The Eden Paradigm 


Paradigm shift is a term I heard first in B-School, about a year after that Eden Gardens Test of 2001. In many ways, that win changed a lot about Indian cricket and all that is well documented. It, or rather the moment I came back from an exam to find Dravid and Laxman still batting on Day 4, also rewired my brain. 

That day I had an Environmental Sciences exam, and as soon as it got over at around four in the afternoon, a friend and I raced back on our bikes to his house (it was closer than mine was) to catch up with what had happened in the game. We had left in morning before play had started for Day 4. He switched on the tiny B&W TV and as its cathode ray tube monitor flickered to life the first bit that got illuminated was the top right hand corner. I could barely read the numbers that seemed to 63-4. I screamed out at my friend who was changing in the other room ‘Dude! Looks like Australia are four down already!!’ By then the whole screen had come to life and I struggled to process what I was seeing. Dravid and Laxman were STILL batting and the score was India 363-4 not Australia 63-4. 

The astonishing thing is that my brain, of all the possibilities it considered, had not in that instant even remotely toyed with the idea that they could bat the whole day. This was a true Black Swan event unfolding that would forever change the way I would think about test matches featuring India from then on. It completely shifted the frames of reference and upended all expectations I had conditioned myself to as an Indian fan growing up in the 1990s. 
That this 2001 test scripted a new chapter for Indian cricket is not a tired sports writers’ cliche. I can testify as a fan that, it indeed fits that other cliche – A Paradigm Shift. 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Five years of Soccer Sense 

5OCCER 5EN5EI, along with Vishal and Karan, founded the Soccer Sense football podcast on 27 February 2013. It hasn’t achieved stupendous success but it remains one of the most satisfying things we indulge in creating each week during the football season. On its fifth anniversary, this post is an attempt to explain what our philosophy behind the podcast is and why we continue to record it five years on and counting. 


It was on a warm evening in February back in 2013 when I suggested something to Vishal and Karan – “Guys, we meet practically weekend to discuss football. Why not start a podcast?” If I recall correctly, Karan immediately said ‘Yes let’s do it!’ and then waited a beat and added, ‘What’s a podcast?’ Podcasts weren’t really thing yet in India back then (even among hipsters) but for the three of us the podcast was incidental. Institutionalizing our discussions on a platform was what excited us the most. For the decade that I have known Vishal and Karan our conversations have always broadly revolved around football. From exchanging texts after goals in the Premier League (yep, WhatsApp wasn’t a thing yet, too) to a chat during breaks in class at the cafeteria*, it was classic bonding over football. But where it differed was the fact that conversations were never just about the game last night or the latest incident; invariably the arcs we’d trace would be slightly bigger picture, looking at trends, searching for parallels. 

Perhaps because we had been following the game for well over a decade before we met, our experience of having known that football works in cycles allowed us this space and this awareness. So there were no knee jerk reactions, no bitterness in rivalry (incidentally Vishal is a United fan, I support Liverpool, and Karan, like Switzerland, is non aligned and follows the Serie A and Juventus instead) but deliberations of the kind that I’d like to think are the football equivalent of philosophy chatter at cafes in Vienna in the early 20th Century. Thus was born the concept of trying out a sensible football podcast. Where we wanted to be measured, yet fun. Serious, but not academic. And most crucially, we took the call of never scripting our episodes – we have always strived for each episode to be a free flowing conversation. 

Until then we had seen punditry on television often chew over the same old talking points and Vishal would often come up with genuinely breakthrough observations about both tactics and strategy that the guys on TV had clearly missed. Karan had a fine grasp of football history (inherited perhaps from his grandfather who is a keen football fan) and the big picture. I was just the catalyst who put them at one place and thrust a microphone in front of them and provided the cues for them to riff off of. Our shared passion for rock music and the fact that Vishal and Karan have extensive experience of being in bands did the rest. 

We have been fortunate in the last 5 years to have reached out to a not inconsiderable audience and we remain grateful to everyone who listens to us. Initially, it was just literally our moms who would. Karan’s mom would actually check in on us to make sure we were recording an episode every week. But as we have reached more and more people, our main motivation for recording an episode each week still remains that passion to talk about the game as sensibly as we can. To keep ourselves grounded as we live and die each week with each game and each twist and turns that befalls our beloved teams. That is not to discount our audience who have been incredibly kind and awesome, but to acknowledge why we sound the way we do. And what the essence of the existence of Soccer Sense is. We inhabit the spectrum between Sir Alex’s ‘Football Bloody Hell!’ And Bill Shankly’s ‘Some people say football is a matter of life and death; I assure you it is much more than that’ on one side when describing our passion for the game and the characters that inhabit its glorious theater. And on the other side of that spectrum is Claudio Ranieri’s ‘Issa football’ to remind us to not take things too seriously. 

