IPL Hits Covid Gloom Out Of Stadium

Way back, in 2008, when the first Indian Premier League auction took place, noted cricket writer and former Somerset captain Peter Roebuck likened the auction to a huge cattle sale. He was not the only one who thought like that. Even the stiff upper lip Englishmen and cocky Aussies were full of smirk at the inaugural auction.

How times change! Thirteen years on, the same Englishmen and Aussies, traditional rivals on the cricket pitch, clamour to be part of the IPL. They are ready like “cattle” to be picked up for a price and ready to play in killing heat and humidity which the IPL is all about.

Last week, the latest IPL auction held the audience in thrall. A few days after the highs of victory at Chepauk in Chennai where India crushed England by 317 runs in the second Test, the franchise holders were at the same city bidding for players.

The previous IPL season was held in energy-sapping conditions in the UAE, with Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah being the venues. Playing in the Bio Bubble due to Covid-19 and being restricted so tightly did not deter the cricketers from playing top-flight club cricket.

In less than four months after the last IPL, it is back to the 2021 auction where Rs 145.30 crores were spent on 57 players. Twenty two of these were from abroad, which makes one wonder what depression and recession is all about in the Indian economy.

To be sure, the IPL has shown it is recession proof, year after year. This was a big auction and the way the teams went about spending moolah showed they were ready to loosen the purse strings on golden oldies. Young Turks also commanded a price.

It was a jaw-dropping moment when Chris Morrison, from South Africa, 33, was grabbed by Rajasthan Royals for Rs 16.25 crores. Behind him in the Big IPL Bazaar was Kyle Jamieson of New Zealand who was picked up by Royal Challengers Bangalore for Rs 15 crores.

For those who felt the IPL was only about picking players who are in good form or have a proven track record, Aussie Glen Maxwell, a flop show in the last edition, commanded a price of Rs 14.25 crores and went to RCB. The Virat Kohli led side is yet to win an IPL title.

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Kings XI Punjab, now rechristened as Punjab Kings, bought Jhye Richardson, age 24, at Rs 14 crores, which showed the teams which have not done as well as Mumbai Indians or Chennai Super Kings still play huge stakes in the IPL.

Over the years, purists in cricket, now a dwindling breed, have started accepting the IPL. They will swear the slam-bang, whiz-thud brand of cricket is not to their liking but none minds the huge sixes, players fielding like men ready to give up their lives to catch the ball and bowlers ready for delivering with laser-precision.

At this stage, with Corona virus cases again rising in a few states in India, one is not sure how the BCCI and the IPL head honchos will hold the event this summer. To think of a home-and-away playing format in the Bio Bubble will be impossible. However, when it comes to planning for the IPL, it has always been meticulous and maybe just a few cities are used. Mumbai has four cricket stadia but the Corona cases may be an impeding factor, as of now.

The good thing about the IPL is it has provided a platform for many careers to be built as has been the case with players like T Natarajan, Washington Sundar, and K Gowtham to name a few. Of course, someone like Mohd Azharuddin is complaining Sunrisers Hyderabad hardly has any player from the city.

He has made a pertinent point but the IPL is beyond loyalty for a city or own state. It is a cut-throat and high stakes business model where finding the best players to be part of the franchise matters. In a way, the IPL is like football’s EPL model and other club franchises in Europe. What matters to the owners is having the best players.

Look at Chennai Super Kings. They are still going with MS Dhoni, age 39 and veteran Suresh Raina even as they have picked a few good players like Gowtham (Rs 9.25 crores), Moeen Ali (Rs 7 crores) and durable Test batsman Cheteshwar Pujara at Rs 50 lakhs. Social media is divided over the price for Pujara. But for those who know his real value in the Test format, he is priceless and he is quite happy he is in the IPL mix after a long hiatus.

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Punjab Kings had a purse of Rs 53.2 crores at their disposal and spent Rs 34.4 crores. Royal Challengers Bangalore could spend a maximum of Rs 35.4 crores and splurged Rs 35.05 crores. Kolkata Knight Riders had a low budget of Rs 10.75 crores at their disposal and spent Rs 7.55 crores.

Rajasthan Royals had Rs 37.85 crores at their disposal and spent Rs 24.2 crores. Delhi Capitals were not able to spend much as they had Rs 13.4 crores in their kitty of which they spent Rs 11.25 crores. Mumbai Indians had Rs 15.34 crores to buy and used Rs 11.7 crores. And Sunrisers Hyderabad were conservative when they spent Rs 3.8 crores of the Rs 10.75 crores available.

The reason for varying sums at the disposal of various franchises is how much they have spent in the past as there is an overall budget cap. For some teams, fancy names may matter but overall the owners have become smarter and pick players who can deliver in the high pressure IPL.

The return of Vivo as IPL sponsor is very interesting. Last time when the IPL was held in 2020, emotions were high as “Chinese virus” had led to blacklisting and boycott of anything to do with our neighbouring country. Today, one hears of big incidents between India and China on the border but people have forgotten about the Chinese virus!

For the BCCI, having IPL is a win-win situation as they rake in big bucks, officials details of which have not been made public. That the IPL is business plus glamour was never in doubt. Maybe, we can see cheerleaders again. Maybe, we can see fans inside the arena again.

All in all, the IPL definitely lifts the gloom. It is an ecosystem in itself which supports many. Like it or lump it, the IPL has shown, even in difficult times, it remains a hot brand. So, why should cricketers and those in the business of IPL be left behind?

Test Cricket Gets Its Swagger Back

Success has many fathers, failure is an orphan.

Cliched as it may sound, the rise of new-look Team India in Australia has attracted attention, renewed interest and instilled belief in Test cricket. Quite often, cricket lovers have talked about how Test cricket is becoming a drag on, and to see a draw as a result in five days is not worth it.

Well, the way cricket was played Down Under in the latest series, every bit of action was enchanting as well as riveting. For a team which had been touted as potential losers by experts at home and abroad, the rise of Team India under new leader Ajinkya Rahane has been sensational.

