Thursday, May 30, 2013

The battle of dirt

There is something about Roland Garros.

The red coloured dust. The almost suffocating but beautiful domination by Nadal. Those ugly and dusty socks after a single set.The way it defied and remained as an unsolved puzzle for Pete Sampras for his entire career. The never ending tapping of shoes with rackets. The bright Sun. The equal prize money. The constant supply of sliding shots. There is a lot to like about it but incidently those big servers and serve-and-volleyers tend to disagree!

French Open is already on us. Four days into it, there are no serious casualitites, except the first round exit of Venus Williams, albeit seeded 30. I did not want to write a about the contenders even before the tournament started and then, as sports always does, being forced to watch one of them crashing out in the first round itself, making myself look like a perfect jack ass. Writing it now, I still run the risk of it but the chances are comparatively less. Intelligent, huh?

For me, these are the four players who will make it into the Men's semifinals, provided they don't face each other before the Semis, as I am not aware of which side of the draw they are in. Here we go

Rafael Nadal: Only a fool or a betting illiterate will bet against him winning a record 8th French Open title. He was in red hot form, winning 4 out of 6 tournaments on clay since his comeback from injury. An year ago, his knee finally gave up after years of "Vamossss" powered pounding. But, by the look of it, he has somehow got that in a piece and moving pretty well too, considering he almost feared for his career at that point. Only a terrible off day or some freak culmination of circumstances (like rain and the chair umpire refused to stop play until he played 6 games in the wet clay in last year's final) will prevent him going all the way. The bad news for all his opponents is that, after missing out the last 2 grand slams he seems hungrier and fitter.

Novak Djokovic: If anyone is going to match Rafa in spirit and endurance, it has got to be him. He gave Rafa a good fight last year, with help of rain, but at the end it was not enough to stop the spanish bulldozer. Though he did not have good 2012 as fruitful as the previous year, he is more rounded with his game now. He is an absolute powerhouse for his fragile physique and possess a forehand as good as any in the game.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: The man with a beautiful name and cheerful personality has the game to back it too. Being French definitely helps and expect the volume in Center court to act as an extra point every game if he reaches the Semis. Admittedly clay is not his best surface and his huge serve will not play as big a part as on hard courts, but he is still a threat nonetheless. His aggressive ground-strokes and effective net play will play an important part on the slower clay. The only thing which stands against him is his performance in the big matches when stakes are at the highest. Time to change that Jo.

David Ferrer: Talk about a cheap Spanish imitation (not politically correct, but still) and here he is. Except for being Spanish and being friends, there is not much common between Ferrer and Rafa in terms of playing styles. One of the best returners in the current game, he is supposed to be a clay court specialist with his quick feet and viciously spinning backhands. He is yet to reach a Grand Slam final but that is more in his mind than in his game.

Note-1: I don't have anything against Roger Federer but I simply don't see him getting to the Semis here. He has started the tournament in great fashion, though against lesser opponents, but you don't have to be Mirka Federer to know that clay is not his favourite surface. Any of the above four is capable to take him out and even those in the next tier, the Gasquets and Tipsarevics, will be giving him a good run for his money on clay.

Note-2: With the risk of justifying my wife's accusation that I watch women's tennis not for tennis, I have to admit that it is too tight (no pun) to pick a top four there. Admittedly Serena had a great last year but she has won French Open only once, back in 2002. Not a very comforting statistic. Any one from the top 10 seeds is capable of defeating any one. So I will probably dare to start watching the women's matches to make a prediction around the QF time to save me time, ridicule and some brownie points in front of wife.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

IPL - The great Indian circus!

Watching the final day of the first Test match between England and New Zealand reminded me of the reasons why i fell in love with the greatest game Man has ever created on earth, Test cricket.There were no DLF maximums, no strategic timeout and no half naked cheer girls, but still I am sure, not a single sane minded person wanted to take his eye of the action. It was the plain white clothes, old school swing and the serene Lord's which made it attractive. And more than anything else there was a genuine battle going on, the essence of cricket or for that matter the essence of any sport.

it will be asking too much to expect the IPL organizers to take a cue from this but they will do well to do so. The only surprising thing from all the spot fixing stories which have come out this week is that everyone seems surprised with it. From the outset, it was bound to happen sooner rather than later. IPL, the best scripted drama ever, is made specifically for external elements to thrive over the real sport. First and foremost, the shortest format of the game, where a wrong short or a mis-field carries more weight compared to other formats, gives the best opportunity for bookies. That is what makes them to be able to allegedly offer as much as 60 Lakhs for a single over. To put things in perspective,a premier Test bowler doesn't make half of that money from a 3 Test series.

Then there is the artificially created excitement and drama, where the onus is to drag every game to a last over finish so that more advertisements can be stuffed in and more TRP rating can be gloated about. The financial spending cap, imposed over each team during the players' auction (which itself is as ugly to watch as the nether region of a transgender) is specifically for that purpose. While it creates a level playing field and better competition, it doesn't produce excellence. Excellence is when Dale Steyn bowls to Sachin Tendulkar on a Newlands green top for a 12 over spell, not when Chris Gayle smashes a god-knows-who third rate bowler out of the park. That is why more sixes are hits, more records are broken and more wickets are taken, just as the organizers wished. The financial equality among teams makes sure that, all teams are equally matched which in other words, converts to the match, almost always, being played into the last over.

