Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Calling Time

In action.

This is a bittersweet post. After almost 15 years in which cricket has been the central theme of my life, I have decided to retire from BCCI domestic cricket.  

At the outset, I would like to use this post to sincerely thank everyone who has been a part of my journey. From coaches, trainers, physios, fellow teammates, captains I have played under, administrators and selectors, thank you all. To my employers and sponsors BAS, thank you for the continued support.

Representing India and Maharashtra has been an honour, and looking back, I cherish every occasion I got to wear my country and state cap. The experience has helped make me the person I am, and for this and much else, I am sincerely grateful. 

Drained after one of the many Maharashtra training sessions.  
My first India Blazer

We try to play cricket like it is life-or death. We try to prepare like there's nothing else. We leave our homes, families, friends, comfort zones all behind, and chase leather like there's no tomorrow. But at the end of the day, we are taught to maintain perspective, be grateful, and remember that it is just a game. At the end of the spectrum, looking back, I can see how that statement stands true and false at the same time. 

True, because it is just a game. there are always more important things in life. A country at war, a relative fighting disease, a friend struggling with the loss of a loved one . We cricketers are incredibly fortunate to get to spend our days playing the game we love, often earning our livelihoods from it. As a player who has just lost a close emotionally draining game, its important to reflect on such things, and not let yourself be bogged down by the weight of defeat. It is just a game after all. 

False, because it is so much more. It is a family, within a dormitory, or a team bus, or a hotel terrace. It is a place we explore ourselves, often find ourselves, and even more often lose ourselves again. It is rivalry and friendship existing seamlessly in the same relationship. It is the ultimate learning process. It is said when the student is ready, the teacher shall appear. Thus cricket teaches so little to some people, and so much to others.  

With my inspiration, Jhulan Goswami, on my first tour. 
At the Chinnaswamy, a ground that housed many a camp and many a memory. 

It is this that I will leave behind. It weighs on my heart, but hey, it's just a game remember?
One of my favourite memories, beating the Railways in a Super Over in Pune.

Life offers few such experiences  that give us so much, and I will always be on the look out for new ones. There are a number of things that I want to devote my time to in this second innings of sorts. Who knows. Perhaps 15 years later, I will write about something else that has given me so much. Perhaps not.

Cricket has given me a chance to see some tremendous beauty.

At the SCG. After India, Australia is my favourite country.

Looking forward to where life takes me. 

Friday, 9 October 2015

The Big Barabati Bottle Theory : The Bollywood Infection

Salman as Prem, the quintessential hero the Indian  public wants to see.

Dont worry Cuttack!

So you screwed up. So you threw a few bottles. So you will probably not see any international cricket again in the foreseeable future. So what?!

In just a few weeks you will get to see Salman Khan returning to the iconic Rajshri Productions banner! Prem Ratan Dhan Payo will release in Diwali, and watching a magnum opus like that is so much better than those annoyingly unpredictable cricket matches! Right?


You see, for Indians, cricket is not just a sport.

It’s a movie.

Recently, I’ve been watching a lot of Salman Khan films. He’s our family favourite you see. Not just movies which have released recently, but even his hits from years gone by (currently we’re on Maine Pyar Kiya)! And the trailers too. All this overdose of a shirtless Prem serenading his helpless heroines makes me tend to see Bollywood in everything, and blame it for the country’s woes. And so I think i'll blame the Barabati bottle storm on Bolllywood as well. 

Except we all should. It makes perfect sense.

Like I said, In India, cricket isn’t a sport. We don’t go to the cricket to watch one team win and one lose. We don’t go to watch amazing skills on display (when mishits are going for six, I start to question how skills matter anymore.)

We go for the entertainment. We go to the stadiums to watch our heroes. Not watch our heroes play, but just watch our heroes, period. Even if the match were to be washed out, a glimpse of our stars strolling around the field would be enough to make it worth the while. A few autographs and selfies would be icing on the cake! It doesn’t matter how they play the cover drive. It matters whether they are fielding in a spot where we can scream at them to grant us a hint of a look, a shy smile, maybe even a wink.

