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Toasting Virat Kohli on Republic TV.

by Gaurav Sethi




Pitched in for @virat.kohli @republicworld - also put on a BCCI cap to make a point, wrapped up with congratulating Virat on being a politician midst politicians + for next choice for captain suggested a reality show where the winner becomes captain for a day. Watch here on Republic TV.

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Rahul-Mayank can be as potent as Sehwag-Gambhir

by Gaurav Sethi

 But in the absence of seniors, they need to do more than just mark their presence

In Virat Kohli’s absence, his deputy, KL Rahul became the Test captain. Far from a certainty in the team, till only a few Tests back, what catapulted Rahul into this leadership role? Last year’s 129 against England, at Lord’s, was followed by a string of low scores. But Ajinkya Rahane’s indifferent batting form, uncertainty over his Test spot, continuous non-selection for the white-ball format, made him lose his vice-captaincy.

Meanwhile, Rahul is more a less a certainty across the white-ball format. Four 50s in his last five T20I innings (vs Afghanistan, Namibia, Scotland in the T20 World Cup) and another against New Zealand at Ahmedabad. But even before this, he was the Punjab Kings’ skipper, and possibly one of India’s T20 batting mainstays. His ODI numbers are equally impressive. 

Added to Kohli’s absence, was Rohit Sharma’s absence – perhaps the only other batting certainty across formats for India. 

Yet, Punjab Kings under KL Rahul were far from impressive. Whether it is the squad or team selection, Punjab has been a largely rudderless IPL entity. Yet for a while, such has been the preoccupation with Kohli and Rohit, that Rahul the batsman, and not Rahul the leader was picked, first, for vice-captaincy, then almost by default, for the captaincy at the Wanderers. 

India’s senior-most Test players, Cheteshwar Pujara (94 Tests) and Ravichandran Ashwin (83 Tests) much like Rahane (81 Tests) are not all-format players. KL Rahul is, by the look of it, being slated to be one. After his exceptional match-winning innings at Centurion, Rahul’s stock rose manifold.

Rahul of 42 Tests, batting average of 36, nowhere close to a Test mainstay, with 2 of his 7 Test centuries in his last two series (both overseas), was made captain. In addition to captaincy, Rahul opens the batting. In addition to negotiating the new ball, he also has to secure his spot in the team. 

It’s out of such adversity that strong leaders are born. Yet as has been obvious in Rahul’s IPL captaincy, leading a weak batting lineup has thwarted his own batsmanship making him even opine that strike rate is over-rated. If Pujara said that, it would be understandable. But when someone with a strike-rate of 142 in T20Is says that, it calls for thought. Is Rahul thinking too much? How did David Warner lead an equally weak SRH batting line up, yet not compromise on his attacking play or leadership for years? Much like Rahul, Warner was captain, opener and batting mainstay of his IPL franchise. Rahul is not yet 30, Warner is 35, and perhaps there is still time for him to come into his own. Or is there? Is he too laidback, in his own shell, to lead and inspire a team that needs that extra push?

Perhaps the greatest disservice by making Rahul captain or even the deputy is that it could dilute the impact of the Rahul-Mayank opening, one that is even more critical overseas. If Mayank Agarwal were to play a winning hand in the last Test, would the selectors have the audacity to drop its interim Test captain when Rohit Sharma returns? Unlikely. 

Although Mayank has played only 18 Tests (out of which 11 are overseas), he has a batting average of 45.38 (more than Rahul, Rahane and Pujara and only less than Kohli). In Rahul’s absence, Mayank could be the next Punjab Kings’ captain. He is yet to make his T20I debut, and has played only 5 ODIs, but in India’s batting merry go round, he could easily be the next flavour. Just as Unmukt Chand was, not too long ago. 

Mayank is barely a year older than Rahul, both are good friends, with a batting understanding that goes back a long way. In the cryptic ways of Indian cricket, the continuous absences of Kohli and Rohit, Rahul and Mayank can forge a batting renaissance in Indian cricket. Even be the next Sehwag-Gambhir. Just as Sehwag-Gambhir were from Delhi, Rahul-Mayank are from Bangalore. Both are mates too. Both can be equally attacking on top, while Mayank's prowess against spin is no less than Gambhir’s in his heyday. Rahul can be just as destructive as Sehwag, scoring all-round the wicket. And much like Sehwag, Rahul hasn’t shown any leadership qualities at his IPL franchise. Both have Punjab Kings in common, moving from their city franchise to it. 

If and when Rohit returns, how will they accommodate Mayank? Will selection be able to sever long, accomplished batting ties – will it be prepared to move on? Also, considering Rohit’s continuous fitness problems, he may even decide to ration his Test cricket. If not retire from it altogether and focus only on white-ball cricket. 

