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Monday, October 22, 2012

No place for cheaters

Lance Armstrong's legacy will now be forever a lying villain. 
Lance Armstrong, the Jesus of cycling has been found to be lying all this time. The man who had earlier won the Tour de France 7 times, now stands alone, stripped of all his medals, shrouded in a cloak of shame with the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI - the governing body of cycling) banning him from all participation in the sport saying that he has no place in cycling. The man who had braved and won against cancer, and took cycling from an obscure sport to what it is today, stands all alone, his name struck from all record books and tarnished forever as a synonym for cheater, for his use of performance enhancing drugs. As former professional road bicycle racer and sports journalist wrote, 'the truth has finally caught up with Lance Armstrong'. The myth of Armstrong has finally been busted.

I know very little about cycling having never followed the sport. And what little I know of the sport must be attributed to Lance Armstrong's story of fighting testicular cancer, triumphing it, and returning to professional racing and returning back in style to finish first. Now that was what stories of heroes were all about. Armstrong was an inspiration (then) and I very much saw him as a knight, a modern day Ivanhoe, who despite all the odds managed to win. He just wanted to win (perhaps a little too much). He was a champion on the long roads on his bike and his efforts to fight cancer with 'LiveStrong' made him much more than that, capturing hearts all over the world. His story was grander and more stunning than anything involving Greek heroes and deities, and perhaps it still is, considering his mighty fall from grace. I never read his much talked about autobiography 'It’s not about the bike…', but it was definitely on my 'to read' list. Now I doubt if I'll ever pick up that book, like I had planned.

There was always a suspicion in people's minds about Armstrong, and with allegations flying thick and fast even during his racing days, and doping being quite common in the sport, I doubt many people are shocked by this. But I'm sure many people feel let down by him.

Lance's story according to a Nike ad used to be, perseverance, dedication and hard work. In his own words in the ad, Armstrong says, "Everybody wants to know what I am on… What am I on? I’m on my bike, busting my ass six hours a day. What are you on?" But that wasn't the story. The story was that he was on plenty more than just his bike and these had various names ranging from steroids, testosterone to EPO and growth hormones. Lance's story in a nutshell about an ambitious man who in the quest to win, sold his soul much like the famous Dr. Faust. And it was the same attributes that he was shown in the Nike ad - perseverance, dedication and hard work, that made sure that he got away with it for so long.

Cheating has been part of sports since it's humble beginnings, when two naked men used to run against each other. Winning is what sports is all about, and I strongly believe that there is no point taking part if you are not playing to win. However there are lines that are well set that one must not only respect but also never cross. Those boundaries have little meaning for people like Lance who want to win at any cost and this is where the problem is. Cheating will always continue to remain in sports as long as there is a winner and a loser, and the incentive to be a winner (or a loser by under performing as is often the case in cricket) is there.

Despite stripping Armstrong of his medals and title, the question still remains if justice has been done. Can all the fame, recognition and glory he received based on a lie over another deserving winner till now be ever retracted? What about the fortunes he made? UCI has decided that the 7 Tour de Frances that Lance won will not have a first place. Is that now really fair to Alex Zülle who finished second in 1999, or Jan Ullrich in 2000 or the other five second place winners? They all have been denied what Armstrong received all these days and will be denied for the rest of their lives. And finally is it fair to the fans who romanticized the idea of Lance as a super hero?

This is where governing bodies of sports should be careful. There are always bound to be cheaters playing, and we've had our fair share in cricket. It's not really fair to pull up a player long after his playing/racing days are done and erase his records (something which is not very feasible in a game like cricket as Graeme Wright explains - "Where do you stop? Where do you start?...Salim Malik is in the list of Five Cricketers of the Year. Do we take him out? If we take his scores out, where does that leave all those matches he played? Do you take runs away from teams, wickets away from bowlers? It's impossible.") It is a harsh punishment but doesn't serve full justice. The player warrants much more for bringing the game to disrepute. As Rob Steen, the senior lecturer of sports journalism at the University of Brighton writes that perhaps in those cases, we can put an asterisk next to their name with a footnote with the word, 'cheat'. This will certainly make sure that their name lives on forever tarnished in the records, their legacies are destroyed and they are remembered for their villainy.

