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. 

This article first appeared on

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.

This article first appeared on

Interview with Anjum Chopra

This season’s edition of the women’s Super League T20 matches (Elite Group) were historic in the Indian context. There had been a buzz around the ground over the couple of days preceding the tournament, as for the first time, four of the six matches were being televised live on Star Sports. After the fourth game, veteran commentator and former India captain Anjum Chopra, who has played in four World Cups, sat down for an exclusive interview with Firstpost.

With the lush outfield of Indore’s Holkar stadium in the backdrop, she shared her insights into both the commentary box and the dressing room in her forthright chat.

Snehal Pradhan:  This is the first time a women’s cricket domestic match is telecast on TV. What are the likely effects for the women’s cricket scene in India?

Anjum Chopra: Look I think it’s a brilliant opportunity for women’s cricket in India to take a leap forward and make rapid strides in improvement. With the televised games, I think obviously a lot of people get to see the women play. Obviously a lot of interest is from the immediate family and friends but people who’ve not seen a lot of girls play cricket, for them it’s a great opportunity.
On the professional front I think as I said earlier, it’s great if the girls can really take up this opportunity and really showcase the high standards of the game that can be displayed or should be displayed. It’s a positive move forward for the women's team.

Star Sports and BCCI have taken up a little bit more interest in broadcasting women's cricket matches over the last few months. First the India-New Zealand series and now these domestic matches. We were also lucky enough to win that ODI series and in these matches too we have seen some really good batting displays by the likes of Mithali Raj and Smriti Mandhana. Do you think Indian women cricket the standard is improving overall? Can you judge by the few games that we have seen?

 The initiative taken by the BCCI to showcase matches with the host broadcaster Star Sports, I think that a brilliant initiative and credit must go to the people who are making decisions in favour of the women’s sport, so that I think is a great opportunity. In terms of the talent being displayed, undoubtedly, Mithali Raj, we all know is a world-class player. She has got phenomenal talent, she doesn't need to prove all this to anybody because she's already a world acclaimed player worldwide. But, as I said it's a great opportunity for youngsters to showcase their talent.

But when I say that, I also say in the same breath that the players need to work extremely hard. A game being televised shows more than it hides. When the game is not being televised you can hide a lot of things but when it is being televised it showcases more and exposes more as well. So when you do that, I do feel that the players have a brilliant opportunity of gaining a lot from this but it’s up to them as well how they ‘Make It or Break It’ because at the end of the day the hard work has to be done by the players to improve in all departments and showcase their talent to the world.

So what you are saying is this (more televised games) will basically increase the accountability for players, coaches and selectors?

No, see when game is televised and a player is batting or bowling, it is the player batting or bowling. If they do well a lot of people get counted for. If they don't do well lot of flak comes to the player’s perspective, so that cannot be hidden. I think a televised game is the best opportunity a player can ever ask for in their playing days. Televised games will always be showcasing what is happening on the ground not the people who are behind the scenes. So it works both ways good/bad. I'm not saying ,I am not even talking about the selectors. I'm talking about the standard and improvements that a player can do in taking an opportunity- that ok, you’re being shown to the world. When you dress up- you’re going to a party- you don't dress shabbily, you always dress up well to showcase yourself when you’re going to a gathering.  Similarly when you come and play a tournament it's not about how you dress up but it's about how you play, how you present yourself, physically, skill wise in every manner, that’s also an opportunity. You can't take the stage lightly. I think it’s for the players to take it up more and for the authorities to handle it better and probably take it to the next level.

Talking about your own experience as a commentator you have been a familiar face on Doordarshan for a while but is it accurate to say that a lot more people know about you after your IPL stint,  and what your experiences have been there?

As long as people know me for good reasons I'm happy with it whether through Doordarshan or IPL. I am very happy to be given an opportunity but as I said at the end of the day (in) any work for me I think sky's the limit for improvement. It’s a job that has to be done well, there is no second opinion to it. You can't have half measures. It’s up to me how much I can improve as a broadcaster and that's my job so that's how I look at it.

You have become a role model and provided a clear pathway for a lot of young girls who might never have thought that women can also be commentators, presenters, broadcasters. When you were growing up did you ever have any role models in the commentary box?

