Saturday, April 18, 2015

Toure's Birthday is coming. Manchester United 4 - 2 Manchester City

My Tata Sky has been down for the last 12 days, with the Tech support telling me every time how important my problem is with them. They actually managed to make me feel like the most important person in the whole world, for, after all even my wife has never told me how important I am to her for 12 consecutive days. To my horror, just an hour before the match I found out that my subscription I created with Star Sports was not working for some unknown issue. I had no hope at all when I sent an email to their tech support asking to look into it, but voila, within 75 minutes not only that I got an email reply and call, they resolved the issue as well. That is what you call customer support.

So all I missed from the game was the first 15 minutes in which, as I found it later, City started like a run- away train with a goal from Sergio Aguiro, only to be pegged back by a scrambled effort from Ashley Young.  Then onwards, United’s midfield took control of the game and I am pretty sure that I am writing this sentence only for the first time in the last 3 years. I thought I will never see the days when United’s midfield over running a City team which contains Yaya Toure.  Toure played like a man whose is having sex with his ugly wife while thinking about his gorgeous fling. In all probability he is already thinking of his upcoming birthday and wondering whether the cake is a round or square. Based on his performance in the last month, he will be lucky to get a cookie from the City hierarchy.

Marouane Fellaini scored a typical Marouane Fellaini goal from an Ashley Young cross to give United a 2-1 lead a t half time.  Those are the two players who received much flak in the last year for United’s form, but fair play to both of them for having the balls to face it and overturn it. A word on LVG too get both of them playing in the way they do now. Nobody, not even Ashley Young’s mom, would have thought that he will keep the British transfer record signing Angel Di Maria out of United’s starting eleven at some point this year, let along consistently for the last 2 months.

When Rooney turned and found Mata free on the left flank, the Spaniard ran towards Joe Hart, and for a moment I though he got too close to him, but slipped the ball between his legs to the Stretford end goal. Even at 3-1, the match was alive but City players did their best to hide it. Had players’ body language been the only parameter, Manuel Pellegrini would have been sacked midway through the second half.  It is fair to assume that there is going to be a clear out at the Etihad this summer and I will be surprised if Pellegrini is not part of it.

In the previous Manchester derby Chris Smalling managed to send himself off within 33 minutes with two clearly bookable offences, but this time he was commanding in defense and scored the 4th from a a freekick to put the result beyond doubt. With 5 minutes remaining after the second goal from Sergio Aguiro to make the score 4-2, the lack of celebration from City players told the story of the night, shone of hunger and fire, lack of energy and fun. Not that  any of those 70000 fans in red shirts inside Old Trafford was complaining.

Monday, December 1, 2014

#PutOutYourBats for Phil Hughes

52 years ago, Nari Contractor readied himself to face Charlie Griffith, who was as fast and fearsome as any of the other West Indian quicks during that time, for a tour match against Barbados. He was alleged to be chucking as well. As Griffith was about to deliver the fourth ball of his second over, somebody opened a window in the pavilion which was right behind the bowler's arm. There was no sightscreen on those days and Contractor's concentration went astray. He saw the ball only inches before it hit him, at the back of his skull after he turned. He could stand after being hit but soon he started to bleed from his ears and nose, never a good sign. In hospital he remained unconscious for six days, requiring blood transfusion and a surgery. He still carries a metal plate in his skull.

That blow curtailed his Test career, but more importantly he lived to tell his tale. Phil Hughes was not that lucky.

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I have watched Hughes bat, but can't remember the matches exactly. He had a rasping cut shot but the first thing I thought after watching him bat was that he had an awkward technique. Somewhere an elbow prodded. Somewhere a foot was in wrong position. But he could manage. His backfoot defense was strong. His front foot movement was awkward at times. I remember thinking that he would not survive against spinners in India. He was magnificent during his twin knocks against South Africa. He was hoping to be in Gabba for the first Test against India.

None of these matters now. He is in a better world.

