Thursday 27 July 2017

The 24 hours of the World Cup Final #WWC17

There were India shirts. There were England shirts. Even a few Netherlands shirts. White skin. Brown skin. Black skin. Old skin. Young skin. Male. Female. The loud types. They bibulous types. The shy types. They were all there. In queues that would have stretched back to St. John’s Wood station if they were lined up straight.

They were all there for the cricket.

Not women’s cricket, one fan told me. He was waiting for his mother, and showed me the 20-pound ticket he paid 100 pounds for. “I paid 100 pounds to support India in the Champions Trophy, so I can pay that much to support India here also.”

I knew that Lord’s was sold out, but I didn’t know what sold out meant. When I saw this crowd, a familiar pit in my stomach opened up; the one I felt before a moment in a big game that I knew –just knew— would be pivotal. That feeling that a series of dot balls creates, the expectant pressure, knowing that a big shot or a wicket is coming.

I knew it in my gut. Something big was about to happen.

The first person I saw when I stepped into the media centre was the woman who had perhaps more to do with this day than any other. “I can’t believe this is happening for a women’s match”, I told Clare Connor, head of women’s cricket at the ECB and chairman of the ICC women’s committee. The emotion must have showed in my voice; she put a hand on my shoulder, almost as if to reassure me that this was not a dream.

The UFO-shaped media centre at Lord’s has a killer view, but there was only one place I wanted to be for the national anthems. After completing my media commitments outside the ground, I ran all the way back in (probably breaking a few decorum rules in the process), and took the steps two-at-a-time to the nearest stand as “Who runs the World” played. My heart was still racing from the sprint as our national anthem played, and that feeling in my stomach was back, along with an itch in my tear glands. But it was not the time for tears yet.

They almost came when Jhulan Goswami finished her spell, and I gave her a standing ovation, press box decorum be damned. Watching her –the reason I had dreamed of playing for the country— be so nerveless in a final, I said to my heart: this is her moment. This spell would turn the game, and help India win. She would get the fairytale finish she deserved. Finally, after all those years of silent labour, after the doubts, without and within, her career would come full circle at Lord’s.

Stupid, Snehal Pradhan. You had forgotten that sport is not a movie. There is no script, no certainty, and no such thing as a fairytale ending. There is reality.

The reality was that Mithali Raj did not take off her pads after she was run out for 17. I couldn’t tell you whether she does this often, or whether it was just the pressure of the final that rendered her motionless. Because Mithali Raj hardly gets out early.

When the eighth wicket fell, Mithali di finally did take them off. When the tenth wicket went down, Jhulan di still had hers on. They were bearing her weight as she knelt, and her hear bore the weight of her hands, and her face bore the weight of 15 years of international cricket distilled into one torturous moment.

She came out to face the media, long after the appointed hour, but we waited patiently, allowing them as much time as they needed to sit next to their disbelief. When she did come, it was with the same grace that Mithali di had shown in the post-match press conference. But Mithali di is captain cool, and wore her mask better; Jhulu di’s pain was closer to the surface, in her whispered voice and straight back. She gave England the credit, and spoke of the future, but the present haunted her eyes, as did the past.

I left the ground confused. I had witnessed the greatest day in the history of the game. I had witnessed England win a World Cup they deserved. I had seen the Indian team defy logic, and reach a final they had no business being in. I knew that this was a win, whatever the result. But they had gone so close. So close.

More than one person asked me if I was ok. I didn’t know. Back home, I sat down to write this piece. I wanted to retell the emotions of the night as accurately as the scorecard told the score. But I wasn’t feeling them myself. Close to midnight, exhaustion and futility overtook me; I gave up, I decided I needed some distance.

A two hour nap later, I was still groggy as I typed. But as I retold the events of the evening, the adrenalin started flowing as the words wound their way through the match. By the end of it, I had been wide awake for two hours, and at 4:30 AM, I finally pressed SEND.

As the London sky outside my window started to lighten, the tears finally came. The writing had been cathartic, had helped me identify and structure the emotions I felt. I sunk to the floor of the kitchen in the flat I was in so my sobs would not wake the friends I was rooming with. I thought of the team, and how my pain must be but a fraction of theirs. Snot fell from my nose as I tweeted this:

"I am so proud of this @BCCIWomen team. Your time will come. And I hope I'll be there to see it when it does. Been lucky to watch this effort"

Funny how one of the best days of my life had ended in tears. Finding sleep was difficult. Finding peace was easier. This tournament will do more for women’s cricket in India than all the years since 2005 combined. Sorry, not women’s cricket. It’s just cricket. Things have changed.