Sample this. Virat Kohli was captain for the first Test and then he returned home on paternity leave after the team was battered and bruised. India scoring just 36 runs in the second innings of the first Test had caused outrage which bordered on vitriol. Such was the language, memes and adjectives used in the media and social media, it looked the next three Tests would be slaughter of the lambs.

Enter Rahane the captain. An ice cool demeanour, monk-like serenity while batting and leading the side and motivating the boys without any histrionics, he has become the toast of the nation. Not just that, he is the true world leader in cricket and has been hailed for his phenomenal work in tandem with coach Ravi Shastri and the other support staff.

The way India fought in the second, third and fourth Tests was not just a revelation. It was about josh, it was about winning the mind games, it was about showing the underdog could bark and bite. And yes, it was also about how the talent pool has blossomed and each person who went to Australia, had a role to play, barring Kuldeep Yadav.

To be sure, the big difference between series wins in the past and the latest one is not how two or three superstars chipped in for India. There was variety and there was a new flavour. And the stuff churned out was so beautiful, despite immense limitations and having been harangued and harassed by the Aussies on and off the field.

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If there could be marks awarded for behaviour, showing great sportsmanship and not complaining even once, Team India would have swept cricket’s Oscar awards. By becoming the World No. 1 Test team and topping the ICC World Test Championship in the current cycle, Rahane’s warriors have shown how the boys have grown into men and how it takes little time to soak in pressure.

Playing in Australia, just after the tiring and painful IPL in UAE was not going to be easy. The preparations for a Test series had just not been put in. But then, call them heroes or professionals who earn their money by playing cricket with purpose and laced with a great sense of patriotism, watching the Tricolour aflutter the other day at Gabba in Brisbane was emotional.

So, is Team India really No.1 or is this a fluke? Well, this question will be asked by the Doubting Thomasses and there is nothing wrong with it. Such is the nature of sport, whether you win or lose, the fan has a right to ask questions.

People will make comparisons with Ajit Wadekar’s side which won in West Indies in 1971. At that time, the West Indies, led by Gary Sobers was on the decline and their pace attack was not so lethal.

Test cricket has changed in these 50 years. The men in white play the sports much harder, there are more innovations for sure and in the end the way players are scrutinised every minute the pressure has increased manifold. Perhaps, that is why this Team India, which saw so many players making debuts after injuries to key fast bowlers and then R Ashwin and Ravindra Jadeja, needs clap back for its efforts.

By the time the team landed in Brisbane, the Aussie sledging and racial abuse had reached a crescendo. Someone like Mohd Siraj was taunted because of his religion and before that in the third Test, Aussie captain Tim Payne and Steve Smith had shown the ugly side of the Aussies.

Maybe, previous Indian teams would have been finished mentally by all this. Not this time, if Payne was a real pain and Smith showed once again traits of being a cheat, the Indians kept fighting.

Reduced to four bowlers to shoulder the load in the third and fourth Tests, Team India erupted like lava. The new bowlers like Siraj, T Natarajan, Washington Sundar and company exploded into brilliance. They had zero Test experience. In the end, they became heroes after showing what mattered was playing positive cricket.

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If bowling had its heroes, then Rahane the monk and Cheteshwar Pujara stood like the Great Wall of China. He was battered and bruised in the final Test but stood there facing deliveries of ferocious nature. It was compelling viewing even as some fans shed tears he was being bruised.

Then you had the Young Turks like Shubhman Gill and plucky Rishabh Pant showing, they, too, could be cocky. This is what made the final day of the series so captivating that millions woke up before 430am to catch the last day action.

In New Delhi, on Tuesday, people were offering prayers as India launched their assault for the most historic series win. When the match was won and the Gavaskar-Border trophy was lifted, India became No. 1 in the world.

In a few weeks time, India will be tested again. England will arrive here from Sri Lanka and the four Tests will be a challenge. Expectations have risen sky high and to hold on to the No1. Test position is motivation enough to again play with the same flair and feel.

Sadly, despite Rahane being such a great leader, he has been replaced by Virat Kohli. Had it been someone other than Rahane, he may have wept.  No, this Mumbaikar, who is dignity personified, will again play as a pure batsman.

Will that put pressure on Kohli?

Yes, it does as he has not played cricket for a long time. He has good resources at his disposal but what he needs to show, once again, is not just score runs but also lead with the same panache which Rahane did.

From Australia to England and Sri Lanka to Pakistan, Indian cricket’s rise is being discussed like never before. This is what happens when you become a Superpower in Test cricket, the purest form of the sport! India have 430 points in the ICC World Test Championship now and are followed by New Zealand at 420. Home advantage will again be good for India.

Paternity Over Fraternity

Virat Kohli’s decision to return to India on paternity leave at a time when the team needs him most during the Test series in Australia, has come in for intense scrutiny.

As the strong Aussies host the Ajinkya Rahane-led side in the second Test at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) from Saturday, there are sharp comments. Sunil Gavaskar, India’s greatest opening Test batsmen of all times and the former India captain has taken more than a pot-shot at Kohli for returning home on paternity leave.

Writing a column for a well-known sports magazine, Gavaskar pointed out how there are different yardsticks for different players of Team India. It is well known that T Natarajan, the sensational left-arm fast bowler who created waves during the IPL in UAE and also the T20 and ODI series with his yorkers has still not seen his newborn child, born in October.

Mind you, Natarajan is now just a nets bowler but has not been spared by the Indian cricket board (BCCI). It is also on this premise, Gavaskar has slammed Kohli for getting special treatment.

To be sure, this is not the first time Gavaskar has criticized Kohli. The last time when Kohli and Anushka Sharma broke the big news on social media, they were expecting a third member in their family, Gavaskar made a very spicy comment. He had talked of what Kohli had been doing during the lockdown. His comments drew huge flak from fans of Bollywood celebrity Anushka.

There is a difference between what Gavaskar said then and now. The Indian team was battered in the first Test in Adelaide and call of duty demanded Kohli stayed back with the team. However, as Kohli had already applied for paternity leave in October, before the team was selected for the tour to Australia, the “yes men” in the BCCI granted him leave.

