Monday, December 3, 2012

When the going gets tough...

Life as a sports fan is worth enjoying. Everything that you expect out of life can be had by just being a fan of a particular sports team or player. There are moments of immense joy, sickening depths, unbearable waits, shivering excitement, and bucket loads of expectations. That is partly why I ignore people who comment, "All you do is watch sports. You need a life."

Just like in your own life, there will be some painful moments as a fan. Times comes when your favourite team plays poor. Times come when your favourite player gets injured. Times come when your favourite team/player adopts (what you feel is) a wrong idea, or takes a wrong decision. You wonder why this is happening to your team/club/player. Is it bad luck? Fate? Or just pure stupidity?

If you are a fan, you wonder all that, and stick by the team. It is what the team needs. It is what your player wants- your faith and love.
When your team needs motivation, the fans got to supply it.

This very day, almost all the professional teams/clubs/franchises I support have lost their last game, and are probably in the middle of a poor patch, or just played real bad, giving no assurance of the immediate future. The Los Angeles Lakers are on a 8-9 start to the season in spite of being loaded with superstars. Chelsea FC seemed to have jumped into the ocean, sadly, they chose Antarctic Ocean and they are not penguins. The Indian cricket team hasn't been able to gather steam for quite some time. The West Indian cricket team is not even a shadow of the past. A spark or two just doesn't seem enough to light a fire. And on the domestic scale, Baroda have been hit with a pile of injuries.

I'll point to this day, and say - "That was the day it looked the worst. It cannot get any worse."

I don't worry about my Lakers. They will come around. They aren't even playing full strength yet. I have, in a way, given up hopes on Chelsea winning anything great this season. It is a state you put yourself into to enjoy any success the side garners. You just can't change the driver and expect the car to run smooth right away. The Indian cricket has so many mis-fits, I don't see it running smooth and consistent for now. As for West Indies, there seems to have been no passing-the-torch from the Glory Era to the Sorry Era. I can only hope hospitals in Baroda are wonderful.

What do you do? Do you weep? Do you bail out and jump bandwagon? Do you quit on the sport? Do you call neutral? Do you pick on petty quarrels? Do you sit back and claim you had the past? Do you hope for something different for the future?

There is no such thing as a "true fan". There is no such thing as "round sphere". A fan will believe, have faith in his team to be alright. Faith is all you need to be a fan. It works both ways. When the team doesn't win, your faith will keep the players motivated to get back on the floor the next day and fight for a win.

Wait for the moment to strike...
Sports is about placing the right pieces on a jigsaw puzzle, coupled with the raw skill to perform in the sport. At Lakers, the jigsaw pieces are present. The man handling is shuffling it. The fans are used to being presented with a puppet show neatly manned by the best in the business. It will take some time to get used to jigsaw puzzle. But, like every complete puzzle, it will one day look beautiful. I believe it will. Some moves have given me the glimpse. The joy when the Lakers sucked blood of revenge over the Celtics, is a happy corner I return to every now and then.

Chelsea are owned by a trigger happy man. I'm new to football, but one thing that I've noticed with Chelsea in the recent past is that they perform horribly in November. Sometimes, they shrug it out by December, they keep rolling poor some other times. Instead of throwing a thick blanket, a can of gasoline was thrown on the club that was burning in flames. Still, I believe the flames shall be overcome. Some day. This might take more than a season. This season might be irrelevant. But, there is no need to jump loyalties. This is the right time to fix the car before the long drive. Earlier this year, when Chelsea were crowned champions of Europe, I cried in the middle of the night. The last time I cried, it was when Chelsea were kicked in the groin by Barcelona a few years ago. One canceled the other.

Indian cricket fandom can drive you crazy, it can drive you sane. When Indian cricket team wins, on one day you feel like it was a matter-of-fact. On another day, it is THE moment of the year. vice-versa too. But it becomes so damn irritating to see the team play so bad for so long, you really wonder if there is a future of consistent display. Patience. There is. It may be ugly now. It will be beautiful tomorrow. It is hazy today. It will come clear tomorrow. There is a horde of talent waiting like a bull. When India won the World Cup, it brought out the happiest moments in people's life. Those moments will be repeated, I am sure. I've seen the signs.