Monday 13 June 2016

Second Life

"When you're done with this world, you know the next is up to you"- John Mayer, in ‘Walt Grace’s Submarine Test, January 1967’.

For sportspeople, retirement marks the beginning of a 'second life'. Much like the online virtual world of the same name, it involves building of a new ‘self’, a new avatar, one that must have its own identity- for no self respecting athlete will want to lean on the laurels (if any) of her athletic pursuit. 

For the retired athlete, the visceral eat-train-sleep grind exists no more, nor do the accolades and critiques. They are in the past, nothing more than the wisps of memory and strips of statistics. And life on the other side of the R word is too nascent to be given any form or name, like the embryo that won't be called a foetus until 10 weeks. As a result, the athlete who has just retired is in a unique, vulnerable, and almost insubstantial position.

That is why most foresighted sportspeople come to some idea of what they will do with the rest of their lives at some point towards the end of their careers. Some will start laying the groundwork while still playing. It was no different with me, although it was less foresight and more chance. At the end of 2011, at the suggestion of my roommates, I started a blog, as outlet to express myself on this game we love and more. 

I was fortunate that by the time I said goodbye to my spikes, I was fairly well acquainted with my keyboard, addicted to the narcissism of twitter, and eager to make my presence felt online to –hopefully- make a difference on the field. I carried that hope with me when I got to cover three women's matches of the WT20 in India in March, for Wisden India: two league games in Nagpur, and the semi final in Delhi. 

The two trips threw up different emotions, some expected, some less so. On training days, I was not complaining about being on the sidelines as opposed to out in the middle, since the mercury and my age were both on the wrong side of 30. A chat with the net bowlers was like wading through a pool of soothing nostalgia, and it inspired this piece about my own days as a net bowler. Match reports and previews, new to me, were a rushed and high pressure affair, leaving little time for creative juices to flow. All said and done, I was thoroughly enjoying my short stint, a big step in my own second life.

The Vidarbha Cricket Association Stadium at Jamtha, Nagpur.

While there were many happy boxes I ticked along the way, part of the learning curve turned out to be a slippery slope. Two of the more unexpected experiences I had while on the road were in the two places journalists perhaps spend most of their time: the hotel room and the press box. 

While hotels were nothing new to me, travelling alone was. I was used to at least 17 other people I knew occupying the same property. A team hotel feels like a honeycomb. Bored of your cell? Pop into the next one, where the channel choices are better, though the smell of socks could be worse. Our rooms generally had little empty space: open kit bags, shoes, and medicine balls were the kind of detritus usually lying around. However, in Nagpur, the only thing giving me company in my hotel room was my laptop sitting on the empty bed next to me. It was eerie to have so much space to myself. 

Two T20 games in five days meant plenty of down time, and with the heat dissuading me from exploring the city, I found a lot of time to stay cooped up in my room. Despite the work that had to be done, there were moments of loneliness. I could see the hairs of the Black Dog strewn around the room, ready to assume corporeal form for those who lived this life day in day out, as Geoff Lemon courageously shared in his eye-opening piece.  Loneliness –even within teams- is nothing new for people like us -with jobs that require many days on the road, away from the anchors of home and hearth. Still, just knowing that the rooms next door are occupied by familiar faces was a comfort I had taken for granted before.

The second unsettling experiences came in the press box. As soon as I arrived with a handful of colleagues at the Vidarbha Cricket Association stadium at Jamtha, going straight up to the press box felt decidedly wrong. I looked out of the glass panes that offered such an impressive view of the ground, and then realised why. My body was resisting my natural instinct to walk out on to the ground, check the grass for dew, and have a look at the wicket (whenever the match referee wasn’t looking). Here, I was incarcerated by my life choices to the confines of the press box. It was strange being so near a cricket match, and not being able to step on the grass. This would take some getting used to, I thought to myself. 

The press box in Nagpur.

Then I somewhat naively asked for the volume of the many TVs showing the game to be turned on. When I was informed that that wasn't the done thing, I was perplexed. How are we supposed to hear the game, I asked. There, sequestered in the air conditioning of the VCA's well equipped and spacious press box, I could not hear the sounds of ball hitting bat, of shoes scuffing turf, of players appealing. The view was breathtaking, to be sure, but it was like looking at the earth from space: beautiful, but so far away, so silent, and so cold. Even the PA that announced every wicket exacerbated the feeling: It sounded like Houston radioing the space shuttle to deliver ominous news.   

