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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.
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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.
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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.

Monday, October 6, 2014

First of many for Falcao. Manchester United 2 - 1 Everton


On his second ever match for Manchester United, Paddy McNair was given the unenviable task of marking Romelu Lukaku for the entire match. At the end of the match, he had Lukaku well inside his pocket but that was not the only reason that United finished the match with 3 points in their pocket. For that we all have to thank David De Gea who had to make two exceptional saves in the last 5 minutes of the match. In the final minute of the first half, Luke Shaw made a challenge from behind on Tony Hibbert inside the box, and a penalty was given correctly. Until today no goalkeeper in the Premier League has saved a penalty from Leighton Baines, giving him a tally of 14 successful converts from the spot. Today De Gea guessed the direction correctly and promptly palmed away an admittedly weak shot from Baines, which kept the spirits high going into half time.

There is something wrong in Louis Van Gaal’s half time talk, or at least it appears so. United have played poorly in the second half for every match they have played this season. Van Gaal should seriously consider re-modulating whatever he is talking at the break! Everton came back with vigour in the second half and got their reward on 55th minute, when Baines, making up for his earlier penalty miss, delivered a pinpoint cross, after working out a neat one-two from a freekick, to Naismith who headed the ball in. Then there was a 5 minute period when it appeared that United will implode as Everton put the numbers forward and pressed the United players when possession was lost.

There was news that United could move for a permanent deal for Radamel Falcao as early as this January Transfer window for a reported price of 43M. 43 million quid is an awful lot of money, but Falcao showed today why he is worth every penny of that. Though he was yet to score for United coming into this match, his movement off the ball and his overall play have been impressive. When a goal to restore the supremacy was badly needed, Angel Di Maria tried to unleash a left foot shot towards the goal, only to end up scuffing it. But when the ball found its way between the two centre backs, there was Falcao to poke it past Tim Howard for his first Manchester United goal.  At first it looked like he was offside but when continued his celebrations after having a look at the linesman, it was evident that United had got their advantage back. The replays confirmed that the linesman has got this one absolutely right.

The rest of the match, especially towards the end, was a torture to watch for every United fan as Everton came very close twice to leveling for the second time in the match. With 2 minutes and extra time remaining, Leon Osman was played clear at the edge of the box and his shot flying towards the left corner of the goal was palmed away by De Gea. His second save was an even better one. A short free kick from outside the box ensured a melee in the penalty area, and the ball was partially cleared, only to reach Bryan Oviedo, the same man who scored the winner in the same fixture last season. The collective groan heard around Old Trafford when De Gea flew to his left to turn Oviedo’s shot over the bar was a mixture of both surprise and relief. At the end of the match De Gea thanked the crowd which was singing his name around.

Reds go into the international break as a happy bunch, having broken into the top four for the first time for a year. There is some stat which says that United are above Liverpool for the first time in a year too. It is only safe to assume that the person who came up with that had been in a self imposed sleep for the last 24 years when Liverpool fans looked at the table and found United above them always. United’s next fixture is a Monday night match against West Brom 2 weeks away, before they face Chelsea home and City away. The only positive out of this long break is that it allows some of the injured players to recover fully by that time. Going by the current form, United will include De Gea even if he shows up with only one leg on the morning of the match, though.