Coming to cricket now, we've had our fair share of cheaters in the sport. The latest allegations that even umpires might be involved are distressing no doubt, and the verdict is still out on whether the ICC is powerful enough to tackle this menace and more importantly punish the cricketers accordingly. I was disappointed when the ICC decided to hand just small, lenient bans on the Pakistan trio who were caught red-handed spot-fixing. I strongly believe that Amir, Asif and Butt deserved life bans and the ICC failed to do that. How else does one write the lesson that 'it's not okay to lie your way to the very top as long as you don't get caught' in stone without taking some strict decisions? Cricket's guardian sure can take a leaf out of this incident and understand that there is truly no place for cheaters in sports. No place whatsoever.

Amir, Asif and Butt may not have taken performance enhancing drugs, but they nevertheless cheated, and lied openly, all the while having a big wide smile on their faces. Armstrong did all that. He cheated everyone, including himself and now he pays the price for his sins.

Friday, October 19, 2012

KP's call up is good for cricket

Surely something to smile about - KP back in English whites!
In the last 2 months we witnessed one of modern day's biggest cricket icon fall out of favor with his board with some serious consequences. Kevin Pietersen who probably without much debate can be called England's best batsman found himself stripped off his contract and spent 73 days in exile in which revelations, and accusations from both the ECB and KP flew thick and fast that the entire cricket loving public was glued wondering what would happen in this soap opera playing out right in front of them. Much like how in Indian television we have the wife and the mother-in-law arguing and never seeing eye to eye, despite both wanting to do the very same thing, please the husband and son, the ECB and KP (don't ask me who is the wife and the mother-in-law here), despite wanting the best for English cricket failed to make any compromises and defuse the situation much earlier. But the good thing is that they did eventually do it, and now that KP has completed the 'reintegration' into the English dressing room's society, he has been selected for England's upcoming tour of India.

England might not need KP and can probably manage without him, but the team in his absence resembles a toothless crocodile, and though Stuart Broad might say it a hundred times, the truth is that England rely on KP and depend heavily on his aggressive ability to score runs in the middle order. KP's inclusion certainly gives England the edge and makes them a much stronger team which is definitely a positive for them. England have always struggled in the subcontinent, and their batsmen have failed miserably time and time again on slow pitches assisting even small amount of turn, and this is where KP who is one of their better players of spin will be a huge bonus. Earlier this year, it was KP alone who found the going easy against Ajmal when England played Pakistan and was one of the few batsman who was among the runs in Sri Lanka a few months later. In Indian conditions, which he is pretty familiar with thanks to his time playing in the IPL, KP will be a very vital player for England.

Despite all that ego, the attitude and everything, KP is a run machine and his influence on the game is so huge that his absence leaves a huge void. KP was instrumental in England's 2010 World T20 victory in the West Indies and was the player of the tournament and I just wonder what might have been England's fortunes had he been on the field in Sri Lanka rather than the commentary box.

KP's brief absence from the game has shown us all two things. First, there is only one KP and that no one can replace him. And second, KP has a very long career with the microphone in the comm box when he decides to hang up his boots. His presence in the studio during the World T20 was a revitalizing addition and provided much amusement and laughter that often the cricket was overshadowed by the pre and post match analysis. However charming he was in a suit in the studio, he belongs in the middle of the ground with a bat in his hands and it is in this arena that he transforms into a true entertainer.

People say that Vivian Richards' batting was a treat to watch and worth every penny you would pay to watch him. I never had that opportunity to watch the great West Indian batsman apart from some old replays on television, but I have watched KP and in my opinion there has never been a more entertaining batsman. In an era where we have the likes of Sehwag, Gilchrist and Gayle, KP manages to stand separate, and though he may not be the prettiest batsman with his many innovations, KP always makes sure that he puts on a show when he's in the middle and this is why as much good his call up to the national side is for England, it is even better for cricket.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

More than cricket

As cricket fans and lovers of the game, we often see cricket as more than a game. The countless hours we watch cricket online, all those cricket bets, following the game's intricate details and stats; it all makes cricket more than just an experience, it is almost a way of life!

