bias in particular – the ‘availability heuristic’. I thought that was the end of that till I read a news story this afternoon about a controversy from yesterday’s game.

When Umar Akmal came out to bat for Pakistan at a crucial juncture of their chase, he lunged his bat out at a ball from Ravindra Jadeja that just held its line and seemed to brush his bat and find its way into M S Dhoni’s gloves. The Indians spontaneously appealed but the on field umpire, Ian Gould, was not convinced and decided in favor of the batsmen. Teams are allowed a referral each in each innings during the World Cup which meant India could challenge Gould’s call and captain Dhoni who seemed convinced there was the faintest of edges called for a referral. The whole of India and the whole of Pakistan held their collective breaths as third umpire Steve Davis reviewed the video evidence as well as checked the ‘snickometer’ which picks up any spikes in sound as the ball passes the bat (an edge would show up as a tiny spike, a sharp rise in the sound level picked up by the stump microphone). The snicko registered almost nothing. But the ball was tantalizingly close to the bat and Davis declared Akmal out. The technology used in the Decision Review System (DRS) has always been under scrutiny in terms of consistency and reliability. Davis’ decision in such a high stakes encounter seemed to light a powder keg on that debate.

But I am not here to discuss that. Back to the news story. While appearing on a TV news show in Pakistan spinner Saeed Ajmal lashed out at the ICC and suggested that India had conspired to have the decision their way primarily because Steve Davis hates Pakistan. (Davis is on record having made disparaging statements against Pakistan after the terrorism incident in 2009 involving the touring Sri Lankan team.) But while he was trying to expose Davis’ alleged bias, Ajmal unwittingly exposed one of his own with this statement “Steve Davis never upheld any appeal when I bowled and I had to always ask for a referral to get a wicket when he was the umpire.” Now, it is a hard stat to verify (I will be hitting ESPNCricinfo’s Statsguru tomorrow to give it a try, though) easily but I am convinced Ajmal here is a victim of the ‘availability heuristic’. It is defined as a bias where someone “assess(es) the frequency…or probability of an event by the ease with which instances or occurrences can be brought to mind”. (Kahneman and Tversky, 1974)

Perhaps Davis has given decisions in favor of Ajmal too but at that point he could only recall instance(s) where he had to ask for a referral. It happens to all of us because our minds are limited that way. It is the reason why people suddenly are afraid of flying the moment they hear about a plane crash or people go and buy the lottery when the hear the news about someone winning the jackpot. Continuing in the vein of our India v Pakistan cricket references, it is also why a Pakistani fan might easily and endlessly recall Javed Miandad’s famous six off Chetan Sharma, but almost similar feats of Rajesh Chauhan (in Pakistan) and of Hrishikesh Kanitkar (in Dhaka) would not come to mind.

For the brain, it is hard work recalling and classifying ALL possible instances to make a judgement in a particular situation so it uses a shortcut, or to use fancy terminology, heuristic. The result is that we overestimate the probability of something (let’s say, being attacked by a shark when at the beach because you were watching the ‘Jaws’ rerun yesterday night) and often make poor decisions in everything ranging from investing in the stock market to playing Monday Morning Quarterback (or in Ajmal’s case, off spinner) as a sports pundit on TV. It is also why you think the lift is never (ugh!) on the floor that you are on or the bus number you want never comes on time or you have to wait the longest always for claiming your luggage at the airport. Your mind recalls those unpleasant (or remarkable) moments easily while ignoring the many times the opposite of those things happened.

Awareness of the availability heuristic is important because while sometimes you can get away with the shortcuts, if you want to make measured judgements, it is a better idea to call up the stats if you can rather than rely on your memory. I was lucky I didn’t look stupid in front of my friend yesterday when he asked me about the chase statistics, but let me tell you a secret – when he asked that question, all I could recall were Pakistan’s games in the 1992 World Cup which was anyway a low scoring one and 2007 where Pakistan were knocked out in the first round. I gave him my answer based on just these two instances. I could easily have been wrong and admitted as much. Now, if only Saeed Ajmal had tempered his statement with the words “As far as I can recall, and I may be wrong…” And that is where an M S Dhoni had a subtle triumph. At the end of the game as everyone was euphoric over how the stat that Pakistan had never won a World Cup tie against India remained intact and chants of 6-0 were going around he said “6-0 is a good record but it won’t stay forever. One day we’ll lose to Pakistan. 4 years or 4 World Cups later. We should not forget that Pakistan has a better ODI record than us.” Now, here was a man not letting the availability heuristic of just World Cup games cloud his judgement.