* * *

Luck is the word, not technique or courage, neither character nor calmness. Phil Hughes was freakishly unlucky. He would have played that pull shot a million times in nets, and a thousand times in the middle when matches or trophies or career were at stake. He did not get it wrong then. Or rather he did not get so unlucky then. He played the shot a fraction early. The ball arrived a little late. He turned and got hit, where there was no protection. End of story. End of life. So unlucky.

* * *

I am a dad myself. With my daughter I had my share of hospital days, sitting in front of the ICU desperately praying and hoping that she would make it. She did. She was lucky. I was lucky.

Now it kills me to realize that perhaps the worst thing for a man to do is to bury his young son. To bury his dreams, with the realization that he has to live his remaining life without seeing his son. I can only pray that God gives him enough strength to face this. I can only hope that Greg Hughes doesn't regret the moment when he held a cricket bat in the hands of his young son, while the coffin is lowered in to the grave.

* * *

I have watched the video of Hughes being hit, multiple times. To those who haven't, please don't. It is very sickening. Hughes appears fine for a moment, after being hit. He tries to steady himself, by bending and lowering his centre of gravity. He tries to lean on his bat handle to be stable. Then suddenly the limbs give way and he falls face on. He never regained consciousness.

Medical reports say that the impact compressed the vertebral artery, causing it to split, leading to bleeding in brain. Hughes would not have felt any pain at all, except that fraction of a second when he got hit. At least that is what we all would like to hope for. We all wanted him to come back but that did not happen. Now we all want to believe that he went without a smidgeon of pain.

* * *

Somewhere in Nottingham Chris Broad walked up to his son and gave him a quiet hug. He now knows that his son had a lucky escape when he took the "keep your eyes on the ball" advice a bit too seriously against an Ishant Sharma bouncer. Stuart Broad came out of it with a bruised and swollen nose, which now appears like a bargain. In the next Test match he walked out with an extra grille on his helmet, which would have avoided the ball sneaking in.

Hughes was playing with an older model of the helmet. The newer one has an additional covering on the side of the neck which would have saved him. Or probably even that would not have. But the point is we need to make safety a paramount feature in our sport. Even despite the best safety measures, there is always the unknown, unavoidable, once-in-a-million accident. Formula one circuits have medical facilities which are way better than what you find in some of the third world countries, but Jules Bianchi is still in coma after his accident at Suzuka. We can live with the fact that we failed despite the best efforts, but can we forgive ourselves, knowing that by using a better, stronger and available helmet, Hughes would have been alive now?

* * *

I like boxers. The effort they put. The care they take. The practice they undergo. But I don’t like boxing. I don’t like boxing as a sport. Trying to knock the brain out of the skull of your opponent can never be called a sport.

I have read numerous interviews of batsmen about getting hit on the head by a bouncer. The one common thing they all say is that the impact feels like your brain being rocked inside the skull, knocking them off. It lasts only for a couple of seconds. For the lucky ones, that is. Hughes was not lucky. The pain will now last for a lifetime, for all of us.

* * *
Whenever there is a debate on who is better between Gavaskar and Tendulkar, my mind invariably sides up with the former.  There is nothing between their records against the best teams of their era, West Indies and Australia respectively. Gavaskar has 13 Test centuries against the fearsome quicks of West Indies, 7 of them in the Caribbean itself, while Tendulkar has 11 against Australia, with some sublime knocks in Perth and Sydney.  But what really stands out in favour of Gavaskar is the fact that he played without helmet during his entire career and never got hit on his head. It is an unbelievable statistic. I had seen Tendulkar being pinned multiple times by the likes of Cronje, McGrath, Anderson and Steyn. It will be blasphemous to state that helmet made Tendulkar a greater batsman, because the genius that he was, he would have found a way around it, had helmets not been there. But at the same time the sense of protection it offers to the batsmen now can’t be ignored. That, in a way, explains the lesser technique of modern day batsmen.

