Sunday, April 28, 2013

My first captain

I was immeasurably saddened by this morning’s obituary notice about Vaastu Sastri S Raman, who was my first captain in the Madras cricket league back in the 1960s (not counting the 1962-63 season when I warmed the benches for MRC ‘B’). I had been meaning to make contact with him for the past few months, because I remember him with gratitude for recognising my talent and encouraging me unstintingly when I was a beardless stripling. The path to hell is paved with good intentions, and I kick myself for missing yet another opportunity to do the right thing by old friends and mentors. The following was written a while ago and will be part of my forthcoming book.

"Do you remember who got dropped by the MRC B captain in a league match back in the sixties after his team entered the field and a quick headcount revealed twelve on the ground?" he asked. Though taken aback by these opening remarks of the bridegroom at a recent wedding I attended at Coimbatore, even as I greeted him, I knew the answer in no uncertain terms. "It was me," I informed Krishna, but he was not so sure, so he asked his father, N Murali, who bowled medium pace for the club after I left it. "It was either your brother Sivaramakrishnan or 'Vaalberi'," he confidently asserted, referring to Thyagarajan of that unfortunate nickname.

I maintained my stand and confronted "Bobji" Rangaswami -- who had led the side in 1962 and pointed the offending finger that signalled my inglorious exit from Teachers College B. "Bobji" smiled vaguely but seemed to have no recollection of the episode. Soon enough, in came Vaalberi, who too stoutly denied being given the marching orders after entering the ground all those years ago, but admitted to carrying a grudge still about being unfairly excluded on some other occasions, mainly on account of a rival's superior resources that enabled him to foot the lunch bill at matches.

 Murali was still not convinced I had been the victim of Bobji's belated success at counting up to twelve, so two days later, he asked my brother at the reception held at Chennai, if it had been he who had suffered the indignity of being found supernumerary at such a late hour. Sivaramakrishnan assured him that he had never played for MRC B and that the child prodigy he had in mind had indeed been his brilliant and deserving elder brother.

 Murali should not have bothered to ask so many people, because I could never be wrong about an incident that had had me close to tears. Ask any fifteen year old who has been dropped from the eleven - before or after the toss -- and he will tell you that he is not likely to forget the experience in a hurry. To be dropped after actually crossing the ropes to take the field was much worse than my friend Balu's experience of being run out first ball of the match off a ricochet from the bowler's hand, after he had sat up all night brushing up on Don Bradman's coaching tips for batsmen.

Though that first year in league cricket was forgettable in terms of personal achievement, the lunches courtesy the Hindu family were excellent, and I learnt to swear like a Madras rickshaw wallah from the good doctor Bala who opened our innings.

My second season was memorable. Playing for Jai Hind CC under the adventurous captaincy of the inimitable S Raman, I blossomed as an off spinner. He had complete faith in my bowling ability and gave me some superbly attacking fields. He was our best - and often only batsman - and my bowling efforts were wasted as my team invariably crashed to two-digit totals, losing ten matches and barely managing to draw one.

Decades later, Raman—a  good TT player in his youth like his younger brothers Lakshmanan and Bharathan, and now a vaastu expert—stopped me at a petrol station and extolled my bowling virtues, much to my embarrassment, moved as I was by his warmth and generosity. "You are good enough to play for India; next time I meet Venkataraghavan, I'll ask him why you could not play along with him for the state, so that the national selectors can consider you," he threatened. This was at the end of my career, but Raman felt I was still fit enough to bowl off spin for Tamil Nadu and India!

My embarrassment that morning was nothing compared to what I was to experience soon afterwards. He accosted Venkat and me at the upanayanam ceremony of a young cricketer, and actually proceeded to ask him why he had done nothing to promote my cricket career. He gave him a detailed account of my many sterling qualities of head and heart, and described the glory of my flight and the viciousness of my spin in such glowing terms that a passerby would have been pardoned for mistaking the object of his admiration to be Jim Laker or Erapalli Prasanna.

(The brothers S Raman, S Lakshmanan (bharatanatyam artiste Krishnaveni’s husband) and S Bharathan were all outstanding sportsmen in cricket and table tennis. All three of them are no more).