It is well known, leave of any nature in any professional organisation is subject to approval and can be cancelled at the last minute. What is surprising is that not only has the BCCI granted him leave, they are not even talking about a possible revision.

The concern of the BCCI is IPL alone, and the latest decision to include 10 teams from 2022 shows they do not care for what happens in national interest – playing for India.

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Gavaskar is not alone to question Kohli. There are a few more like former left-arm spinner Dilip Doshi and AN Sharma, coach of Virender Sehwag, who have also expressed surprise at Kohli neglecting national duty.

Modern day sport is all about being professional. Kohli is not an amateur cricketer. When he leads IPL team Royal Challengers Bangalore, he is a pro who is paid big bucks and makes billions more through endorsements. When Kohli plays for India, he is again a professional who gets paid on an annual contract basis.

It is not as if deducting Kohli’s match fees for the three Test matches which he will be missing will suffice. A leader like Kohli, already under flak for being captain in all three formats, should not have proceeded on leave.

The job of the Indian cricket captain is a very prestigious one. The world wishes he and Anushka are blessed with a healthy baby but as a professional he has got his priority wrong this time. Those who advocate a man being by the side of his wife during delivery are all praise for Kohli’s decision.

But above all this comes the pride and feeling of leading Team India. It is very much akin to a fauji doing national duty on the battle front where he has to forget personal life. Life and death, near and dear ones being ill, for the soldiers and officers of Indian Armed Forces, serving the nation comes first.

That is why what Gavaskar is saying has huge traction. Just imagine, Kings XI Punjab player Mandeep Singh lost his father during the IPL in October. He stayed back, wiped, his own tears, and continued to play. This was just club cricket, but Mandeep showed that being a professional meant his loyalty was first towards work.

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There are many more instances as well. In fact, a few years ago, even during a Ranji Trophy game, Wasim Jaffer, former India Test captain, stayed back and played despite being informed that he had lost his mother. Jaffer won the match for Mumbai then and the bonus points, making him a big hero.

In women’s hockey, in January 2019, Lalremsiami from Mizoram played on the FIH series semi-finals after her father’s death. She was then given the option by the team management to fly back home from Hiroshima but chose to stay back.

The job of any athlete representing the country is a very prestigious one. Indian athletes are known to play with passion and from their hearts. The josh and dil se attitude quite often makes the difference in a team sport.

This is the time Team India needs Captain Virat Kohli in Australia. His batting form is good and he is now accepted as a strong leader. In the absence of a few key players like Rohit Sharma, Mohd Shami and Ishant Sharma, Kohli should have led like a true General from the front.

Should India lose the series badly, brickbats will be hurled at stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane and other players. Had Kohli changed his mind and played on, he could have become a bigger hero.

Sadly, at this point of time in Indian cricket administration, such is the power equation, Kohli is treated as someone who can do no wrong. If Kohli is to be blamed by so many people, then the incompetent BCCI is also to be blamed. BCCI president Sourav Ganguly has led Team India and knows what it is to play with josh.

He is the same man who dared to take off his shirt in the Lord’s balcony. How come Ganguly did not speak to Kohli and guide him on National Interest, playing for the country. If the Commander is making a wrong move, should not the General have stepped in?

The coming few weeks will see more news on Kohli returning home prematurely. One wonders how he can go to sleep at night without any guilt.

Tokyo Is Ready, Indian Athletes Aren’t

In many ways, the countdown for the postponed Tokyo Olympics have begun. The Summer Games will be held from July 23, to August 8, 2021. With each passing day, there is more reassurance from the stakeholders the Games will be held.

Going by official statements emanating from the International Olympic Committee, headed by President Thomas Bach, and the local Tokyo Organising Committee, efforts to stage the Olympics in a new environment are being made in a huge way.

When the Olympics were first postponed in 2020 after the Covid-19 pandemic broke out in summer, there was an overall sense of despondency. For the organisers, participating nations, competing athletes and everyone associated with the world’s biggest sporting spectacle, it was a sinking feeling. At that time, the pandemic had wrecked the confidence of all, especially the athletes who were hoping to peak in July 2020.

Today, the general feeling is if there is one country which can host the Olympics, it has to be Japan. Known as a country for its clockwork precision, discipline and being genteel, the host city is leaving no stone unturned to ensure the Olympics are staged in the best way.

From the spectators point of view as well, there is good news. The Games will happen, though the protocols will be very different and stringent. When over 30 per cent of the tickets for various events were returned, it offered another chance for the same tickets to be sold again.

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To expect full houses at blue-riband events like athletics, swimming and gymnastics may be tough but with the race for a Corona virus vaccine now at peak, it is assumed Japan will be fully ready.

From the IOC’s point of view, the Summer Games is top priority and the frontline workers who will be working with the event will be given the first vaccine. The best part is that the host city is leaving nothing to chance and athletes will obviously be accorded top priority vis a vis health measures. The same goes for support staff and thousands of frontline workers who will be associated with the Games.

As of today, the world is still battling the Corona virus and also trying to ensure sporting activity resumes slowly. Europe has seen the resumption of many sporting activities and so have other parts of the world. Leagues in football and other sport have come back to life, Formula One is back with a bang, what with Lewis Hamilton winning a record-equalling seventh world title. Pro golf action is also picking up.

Cricket first resumed with two bilateral series in England, followed  by the Indian Premier League in the United Arab Emirates. At present, there are another two bilateral cricket series on with T20 leagues in Sri Lanka and the women’s Big Bash also taking place Down Under.

The message is clear, sport will resume and the Olympics will be staged.

So, where does that leave countries which seek Olympic glory? Everyone knows, Wuhan, the city which is officially recognised as the first place in China where the first Covid-19 case broke out over a year is now normal. Flights are operational, tourists are visiting Wuhan and glad the bad memories are being erased.