The two venues I visited presented two very different faces of the trade. In Nagpur, there were only three journalists from out of town to cover the women's games, both of whom I met for the first time. The small clique meant that the three of us actually got to talk, exchanging contacts and stories, and I got a lot of useful journalistic advice.

My first-ever-match-as-a-reporter selfie.

My stint in Delhi on the other hand, was very different. Sitting in a packed press box, surrounded by faces and voices I didn't know, I was lost. I ran into a Twitter acquaintance on the way in, and she was gracious enough to introduce me around, which made me feel a bit better. After thus finding my bearings, I settled down at my seat and got to work, but was distracted by so many things: the loud and frustrated ICC official sitting beside me, the veteran journalist from my home town making audio notes in my mother tongue, and the whiff of cigarette smoke, whose origin eluded me. I was far from my usual outgoing self, and thought ten times before making conversation. Even the mild outrage I felt to see empty seats for the women's press conferences and match failed to rouse me out of my imposed cocoon.

View from the press box in Delhi, the night of the semi final.

So, I sat back and soaked in the buzz in the air, so missing in Nagpur. While the Nagpur leg was a quiet affair, akin to a stargazing trip in the countryside with colleagues, Delhi was like a corporate lunch in a five star hotel. I barely cast second glances to the former players and commentators walking around, but my disobedient gaze followed my favourite columnists everywhere. The heroes of my second life had changed. I had changed, I slowly realised. 

In Delhi, I was not a little overawed by the company of those whose writing I deeply admired. Assigning genial faces to the sometimes sharp words I read so often, I felt like a schoolgirl sitting in the staff room watching my favourite teachers plan their lessons. It prompted the return of the feeling of insubstantiality, and tugged at my gut like shoelaces caught in my bicycle chain. It took some effort and a few deep breaths to centre myself again.

Hopefully, the next time I find myself in such a situation, my second life will be a translucent avatar no longer. Hopefully, my desire to make a difference will be undiminished as well. The first few steps have given me reason to hope that this journey will be as real, substantial, and fulfilling as my first one. I look forward to the next few years.

Sunday 1 May 2016

The Gift Of Anonymity

Every journalist has a taxi story. Some, like Dileep Premachandran's, give us lessons on forgiveness. Some, like Osman Samiuddin's give us perspectives on our jobs. My taxi story happened a couple of years ago, and involved chasing a Volvo bus half way across Mumbai while discussing school fees. Last month, I found another story, or rather it found me. 

I was in Nagpur covering a couple of games of the WT20, my first time travelling as a journalist since my retirement from competitive cricket. Checking into the hotel alone, as opposed to with a team was a strange sensation. I was used to the cacophony of 14 other girls in the reception (waiting to see who they will have to endure as a room partner), and the bustle of the beleaguered hotel staff (playing spot the difference with 15 identical kit bags). But I digress; complaints about the life of a journalist as opposed to a cricketer are for another post.

A day before the Australia-South Africa women's game at the Jamtha stadium, I was due to have dinner with a player at the team hotel. The rickshaw driver, by the name of Mushfiq, misheard me when I said 'Le Meridien', and instead thought I meant 'The Raddison'. It turned out Le Meridien was a good 8 clicks ahead of The Radisson, so we had enough time for a conversation.

I asked Mushfiq if he knew a women's international match was going to happen the next day. As expected (since neither the VCA nor ICC seemed to have put much thought into local publicity), he didn't. As it turned out, he was a cricket agnostic- one of the Indian minority who don’t consider cricket to be the centre of the solar system, as opposed to the sun. He even told me a story about 'some test match' that had taken place in Nagpur (the India-South Africa test in November 2015 whose pitch was rated as poor), where he had driven around a foreigner who was part of the touring team. 

This piqued my interest. Security for a touring team is usually as accommodating as a straitjacket. Players are rarely allowed to wander out of their hotels in rickshaws without an escort. Even the friend who I was on my way to meet couldn't get out of her hotel. I imagined the security around the men's teams would be a lot tighter. So how did a South African international cricketer get past security and take a ride with a clueless rickshaw driver?

He sneaked out, according to Mushfiq. The tale made the 30 minute journey along Airport road seem much shorter. 

