Thursday, November 28, 2013

In the wake of giants...

Question: How does the forest look when the Washington tree falls?
Incidentally, the Washington tree, the second largest tree in the world, a giant sequoia, collapsed partially after lightning struck and the resulting fire partially burnt the 255 feet tall giant down and then a snow load in 2005 ground it down to about half its once gigantic stature.

Answer: In the Giant Forest Grove (which is where the once colossal, now diminutive Washington still stands), where every other tree is a towering 200 ft plus sequoia, whether seen from the ground up or from the heavens above, the forest still looks pretty much the same.

Come December, when the Indian team sets sail for South Africa without its own towering ‘T’alisman, question is, how would they look? Look at Australia and the West Indies. When their cricketing giants put up their feet and rolled over in their hammocks, their heirs struggled and juggled with the crown till they dropped it down a bottomless pit. But the four great sequoias (Ganguly, Kumble, Laxman and Dravid) whose shadows lengthened over the Indian plains over seasons past, and the greatest of them all who walked away last, are not walking away from a forest stunted by the blinding brilliance of their greatness but from one where they have sown their greatness. And from those seeds, I suspect will grow even taller sequoias to take their place.

This tour of the moment’s greatest Test playing nation, on hard bouncy wickets against sea-fed winds and the most lethal bowling attack on the planet will truly test if these boys will grow into giants. It is this tour that will prove if this forest that Tendulkar is leaving behind will be engulfed by the fire storm called Dale Steyn & Co. or will they emerge as the giants their fans believe them to be, giving away little by way of comparison to the stalwarts that have gone before them.

It isn’t just the fast bowling that will prove to be a challenge for Virat, Shikhar, Pujara and Rohit, India’s young sequoias in waiting. The South African batting might prove an even greater challenge for the inexperienced bowling attack. AB de Villiers and Hashim Amla own four of the most skillful hands to have held a bat and their will to impose their presence on the opposition has made them into modern day greats. And with them stands another giant who could well take on our very own Sachin Ramesh for the mantle of the greatest cricketer of our times – the unmatched allrounder – Jacques Kallis.

Be that as it may, I have a strong feeling that in terms of attitude, skill, toughness and mental preparedness, this might well be the best Indian team to take on the Proteas in their backyard.

Also, this team, save for one glaring omission, is also the nucleus of the side that will last for the decade to come and might also become India’s best ever Test team. Will that team also be good enough to be the best in the world, like it has threatened to be, and leave behind an all-conquering legacy like the Australian and West Indian teams of old? I do think so…

So let’s look at the team of tomorrow, which is pretty much the team of today, and see how they hold up against the greats of the past.

Flouting convention, lets start at the business end of a Test team – the tail. In this respect, test teams are like scorpions. The head might make an impression but it is the tail, the lethal weapon, that gets you respect.

India’s hopefully lethal weapons, their bowlers have come in for a lot of flak lately but this attack is quite different from the one that conducted affairs in the ODI series against Australia. And truth be told, it’s not like Mitchell Johnson and the band fared much better. So who will be the leader of the attack in the matches and years to come? Who will take the new ball and make those early inroads like Kapil Dev and Javagal Srinath and Zaheer Khan once did…er, in case of the last named, does…?

With discipline and skill, that viper like darting swing and innate cricketing intelligence, Bhuvaneshwar Kumar will surely become a name that rival teams would prepare and plan for in the seasons to come.As a swing bowler, he may lack the pace of an Akram or a Steyn but as I have mentioned in previous columns, I remember batsmen from backgrounds as diverse as the Barbadian Desmond Haynes who honed his skills against the likes of Malcolm Marshall, Joel garner and Sylvester Clarke and Sanjay Manjrekar who learnt his cuts on the Mumbai maidans saying that the by then medium paced Richard Hadlee was still the best bowler they had ever faced because of his control over line, length and movement off the seam and in the air.

I’m not suggesting that ‘Bhuvi’ is going to become a Hadlee. I’m just saying that lack of pace needn’t hold him back and he has the skills and the acumen to become the sword arm for India.

