Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Kiwi Cricket Team: Perennial Underdogs

Two Cricketing battles are set to start in this week. Both of them are in the southern hemisphere. In South Africa, a below strength Australian team reeling under recent ‘recession’ aims to thwart the beaming host team from snatching their top ranking in tests. On the other hand, MS Dhoni led Indian team, after a stupendous season in sub continental conditions, sets off to conquer the cold, windy fields and seaming pitches in New Zealand.

Kiwi Cricket team has always been enigmatic. Barring Richard Hadlee, Cairns father-son duo, Martin Crowe and the present captain Daniel Vettori, the team over the years had very few world-class performers. Yet the team has occasionally surprised some of the stronger teams, especially at home. Even without superstars, the Black Caps are hard to beat in their own backyard. That the Kiwis have managed to reach semifinals of world Cup five times speaks a lot about their resilience. But the fact that the team has never gone on to win the world Cup also reflects the lack of genuine match winners.

India won its first overseas series against New Zealand in 1969. But thereafter, its showing here has been pathetic. No Indian team, be it with world class spinning quartet(1976) , consisting of Grreats like Gavaskar, Vishvanath and Kapil (1981) or having batting mastereos like Sachin, Dravid and Ganguly (2003) has been able to win a series here since 1969. Will it be possible for today’s star studded tram, led by Dhoni to create another history?

The two teams clash with each other in the shorter versions of the game first before three match test series. The New Zealand team is fresh from its heroics in Australia, where they were thwarted by rain from winning the ODI series and lost only by one run in T-20 match against the Aussies. Awesome batting display of Ross Taylor, Grant Elliot, Brendon McCullum in that series must be a cause of concern for Indian team’s think tank. Return of Jacob Oram has certainly strengthened the Black caps.

Indian team too, is riding high on nine wins out of last ten ODI matches. Its flamboyant batsmen are in tremendous form. But key to team’s success against England and Sri Lanka in last two series was the role of occasional spinners, Viru, Yuvraj , Yusuf Pathan etc. They are not going to be effective on seamer friendly pitches in New Zealand. Absence of a seaming all rounder might hurt India. May be it’s time for Dhoni to play as all rounder, as he can bowl occasional medium pacers effectively!

Indian test team appears to better placed than what it was in 2003. The team has a better pace attack. It remains to be seen as to how the famed batting line up copes up with the conditions. It is the last chance for the likes of Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman to stamp their authority in this country. The Indians have to keep their good work of last year going if they are to remain in the hunt for top spot in Test and ODI rankings.

Somehow, Indian teams while playing against New Zealand, whether at home or away, used to give an impression that they are taking Kiwis a bit lightly. This team, under MS Dhoni and Gary Kirsten, though appears keen to make amends. A close tussle between talent and tenacity is on cards. Any guesses for series result? Well, I give Black Caps an edge in ODI but Indians seem to be ahead in Tests. T-20? Anybody’s game really!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Vishy, The Original Little Master, Turns Sixty

Gundappa Vishwanath turned sixty yesterday. Suddenly I realised that I am following Cricket since last forty years. It was during the Diwali vacations of 1969 that I was introduced to running commentary by one of my college going cousins. I still remember the noisy celebrations by my cousin and his friends when Vishy scored his first Hundred on debut in the Kanpur Test. I was too young to understand the entire commentary but the coverage in local papers next day made me realize that Vishwanath had done something special. He became my first childhood hero.

I, as indeed many of young Cricket lovers in the seventies, particularly from nondescript towns in India, never got to see Vishy live on ground or on TV as his career terminated prematurely in 1981, well before the advent of live TV coverage. But the vivid narrations by Suresh Saraiyya, Anant Setalwad, Vijay Merchant, Tony Cozier etc during the commentary and equally glowing match reports by K.N.Parbhu and Bal Pandit and V.V.Karmarkar ( in Marathi papers) were enough for me to believe that Vishy is truly an all time great Cricketer.

All through his career, Vishy had to live in the shadow of Sunny Gavaskar. In Sunny’s debut series against West Indies in 1971, Vishwanath was injured for first three tests. Sunny stole the limelight then and forever. But the die-hard followers of the game know the value of Vishy’s presence in the team with a very brittle middle order and his contribution in all the landmark wins India had posted all through the Seventies. People talk of Laxman’s double century against Australia in 2001 as the best Innings by an Indian. But I am sure that those who watched or even listened to the commentary would rate Vishy’s counterattacking innings of 97 not out (against a rampaging Andy Roberts on Chepauk in fourth Test against West Indies in 1974-75) ahead of everything.