The West Indian cricket side are such a joy to watch. Today, that is just how far as it goes. I just hope they receive the guidance they have missed out on, so they can go back to being a grand performing art, and not a broken street play.

It is easy for everybody else to pick on you (me). You don't have a come back. The history is wonderful, but it is not playing today. The future is anybody's guess.
Hear now, reply later.
People will say things you don't want to hear. Words can break your heart. Opinions can cause anxiety. Questions can prick you. That is when the fan stays like a rock. Just, stay there. No rock moves in a desert. The loose sand flies away with the wind. A camp is identified by the mark of the rock near it.

It is time for me to take some low-blows, stabs, back-stabs, hard questions, and some unhealthy words. That's alright. I like banter. I still trust my teams to come out good. They will. That is how every win was earned.

When the going gets tough, the tough get going.

Stand tall, stay tough.

The fruits of faith are sweet.
(photos credit - NBA/GettyImages)

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Lakers Reloaded

"Lakers do not repair, they reload."

Yet again, the Los Angeles Lakers have done exactly that in this past off-season. The last season started, flowed and ended so bad that the players, staff and fans knew that the team needed something else, something that would bring the team back on track. The condensed, extremely suffocating season that ended took a toll on the not-so-young Lakers starters, on the not-so-fit starters and it also showed the lack of depth the team carried through the season.

Lakers' bench was a joke everywhere it went. Lakers' perimeter shooting was extremely poor, and equally bad was perimeter defending. New offense meant Lakers' offense also contained a huge number of turnovers. There were hardly any blowout victories going Lakers' way. Any win was hard to come by. And atleast half the games they lost, were lost in the last minute. Mid season trades brought many an emotional goodbyes, and happy surprises. The playoffs were forgotten before anyone could be ready for it.

"Oklahoma City Thunder mid-range the Lakers to death." appeared on my face often, and that was the end of Lakers in 2011-2012 season, which ended in the hands of the Miami Heat.

Jim Buss, having taken over from Jerry Buss, carried the load of expectations of millions of fans to revamp the Lakers back into contention after two very forgettable years. The Lakers don't compete for a playoff spot and kick back. Lakers are hungry for titles. Every. Single. Year.

The off-season started with fans wondering whether the Lakers would like to keep Andrew Bynum or go after Dwight Howard. Would Ramon Sessions opt to stay with the Lakers another year? What is the plan for Pau Gasol?

Jim Buss made a big move. And that move mushroomed into Mitch Kupchak announcing Steve Nash as a Laker. STEVE NASH. Lakers. The former Laker show-stopper is a Laker. HOW IN THE WORLD!!!?!?!

The Lakers Reloaded.

Lakers have a knack for adding the guys who pester the Lakers into the Lakers. Recent examples - Matt Barnes, Ron Artest. Kobe did want Raja Bell on the Lakers too. This time, it was Steve Nash. Nash took a pay cut to be on the Lakers so he could stay close to his family (Phoenix). Jim Buss had asked Mitch to pursue Nash's position in the market several times. Nash's agent requested, Jim and Mitch agreed that Kobe should talk to Nash about it. Kobe talked, and wooed Nash to the Lakers. Even spoke strategies. Steve Nash was satisfied with it. Raptors and Knicks took the bullet. Nash became a Laker.

Steve Nash instantly became the second best Point Guard in the Lakers history. Steve Nash makes everybody else around him better. Kobe wouldn't have to handle the ball all the time. He showed in the Olympics and in the practice and pre-season that he is willing to let go of the ball to somebody else. That helps his wrists, and maybe keep his health better in the career ahead.

I was totally happy. Nash and Gasol on the same team. Bynum too? Pick and roll would destroy everybody in the league. Another thing that made me happy during the off-season was that Metta World Peace was there at the gym and practice court everyday. He trimmed down and looks fit. That is completely not how he was a season ago. And, he was making his shots, which was even better. Metta had put on a new name and lost his offense last year. This time, though, he has got it back. Or so we believe.