And if you say it was another era, well I remember Glenn Mcgrath dismantling entire line-ups with deliveries no quicker than the low 130s. The key for these past greats was control over line, being able to read which length to use on what pitch against which batsman and the ability to move the ball late and enough – skills the bowler Bhuvaneshwar Kumar is evolving into will surely posses as the tours go by.

Complementing Bhuvaneshwar’s incisive seam bowling with his nippy pace, heavy effort ball and devastating reverse swing is the consistent and diligent Shami Ahmed. He isn’t frighteningly quick but swings the ball at pace, is consistent in his lines, has the heart of a lion. He has courage and character for though he has often spent long months just waiting in the wings, he has never let nerves spoil his party and has grabbed his opportunities with performances that have strong, steady and at times spectacular. His approach to the game reminds me of the solid workhorses – from Alec Bedser and Brian Statham to Courtney Walsh and Shaun Pollock.

These bowlers are steady in length and pace with the ability to slip in a real quick one every now at times. And they can move the ball off the seam or in the air. When there is something in the pitch or the atmosphere, these guys know how to extract the most out of it. And if there’s nothing happening, they can just plug away in the corridor, keeping things tight. Young Shami is in the same mould and with his hunger and passion for making his mark fuelling his performances, there is every reason to believe that he will be bowling will sting, irrespective of the conditions. And like Sourav Ganguly said in an interview “I have played Waqar Younis at his tearaway best, and Shami’s reverse swing is good as anyone else’s.”

Space and time will not permit us to run through the rest of the team this week. So we’ll save it for next time. But before I go, I would like you to meditate on one name that should continue to be a part of this team for the next five years to come. His name is Gautam Gambhir and he should have been on the boat to South Africa. As things stand, he didn’t quite make the cut. But never mind, he’ll be back soon enough, as would I with the rest of the team…

Until then, enjoy the cricket..


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Will This dog Have it's Day?

Where do you reckon I might have last caught sight of a magnificent but rare animal teetering on the brink of extinction? Would it have been the deserts of the Thar or the rain soaked cloud forests in the east? Am I more likely to have spotted this elusive beast on a lonely windswept crag in the Himalayas or in the dense forests along the Western Ghats?

Ah well, the answer to that question is a sad indictment of the rather staid travel itineraries that have governed my life and work so far, but I count my blessings wherever I find them, and on this occasion, I happened to run in to them at the taxi stand outside the Pune airport..

In the warm rays of a winter afternoon, I had seen the pair, gazing imperiously at the passing cars and the jostling crowds, unmindful of the smoke and dust, these two aristocrats looked past and through the hurrying haze that whirled around them, like they knew they were higher beings, living in this world but not of it.

The coat shimmering in the sun, that deep, deep chest harbouring the power to span the breadth of the Deccan in a leap and a bound and that faraway look in those big hazel eyes…. Ah! They were a sight to behold. The fact that these regal beasts were standing at the end of ornate leashes didn’t seem to matter. With their bearing, they still seemed to own the place.

At the other end of the same leash stood a man, professorial in demeanour, who looked like he would be more comfortable with a book or sketch-pad in his hand, and yet the incongruity of the trio, with respect to each other as well as their environment seemed to hint at a bond far deeper than was apparent.

Forgetting all about the conference I was to go to, and drawn like the proverbial moth to a flame, I walked towards their eminence with a question in my head…’what are they?’

Those of you who have had the misfortune of bumping into more than one of my earnest endeavours in this corner of the magazine might know that I’m rather unreasonably obsessive about a few subjects, dogs being one of them. I can usually separate a setter, English or Irish from Gordon, even if I be on the east bank of the Ganges while they be gamboling on the west (and that has nothing to do with what dams have done to our rivers), and same should hold true, if the dogs be terriers, mastiffs, hounds or curs. Then why couldn’t I put my finger on these sight-hounds (yeah I’d gotten the group but I couldn’t place the breed)?

“Excuse me” I ventured, “…er, what kind of dogs are these?”