Shikhar Dhawan last played a Test match in September, 2018. He was not part of India’s T20 World Cup squad last year. But he did lead India for the twin white-ball series in Sri Lanka. Over the years, he has been one of India’s leading ODI batsmen; as also one of Delhi Capitals’ highest scorers repeatedly. The leadership role eluded him at DC, and he wasn’t retained by the franchise. Dhawan is part of the ODI series in South Africa. Mayank is not. 

However, it seems inevitable, that if India are to win their first Test series in South Africa, their openers will have to lead the way. A telling contribution from Mayank, could still force his late inclusion for the ODIs. 

***

Even if Kohli returns to lead in Cape Town, if he continues to remain absent with the bat, the noises will only increase. It may not be too far-flung to even see him relinquish the Test captaincy too. And therein lies the opportunity for Rahul-Mayank to stamp their presence on this fading batting order.

First published here

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Centurion Celebrations.

by Gaurav Sethi

 Long after Quinton de Kock’s retirement, this Indian team refused to retire for the night

Fresh from the win at Centurion, the team huddled up for a bonfire and BBQ. As per the coach’s orders, there were plenty of non-alcoholic beverages flowing. Dravid explained to the boys, “The win will make you high, who needs any more uppers”. 

As the evening got underway, it also became apparent why Shreyas Iyer was always a certainty for the South Africa series. Iyer’s Instagram account had given everyone enough evidence that he had all the moves. 

Iyer started by mocking himself, with what he called Short Delivery dance – in it, he mistimed a hook repeatedly, but he did so with such élan, he had everyone in splits. It didn’t take long for his former DC mate, Rishabh Pant to join in with his Spiderman dance where he crawls on all fours on the ground – Pant followed that with his one-handed shots, collapsing in a heap on the ground. 

Next, Iyer started to jig on the spot to some music from the hood. He even put his hood on for it. Dravid continued to clap through this, offering some comment to batting coach, Vikram Rathore, who continued to smile politely with that glazed look. 

The music stopped when Iyer started to rattle off some lines from the Mutual Fund ads. Before long, KL Rahul and Umesh Yadav joined in with their lines from the “RBI satark ads.” DJ in the house, Virat Kohli, switched this to bhangra, invading the spotlight, in a traditional Indian outfit (courtesy a brand he once endorsed).

 He was followed by Mohammed Siraj and Mayank Agarwal doing their usual chest bump celebrations, also in traditional Indian attire. Siraj was in saffron, Agarwal in green, Kohli in blue. Kohli started to make a speech in crude Hindi, wild whistles followed, with African tribesmen with spears joining in, what was quickly becoming a fire dance. 

Kohli and Siraj pulled Dravid into the dance; who continued to clap his hands sportingly. It was then that Kohli snapped, “C’mon Rahul Bhai, surely you’re a better dancer than Dada!” Unmoved, Dravid managed a polite smile and continued to clap. Kohli and Siraj raised Dravid’s hands and somehow got him to do a mild rendition of the bhangra. 

***

After the song and dance, it was over to the Audio Visual show. Kohli spoke everyone through the Siraj over to Quinton de Kock – “as we all know, it is not family but Siraj’s over which is responsible for de Kock’s retirement. At the end of this series, Siraj will have forced the entire South African team into Test retirement.  Siraj, what do you have to say about this?”

Siraj continued to giggle in his customary way, saying little. But the team mocked him, calling his name out in chorus. Finally, Siraj took the mic and giggled some more. He then started to speak, talking about de Kock’s career and what a good Test career he had had, but got booed. 

He giggled some more. And said, “I will like another opportunity to help de Kock retire…hehehe…from other formats…like ODIs…hehehe….T20s….hehehe…then his family will want him to retire from family format also….hehehe…because he will be spending too much time with them….hehehe…this is a joke…please don’t tell…hehehe…I said this….he is a top performer…abhi inke country mein hain…marenge***….hehehe” 

Mayank appeared again and did the chest bump with Siraj again. Kohli continued – “Siraj, from now on, you should…hehehe…really start doing this chest bump with your victims…you should have done it with de Kock…he is the…cause for your celebration after all”

It was then that Dravid thought that everyone was getting a bit too carried away, “Should we retire for the night, boys? It’s been a long day”

Pant spoke, “Rahul Sir…not so early. Abhi toh party shuru hui hai?* And Jassi (Bumrah) and Lala (Shama) have not yet spoken…in your own words, everyone should get an opportunity…and Ash (Ashwin) still has to make youtube documentary of this party and we all have to speak to him in Tamil…for his Kutti story…Yes, Ash?”