Lakers then went on to add Antawn Jamison, who is still having good scoring seasons. Jamison is no youngster. He is a veteran of 14 years in the league. Lakers hope to find in him what they had in Lamar Odom two season ago. Jamison also had played a short while under coach Mike Brown at Cleveland.

Right. Are we ready for the season? Sure.

I was enjoying my vacation, when I wake up to a news. A news that would make me jump, and etch a smile that wouldn't fade so easily. The "Dwightmare" had ended. And it had ended in the City of Angels, with the Los Angeles Lakers. (Andrew Bynum would leave. Amazingly, Pau Gasol did not have to leave. Mitch Kupchak is a genius.)

The Lakers Reloaded.

Over the past season and half or even more, Dwight Howard held the whole league for ransom when he jumped from one wish to another, putting off almost every GM and owner and coach in the league. He was so rumoured to be landing on Nets, Rockets, Lakers, Mavs, Hawks, and many others. Even staying in Orlando. As for the Lakers, the trade talks between Lakers and Magic fell apart multiple times. Howard even went on to say that he didn't want to come to the Lakers. He would then say that if he were traded to, he would leave as a free agent after his contract ends and go to the Nets (Deron Williams) or Mavs (along with Deron Williams).

But then, he came to Los Angeles for medical treatment and recovery from the back injury he incurred last season. He loved the city, he loved how people loved him. An old lady told him that the Lakers would be good for him and that they would love him. A Persian lady invited Howard for dinner, and he totally enjoyed it, and was taken aback by how much people cared to have him amongst themselves, like someone of their own, like family. Howard likes the LA Dodgers too! Probably all of these played a good role in Howard coming to the Lakers. It was a trade, yes. but I guess he would have liked this trade. He did say that he liked it. Of course he does. He's family now.


Lakers offense will now be injected the mantra of Princeton Offense. Coaches were brought in just for that. Also, Dwight's coach from Orlando was here, while Lakers' staff who had seen George Mikan, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Shaquille O'Neal came to Howard and taught them everything they had seen in the previous Laker legends who played Center. It was like they were waiting for Howard.

Lakers drafted center Robert Sacre in the last pick of the drafts, and bought from Mavericks guard Darius Johnson-Odom. (Who wouldn't like to have a kid with that name on the Laker team, eh?)

Other additions - Jodie Meeks, Earl Clark.

Lakers were swept in the pre-season 0-8. The starting 5 we are expecting played for 29 minutes together, and outclassed the opponents, Kings, while they were on the floor. The Lakers hardly ever attempted to win any of those games. It was about trying to figure out rotations, and infuse the offense in match-practice. There were ups and downs. Adjustments were made. The 3rd string bench and others were allowed minutes to show themselves to the door. But yes, it would've been nice to win a couple of those games, but who cares, 82 games lie between pre-season and playoffs....the 16 wins that DO matter.

The starters for the Los Angeles Lakers are :-
PG - Steve Nash
SG - Kobe Bryant
SF - Metta World Peace
PF - Pau Gasol
C  - Dwight Howard
Showtime again?

I'm no technician of the game, but I will try to put forth as much as I could make of it.
The Lakers offense is going to be a mix of Princeton Offense (predominantly), pick-and-rolls (Nash) and trails of the Triangle (Tex Winter, Phil Jackson). The Princeton Offense involves a lot of passing. Nash, Kobe, Gasol can move the ball very well, all are good passers of the ball. Metta can do the passing too. He used to carry the Houston offense in T-Mac's absence too. Dwight can pass too. He was the focal point of the Orlando offense which had him at the center and four range shooters waiting on the perimeter. So, if Dwight got double teamed, he would kick out the ball to the free man on the floor. Of course, Princeton Offense would mean a different kind of passing, but just saying that he can pick the open man.

Princeton Offense also means more running off the ball. It might be one of those places where the Lakers miss somebody like Matt Barnes, who used to cut to baskets well. It will also be the role Devin Ebanks would look to adapt to. The ageing Lakers starting line up will look to reduce the running to efficient movements, while emphasizing on moving the ball and opening up easy shots.

