Saturday, July 30, 2011

A sign of Good Times to come?

Heard a conversation in a public vehicle: God must be Nepali. For he made sure we do well in two sports in a single day.
Needless to say, the person in question was talking about Nepali football team's performance against Jordan (2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers) and U-19 cricket team's start in ICC U-19 World Cup qualifiers.
Yes, Nepali Colts beat Afghanistan convincingly. Most were expecting the result, may be not with such a margin though.
But in another case, Jordan advanced to the group stage of the qualifiers, beating Nepal by a huge margin. The scores, in aggregate, stood at 10-1 in favor of Jordan, while Nepal managed merely a draw at home. So what's the fuss about? A draw?
However, if you look carefully, there is a reason for joy, for elation, for exuberance and for deciding which nationality God has. For, the draw followed a drubbing. And for the fans, a draw was as good as a win. It was almost a rise from the ashes à la Phoenix. For the die-hard fans, there are many lives lost and gained in those 90 minutes that their stars sweat it out.
Forget fans, how many 'realistic' pundits would have given Nepal a 1-1 draw, at Dashrath Stadium, after a 9-goal storm hit them in Amman.
The realists always ask you: What do you do when you have your back pushed to the wall? …when you hit the rock bottom?
For theorists, the answer may be simple: Bounce back. But then, only those who face the situation know that it's always easier said than done. They say, nothing succeeds like success. The corollary is also true. Failure also breeds its own kind. When your back is to the wall, you start taking support of that wall. It becomes your companion, and you start finding some comfort in it. You start going though the motion… run-of-the-mill stuff. So much that you start enjoying it, making it difficult for you to come back.
At such moments, it is necessary to break the thought process. Once that chain is broken, parity can be restored. In this case, Nepal's climb in FIFA ranking must have helped. After all, we became the number one football side in South Asia. Some pride restored off the field.
Apparently, following the 9-0 humiliation, Nepal's British coach had told the boys, "You don't become a bad player after one game." Inspiring? Maybe, but the coaches don't go and play. It's for the boys to face the heat.
Even in pre-match press conference, Roberts was quoted as saying that they (the team, including himself) wanted to put pride back into Nepal and want to please everyone. The captain, however, sounded more circumspect, not promising much. Somehow, the fans were worried. "Are the players in right frame of mind to play this game," they wondered.
But once the match started, worry was put to rest. The boys were in the zone and felt at home. The fans could do their job – cheering. In sport, as in life, some questions are answered only through actions.
Going to Amman, to play the first leg, Nepali team was underprepared, under-practiced and showed lethargy on the field. The football administrators should take some blame for that, for they know in advance when the national team plays. And they are supposed to prepare them for big matches. Nothing big about that, it's their job.
Amazingly, not much changed in 5 days – after match in Amman, but the result did. One thing that changed was that the players realized or made to realize why they were playing – for their shirts. And the performance was there for all to see. Some would like to call it moral victory.
Sourav Ganguly, the person credited to make Indian cricket team a fighting unit, said once, "I do not understand the meaning of moral victories." But then, that was Indian captain talking. For fans, that's what it is all about.
And for the players, maybe they can take a leaf out of their coach's quote and remember - You don't become a great player after one game, either. Could it be just the start we needed?

(PS: The write-up appeared in Yours Truly's sports column - OFFSIDE - in The Kathmandu Post, on 30th July, 2011)
Disclaimer: The picture shown in the post is courtesy It was published in the The Kathmandu Post epaper.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Full stop for Fed Express? Maybe not

And the Fed Express crashed, after going 2 sets up, for the first time in 179 Grand Slam matches he’s played. The Muhammad Ali look-alike – although a much softer and more erratic version - Jo-Wilfried Tsonga did the unthinkable, stopping clocks and hearts at 4:24 PM on Centre Court on Wimbledon.
Tim Henman, who carried the British torch (read the lone hope) at the Wimbledon towards the turn of the century, had tipped Roger Federer to win the title this time around. The logic was, Federer has become more carefree with age. And that would help him take more risk and kill the opponents. Alas! Henman’s prediction missed just as his volleys did at the Wimbledon’s 4 semi-finals.
Henman may not have forgotten the year 2001, when he beat the newcomer Federer in 4 sets at a quarter-final on the same stage. And he might have recognized, even then, that this 20-year old had, what he himself did not have. But, he may well be as shell shocked as we are after this quarter-final.
Shocked we are. For, Federer had collected as many fans, if not more, as any player in the history of Tennis. For, he restarted the debate “who’s the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)?” For, he stamped his authority in the world of Tennis and finally settled the debate, appearing in an unprecedented 23 career Grand Slam finals, including 10 consecutive appearances.
But Federer did not become Fed Express just because he was number one for 237 weeks at a stretch. Not just because he appeared in 18 of 19 finals between 2005 Wimbledon and 2010 Australian Open. The Fed Express he became because he made anyone else feel like also-ran for extended period. The Fed Express he became because he added flair of Boris Becker to consistency of Ivan Lendl. To us, he made Pete Sampras look like a robot. The Fed Express he became because he made cricket look boring, as Australia was invincible, West Indies were buried while Sachin Tendulkar was showing signs that he was mortal after all. All with a racket in hand and imagination in the head.
Tennis hasn’t seen many baseliners as comfortable coming to the nets, exhibiting rare backhand smash. He was the one. Anyone else hasn’t had their motion termed as a great liquid whip. Anyone else hasn’t prompted Jimmy Connors to say, "In an era of specialists, you're either a clay court specialist, a grass court specialist, or a hard court specialist...or you're Roger Federer."
Ivan Lendl once said, “Grass is for cow”, frustrated as he failed to win any title on the surface. Federer proved that silken elegance and offense both have a place on grass. He treaded on it, he owned it.
We sat in awe, as he, along with Rafael Nadal revived the legacy of great Tennis rivalry. We were reminded of Borg-McEnroe and Edberg-Becker rivalry that made Tennis exhilarating again. That too in 21st century, when we thought Tennis is all about rising hemlines and designer shows. We loved Nadal; We loved Federer a wee bit more, for the grace he showed after losing to a younger and brasher player on clay and later, even on grass.
He would lose to Nadal – as Nadal lifted his game to the level of insanity, playing against Federer – time after time, in finals. We would think, “Greatness too, has a shelf life”. But when commentators termed him old, we’d scoff. “He’s still in 20s”, we’d say, “Next time!”
A year and a half without title? Not palatable for a champion. But then we were convinced, this Wimbledon would be his. And then came Tsonga. Two sets down, but he hung on, like the Great Ali he resembles. ‘Fly like a butterfly, sting like a bee’. He stung, with a serve at 133 miles per hour. Fed Express stopped. For us, Wimbledon was over.
Post match, Federer said, "Except the score, many things went right". Next year when he returns – as we, the fans want – we would want that the score goes right, too. For he, more than anyone else, deserves the title for the 7th time.

PS: The write-up appeared in Yours Truly's sports column - OFFSIDE - in The Kathmandu Post, on 2nd July, 2011)