Martin Crowe - the mainstay of New Zealand's batting in the 80's and 90's now faces a fight with cancer.
Each match is more than just two teams teeing off against each other and the smaller battles within the game between a particular batsman and bowler are much more than just small battles. We term an England - Australia match, or an India - Pakistan one as a war and in a way it is. It is 'war minus shooting' as George Orwell would call it. Every single moment of the game is more than just the game and it is in a way life itself. That is why we cry tears of joy and celebrate like there's no tomorrow when our team achieves something great, like I did when India won the 2011 World Cup, or cry tears of disbelief and grief when our team is shamed as was the case in the 2007 World Cup when India crashed out. Every moment in a cricket fanatics life, the people, the events, are larger than life and the game itself bigger than anything.

And all this is perfectly fine, but we sure do forget something, that at the end of the day cricket is still just a game and though it may seem that cricket is life, there is much more to life than just cricket. And it takes some moments of great epiphany to understand that it constitutes a very small portion of this thing called life. 

Hearing the dreadful news that Martin Crowe is now diagnosed with cancer is one of those moments. Crowe, one of New Zealand cricket's biggest names is now suffering from a grade two follicular lymphoma and it is moments such as this that makes us all stop and wonder.

I never had the opportunity to watch Martin Crowe when he played for New Zealand (I've watched some old replays on Star Cricket - which does include his 299 and some Youtube videos of his flawless, graceful batting) and I've never met the man. But still the news of his ailment hit me. Crowe's influence on New Zealand cricket has been large and we can see now his impact on the game even so many years after his retirement.

During the past year we saw Yuvraj Singh, one of India's princes fall prey to this horrible thing called cancer. It was an emotional and trying time for him and his family. An entire nation united and prayed for their favorite son's recovery and now a year later, we have one of the greatest inspirational stories in sporting history of a man who triumphed the illness and found his way back into the Indian team. Yuvstrong became the catchphrase for a cricket crazy nation that suddenly realized that the happenings on the field wasn't everything.

Earlier this year we heard that Brad Haddin would miss the West Indies tour, putting his entire career for Australia in jeopardy so that he could spend time with his 18 month old daughter ailing from cancer.

Cricket at moments these seems irrelevant and it certainly puts things into perspective. Now as Crowe gets set to fight this menace, all one can do is pray and hope the best for him. Crowe seems to be positive and ready for the fight saying, "My mindset and fierce focus has kicked in just like it did when approaching a long innings in a Test match. I will focus on the important things in front of me, and nothing else."

Courage Crowe. And godspeed your recovery.

Monday, October 15, 2012

One step at a time for Yuvi

Yuvi in his comeback first-class cricket scores a double ton.
Yuvraj Singh's story is very much like a fairy tale epic. A story where a hero, good looking, brave and smart, talented and dashing manages to capture the world's attention. Having led the Indian under - 19 team to the U-19 World Cup win, the hard hitting Yuvraj first stared for India as a young lad in England in 2002, and then in the World Cup the following year in South Africa seeing the team through to the final. The young lad slowly matured into a man, scoring big in the limited format and becoming one of India's greatest left-handed batsmen. He was a figure to reckon with in the limited overs and a pale shadow of himself in whites. In 2007, his name was etched into history as the hero became a legend smashing Stuart Broad for 6 sixes. In 2011, the legend became more than that when India lifted the World Cup, after the southpaw bagged 4 MOM awards in the tournament. Then came the crash - the fall that would be equivalent to Felix Baumgartner's space jump - the 'god' was reduced to a mortal as a rare germ cell cancer in his lungs overtook him. He took time from cricket for treatment. After months of chemo, the cancer vanquished, Yuvraj returned. He made his comeback to the Indian team as he was included in for the World T20 squad in what was mostly seen as an emotional decision. However the still not fully fit Yuvraj made sure to make his presence known and was one of the performers for India. A couple weeks later now, the same man has faced 241 deliveries scoring a brilliant double century on his comeback to first class cricket.

Yuvraj Singh continues to remain a larger than life figure and he remains an inspiration for a generation of cricket lovers. His career itself is a personification of life, full of highs and lows. From the highest point, he fell to rock bottom and now the climb has started and his 208 for North Zone against Central in the Duleep Trophy is just the beginning. It's always great to see men who've fallen down rise up, and in Yuvraj Singh's case it is so very special considering how big a personality he is.