Well, I've always heard a lot of commentators, because I watched a lot of cricket as well. My growing up years have been around cricket and other sports as well.  I wouldn’t say I’ve had any ‘idols’ but I've always enjoyed a lot of commentary coming in from Australia. Bill Lawry has been my all time favourite. But as I said in commentary you can't follow a pattern, you can't be another copy cat or a prototype of something else. Everybody has to find their own individual approach. But yes I've always enjoyed the commentary that comes in during the Ashes. It’s just so interesting; it just makes the match even better with the commentary.  The standard of play is good, the commentary makes it even better, it’s just a completely different package.

For young girls now, who want to get into commentary, what would you say is the pathway?

(Laughs) I don’t know what the pathway is, I’m really not the best person to design a pathway, I’ve just taken the next level or the next step forward, whatever opportunity comes my way. I tried to do the best and become better each day. So if the opportunity comes, only thing I can do is better than my best.  I really don't know what the pathway is.

Besides cricket you also been involved with broadcasting and presenting kabaddi. Do you think the trend is shifting now towards presenters and broadcasters who can present over various sports not just their core competency?

There is no harm being multidimensional. I played kabaddi as well. I’ve played a lot of sports in school, so that helps me. I’ve played sports at national level apart from cricket, so that helps me. So as I said, if you are a multidimensional person and (an) opportunity is presented to you and you can deliver in the manner in which is supposed to be delivered then that is the job at hand. That is what you are there for. I enjoyed my stint with kabaddi. I think it gave me a lot of exposure and experience. Covering cricket is one thing. It is as when you play a sport, everyday you get to the ground and you’re learning something new; even in broadcasting and presenting, everyday you come to the studio or the ground, everyday I learn something new. That's the beauty of it and I love my job.

Favourite co-commentator?

Everybody I worked with especially doing commentary for the women’s matches - I’ve worked with everybody for the first time. Covering the IPL, everybody was a first so I don't have an example to say that I worked with the same person twice or thrice, covering events.
For me it's obviously doing the same and learning to become better at it.

Talking about cricket how much has changed at the International and Domestic level from your playing days?

Well, the standard has gone down from my playing days-which were not so far in the past–well- that's my personal view. I said- the standard has gone down, I don't mean the talent has gone down - the talent is there but the standard has gone down and the results show it as well. It's not a very healthy sign and it’s not good news because you are supposed to be progressing but you can't be taking steps back. But unfortunately we have been taking steps back or we have been saturated as Indian women's cricket so that is what is changed.

Your best and worst memories from your playing days?

If it has to be one then it has to be the (2005) World Cup final. The best memory is playing the World Cup final and the worst memory is losing the World Cup final. In the final we were chasing 215 runs which is not even a par score in today's time, probably it wasn't even that difficult. But I guess as a team at that point of time if we just think back and if you talk to other players also they will all say that we prepared play the World Cup finals. We never prepared to win the World Cup finals. We achieved what we went out for so we can't have a hard time saying that we didn't achieve the target.
But yes winning a world cup is completely different and I'm so sure we missed an opportunity to raise the level of the sport for people in India by a great extent. Because if we had won in 2005 maybe women’s cricket would have been on a different pedestal 10 years down the line, and maybe the situation would have been a lot healthier than what it is today.
So I do feel it was an opportunity let go from all of us who were a part of that team; that we had an opportunity to change careers and futures of many youngsters who were just coming in and wanting to play the sport but, as I said learn from the mistakes and move forward. That’s what I'm hoping for Indian cricket in the future.

Tips for the girls going to Australia? You have a lot of experience there.

(Laughs) They don't need my tips they only need their own performances to help them in Australia.  But yes I do wish them all the best because they will be faced with stiff opposition. They will (need to ) be able to practice or rather implement whatever they have been learning  individually - because few of them have travelled to Australia very many number of times now, they’ve played the  opposition a few times. Results, well, we all know Australia is a much stronger opposition than what India will be but how the results come out will show the development of Indian cricket from the last time they played Australia. Everything is not about the result is also about the process so I'll be eagerly looking at what the processes are and that's going to be the big positive coming out.