Just as China has battled the Corona virus bravely, their athletes aspiring for Olympic glory are training full steam. Of course, it is too early to talk of who will win what in Tokyo and perhaps Olympic test events in 2021 and more qualifiers in the New Year will provide indicators.

The world has never known how Chinese athletes train and where. There is secrecy in it for sure and 100 per cent dedication. So, China, hosts Japan and the other powerhouses of sport like USA and Britain are  providing their athletes the facilities to train for Tokyo.

That brings us to India, a country which craves for Olympic medals and has never been able to win big. To be sure, the Covid-19 pandemic has wrecked India’s preparations. Lockdown did a lot of a damage though the elite athletes were lucky they got full support from the Indian government.

Camps in the Sports Authority of India campuses in Bengaluru, Patiala and a few cities in the North have resumed. But there is a big catch, while athletes are training and competing among themselves, one is not sure about their preparedness in the toughest sense.

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Going to the Olympics is not a party like before. In the old days, Indian athletes went to the Summer Games just to participate. The narrative has changed in the last 24 years since the time Leander Paes won a bronze medal at the Atlanta Olympics. Of course, the peak was Abhinav Bindra winning gold in Beijing in 2008.

Indian athletes today have themselves been laid low by Covid-19. From hockey players to wrestlers like VInesh Phogat and Narsingh Yadav, many have tested positive for Corona virus. When the hockey camps resumed in the end of July, four players tested positive and had to be admitted to hospital. No research has been done as to what extent these athletes have dealt with post-Covid complications.

The badminton camp in Hyderabad is in shambles. PV Sindhu is now training in England and Saina Nehwal is over the hill. So, if you are talking of a medal again from badminton, Sindhu still offers hope, though the next crop of players are nowhere to be seen.

Preparing champions for the Olympics is serious business. The Indian government is spending big bucks on athletes and foreign coaches. However, the postponement of the Olympics does give an impression now the Indian athletes are so scared of Covid-19, his or her preparation for July 2021 may be inadequate.

Shooting is one sport where India have done well since 2004. However, zero medals from the 2016 Rio Olympics was a shocker. Maybe, had the Games been held in 2020, Indian shooters would have been sure medal prospects.

As of today, even the most ardent admirer and fan of Indian sport is sceptical about what will happen in 2021 in Tokyo. Covid-19 cannot be an excuse. Bio bubbles have been created for the Indian athletes as well in various cities.

The big step forward is to compete and win in 2021 before the Olympics, including the Olympic qualifiers, which will be the litmus test. Covid-19 fear has to be conquered what with the vaccine now a certainty in 2021. If the normal man has resumed life despite the pandemic, it is about time the Indian athletes also show the same purpose and poise.

Has BCCI Lost Its Thinking Cap(ability)?

From one bio bubble to another, the journey of the Indian cricketers from India to the United Arab Emirates for the Indian Premier League and now Australia for a full-fledged tour has been a tough one.

Going by the experiences of many players, coaches, commentators and even photographers who were in the UAE for the IPL, staying in the bio bubble was not easy. The restrictions were huge and because of the Covid-19 threat, everyone had to follow the protocols.

That the IPL went off well in the heat and humidity of the three desert venues in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah for over 50 days has been well chronicled. In the end, even as Rohit Sharma led Mumbai Indians crowned themselves champions for the fifth time, many questions have cropped up.

In an age where social media throws light on more aspects than even the traditional media, a few things are certain. The first is how the Indian cricket board (BCCI) led by Sourav Ganguly and Jay Shah is quite opaque when it comes to transparency in several matters.

From the selection of teams first announced for the T20s, ODIs and then the four Tests, there were changes. It suggested that there have been a few issues which have not been dealt with in the most professional way.

The issue pertaining to the fitness of star batsman and ebullient Rohit Sharma is laughable. He got injured midway through the IPL. Then came the announcement Rohit was not fit for the Australia tour and he had been dropped totally.

It caused ripples as Rohit was soon seen at the nets in Dubai and also played the IPL final. This showed the BCCI was impotent and could not tell the high profile Mumbai Indians franchisee that they should not risk Rohit. For the record, the franchise owners are high profile.

Today, Rohit has been included in the Test squad even though there is still a big question mark over his fitness. Yes, he can bat and hit sixes in the IPL. But the series in Australia will be very different. The Aussies have had a very good domestic season and picked the players in form.

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Going by media reports emanating from Down Under, the Indians have resumed training in the bio bubble. As regards Rohit Sharma, his fitness is not 100 per cent. First, coach Ravi Shastri said in a TV interview that Rohit’s injury is such, it can flare up again. For those not familiar with medical jargon, his Grade 2 hamstring tear has not healed and even during the IPL his fielding was an apology.

More recently, in an interview to a weekly magazine in India (The Week), Sourav Ganguly has said Rohit is only 70 per cent fit. It means, he could have aggravated the injury further during the IPL and the BCCI was a mute spectator to it.

It is well known, the IPL is cricket plus commerce. However, despite knowing players are injured, if the BCCI is unable to crack the whip and tell the franchise teams not to risk players, then there is something wrong.

Agreed, the IPL had great TV viewership figures and brought the fans a lot of cheer as watching Corona virus news and other banal stiff had become boring. Yet, for the IPL to wreck Indian players before an important tour seems to have been ignored.

This is not the first time the IPL has caused injuries to players. Even last year, before the ICC World Cup in England, the IPL was held. Many players had picked up injuries, though, at that time, Rohit Sharma was in blazing form.

Today, apart from Rohit, speedster Ishant Sharma is on the rehab list and even spinner Varun Chakravarthy is out because of an injury. The BCCI, headed by a former India captain needs to understand the importance of work load management and dealing with injuries.

It is easy to say injuries are part and parcel of any sport or athlete’s career. However, if it comes to other cricket playing nations, in the club versus country debate, playing for the nation is surely the top priority.

Perhaps, in a sport like professional football, the clubs have so much control over the super stars that the players have to give 100 per cent to the clubs. There have been instances where before the FIFA World Cup, top players have picked up injuries. It happened last year as well during the FIFA World Cup. However, footballers know they cannot hide injuries and their shelf life is much less than compared to cricketers.