Ashwin snatched the mic from Pant, “Thanks Rish…yes, it was a very good win but I’m sure YouTube and all can wait and I know Rishabh can be very mischievous but it is important for us to enjoy the win and I will make a full video about how I planned those two dismissals but that can wait, thanks…but after my ESPN interview I really think I will be quiet for a bit as I have nothing left to say”

Everyone cracked up as they were only too aware of Ashwin’s elaborate interview.

Finally, Shami and Bumrah appeared but they insisted Ishant Sharma do the talking. Shami: He will tell you everything better. Everyone has cracked up again, knowing how Ishant could go on and on which he did, all pokerfaced, explaining how Shami and Bumrah had dismantled the South African batting. Ishant then handed the mic to Bumrah who was brief: Thanks Ishu bhai, you said it all. 

Rahane and Pujara had been quiet all this while, so Pant asked them to come up: Puji bhaiya (Pujara) will now tell us how his first innings knock inspired India to win this match? Everyone cracked up again as Pujara had been dismissed first ball in the first innings.

Nonetheless, Pujara took the mic, smiling broadly. He continued to smile broadly, with everyone clapping, calling his name in chorus. He finally spoke: I think KL Rahul richly deserved the man of the match…when Mayank got out after their 100 run partnership…it took me some time to get to the middle…you all know the reason…but to make amends...I returned in a hurry…” Pujara received a huge applause…”Thank you, thanks Rishabh…I’m glad you appreciate my first innings contribution and that it inspired the team to win” 

Pant added, “Puji Bhaiya senti** ho gaye…sorry Puji bhaiya to make you senti..thank you for kind words and inspiring team…now over to Jinks bhaiya please…over to you, sir”

Rahane took the mic, “Definitely. It is a great win. And I think I was stroking the ball well, it was a team effort, thank you, Rahul Bhai for showing faith in me, thank you, Rishabh”

Pant: “Areh, Jinks Bhaiya toh serious ho gaye. I think we will now hand over to Virat bhaiya to lighten mood…”

In uncustomary fashion, Kohli was all serious though which took everyone aback. He started to talk about his own contribution, and felt that Rahane, Pujara and he were senior members and it was time for them to weigh in. He also congratulated KL Rahul and Mayank Agarwal, how their opening stand was crucial in the win.

Dravid then got up, “Virat, I never thought I’d say this, but this is a party, not a post-match presentation. Please use some language, lighten up…hehe just kidding, this is all very true. On this note, shall we call it a night?”

Kohli: “Night?? Abhi toh party shuru hui hai!!”*  The track started playing. Siraj-Mayank did their jig. Iyer reappeared. Pant on the floor. Fire dancers reappeared. The party was in full swing. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Tamba Bavuma appeared. He was apologetic when he said, “Oh sorry, didn’t mean to disturb the celebrations, I couldn’t sleep, my foot was hurting, decided to take a walk”

Siraj looked at Mayank sheepishly, earlier in the day, he had hit Bavuma’s foot with the ball. Kohli: “Oh sorry about that, Tamba. It happens on the field of play. Please don’t retire.”

*Abhi toh party shuru hui hai? – The party has just started, song title, common parlance too.

** senti –sentimental 

*** abhi inke country mein hain…marenge – we’re in their country, they will beat us up. 

(However plausible this may sound, this is a work of fiction)

First published here

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Sleepless in South Africa.

by Gaurav Sethi

 Look who’s losing sleep over the latest developments in Indian cricket

Days after the dust appeared to have settled on Captaincygate, neighbours complained of Ravi Shastri speaking loudly in his sleep – “That’s bowled him right through the gate, they call it Captiancygate for a reason” 

One neighbour who wished to bask in the limelight asked an interviewer, “Yes, I’ll tell you what I hear, but first can you ask me a question on what I think of Kohli as a limited overs’ captain? I have all the stats to back me”.

For weeks now, everyone has had an opinion on Kohli’s captaincy. 

When contacted, Shastri said, he spent the last few months as coach, sleeping. “I was quick to adopt those shades…it doesn’t augur well when the Indian coach is sleeping on camera…and despite bloody good efforts, the cameramen refused to not pan their damn camera lenses on me…I was left with no other option. I now can only sleep with shades on. Even at night. It’s these shades which are making me talk in my sleep.”

