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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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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It was almost as if a rock band had announced a new lead singer. Juergen Klopp’s appointment as Liverpool FC manager has justifiably amped up the atmosphere at Anfield and among the LFC faithful. For a club trudging along in mediocrity for the good part of a season and a half, its fans deserved a shot in the arm because despite Brendan Rodgers’ best intentions, passion was fading into prosaic passing and forlorn football at one of the world’s most storied clubs. 

As a Liverpool fan, I am obviously optimistic and excited about one of the most exciting managers in world football taking over. And while I have the ‘make us dream’ sentiment willing to leap right out, I also know that pragmatically it’s one baby step (or if you are Philippe Coutinho, one baby step over) at a time. And that is where Klopp’s broad philosophy and approach to football fills me with the hope that we will get to see what fans always want to see in their club. In the NBC show Men In Blazers, John Oliver, the host of HBO’s Last Week Tonight and Liverpool fan, had said that the only thing he expected from his team every single time was to see them play heartwarming and exciting football. Klopp looks like someone who could be positioned to give exactly that. It’s easy to buy into the personality cult of a manager these days (I am looking at you, Jose) but Klopp despite his outwardly rockstar-ness is a manager tethered to the reality of a high pressure job in a high pressure environment. That is why I was delighted to hear him say in the press conference that his aim was to see ‘fighting spirit, many sprints, many shots, and the result is the result of these things’. 

That was how it was during that dream run of 2013-14 when I used to switch on the TV set during a Liverpool game to experience pure joy at watching a Suarez rushing forward, a sublime Sturridge finish or a fine Sterling dribble. Circumstances have obviously changed since then but this appointment shows the club is willing to show ambition and dare to dream. Liverpool and its fans are often berated for piping on about their history with not much to show in the last quarter of a century. Klopp’s assertion that ‘history is the base for us’ and caution that ‘it’s not allowed to take history in the backpack’ is exactly the reassurance the fan in me wanted to hear. 

Here is a manager who is not willing to make boombastic statements but at the same time not given to platitudes and anodynes. Klopp showed a surprisingly good grasp of economics when he admitted about the information asymmetry that rules the players signing market (‘I’m not a genius. I need other people to get the perfect information. When we have this we will decide to sign or sell a player.’) And that is why I believe he is indeed the Normal One. 

And one hopes, with him at the helm, normal service resumes soon at Liverpool Football Club, when I can switch the TV on again every week knowing the metaphorical champagne will flow out of those high definition pixels. 

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The Physics of Bodyline

[This post is dedicate to my physics teacher at college, who always encouraged us to find joy in the physics of the everyday. He sadly passed away in 2012.]

The Bodyline series of 1932-33 where England skipper Douglas Jardine employed questionable tactics (at least for that time) of having his quick bowlers, specifically Harold Larwood, bowl bouncers at the body of the Australian batsmen in an attempt to contain them in general and Don Bradman in particular to win the Ashes back, is one of those divisive chapters in cricket that changed definitions of cricketing laws in both letter and spirit.

Newtonian Laws of motion weren't very kind on Australian batsmen in the summer of 1932-33

Newtonian Laws of motion weren’t very kind on Australian batsmen in the summer of 1932-33

However, this post is not about examining the social or cultural impact of Bodyline on the game. (Incidentally, I did that for the website here.) This post is about examining the physics of the Bodyline tactics. Because cricket is as much about the laws laid down by the MCC as it is about Newton’s Laws of motion. Bodyline created such an upheaval that not only did purists think bouncers hurled at the batsman’s body at serious velocity would tear apart the fabric of the spirit of cricket, but maybe the more relativistic physics oriented among them feared that a cricket ball delivered close enough to the speed of light would tear a hole into the space-time continuum. As of now, the fastest recorded cricket delivery remains at around 100 miles per hour, thus keeping the current universe intact. But the physics is still interesting.