The build-up for the India vs Australia series has begun. The Aussie media has been harping on how they love to have a go at Kohli and sledging will be an integral part of it. Of course, there are many who admire Virat Kohli for his batting artistry.

So, what are India’s chances Down Under?

Frankly speaking, this is going to be a very hard tour. The IPL players may be good for the T20s and ODIs but the Aussies are in a hungry mood. During the last tour to Australia, India did well, when MS Dhoni was part of the shorter format teams. This time, not having played ODIs for long, not having played domestic cricket at all, the Indians will be under immense pressure, physically and mentally.

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Last but not the least, why on earth does the BCCI want to treat Kohli so specially where he will play only one Test and return on paternity leave. It is understandable he wants to be with wife Anushka Sharma when the new one arrives in January 2021.

Ideally, Kohli should not be given so much space and freedom. The Test captaincy reins can be handed over to seasoned Ajinkya Rahane, a proven batsman with leadership skills, for all four matches.

Perhaps, the time has also come for India to look at captaincy being shared as flogging Virat Kohli all the time is not necessary. Indian cricket has made the same mistake before, when MS Dhoni handled captaincy in all the formats.

When cricket teams like Australia and England have split captaincy, India, too, needs to learn. The process of grooming the next leader in Indian cricket is not something which has to be done to spite Kohli.

There has to be clear thinking, which has been advocated by former stars like Gautam Gambhir as well. Kohli is the jewel of Indian cricket but he cannot be there forever. His control over Indian cricket and partnership with Shastri are very thick.

Perhaps, in the larger interest of Indian cricket, the BCCI bosses need to put on their thinking caps. Rightaway. Give it a thought Mr Ganguly.

‘I Learnt Cooking, Focused On Fitness In Covid-19 Times’

Rio de Janeiro Olympics silver medalist and world champion PV Sindhu is always looking for new ways to improve her skills and fitness. The latest, in a series of measures, is her visit to London. An eight-week stint in London will entail what she needs to do to improve on her recovery at a private lab run by Gatorade first and then also playing there. Gatorade lab is reckoned to be a modern sports institute, where top athletes undergo various tests to see how their body behaves after a tough match and what needs to be done to get the juices flowing again. It is well known that Sindhu, who keeps slogging on her fitness and speed will also use the opportunity to play in London with top guns.

In an exclusive chat with LokMarg, Sindhu shares her thoughts on how life was since outbreak of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown thereafter. She has faced tough times with the media in Hyderabad, her hometown, as well, but is now used to it.

How did you spend time after the lockdown was announced?

Well, it was fine, I was still training from home and then I looked at ways to keep myself busy. I spent time playing with my nephew (sister’s son) and the family. I managed to do a lot of new things like keeping myself busy learning to cook and painting. I did not get bored really during lockdown. Of course, there was no badminton (tournaments) obviously.

How did you resume training? And was it tough to find your rhythm back after the forced lockdown?

Well, as I was training during lockdown from home, so it was not tough for me. It took me a few weeks (to get the feel) when we got back to the courts. But for me, it was not like begin from the start really.

Definitely, when you are away from badminton and you do not connect with the shuttle, it will take time. I think for me getting the rhythm back was easier.

And did the lockdown affect your fitness regime?

In the lockdown, I had my trainer giving me the set of drills (schedule) to follow. Morning I was busy on court. I had my fitness drills in the morning, and evening was different. I had my workout in the gym, focused on my fitness and speed. Most important was to keep working out hard.

And your diet plan?

Well, diet, I eat rice, so I continue with it. I avoided junk food and did not eat much of oily food. For me, recovery is very, very important. As I also have my personal physio, I was stretching out which is very important to ensure I remained fit. When I needed treatment from the physio, they were there. I have to stay in peak shape.

Any the key areas of learning in your sport?

Well, as regards key areas, I want to focus on every aspect. This is the time to learn more strokes and I want to learn everything new possible. There are no tournaments immediately for me so it is a good time to keep learning strokes and keep improving. I have so much time, so there is nothing wrong in learning.

Your thoughts on the postponed Tokyo Olympics?

Well, the Tokyo Olympics, I hope to do well. We have tournaments before that in 2021. I am hopeful I will do well and one at a time is my mantra.

How did you deal with Covid-19 during the peak as an athlete?

I have been taking of myself care during Covid-19 and even now. Every individual should do that, in fact. Wear a mask, use sanitiser and maintain social distancing. In my case, when I returned home, I always washed and showered.

Please tell us about the role of your parents in your life?

My parents have always supported me in my life. They have helped me and supported me all along. I am lucky as they were both sportspersons, they know what best I need.

Your thoughts, looking ahead?

I do hope Covid 19 goes away and all the people can lead normal lives. For athletes, being on court is so important. I would say all people need to enjoy sport. It was tough during the pandemic as all the events got cancelled.

I think it is very important for all of us to stay positive. I am sure normalcy will return and we all need to be positive in our lives every single day.

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Rafael Nadal – The Player And The Phenomenon

The elegance of left-handers in any sport comes from pure aesthetics and also looking very different. And when you talk of a certain Spaniard answering to the name of Rafael Nadal, or Rafa in short, you know the discussion has to be about the most famous tennis player on planet.

As the 34-year-old Mallorcan conquered Novak Djokovic, the numero uno based on world rankings, at the French Open final, Nadal again created history.

One can well say, heck, what is the big deal about Rafa the Spaniard winning one more Grand Slam title. Well, for those not initiated into tennis, the King Of Clay stamped his authority on the brick red Parisian clay with aura and elegance. In the process, the man who still leaves girls and ladies swooning with his court presence and macho image equalled Roger Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam singles titles.

When Rafa broke onto the big stage around 15 years ago, he was seen as someone with the grace and guts to excel on clay. Patience is a necessary virtue to win clay court tennis matches, though the good thing is it does not hurt the knee, ankle joints or lower limbs as much as the hard courts do.