This interview first appeared on

Use your head. Wear a helmet. Always.

It’s been a little over a year since the cricket world was shaken by the death of Phil Hughes. At the time, his death seemed like an anomaly. The binary system of cricket, which so far only dealt in the results ‘win’ or ‘lose’, threw up a chilling third one: ‘death’. Hughes’ passing threw into focus something that most within the game already knew. That cricket, and in fact all sport, has underlying dangers. His death was like the one solar flare that caused us to take a closer look at the sun, only to realise it wasn’t the first, and hasn’t been the last.

Since November 2014, at least four more cricketers have died on the field. Two of these deaths (the Israeli umpire Hilel Awasker and English club cricketer Bavalan Pathmanathan) were triggered by the impact of a cricket ball.

Cricket, stripped down to its most visceral, is an activity in which a projectile is hurled in the direction of the batter for him/her to manipulate. The necessity of taking the very basic precautions while attempting something like that cannot be overstated. Saba Karim and Mark Boucher’s careers could have been much longer had they been wearing a helmet. But even with a helmet, the cricket ball can do serious damage. Stuart Broad had his nose broken by a Varun Aaron bouncer, which sneaked through his helmet grille. And Craig Keiswetter suffered an even more unfortunate fate, when a similar injury permanently hampered his vision, and forced him into early retirement, despite having his helmet on.

Cricket can hurt, make no mistake. Ask Richard Kettleborough’s shins. Ask Ajinkya Rahane’s fingers. Ask anyone standing south of David Warner. But the reason I write this piece, is an incident involving a young cricketer who I have shared a dressing room with. Last month, Humaira Kazi was hit on her head while batting by a misdirected throw that left her unconscious for a few minutes, and with a hairline fracture of the skull. She was lucky that that was all. She would have been safer had she been wearing a helmet, but she considered it unnecessary since she was batting against spin.

Humaira Kazi, who escaped with a fractured skull after beinghit in the head. 

Unfortunately, unless facing a threatening fast bowler, many players prefer not to wear a lid while batting. Is it hubris? Or just poor role models? After all, MS Dhoni does it. But this leaves players like Kazi susceptible to injuries through freak accidents. But a closer look shows us that there is nothing ‘freak’ about them.

The internet tells us that a freak accident is, “an incident, especially one that is harmful, occurring under highly unusual and unlikely circumstances.” It is the type of thing that is seen to be so improbable, it’s not worth the effort of taking protection against. “No need to wear armour on my heel, I’ll never get hurt there”, Achilles probably though. But this excellent story by Andy Bull in the Guardian points out to the public something that my own experience in cricket has already taught me. These freak accidents aren’t as uncommon as you would think.

In my own fifteen years as a cricketer, I have been struck on the head twice. The first time, while batting, a full toss slid off the back of my bat and onto my helmet. The second, a stray ball from the opposition nets hit me on the back of my head. Luckily, I walked away with just a headache. I myself have hit quite a few players on the head with my bowling. In the first of these, the batter wasn’t wearing a helmet. It is a memory that I would rather forget.
My Western Railway teammate and Delhi cricketer Lalita Sharma recalled a rather more painful incident. The full toss she missed nicked the back of her bat and shattered her unprotected nose. She had to be airlifted from Surat to Delhi for reconstructive surgery. Although she was almost miraculously back in action in a week, the doctor said a few centimetres here and there and she could have lost her eyesight.

Considering that women’s cricket is only a small piece in the big Indian cricket pie, even the most conservative extrapolation of my experience with head injuries gives us an idea of the number of these ‘freak accidents’ that must be occurring in India alone. Sceptical? Visit Azad maidan or Oval maidan in Mumbai. At first, the wonder of seeing so many matches being played simultaneously in such a small area will hit you. Once it wears off, it is likely that a cricket ball will. Mumbai’s maidans are a melting pot with all the ingredients to concoct a ‘freak accident’.