Evidently Captain Cool known his Psychology and Behavioral Economics 101.

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THE GENTLEMEN’S GAME OF THRONES

WITH THE ICC World Cup arriving, here is a quick guide to the contenders. As George R R Martin may have envisioned them. Pledge your allegiance to the House of choice and let’s roll.

HOUSE GREYJOY They have been around in the Seven Kingdoms since the Age Of Heroes. And ruled the seas. Always formidable. Australia, much?

HOUSE GREYJOY
They have been around in the Seven Kingdoms since the Age Of Heroes. And ruled the seas. Always formidable. Australia, much?

HOUSE BARATHEON Traditionally, they have been the rulers of the Seven Kingdoms since you have known the world of Westeros, much like England who claim ownership of the concept of cricket and of the World Cup, having brought in structure to it. But they have never held aloft the World Cup, just like the Baratheons' claim to the Iron Throne has always been contentious.

HOUSE BARATHEON
Traditionally, they have been the rulers of the Seven Kingdoms since you have known the world of Westeros, much like England who claim ownership of the concept of cricket and of the World Cup, having brought in structure to it. But they have never held aloft the World Cup, just like the Baratheons’ claim to the Iron Throne has always been contentious.

HOUSE BCCI Controlling the purse strings of world cricket India are the wealthiest house in world cricket just like the Lannisters are the richest House in Westeros. And like the Lannisters, you could say they currently occupy the Iron Throne (just ask Cersei to be certain) and once you taste power it is hard to let go. Maybe it was the Lannisters who first trended #WontGiveItBack about their gold.

HOUSE BCCI
Controlling the purse strings of world cricket India are the wealthiest house in world cricket just like the Lannisters are the richest House in Westeros. And like the Lannisters, you could say they currently occupy the Iron Throne (just ask Cersei to be certain) and once you taste power it is hard to let go. Maybe it was the Lannisters who first trended #WontGiveItBack about their gold.

HOUSE TYRELL Their words are "growing strong". And so they have been quietly and efficiently ready to spring a surprise. Just like New Zealand are.

HOUSE TYRELL
Their words are “growing strong”. And so they have been quietly and efficiently ready to spring a surprise. Just like New Zealand are.

They have been a motley crew of bannerman, quite capable of blowing the best away, but have been inconsistent in their duties during battles and conquest. Much like Pakistan.

They have been a motley crew of bannerman, quite capable of blowing the best away, but have been inconsistent in their duties during battles and conquest. Much like Pakistan.

HOUSE STARK Like the Starks were related to the First Men, the Proteas trace their cricketing lineage back to the beginning and have always been noble and talented. But somehow they have always ended as also rans thanks to a string of mishaps one way or another. Kind of like the Starks, they keep saying their time is coming. But it is yet to come.

HOUSE STARK
Like the Starks were related to the First Men, the Proteas trace their cricketing lineage back to the beginning and have always been noble and talented. But somehow they have always ended as also rans thanks to a string of mishaps one way or another. Kind of like the Starks, they keep saying their time is coming. But it is yet to come.

River lords. Fish out of water who found themselves ruling over all lands in the Trident. Basically, Sri Lanka.

River lords. Fish out of water who found themselves ruling over all lands in the Trident. Basically, Sri Lanka.

HOUSE TARGARYEN Like the House Targaryen was of Westeros, they used to be the true rulers of the World Cup once, feared and respected. But now their feeble attempts at regaining the Iron Throne World Cup have become almost painfully comical. But they have a few dragons up their sleeve (one of them is called Chris, possibly) and will keep making an attempt to recover lost glory.

HOUSE TARGARYEN
Like the House Targaryen was of Westeros, they used to be the true rulers of the World Cup once, feared and respected. But now their feeble attempts at regaining the Iron Throne World Cup have become almost painfully comical. But they have a few dragons up their sleeve (one of them is called Chris, possibly) and will keep making an attempt to recover lost glory.

BANGLADESH and ZIMBABWE are the SWORN BROTHERS OF THE NIGHT’S WATCH. Banished to the periphery where they can be kept gainfully busy without developing too much.

What about the Associates, you ask? THE BROTHERHOOD WITHOUT BANNERS.

And we the fans?

Of course we are the WILDLINGS. Or THE FREE FOLK. Or so we would like to believe.

Let the show begin.

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THE INCREDIBLE STUART SCOTT

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I FIRST watched ESPN’s SportsCenter as a teenaged kid back in 1997. The upshot of ESPN not broadcasting any India specific programming in the day time (except when there was live cricket on) was that we would get to see the 1am EST edition of the iconic sports news program and I was hooked from the start.