The professor floated out of his thoughts and blinked back to the present as he looked at me and then at his dogs, like he’d seen them for the first time, as if wondering how they came to be here with him. His gaze took in the contours of the hounds and a wave of pride swept across his face… “Caravan Hounds!”, he said. “They are an ancient Indian breed, bred for the chase. Though more numerous than some other indigenous breeds, they are still very rare and nowhere near as popular as most of the Western breeds”

Ah! An Indian breed. No wonder I hadn’t seen any pictures of the breed in books or magazines. I have been collecting breed-books and reading about dogs ever since I can remember. I share my life with four dogs and two of them are rare breeds from different parts of the world. I can tell the difference between a Karabash, an Akbash and a Kangal – all rare and similar livestock guarding breeds from Turkey and yet I had never heard of nor seen a dog as magnificent as the Caravan Hound before. My point is not to toot on about what I know about obscure breeds. I’m just trying to impress upon the reader that even one as involved with canine trivia as I had failed to come across literature or physical evidence of one of the most striking native specimens of our canine culture.

And the Caravan Hound, though rare and endangered, is far more numerous than some of the other highly endangered breeds. The Kumaoni Mastiff and the Chippiparai are found in little pockets in their geographical enclaves. The Rampur Hound and the Rajapalyam are relatively better known but the Kinnauri Gaddi, the Combai, the Poligar and the Alangu are all extremely rare and extinction is a very real threat.

Most Indian breeds are either livestock guardians, (which means they don’t herd sheep like a German Shepherd or a Collie but protect the flocks from predators) or sight hounds (greyhound-type hunting dogs that chase and bring down prey). But why are these breeds languishing on the brink?

More dog enthusiasts in India would know more about rare  South American breeds like the Dogo Argentino and the Fila Brasileiro or the South African Boerboel than they would about any of these Indian breeds.

Ironically enough, the very people you’d like to thank for keeping these breeds alive are the ones you should hold responsible for their decline. Not only have breeders of these indigenous dogs not done enough to spread information about these dogs but have done precious little to develop them. Many of these breeds have stagnated and become living relics of a long-gone past. The problem with most of these breeds is that they are hard-wired for the tasks they had traditionally been bred for. The hounds are snappy, often unpredictable hunters which are impossible to manage within the confines of an urban home while the livestock guardians need lots of space, bark through the night and are aggressive with strangers. Though these breeds are hardy and healthy, almost all of them are very difficult to train and little has been done by breeders to make these dogs easier to live with.

There has been an on and off ban on importing breeds from other countries because activists and law-makers want to preserve and protect the Indian breeds but as long as a Labrador or a Boxer is easier to live with and is more reliable and trustworthy with friends and furniture, the Rajapalyams and Gaddis will remain on the rural fringes of the Indian dog enthusiast’s horizon.

It would be a proud day for all of us indeed when Caravan hound registrations outstrip Golden retriever registrations in India and they even begin to find homes in other countries. But such a day will remain a dream until breeders work on making these hunters and protectors into reliable companions as well. Every shred of life has to stay relevant in the context of the present. All life that fails that test, no matter how magnificent, be it the Diplodocus, the Sabre-toothed Tiger, or heaven forbid, the Chippiparai, will eventually cease to be.


Thursday, November 14, 2013

Of Cats, Gods and Tides...

Anybody remembers Bizarro from Htrae, the square peg in the round planetary hole in that ‘space’ called DC comics, where everything that happens is opposite of how it might happen on earth (Htrae is Earth spelt backwards)? I do… I was just a little older than a toddler when that bizarre Superman issue showed up on news-stands… But why am I dragging out that dusty memory from that worm eaten cupboard of my childhood? That is because a cousin of mine who happened to snag a job in the Thames and a husband and a baby followed, is returning home and she wanted to see a wild bizarre part of what was once her ‘native’ country.

I spread out the creased map on the bed and then my wife and I, we hurriedly went up north past a rather tempting but daunting Ladakh and the forbidding heights of Nanda Devi , and then scampered south, by-passing the far too comforting confines of houseboats in Kumarakom, hopped around the red-striped ‘ultra’ wilderness in the heart of the Naxal nation around the  Deccan and then gingerly circumvented the warm winds out west before scooting east looking for a holiday destination that could measure up to my cousin’s wishlist... 