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Winning it for Sachin


I have been incapable of hero worship all my life—though I respect many great people—with the possible exception of Sir Garfield Sobers, quite simply the best all round cricketer of all time. I grew very fond of the boy Tendulkar when he first burst on the international cricket scene and loved watching him in the 1992 World Cup, for instance, when we all found his new uninhibited brand of opening batting so refreshing and exciting. The endearing innocence of his schoolboyish approach to batting suggested that he believed every ball could be hit for four or six. And, like any sensible cricket follower, I watched in silent admiration the purity of his straight drive, the speed of his flashing blade and his incredible enthusiasm for all aspects of the game.

Over the years, the admiration grew into awe, as Tendulkar kept smashing record after record, demolishing the world’s leading bowlers along the way. Who could ever forget his mastery of Shane Warne or his duels with Glen McGrath, not to mention his almost casual dalliance with Shoaib Akhtar and Co. in the 2003 World Cup?

Admiration, yes. Awe, yes. Hero worship, no. For long years, I held the opinion that Gavaskar and Viswanath were greater batsmen, each in his own way. I held against Tendulkar his tendency to crawl in his nineties, and his perceived inability to finish matches.

Over time, I was forced by his phenomenal success against all comers on all kinds of surfaces, in all forms of the game, to modify that view, and concede that after all, he is possibly the greatest batsman of all time, save Bradman—whose statistics place him above all else.

More recently, in the post Ganguly era, Tendulkar seemed almost unattractively mortal in his scratchy, overcautious approach to batting, and I joined the chorus, albeit small, that started asking why he was not retiring from the game he had adorned in his previous, more natural incarnation as a batsman.

All of a sudden, yet another Tendulkar miracle occurred, and he started visibly enjoying his game, playing an altogether more natural brand of cricket, and accumulating runs at will, while at the same time pleasing the purist as well as the plebeian. And in what has been an altogether more delightful development, he has scripted many memorable wins for India, frequently from hopeless situations. The golden run continues, and it seems the Little Master can do no wrong, and when he has the rare off day, the opposition is too stunned, it seems, to hold on to his catches.

A whole new generation of Sachin fans born after his Test debut has sprung up everywhere. They invade every cricket ground, every venue from drawing room to barroom where cricket is watched, to sing Saachin…Sacheen, cheer every ball he fields and erupt everytime he puts bat to ball. They want to will the Indian team to win the World Cup, because they believe the Indian team cannot do it on its own. They want the Indian team to win the World Cup not only for the millions, but also, and most of all, for the Little Master. ‘Win it for Sachin, it’s his last World Cup,’ is the cry everywhere.

I was annoyed at first by this almost infantile obsession with one man, one hero, one icon, to the exclusion of everything else that I hold dear in the game of cricket. What kind of obsession is this that drives an entire nation of drooling adolescents, I asked. How does it matter if one man finishes on the winning side, when someone like VVS Laxman has never even played a single World Cup match, I almost cried out loud. Does this Indian team have what it takes to win the Cup, I argued. Does it have the fielding, does it possess the firepower in its attack, do its batsmen have the stomach, the heart, to do it on the big stage, match after match till they reach the pinnacle? Time and again, I came up with one constant answer: No.

Once the Cup starts, I begin to sing a different tune. Old man Tendulkar—isn’t he the oldest member of this team?—repeatedly shows how young at heart he still is: by the way he runs after the ball in the deep, swoops on it and throws flat and furious back to the wicket keeper; by the way he runs between wickets; by the price he puts on his wicket, cursing himself when he gets out unnecessarily; by the simple grandeur of his strokeplay, eschewing the fancy stuff most of the time; by the obvious affection he has for his young teammates and his unadulterated joy at their successes; by his sheer enjoyment of the team’s memorable wins over Australia and Pakistan; his thoughtfulness in praising his captain, colleagues and the crowd while accepting the man-of-the-match award.

Yes, I am a convert now. I want India to win the final. For herself and her millions of cricket lovers. For Captain Cool MS Dhoni and his brave warriors. But also for Sachin Tendulkar, the boy who tried to grow up, but decided to go back to being a boy all over again. For the love of cricket.