As much as BCCI despises Lalit Modi presence now, it was his novel idea to involve Bollywood also in this great circus. He foresaw the potential of combining India's two most lethal entertainment powers, Cricket and Films, a marriage made in heaven. Each match in the IPL now becomes the perfect platform for them to market a new movie or endorse a new brand. During the first season of IPL, viewers were treated to more air time of SRK's face than KKR's games. Combined with the after match parties, where Bollywood and Cricket unceremoniously copulate, this 6 week circus has grown bigger than the game.

When IPL began 6 years ago, starting with its name, the ambition was to match the enormity and fan base of English Premier League (And CSK is now being called the Manchester United of IPL. I strongly think that it was one of the reasons behind Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement !!). But what they conveniently forgot was the fact that the fan base for the English League is built over intense competition and geographic rivalries over a period of 150 years and for them, following their team is a family tradition built on fierce loyalty. The men at Sky Sports who powered the Premier League era, starting from 1993, had the brains to milk it without compromising on the values of the game. For IPL to generate such an innate feeling of belonging among its supporters, it needs to clean up and start afresh. It has to project a reputation based on integrity and fair play.

IPL's original projected intention was to make a cricketing platform where the best in the world can compete, which will in turn help India to produce a capable talent pool. It, and much more, still can be achieved if wholesome changes in approach and mentality can be brought in. Until then, real cricket lovers will be prepared to wait for those beautiful sunny afternoons from far away Lord's and MCG.

Friday, May 17, 2013

How the title was won

To be totally frank, the pain still lingers. In fact, I feel the same intense pain every time I think back on that night. There are 3 types of pain in this world. Pain, excruciating pain and the pain of watching Manchester United losing the League Title by the last kick of an 8 months long season, on goal difference. I am talking about the last one. Nothing in this world can make me forget that pain, and a mere mention of the name Sergio Aguero bring it back with all its intensity. But let me tell you, I don't want to forget it. That is what makes this title all the more sweeter, incredibly satisfying and amazingly spectacular. To think that One person's determination and collective dedication from 25 players can still defeat an investment of 1 billion by Sheikh Mansour is absolutely incredible and this is what makes Manchester United tick. The best part of this title win is that none of us have to sit through the launch of a book named "How to defend the Premier League Title" written by a Manchester City player.

League titles are never won on a solitary moment or game, instead it is almost always the culmination of an 8 months long slog. Even when City won it on goal difference last season, it was not because QPR showed them an open goal after knowing that their place is safe but because they were the best team in the country for the season. There would still be moments through the course of the season which give the gut feeling about the eventual destination of the crown. This is an attempt to capture those moments which stood out during the season and made sure that the predicted rise of the blue moon went up in smoke.

Number 20: Perhaps the most important moment in the title race happened even before it actually began. United got what no one else in the country had, the Robin Van Persie signature. It still gives me goosebumps to think that RVP rejected a 300k per week salary from City to come to United. RVP unknowingly made himself available for the strongest possible candidate for the Mastercard punch line "Money can't buy you everything". It was a statement of intent from United after the way League title was lost in the last season. Above all Sir Alex Ferguson decided that he doesn't want to see losing the title on goal difference in his life time. When RVP pulled that Number 20 jersey and announced "Let's do it" he meant every letter of that. While United got RVP, City were busy signing Maicon, Scot Sinclair, Jack Rodwell and Javi Garcia. Well, if the numbers were that important, pigs would be ruling the jungle over lions.

The blue smoke: What I remember most about that derby at Etihad is the amount of blue smoke around the stadium when RVP scored the winner deep into the injury time. It was as well that City supporters realized their crown is going up in smoke. The blue smoke, RVP's 'Eric Cantona' posture celebration and Rio Ferdinand with a blood soaked eye gave it an almost war like atmosphere at the end of it. And war it was. On that night in Manchester, a battle was won, a blow was delivered, the enemy was cornered but the war remained be conquered.

That snowy night: Before this match there were doubts that it would be postponed due to the extremely hostile climatic conditions, but eventually a 'go' signal was given. Watching it in TV, it looked like more of an expedition from Antarctic than a football match in London. Throughout that match, amidst the heavy snow fall, a 71 year old chap stood outside the dugout without a hat. At the end of it, Sir Alex Ferguson looked like he was just rescued from a snowfall avalanche in the Alps. Come the final whistle, a Clint Dempsey goal denied all 3 points for United, but Sir Alex Ferguson's desire to combat even the weather gods to land the 20th league title was there for everyone to see. (What still beats me is how Mike Phelan, with that glass like blad head and a pair of uncovered ears which are big enough to hold atleast a ton of snow, survived that night standing next to Sir Alex, without even a coat!)