 It was then that I remembered that from under the armpits of the city Charnock built, snake mighty rivers in search of the sea. And as cities and towns fall away, along their banks crawls a strange beast, a mighty forest that recognizes neither time nor space. It stretches beyond the realms of land and sea, beyond borders that divide countries and faith, spilling over into countries and oceans. Here, in the endless tidal swamp-forests, man - undefended by concrete walls, cellular technology and metalled roads – is reduced to being a mere mortal again. Governed by primal laws where great beasts rule, on land and water, where man still lives in want and fear. In this truly bizarre landscape shaped by the tides, land appears and disappears like a mirage, and water is the one true constant… It is an enchanted land where fish walk the earth while trees grow roots that refuse to dig deep into the earth and stick their arms out, through the earth and towards the sky. These are the forests of the sundari trees, and the Sunderbans, be you my cousin or someone else’s, are truly as beautiful and enigmatic and ‘out there’ as any land you could find in the pages of a comic book or a fairy tale.

But like all lands that promise adventure, the Sunderbans too are as treacherous as they are beautiful. While in the rest of the country, tigers slink away whenever man approaches, here the great cats stalk man as they would a deer or wild boar, to hunt and eat.

So great is the fear of the tiger that those travelling through the Sunderbans at night in their houseboats prefer to drop anchor in the middle of a waterway than risk being close to land. But the tigers won’t be denied by a mere expanse of water. These relentless beasts have been known to swim up to a boat, steal up to the deck or a window and then carry their victim through the waters to an undisturbed spot on the shore, where they can eat in peace.

Just in case as you read this, you think you would have jumped into the tidal waters to escape the tiger, I would strongly urge you to exercise extreme caution for those waters are home to the largest living crocodilian in the world – the salt water crocodile. And the salt water croc relishes the taste of man just as much as the tiger.

Then of course there are the bull sharks and the cobras and pythons and vipers. Every home in the region would have lost a relative or a friend to these hunters in the shadows and the shallows, for here in the Sunderbans alone, man has failed to manipulate the forces of the great wilderness and remained a mere subject to the laws of nature.

And yet, I say that this winter, in the gathering smog in your city, as you wonder where to head out in search of adventure, I say you can’t better trying on  a trip to these mangrove forests for size.

 The meandering waterways, the languid pace of life and your boat, the calls of birds and monkeys on the passing branches overhead and the glistening mud banks with fresh pug marks leading from the water’s edge to the forest threshold, all make for an unforgettable experience in their own right. But what I remember most fondly from my trips to the region is the magnificent camaraderie that is the very essence of life for the people who live in this inhospitable wilderness.

Away from the artifice and excesses of our city-bred lives, here in the lap of nature at her best and worst, the tide-people have begun to rediscover the meaning of faith and friendship. Unfettered by the web of meaningless meaning that our complicated lives spin for us in the ‘real world’, here in the surreal world of the Sunderbans, life is about staying alive and in the moment. God isn’t some deity whose tales have popped out of an ancient tome. Nor is God the one learned philosophers have tried to introduce most of mankind to through their own isms and prisms. Nay, not either. Instead God here is that sublime force that rules the lives of all who live here. These forces are represented by two deities, Bono Bibi, the goddess of the forest and Dakshin Rai, the divine spirit of the tiger… And though you might find two men in a small boat out fishing for crabs and their names maybe Koreem and Kanhai, but these men are neither Hindu nor Muslim. Their forefathers may have been before they reached this mystical land but once here, faith gets pared down to just the essentials.. And so these men, Koreem and Kanhai and their brothers you meet, will also be found united in prayer before every expedition into the forest as they stare down death at every step as they look for crabs, firewood or honey (so fraught with danger are these expeditions into the Sunderbans for the locals that their wives live like widows until their husbands return) . And when life has been reclaimed after each  such expeditions, these men and their families unite again to offer gratefulness and gratitude to ‘God’, their forest and their tiger, and celebrate their today the best they can, for who knows what kind of a tomorrow the winds might bring.