The cricket world is not totally unaware of the existing dangers. All test playing nations have agreed to adopt the 2013 British safety standards as stipulated by the ICC, but implementation of these guidelines is the prerogative of each individual board. Some have been more diligent about this than others. Noticed the colourful honeycomb patterned neck protection that all players in the BBL now sport on their helmets? They are a result of a Cricket Australia policy change requiring all national and state contracted players to adhere to updated safety standards. The ECB have already made helmets mandatory for all batters -irrespective of the speed of the bowler- as well as close in fielders and wicketkeepers standing up to the stumps. They are also exploring protective equipment for umpires.

Which raises the question of why the BCCI haven’t yet adopted safer practices. When asked about the ICC directive, a senior BCCI official told Firstpost, “We have issued advisories to all state associations, regarding the new safety standards that have been decided upon with regards to helmets.” However, unlike the ECB and CA, the BCCI have not yet made helmets mandatory. “It is a positive step that they (the other boards) have taken. However, enforcing something like across the country length and breadth of our country is not that straightforward. We have provided clear guidelines about safety precautions that should be taken.”

“Just as we want better phones which have latest technology, players should also keep upgrading their safety equipment. The extra protection post Phil Hughes incident for back side of the skull is the reference point.” Sanjay Bangar, the Indian team batting coach, told Firstpost. But in India, the cricketing fraternity has had to take individual decisions with regards to safety. While whether to wear a helmet or not is a choice left to the player, most coaches agreed that it’s just common sense. Niranjan Godbole, former Maharashtra Ranji trophy cricketer who still plays club cricket in England said, “I always instruct my wards to wear a helmet, even if they are facing a spinner. The risk of a ball hitting the face is always around, especially while playing horizontal bat shots like the sweep and pull.”

Umpire John Ward couldbe the first of many to wear a helmet. He certainly should.

In a Vijay Hazare trophy match last month, umpire Paschim Pathak officiated wearing a helmet. He had watched Aussie umpire John Ward get hit in a Ranji game, and rightly decided to take no chances. And John Ward should be saluted for calling for a helmet in Canberra on Wednesday during the fourth ODI between India and Australia. Once hit, always shy - and right so. Umpire Ward might just set the trend in international cricket.

While the boards of other countries are engaged in collaborative research into the hunt for the perfect helmet, in India a helmet is still an option. This article is an appeal from a former player to the BCCI : make helmets mandatory for all batters at all times. At least for minors under -18, who aren’t considered old enough to make important decisions themselves, there should be no two ways about it. 

That being said, former India cricketer Amey Khurasia, now chief coach with the MPCA added this, “If it should be mandatory for juniors, it should apply to the seniors as well. This isn’t a question of maturity, it’s a question of protecting a player’s life. In such cases, the rules should be same for all age groups.”

Should the BCCI go ahead and make the use of helmets mandatory, many are likely to find such a move a nuisance, just like so many in our country oppose helmets on motorcycles. But in this case, as the caretaker of cricket in this country, the BCCI must make decisions that might upset some, for the good of the many.
It might save the next Humaira Kazi from a fractured skull. It might even save the life of the next Raman Lamba. Surely, that is reason enough.

This article first appeared on

If you want to contribute to making cricket safer, sign my petition to make helmets mandatory. 

Sunday, 10 January 2016

King Kane: From Middle Earth to the top of the world

If you enter ‘Lord Of The Rings’ in the Google search bar, it will soon suggest the words ‘New Zealand’, where the movies were shot. If New Zealand is our world’s Middle Earth, then Kane Stuart Williamson is currently King there. No wonder then that he is referred to as ‘The King’ by his charismatic captain Brendon McCullum.

'King Kane' was finally enthroned and anointed by the rest of the world as well as the No. 1 ranked test batsman in the world - the first Kiwi to reach the top spot since the rankings were established.
On his Test debut in India back in 2010 though, things were very different. Facing a mammoth score of 487, he walked in with the score at a tricky 137 for four, against the No 1 ranked Test team in the world then, in their backyard. It was a situation that could have unnerved many-a-debutante, especially one who had made a duck on his ODI debut against the same opponent.

But he responded by becoming the youngest New Zealander to begin his Test career with a century. It was an innings that highlighted two qualities that would be written about for many years to come: his footwork, and his composure.