Mushfiq had just dropped off a customer at the hotel where the South Africans were staying. He was puzzled by the throng in the driveway that was causing the security barrier to bulge; the buzz about them would have put off the meanest bee. He lingered for a few moments longer than he normally would have, long enough for two white men to quickly climb into his back seat. Pleased by the sudden arrival of customers, Mushfiq happily led them out of the hotel, the hopeful crowd unaware that the objects of their admiration had just blindsided them. 

At their request, Mushfiq drove them to an area just outside the airport, where the duo took pictures of the setting sun. Mushfiq meanwhile, factored in the crowd he had seen at the hotel and the whispers of a cricket match in town, and like incy wincy spider, the possibility that these guys might be famous cricketers crept up on him. On that hunch, he asked them for a photo with him as well, and they happily obliged. 

Then, Dale Steyn, owner of more than 400 test wickets and the chainsaw celebration, returned to the rickshaw and Mushfiq drove him and his as yet unidentified companion back to the hotel. Mushfiq dropped them off and accepted their fare, and their thanks, dimly aware that he had been in the company of cricketing royalty. He shook off feeling almost immediately though, as he turned his attention to his next customer. He had only learned of his passengers' identity when he showed the photo to his family and friends, but thought little of that ride until our conversation. 

The story got me thinking. In a cricket mad country like India, it is easy to envy the players, to want after their celebrity. Many would give anything to have so many strangers hankering for selfies with you. Perhaps Dale Steyn and his companion expected this; that if they did slip past the security curtain, they might have to face the pitfalls of stardom. They might have been mentally prepared to fend off an overenthusiastic rickshaw driver who knew his cricket statistics as well as his meter card. 

It must have been some solace then, that they met a man who knew them simply as customers till almost the very end. A man who provided them not only a ride and a photo opportunity, but also the gift of anonymity, and the restful silence that comes with it. 

Monday 15 February 2016

A first look at Tamanna

Back in 2012, I first met the man who would eventually become my husband. After a month or so of chatting on the phone and Skype, I flew over to Indore meet him. My family had already arrived there that morning. It was a typical arranged marriage setting,except for one thing: I was carrying my cricket kit bag along. I had arrived directly after leading the Board President’s XI in a tour match against the visiting Australian women’s cricket team. Even though we lost the match, I was given the warmest welcome at the airport. My prospective in-laws were quite proud of the fact that their could-be daughter-in-law was an international cricketer.

Star Plus’s new show Tamanna took off on Monday with a similar story, but some fundamental differences: there was the typical arranged marriage setting, but with a kit bag being packed away. A match was in progress, but the key player was missing. A conservative grandmother threatened the girl to not mention cricket. A doting, supportive father melted and fulfilled his daughter’s request. A young girl was about to be introduced to her prospective in-laws, but with her cricketing skills being hushed up, not celebrated.

Tamanna has some familiar faces, but an unfamiliar storyline. We have seen plenty of cricket on both the small and big screen, and some hockey as well. But for the first time, here’s a show about cricket, with a female protagonist. The show – being promoted by the hashtag #HerDreamsDontDie – tells the story of Dharaa Solanki, a talented young cricketer from an orthodox family in Jamnagar.

When I heard about the show, I was thrilled that women’s cricket was chosen as the vehicle to send across a social message. It shows that the women’s game is making bigger ripples in our consciousness. Perhaps the producers hope that the recent series win by the Indian women’s cricket team in Australia will boost interest in the show. And I, in turn, will be hoping that the presence of a female cricketer on the small screen will send the message that women can and do play cricket, a fact that is still lost on far too many people in our country.

The show starts with Dharaa (played by Anuja Sathe) being given clear instructions by her grandmother that cricket is not to be mentioned in front of her prospective in-laws, or their son Mihir. Instead, she is taught a special Jamnagar recipe! But when Dharaa hears that a selector (played by Harsh Chhaya) has come all the way from Pune just to see her bat, she is caught between two worlds. On one hand, she had agreed to skip that game so that this meeting could take place. On the other, it might be her only chance to break into the state team. Having agreed to not play cricket after marriage, her dream of calling herself a state player is in jeopardy. Finally, she tries having her cake and eating it too, by sneaking out for the match as soon as her meeting with Mihir concludes. Her sympathetic father covers up for her as she gets to the ground in time to strap on the leg guards and walk out to bat. It reminded me of my own struggles to balance cricket with different aspects of my life, particularly college.