One of our favorite bands is The Doors and it is by the words of Ray Manzarek that has once said on a radio interview that we live – “You just gotta throw, throw your life away man, don’t hang on to your life so hard. You will succeed, that’s the joke of it. You make the great leap and say hell I am going for the good time. I am gonna have some fun. You go ahead and do that and you will find that you will succeed at whatever you do – whether it’s making music or making pottery or being a construction worker working with wood. You go ahead and do it, man. You’ll really enjoy it and you’ll probably succeed at it. If we take that existential leap as they call it or just make that leap and say I’ll do what I want, you automatically succeed. Maybe that’s the secret that is waiting for humanity to discover, man.“ Football is just the lens we choose to use here on this podcast to look for that secret. 

Here’s to being sensible. For the next half a decade. And beyond.

*Full disclosure: I have taught these two guys as MBA students

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Wrinkle In Time Called Roger


There were three stats that caught my eye during this week. 

The first two were about football, both American and the more universal variety. Lionel Messi, it appears, has been responsible for scoring or assisting around 10% of all the goals that have ever been scored at Barcelona’s iconic home stadium, the Camp Nou. The stadium has seen 4,000 goals (and counting) across decades and yet 1 in 10 links back to one man. Tom Brady, the New England Patriots quarterback in the NFL, has appeared in 15% of all Super Bowls held all time, punching his latest ticket to Super Bowl LII (52) after he led the Pats to an AFC championship. 

Both of these are mind boggling, demonstrating the sweep of dominance these men bring to their sport. Both of these require that elusive, unicorn-esque sporting mix, of longevity and excellence. Brady and Messi are as good an example as any you will ever find. Now, let’s talk about the third stat. 

With his brilliant win at the Australian Open that propels him into the ultra elite 20 Grand Slam titles club, Roger Federer has been in the men’s singles finals of 15% of all Grand Slams ever held in the Open era (30/200) and has won 10% of them. His resurgence since most analysts and commentators quietly wrote him off post 2013, has been incredible (and one that I have written about in the past). But even by fairy tale standards the last 12 months which began at the Rod Laver Arena where he prevailed over Rafael Nadal in a final for the ages have been unbelievable. He has won 3 of the 4 Slams he has been in during that period, like it is pre-2008 Roger. 

He faced a stern test from the Croat Marin Cilic, but even as Cilic threw everything he had at him, Federer seemed to have his racquet strong tension programmed to ‘kitchen sink’. Watching the final involved the usual mix of utter disbelief at his dazzling genius and unbearable tension when he inexplicably switches off or shanks a few shots. I screamed at the TV per usual, almost punched it as I fist pumped after a crucial break in the fifth set, and was on my knees overcome with joy and relief as the hawk eye revealed he had won the championship point. Just like he had done in 2017 bringing an incredible end to a great tournament. But back then I had leapt in joy over my sofa as a 5-year wait had ended. I was elated for Roger the underdog, coming back from injury, but showing that he still had the skills and the temperament for the highest level. This year, it was different. 

It is a strange thing to grow up watching a player, stranger still when the player and you are practically the same age. This time, throughout the tournament, I had felt quietly confident about Federer’s chances at the Australian Open, knowing that bar a Nadal, he probably had several keys to pick any knotty locks any of the other opponents could throw at him. What surprised me about my gut feeling was the fact that at age 36, there could have been a case to be made for Federer to be outmuscled and out run. The case was made over the years during the Grand Slam drought between 2013-2016. Several times. But as I shed a tear along with Federer as he got emotional thanking the fans, I couldn’t still understand why two things should happen. One, the genuine feeling of just as humbled and overwhelmed as the first time that Roger feels at winning a Grand Slam. And two, a feeling of emotional catharsis disguised as sporting fandom that washes over me (and I am guessing every Federer fan) when that happens. As he said at the press conference later – “I’m happy I can show emotions and share it with the people. If I got emotional, it’s because it was a full crowd again. No people in the stadium wouldn’t make me emotional, I’ll tell you that. This is for them really also.”