Technical note: For the sake of the casual reader who does not need the horror of high school physics triggered in them, I will be skipping formulas and calculations for the most part here, focusing on just the fundamentals; however, more technical treatment for similar ideas can be found here and here.

The whole Bodyline tactic, or Fast Leg Theory as Jardine called it rested on the idea of a bowler being able to hurl the cricket ball at a batsman’s body at pace and at an uncomfortable height (somewhere around the chest ideally) with a packed ring of fielders close on the leg side ready to pounce on catches if the batsman fended the delivery poorly with his bat. I checked Jardine’s educational background and he was no physics genius but coincidentally or by design, two key ingredients needed for the physics of this to work came together for him in Australia that summer. To understand why, we first need a quick primer on cricket balls, their speed and their bounce and something called the coefficient of restitution (COR). Don’t worry, it might sound science-y, but it really means ‘bouncebackability’ of the ball.

A cricket ball is delivered with force (generated by the bowler’s run up, his arm movement and wrist action) on to the pitch (i.e. the playing surface) and then it bounces on its way to the batsman. How high it bounces and how fast it goes depends on its COR which is basically the ratio of the velocity at which the ball is hurled on to the ground (let’s call it vg) and the velocity at which bounces off the pitch (let’s call that vp)

[For you formula nuts, that translates to COR = vp /vg]

The surface plays an important part in what the COR is like. Higher the COR (i.e. closer that ratio is to ‘1’) the more the ball will bounce up; the lower the COR, the less it will bounce. In 2011 at the International conference of mechanical engineering research, Adil Haron and K A Ismail presented a paper titled “Coefficient of Restitution of Sports Balls: A normal drop test” where they detailed results of a vertical drop test they conducted on two different surfaces – wood and steel – with four types of sports balls – golf, table tennis, hockey and cricket. The golf ball showed consistently high COR (bounced a lot and with almost the same velocity that it was dropped at; the drop height varied from 1.2m to 1.8m) regardless of surface, though as expected it bounced back up less and slower on wood than it did on steel. Its COR was about 0.8. In similar experiments, the COR of a tennis ball was found to be 0.75. Cricket ball’s COR? On the steel surface around 0.6 and on wood around 0.35. On a cricket pitch, a reasonable assumption is that the COR would be around 0.5. So, the only thing you need to remember right now is that the ball will leave the pitch at about half the speed it was delivered at.

The second piece of this puzzle is the delivery speed. At the page on the University of Sydney website called ‘The Physics Of Cricket’ they mention that if we drop a cricket ball out of a “helicopter hovering 300m above the ground it will accelerate up to 123km/hr in about 5 seconds falling through about 100m” (the acceleration is due to gravity – the force, not the Sandra Bullock movie). It will fall through the rest of the 200m without accelerating any further because the drag force of the air that pushes the ball up balances gravity which is pulling it down, thus hitting the ground at 123km/hr or the approximate speed of a Bhuvaneshwar Kumar delivery or a Wahab Riaz delivery circa 2008. Now unless you are Mohammed Irfan delivering the ball while stacked on top of Ishant Sharma standing on a step ladder that is on an elevated platform on the Qutub Minar, it is impossible to ‘vertically’ drop the ball on to a cricket pitch.

Thus it is delivered at an angle in between being perpendicular to the pitch (90 degrees) and parallel (horizontal) to the pitch, so rather than have a vertical or drop velocity it will have an angular velocity (which is a mix of the ball’s horizontal velocity component and vertical velocity component). The angle of delivery also affects the COR, and on a typical surface the COR would drop somewhat but for simplicity’s sake we will continue with the nice, semi-round number that is 0.5.

There are just a couple of final things to consider before we dive into the final calculations of how a cricket ball turns into a weapon of intimidation. First the mass of the cricket ball. A cricket ball, if you recall an infamous sledge from Greg Thomas of Glamorgan to Viv Richards after he had played and missed at a couple of his deliveries, “is red, round and weighs about five and a half ounces, in case you are wondering”1 That’s about 160 grams (an ounce is 29 grams approx). Lastly, there is air resistance that creates drag force on the ball when delivered horizontally or at an angle. At usual bowling angles, the ball slows down by about 10-12% on delivery, i.e. the speed with which it hits the pitch is that much slower as compared to the speed at which it leaves the bowler’s hand.