Dharaa’s story is likely to take a different path however, judging by the promos. My guess is, she will be pressured to fit into the Indian stereotype of the ideal bahu, who must sacrifice her dreams at the sacrosanct altar of marriage and children. Luckily, the breadcrumbs left to us by the show’s trailer point to a second coming, after childbirth.

While Anuja Sathe’s portrayal of Dharaa in the first two episodes is heartfelt, her obvious awkwardness with the bat made me cringe (producer Ajinkya Deo actually said that this was a major challenge while casting). Another point that rankled was that a show trying to break stereotypes is sponsored by a fairness cream.

Some of the scenes in the first episode are far-fetched (such as batting in a match after the playing XI has already been decided, and walking out to bat in slippers). But Tamanna looks to address a tricky issue that exists quietly, but undeniably, like a green snake in the grass: Should a woman’s dreams have an expiry date? Or can she pursue them at any point in life? Can a woman have a second innings?

In an interview on YouTube, director Abhinay Deo (who also directed 24, and Delhi Belly) said, “I don’t think it’s easy for anyone to live their second innings. There are very few blessed people who have managed it. But is it impossible? No.”

There are instances of women who have hit such questions for a six, even in a career like cricket, which is bound by the same chains that bind the human body. For women in careers heavily dependent on physical fitness, childbirth understandably necessitates a break. But it need not be the end. Last month, I profiled Delhi cricketer Neha Tanwar. Having represented India, Neha quit cricket in 2014 to start a family, only to return six months after the birth of her son. She just might set a trend in women’s cricket; one that already exists in some other sports. Remember Mary Kom?

All walks of life throw up examples such as these. And some of them even existed two generations ago. My own grandmother completed her MSc only after her marriage. She submitted her thesis while eight months pregnant with my father, and gave her vivas when he was just a month old. It should be no surprise then that my grandmother was the one who gave me my first push into cricket, and has been my biggest support in my own career. Now, my mother-in-law has been a huge pillar of support for me, encouraging me to pursue my interests even after my retirement from competitive cricket.

While more such examples can be found, there are countless more young girls for whom this is not the case, particularly (but not exclusively) in rural India. After marriage, they are discouraged, and often forcibly stopped from doing something that doesn’t fit into the scheme of things at the sasuraal. The young married girls of these families may never reach the cricket grounds, the offices or the schools that they visit in their daydreams. This may be the reason I have never met a girl in cricket who does not have family backing.

With the wide penetration that soaps have, I hope that Tamanna will send a message that will make some cracks in more pernicious traditional mindsets. I hope it will nudge a few girls towards less monochromatic futures. I, for one, will eagerly be following the direction of the story.

This article was first published on The Ladies Finger

A Women's IPL? Not so fast...


Ironic as it is, that word best describes the inaugural Women’s Big Bash League, in that it will strongly influence later developments. The WBBL’s groundbreaking debut is another feather in the cap for Cricket Australia (CA) as far as women’s cricket is concerned. With crowds in excess of 10,000 for some games, and viewership ratings that were the highest in their brackets, CA have proved that there is an appetite for high-quality women’s cricket among both television and family audiences.

The WBBL has made its mark on the Indian female cricketers too. Even though Mithali Raj could not be a part of the tournament due to domestic commitments, she was looking ahead. “The T20 World Cup will be important in popularising the game. If we do well in it, it will definitely give birth to the women’s IPL,” she said.

The world of women’s cricket is hopeful that a women’s IPL will become a reality. As am I. But you can’t do a handstand on shaky elbows. If a women’s IPL is to take root and take off in our country, I believe some serious groundwork needs to be done first.

1. An under-16 tournament

Who doesn’t love a teenage wonderkid? However, since the BCCI took over, women’s cricket has been played only in the Under-19 and open-age groups, with an Under-23 tournament added this year.

The U-16 tournament, which used to be conducted by the previous setup, was discontinued. Despite the lack of a feeder line that nurtures teenage talent, India has produced precociously talented players like Smriti Mandhana and Deepti Sharma, mostly courtesy the School Games Federation, which organises women’s cricket matches as well. But to ensure that such players continue to emerge, and that they are exposed to match situations from a tender age, an U-16 tournament is necessary. The current administration has made noises about starting one, and it is imperative that they set it up in the next domestic season.

