Monday, December 27, 2010

Joy Forever

Sachin Tendulkar scored his 50th century in Test matches this week. The news made headlines. Of course, the feat deserved it. At one point of time, say only a decade or two ago, it was way beyond anybody’s comprehension that a tally of 50 could ever be reached, especially that modern day cricket was getting more and more competitive. Those who wrote on cricket then would talk of 30s as a benchmark; none could even think that half a century of centuries could actually be accomplished.
So the feat was definitely special, worth printing in gold. But for fans it was something even more. It was an end to their wait, for they were waiting for the genius to reach there. As if some divine being had told them, this is a part of their pre-planned journey – watching Sachin making history.
Right after he scored his milestone ton, one colleague of this scribe asked him, “Don’t you think he’ll play for another five years?” Now take that for a question. And in certain ways, the question itself was an answer. A manifestation of their belief in the man, that stood just 5-foot 5-inches above the ground, yet towering above most of his contemporaries.
For one thing, Sachin Tendulkar would stand above all, that is for gathering the most number of fans across the globe, just the way we see him gathering runs in his pomp.
This scribe, among many of his generation, is one such self-declared a fan of his. The generation that took to adulthood in 1990s – which also included some Nepali cricketers who played in recent times – watched him take his first steps in international scene. The whole generation read as many pieces written on him as possible. For some, it was statistics; for some food for thought; for some a way of learning cricket; while for some, one more topic to talk at the tea stalls. And that would either precede or proceed with the highlights of his innings on TV, which for many of us, were always a ‘masterpiece’. The magazines like ‘The Sportstar’ were the new bible, but any issue that did not carry a story on him was ‘a piece of trash’ and not worth buying.
Growing up in 1990s was not easy. Nepal was an infant democracy, trying to learn how to walk the democratic path. The panchayat era influence on Nepali sports was there, although weakening; the newer controllers were trying to learn how to rein it in; the free market economic policy was the buzzword, although the younger lot were still to grab the concept; the insurgency was just flaring up in some remote part of the country; prices were going up and pocket money was not able to match with those; the curriculum wasn’t getting easier and the career path appeared limited; the IT revolution had started in our neighbourhood and we were not part of it – all enough to keep teenagers frustrated.
But then there was Sachin Tendulkar. In some of the most ferocious strokeplay we’d ever watched, we found peace. With a young boy looks (then he was young as well), and a heavy willow in his hands, he was trying to prove that there was hope, amidst frustration. The mortals suddenly appeared elevated, for there was some heavenly charm in those innings. The 90s had become bearable, despite frustrations it held for so many of us.
Come 2000s, we felt – journalists can be cruel people, especially with their questions. They talked about his decline. They asked him – When would you retire? And as most players, who spend a lot of time with PR coaches these days, he’d skirt away without an answer.
The fans looked sideways to find an actual answer. When there’s a lull in any player’s career, how do we know that he or she will not overcome the slump? Although journalists are quick to write a player off, fans are not.
And celebration of Tendulkar’s innings is vindication of fan’s faith in him. For they knew, it would come. It had to, even if it meant 7 centuries within a year.
And that’s a toast to Sachin Tendulkar, probably the greatest modern day cricketer, who could hold on to his fans, even when he could not do so, at times, with runs.
(The article originally appeared in The Kathmandu Post, 25th December, 2010, in a weekly column of Yours Truly)

Next is What!