But for those who knew him closely, his century on debut would have come as no surprise. A natural athlete, the ambidextrous Williamson played a number of sports as a child, but cricket was always his first choice. Initially coached by his father, who played cricket for Northern Districts U-17s, the precocious Williamson stood out since childhood. He routinely played against boys three or four years his senior, as his talent demanded. At 15, he was picked for New Zealand U19, and at 19, after two standout seasons for Northern Districts, he was contracted by New Zealand Cricket (NZC), despite not having played an international game yet.
But having talent is one thing, translating it into performance is quite another. Often the difference between the two is a cool head. That is a quality Williamson has never been short of.

Cast your mind back to the ODI World Cup 2015 league game where Williamson led the Black Caps to victory in a nail biting finish that sent Eden Park into sonic boom. With only Trent Boult at the other end and six runs to get with over 150 balls remaining, Williamson quickly calculated his best option, and serenely smoked a straight drive off Pat Cummins into the stands. The celebration was equally cool, with a smile and fist pump, as if he was saving it for another victory, a bigger dream, one that was not to be.

But despite the disappointment of losing the World Cup final, Williamson has had a stellar 2015. His hundred in the last innings of the second Test vs Sri Lanka was his fifth in 2015, and took him past the record for the most Test runs in a calendar year by a Black Caps player (he now has 1172 runs at an average of 90.15). It also put him level with Ross Taylor in the list of the most Test centuries scored by a Kiwi batter (13). Both are now behind only Martin Crowe, who has 17.

He has played a huge role in the resurgence of New Zealand, along with the likes of Boult, Tim Southee and McCullum. New Zealand has not lost a Test series at home since March 2012. And given that he is only 25, he is touted to end up as their best ever batter.
It’s not just the runs he scores though - it's also the way he scores them. Irrespective of the format, Williamson’s more traditional shot selection has always worked for him. His backfoot play - naturally strong considering his hobbit-esque stature - reminds one of the clean lines made by a sabre rather that the hacking-broadsword motion so many modern batters employ. His saint-like composure at the crease has compelled the word ‘Zen’ to be associated with his batting on numerous occasions.

It is almost as if he doesn’t feel pressure at all. Indeed, in an interview given shortly before his Test debut, he said, “When the pressure is on, rather than ‘handling’ the pressure, you almost ‘don’t register’ the pressure, and then you’re in the place to score runs.” These are life lessons seasoned pros often hand out at the end of their careers. Williamson has wasted no time in wising up.
And if his foot work and composure are always apparent on the field, off the field his modesty shines through. Soft spoken and polite, he has often displayed a sensitivity rarely seen in sportsmen of this era. During the New Zealand vs Pakistan 2014 ODI series he donated his entire match fee for all five ODIs to the victims of the 2014 Peshawar school massacre. In press conferences, he rarely seems to show emotion, yet does not seem to be hiding any either. As part of the team which was sledged for being ‘too nice’ by the Australians, he is the nice guy who is finishing first.
For the man who is the captain-elect of the Black Caps, and will lead the team in the absence of Brendon McCullum at the World T20 in India, captaincy is his next Everest.

McCullum has left him a rich inheritance, one which he could nurture into something legendary. Much like the hobbits made the obscure Shire famous in J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnum opus, this middle order batter from Middle Earth has all the ingredients to make rugby-mad New Zealand famous for cricket as well.

This article first appeared in my column on 

The IPTL: Tennis is more fun as a team sport

The second edition of the IPTL packed its bags on Sunday, with the Singapore Slammers emerging eventual champions. The tournament proved that the success of the first edition wasn’t beginners luck, and that given the participation of a few big names, the format is here to stay.

While I watch tennis only on and off, mostly only at Grand Slams, I found myself unable to switch the channels whenever the IPTL was on TV. I don’t know if it was the innovative rules — with power points and shorter turnaround times — or the star power (personally Sania Mirza was the showstopper for me). Or maybe it was because the format had both a patriotic flavour, as well as a team structure infringing on what is essentially an individual sport. It made me feel like I was watching Davis Cup on steroids, and reminded me of some life decisions I made early in my sporting career.

When I was around 17, and had established myself in the Maharashtra senior cricket team and been touted a future India prospect, my cousin suggested something radical. He advised me to give up cricket. He said I was clearly a good athlete, and I should try an individual sport like tennis.

