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 : )

Friday, March 16, 2012

Little things, big love.

There are little things in life that catch your attention. The little things that make you want to notice them every day, even if they are not significant in a big manner. But, these are the exact things that may hog your attention on some later day, make you see more of it, make you associate yourself with the surroundings, fall in love.

I love cricket and basketball. And there are many things and players to love. There are also some small tid-bits that you like to watch over and over, and you may never get tired of. It amuses you. You don't care what's happening around them, or you, whilst you watch it. I'll give you two examples of such things, that puts a curve to my smile, subconsciously tilts my face and fixes my eye on the beautiful little, otherwise insignificant, string of moments.

1. I used to watch nearly every cricket match possible. Many people do that. We Indians are that crazy about it. Each of us have our favourite moment on screen. We like to see somebody's in-swinger, somebody's helicopter shot, someone's cover-drive... I have my own list of all that. But, that's appreciating the art. The single-most favourite one and a half second of cricket ritual is that of Morne Morkel completing a circle on top of his run-up before chugging his body to bowl. I have no idea why he does it, but he does it, and it is lovely. I call it "Morne's Halo". Makes me marvel. That, and him being tall and bowling snorters at batsmen, is why I like him bowl, why I like watching him bowl.

2. I the Lakers. I had started watching NBA only in the Shaq/Kobe era, and most of the spot-light would be on them, and why not? But there was this little fellow there... Derek Fisher, same draft class as Kobe. He had this thing...this special thing, of making a Free Throw look beautiful. The arc that Derek Fisher conjures, gives you so much time to say "wow" very slowly. They're silly, little things you see... But that's where I started to love the Bandana wearing, never dunking, clutch role player the Lakers had - Derek Fisher.

It was 12.30 am last night, this morning, if you will...

The trade deadlines had just closed. Lakers had dealt Jason Kapono, and Luke Walton and a future pick for Ramon Sessions and Christian Eyenga from the Cavs. It was kind of twitchy, reacting to Luke's trade. He was always injured, but got a sizable salary. It was amazing what Mitch Kupchak had pulled off. But, Luke Walton is family. What he had been to the Lakers is beyond numbers. He was very unfortunate with his body, but was a constant motivation and has an excellent basketball IQ. That helped Lakers' 2nd coming of the decade. He'll be a coach soon.

Yeah, 12.30 am.

It was said that franchises will be given a few more minutes to complete discussing any trade on the table, but not allowing new trade options to be discussed. Most, or all, Lakers fan thought this was the time for Lakers to make a final push for Michael Beasley, if at all they are wanting him.

But we were in for a shock. Derek Fisher (+ 1st round pick) had been traded to the Rockets for Jordan Hill.

It was an hour of utter disbelief. The news made me jump up, and put me to tears immediately. Laker fans all over the world following this were in tears.

Sure, Mitch wanted to improve the team, but we never, ever, expected this.

Why do we love Fisher? Fisher is the leader of the team, the co-captain of Lakers, the only player Kobe Bryant willingly listens to, the father figure for young players on the roster, the commander-in-chief for the warriors when in need. He is just beyond an average point guard with questionable form. You can throw the stat sheet down your drain when you put him in clutch situations.

He gave us so many memories, scattered over a decade of Purple and Gold -ness. He rarely ever missed a free-throw! His three-pointers stood granted for ages, he has the 2nd most number of threes made in NBA finals, and a huge number of playoff games played... His experience is wealth in gold...purple and gold.

I was enjoying my summer break at my grandparents' place, and was watching THAT playoff game vs Spurs. Tim Duncan hit an impossible shot over Shaq, and the San Antonio crowd was already berserk. But then, 0.4 happened. And I did not disagree with my grandpa for calling me a mad monkey, seeing me jump up and down like one.

0.4s is what Fisher is. Clutch.

In both the recent seasons that Lakers won - Derek had some superb, series changing performances. In the season against the Magic, Derek Fisher hit the game tying 3 to take the game to over-time, and then killed the Magic with another 3 in over-time. When Lakers played the Celtics (yeah, this is the part where sport becomes a bloodbath battle), it was Derek Fisher who played like a rabid bull-dog to buy back the home court advantage at Boston. His made layup after being hammered to the floor will forever be fresh.

He passed up on sharing locker room space with Wade, LeBron and Bosh, to stay with the Lakers. It's hard for any Laker fan to see him leave. Mitch is likely to bring him back in future, maybe in a sign-and-retire way.

Derek Fisher is the voice for Lakers. It's a joy to see him come out first game of the season, and talk to the fans, especially after we won championships. Ah, Fish...

Derek Fisher, we have loved you, and we will love you, all the way. We loved the way you took the charges fearing no man who came at you, we love your treys that would swish from deep, I love your free-throws that made me love you in the first place, we love the professionalism that you bring to the table.

The whole bunch of players in the league must love you for representing them, standing up for them, working day and night and deep into the night to bring the season back.

Please come back if and when the opportunity comes, and make me weep again... weep in joy. I will be waiting for that day.

You shall always be our beloved Fish that you now are. Keep wearing that smile!