Not because I had a deep interest in American sport. Or because I had a deep fascination of sports news shows. Eventually, I would become interested in both and it would be a direct result of that afternoon. The reason I was hooked was because of one of the anchors that day on the show – Stuart Scott.

He was almost bouncing with energy as he cheered ‘Booyah’ while describing a home run in the baseball highlights round up. His infectious enthusiasm was easy to catch and soon I was dreaming of speaking on a sports program like Stuart Scott. Sports gives you many heroes. But it is not often that they are broadcasters with a degree in public speech.

Presenters are at best seen as armchair enthusiasts but watching Scott never felt like that. He lived the thrill of calling a game and bringing its highlights to you with zest and fervour, spiced up with his incomparable catchphrases and distinct hip hop vibe. Stuart Scott, for lack of a better word, was my hero.

But what is remarkable is how he became an even bigger hero post the 2007 diagnosis of cancer. He fought the disease with that same determination and good natured humor he brought to that iconic SportsCenter desk. He worked extensively to help people cope with the disease but refused to give up on life and to use a line he used at his very moving ESPYs speech last year ‘cry myself a pity party’.

He did not leave his first love – sports and broadcasting. We saw him behind the SportsCenter desk. Courtside at the NBA finals. Cheering his daughter on from the sidelines at a soccer game. All this with a zeal that belied the difficult treatments he was going through. In 2013, he had to be hospitalized during the NBA Finals when he was covering them. He vowed to be back and was there in June 2014 to usher the San Antonio Spurs as champions.

There is a lot of talk about living life to the fullest on and off the sports field; Stuart Scott was an embodiment of it. He did not let go or give up as he coped and was befittingly awarded the Jimmy Valvano perseverance award at the ESPYs in 2014. His acceptance speech was an incredibly touching assessment of his life and its altered dynamic after it was touched by cancer.

The line that stunned everyone first into silence and then heartfelt applause was this:

When you die it does not mean that you lose to cancer. You beat cancer by how you live, why you live, and in the manner in which you live.

He signed off that speech saying ‘Have a great rest of your life.’ The thing about that moment for me was how I had originally become a fan of Stuart Scott for very different reasons. I was awestruck by the bubbly, cocky and yet relatable self he put across on screen. He was, to borrow one of his own catchphrases “cooler than the other side of the pillow”.

But then in the face of unprecedented adversity, he became something even bigger. A true inspiration and a hero. Somebody who by his own admission lived by Jim Valvano’s (the coach & later ESPN broadcaster also succumbed to cancer and his foundation donates to cancer research) seven golden words ‘Never Give Up. Never Ever Give Up.’ uttered when Jimmy V got the Arthur Ashe courage award.

Now, every word of Scott’s own acceptance speech is golden in a Randy Pausch-esque way (yes, that Randy Pausch, he of The Last Lecture). Scott began that emotional speech with the words “Our life’s journey is really about the people that touch us.” And today, as I confront the sad reality that he is no longer amongst us I am truly glad that a quirk in network programming allowed my life to be touched by Stuart Scott.

There was a time when I just wanted to be Stuart Scott behind that SportsCenter desk. Now, I just want to be Stuart Scott.

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HUMAN TOUCH : MY SPORTING 2014 IN REVIEW

“Tell me, in a world without pity
Do you think what I am asking’s too much
I just want something to hold on to
And a little of that human touch”

– Bruce Springsteen, ‘Human Touch’

THIS IS a personal recollection of how I saw the year 2014 through the lens of sport. Thus, it is bound to have a bias towards events I was intricately tied with or teams and sportspersons I follow. But as the purpose of this blog is to chronicle how the sporting world ties up to my life, that is the only appropriate way in which I can present a sporting review of 2014 to you. I do hope that there is something of your own that you can take out of this almost ritualistic reminiscing that happens every year end.

Sport might be about celebrating superlatives and the pinnacle of physical achievement – the fastest, the strongest, the highest – but it is at its most powerful when the sportspersons we are so mesmerized by show that rare glimpse that they are after all very much human, vulnerable, sometimes indecisive and prone to fail as they feel the weight of millions of wishes hitched to their star. Hypercommercialization and excessive rent seeking from administrative bodies ruling lucrative sports has in the recent past led to a predicatble avalanche of avarice under which the human nature of sport has been almost completely buried. (Think of the ICC, BCCI, FIFA, NFL and the likes). But repeatedly in 2014 I caught that glint of the human touch and spirit shine through at various places with various people reminding why we love and follow sport in the first place.