Elsewhere, Kohli too has been faced with disrupted sleep: Dada appears in my dreams…he says in 45 minutes we will make a public announcement giving the Test captaincy to Rohit Sharma. In it, I’m bargaining for 90 minutes…I’m pleading with him, “Please Dada, please, before relieving me of the ODI captaincy, you gave me an hour and a half… why have you cut it by half…My better half is worried that I’m visiting the gym in the middle of the night but there’s no other way to shrug off these nightmares…er I mean, dreams…of course it’s always a dream come true to have Dada appear in my dreams.”

It has been confirmed that Kohli gyms at odd hours of the night. Not just that, he has also shifted his bedding to the bench press. “It’s quite convenient really, I sleep in gym wear…which is cool, this also coincided with an ad I was doing…Gymwear so comfortable…you’ll never get out of it…I thought that was a witty line but I can tell you, it was my idea...I shared it with the adwallahs but the concept is mine…all mine…and I can see the hard work is paying…it’s telling on the bottom line of the company and on my bottom line too.”

Sourav Ganguly said, “I like Kohli’s attitude but he gyms too much. When I played cricket I only visited the gym to cross over to the café…and sometimes not even that. I think skill and not fitness is the reason for success in cricket. Of the current cricketers, I believe only Ashwin understands that. I’m hoping we can rope in Virender Sehwag to be the fitness trainer of this current lot, they need to enjoy the good things in life rather than worry about fitness. I can see Amit Mishra making an able deputy to Viru…”

Meanwhile Kohli refused to comment on this latest Dada-byte but did 500 sit-ups to ease his nerves. At dinner, he didn’t eat a morsel, explaining it was his fast. 

***

Rahul Dravid explained his preparation to be the new Indian coach: The only reason I signed up to do that ad which went viral was to understand what it is to be a model cricketer. This is important for the current lot and I do not want to take this lightly. I may appear angry in the ad, brandishing a bat, but it has earned me a lot of respect within the current lot. They know I mean business – on and off the field. 

Dravid said that he respects both “Sourav” and “Virat” as professionals. And being in South Africa, they were now thousands of miles away from it all. 

***

Sachin Tendulkar refused to comment. Saying it was an internal matter of Indian cricket. He said he fondly remembered being carried by Kohli when India won the 2011 World Cup. Also adding that he had many fond memories of sharing partnerships both on the pitch and in restaurants with Ganguly – he loves his biryani and we have introduced each other to many a good place, be it in Mumbai, Kolkata or London.  

When asked whether Rohit would make a better captain, tongue firmly in cheek, he said, Yes, definitely with Mumbai Indians. With the Indians, it remains to be seen.

***

Ajinkya Rahane said a good score was just around the corner – “Definitely, but for that I need to be in the XI” He also believes that another overseas’ series win was around the corner – “Definitely, but for that I need to be the captain”.

Asked how he felt after being relieved from the vice captaincy, he simply said, “definitely”. 

It has been learnt that Rahane has been requesting some of the South African bowlers to dole out their short stuff to him in the nets at night – “Definitely, I have a simple explanation – as I may not play in the first Test match, I tell them, you have nothing to fear, you can bowl at me at night, this way, both of us will be in the dark”.

Seeing as no South African has taken up Rahane’s offer as yet, he has been spotted sleeping in his rucksack in the nets –“I’m looking to spend more time at the crease, definitely, this simulation will help me, Pujara seems to think so too, though he did not say so in so many words.”

***

KL Rahul, the new vice-captain, was spotted with Mayank Agarwal. Asked whether they were looking to extend their Punjab Kings’ opening; Rahul was deadpan when he said, “we are no longer at Punjab together so I won’t lose sleep over that.”

Realising he may not have been too tactful, he quickly added, “Yes, that will be the aim as we have had many memorable partnerships, not just at Punjab but at Karnataka too.”

*** 

“I have this repeated dream…more like a nightmare really, that I’m batting and there isn’t a single spectator there to watch me…in South Africa” said Kohli, somewhat wistfully. When informed that there will be no spectators in attendance for the series, he quickly countered, “Yes, I know, how else do you explain my dream”.

(However plausible this may sound, this is a work of fiction)

First published here

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On a personal note to Cheteshwar Pujara

by Gaurav Sethi

 Thank you for not conforming, for being forever stubborn

Dear Che,

Is it ok if I call you Che? Let me assure you, it is out of affection. Something that goes back to before you made your Test debut. Back then, I was blown away by your lofty scores in first-class cricket. But then again, I did not think a player from Saurashtra would make it.

You did. And I took pride in your every innings of note. It was a personal triumph. Look, there’s my boy, Che Pujara, the one I told you would make it. Oddly enough, I had not watched you bat before your Test debut. 