Metta, Kobe and Nash can burn you from range. Metta has been improving his radar in the off season and that has shown in the pre-season too. Kobe smoked 9-11 in one quarter of a game. Nash is a good shooter from range. Pau Gasol is great at low post, high post and mid-range. He also has gifted ball handling abilities, having grown as a point guard in his childhood. He can feed the guys on the perimeter, or to Dwight Howard at the post (as you would have seen being done to give Dwight's first bucket of the pre-season).

The Lakers always have the option of Nash going to play Pick-and-Roll with either Pau Gasol or Dwight Howard just in case the offensive system doesn't work great. Nash played with Marcin Gortat and Robin Lopez, and made those guys look imposing. And to think of it - Marcin Gortat was the back-up center at Orlando behind Dwight Howard. AND, Dwight Howard is a better Pick-and-Roll player than Marcin Gortat. I had long ago wished that if Dwight was coming to the Lakers, it would be nice (wishful thinking, but...) if he came with Jameer Nelson. Pau can hurt you at the post, or from high post. Nash can speed under your bigs or make the FT line jump shots, or kick it out to someone else for an open jump shot.

Kobe Bryant not handling the ball himself, would make him more efficient scorer. He doesn't have to jack up the shots now. He would be given the room, and the rock. He has a deputy to take a call, a deputy who has instilled fear into the most solid opponents. Kobe is quite good as a spot-shooter, and can quickly lock in. I'd love to re-live those "4th quarter Mamba" days again.

The bench will have to keep this fluidity alive. And the bench this year looks better than last season's. Jordan Hill is back to the line-up after getting injured in early phase of the pre-season. He will keep the defensive intensity going. Steve Blake has worked hard on his role as a passer, and as a spot-shooter. It will be important for him to play well so as to save Nash's legs. Jodie Meeks will be the back-up SG. Meeks will bring along with him a good 3pt shooting %, something that the Lakers sorely missed last season. He has been shooting them well so far. Frankly, the 3pt shooting % was the one thing apart from blocks that the Lakers did not suck at in the pre-season.

Devin Ebanks will likely come in as the back-up SF, or sometimes as the back-up SG. Ebanks has improved his shooting and defense over the off-season. The Lakers franchise always saw Ebanks as Ariza's replacement. Ebanks will want to make a name for himself now. He has been good in the pre-season. Consistency included, he would be wonderful off the bench for the Lakers. Antawn Jamison is the veteran on the bench. Lakers are looking for good numbers from him, something that he has not yet brought out in the pre-season. Jamison can score well from mid and far, and would back up PF and SF positions.

The guy on the bench I am looking forward to the most is the rookie Robert Sacre (he'll remind you of his Gonzaga senior and former Laker Ronnie Turiaf). He may not get many minutes just ass yet, but he took the opportunity to play hard in practice against Dwight (while Dwight was not yet cleared to play in pre-season games) and played well in the pre-season games too. That is what guys like Steve Nash could do - make everybody feel and look good. Sacre was almost headed to China, and now he finds himself on the brink of playing hard earned minutes for one of the most stacked franchise in NBA history.

Duhon, rookie Johnson-Odom, sophomore Morris, and Clark make for the rest of the bench. Andrew Goudelock, who showed much promise last season, was waived before the start of this one.

At the defensive end of the floor, Mike Brown would handle the coaching mostly. In Kobe and Metta, the Lakers have two great perimeter defenders. Up till now, the system that was in place had either of them reaching out to the inside to double up as help at the low/high post. That left a man open outside, and that was a major reason why the Lakers got hit by a lot of outside shots and mid-range shots. This time, with Dwight Howard on the inside, a much larger defensive presence than Andrew Bynum, the perimeter defenders can have more faith in the post players and hold on to their own man. If that goes on right, then the Lakers' defensive rating is bound to improve over last season. Mike Brown is happy with even Steve Nash's efforts at the defensive end of the floor. I guess that is how hungry Steve Nash is for a ring! I don't worry much about the defense. Dwight can submit any big man in the league and Metta can shut down most guards and small-forwards in the leagues. Transition defense is what the Lakers' old legs would be wary of now. Hopefully, the minutes are managed well for that to not be a worry. That will need the bench to do well.