A few days ago, a fellow journalist, in a reaction to a facebook posting of mine, asked me a question, “What will happen to Nepali cricket after Roy Dias is gone? Would it collapse along with his farewell?”
A few of my other friends scoffed at it. A few were angry, while a few thought the comment was insane.
What impact can a single man make to the whole sector? A reasonable assessment… Perhaps pragmatic approach… For this approach makes you continue, even after a minor debacle…
A similar story had appeared in an international media few months ago, mocking New Zealand cricket. It said the entire New Zealand cricket would retire, when Daniel Vettori, its captain, decides to call it a day. No doubt, Daniel Vettori has been one of the few things Kiwi cricketers can take pride in, over the last decade or so. But he alone is not New Zealand cricket. But the above lines only highlight the contribution one single human being can make to the entire fraternity.
Likewise, a deeper look at the question from the fellow journalist makes you try and understand why it came. It came from a person that loves Nepali cricket. And is worried for it… Worries and planning do not make good bedfellows. They have to be kept aside, separately in water tight compartments, for worries may hamper plans. But you worry, if the road ahead looks foggy, sights gets blurred by the confusion that crossroads bring in your mind. And we can’t forget that Nepali cricket stands at the crossroads.
Crossroads it is, because a coach that has been there for 9 years (actually just a few months short of a decade), is leaving. Crossroads it is, because we haven’t yet groomed a person, who can take over half of the responsibilities that man was given. Crossroads it is, because we have a cricket board that is clearly divided, evident by the President and General Secretary hardly present together in planning meetings. Crossroads it is, because after a hard fight over the years we have achieved the status of number one ranking among Non-Test playing nations in Asia.
This is a fight that started nine years ago, when we got an old school coach from Sri Lanka that believed in teaching discipline first and then improving techniques. A coach who had played cricket at the highest level, the Test matches, and already coached a Test side… Those were the days we were only beginning to learn how to grip the willow.
Having been one of the first journalists to have met him in Kathmandu, I remember a fellow colleague asking Roy, “Sir, can you tell me about what kind of player you were?” This is perhaps the best example of what we, as journalists and nation, knew about cricket. Next to nothing…
Times change, the same way cricket pitch does over five days of Test cricket. And now we have a side that may not be world beaters, but are at least the top side in Asia (how many Non-Test playing cricket nations do we hear of outside Asia?). And that perhaps shows what Roy Dias has given us. His belief in his methods, his ways, of taking control, of mentoring the players, have been vindicated. The rankings will remain in place till the end of 2012, and Cricket Association of Nepal will be richer by 50 to 60K in USD, for infrastructure development. And for now on, we’d be dependent on a new coach, to take our team, hopefully, to newer heights. A new chapter has to begin. And this could be good grounds to begin it.
Under the mentorship of Roy Dias, we’ve won more matches than lost. And that should make a cricketing nation proud. Apart from wins, our cricketers have been our goodwill ambassadors to the places they’ve visited. In a recent meeting Dias told me, “It’s not only about winning or losing. It’s also about how you play. We can’t forget that Cricket is a gentleman’s game.”
That would be his contribution too, trying to bring in gentlemanliness back in cricket. And at the risk of sounding emotional, I would say, “Roy, for that at least, you’d be missed!”
(The article originally appeared in The Kathmandu Post, 18th December, 2010, in a weekly column of Yours Truly)

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Are we paying heed?

"Stunning beaches on The Great Ocean Rd.. Gorgeous drive!!"
The above lines appeared on the micro blogging site twitter, on England cricketer Kevin Pietersen's page, couple of hours before he was fined for speeding in Australia. Pietersen was driving a Lamborghini sports car.
Naturally, the incident made headlines. For Pietersen is a star player for his team and commands huge respect among cricket followers in the world, as his twitter posts are followed by more than hundred thousand fans. To top it all, not many would have forgotten the innings of 227 he played to down Australia, making his team earn a lead in the Ashes series.
For media, it was news worthy of a headline.
Cut to another incident.
25-member Nepali women football team left for Dhaka to participate in the SAFF Women´s Football Championship. Some notable TV channels ignored to cover the story, forget making it a headline. The news appeared in print and on online portals, sans fanfare.
It should be interesting here to mention that the team has a sizeable number, 9 players from the team that managed to secure the runners up position in the last edition of South Asian Games. Yet the hoopla was missing.
Was it because the participants were women? Feminists would love to believe that, for that could be one reason for them to picket some office, or maybe the constituent assembly.
For one thing, men's participation in similar tournament draws a lot of attention. It begins with the announcement of the probables, followed by media analysis of the players, their past performance and fitness, and even goes to the extent of featuring them in celebrity events. We may not have reached the level of having a set of interviews and photo sessions for their hairdos a la' David Beckham, but in past we've tried to emulate that, where the footballers have been the subject and participants at the ramp.
Nothing wrong with that, as long as football, or any other sport comes into limelight. When players become stars, more people follow the game, and with popularity comes in money, which further enriches the sport and those involved in it. Market mantra tells us that.
I've often been a part of talks, on the sidelines of sports event, where majority of our sport reporters say, "We need to make our players appear better than they are and create stars out of them."
So what went wrong this time around? Hardly more than a couple of bylines were seen, covering the story.
Now, Nepali women's football team has been grouped with Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Maldives at the SAFF championship. Having seen the past record, Nepali women should be able to make it to the next round, which is the semi-final. Anything under that could be considered an underachievement, for majority of the players are from departmental teams, which spend quite a lot of energy and resources – by Nepali standards – to keep the players fit.
That basically means that we have a real prospect in our hand. If Nepali eaves could keep their cool and focus on their skills, we could be a tough nut to crack for the regional power, India – whom we might meet for the title, that is, if everything went smooth on both the sides.
Was it also because the event was happening just after a bigger event – the Asiad – and everybody was taking a nap? Hardly looks so.
A few sport officials also revealed recently that the team would be sent to Bangladesh in a bus, because the venue was not too far from Jhapa, where the girls were camping. And here, we are talking about a national team, not a school team taking part in regional tournament in a neighbouring country. National team almost sneaking into the host country to participate in a South Asian championship... How do you beat that?
Pietersen gets a fine for a speeding car and makes headlines. The women's football team, that was runners-up in championship of similar stature - is carrying national pride and gets inadequate attention.
The question is: Who's watching the Big brother, the media?
(The article originally appeared in The Kathmandu Post, 11th December, 2010, in a weekly column of Yours Truly)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Lessons to be Learnt?