So visit the Sunderbans, dear cousin, or whoever else you be, for here you will stand on the little delta of your experiences, and witness the river of our primordial past empty itself into the oceanic basin of our present… now why should you want to miss out on a dip like that?


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Of Lambs And Lions

Cricket commentary on television has evolved into a fine art that is as entertaining as it is informative. Former cricketers like Sunil Gavaskar, Geoffery Boycott, Ravi Shastri, Sourav Ganguly and Ians - Chappell, Bishop and Botham sharing the box, the commentary box, with passionate scholars of the game like Harsha Bhogle and Tony Cozier makes for a delightfully enlightening experience for a student of the game. Facts and stats dance with tales and trivia for a whirling ball that seduces no less than the one being chased by the players and the stadium.

Today  while I watched Tino Best and Sheldon Cotterell crank it up to the high 140s against the Indian openers, talk in the box drifted to the heydays of the West Indian pace battery when Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall, Michael Holding and ‘Big Bird’ Garner had bounced and literally beaten the cricketing world black, blue and into submission for nearly two decades.

Sunil Gavaskar’s punchy eloquence, whether he wields a microphone or the willow,  makes him a star on every pitch in the game. Here he was recounting the time when 6’8” Joel Garner was asked by a lady in Australia if he his gargantuan dimensions were proportionate all over, and to which Big Bird replied that for him to be proportionate all over he’d have to be 8’6” tall. And not only did the original little master pick up hundreds in the Caribbean but also their charming island accent.  He recounted how the fast men usually pitched the ball in only their half of the wicket and there was usually nothing there for the drive… “if you want to drive, buy a car, maan…” they’d say… And while Gavaskar cut and pulled these gems out of his kitbag, I wondered how those legendary fast bowlers who used to strike fear in the hearts of fans and batsmen alike would have fared in the modern game.

The pitches are slower and truer, the protective equipment far better, the bats meatier and the rules, in games both long and short, tilted heavily in favour of the guy with the bat.  I thought of the just concluded ODI series between India and Australia and the batting slugfest that it turned out to be. Could these legends have done any better and walked away from such a series with their heads higher than their bowling average?

Would or could a Rohit Sharma, Virat Kohli or Glen Maxwell or George Bailey have treated a Malcolm Marshall or Dennis Lillee any differently? Has the game changed yet again to increase the depth and breadth of the yawning chasm between the aristocrats (batsmen) and serfs (bowlers) and establish once and for all that bowlers are meant to be lambs fattened for that run-feast called cricket, and especially limited overs cricket.

My thoughts turned to the words of the victorious yet thoughtful MS Dhoni after the last game who wondered aloud if 300 was the new par for the game, at least on the sub-continental course.  And the underlying question was – Is this new avatar of the game with T20 improving shotmaking, new fielding restrictions liberating big hitting batsmen and pitches with as much life in them as a tombstone good for the future of the game? Will the tribe of bowlers currently reduced to being cannon fodder, like Christians being dragged to the lions in the coliseum in Rome, survive this relentless onslaught? Will they get reduced to or in fact be better off being replaced by bowling machines like Dhoni suggested, only half in jest…

After mulling over the thought for a while, I’ve come to the conclusion that this is excellent for the game.

Here’s why…

• With every bowler getting mauled and runs flowing no matter who is bowling and at what pace or length, it is clear that bowling to save runs is an ineffectual approach for fielding captains and bowlers hoping to win games. Even the most potent bowler in the series, Mitchell Johnson, often bowling at speeds in excess of 150 kmph, went for more than seven runs an over in Nagpur and Jaipur.

• Containment isn’t an option anymore. The only option for the fielding captain is to take wickets. And bowlers who can take wickets, be it those like Mitchell Johnson, Dale Steyn and Lasith Malinga who force their will upon a game with pace and swing or those like Sunil Narine or Ajanta Mendis who use guile and spin or even chess players like Nuwan Kulasekra and Ravindra Jadeja who use unerring accuracy allied with subtle changes of pace and length to out think the batsman, will be the ones who will win matches. Only a bowler who wants to take wickets will survive in this new era of cricket. And so no matter who is batting, with what bat and on what wicket with what rules, attacking bowlers like Roberts and Lillees, and later like Waseeem  and Waqar, and Donald and Mcgrath, and Warne and Murali will always seek wickets, remain a threat, earn respect and spread fear, no matter how many runs they get taken off them.