So, there you are. Your Los Angeles Lakers.
The expectations are high. It's Hollywood. Now, to shoot for the title.
Coming up in 10 hours' time, Lakers' first game of the season- hosting the Dallas Mavericks.

Lakers don't repair. They just reload.

1...2...3... CHAMPIONSHIP!

(Image courtesy OC Register. Thanks to the dozens of information sources and Lakers beat writers, fan blogs and fans for helping me gather words for the post)

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Purple, Gray, Blood, and Gold. (Part-1)

Last summer, things at Lakers Nation started spiraling downwards in an uncontrolled manner. The Dallas Mavericks swept the Lakers in the Western Conference semi-finals, and went on to win the championship; ending Lakers' hopes of a Threepeat, something that Phil Jackson has done three other times. This was Phil Jackson's last season as a coach, and it was the worst exit possible - swept for the first time in his post-season history as coach. One of the best coaches the league has ever seen has been shown the exit doors in the most disappointing manner. Ever.

The league soon went into lock-out.

After a long, long lock-out, after many days of over-night discussions between the league and players' association, the two parties finally agreed to get the season started on X-Mas day. I remember the late-November afternoon (here, in India), when the news came up. I was too excited, to say the least. I was lying on a sofa, watching cricket, and this got me sit upright. Greetings were exchanged. Gratitude shown to everybody who spent sleepless nights working on this, sacrificing more than we know about. The result was that the season was saved and a 66 game schedule was to begin in a month's time.

Well, the universe has its own way of striking off every smile with a frown, and healing every sorrow with happiness. The former would apply for the Lakers.

By the time the Lakers family met for the first practice, this is what happened (since WCF SF vs Mavs, 2011 season) :-

Mike Brown took over as coach, brought in his team of assistance coaches. Brian Shaw would leave (Pacers). Lakers ditched The Triangle, but continue to focus on defense,

Lamar Odom lost his cousin in July.

Derek Fisher arrives with near-zero practice. He was the face of all the players in the league, being the President of the NBPA, and was hence the man who had to work on ending the lockout. Whilst doing that, he got no time whatsoever for other things in life.

Kobe Bryant had a surgery in his knees, in Germany. And he was coming to terms with playing minutes and the energy that would be consumed in doing so.

Ron Artest had a ridiculous off-season. He changed his name to "Metta World Peace", and was on a diet of Martinis, and added a bunch of pounds to his body when he arrived back as a Laker for the truncated, but congested season.

Pau Gasol, probably the most ready-to-play of the Lakers, had a good summer at the Eurobasket, and spent most of the summer in his back-yard, playing one-on-one basketball with his brother, Marc.

Andrew Bynum had treatments on his own knee, and had to visit doctors several time to get the pus out of his knee, which would be filled again every time he played.

Shannon Brown left the Lakers, and would join the Suns later.

So, before the first day of practice, the Lakers' starting line-up was disjointed.

Trade window opened up. Laker fans had their heart sliced open and trampled upon, as David Stern pulled the plug on a near-done trade that would send Pau to Rockets, Odom to hornets, and Lakers would acquire Chris Paul and others. This was nearly done, when Dan Gilbert, owner of Cleveland Cavaliers (whose history of whining is well known to everyone), along with others opposed the deal. Whether or not the '29 owners of the New Orleans Hornets' were influenced by this or not, David Stern decided to veto the trade on the table for 'basketball reasons'.

Basketball foot!

Pau Gasol showed up at the practice. Mitch Kupchak spoke to him. He continued with the practice. Lamar Odom showed up at practice. Spoke to Mitch Kupchak, left the building in half an hour. Lamar Odom was traded to Dallas Mavericks, in exchange for trade exception money.

What's more. Chris Paul got traded to Clippers. God knows how that improved the Hornets, who are sitting comfortably at the bottom of the Western Conference, losing atleast one of the traded-from-Clippers newbie and managing with an unhappy other, and banking on future picks of the ever unfortunate Minny Timberwolves.

The Clippers, who share the same arena as the Lakers - the Staples Center, looked at this as their best chance to raise a banner of their own among the dozens and dozens of Lakers'. To fuel to flame, the two pre-season games would be between the intra-city teams.