And now for our finale, let’s welcome into the studio, the great Seventeenth Century cricket pundit and all round scientist, Sir Isaac Vivian Richards Newton. Newton’s second law of motion was about how much force a body would have when in motion based on its mass and its acceleration.

[Hi formula nuts, you surely remember the formula Force = mass X acceleration]

That force plays an important part in the intimidation of batsman, but more on that in just a bit. Here’s the thing – the bowler delivers the ball with a certain acceleration (depending on his action and strength – think Micthell Johnson vs Stuart Binny – and the higher the acceleration the more would be the force (the mass being constant). So to strike fear in the hearts of the batsmen, the bowler needs to be able to apply a fairly large acceleration in a short amount of time; maybe impart enough speed to beat Stuart and his dad’s delivery speeds combined.

In 1932-33, Jardine consciously or unconsciously solved this part of the problem by scouting Harold Larwood to be his main man to implement the Leg Theory. Larwood bowled at speeds (i.e. the speed at which the ball left his hand) of almost 100 mph, much faster than almost all bowlers, so could whip in that extra bit of acceleration needed as per Newton’s second law’s equation.

But once released, remember the ball hits the pitch and loses velocity, partly due to the air resistance and partly due to the COR. Nevile Cardus, one of the greatest cricket writers to have ever lived, observed that Jardine may have succeeded because he got an assist from the COR of the pitches in Australia that summer. He wrote:

“For years and years, the Australian turf in good weather has been all against the rising fast ball…Even MacDonald could not bump the ball breast high is Australia…(but) Australian wickets today (i.e. at the time of that series) are not what they were: different soil is used in preparing them. This enables the…fast bowler to “lift” more than formerly.”

That ‘lift’ was because of a higher COR on the new surfaces – think of it as shifting from wood to steel in that vertical drop test. Incidentally in that paper the authors mention in the introduction that ball-surface interaction can have a great “effect on the style of play adopted by players” and even affect “the outcome of a match”. Or, as was in the case in 1933, the outcome of the Ashes.

So, finally this brings us to the Force. (The Newtonian variety, not the George Lucas variety.) Once the cricket ball has been delivered at a speed close to 160 kmph (100 mph) it will lose about 40% of its speed thanks to our friends, the COR and air resistance, but still reach the batsman in less than half a second. So, when a Shane Warne raves on air about Mitchell Johnson getting a ball past a batsman at 90 miles an hour, he is plain wrong, it is more like 60 miles an hour; still fast enough and deadly though, as we will soon find out.

A tall bowler will deliver at an angle close to about 60 degrees and the delivery will pitch and thanks to the jiggery-pokery of angular velocity and momentum, leave the pitch at a slightly lower angle (what they call ‘skiddish bounce’ in the comm. Box or studio analysis) but have enough distance to travel so that the arc takes it into the rib cage or the head of the batsman. That’s why the bowler has to bowl ‘short’, that is closer to his end of the pitch than the batsman’s. The vertical speed a cricket ball gets when dropped from about a 2m height is about 6.3 meters/second and after bouncing it becomes about 3.6 meters/second accounting for the slowdown because of COR. A bowler will bowl it also at similar speeds. Even with a COR of 0.5 and air resistance, our cricket ball will gather a lot of momentum (mass X velocity) as it leaves the pitch and heads towards the batsman. At the other end the ball will either come into contact with the bat, zip through to the keeper or hit the batsman if he is in the way or too late in getting out of the way.