His polite and unassuming nature on and off the field is talked of very highly. Although with a very shrewd Cricketing brain, his selfless and gentle character might have come in the way to be given captaincy. In the only test he captained, that too when Sunny volunteered to rest, Vishy had put forth the greatest ever example of sportsmanship by recalling a batsman, Bob Taylor of England, given out by the umpire when the opposition was precariously placed. It is impossible to think of such gesture being offered by the likes of Ricky Ponting, Ganguly, or even Sunny Gavaskar. He perhaps was the last gentleman on a Cricket field.

One of the striking features of his batting was that he used to score at a fairly decent pace. His wristy play would have been ideal in the middle overs of One day Cricket, but he hardly got to feature in it. His career ended abruptly after his failure against Imran’s XIII that included partisan umpires. We just witnessed a lot of media support for Ganguly or Dravid in spite of a long sequence of failures. But in 1981, nobody, not even Sunny Gavaskar, his greatest admirer, stood for Vishwanath’s comeback. Never a man of manipulative means, Vishy preferred to walk into oblivion. But he continues to rule the hearts of Cricket lovers of that generation never mind the exploits of Sachin, Dravid or Sehwag.

BCCI has recently decided to honour Vishy with the Life Time achievement award. It is a happy coincidence that it comes close to his sixtieth birthday. Vishy truly deserves this and much more.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

World Tennis Doesn't Want Federer Go the Borg Way

The emotional breakdown of Roger Federer at this year’s Australian Open reminded many of a dejected Bjorn Borg leaving Flushing Meadows even before prize distribution ceremony after losing the 1981 US Open final to his arch rival, John McEnroe. Borg never appeared in a Grand Slam tournament after that. Watching a psychologically drained Federer in tears the other day, one wonders if the world will ever see the Federer in full flow on a Tennis court.

I find many interesting parallels between these two all time greats of World Tennis. Borg the Swede and Roger the Swiss. Both right handed although Borg made the double handed backhand famous. Borg was at the height of his powers before he won the grueling five setter against the maverick Mac at Wimbledon in 1980. Federer on the other hand was on the back of unprecedented 237 weeks as the no.1 player in the world notwithstanding successive failures at French Open in 2008. But both had their self belief shaken in the respective year’s Wimbledon finals. Incidentally both were rocked by Left Handers (John McEnroe and Rafael Nadal).

But there’s another interesting comparison. Borg, a hard core base liner, surprised many pundits as he won five successive Wimbledon Titles following on his French Open victories. McEnroe, a natural Serve and Volley player, ended his regime. Federer, on the other hand is the best Grass Court player the world has ever seen. Yet he was outclassed and outlasted by Nadal, a Clay court specialist, who has adapted extremely well to other surfaces.
After the epic match at Wimbledon 1980, Borg had suffered three successive grand slam final losses (US open 1980, Wimbledon 1981 and US open 1981) at the hands of McEnroe, five years junior to him. With his confidence severely dented, Borg retired at the age of 26, and the world was shocked. His life after retirement was full of unfortunate incidences including divorce and financial loss. Borg did try to stage a comeback but could not withstand the new age Tennis. His nemesis, McEnroe still haunts him as he recently lost an exhibition match too.

Federer too has now lost three consecutive Grand slam finals to Rafael Nadal (French Open and Wimbledon 2008 and Aus Open few days ago). He too has shown signs of psychological disintegration. He now seems to be living in denial. Not only Nadal, the likes of Andy Murray and Djokovic are also fancying their chances against him. As I had said earlier, Federer needs to accept the fact that the others have caught up to him. If he does not realize this fact quickly, he risks Borg like fate. Many ardent Federer fans like me certainly want him to be on the court fighting his way back to glory rather than resigning in disgust.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Of Brothers and Sisters in Tennis

Just concluded Australian Open was dominated by brothers and sisters. This year's doubles titles in men and women category were won by Black brothers and Williams sisters respectively. But that is not all. Women's runner up Dinara Safina has an equally famous brother - Marat Safin himself a former world no 1. Our own Yuki Bhambri, Junior champion at Oz open this year proudly mentions his two tennis playing sisters - Ankita and Saana.
That prompts me to chalk down a list of famous siblings in Tennis. I do not claim that the list is complete. If you could add to following list, please go ahead.