It will be a great moment if India does finish on the winning post. It will be a peak unmatched since 1983. It will be a peak that the team will have to scrap hard to defend, especially in the post-Tendulkar scenario, about to unfold before all of us. But if they lose to Sri Lanka after playing the best cricket they can, I’ll have no regrets. For I’ll know Indiaand Tendulkar—did their best. And that will be a great victory, too.

Guru Bishan Singh Bedi

"OUT OF 24 hours, you spend six hours on the cricket field. What do you do with the rest? Do you read? Go to the theatre? Listen to music? You must have a life beyond cricket. Cricket is a game that demands intellect, maturity, independent decision making ability, and all this, you cannot acquire by merely playing cricket."

This was Bishan Singh Bedi, left arm spinner extraordinaire from Indian cricket's fabled past of 30 years ago. He was addressing a young spin bowling prospect, during a practice match arranged at Chennai to provide exposure to slow bowlers who had arrived from Australia to polish their art with the help of India's past masters. The visitors belonging to the Australian Cricket Academy were in Chennai, courtesy the MRF Pace Foundation, to learn a few lessons from great spinners like Bedi and Erapalli Prasanna. This has obviously been seen as a successful experiment, as the ACA has been sending its boys here for the last couple of years.

Between watching the match in progress and making notes on his wards' performance, Bedi was dipping into a book on leadership. He also found material relevant to his theme of the inter- relatedness of sport and other facets of life in The Hindu's Folio on 'Reaching Out' and encouraged his trainees to read it, as part of a mind-expanding exercise.

The sardar is a firm believer in the key role that the psychological aspects of cricket play in the success or failure of a player or a team. "I am not spending too much time on technique with these boys," he says. Instead, he is concentrating on instilling self-confidence in his young pupils, the ability to reflect calmly when under siege, and thinking a batsman out. The thought processes and confidence level of each bowler are reflected in his field placings, for instance. An off spinner who needs a sweeper cover is obviously lacking in self-belief, and he has just told the batsman and the whole world that he is making contingency plans for bad bowling. In his playing days, Bedi was a practitioner of yoga to stay physically and mentally fit and he had a few followers among international cricketers, wicket keeper Alan Knott of England one who took serious lessons from him.

All round knowledge and thinking ability are essential not only for sportsmen but also for sports administrators, says Bedi. Illustrating what can happen when these are absent, he recalled how India foolishly agreed to a proposal by England that as part of the playing conditions of India's tour of England in 1979, the number of fielders on the onside would be restricted to five. This spelled disaster to the Indian spinners, especially the off spinners, as it forced them to have one fielder more than they needed on the offside and one fielder too few on the legside. What is worse, they were simply unused to a field like that, and could not make the necessary adjustments to bowl well in the Test series.

Bedi was constantly challenging the boys to think for themselves, and to articulate their views on a variety of topics. "What is the difference between joy and happiness?" he asked one of them. The boy made a brave attempt and Bishan was quick to appreciate the effort, but he provided the answer himself, to set the youngster thinking on the right lines.

"Imagine your father has bought you a new car for your 21st birthday. How do you feel when he hands over the keys to you? Don't you feel joyous and excited? But what happens after a couple of months? You are still happy to drive a car, but that sense of unbridled joy will be missing, won't it?" he asked. "Enjoy your cricket. Don't let the joy factor disappear. That's the key to a successful cricket career."

Bishan the Magician

It is one of the lovely ironies of modern cricket that great cricket writers can wax lyrical about both fast and slow bowling. Whoever described Michael Holding’s bowling action as whispering death was perhaps a greater wordsmith than the man who described Bishan Bedi’s as poetry in motion, but both the speed merchant and the spin wizard tended to evoke superlatives in those watching them in their prime.

Bedi at his best not only fitted that description perfectly, but was the most consummate exponent of the art of spin bowling—so much so that the question is often asked if he has been the greatest left-arm spinner in the history of the game. Certainly Sir Donald Bradman, who saw Bedi only at his best or close to his best, believed so.