The moment it hits something, there will be a ‘transfer of momentum’ (momentum of the colliding body i.e. the ball will transfer onto the body it collides with, say, the batsman) and the force with which it hits will depend on the change in velocity i.e. the acceleration of the ball. Usually when it hits a dead bat or the body of the batsman, for all purposes practical, the ball comes to a complete halt. That is pretty rapid reverse acceleration; think of it as what happens a car going from 60 to 0 in 3 seconds but only in case of the ball it is 8,000 to 10,000 times faster because all of it happens in the fraction of a second, about 0.001 to be precise.

That exerts a force of 8000 Newtons (N) [basic calculation of force = mass X acceleration], enough to lift a small car off the ground. Even at the reduced speed, that’s a lot of concentrated force. Which is why it is so dangerous to get hit by the ball2 – Bert Oldfield’s skull suffered a fracture when he was hit by a Larwood delivery, Chris Rogers suffered a bad blow to the back of his head during the recent Ashes Test match at Lord’s from a Jimmy Anderson delivery, and we all know the tragedy that befell Philip Hughes.

While the laws of physics are universally constant, as a tennis player, Devashish Joshi, who is on the Caltech team that competes in the College tennis circuit in the US and has members who are incredibly smart with rattling off physics equations and quick calculations, put it “I never think about science when playing.” That’s because out there in the middle, there is too little time to do all the calculations. Indeed, during the Bodyline series, Jardine’s tactics hit upon a fortuitous mix of the right physics in the right conditions and became important in winning the Ashes back, but it’s preposterous to think that he methodically put the pieces together with a copy of Principia Mathematica in his hand.

  1. Viv, as usual, had the last laugh by hammering Thomas’s next delivery out of the ground and replying “Greg, you know what it looks like, now go and find it.”
  2. In fact, the force is dangerous even at way more reduced speeds. I was casually bowling in the nets once to a friend of mine and got one delivery to rear up from a good length and it hit him on the ribs. I am barely 100 pounds and hardly generate any express pace but the next day I found out, my friend had suffered a fractured rib!

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"It ain't about how hard you hit..."

“It ain’t about how hard you hit…”

When she first emerged on the professional tennis scene, Martina Hingis was an immediate sensation. I remember dabbling with putting together a sports magazine every week as a hobby project (this was 1996/97, i.e. back in the 20th Century, and the internet was still scientific jargon and phones had to be fixed on a corner shelf in the house) and one of the first ever covers I made was a photograph of a beaming Hingis, holding the 1997 Australian Open trophy, cut out of the newspaper and I put the clichéd headline ‘The Swiss Miss’ beside it. Inside, I had a lead story about her first Grand Slam triumph in Melbourne (at 16 years and 3 months she had just become the youngest Grand Slam champion in the 20th Century) and a single page feature on the tennis player destined to become a future great.

But things were to turn out very differently for the Czechoslovakia born naturalized Swiss tennis star and for my fandom of her. At a time when Steffi Graf and Monica Seles were slowly fading away the tennis world was screaming out for a new star and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Hingis was born to be that replacement. Born to tennis crazed parents, who named her after THE famous Czech tennis star – Martina Navratilova – she held a racquet at age two, entered her first tournament at four and was a pro by the time she turned 14. She won her first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon at the age of 15 years and 9 months (in 1995) – the youngest of all time – partnering with Helena Sukova and winning the ladies doubles at The Championships. She won the singles title at Wimbledon in 1997, a year when she also added the US Open title to her tally along with my magazine featured triumph Down Under. She would go on to be the No. 1 ranked female tennis player in the world for 209 weeks and land another handful of Slam titles and finals. But my wide eyed wonder at that flashy smile, the quick movement around the court, the clever strokeplay and smart tennis began to wane triggered specifically by the final at Roland Garros in 1999.