2. Inter school cricket in big cities

For the future of women’s cricket to be made secure, a concerted effort to increase the number of girls playing cricket at the grassroots level is required. Most young girls don’t play club cricket as the boys do, instead generally turning out for their state U-19 teams directly, if they are talented enough. Thus, a number of girls are lost in the churn, and don’t get the platform to develop their potential over a consistent period. By organising inter-school tennis-ball tournaments, at least in big urban centres to start with, state associations can access a demographic that may otherwise never play cricket, and schoolgirls will have a chance to play competitive cricket below the U-19 age group. The Mumbai Cricket Association have been conducting such a tournament for the last seven years, and are now reaping the benefits, with a some talented teenagers in the squad that won this year’s Plate Group T20 title.

3. Visibility of Role Models

Back in 2002, I watched Jhulan Goswami tear into the England batting line up in her debut series. The sight had me charging up and down our house, bowling at the wall with a rubber ball, dreaming that I would one day open the bowling with her. It didn’t matter that the pictures on the DD sports channel were so grainy, it looked like there was a sandstorm at the venue. The dream sustained me until my debut, six years later. Such is the power of a visible role model. There are thousands of young girls all across the country, who have never seen Goswami bowl or Harmanpreet Kaur bat. The recent initiatives by the BCCI and Star Sports to broadcast the domestic T20 finals and the India-Australia T20Is, with the right publicity, will go a long way in kindling the dreams of the next generation of players.

4. Retention of domestic talent

In the IPL, if international stars are the match winners, its often domestic players who are the show stoppers. Just ask Sarfaraz Khan or Hardik Pandya. Indeed, the quality of the domestic talent in a team is a reflection of the standard of cricket in the country. In the women’s domestic T20s, champions Railways were almost upset by Goa in the T20 Super Leagues. While this augurs well for domestic cricket, for a women’s IPL to be successful, the standard of domestic cricket must rise further. For this to happen, the BCCI must consider starting a corporate trophy for women, similar to the one that is played by men. This will give companies (besides the Railways) reasons to offer jobs to talented players, and make cricket a more viable career option in the long run. It will also increase the number of matches played by women in the season.

5. Vision

Without a doubt, this is the most important ingredient required for the fruition of a women’s IPL. The success of the WBBL is the culmination of a number of progressive moves by CA, in order to achieve their vision of “making cricket the number one sport for girls and women in Australia”. If a women’s IPL is seen as a means to inspire young girls to play, and not as an end in itself, it is not impossible to rival even the success of the WBBL.

When Clare Connor, chair of the ICC’s women’s cricket committee was asked about equal prize money for men and women, she said that if she had a choice, she would use the money elsewhere. “I’d suggest that some of it could pay the amazingly committed female players who aren’t paid to play for their countries. Some could go on further expansion of the international schedule so that teams play more, performance standards rise and the best players become more visible.

Some would undoubtedly go on devising innovative marketing projects to sell an irresistible product to potential sponsors, broadcasters and audiences”. A similar ‘bottom up’ approach must be taken to women’s cricket in India. It needs to start with getting more young girls into cricket, and end with the Indian women’s team becoming world champions. Do that, and a women’s IPL will happen along the way.

With England set to launch their own Women’s Cricket Super League this summer, the question of a women’s IPL is likely to arise again soon. If it were up to me, I’d focus my immediate resources on strengthening the bases of women’s cricket in the country, so the launch pad is firm. After all, women’s cricket in the country would needs a women’s IPL to run as long as Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge has, and not be forgotten soon after release.

This article first appeared in 'Seamtress', my column for Wisden India.

Ambidexterity: Cricket's next evolution

Kamindu Mendis in action(s).

I like the idea of evolution. The Charles Xavier type more than Charles Darwin's. The first X-Men movie starts with a narration by Patrick Stewart that goes something like this: “Mutation: it is the key to our evolution. But every few hundred millennia, evolution leaps forward.”

Cricket finds itself in one such phase, caught in the middle of a jump in evolution. It has changed more in the last 10 years than in the last 100. The tipping point, without a doubt, was the birth of the T20 format. It precipitated bigger bats, longer hits, slower 
bouncers, frequent yorkers, umpires with helmets.

And switch-hits.

Kevin Pietersen’s switch-hit inspired mixed reaction and fierce debate on the legalities, yet everybody agreed on one thing: it was spectacular. Ambidextrous cricketers suddenly became the new buzzword, and ambidexterity is the new cool.

It is no surprise, therefore, that now we have bowlers who can use both arms. Tuesday’s semi-final against India featured Sri Lanka’s batting all-rounder Kamindu Mendis who can bowl both off-spin and left-arm spin.