He was certainly the best left-arm spinner I saw, better than Vinoo Mankad, whom I did not have the good fortune to watch in his youth, more classical than the mercurial genius Salim Durrani, more complete, especially on good wickets, than Derek Underwood of England, who could be destructive on certain types of pitches, the two brilliant bowlers he kept out of Test cricket—Rajinder Goel and Padmakar Shivalkar—his outstanding successor Dilip Doshi, and New Zealand’s Daniel Vettori.

Expanding this assessment to name the best Indian spin bowler I have watched, Chandrasekhar would have been the obvious choice for being the most spectacular, and Anil Kumble for being the most consistent, longest lasting match-winner of them all, but I might have placed Bedi higher than my eventual choice Prasanna among them, but for Bedi’s profligacy with flagrant unconcern for the state of the game in the last ten or so Tests of his illustrious career.

Every self-respecting Hyderabad cricketer of the 1960s and 70s knew that Bishan Singh Bedi might never have played for India had chairman of selectors Ghulam Ahmed not preferred him to Mumtaz Husain, the boy from his own home town, in an exaggerated display of impartiality while picking the final Prime Minister’s eleven for the tour game after the first Test of the 1966-67 season. While his band of Hyderabadi admirers were all convinced Mumtaz’s amazing bag of tricks would have proved a handful for the touring West Indies, Bedi it was who went on to snare six of the best in the first innings of that match. The rest is history.

Though Bedi had been impressive when I first saw him—in his second Test and the third and last of that series at Chepauk—it wasn’t until six years later that he was to overwhelm me with his total domination of the English openers when brought on within moments of the start of the innings. By now, he was a confident purveyor of his exquisite art of classical spin bowling. Twinkle-toed in his run-up, he was virtually airborne in his final stride to the wicket, looking over his right shoulder in side-on elegance. His incredible arm-speed in delivery completed the illusion of effortlessness that enabled him to slow the flight of the ball in the air but hasten it off the pitch with just the amount of finger spin he wanted. His arm ball, especially with the shine still on, was a veritable in-swinger that could castle the bemused righthander or find the edge of the unsuspecting lefthander. 

Bedi seemed to be naturally fit, with just the right strength and flexibility of muscle for a spin bowler. If Prasanna was cerebral and Chandrasekhar intuitive, Bedi was more the artful dodger, though he too could lay an elaborate trap for a batsman when he set his mind to it. He was also the most stubborn of the Indian quartet of spinners, someone who sometimes refused to see what was good for him or his side, as events in the evening of his career proved.

In his rivetting Bishan, portrait of a cricketer, Suresh Menon—perhaps completely rightly— attributes this chapter of his bowling life to Bedi’s adamant refusal to deviate from his philosophy of flight, but I have always wondered if the poet had simply lost his talent for verse by the time he arrived at that juncture of his cricketing journey. Was it a question of loss of spinning ability and resultant absence of loop that made the previously deceptive suddenly innocuous? (Menon does hint in his empathetic yet delightfully honest book that Bishan was physically and mentally tired by the time he toured Pakistan as India captain).

In his foreword to the book, Anil Kumble recounts how Bedi as Indian coach on the 1990 England tour made him carry Venkatapathy Raju on his shoulders and run during a practice session: “My back never recovered for the rest of the tour.”

I had a similar, if milder experience of BS Bedi the martinet when I played under his captaincy for Rest of India in the Irani Cup in 1976. Jimmy Amarnath was laughing at my plight as Bedi reserved me for special treatment on the eve of the match. Bedi was obviously training to be the future India coach even then.

To give a more complete picture of the man, I can do no better than quote from the same book. “Bedi bowled like a magician, and passed on what he had learnt. Yet the basic lessons he taught were philosophical rather than cricketing. Learn to respect the game. Work hard.”

Menon also says Bedi’s greatest contribution to the game after his retirement was as a coach. I tend to agree, and hope to soon unearth a piece I once wrote after watching him in action with young cricketers.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Other Side of Dennis Lillee


Wine collector, cricket administrator, coach and a passionate cook… There’s more to Dennis Lillee than just fast bowling. V Ramnarayan recounts a refreshing experience.