She was a set up and three points away from victory against Steffi Graf in the final of the only Slam she was yet to win when she suffered an epic meltdown. Part of it was over frustration at a line judge call about which she had a nasty exchange of words with the umpire, part of it was the unforgiving Roland Garros crowd and how they reacted to her behavior, which, in her defence was mostly teenage petulance. She broke down and went on to even serve underhanded (if you want a sense of what an affront that is in pro tennis, the cricket equivalent would be Trevor Chappell’s underarm delivery against New Zealand when the Kiwis needed 6 runs off 1 ball) and finally lost the match. It left a very bad taste because she wasn’t being very generous to her opponents – including Graf, who she had dissed before the French Open saying “her time has passed” – in the press. She often made abrasive and insensitive statements, perhaps an unrefined verbal manifestation of the fierce competitive fire that burned inside her.

That fire, sadly, would burn her out as the new power tennis brigade led by the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Kim Clijsters and others began to leave her behind. I pretty much ceased being a fan of Hingis at that point. My loyalties had always been with Graf, and after the Roland Garros incident, I did not think Hingis would ever endear herself to me as a tennis fan again.

Meanwhile, troubled by injuries she called it quits in 2003, at just 22. Then, in 2006, she made a comeback to the pro tour and picked up a title in Rome (she was, incidentally beaten by a young Sania Mirza at Seoul) and clawed her way back into the World Top 10, ending the year at No. 7. I was still a disinterested former fan. Disinterest turned to disgust when in late 2007 it was revealed that she was being investigated by the ITF for testing positive for traces of cocaine. She was handed a two year ban. The little girl who would chase every ball down, unleash backhands when her opponent least suspected it and hustle at every point seemed to have just given up and let it go. Why should I even care about her at this point? We expect our sporting idols to be Gods; but idols often have feet made out of clay.

By 2009, Hingis was ticking all the boxes in the ‘former celebrity desperately trying to cash in on past glory’ playbook as she participated in a couple of reality shows (the high profile one among them was of course her much publicized stint on “Dancing With The Stars” where she was voted out after the first week) and playing the occasional exhibition and invitational match. Her personal life was creaky too as she racked up a list of high profile relationships that flamed out. She married in 2010 but the marriage was soon on the rocks supposedly because Hingis cheated on her husband and there was a lot of acrimony between Thibault Hutin (her husband) and her mother, who had been her first coach and constant companion in her tennis journey. The couple separated in 2013. Amidst all this, she returned to doubles tennis and even won the invitational doubles at Wimbledon but I took almost no notice, to be honest. I had stopped paying attention since the 2007 ban.

I noticed Hingis back on court after she announced her pairing for women’s doubles with Sania Mirza. I have always followed Mirza’s career and more so since her smart pivot in 2009 at becoming a doubles player only to both prolong and enrich her career which worked very well. I’ll leave the technicals aside of how these two make a complementary pair on the court. But what struck me was Hingis’ body language. She looked relaxed and truly enjoying the game. She would flash that trademark smile almost after every point regardless of whether it was a great volley she had pulled off at the net for a winner or an embarrassing error from her or her partner. She would hustle for the point, giving us glimpses of the Hingis of old who moved so fluidly across the court. And I spotted flashes of that backhand that was so well known. After all she had been through – the multiple cycles of rise and fall from grace, the public scrutiny, the moral outrage – she had somehow found tranquility in the same endevaour she at one point absolutely loved and also the endeavour that threw a young girl into flaming mess that instant stardom usually fuels.

Is she seeking redemption through the tennis she is playing now? I don’t know. But watching her through Wimbledon 2015 where she has been stellar in her doubles title victory with Sania Mirza and her mixed doubles matches with Leander Paes has made me a fan again. She doesn’t have the perfect discipline of a Roger Federer, the open earnestness of an Andy Murray, the imposing record of a Serena Williams, the humility of a Rafael Nadal. She is pushing 35. (She once dropped her second doubles partner Jana Novotna saying she was “too old and too slow”.) So, what is there to root for her?