He prefers to take the ball away from a batter. Mendis bowls right-arm off-spin to left-handers and left-arm tweakers to right-handers, negating the advantage of having a left-right batting combination at the crease. The youngster didn’t get a load of wickets but has certainly cornered a lot of attention. Could he be the product of a generation who grew up watching guys like Pietersen play switch hits? After all, Mendis was only 10 in 2008 when Pietersen first unleashed the shot.

One gentleman who most likely won’t be surprised by Mendis’s ability is John Buchanan, coach of Australia when they were at their most dominant. I remember reading his predictions about ambidextrous cricketers in his aptly named book, ‘If better were possible’. Back in 2003, Buchanan had said: “We’ll have players, hopefully by the next World Cup (2007), who can use both sides of their bodies. I don’t think we will be at the stage when players bowl with both hands in four years’ time — but maybe in eight.”
Buchanan’s timelines may be a bit off but he was certainly on the right track. The number of batters proficient at switch-hitting is on the rise. And ambidextrous bowlers are cropping up too. Take Vidharbha’s Akshay Karnewar, for instance.

With truly ambidextrous players appearing at the U19 and List A level, it is a matter of time before we see these skills on the international stage. While a number of cricketers bat with one hand and bowl with the other, they cannot be called truly ambidextrous.

In one of my earliest blogs, I had argued that it was only common sense for a player who bowls right handed to bat left-handed. This is because a batter’s top hand is his/her dominant hand. Thus it is only natural for people who are naturally right-handed to be taught to bat left-handed, as this ensures that their strong hand becomes their top hand. However, a player can only be called truly ambidextrous if he/she can perform the same skill equally adroitly with both hands.

There can be no doubt that ambidextrous cricketers add variety and excitement to the game. But at what cost? Commentator Harsha Bhogle, back in 2012, labelled switch-hit as ‘unfair’. He said, “(It) strikes at the sanctity of our sport, which must seek to maintain a balance between bat and ball.”

A bowler is required to declare to the umpire (and thus the batter) which side of the wicket he will bowl from, and using which arm. However, when a batter performs a switch, he gives the bowler no such intimation and thus gains an unfair advantage. That the ICC ratified switch-hit despite this anomaly is further proof of the ‘batter’s game mindset’ that dogs cricket.

Baseball, which has encountered both switch-hitters and switch-pitchers, recently introduced the ‘Pat Venditte rule', after an ambidextrous pitcher of the same name came up against a switch-hitting batter. The pitcher must first indicate to the plate umpire with which hand he intends to throw, and then the batter decides from which box he intends to hit. Neither can change their chosen hand during that ball. Safe to say that baseball has more respect for pitchers than cricket has for bowlers?

The trump card of ambidextrous cricketers, batters or bowlers, is the options they create. It is the surprise element. People often speak of a bowler getting inside a batter’s head, and anticipating where he will play. This becomes exponentially more difficult if the batter switches sides and opens up more scoring areas.
Such is the advantage that switch-hitters possess. But the laws give no such advantage to the bowlers. Why not give them the same choice? Imagine if a bowler had the option to bowl over or round the wicket, and with left or right hand, without informing the batter or the umpire? Just as a switch-hitter challenges the bowler to think on his feet, such a situation would keep the better guessing till the last minute. As a bowler, I know I would have loved to have these options while I was playing.

I am glad the switch-hit is legal, make no mistake. Cricket would be poorer without its athleticism and innovation. But just as the game appreciates, authorises and embraces batters who can bath on both sides, so too must it pay attention to the other side of the story. A pugilist who  only strengthens his dominant hand will surely regret it in a fight. 

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Mankad? Yes please!

42.15 Law 42.15 – Bowler attempting to run out non-striker before delivery : Law 42.15 shall be replaced by the following: The bowler is permitted, before releasing the ball and provided he has not completed his usual delivery swing, to deliberately attempt to run out the non-striker. Whether the attempt is successful or not, the ball shall not count as one of the over. If the bowler fails in an attempt to run out the non-striker, the umpire shall call and signal Dead ball as soon possible.
- ICC playing conditions 2015

This should be the end of this discussion.

Nevertheless, the furore over Keemo Paul’s alleged chicanery in running out Zimbabwe U19’s Richard Ngarava refuses to die down. A number of players, current and past, called it ‘unsporting behaviour’. Some have said that 'mankad'ing a batter without a warning is not cool. And the spirit of cricket has been invoked as well. Let’s think about all this for a moment.