Isn’t this like going for a movie? We go for the sake of our stars, not the scripts. We will watch Akshay Kumar no matter what, even if it’s in a debacle such as Tees Maar Khan.  We will wolf whistle Salman Khan, no matter how hollow the acting and the storyline, and no matter how terrible his haircut (Tere Naam). We will even watch a movie with an overused regurgitated story featuring a couple of debutants, just because our Hero has sung a song in it!

Even if the more evolved part of our brains demands that we walk out at the interval, the reptilian part of the brain will take over and make us wait until the item song at the end credits!

And that is why the bottles were thrown.

You see, in our movies, our heroes always win. Always. No matter what the odds, no matter how many thugs and goons stand in the way, the hero always wins. All he has to do is switch to anti-gravity combat mode.  The goons get beaten up, and the damsel in distress is rescued. Job done and good has prevailed.  Always.

Everyone knows that cricket doesn’t work the same way.

 Everybody except everybody that is.

Everybody had been waiting for the match to come to Cuttack for more than two months. Since the music was released, the premiere was all everybody could talk about. Everybody wanted to catch the first day first show, as there was no other. Everybody took leave from work. Everybody stood in line in the baking heat for hours to buy their tickets. Everybody paid good money for them. Everybody lined up at the stadium three hours in advance, just so they could glimpse their stars getting out of the bus, and walk the proverbial red carpet into the theatre.

The stage was set. The stars descended. Everybody greeted the hero’s entry at the toss with a raucous roar. The villain’s decision to field was even more welcome. The popcorn began flying. The theatre was packed. Everybody was on their feet! Everybody was already dancing in the aisles. India was batting, and everything was going according to script! Everybody was enjoying the movie so far!

But when the Indian batting order began its slide into the abyss at Cuttack, everybody got confused. “This wasn’t how things are supposed to happen!”” Something’s wrong!” ‘’This isn’t what I paid for! How can the villain be winning?’’ said everybody. ‘’How can the heroine not be saved?

 And worst of all, how can the hero die???’’

Finally, somebody among everybody couldn’t take it. 

So somebody decided to save the day. Inspired by the numerous comebacks his hero had made on screen, somebody decided to rise above his ordinary existence. Somebody decided that he would become a hero!

 Even better, he would step in and save his heroes from an ignoble defeat and certain death!  Somebody would thwart the villain, and ensure justice! The cheerleaders would be charmed by his courage and daring, and swoon in his arms! The portly policemen manning the boundary would genuflect before him in gratitude, Gandhi topi tucked under their armpits, hands folded in reverence. They would even insist that their rescuer receive the Man of the Match award for his services to heroism.

And thus, the first bottle flew.

And as a new hero was born, the masses followed in blissful blind adoration.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

To Bash or not to Bash

This article first appeared in '' Seamstress '', my column for Wisden India

These are exciting times for the women’s cricket community. The inaugural Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) is set to begin in December this year, and England will launch the Women’s Cricket Super League in the English summer next year. The women’s game is about to pass through the alchemy that transformed the men’s game eight years ago, and enter the radical sphere of T20 leagues.

While the ECB’s Women’s Cricket Super League is still in its cocoon stages, the WBBL is already recruiting players for its eight teams, aligned to the BBL teams.  As the Kings XI Punjab showed in the previous edition of the IPL, recruiting the right team is the first step to success. To quote Ed Smith,’’ Once the players are out on the pitch, they are on their own- which makes it important to get the right ones out there in the first place’’. 

With teams allowed to recruit up to three overseas players each, a possible total of 24 overseas players may find themselves playing down under this Aussie summer.  As teams look to recruit the best possible international talent, five teams have already announced the signing of a total of 12 overseas players so far. Conspicuously absent from the list so far though, are any Indian female players, although Cricket Australia has expressed an interest in recruiting them.