Maybe it is a way for making up for the unreasonable expectations everyone (yours truly included) had of her when she burst on to the scene 20 years ago. Maybe it’s a way of reconciling our own imperfections as we see someone emerge from them and kindle some kind of a hope for redemption, when about 8 years ago she seemed destined for a life in the former celebrity wilderness wacko zone that, say, a Britney Spears inhabits. There may be a million things wrong with the trajectory Hingis’ career and personal life have followed so far. As the great Rocky Balboa told us:

The world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows. It’s a very mean and nasty place and I don’t care how tough you are it will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it. You, me, or nobody is gonna hit as hard as life. But it ain’t about how hard ya hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!

Watching Hingis on Saturday night as she squeals in delight and jumps in joy as he rushes to hug Sania Mirza realizing she just won at Wimbledon again after 17 long years gives you some kind of rush; the kind that comes from seeing a fallen champion make an effort to rise.

Go Martina! I’ll be at your corner. Cheering.

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Valar Gelyni. Which, translated from it original High Valyrian means “All (wo)men must finish.” Ok, I just made that up. But to participate in and conquer a road race like Bangaloreans do with aplomb each year at the World 10K does require you to have the a training scheme to rival the planning acumen of Littlefinger, a contempt for laziness rivalling Cersei Lannister, a determination to overcome every weakness a la Tyrion Lannister, the adaptability to the conditions of a Jamie Lannister and the gumption and ambition of Arya Stark. And still, despite your best laid plains vetted by Lord Varys himself, the moment your shoe sole hits the tarmac, the course seems to scream back at you – ‘You know nothing, Jon Snow!’

Whether you are a seasoned runner who has been training in the punishing heat in Delhi, or a regular at Cubbon Park who decided that for a change this Sunday, let’s put on a bib with a number on it and run with 25,000 others or the casual runner who is testing waters or the hipster who was just told ‘You know what is cooler than a hipster beard? Running with a hipster beard!’ all of us have our reasons to run. I have been a part of this race since its inception in 2008 and have seen it grow tremendously. Yet, everytime I walk into the holding area before the race I get a distinct vibe that everyone is just as agog as they were during their first time. It gets me everytime, like some familiar movie trope that always makes you smile or brings a twinkle to your eye.

Last year, at the starting line Carl Lewis, the race ambassador (this year’s was Marie Jose Perec) flagged us off and waved at every Open 10K participant as we crossed the start marker. If someone had told me back in 1988 when one afternoon I strained to listen to the radio in my grandparents’ courtyard, trying to follow the Seoul Olympics 100 meters race, that I would be flagged off by Carl Lewis in a road race about a quarter of a century later I certainly would not have believed them. I had never considered running seriously until I gave it a go at this World 10K and its infectious enthusiasm brought to the course by its tireless and genial participants keeps bringing me back each year.

Raceday dawns each year with a mixture of dread and anticipation, both not great things if you like your stomach area mostly knot free. This year, given as it was Steven Gerrard’s last game at Anfield, I had stayed up past midnight to watch the match (a poor Liverpool defeat). The race was to start at 6am and we had to report at 5:30. The result was barely four hours of sleep, not the best of preparation for a task requiring physical and mental fortitude next morning. But then I remembered that even Sachin Tendulkar had not slept too well the night before the game against Pakistan at the World Cup in 2003.

I was at the venue by 5 and decided to do a limbering up walk around the stadium. And by limbering walk around the stadium I mean ‘had to walk around the stadium twice like an idiot because I reached my designated gate too early, then took a detour and entered a restricted zone and missed the location of the gate on my second approach’. Nonetheless without much further incident I had reached my designated holding area just in time for the official warm up that the Nike Run Club people were making everyone go through. It was like being back in physical education in school, the only difference was that at school we usually started at 4:30 am.

I had spent a good part of the last year and a half in the United States as a Graduate student. That meant I was mostly sedentary and had absolutely zero preparation or practice for this race. But as the warm up went on I felt better about myself by the second. Muscle memory is a wonderful thing and it was my only hope to clocking a respectable time in this race. But before I talk about timings, I would like to draw your attention back to the opening fake Valyrian phase I cooked up. A race’s beauty lies in the fact that you are essentially competing against yourself and the course, much like golf. And unlike golf there is no par score to be reached. Before you set any goals for any race, the simplest one you set is to finish the race. Regardless of your timing, the feeling that comes over you as you cross over the finish line, to the applause and encouragement of strangers around who are totally emotionally invested in seeing you leap over the line, is incredible. I would run a 100 miles for that one moment. Today, we only had to run 6.3.