Firstly, the unsporting behaviour charge. Running between the wickets is fundamentally the skill of covering a fixed distance in the least possible time. Is it sporting for a batter to be allowed to get a head start on a run, thus reducing the distance he or she has to cover, and therefore gaining an unfair advantage, with no fear of losing his or her wicket?

Then there is this business about the warnings. The anachronistic suggestion sounds congruous with the mental image of cricket being “pastoral, staid and moral” as Christian Drury puts it in his excellent blog post. Why would a batter ever leave his crease early? After all, this is the gentleman’s game, and he’s gentleman. And if by chance he did, it is surely an innocent mistake and a gentle reminder shall suffice. And as for today’s well paid professionals? Certainly, let’s give them reminders as well. Would you like some earl grey with that, sir? Milk or cream?

And finally the much bandied about spirit of cricket argument. The 
spirit of cricket, as put down by the MCC, states that:

5. It is against the Spirit of the Game:
To dispute an umpire's decision by word, action or gesture
To direct abusive language towards an opponent or umpire
To indulge in cheating or any sharp practice, for instance:
(a) to appeal knowing that the batsman is not out
(b) to advance towards an umpire in an aggressive manner when appealing
(c) to seek to distract an opponent either verbally or by harassment with persistent clapping or unnecessary noise under the guise of enthusiasm and motivation of one's own side

Since what Paul did was within the laws of the game, it is asinine to call him a cheat. And whatever their actions and the reactions, Keemo Paul and the West Indies U-19 team certainly did not act against the spirit of cricket as described above.

A lot has been said and written about this spirit of cricket over the many years that cricket has existed. The fact is that the ‘spirit of cricket’ was only enshrined in the laws of the game in the year 2000 in the hope that it would “remind players of their responsibility for ensuring that cricket is always played in a truly sportsmanlike manner”.

For me, two words ring out most clearly from that sentence. ‘Truly’ and ‘sportsmanlike’. They tell me that the spirit of cricket is primarily a call for players, umpires, and yes, administrators, to be honest, and fair, above all else. 'Mankad'ing, then does not violate the spirit of cricket. I’ll tell you what I think does:

• That the 2019 cricket World Cup will feature less teams than the 2015 edition, not more.
• That South Africa U19 and New Zealand U19 will qualify directly for the next U19 World Cup by virtue of being full members despite not qualifying for the Super League. Nepal and Namibia though must play a qualifier despite making the Super League, being associate teams.
• That abusive send-offs and verbal volleys are still met with the feeblest of punishments.

These are the issues that threaten the essence of the spirit of cricket, not 'mankad'ing.

The reason Paul’s actions have infuriated a section of the cricketing world are three fold:

Firstly, our default setting while viewing the game tends to find us in what I call the ‘batter’s game mindset’. Suppose Paul had bowled that ball, and the batters ran the three required to win. Suppose there was a run out chance on the third run, and the batter was home by the very margin that Ngarava was dismissed by. Would that be fair to the West Indies?

Secondly, because of the timing, and the context of the match, with a quarterfinal berth at stake and the match poised on a knife’s edge. Paul is being criticised attempting a ‘mankad’ only when the possibility of a loss loomed large, and the odds were against the West Indies. If this is true- and I believe it is- it is only because of the history of shame and stigma we have attached to a perfectly legitimate form of dismissal. Had ‘mankad’ not been demonised as much as it has, fielding sides would use it more often, and batters would be more wary, and there would be fewer outcries.

Thirdly, because it is a ‘man bites dog’ moment. The last instance of a ‘mankad’ in the international game was back in 2014, when Jos Butler was run out by Senanayake. The sheer rarity of its occurrence has also contributed to the controversy that has engulfed it.

The solution to 'mankad'ing is straightforward: To have more of it. Let’s admit that truth that we all know, but few accept: that if cricket ever was the gentleman’s game, now it is the batter’s game. Today’s bowlers have to invent new ways to counter flat tracks, bigger bats, impossible field restrictions, and innovative batters. Let’s give them another weapon in their armoury. Let’s stop frowning on the ‘mankad’, and challenge bowlers to be aware of the non-strikers position as they run in. Let’s put a healthy fear of losing their wicket in the batter’s minds, and keep them honest. Let’s stop looking at this issue from the ‘batter’s game mindset’ and be fair to all involved.

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