It has always been a genuine wonder to experience Federer, but this particular final, his genius was annotated in the back of my mind with the fact that all of this eventually and inevitably is heading towards a close. A friend and a huge Federer fan texted me saying that he couldn’t have gone to sleep without hearing Federer say ‘see you guys next year’ to the fans. In the emotional thrall that he was, Federer forgot to say that, as is his custom, in the post trophy presentation speech. He clarified the point later in an interview to ESPN and I immediately texted my friend so that he could go to sleep in peace. But considering the mortality of Federer’s career, even for that fleeting moment, made me realise how insane it is that I expected Federer to win every match this year. Even when Tomas Berdych had him 0-3 down in the first set. Even when Cilic was finding the impossible angles and had him down a break point in a high pressure first game of the final’s deciding set. In the moment I was almost sure he was invincible. 

There was a beautiful moment at the end of the final when the great Rod Laver took a photo on his phone of Federer holding the trophy aloft. A legend of the sport from the last century fanboying over another from this century. With an implement and a gesture that belongs firmly in this century. It is the kind of ethereal juxtaposition that makes the ephemeral appear eternal. Time remains undefeated in the history of sport and there is nothing we can do about it, but it is only the scale of time which can help us put the rarity and magnificence of someone like a Federer in perspective.

And I am here for it. Tears and all. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Fan Club: My Sporting 2017 in review

Prologue

THIS IS a personal recollection of how I saw the year 2017 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 2017 to you. 



Pilgrimages, in a religious context or otherwise, are about centering yourself. A ritualistic alignment with a physical place that you have shared a metaphysical connection with. I was at Lord’s for the Women’s World Cup final, I ambled around the grounds of the All England Lawn Tennis & Croquet Club, I walked in through the Shankly Gates into Anfield – a trinity of experiences that were the culmination of a lifetime of devotion to a sport (cricket), a tournament (Wimbledon) and a team (Liverpool). Those three instances were the highlight of 2017 for this sporting pilgrim. But beyond that, 2017 was about discovering more about the fans who make sport what it is. 

It began with Roger Federer’s triumph at the Australian Open, a Grand Slam title 5 years in the making for anxious Fed fans, among whom I was one. I egged Federer on in the final and as a tense third set made it look like things were slipping from him, my mom casually walked by saying ‘Faraday will win’ and proceeding to her afternoon nap. A couple of hours later, he miraculously had. She doesn’t have an investment in Roger’s win, but she knows that I want him to win. I know this because she knows this. 

The first rule of fandom is, everyone counts.

Later in the year, I would be pumping fists with random Roger fans at an outdoor screening near Kings Cross, and at one point walk into a pub just to catch the closing moments of Federer’s Wimbledon semi. I was at the India-Australia test match at Bengaluru, a riveting encounter where over three tumultuous days I had company ranging from twice my age to half my age. On Day 2, as Australia seemed ascendant, the elderly old school cricket fan gent who had accompanied me wondered out aloud if Clive Lloyd, who he watched in action here at the Chinnaswamy in the 70s, would be able to clout Ravichandran Ashwin for a six out of this ground. On the day the match ended I had for company a friend almost half my age, the two of us revelling in making predictions for when the next wicket would fall and marvelling when the darts we threw mostly blindfolded landed right on target. Meanwhile, behind us, a huge group from a school for children with special needs were enjoying their day out and cheering wildly for the approaching Indian victory. 

The second rule of fandom is, everyone counts.

The previous evening before India’s sensational win over Australia, I show up at an event featuring a cricket writer. I run into acquaintances from Twitter. Their offline personas just as passionate about sport as their online ones. One of them tells me about the North Stand Gang at Wankhede and I get a whole new perspective on obsessive fandom. That it doesn’t have to be petty or annoyingly partisan. That it can be by itself a force for good. 

The third rule of fandom is, the net effect should always be positive.

The summer was about location, location, location. I felt like I was in the epicentre of my sporting dreams showing up at Wimbledon one day, heading to Liverpool that weekend and enjoying a World Cup Final at Lord’s the next. I found an outdoor screening and watched Federer win his quarterfinal there, accompanied by two Swiss guys, huge fans of Roger from his hometown Basel. I impressed them predicting what Fed would do with his serve and they were amazed that someone from India would keep such a close eye on Federer’s game. On hearing the result and where I was a colleague and a Fed fan back in India issues the edict that I should watch the remaining Federer matches at the exact same spot for good luck, or there would be consequences. That Sunday I have lunch with a Kimi Raikkonen fan who does not watch the races because she can’t bring herself to bear the tension. 