The Leather Bat at the Park Hotel near the Gemini flyover was very nearly empty, but the music was blaring out at top volume. On the bar stools were two Australians: the great fast bowling legend Dennis Keith Lillee and his protégé Troy Cooley, England’s fast bowling coach. 

The beer looked deliciously cold and the conversation was animated, passionate, and as is to be expected when Lillee is around, devoted to the science and technology of fast bowling.

I was the first of a small entourage of three from Sunday Express to join this thirsty, sunburnt duo reviving themselves after a gruelling day at the MRF Pace Foundation at the Madras Christian College campus at Harrington Road, Chetpet.  The welcome from the Australian fast bowling guru was as always warm and spontaneous. He has a superb memory for people and places, a handy quality in a coach. Lillee remembered me from our meeting met more than a year ago, while introducing me to Cooley.

My friends from Sunday Express joined us soon, and we moved away from the loudest part of the bar, to a relatively quiet corner. It was like getting away from the raw pace of Jeff Thomson, only to have to face Lillee, for our new perch was only marginally less raucous. (Just in case you wonder if Lillee bowled gentle medium pacers, please disabuse yourself of any such notion.  He had been clocked at 98mph before stress fractures of his lumbar vertebrae had nearly finished his career, but he came back adding vicious swing and seam to his arsenal, and at around 90mph, he was not far behind his young partner).

Now this conversation was not going to be about sheer pace, coaching or the MRF Pace Foundation, if I were to do my editor’s bidding. It should result in a portrait of Dennis Lillee the man, his interests other than cricket, his domestic skills, his new role in West Australian cricket and his efforts to moblise support for the recent tsunami victims.

First off, we learn that Australian’s greatest fast bowler loves to cook.  Seafood is his speciality, and he explained to us how he could rustle up a quick, simple mean of scallops, marinated in lemon, with a bit of soy added, and some sauce or just a bit more lemon.  By now warming to the theme, Lillee said, “I like to keep it simple, not add too many ingredients, call friends over. It goes down very well with white wine.  If there’s a barbecue, I do the barbecue every time.  I do the lasagna, simple things like that.”

We are to learn there are more hidden depths to the demon fast bowler.  “I was househusband for two years,” he reveals. “Some ten years ago, my wife went back to university full time.  My job then was the house.  That included the washing, the ironing, the cooking. If I had to go away on business, I’d cook three or four meals and put the food in the freezer so that the family would have all the food they needed when I was away.”

“I enjoyed cooking even before this stint as homemaker, but during the period, I put time aside, in the first six months to cook good meals, to improve, expand my repertoire.  I did not consult recipe books, but did some serious cooking.  After six months of learning, I went back to quick lasagnas and barbecues.”

It was an interesting time, when Lillee learnt to be organized, to plan meals ahead. “I was lucky that the boys were adults now, and not school going children needing lunches to be packed and all that goes with the responsibility of parenting young kids.” Lillee still cooks, but gets some help from one of his sons who is a chef, and lends a hand with the finishing touches.  “I time the cooking for him to come home from work when it is almost done. He takes a look at my handiwork and says, ‘Dad, you should do this, this and this,’ and I gladly hand over the rest of the cooking to him. We have this rule that whoever does the cooking, doesn’t have to do the dishes and invariably, there’s stiff competition for the cooking job.”

Lillee is also a wine lover, and has been collecting wines over the last twenty years.  ‘It’s good to drink good wine with good food.  Then you start to match your dishes.  I have been more a wine lover than a cooking enthusiast in the last ten years,‘ says Lillee, who is not entirely comfortable with conventional thinking on the subject that draws strict lines of compatibility between particular foods and wines.  “I am not so sure that red wine goes only with red meat and white wine with fish and so on. I don’t believe there’s any problem with Indian food and full-bodied wines. Indian vegetarian food goes beautifully with red wine, contrary to popular theories.  I don’t believe in stocking up with white wine to go with seafood.”

Collecting wine has become a hobby with Lillee, and 90 per cent of his collection comprises heavier, full-bodied wines, and 80 per cent red wine, he informs us.  “Besides collecting wine, I like drinking it,” he adds.