In routing Djokovic, the emotional favourite at the French Open final, Rafael Nadal underlined one thing, whether he plays 20 weeks of tennis in a year of 15, when it comes to the Majors, he is a champion always in the zone.

To be sure, in a year where Corona Virus and Covid-19 had destroyed the sports cycle, Nadal took good care of himself. He was dead sure he would not play in the US Open as travelling to New York and living in the bio bubble was fraught with many risks.

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As a professional who earns his bread and butter from tennis, runs charities and is a fantastic human being, Nadal has been a role model in many ways. He chose not to be reckless during the pandemic peak in 2020, when Europe was also ravaged by Covid-19.

When he chose to miss the US Open, it left many confused. Was Rafa not in The Zone anymore? The 34-year-old magician, who resembles a chiseled human masterpiece with broad shoulders, proud chest dimension and ripping biceps showed he had worked in his own temple — preserving himself. And the end result, winning his 20th Major title called Grand Slam, was not by default but design.

In a year where Federer opted to stay out due to injury and surgeries, it was Djokovic who looked dominant. But then, when Nadal is playing tennis, he transports fans into a different orbit, where one can only marvel the stuff he produces as strokes in tennis.

His game has always looked physical, extreme power blended with finesse, speed coupled with timing and court coverage like a hare. For those who can understand the nuances of good shots in tennis, he produces angles in his shots which can make a geometry student proud. That, in a nutshell defines Nadal when he wins matches.

Each era in men’s tennis has had its share of riveting rivalries and historical perspectives. From Rod Laver to Stan Smith, Bjorn Borg to Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, the contests have been one of raising the standard of play, leaving the fans craving for more and more.

If Nadal is the consummate artist in tennis, there was one more left-hander before who dominated, John McEnroe. The American was a treat to watch in motion, yet his tantrums, theatrics and spats with the umpires gave him the bad boy image. No doubt, McEnroe, also called Mac-in-a-row for his anger, was a dominant player in his era.

The difference between him and Nadal is stark. Nadal is physical, yet soft by nature. When he accidentally hits a ball girl in anger, he will kiss and make up, literally. In terms of presence and relating to fans and media, Nadal has been a delight. He speaks just like the way he plays, frank and forthright.

He can leave the media in splits with his quotes at the press conference and makes no pretence of the fact that English is not his first language. Nadal may wear a scowl and then quickly break into a half smile or grin. He may look at you in anger, when his eyebrows are raised and his neck is turned at an acute angle. Yet, Nadal is the lover boy of tennis who has broken more hearts than any other player before. Even Andre Agassi, famous for the flowing mane at one time and then the ear stud image, cannot match Nadal for his looks and macho image.

For the serious tennis buffs, the rivalry between Nadal and Federer is part of folklore. Statistics can never capture the nature of battles in a tennis theatre, whatever be the surface or venue. Even on Wimbledon’s grass, which is not Nadal’s pet surface, he has defeated Federer which goes to show what stuff he is made of. Of course, his 13 French Open titles are something out of the world.

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For over 15 years, there has been a huge debate over who is The Best, Federer or Nadal. It is a tough question to answer. Maybe, tennis fans should rejoice they have been able to see these bold and beautiful players entice us with their repertoire of shots and mental strength.

Looking ahead, where Nadal has the edge over Federer is the Spaniard has age on his side. Federer is 39 and Nadal 34, so he is good to win a few more Grand Slam titles and overtake the Swiss genius. Frankly speaking, Nadal has never played for records.

Having won Grand Slam titles on all surfaces, plus the Olympic Gold, he has nothing left to prove. It is the inner desire, the inner call to play and win matches which drives him. His commercial endorsements run into billions of Euros and he does spend money on charity as well.

They say champions are selfish. Nadal is different, he is selfish only on court when he is winning matches. Off court, he is very much like you and me, will never refuse signing autographs or posing for photos with kids. It is this facet of Nadal which has won him fans around the globe.

How long the Rafael Nadal show will go on is tough to answer. He has dealt with injury breaks many times and comes back even stronger. That is why we call Rafael Nadal not a winner but a champion. Thanks for all the memories, even as we look forward to you being part of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Sania Mirza

‘Covid-19 Impact On World Is Bigger Than Personal Setback’

Sania Mirza, the diva of Indian tennis, leads a hectic life, on and off court. At 33, she has seen the highs in her professional career, having won six Grand Slam titles, and still hopeful of continuing her journey. After the birth of her son Izhaan in 2018, her responsibilities increased. That is why she chose not to play at the US Open recently, as the roles of being a player and mom would have been tough to handle during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Currently in Dubai with her husband, Pakistan cricket star Shoaib Malik, and son, Mirza spoke to S Kannan in a freewheeling chat.

Q. How has life been for you since lockdown began in March?
Sania: Initially, I enjoyed staying at home and spending time with the family. But soon it felt weird that my life had come to a virtual standstill. I started working out in the gym at home to stay fit and every evening the family would play a bit of table tennis or some other game to keep ourselves occupied.

Q. Your thoughts on how Covid-19 has affected your tennis this year?
Sania: Of course, tennis has taken a complete back-seat with the world facing serious threats due to the pandemic. I felt that during the Fed Cup matches in Dubai in March, I was back to my peak and was looking forward to a strong resurgence on the international circuit and at the (Tokyo) Olympics that were scheduled for later. But obviously with the Covid 19, I will need to start preparing for the circuit all over again.

Of course, losing almost a year at this stage of my career is unfortunate. But, like I said, personal problems seem small compared to the major calamity that our world has been subjected to due to the Corona virus.

Q. When do you see some amount of normalcy being restored in India for athletes and you personally?
Sania: That is hard to predict for anyone. Attempts are being made to bring about some kind of normalcy by trying to host international tournaments but it is still going to be a while before desired results are seen.

Q: You decided to miss the US Open, how does it feel?
Sania: It is unfortunate that not just me but several top players of the world have had to miss the Grand Slam due to genuine issues. I personally could not take a chance of travelling to US with Izhaan under the existing conditions. The risks were too high and I’m glad I made the right decision.