Without Shannon Brown and Lamar Odom, Lakers had to fill in a HUGE void. Ex-Pacers men - Josh McRoberts and veteran Troy Murphy were signed in. Two rookies - Darius Morris and Andrew Goudelock were given contracts. The Lakers looked a shadow of the past. Really. And the two pre-season games showed that.

The whole chemistry had changed. Players didn't understand the new offense, and were slow in learning it. The Lakers were slow, and were getting beat-up on transition. The new offense school also meant that the Lakers were turning the ball over many, many times. And to make things just that much worse - Kobe Bryant has injured his wrists. His legs are better, but now has torn ligaments in his right wrist.

The fans were getting impatient. They were excited too, but the fact that the Lakers had been betrayed by lady luck multiple times in the recent history meant that there was more anxiety and worry than excitement. At Lakers, there is no substitute for a win. Jerry West would remind you how much he hated being the Finals MVP in a season he lost to the Celtics in the Finals.

It is December 25th. The game starts at 5 pm. The Chicago Bulls are at The Staples... The Lakers start what can potentially be a very nasty season, against the team led by the reigning MVP - Derek Rose. Lakers are without Andrew Bynum (4 match ban to start this season for his flagrant foul on JJ Barea, the then Maverick guard.)

I get up at 3.30 am, and chant "Go Lakers" to nobody echo, and set myself up for the season... A season I waited for so long, only to walk on a path of thorns.

With a broken, bleeding heart, and with the blood boiling from last season's humiliation, Team Purple & Gold and its fans get ready to tip the season off...

(Part 2 : The season, coming next week)

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The mother of all rivalries and a friendship...

India vs Pakistan. Any stage, any place, any format. Bound to get you pearls of nervous sweat drops, goosebumps and hair-rising moments. Here, Siva relives some magical IndoPak cricketing moments from the past, and leaves us with a beautiful tale from the day the 2011 World Cup Semi Final game between India and Pakistan unraveled itself elsewhere.