It is a well known but little mentioned fact that the BCCI does not encourage Indian male players to participate in foreign domestic T20 leagues. While overseas players from all countries flock to the Indian Premier League, how many Indians have you seen in the BBL? Or the Caribbean Premier League? None.

All players require an NOC from their home boards before participating in any foreign competition, irrespective of format. The BCCI seems to reserve Indian players for the IPL however, and no male player has played in a foreign T20 league in recent times.

But with no domestic league to reserve their female players for, the BCCI stands to gain in a number of ways by setting a new precedent and allowing its female players to participate in foreign leagues:

1.       Higher standard of cricket:
Indian players will gain infinitely by the experience of playing in Australia, widely considered to have the strongest domestic competition in women’s cricket. And the WBBL will be an extension of that competition. With the influx of international players, the standard is likely to rise even higher.

2.       Exposure to foreign conditions:
The players would spend more than a month travelling the length and breadth of Australia, acclimatise to the foreign conditions, speed of the quicker, bouncier Aussie pitches and the nuances of various venues. They could gain crucial insights into the adaptations that are required to succeed down under. And all such experience will only be useful as and when India tour Australia. (Incidentally, India will tour Australia for a bilateral series immediately after the WBBL in January 2016.  An acclimatisation period could not be more perfectly timed. )

3.       Financial benefits :
Domestic female players in Australia have recently benefitted from a significant pay raise, and WBBL contracts are likely to add to their windfall.  Such opportunities will be few and far between for Indian domestic players. While the BCCI can offer male players high financial rewards through its home league, the lack of any such league for women in India means that the board would be doing a considerable disservice to the women if they are not allowed to participate in foreign leagues.

Although the WBBL overlaps with India’s senior domestic women’s calendar, the absence of some Indian stars is a small price to pay in the bigger scheme of things. If the advantages gained by playing in the WBBL translate into an away series win, then the absence of the players during the domestic season will be worth it. Players can always be selected by the weight of their performances in the WBBL itself. And there is no preparation like match practice. As for the ECB’s Women’s Cricket Super League, it is unlikely to coincide with any domestic tournaments.

These leagues could open up uncharted opportunities for the world’s most talented players. Here are some Indian cricketers who teams in foreign domestic leagues might be keen on recruiting:

·         Jhulan Goswami :
The spearhead of the Indian attack for almost a decade, Jhulan’s pace and accuracy have been an asset to the Indian team. Ubiquitously known as a fighter, she has single handedly bowled her team to victory on many occasions. More than useful with the bat down the order, she adds value to a team through sheer experience and fighting spirit. On the fast, pacy pitches in Australia, a number of teams would have on their radar the ICC’s top ranked ODI bowler.
·         Mithali Raj:
The undisputed queen of Indian batting. She is the archetype of class. The Indian captain is known for her silken touch and effortless timing, both while playing the ball in the air and along the turf. With more than 15 years of international experience behind her, buoyed by truckloads of runs, she would be extremely sought after by team scouts. She opens the batting for India in the T20 format, and will lend stability to any team she may be a part of.
·         Harmanpreet Kaur :
Her batswing clearly tells a keen observer that Harmanpreet idolises Virender Sehwag. And like him, she is known for her ability to clear the ropes. In addition, she has recently added accurate off spin bowling to her skill set, and gained a reputation as a genuine all-rounder.  Combined with the fact that she is an exceptional fielder,  Harmanpreet is a captain’s delight, particularly for the T20 format.

With the BCCI  having announced that contracts will be implemented for the women’s team as well, the participation in such tournaments is likely to be addressed in those contracts.  The new BCCI administration has already taken positive steps towards the development of women’s cricket. For instance : the announcement of an intention to contract players, addition of an U-23 tournament and a three day tournament in the domestic calendar. Will the BCCI break down the wall it has built around itself for the greater good of Indian women’s cricket? I am hopeful. 

All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended. One may transcend any convention, if only one may first conceive of doing so. – From the movie ’Cloud Atlas’