Q. As a mom, your thoughts on tennis and the more important roles in your life?
Sania: Tennis has always been a very important part of my life but I’ve been very clear that ‘tennis alone is not life’. Now as a mother, Izhaan and his well-being is definitely my most important priority. That does not mean I cannot continue with my career in tennis for some more time. 

Q: We heard about your involvement with some charity work and distribution of dry rations during lockdown. Tell us about it and also how did you raised funds for it?
Sania: I joined hands with an NGO and helped raise funds for the daily wage earners, who were most badly hit during the lockdown. The funds were used to provide ration for thousands of these daily wage earners and their families.

Q. Your take on the postponed Tokyo Olympics, to be now held in 2021?Sania: It is not the ideal situation but there is not much we can do about it. So, we have to simply accept what comes our way.

Covid-19 Has Maimed Sports Fraternity

If you thought Covid-19 has played havoc only with daily activities in India since this March, spare a thought for those whose life revolves around sport. The last six months have been one of turmoil for athletes, be it those competing at the international level, national level or local level in various cities, big and small.

The resumption of sporting activity, which has been permitted by the Ministry of Home Affairs since June-July, is only for the elite athletes training for the postponed Tokyo Olympics. Even those in the development group are facing immense problems in training, as several stadia and sports complexes remain shut. In the case of venues which are open, coaching has not been allowed, which is quite baffling.

It is easy to blame the number of rising Covid-19 cases in the country for sporting activities to come to a screeching halt. However, where the government has wanted to help, it has done so with a large heart, with permission being granted for conducting the Indian Premier League in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

To be sure, when one talks of sport in India, one immediately thinks of cricket. Yes, cricket remains the No. 1 sport but to stifle other sport at all levels is something grossly unfair.

On social media, we see Union Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju singing paeans day in and day out about Fit India Movement and how a fit nation is a healthy nation. All this is nothing more than lip service, as playing sport has become impossible.

A common grouse among sport lovers is, if so much planning can be done by the government for the IPL, why ignore all other sporting activity. Sports minister Kiren Rijiju would do well to answer it.

Lakhs of coaches, assistant coaches, sports venue administrators, ground staff and related personnel have been made to suffer immense financial losses in India today. Not only have they been unable to ply their trade, minus coaching schemes in place, their revenue and reserves have dried up.

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LokMarg spoke to some coaches, and the reactions from coaches who have helped produce national champions was one of huge distress. Surinder Khanna, former India wicket-keeper batsman, who lives in South Delhi, and former Test cricketer Madan Lal said that shutting cricket academies so long was painful.

“I have cricket academies, and with no permission to run coaching programmes, the financial impact is huge. How long can one pay coaches and groundsmen? There is no revenue model for sustaining the academies and I do not know how long this will continue. An entire season has been wiped out and so many young cricketers with talent have been hit,” said Khanna. Madan Lal echoed the sentiment: “Parents are reluctant to send children, so cricket academies are in a state of inertia.”

In Delhi alone and the neighbouring NCR region, there are thousands of academies in cricket, football, tennis, badminton, table tennis and other sport. “I have my coaching centres in DDA complexes and we have not been allowed to impart coaching. When every activity has been opened up, it is baffling why academies should not function,” said senior tennis coach Vinod Kumar.

Badminton coach Malvinder Dhillon was more emphatic in his observations. “Summers are the best time for young kids to learn the sport. Covid-19 has done immense damage to the entire season. Still, there is no answer as to why coaching should not be allowed. We are ready to follow the guidelines but there is huge confusion, as a result of which, academies cannot function,” said Dhillon.

The worst hit are the swimmers. While permission has been given for pubs, gyms, malls and Metros to run, swimming pools have been shut for over six months. If the fear is of contamination in the pool, then the authorities need to realise that a higher chlorine content in water does help in providing a safer atmosphere. Abroad, in Europe and the United States of America, swimming pools were never shut even during the peak onset of Coronavirus.

At the school, college and university level, sporting activity has ceased. It has killed an entire year and many budding sportspersons have no idea how they can make up for a lost year. The worst hit will be students who hope to do well in sport and then hope to find small jobs.

This year, admission to universities is expected to take place without any seats being allotted to sports quota aspirants. If at all admissions take place under sports quota, it will be only on the basis of national certificates the students hold and no open trials. The advantage with trials is it gives a chance to weed out dubious certificate holders. However, this time, no thought has been given to this aspect.

With respect to the elite athletes in India, from athletics to boxing, and hockey to weightlifting, national camps have sprung to life slowly but suffered due to increasing cases of COVID-19. From National Institute of Sports (NIS) Patiala to the elite Sports Authority of India (SAI) centre in Bengaluru, camps have not been able to build up intensity due to the pandemic.

Athletes who are supposed to be physically stronger, with better immunity, are struggling to hit peak form. In athletics, the parent federation (AFI) has kept the athletes in Patiala under close watch under a sort of bio bubble. With a bit of luck, once normal train services resume, Patiala could host a few national events.

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The same could be tried out in Bengaluru as well as for the men’s and women’s hockey teams training for the Tokyo Olympics. They need match practice and sharpness. Nobody knows how this will take shape, as Covid-19 continues to rage.

All talk of a bio-bubble is good but it does not mean an athlete or coach will never be affected by the virus. It is a matter of chance, despite best efforts, that you could still contract the deadly virus. The bottom line is that preparations must go on, SOPs (standard operating procedures) followed, and hope one day there will eventually be herd immunity in India.

At local level, players without competition and coaches drawing small salaries have virtually quit. Some have turned into vegetable sellers in Delhi and others have chosen to drive e-rickshaws or autos. They are doing this out of compulsion and do not want to be identified out of shame.

What is appalling in a place like Delhi is that the central government and the state government has done nothing for sportsmen and coaches. Each day, more athletes are losing hope as survival has become so tough.