Yuvraj Singh not one time during his long career ever had a cemented place in the test team and that probably has to do with the fact that he hasn't made a big impression in whites like he has in the limited overs format and also because of the fact that the Indian middle order was already filled with stars in Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly. Only Tendulkar remains now and there are plenty of vacant places in the squad with the youngsters having yet to cement their places. Fourth drop - where Ganguly batted near the end of his career is still open with Raina not having made a good bid for it. I would very well like to see Yuvraj Singh in that spot. He has the technique, the talent, and the temperament and if given a chance could possibly do his test career a turn around. Plus with plenty of youngsters in the team, Yuvraj might be a very good option as he can mentor the rest and also settle the nerves when batting under tense situations.

However questions arise from such a decision. The first one being is Yuvraj Singh who is 30 years old now, and having played 37 test matches already, deserve another chance? I believe that he still has plenty of cricket left in him and it will certainly do Indian cricket good to extract every ounce of cricket left in him. Giving him another chance surely cannot hurt the team in this transition phase. Yuvi's talent is not in doubt and he sure can be a success in India whites and we'll never know that unless the selection panel give him another try.

At the same time, we must remember not to rush Yuvraj Singh. He was rushed into the Indian squad for the T20s and we saw that he wasn't fully fit. He had to turn down doubles and triples and could run only singles. Can a person who struggled to compete in a T20 match - with all it's intensity keep up with the physical requirements needed for five day cricket? This is a question that Yuvraj Singh and the physios should answer. There's no point in playing a half-fit or three fourths fit Yuvraj Singh in a match. Given the chance he sure can make an impact even then, but in the overall scheme he is bound to be a liability and that is certainly not what Indian cricket wants.

Plus currently, there is absolutely no need to quickly integrate Yuvraj into the Indian team. India is going through a transition phase and is trying out some youngsters and there's always going to be a place for Yuvraj in the team when he is fully fit. It's better that he plays first class cricket, building up his fitness and prove not only to the selectors and the world but also to himself that he is truly fit to take field for India in whites and when that day comes, I have no doubt that Yuvraj Singh should be given another trial in the test arena. But till such a time, it should be one step at a time. This 208 is the start - just the first step.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

If only we had more Anil Kumbles

Anil Kumble in his playing days used to zip the ball around trapping many batsmen leg before or have them caught in the slip cordon where the inviting hands of his fellow Karnataka team mate, Rahul Dravid awaited. But ever since his retirement from the International scene, Kumble has been actively involved in the administration part of cricketing affairs, one field that truly needs men like Kumble.

Cricket administration in India isn't the greatest despite all the progress the sport has made. BCCI still tends to prefer the outdated and we continue to see many of it's decisions reflecting it's anarchic stance. There's no doubt there's a need for a change and it's good to see people like Kumble - people who not only passionately care about the future of the game but also want to make a difference in the game in the very same positive way they had done in the field years ago. Pakistan's world cup hero, Imran Khan gave up cricket and headed into what he calls a greater calling as he tries to rally an entire nation in a bid to improve it. Kumble on the other hand has stuck to the field he knows and like Imran Khan has made efforts to improve it.

Kumble now dons many hats. He is the President of the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA), the head of BCCI's technical committee, mentor of the Royal Challengers Banaglore in the IPL, and until a year back was also the chairman of the National Cricket Academy (NCA) in Bangalore. And now, the latest hat is the post of chairman of the ICC cricket committee. In addition to all this are his personal commitments to cricket followed by various other commitments to the Karnataka zoological sector of which he is a huge patron and campaigner. To say Anil Kumble has been busy since retirement would be a bit of an understatement and the man who traded his whites and googlies for a suit and boardroom meetings is making some drastic changes where ever he is. The KSCA under him has been transformed and Karnataka cricket is now thriving (not that it wasn't before) thanks to the many innovations and implementations of Kumble. Chinnaswammy Stadium is now a more welcome sight for fans and cricket is being encouraged and it's quality improved at every level across the state.

It takes enormous amounts of commitment and diligence to do what Kumble does, and he does it all with a smile knowing that he's touching lives through cricket perhaps more now than he did when he was on the field for India. There's no doubt what kind of mark Kumble would leave with the ICC cricket committee and it's good to know that the committee is headed not only by a sane man but one who is wise and serious about the work. If only we had more Kumbles in cricket administration!