My earliest memory of watching any cricket between teams from the two countries was this Rothman’s Cup match in Sharjah’85 *. This must have been the match that turned me into a fan-boy of that man Imran Khan. The next match that I remember watching was a year later. A match that has a special place in cricketing folklore. And then a year later, there was this Test. If watching that 6 for 14 on television two years earlier had already made me a fan-boy, this 135*, witnessed in person, had just sealed it for life. I would never again go on to root for an opposition playing Pakistan, unless it was India or the West Indies. Mostly, it was due to that man Imran. And then later on, the Ws.
And that brought with it a unique set of complications while watching every India-Pakistan game from then on. India has to win, of course. But not at the cost of Imran’s (and later, the Ws’ or Mushie’s or Saqi’s) bowling. Let them take 3 or 4 wickets as long as India has a winning score. Let that lazy leviathan Inzamam or that genial gentleman Younis Khan or that talented brat Umar Akmal score a 50 or that crazy guy Afridi plunder a whirlwind 30 before their team goes about collapsing. And yeah, while that happens, can Sachin score another hundred please?
Over the course of the next two decades, the two teams would go on to be part of some seriously NSFH (Not Safe For Heart) matches, be it Tests, ODIs or even T20Is. And then there was the small matter of the World Cup encounters. Barring the ‘07 edition, a tournament that both teams would like to think never happened, they played against each other in every WC since ‘92. Every time India came up trumps by a good margin. With history by their side and a home advantage to boot, India were slated to play Pakistan on 30th March’11 at Mohali in yet another WC encounter. It was a semi-final this time. 15 years and 3 World Cups after they last played a knock-out game in a WC.
By a strange quirk of fate, I was in the very country that had hosted almost as many India-Pak ODIs as either of the countries when this match happened. I was working for a client in Abu Dhabi, a company whose expat employees were a mix of people from Pakistan, India & the UK. The pleasantries exchanged with them at work usually extended into a 5 minute summary of what each of us thought about the cricket match the previous day. 15 minutes, if it featured any of our home teams. And what a delightful WC it turned out to be for the teams from the 3 countries! England provided all the thrills & comedic value in almost all the matches they played. Pakistan, in spite of losing 2 of their potential-all-time-great bowlers to the spot-fixing scandal, fired on all cylinders under the spirited leadership of that maverick who also ended up as the tournament’s best bowler. While India never faltered on any of the expectations, considering all the hype around their recently acquired # 1 ranking in Tests, except in the one game in which its middle-order & bowlers had a brain-freeze.
My work there involved considerable amount of time interacting with Rizwan. Rizwan is from Karachi. A top chap whom I have a lot to thank for, if not anything else at least for being the only guy whom I didn’t have to waste time trying to explain what I had to say when it came to work. Breaking the ice was never a problem considering how passionate he was about cricket and it also helped that I’d told him I was there when this happened. He was surprised to hear about my being a fan-boy of Imran & the Ws (and even more when I told him how quite a few of us in India call Wasimbhai as ‘the left arm of God’) and to my pleasant surprise, he thought Sachin was, without any doubt, the greatest batsman ever. (“if only he’d played for Pakistan, we would’ve never let Australia dominate cricket in the previous decade”).
On the day before the match, I asked Rizwan what he thought were Pak’s chances given their dream run till then (but for Kamran Akmal they’d have won all their matches convincingly). Rizwan was equally thrilled about the match but he was quite skeptical about their chances... “agar Sachin ka wicket jaldi gira toh chance haimagar aapka batting bahut strong hai. When I told him that had Asif & Aamir been around, I’d have been as skeptical as him about India’s chances, he brushed it aside to say humaara problem bowling nahin haiwoh dono gaye toh aur do bande aayengeabhi Gul haiWahab bhi achcha bowler haiaur Afridi ab dimaag se bowling kar raha haifarak batting mein hi hai”. We spoke cricket for about half an hour before it was time for us to leave and that’s when he did a Rajsingh Dungarpur on me “miyan, kal match dekhne ghar aaoge?”. “Of course Rizwan, would be a pleasure…but is it fine with you if I don’t stay on for the entire match since some friends here have already made plans to watch it together?” – My reply was partly a lie. None of those friends would’ve missed me if I wasn’t around while they watched the match. But I was surely not going to get caught in the dilemma of how to react at the end of the match, whatever be the outcome.
Rizwan had taken the day off on match day. I had no such option. But I could only manage to leave early that day and by the time I reached Rizwan’s house I had missed only Viru’s carnage of Gul and probably half an hour of play. Rizwan’s family were being as much of hospitable, warm hosts as what one has read about people from Pakistan in books like this and posts like this. A few minutes into watching the game, this happened. Rizwan’s 8 year-old daughter, who doesn’t understand much about the way DRS works (not unlike the players, umpires, the ICC & most of us) was sure – aapka Sachin out tha na daddy…phir kyun khel raha hai?”. I was sure (and glad) that Sachin got lucky. But I didn’t say a word. Rizwan was equally perplexed. But being the nicest guy around, didn’t say a word either(and thereby robbing me of an opportunity to point to him how karma probably bit back for this Aaqib Javed hat-trick). And then began the series of dropped catches. When the Kakmal drop happened, even Rizwan couldn’t hide his disappointment and winced so much that for a brief moment, even I felt bad that they were dropping so many. At the end of the Indian innings, after Wahab Riaz’s brilliant spell pulled the Indian score back, we both felt that Pakistan had a slight chance. But once again Rizwan was bang on with his prediction – yeh game toh ab Younis aur Misbah ke haath pe hai. I bid adieu to that lovely family and joined my friends to watch the rest of the match and the rest, as they say, is part of Statsguru.
Rizwan came up to my workstation next morning and had this to say – badhaai ho yaar…main bola tha na ki India ka hi chances zyaada hai? catching ke wajah se pata nahin hum aur kitne match haarnewale hain….magar main khush hoon…main nahin socha tha ki yahaan tak bhi aayenge… ab finals mein to aap hi jeetenge. All I managed in return was an understanding smile.
I still owe Rizwan a lunch and lots of ghee shakkar.

* - not sure if this was a live telecast...could be the highlights package in good old DD

(photo credit : )