Around the same time, a Major in the Army Sports Institute in my home town of Pune invited me for some tests. He thought I had the makings of a successful middle distance runner, and he, too, exhorted me to take up the individual game over a team sport.

Their reasons were largely the same: “In team sports, one must rely on others to a great extent in the pursuit of success. You might be good but unless your team is good enough, you will never win. Whereas in an individual sport, your success lies entirely in your hands.”

My reasons for not taking their advice were simple: I loved cricket. Not tennis. Certainly not athletics. Cricket.

Thinking back now, one of the reasons I love cricket is precisely because it is a team sport.

I love the camaraderie of being in a team. I love always having someone whose leg I can pull in training and someone who will not let me forget that dropped catch, or that failed push up. I love the support of a team, and having to find inner strength when the support isn’t forthcoming. I love playing for the name on the front of my shirt, not for the name on the back. I love knowing that a team is more than the sum of its parts. I love that sometimes, a team can rise above what it looks like on paper, and become a new — sometimes transcendental — whole. I love the fact that such a thing is possible only with, and often despite, each member’s involvement.

Both individual and team sports have their fans and detractors, and rightly so. In team sports, some players can piggyback on more talented and hardworking teammates’ success, thus hiding their weaknesses. In individual games, there is nowhere to hide. All you are, all you have, and certainly all you don’t, is laid bare on the court or the track every single time. The glory is all yours. But so is the loneliness. It can be draining, especially if things aren’t going your way. There are precedents of this prompting professionals to switch from individual to team sports. Aussie Ashleigh Barty, a former Jr. Wimbledon champion, recently switched to cricket and made her debut for the Brisbane Heat in the WBBL for similar reasons.

The qualities that individual athletes need to succeed — discipline, intrinsic motivation and self belief — are always on abundant display whenever Nadal and Federer play each other. But when they faced each other in the Delhi leg of the IPTL, the encounter had a rarely seen before aura to it, a je ne sai quoi if you will. It was something intangible, yet clearly visible. It took me a while, but I realised it was created by the presence of their teammates, egging them on and offering advice. You could see it with every high five after every ridiculous shot. It infected the players and showed in their smiles.  Tell me, have you ever seen Rafa and Roger smile so much in a game?

Smiling after the game, yes. Smiling during it? image courtesy facebook

Perhaps it was because this was the first time they were facing each other in a team event. They were the last of many storylines that were unfolding that night. And despite being a dead rubber (the Aces were leading 24-14), their tie had context, as it too was part of a whole.

I am grateful to the IPTL for the fact that it gives us a chance to view these incredible players of an individual game showcase their skills in a team environment. Only the Davis Cup provides anything similar. Like cricket, the IPTL calls for largely individual performances within a team set up. Watching tennis like this is a refreshing change, especially for Indian viewers, who connect well with team sports. And I wager it is highly enjoyable for the players as well, judging by the smiles and high fives on court. It helps that the IPTL is more of a showcase tournament, and doesn’t carry the pressures, dress codes or straight faces that are de riguer in a Grand Slam. But this is not the only reason.

In a 2009 study, psychology professor Dr. John Tauer pointed out that children enjoyed sports more when competition and cooperation coexisted, i.e., in an environment where they were cooperating with members of their own team while simultaneously competing against another team. It is no surprise that we see so many smiles and light-hearted moments on the IPTL bandwagon. While Nadal-Federer were cleaning the lines with their ground strokes in Delhi, even the chair umpire had a laugh when he accidentally called “Let”. 

"We don't stop playing because we grow old," George Bernard Shaw remarked, "we grow old because we stop playing." Coaches in every sport always try to help athletes return to the ‘beginner’s heart’, that childlike enthusiasm we have for the game when we start playing it. We don’t start playing sport for the fame, or the money, or even the competition. We play it simply to enjoy ourselves. The IPTL may be helping these hardcore professionals return to that child-like bubbly enthusiasm. That is not to suggest that they do not enjoy their game on the Tour. This just accepts the fact that the team structure predisposes sports towards greater enjoyment.

It’s lonely at the top. But not if you’re in a team.

This article first appeared in my column on