Deepak Maharjan was mere 7-year old when Chitra Bahadur Gurung won Nepal a bronze in the 1990 Asian Games, incidentally in Chinese city of Beijing. So it's highly unlikely that he might have been inspired by that event. And after that, we could never see the podium finish at the Asian level, as far as the pugilists are concerned.
Incidentally, it had to be China again, where the medal drought finally ended for the sport. And incidentally, it had to be another humble player who finished at the podium. In sports, it is said, you don't win silver, forget bronze. You only win gold.
But then, we are celebrating a third place finish. And why not, if it was not for Deepak Maharjan, our bag would remain empty. The media could have blamed it on the officials; after all they were the ones who had almost put the entire contingent's trip in jeopardy. After all, they were the ones who went to Guangzhou with the players, and were spotted in cities like Hong Kong and Macau, during the Games itself, while the players would hardly find a couple of hands clapping for them.
So what if it was only a bronze that he won. So what if he could only score one point against the 6-footer Indian boxer. Deepak Maharjan did not create magic, or set the ring on fire, and perhaps it was not even expected of him. For he was not the one who would give juicy soundbites to camera or make promises even before setting his foot in the ring. Before heading to China, he did not tell you he was going to break any record or a neck. What he did tell us was that he's going to try his best. What we conveniently forgot was he had won a gold in South Asian Games, last time around.
And now, he is a celebrated name. He even has a page on the Wikipedia now. And perhaps, he is not even aware of it. For he is a simpleton, a man who's likely to remain unnoticed unless you want to interview him. And there are chances you might regret interviewing him, because his lines are terse and hardly likely to incite anyone. But if you listen to him carefully, you might be feel differently.
When everyone who knows a bit of sports in the country, including media, was busy criticizing the sport officials for spoiling the environment even before the Asian Games, he would not even speak about it.
Upon his return he said, "Our job is to prepare well, and not concentrate on anything that happens outside." But it must be tough, not reacting to what is happening around you. He tells you, "That hampers preparation."
Terse, but to the point... Ask him how he feels after grabbing bronze at the Asian Games, and he would grope for words, often mumbling and trying to thank the entire family, friends, fans and god knows who not. But you would rate him for what he does in the ring, and not the speech he would deliver after receiving the medal. Doing both well would be great, we'd have a showman. But here, we are in dire need of flag bearers rather than stars.
Post Asiad, I could not help but notice 3 things.
Deepak came back for a hero's welcome, with his villagers thronging the airport just before midnight.
So did the other officials, one of whom was manhandled, by those who call themselves players.
A senior official from Sports Council - who shall here remain nameless and for his lack of understanding should remain jobless - told me, "Forget my talks on TV. We cannot even pay proper salaries, forget big plans for future."
Makes you wonder: Are we learning our lessons?

(The article originally appeared in The Kathmandu Post, 4th December, 2010, in a weekly column of Yours Truly)