For many, sport was a dream to become a champion like Virat Kohli or PV Sindhu. Sadly, Covid-19 has not only ruined their dreams but even leading a normal life filled with sporting activity has become impossible. It is anybody’s guess how long this trend will continue.

At the school level, almost all kids attend Zoom classes and so on. But the time lost, when they should have been on the playgrounds, can never be recovered. It would not be a bad idea to encourage children to play a sport in their own neighbourhood so that they do not become couch potatoes. This is something which schools need to plan for in Zoom meetings.

Dhoni & Kapil: Indian Cricket’s Twin Towers

Almost ten days after bidding goodbye to international cricket, Mahendra Singh Dhoni remains in the news. His involvement with the pyjama cricket’s latest edition — the Indian Premier League — brings excitement in the air.

Dhoni still makes news. Images of the genius keep flashing. From take-off in India to touchdown last Sunday in Dubai, where IPL will be hosted, Dhoni is all over. You find him smiling at airport immigration, you see him taking a quick swab test for COVID-19. The 39-year-old man from Ranchi continues to be a rage even though Indian cricket’s hottest property is supposed to be India captain Virat Kohli.

Dhoni belongs to a generation where cricket is not just about playing daring shots and hitting powerful boundaries and huge sixes. Dhoni is also the marathon man who played 90 Tests, 350 ODIs, 98 T20 internationals and is still hungry after playing 190 matches in the taxing IPL. His boyish green, despite the grey hair are still infectious, and the glovework behind the stumps still cunning.

To use statistics to understand how Dhoni dominated the world of cricket would be foolish. His magnetic attraction is there for all to see as even during the IPL, people will be glued to TV screen for his heroics as the Chennai Super Kings captain. Indian cricket has had many inspirational captains before, but Dhoni has risen even above a certain legend known as Kapil Dev Nikhanj.

To compare the two captains of two different eras is not the most appropriate thing to do. Yet, there is so much to learn from these inspirational icons who have been outstanding role models for millions of people in our cricket crazy nation, and across the world.

Both came from humble backgrounds, and smaller towns. Even though Kapil Dev is identified closely with Chandigarh, and Dhoni hails from Ranchi, the two are loved across every city in the world. Greatness in sports is difficult to be defined and can never be quantified’ it can only be portrayed just as a painter uses his brush on a canvas to reflect beauty.

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Kapil was the rustic Jat who brought swagger and pace into Indian cricket. Taking over the reins from legend Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev was the first fearsome fast bowler in Indian cricket after spin had been the flavour for decades. Kapil’s pace and seam movement while bowling, his own body motion on the cricket ground had gazelle-like grace. As a fielder, he was world class and a destroyer to the core with his batting, which was bold and beautiful.

When Kapil led a bunch of energetic players in the 1983 World Cup in England, few had imagined he would be holding the trophy at the Lord’s balcony after India defeated West Indies in the final. It was a defining moment in Indian sport, where a virtually unknown team, had conquered what was a long cherished dream.

Kapil was the inspiration which Indian cricket needed. His hunger and work ethic had to be seen to be believed. He bowled with pace, scored runs with flourish and was never ever found sloppy while fielding. He led from the front even though he never had a great bowling support from the other end.

Dhoni has been fortunate to have great bowling resources at his disposal. The rise of Dhoni to stardom was at the ICC T20 World Cup in South Africa in 2007. At that time, not many seniors wanted to go to the World T20. The gauntlet was thrown to Dhoni and he led it with the swagger of an inveterate gambler playing stakes in a Las Vegas casino.

People praise Dhoni even today for how he tossed the ball to Joginder Sharma for the last over against Pakistan in the final. That final over brought instant glory for both the captain and Joginder. The rest is part of folklore. Dhoni’s side won the title and India, the underdogs in T20 format, showed they were no minnows.

It was only a matter of time before Dhoni started asserting his influence on Indian cricket, even further, brick by brick. He took over in all forms of cricket, Test, T20 and ODI plus the huge workload in IPL later. As a man who was his own master, Dhoni believed firmly in one thing, no place for super stars. Players were picked on merit. This quality of his as captain was outstanding as he had no hesitation in dropping Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly as he felt their fielding was not upto the mark.

Any portrayal of Dhoni’s career minus a mention of coach Gary Kirsten would be incomplete. Their bonding and rapport was perfect. The captain and coach started plotting the big campaign for the ICC World Cup (ODI) which was held in India in 2011. The pressure was huge as the media and public built up the hype, invoking how Kapil’s Devils won the 1983 World Cup.

Dhoni, cool as a cucumber and blessed with nerves of a neuro surgeon wielding the scalpel, began the execution process. Beating Pakistan in the Mohali match was the icing on the cake before destroying Sri Lanka in the final in Mumbai on a steamy April night where Dhoni slammed the winning six to lift the title.

The journey was complete, in many ways, for Dhoni. Yet, the fire and hunger within, just like Kapil Dev, never abated. Dhoni led like a king and even though his record in Tests may not have been that enviable as Kapil Dev, he continued. He never took note of criticism and his relationship with the media was like that of a mature politician.

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And, when the time came for Dhoni to hand over captaincy slowly to Virat Kohli in 2015, he did not get emotional about it. He may have not been the same great finisher as one wanted in the World Cup in 2019 in England, but did not warrant the criticism from many senior players. He never played an international match after that, which was his own decision.

In comparison, Kapil Dev’s last few ODIs (1994) were a bit of a drag as his knees could no longer take the load. Post-retirement, Kapil became a great entrepreneur and settled down with wife Romi.

Another post where Dhoni pipped Kapil, in lighter vein, is biopic. A movie on Kapil Dev, with Ranveer Singh playing the lead role, has been shot, though in times of COVID-19 one is not sure when it will be released. Dhoni has already savoured that special feeling. The biopic MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, featuring late Sushant Singh Rajput was released four years ago. It generated $16 million and was released in 61 countries and four languages.

Sushant Rajput has left, leaving many teary eyed, but if you want to see fiction on screen about the most humble Indian cricket captain, watch the movie before you see Dhoni in IPL action soon and marvel at the journey.