• The first avatar of the one day game rewarded the dullness of economy over wicket-taking ability. And so the dibbly dobbly gentle medium pacemen who could turn their arms over for ten overs by giving away anything around forty runs and no wickets were valued more than genuine wicket takers whose aggressive intent could lead to them leaking runs on occasions.

•  Efficiency was killing the one day game. Overs twenty to forty, be it Sydney or Sharjah, made for a dreary spectacle. Batsmen scoring ones and twos and bowlers with neither pace nor imagination plugging away at good length without either the desire or the ability to take wickets. Thank God for these new rules and thank ECB marketing man Stuart Robertson for the T20 game , I say…

• Whenever the bat has oppressed the ball for long, there has always been a Prometheus who has emerged to redress the balance. If it was Harold Larwood and Douglas Jardine with Bodyline in the 1930s, it was Clive Lloyd and his pack of four in the ‘70s and 80s. The lords at Lords moved in on both occasions to nip the rebellions as best as they could and brought in rules to chain the rebels and so the fast bowlers were defanged by regulating the bouncer and spinners were reined in by covered wickets and the heavy roller. But not to be undone by the rulebook, Imran Khan unleashed his labour of love on unsuspecting batsmen with the craft of swinging the old ball. Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis elevated it to even greater heights and pace and yet again the batsmen cried foul. This time the rules were helpless against reverse swing and with no moral (since there was no physical danger to the batsman) or historical foundation for complaint, reverse swing managed to add an arrow in the now rather bare bowler’s quiver.

• Spinners brought in the doosra and the carom-ball and suddenly you had bowlers being the difference between victory and defeat in T20.

• It is only a matter of time before an imaginative captain in tandem with a pair or trio of immensely gifted bowlers comes up with a plan to attack and take out wickets by the bushels in ODIs and begin an era of dominance in the game. Of course wicket taking abilities in ODIs and t20 games is bound to have an impact on the way Tests are played as well, so the series that was bodes well for bowlers in all formats of the game

• However, a little administrative support will go a long way towards re-balancing the game.

• There’s no point complaining about bigger bats and belters but surely the ball could do with some improvements as well. The seam for instance could be a little more pronounced. I remember how in the 90s, a ball manufactured by Readers was introduced into club cricket and it had a slightly more pronounced seam than the conventional Dukes (though still within the seam-height limit prescribed in the rule-book) and it caused a sensation with the extra bounce and seam movement it generated. The squeamish lords at Lords were yet again unwilling to persist with the revolution that threatened equality and went back to the Dukes. But it is only fair that for the game to survive, every improvement in bats or wickets should be followed by a corresponding evolutionary innovation in the design of the ball. Both predator and prey must evolve together. If one outstrips the other by too much too soon, it is the law of nature for both to go extinct.

• Lastly, the rule about new balls and fielding restrictions (which captains should read as more men in catching positions), will eventually force fielding captains to adopt more aggressive tactics. But they would feel truly empowered if they were allowed to bowl bouncers a little more often and with modern protective equipment, it is unlikely to be a life-threatening rule change. And the fielding side should be allowed to manually enhance the ball’s wicket taking properties and restrict ball-tampering laws only to actions that disfigure the shape and nature of the ball. Raising the seam with finger nails or scuffing the ball with the nails (as against rubbing it on the ground or on one’s boots) is akin to taping the bat or adding rubber grips to it. It is only fair that bowlers be allowed to ‘treat’ the ball just the way a batter is allowed to ‘prepare’ the bat.

Mark my words, the next great bowling uprising is just around the corner and cricket, especially limited overs cricket, is about to enter the most exciting phase of its illustrious history.

So hold your breath and don’t you dare blink for the game is moulting before your very eyes.

And when you see the bowlers being put to the sword again, pity them at your own peril, for who would have imagined that the Christians being thrown to the lions for the pleasure of the Roman nobility would one day rule over both Romans and lions…