 A stronger and better helmet may save modern day batsmen. But they would do well to learn what Gavaskar did to play 125 Test matches without getting hit once.
*  * *

In his marvelous book “The meaning of Sport”, Simon Barnes calls Sports a monstrous triviality.  Often we relate sporting contests to war and a matter of pride, but in reality, it is anything but that. Trivial it may be, it is us who hype up Sports to escape from our everyday lives. We defeat our struggles and apprehensions when our favourite team wins. When marriages fail, when jobs are lost, when health checkup cards resemble a breakdown engine report, we find solace in sports. Somehow an Anderson outswinger or Van Persie stunner elevates our lives above ordinary. We celebrate them as our victories.
We don’t want one of us to lose life, trying to entertain us. It is in the best interest of every sport to make it safer for those who have the courage to put their careers on the line to entertain and enthrall us. Hughes is a reminder to all of us that, nothing is certain in sport, as in life. He lost his life trying to play the sport he loved. We can’t afford this incident to stop a kid picking up a bat or kicking a ball, for however trivial it is, Sport helps us to escape from our ordinary lives momentarily.
* * *
Nothing puts life in perspective like death. Hughes’ death reminds all of us about the perils of Sport which is used to celebrate life.
As the ever eloquent Simon Barnes put it in his tribute on Hughes, “A loss. Not a waste”

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Fellaini finally arrives. Manchester United 1 - 1 Chelsea

Just imagine that you badly wanted to have a fancy gadget, booked it online by paying the full amount to get it on time for Christmas, only for the courier guy to deliver it by next year Christmas. That is the same feeling I got watching Marouane Fellaini having his best game in a United shirt, albeit a good 1 year and 3 months after 27Million quid was paid to Everton’s pockets. He did a commendable job, sticking on to Fabregas throughout the match, as if a hooker on her prospective customer, and thus blocking the service to Hazard and Oscar. This proved out to be a tactical masterstroke from Van Gaal when every one of us was thinking about the way Fabregas ran riot against Arsenal. It again shows how na├»ve Wenger can be at times with tactics.

I can bet my life on the fact that there wasn’t a single United supported who wasn’t worried when Rafael was booked inside the first 15 minutes for a silly foul on. It was to everyone’s relief that he went on to have one of his stable games on the right wing.  United looked strong going forward and shaded the first half in terms of possession and attacking threat. Di Maria was a constant thread on the right wing, after being moved there to accommodate Januzaj on the left. Januzaj had his worst game in a United shirt against West Brom, but here he came up with his best display of the season. The chances in the first half were few and far between, but United’s best chance came through Van Persie, only for Thibaut Courtois to come on top.

The deadlock was broken in the second half, when Didier Drogba showed the entire world that he has lost none of his predatory instincts, by heading home at the near post after losing Rafael. Whoever has asked Rafael to mark Drogba has probably not seen Drogba’s goal in the UCL final against Bayern. He is a monster against properly built centre backs, and Rafael’s 5’7 figure did not pose a threat to him.

United introduced James Wilson, the 18 year old striker, on 68th minute in place of Juan Mata, who had a comparatively quieter game.  United could not force the issue and the final quality ball never arrived. Jose Mourinho went into his usual mode of introducing defenders and defensive midfielders while protecting a 1 goal lead. Mikel, Schurlle and Zouma arrived in place of Oscar, Hazard and Willian to slow the game down. Branislav Ivanovic got the second yellow on the 93rd minute and was promptly sent off for tripping Di Maria on the left side of Stretford End. Di Maria delivered a sumptuous ball from the resulting free kick and Fellaini forced an excellent save from Courtois, only for the ball to fall in to the left side of Van Persie inside the 6 yard box. When the net bulged at the Stretford end, not even the staunchest United supporter could argue that it was a deserved point. Nobody in a red shirt could have complained if Chelsea had won today. It is fair to say that United got out of jail today. But in the current form of United’s back four, it seems almost illegal to allow Sergio Aguero to run at our defense the next week.