Williams sisters - Venus ans Serena

The pair is undoubtedly the most powerful ever combination in women's doubles. Both the sisters, former world no 1, having won 18 Grand slam singles titles between them, have a fantastic record in doubles too. They have 8 grand slam doubles titles and last year's Olympics gold medal to their credit. In the last decade or so, women's tennis saw rise and fall of many players. Williams sisters have endured the likes of Henin, Sharapova, Ivanovic and others and are set to rule the women's cirsuit for many years to come.

Black brothers - Byran and wyne

The Blacks have won virtually everything under the sun as far as men's doubles is concerned. Not quite highly ranked individually in singles, their combination is superb. Originally from Zimbabwe, they form an important part of US Davis cup team. The Blacks also Olympics Bronze medal. This team of brothers has been a flesh in the thorn for Indian pair of Bhupati and Paes when they were playing together and now when they are with different partners. Yestersay too, Bhupatiwas aiming for two titles at Australian Open. But he along with Knowles were beaten squarely by the Blacks ( who are not black!)

McEnroe brothers - John and Pathrick

John McEnroe needs no introduction to any Tennis fan. His rivalry with borg, his tantrums on the court and his sliken game are a part of the folklore. Apart from a magnificent record in singles, he won many doubles titles parterin mainly with Peter Fleming. His younger brother, Pathrick was less exuberent. He was a more successful Doubles player although he played with John for very few times. Pathrick won French Open in 1989 (with Jimmy Grab) and was runner up in Australian Open in 1991 ( with David wheaton ). In addition, he won fifteen double titles on the ATP circuit. Like his elder brother, Pathrick represented US in Davis Cup both as a player and coach.

The Sanchez siblings - Emilio, Javier and Arantxa

The trio forms one of the most successful tennis families in the world. Arantxa, former world no 1, the youngest became youngest female player to win French Open, went on to win 14 Grand slam titles in all, in addition to Olympics medals in 1992 and 1996 Games. Her borthers, Emilio and Javier both were one of the most accomplished Doubles players, although rarely did they play together. Emilio, a top ten Singles player too, won 50 doubles titile on ATP circuit including 3 grand slam wins. He along with Sergio Casal was the top most doubles team in Eighties and Nineties. Emilio was coach of Spain's Davis Cup team that won last year's championship. Javier too, was a successful doubles player, winning 24 ATP titles, many of them. interestingly, with Sergio Casal!

Amritraj brothers - Anand, Vijay and Ashok

The First family of Indian Tennis. Vijay Amritraj his brothers, Anand and Ashok , were among the first Indians to play in top-flight international tour tennis. Vijay was said to be as talented as Borg and Connors. He had ability to surprise any top ranked player on his day. Twice Wimbledon Quarter finalist, he won 13 singles in his career. But Indians know him better for his tenacious play in Davis Cup matches and his partnership with his elder brother Anand. Vijay took India to finals of Davis Cup twice - in 1974 and 1987. While Anand played mostly in Davis Cup matches, youngest of the brothers, Ashok after initial foray in the sport quickly turned to Hollywood to become a successful producer.

The Austins - Tracy and John

Just before the advent of Steffi Graf, a teen age sensation had blazed the Tennis world. Tracy Austin won US open 1979 when only 16. Sadly her career was shoret lived because of injuries. She had won 1980 Wimbledon mixed doubles title with her brother John, himself a member of US Davis cup team.

Then there have been siblings Cyril Suk and Helena Sukova and won the Wimbledon mixed in the 90's. And You had Gene and Sandy Mayer back in the 80's. On the national scene in India, Keertane brothers Nitin and Sandeep represented Maharashtra, while Bhambri sisters Ankita and Saana regularly feature in Challengers. Their younger brother, Yuki is today the toast of nation following his win at Australian open. Oberai sisters Neha and Shikha are also around but the NRI sisters' dream to represent India seems to be in jeopardy following government's decision not to allow NRIs to represent the country in sports.

As I said in the beginning, the list may be incomplete. Readers are welcome to contribute to the compilation.