The race started at exactly the designated time of 6am and as I trudged out sandwiched between other runners in a crowded corner with the DJ’s music blaring I remembered that I would be without my most important motivator this year – my playlist. I had lost my iPod and had no music on my phone; it was as if they had decided to have no water stations at the race this year, that’s how much my playlist was a part of my races. Nonetheless I labored on and in the early part was delighted with the pace I was setting, keeping right up with the pace setter who was carrying the 55 minute marker and flag. Overnight rains had meant the weather was the most pleasant I remember in all 8 races since ’08 and that meant everyone was running at a great pace. As spirits began to flag a little around the 2km mark, motivation was easy to find in the form of the tireless and selfless spectators egging us on. Or if that wasn’t enough you only had to look around at fellow runners. One had a ‘Runner for Life’ tattoo on his right calf, another was wearing the national flag across his chest where the bib usually is (his bib was pinned to the back of his t shirt). And there were tons of motivating messages – “Leave your devils behind, outrun them”, “Run like you stole it”, “Only runners have real balls, others just play with them”, “Hanes. Tag free comfort.” Ok, that last one may not have been a motivation message.

By the 4km mark I was feeling rather good as to how my feet were settling in a rhythm and I was on track to finish with a good time. I took a gulp of water and as I turned around to throw the bottle away, I saw someone diminutive with a fair complexion just whizz past me. I must have seen the guy in a movie or six. And he plays rugby too. I could barely believe it. I was keeping pace with Rahul friggin Bose! But the feeling of that high did not last long as the star of such classics like ‘Pyaar Ke Side Effects’ ‘Mr & Mrs Iyer’ left me way behind in the next half a kilometer as I began to slow down a bit in that dead zone of a 10k race just past the halfway mark. I was still going steady, but steadily slower. Around the 7km mark is when tiredness really sets in for a non regular runner like me and the temptation is greatest to just give up. (I call it the Seven Kilometer itch) But then I look around at fellow runners who are always there with a kind word and encouragement if they see you losing steam. (If we always behaved like we do during this race, the world would instantly approach utopia.) And I remember Steven Gerrard and how commentators in his Anfield farewell game pointed out that if he is to be remembered by one quality it is that he never gave up. I soldier on and receive a boost from the riffs a live band at the 7km marker is playing. I applaud them and move on crossing the 8km marker soon.

Last time there was a puddle of water just past that point and there was no way around it. We all had to run into the water like we were on commando training. Thankfully this time, it is way smoother as I round the bend that takes me into the final kilometer. The pace is just a tad behind my target of an hour thanks to my slowdown between 6 and 7 km but it’s still good. I search for a pacemaker to match my strides with and find myself side by side with a tall and hefty middle aged Australian. (Not Tom Moody.) He & I amble almost synchronized across the finish line and that high comes over again. The one that tells you that you could have given up but you didn’t. The one that tells you that in a race you should always remember Aristotle’s line ‘Don’t be afraid of going slow; be afraid of sanding still.’

At the recovery zone another Australian Shaun tells the TV interviewer this is his personal best. Then he adds with a laugh ‘Of course it’s easy to get your personal best when it’s your first race.’ You will never see grumpy faces past the finish line, everyone seemed to be smiling. That is what attracts me back to this race every time. I exchange times with another friend who is running. Both of us realize the official timing is about a couple of minutes higher than what we times ourselves at. But at this point it doesn’t really matter. As I go towards the counters to collect the refreshments and the finishers medal I help a few people capture their moment of glory as they pose for photos as finishers. The calf muscles ache and feel tight but I feel lightheaded, almost floating. As I bite into the apple in the refreshments bag I remember one banner I saw along the route. It said “In it for the banana.” In a Minion (of Despicable Me fame) sense I would completely agree. The Minions are at their productive best and happiest when they have a purpose (unfortunately their purpose involves serving an evil master). The same way running helps you focus reminding you that we are all in it for our own versions of the banana. And we are all in it together to gee each other across the finish line. And that spirit makes this Bangalore World 10K so very special.