I caught it when a student of mine uploaded a photo of her young son in a Seattle Seahawks jersey with a Seahawks flag (they live in Washington state) a week before the SuperBowl in February and the Denver Broncos fan in me marvelled at the brash confidence he had in a team and a sport he hasnt yet formed many ideas about. Needless to add, the Seahawks romped home to victory and I was taken back to my childhood and how you fall in love with sports and teams in the first place.

I caught it right across the table of my conference hall classroom as I broke the news to my two South Korean classmate that Yuna Kim, the legendary figure skater had just lost the finals of the figure skating event at the Sochi Winter Olympics and watched a national heartbreak first hand as their faces turned ashen and even the Professor hushed the class discussion to join in on the chorus with them that she was robbed of a legitimate gold by the judges. (South Korea did lodge an official complaint about the judging that led the Russian skater to win the event). It was a lesson on how we place faith and pride in our sporting icons and heroes which are unshaken by the vagaries of performance and circumstances. A tiny sporting anchor that we cast in the rough seas of life.

Unshaken faith it was for me in April when I sat in transit at Heathrow and followed the Liverpool v Manchester City game at a pub at the airport with a bunch of strangers – a surreal feeling to be witnessing a famous Liverpool win on British soil (kind of) and celebrating it with people I was sure to never meet again. But the connection of being Liverpool fans made it all worth it, the heady feeling of watching your team win only amplified in the company of strangers.

Or when you are connected by a common purpose in a sport with thousands of strangers like I was during the World 10k race in Bangalore – a race I was participating in for the seventh time. As always we egged each other on to the finish, becoming a bundled mass of energy that spread the vibe of how great a feeling it is to finish a race; a personal milestone, but an achievement made sweeter by the fact that you could share it with so many around.

And even when you are not as emotionally invested in the teams but in the sport you witness stories that rekindle the hope for the human spirit. The way a young Colombian side played some magnificent football at the World Cup in Brazil, for example. Their biggest star, James Rodriguez, was barely born when the tragic events transpired for a promising generation of Colombian footballers in 1994 (the team made an unfortunate exit from the World Cup in the first round and later came the tragic killing of its most well known face Andres Escobar) as was most of the rest of this team who left that ugly past behind and let the beautiful game take centerstage.

Or when Germany decimated Brazil in the semi final 7-1 and you saw the haunted faces of the passionate Brazilian fans both inside and outside the stadium, the tears rolling with a ferocity to rival the Amazon – we hitch part our dreams to sport and it hurts to see them crumble. The most amazing bit was how even the professional and clinical German unit that would eventually win the World Cup understood the prevailing sentiment and celebrated the later goals with politeness and restraint, proving themselves worthy ambassadors of the values we hope to imbibe from sport.

But values are a tricky thing. Everyone felt the righteous anger and heartbreak as we saw a bawling Sarita Devi refuse to accept her bronze medal in boxing in the Asian Games after losing a highly controversial bout in the semifinal to her South Korean rival. But questions were raised about her sporting ‘spirit’ (she was later suspended by the IBA) – a term which is quite fluid and ill defined in these modern times when administrators want everything to be politically correct and neatly conforming to official lines. But sometimes the rebellion reminds you that it is people like you & I who play sport and they have the same notions about fairness that we do. And in Sarita Devi’s defiance a tiny part of us felt like we were sticking it to the system.

And of course while sport maybe all the pomp, pageantry and gaiety that it is, sometimes the inescapable doom of death pays it a visit to mortifyingly remind us of the meaning of it all. Phil Hughes’ unfortunate passing after being hit a bouncer during a Sheffield Shield cricket game was exactly that kind of an event. One that had us heartbroken everywhere not just because of the loss of a good talent so young but at the unfairness of it all. But it also brought out the best in the human spirit and its connection to sport in how the bowler (who bowled that delivery to Hughes) Sean Abbot returned to the very game where he had faced his worst nightmare and began perhaps a healing process; in how there were no administrative lines drawn in showing support to the bereaved friends and family; and in how the response was equally heartfelt whether in Queensland, Australia or in Quetta, Pakistan.

Sport remains an escape but it is also a microcosm of everything about us and our emotions. And that is what makes it so unique. Because if you are following sport in any discipline or any form and do not feel at least a gentle tug on your heart from time to time, you are not doing it right. Us passionate sports followers, to paraphrase Springsteen, are not ‘looking for a crutch to hold on to’. We are just looking for that human touch.

Happy 2015!

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