The fourth rule of fandom is, no belief is irrational, no act of faith not worth the effort. 

I showed up at Wimbledon the next day, the day of the ladies singles semi finals. The place overwhelms me; watching the hallowed grounds of the tournament for a good 30 years on TV weren’t enough to take the novelty away. Being in the buzz inside the Club is something else. I catch a legends game in one of the outer courts featuring Goran Ivanisevich. It is not Goran of his prime, but there are enough antics of his to keep us entertained. He is pairing up with Wayne Ferreira and he does a variety of clownish things, from asking for a review when the opponent’s serve was called for a fault, to sitting on the net during an ongoing rally to jumping over to the other side and playing a winner past Ferraira and asking the umpire that his team should get the point because he hit the winner. There are three teens sitting beside me and they notice I am carrying a Chelsea F.C. bag from my visit to Stamford Bridge earlier that morning. They ask if I am a Chelsea fan. I say that no actually I picked things up for my friends who are. They say good thing you aren’t a fan because no one likes Chelsea. It is great banter and fun but otherwise Wimbledon is serious business. You politely wait in line before walking in and sitting on your seat because a rally is going on or a game needs to finish. As I wait to enter the next court, an elderly gentleman walks out the same way. He is so tall, I barely register his face. He sees my Chelsea F.C. bag, lowers his head, and whispers Great team and pats me on the back as he walks away. I am left confused for a moment but then things start to come into focus. Maybe I am getting a better idea of the demographics of certain fandoms, one stranger encounter and one anecdote at a time? Towards the afternoon I settle down near Henman Hill to watch the ladies semi between Venus Williams and the Brit Jo Konta on the big screen outside Court 1. I am eating strawberries and cream. And so are another 4 women, all in their 50s, on the bench opposite to me. One of them asks her friend for an update on the match. She logs on to the wifi through her smartphone but there are no updates forthcoming. Her friend gets impatient and demands to know if she is secretly googling Roger Federer pics instead of checking on the semifinal score. Meanwhile one of the stewards on Court 18 is out on her break and she sits beside me as she eats her sandwich. She asks me for an update. I tell her how Konta had been playing well but hadn’t capitalised on her chances and now Venus was dominating the proceedings. She seems crestfallen. I know that look of national heartbreak. I had seen it three years ago when I had told my South Korean classmate at University that Yuna Kim (the legendary Korean skater) had failed to win gold at the figure skating in Sochi. She tells me she is ending her break early and heading back to her post on Court 18. My football podcast buddies and I would face a similar predicament a few months later when Italy failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia. For a couple of days we were almost in mourning, disinterested in anythingbto do with football. 

The fifth rule of fandom is, it’s ok to switch on and off. 

I land a cheap Court 1 ticket in place of people who have left for the day and late in the evening get to catch one of my sporting heroes, Martina Navratilova, in a legends doubles match. She loves the crowd here and the crowd loves her back, once an icon, always an icon. That’s the power of Wimbledon. Anfield is two days later. It’s a cloudy Saturday and from the moment I get off the train at Liverpool Lime Street, I only have one goal – to head to Anfield. The centerpiece of my football dream theater for the past 20 years. A storied venue. I walk the 4.5 miles more briskly than I have walked any 4.5 miles in my life before and on Anfield Road the Shankly Gates come into view. I imagine what it would be like on a match day. We take a tour of the stadium. In the group are two best friends, aged about 70, one an Everton fan, the other of Manchester United. The tour guide gives us a warm reception and a heartfelt walkthrough laced with humor and banter aimed squarely at the likes of Everton and United. It all goes down in good spirit. The United fan is delighted to learn I have come all the way from India. He tells me he drove through Europe, then Iran, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and then India on his Land Rover once. Simpler times. I see fans of all ages, a girl as young as 3 seems to pause and read every name on the memorial for the Hillsborough 96. Sport, when the game is on, is partisan. Sport, in the bigger picture, is a unifier. It’s Sunday morning and I am at Lord’s for a World Cup final. Even as I type this I still find it surreal. I pick my ticket up at the counter where The kindly lady sends me off with a ‘Here you go, love. Enjoy the day’s play’. Classical British politeness. And a venue that harks back to the ideal of the gentleman’s game. I am here to watch the ladies, though. When I booked the ticket three weeks ago I imagined watching England take on Australia in the Women’s World Cup final. But I was delighted to end up with England v India and the foresight to have bought the ticket before the final sold out. I am among the first ones to walk on to my stand to look for my seat. The steward who says he has been working here since the 70s greets me with a ‘Good morning, sir.’ And then he adds ‘Hope the rain stays away and we have a good day’s cricket. Enjoy the day’s play.’ This is just a £10 ticket on the mound stand but I feel like a VIP, like a fan who actually exists. You don’t usually get treated that way at most sporting venues. As the game begins, I fiddle with my commemorative scorecard filling details in. The lady who takes the seat next to me asks to see it. That breaks the ice and we chat cricket – I work in cricket media, she in cricket administration. But our wondrous affection for the game is the same. 