Once again this year that spirit was on show; Bangalore ran as it always has at this race. Unbent. Unbowed. Unbroken.

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I have been a Liverpool supporter since 1997, a year before Steven Gerrard made his debut. I have watched him every year since, often in awe, as he became the marshall of Liverpool’s midfield, keeper of the Kop’s spirit, the highest calibration on the passion and intensity meter. (He went all the way upto Eleven.)

On this day, as he says goodbye to Anfield, I am not here to write a paean to him. I don’t have the coherence of thought or the requisite vocabulary. There are millions of others who will write those. I am writing this because somewhere I had to document what Steven Gerrard meant to me as a Liverpool fan. And a football fan.

His spectacular free kicks and goals and obvious inspirational leadership apart, what I have always been in awe of is the weight on his passes. They were wickedly precise and measured – always the mark of the best schemers and midfielders in history (Cruyff, Maradona, Messi). But beyond that I know very little of football technicalities to say anything meaningful or insightful. Gerrard’s presence on the pitch was always a galvanizing moment for Liverpool when it needed that moment of inspired brilliance; he always was ready to give it his all.

From his autobiography you get the distinct impression of a proud man who was always confident about his ability and always proud about his loyalty. Those who look for the irony in that he is leaving the club that he was supposed to have retired from have to consider that this season his pride in his ability made him reconsider the loyalty side of it. Gerrard is not someone who can do this inspiring thing from behind the scenes and in the background. He needs to be in the thick of the action.

For a decade and a half he has been the spark plug that has brought to life the spluttering engine that Liverpool have often been. He loves the electricity that flows through his veins as the becomes the cynosure of home and opposition fans alike. Many think he is a media darling, overhyped as England’s greatest midfielder. Many point out his lack of Premier League accolades. Many conflate the man with the team and the team with the man. That’s how powerful a talisman he became. For opposition fans he is a lightning rod – their frustrations often directed at him not because, say, he beat their team but because of some level of resentment as to how someone could be that ridiculously good.

He is not a saint in footballing terms but despite the lows, he always will be an incredibly inspiring sight on a football field. He bleeds for football, to be able to own the stage he marches in. That has always been his driving force, that has been the secret behind inspiring his team mates. If you had ever been to Anfield during a Liverpool game and Gerrard was on the pitch you would hear his mates on the field receiving a earful from their captain for every poor tackle, for every misplaced pass. In the movie ‘Iqbal’ there is a line Naseeruddin Shah says to Shreyas Talpade “Jab dil aur dimag ek hoke khelte hain to fark nahi padta dimag kaun sa hai aur dil kaun sa” (When your heart and your head play in unison, it doesn’t matter what is driven by heart and what by your head.). Gerrard took the game to that level where the spark plug began to operate off the lightning rod.

With a player like Gerrard you do not talk about regrets, because he always did it his way with his team as the paramount consideration. He and his team fell short many times, but the intensity of the man each time he took the field never did. Adoration brings its own admonishments. Expectations sow the seeds of discontent. But here is the thing about Gerrard – even his most hard core fans will find it hard to switch clubs and loyalties once he moves to LA because as you watched him, he did not pass on to you his spirit, he passed on the team’s spirit. He is a Liverpool Legend, born, bred and forged in Liverpool. You, dear Stevie G fan, will find that you can take Steven Gerrard out of Liverpool FC but can’t take Liverpool FC out of you. And no matter whose side you are on, you will miss the spark plug. And the lightning rod.

You’ll Never Walk Alone, Stevie.

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