Boxing day classic: It was a 7 goal thriller and United took lead in this match for the first time on the cusp injury time when Michael Carrick found time, space and imagination to deliver a perfect through ball for Hernandez to score. It was more relief than elation on everyone's face when Hernandez slid through the rain soaked pitch in celebration. United were particularly poor in this match, conceding 3 easy goals to a Newcastle side they annihilated 3-0 at St James Park. That we won even after playing piss poor for most of the match helped to build a growing feeling that finally the elements are on our side but I am sure improvements would have been demanded by Sir Alex, in no uncertain terms, particularly in defense at the end of the match.

The killing machine: And improvements duly arrived in time. In all probability it was a back handed compliment when Joe Hart spoke about the difficulty in keeping pace with United, calling them 'the Manchester United killing machine' because in reality it was anything but. But what was lacked in the name of beautiful football was made up with effort and efficiency. When RVP had a mid season dip, Rooney chipped in. Danny Welbeck put in some good shifts at right wing where Valencia was out of form for the whole of season. Giggs showed the reasons why he is still playing at the age of 39. De Gea made a transition from boy to man in goal. When everything failed, Hernandes found a hair's breadth of difference to beat the offside trap and score. And when the title was in sight, it inspired even Valencia to score for a change! A season which started by heavily depending on RVP to score goals ended with 20 different goal scorers. So much for a one man team.

Goal of the season: Such was the brilliance of the goal that it touched the Aston Villa half for the first time only inside their goal. From United's half, Rooney made a diagonal pass which was astonishingly met with the left foot of RVP. The run he made was a lesson in timing while the finish was exquisite. This was the icing on the cake on a night when United clinched their record breaking 20th league title.

Fergie the grand dad: There was a beautiful moment during the trophy presentation lap of honour at Old Trafford. In the middle of the ground Sir Alex was being mobbed by some of his grand children when he spotted the youngest child of the family. As any grand dad would do, he just leapt to get near her to hold and pamper her in his hand. The same way he has pampered all of us with moments, games and trophies enough to remember for a life time. It showed an entirely different side of the man we are so used to seeing every week on the touch line, and it probably provided the reason why he finally decided to call it a day. For the last 27 years he has dedicated every minute of his life and every ounce of his energy for this football club, with the support of his family. And finally it is the time to give it back to family and they deserve it. Later he would go on to reveal that he made his decision to quit after the death of his wife Cathy's sister, as she needs his presence and time, more than ever. At 71 years of age, he went out in his own terms, as a winner.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The MAN who UTD us!

How do you recollect the best moments of your life? You usually associate them with a particular period of your life, or some special person you came across, or even relate to some beautiful places where you had been. For me it is easy, for almost all of them have been provided by one man, Sir Alex Ferguson. If you define happiness as that sudden surge of elation, ecstasy, relief and above all that blissful feeling of 'don't care' about your surroundings, i have had many of those such moments since I started following Manchester United.

For people like us, born in the 80s he is all what we know when we talk about Manchester United. We were spoilt, for we never needed to be worried about the stability of our club while we were mocking Chelsea and City. Even when we occasionally berated some of his squad selection, we secretly hoped the "Sir Alex knows' saying to be true. We reveled in his genius when, 2 years ago, he put 8 defenders in his team against Arsenal in an FA cup tie and still won. The collective sigh of our relief were immense when he backed away from his planned retirement in 2002. From Cantona to Ronaldo, RVN to RVP, Andy Cole to Wayne Rooney, he has always been there.

When Sheringham and Solksjaer prodded those 2 goals past Bayern Munich in the last few seconds in Barcelona, he took all of us from the depths of despair to the promised land. When Macheda transferred the ball from his left foot to right, stopped momentarily, swiveled in a flash and shot past a diving Brad Friedel, we all danced with him, however comic his 'grandpa in party' dance steps were. Incidentally those little jig is something which remained in him from his initial days till now, remarkable for a man who changed his tactics, rivalries, formations and management style to bring success to Old Trafford. The fact that he was ready to change and accept the change on his way was the main reason behind the unbelievable success over the last 26 years. A mere glance towards Arsene Wenger and his almost childish commitment to his methods is the proof of that.

His legacy lies not only in the unmatched supply of trophies since 1986, but making Manchester United a global beast of a football club than just a football team. In the Australian outback or Arabian deserts, the African deepwoods or subcontinental streets, wherever you are, the name Manchester resonates with United. Irrespective of your colour, country, language, religion and ethnicity you can wear a Manchester United T-shirt and become part of a global family. When he took over in 1986, Manchester United was still big but not the money making, trophy winning, awe inspiring giant of today. His vision and courage made all this possible.

And more importantly, he made our lives better too. Even when we miserably failed in jobs, relations and life in general, we found success and solace in winning the premier league. When deadlines missed and hours in office stretched, we somehow found happiness in waiting to watch those 11 men in red play over the weekend. Staying in a far away street in India, we pride ourselves in having the bragging rights in the City of Manchester, when United win a derby. He made winners out of each one of us pathetic losers. Feeling bored, we login to twitter and find a person who we have never met to passionately talk about United for hours as if we were best mates for decades. He united all of us.

Thank you Sir Alex. Thanks for all those wonderfully blessed moments.