The conversation them turns to vegetarian food and we talk of the “bloody good food” at Anna Lakshmi restaurant, both in Chennai and Perth, where Lillee is a popular guest.

For someone who loves food and wine, Dennis Lillee is superbly fit, his muscular, tough frame belying his 55 years. When I asked what he had been doing since his last visit, to look even trimmer than before, he said he had been spending a lot of time in the gym, the treadmill replacing his earlier routine of 20-25 laps around the cricket ground or cross country running.  He has recently taken to the Pilates fitness regime that is growing in popularity: After attending a few classes, Lillee bought himself a machine, which he has installed at home.

Finally, we come to Dennis Lillee’s newest role in cricket, that of getting involved in the administration. He was recently elected President of the Western Australian Cricket Association.  For the first time in the interview, Lillee showed signs of embarrassment. “It’s not something I ever wanted to do. And all my friends rang me up and said, “This is not you”.  ‘I agreed, but… WACA was financially going under.  The former regime had taken a loan to build, redevelop the ground, and the repayment was to begin in June. We did not have the income to do that, as we only earned money for six days in the year, during a Test match and a couple of one-day games.  We then went in as a group of people with a ticket. (Former Test cricketers Graeme Wood and Sam Gannon were nominated as vice presidents). We propose to sell parts of the ground, not the playing area, but newer developments of the ground to repay some of the debt.  We met the government and they have agreed to lend us some money to help restructure the debt.”

The new regime plans to build a centre of excellence in partnership with the University of Western Australia, for main games, and locate practice pitches and other matches at another area. The idea is to develop it into a ‘boutiquy’ sort of ground in the long term.
Lillee is happy that these ideas of his team are being embraced by the older elements in the administration.

Anyone who knows the turbulent past of this magnificent but controversial fast bowler cannot help feeling slightly amused by this new found acceptance by those in authority. I asked him tongue-in-cheek, if he had even been in an adversarial position with the cricket board, expecting an interesting reaction, but completely unprepared for the deadly effect my words had on him. I caught him in the act of drinking water, and Lillee spluttered spectacularly into his glass, almost choking, as he tried to suppress his laughter.  When he finally found his voice, he said, “it wasn’t very often that I wasn’t in an adversarial position with the WACA.”

To bring back the crowds, Lillee and Co., will try and make the atmosphere at the WACA more relaxed, more casual.  “People can be dressed in casuals, children won’t have to wear polos and long socks, they can wear board shorts, T shirts. We are trying to make it all more human, get staff, the curators, the groundstaff involved,  make the cricketers feel more involved.  We’ll bring them all together.

“Eventually, we’ll have to trim a bit, become a leaner organization, to improve the lot of those who remain,” Lillee continues.  “The board is in agreement, and Tony Dodemaide, the CEO, will soon have to make a decision on trimming the cloth.”

The WACA board has also decided to make a contribution to rehabilitation of tsunami victims.  The idea is to take some 12 kids from the affected areas, and see them through the next five or six years.  Lillee has his own ideas of how to go about it.  He feels that the board should involve all the states, which can then adopt a village together.  It is a democratic process and Lillee, who was not present when the WACA decision was made, will present his perspective at the next opportunity, but he will accept the decision of the board as final and play his part in the rehabilitation effort.

Lillee recently resigned his position in the Australian Cricket Academy, and he dropped one of his businesses, but that was only one of nine businesses he has been involved in. “It is a question of squeezing in time for one more activity, so I am evaluating my options.  And there is an interesting coaching assignment in the offing.” Lillee is tightlipped about the country that has made the offer, but there have been reports that India, Sri Lanka and South Africa have approached the maestro, asking him to be the national fast bowling coach.

Lillee continues to be committed to the MRF Pace Foundation.  He is proud of what has been accomplished here starting from nothing nearly two decades ago, to build something exciting, new and innovative.  It has been recognized all over the world as the premier fast bowling coaching academy.  “Most of the world’s fast bowlers come here to train, and that has been very rewarding for me and MRF,” he says with a deep sense of satisfaction.
From the MRF Pace Foundation to the job of India’s fast bowling coach seems a logical next step.  The answer should be out soon.