We are treated to a tense, narrative packed final. I enjoy soaking the atmosphere in and picking up nuances in the field of play. England seem tense as India are 40 odd runs away. They uncharacteristically miss fielding opportunities. Their body language suggests anxiousness bordering on panic. At that moment I think how close I am to watching India win a World Cup at Lord’s. And I suddenly feel frozen. It’s clearly a contagion effect because soon India seem to be the team panicking. And in a roller coaster of a see-saw final few overs, contrive to lose. The Indian expat couple sitting next to me who had come from Bromley and their teenaged son are distraught. Loyalties are weird that way. I troop off finally, obviously dejected. But this was my first visit to Lord’s. The Home of Cricket. The feeling then hits me in its enormity. My lifetime of cricket obsession, for better or for worse, finds its center here. 

The sixth rule of fandom is, it is always and forever. There is no going back for a true fan.

Towards the end of December I catch up with a bunch of fellow sporting nuts in Mumbai. They work for sports media companies but that’s not our commonality. Our commonality is the joy derived from sport because we know it is capable of providing it. Even if it is the hilariously bad and godawful T10 League in Sharjah that we end up hate watching over dinner and drinks. Communities thrive on common frames of reference and in my lifetime I haven’t found a frame of reference more conducive to that than sports. I meet an author in London who is an Arsenal fan. We are chatting outside the restaurant we had dinner in and he sees a man in an Arsenal jacket walk past. He says ‘Now there’s a man with good footballing taste!’ The guy turns back and smiles at us and then carries on. At the Bengaluru Literature Fest, we are treated to listening to Anil Kumble one evening and Rahul Dravid the next morning. Everyone listens in rapt attention and the reactions come as spontaneous as they are rapturous. Half of the people I know on most social media is through that shared sports space. I follow a Buffalo Bills fan whose enthusiasm is so infectious that I find myself worried about the team’s fate in the NFL even though I had no emotional investment in them just a season ago. Another is a new Liverpool fan who is so eager to learn about the club that I gladly spend hours on stringing together threads on Liverpool’s history. Some of it moves other fans so much that they drop in to say how they had goosebumps reading my recollection of the night at Istanbul or Steven Gerrard’s career. I would be lying if I said I don’t live for moments like this. Sport is one of my spiritual dimensions. And if 2017 has taught me anything as a sports tragic, it is that this spiritual dimension doesn’t always need a physical center, it is centered around the earnest fan both new and old. 

The seventh rule of fandom is, never underestimate yourself. 

Happy New Year sports fans. You are da real MVP. Always.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Bodyline Chronicles

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


Part IWeapon of Choice

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

Dazzled by the Don

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

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

New tactics

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

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

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

Mining for talent

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

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

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

***

Part II

Fractures, friction and fissures 

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

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

The theory in practice

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

Neville Cardus would later write:

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

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

Lighting the fuse

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

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

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

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

Escalation

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

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

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

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

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

***

Part III

The aftermath and the legacy
The reclamation

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

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

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

Heroes and villains

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

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

Bodyline reborn

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Watching Liverpool: A Personal history

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

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

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

Episode I: Night of Destiny


Liverpool 3 Olympiakos 1, Anfield, 8 Dec 2004

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

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

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

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

Believe.


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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

THE MAYOR OF TENACITY

The most electrifying move in tennis entertainment history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized