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The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones

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The Cobra Strikes In Mamba Land

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Durban will no longer be synonymous with a meek Indian capitulation. That India came out and defied all odds to leave South Africa in tatters at Kingsmead is perhaps the biggest confirmation of the fact that this team never gives up.

Durban has not been a happy hunting ground for India. Back in 1996 the Indian team had one of its worst defeats at Kingsmead where the fiery Allan Donald supported by the menacingly-accurate Shaun Pollock ran through the Indian batting line-up in both the innings. India could not last 40 overs in either innings and collapsed to 100 in the first and 66 in the second innings. It was not a high scoring game and yet India lost by a massive 328 runs.

On India’s last tour to South Africa in 2006, they came to Durban for the Boxing Day Test after having won the first Test comfortably at the Wanderers in Johannesburg. Almost a day’s play was lost to rain and bad light and India just had to survive about two sessions to eke out a draw and head to Cape Town maintaining their lead. South Africa hustled India in under two sessions on a rain interrupted day where a little more resistance from the top order would have made it much easier for the lower order to hang in there when the light was fading fast.

This time India came to Durban with not just its past history of struggling against the bounce of Kingsmead but also after a drubbing in the first Test at Centurion. There is no denying the fact that India got the worst of the conditions at Centurion. With a wicket that did much more on the first day than it did on any of the subsequent ones and despite a good batting performance in the second innings India lost by an innings and 25 runs.

Shaun Pollock was asked after Centurion: “One up, two to play. How difficult would it be for India to come back from here?” Pollock replied, “It’s massive. I really can’t see them coming back. When you watch their performance, just the four test wickets that they got in this match, I am not too sure where they are going to get the 20 wickets from.”

The South Africans can’t complain that India didn’t give them enough warning that things could change and that they could change drastically. In Nagpur earlier this year South Africa won the toss and put 558 runs on the board. Dale Steyn ran through the Indian line-up picking 7 for 51 in India’s first innings and then another three in the second to set up South Africa’s win by an innings and six runs.

The action then moved to Eden Gardens in Kolkata with India’s number one Test ranking at stake. South Africa won another important toss and they were coasting at 218 for 1, looking set to bat India out of the game. South Africa may have heard about and prepared for an Indian comeback in Kolkata but then nothing prepares you for the kind of madness that took place that day. South Africa slumped to 298 all out; at a crucial juncture they lost five middle-order wickets for the addition of four runs. Virender Sehwag, Sachin Tendulkar, V V S Laxman, and M S Dhoni scored centuries as India declared at 643 for 6 and then bowled South Africa under 300 again to win by an innings and 57 runs.

That was in familiar conditions at home and this has been in alien conditions suiting the South Africans completely where India was also pegged back having lost another vital toss. Smith smiled on his luck and South Africa decided to insert India in. In overcast conditions India came out to combat the swing, seam and bounce that Steyn and Morne Morkel got on a fresh wicket that had a bit of moisture. It was a better batting effort but not enough to be out of the woods till the bowlers came and ripped open the Test.

If Centurion wasn’t a 136-run wicket, as the South Africans kept saying, then was Kingsmead a 131-run wicket on a sunny day when the bowlers got less assistance? Zaheer Khan led the attack brilliantly and the Indian team caught fabulously to take a very handy 74-run lead. The game, once again, seemed to be on an even keel when India was reduced to 56 for four. And then, like a colossus, V V S Laxman stood up and steered India to a lead of over 300 with his brilliant 96 on a wicket where the second highest score from either team in both innings was 39.

The way the Indians bowled as a unit is something South Africa would be wary of before heading to Cape Town. It was on the fourth morning when they gave nothing away that the South African team wilted under pressure. Runs were plugged from both ends as Sreesanth bowled his best spell of the tour and Harbhajan Singh bowled with such control that one wondered if he had the ball on a leash.

The abiding memory of the Test would be the dismissal of Jacques Kallis. Sreesanth got the ball to dart in from a length and venomously leap like a cobra towards Kallis’ head. Kallis was airborne and like a supreme athlete his body was arched like a human C but he couldn’t do anything but glove the ball with sheer survival instinct. The ball ballooned to Sehwag at gully and Kallis was on his way. Allan Donald said on television that it was a ball that had Kallis’ name on it and what made it such an impossible one to deal with was the fact that it did so much so quickly that the batsman had absolutely no time.

South Africa was a cock-a-hoop after Centurion and they were undone by an absolutely brilliant performance by the Indian team at Durban. All this bodes well for Cape Town, where the South Africans will be smarting from the defeat at Kingsmead and the Indians will be well aware that this could be their opportunity to finally win a test series in the African nation. The return of Gautam Gambhir augurs well for the visitors and this time it will be the South Africans who’ll need to do a bit of soul searching.

(This piece was first done for The Sunday Guardian website on December 30, 2010)

My Guru Is More Enlightened Than Yours!

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A few days ago Suhel Seth was animated on a Times Now ‘Newshour’ debate about the growing violence against Indians in Australia. He had ample reason to be upset; but in his impatience he did not let a significant point being made by another person on the show to sink in. On being asked to define racism, Suhel quickly retorted that racism is an attack on a particular race and then did not listen when the other participant completed it by saying that by a supposedly different race; which was the whole point he was trying to explain. Some of these attacks he said were by mixed gangs and were more criminal in nature than racist and some others were clearly racist by nature.

Most societies have ways of being self-critical and looking within when a crisis emerges; and a shrill and jingoistic response never helps in solving the problem. It is a matter of concern that Indian students find themselves vulnerable in Sydney and Melbourne but it is also true that Australia has accepted that there are pockets of racism in the country, which they are trying to address, but that does not mean that the entire nation is racist. We should resist using a single paintbrush to colour the entire nation.

There is also a very competitive rivalry between India and Australia on the cricket field and the players have a fan following and a genuine admiration in the rival camps. Shane Warne has come forward to facilitate better understanding and it is a move that should be complemented in every possible manner. The cricket players are brand ambassadors and the likes of Steve Waugh, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Adam Gilchrist, for example, can come forward to ease the relationship. The world now is a global village and efforts that reduce human conflict are the ones that count the most in preventing crime—racial or otherwise.

In 2007, India won the Twenty20 World Cup and MS Dhoni and his boys were received by a cavalcade of thousands and thousands of fans as the team moved in an open-top double-decker bus from the airport to Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium. Andrew Symonds did not like the ‘over-the-top’ celebrations and he was in India as part of the Aussie squad for a seven-match ODI series.

On September 28, 2007 Cricinfo reported: “Something has been sparked inside of me, watching them carry on over the last few days,” Symonds told AAP. “We have had a very successful side and I think watching how we celebrate and how they celebrate, I think we have been pretty humble in the way we have gone about it. And personally, I think they have got far too carried away with their celebrations. It has definitely sparked passion inside of us. It has certainly spiced it up as well.”

“Something gets triggered inside of you, something is burning inside of you—it is your will for success or your animal instinct that wants to bring another team down,” Symonds said. “We have been at the top for so long, it is like someone has taken the favourite thing you own from you and you want it back.”

It wasn’t a quote that can be termed as wise but that is no excuse either for crowd behaviour or for BCCI’s denial mode when incidents offensive towards Symonds were reported. A cricket blogger rightly observed: Niranjan Shah, the BCCI secretary, went so far as to say, “What the media and Symonds shouldn’t forget is that the Australian crowds are far more dangerous and volatile than their Indian counterparts.” Even if this were true, what does this have to do with the price of fish in the land? There is a principle at play here: Racisim in cricket in India is not on!

Another report in Fox Sports concluded: “Racism is evil, repulsive and the sport should confront it head-on wherever it is encountered. India is enjoying its new power and influence. Along with other black nations, it had been patronised by pompous English and ignorant Australians. Revenge should not be so ruthless and ungenerous that a game is made unmanageable. India, with its many millions of dollars, has the power and opportunity to restore cricket. It just doesn’t appear to have the leaders.”

Symonds later said that he had gone to the Indian dressing room and spoken to Harbhajan Singh one-on-one to make it clear that the word ‘monkey’ is offensive, denigrating and a racial slur in his terminology (this is the essence of it and not the exact words). It was a charged ODI series and Symonds performed brilliantly and Hayden had a mouthful of things to say.

Many writers in India expressed that the crowd behaviour was obnoxious and India owed Symonds an apology. The Cricket Board pretended as if nothing had happened. If there was any doubt that the man found it offensive then it was cleared in this tour and there was no ambiguity regarding the connotation.
In the Sydney Test in January, the stump mike revealed nothing and match referee Mike Procter had no legal authority to rule when it was one man’s word against the other. It later came out that no one was close enough to hear the exact words. Eminent economist Lord Meghnad Desai, professor emeritus of the London School of Economics, in a recent article traced the origin of the conflict to the fractured Sydney Test. “I would ask the two governments to get the two cricketing sides together and appeal to all to view the matter in the spirit of cricket, where winning or losing was never meant to matter.”

Regarding the result of the Sydney Test, Pradeep Magazine of the Hindustan Times wrote, “Despite all the wrongs done to them on the field, India could have still salvaged a draw and been in a much stronger position to take a high moral ground and tell the umpires and the Australians of what they thought of them”

The Australian media, let us not forget, acknowledged that India was hard done in Sydney and the criticism only started when the BCCI apparently went muscle flexing. Harbhajan may well have used abusive language and not the racial slur as the word he admitted to having used is part of the common north Indian lingo. And the word points towards an abuse but rarely borders on the actual abuse that requires adding one more word. Bastards are sad creatures in India but you can easily call someone a lucky bastard in many cultures. People all around the world need to learn and be sensitive to other people’s cultures.

The television coverage showed Symonds giving a mouthful while going towards his fielding position and he may well have been goading Harbhajan, ‘with his animal instincts’, for all you know. Ian Chappell in the commentary box expressed concern over Hayden’s qualification as a peacemaker and the incident occurred when Harbhajan was involved in a significant partnership with Tendulkar that was proving out to be a thorn for the Aussies.

The crowds and media and some of the Aussie players took to riling Bhajji in every match after that; but the turbaned Sikh is a strong character who used it to perform against the odds on the field. As the months rolled by and seeing the path that the careers of the two players took since Sydney, one can say, with some bias, that in the Symonds-Harbhajan affair it was the plaintiff who came out looking worse than the defendant. Hayden went on air calling Bhajji an ‘obnoxious little weed’ and later Symonds woke up to realise that ‘the devil had farted in his face’ after he called Brendon McCullum a ‘lump of shit’; this time again on a radio show.

I do agree with Mike Selvey of the Guardian that despite everything Symonds deserves sympathy and not scorn. “Symonds may not be the most pleasant of men (I have no way of knowing but anecdotal evidence suggests as much) but that should not be the criterion. He is a troubled individual who needs ongoing support and, judging by the words of Anderson (psychologist), is already benefiting from it. A stitch-up by a pair of goading comedians should not see a man lose his career. The consequences of the alternative, dumping him, are too unedifying to consider.”

Andrew Symonds is too good a cricketer to be lost in fighting inner demons and it would be heartening if his career is salvaged. As for racism, it is a global problem and if we could all begin with ourselves first the results will be faster and more peaceful. Have you heard that great joke where a disciple is fighting another one on the premise that ‘my guru is more enlightened than yours’.

These are a few good links to follow.

Crowd Carry On Over Harbhajan—Greg Baum for The Age

Are We Racist? You Know The Answer Already—Vir Sanghvi for Mint

Bowler Found Guilty But Australia Stand Condemned—David Hopps for the Guardian

Booze-addled Symonds deserves sympathy not scorn—Mike Selvey for the Guardian

Dhoni Personifies 21st Century Leadership

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It was 97 for 3 after 15.1 overs when MS Dhoni joined Gautam Gambhir in the second ODI in Nagpur and from here he gently nudged India to a position from where he and Suresh Raina could then ferociously turn the course of the match.

The first ball that Dhoni faced was a bouncer from Hilfenhaus; he didn’t pick it and took evasive action without his eyes on the ball. It hit him on the back of the helmet, but he was alive to the possibility of a leg-bye; and at the non-striker’s end he could even afford a smile.

The rebuilding process began with the scrambling for ones and twos; haring between the wickets and picking the odd boundary in between. The period reminded me of a brilliant half-century that Dhoni got against Sri Lanka and saw India home without hitting a single boundary in Adelaide last year. The 119-run fourth wicket partnership at over six an over was broken with the strange run-out of Gambhir—the second time he’s lost his wicket recently while backing up.

Raina joined Dhoni with 16 overs remaining and India in a good position with 216 on the board. The next five overs yielded just 22 runs as Raina had time to get his eye in. India was 251 for 4 in 41 overs when the deft stealing had been done and the loot began. And what a loot it was.

In the next 8 overs India plundered 98 runs as Dhoni’s bottom-hand and Raina’s innovative hitting mercilessly butchered the Aussie attack. Dhoni may have curbed his style with additional responsibilities but he showed how much muscle he can pack into those typical MSD strokes if the situation demands. He jumped from 90 to 108 with three bottom-handed sixes in four balls. Flat sixes and fours that went like tracer bullets flowed from his bat before he fell in the last over having made 124 in 107 balls. There was ample support from the two southpaws and Gambhir’s 76 and Raina’s 62 later gave the captain the license to kill.

After losing his first ODI series as captain against Australia at home 4-2; Dhoni has won every bilateral ODI series home and away. The losses have been in tournaments with a format involving more than two teams; the Kitply and the Asia Cup and the two World tournaments this year.

The two finals that India won in the last edition of the Commonwealth Bank Series in Australia are the crowning glory of India’s ODI achievements. Teams with big names on paper have played in the tri-series before and Australia has mostly proved to be too hot to handle in the finals. Dhoni got Praveen Kumar and Piyush Chawla in the playing XI in the finals. Praveen opened the attack and took two vital wickets and Piyush was given the ball when Hayden and Symonds were hitting the seamers easily. They justified the captain’s faith amply and Australia managed a gettable 239 in 50 overs.

It needed a big performance on the big stage to go past Australia; and a magnificent 117 not out by Tendulkar and his vigilant and daring 123-run partnership with young Rohit Sharma, who made 66, ensured that India went to Brisbane with a lead. “He has scored 16,000 runs. I haven’t even played 16,000 balls.” That was the pithy comment from Dhoni when asked, halfway through the CB Series, if he was bothered by his senior-most batsman failing to make big runs. When his experience and ability to fashion a chase in a big match was needed Tendulkar played the perfect innings in a perfect chase.

The business was finished in Brisbane and Dhoni stepped back a little and asked for the youngest member in the team; and a grinning Chawla held the trophy aloft. That and the T-shirt he put on a young Indian fan after the World T20 win symbolises his leadership.

His giving Ganguly those few overs to lead the Test team for one last time before bowing out showed the magnanimity of his leadership—and coming ahead of all the big names in the Mohali Test showed he can take tough decisions easily if needed. He does not shy from trusting a youngster at the deep end of the sea. He respects the present and the past achievers but is pretty-much his own man. He has no need to foist himself on the team or to seek respect and that is one of the reasons why he earns it so well. Dhoni personifies the leadership required for a 21st Century India.

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