But a few of us back then believed we were your Blogging Agents. And when you made your Test debut, I was speaking to Daniel Norcross on Test Match Sofa about you. Recall it was after your first innings’ no show. I believed then and told Daniel pretty much that you will turn it around in the second innings. I still do not know where that belief came from but it was there.

Our bond though, albeit one-sided, had been forged before that day. It was fueled, perhaps, by the need to push a cricket revolution – your image had already been morphed with Che Guevara’s. It was picked by the cricketing underground. It resurfaces on days when you lead a maiden series triumph down under or such.

A confession: so consumed have I been by my own prophecy, that till date, I find you, even in your struggles, the most watchable Test batsman. When not struggling, it is another level. Because even then, you will coat such a lacquer of hardship and patience, it could well be Thomas Hardy penning your innings.

But a question I often find myself asking, more so now, as your batting average takes a hit, match after match, is this the end? And if not, surely, this is the final lap? 

The line outside off lures your bat edges more often than not. Often it is that magical delivery, but when it is not, it’s here we go again. There was a phase where your preferred mode of dismissal was clean bowled.

Acceptable, all batters have their phases and fetishes. Yours, however, appeared to be put under the microscope far more. Even your herculean innings would pale if there was a series of unfortunate events. Then there were those in the com-box that would delight in your running between the wickets and fielding – chasing balls with your pads on. Face it, you can be quite comical, without any intention to be funny.

There was a time, you would be referred to as ‘Not the fastest of fielders’ with your twin knee surgeries often being added as an explanation. But because of how unusual you were and continue to be, as a sportsman and cricketer, in these new white ball dark ages – you are the odd man out.

And yet you have persevered. For over 11 years. 92 Test matches. 14827 deliveries. With even 15 sixes. (who cares, if Virat Kohli himself has hit only 25 Test sixes, that’s considered adaptability to the longest format)

On the 2nd Day of this Mumbai Test, when you deposited Ajaz Patel’s half-tracker over the boundary, they doubted, checked, double-checked. And it wasn’t even hitting the rope or shy of it, it was well over. But because it was Pujara. You could have hit the ball out of Wankhede, into the Arabian sea, they would’ve still checked.

You will walk off. With the same amount of no-fuss, as you will walk on. Deep down, are you a Kiwi? So much Zen, how? 

***

It’s easy to not remember, that only recently you scored a 91 and 61 in England. That India won both these Tests. What is remembered are the 20s and naught that followed. It pains me to say, after the Kiwis reviewed their LBW appeal against you, (or was it before), I could almost smell your dismissal. The LBW was a not-out, but next ball you were clean bowled to Ajaz Patel, going down the wicket to him. When did something like that happen last? 

In the second innings, you started with such fervour, boundary after boundary, as if you had been freed of all burden. You were not-out overnight, in the morning, you took to the spinners again.

Then there was that familiar painful passage – of the ball pounding you. Memories of Australia came rushing through. The Kiwis had resorted to bodyline. Gavaskar resorted to taking credit for the arm guard. You had the arm guard on. 

Ball after ball at the body. After the arm, one on the back. No back-guard it seemed. You weren’t scoring much either. And then, Ajaz Patel snared you. You did open the innings. 47 runs. 6 4s and that solitary six. The one they checked and checked. Ironically, they checked and checked your dismissal too. Your 92nd Test, the third umpire was taking a leaf out of the Pujara handy book - make it last longer.

***

In the post-match, Ashwin took Virat, “Puji”, South Africa series in the same breath – Kohli raised an eyebrow, or so I thought. It could’ve been my imagination. It could’ve been Ashwin making a call. 

Neither you nor Ashwin are strangers to being omitted on overseas’ tours. But yes, the mini-pounding in Mumbai, did bring to mind what the fierce pace and bounce of Nortje and Rabada could do on their home turf. Particularly to you. Good luck. But you and Tests in the Southern Hemisphere have this habit of writing stunning scripts. 

***

Back in the summer of 2017, Sidharth Monga and I started speaking about you. It was an unusual correspondence – entirely on email. We went back-and-forth many times, entirely focused on you. Sidharth’s piece appeared, there were conversations with you, your father, your cricket. It was riveting. To read about Sidharth ask you about Che Pujara. To read that you were unaware of the moniker. The oblivion was wonderful. I wouldn’t have expected anything less of you. 

My opinion of you is somewhat contrary to what the media and even some of your more extroverted teammates have of you. This opinion I have held as way back as 2011, when along with Sharda Ugra, I spoke of leadership, captaincy and star players on NDTV. 

Then, as now, I do believe you will make an astute captain. I have followed your travails with India A in the West Indies, batting with the tail. Saurashtra too. 

The vice-captaincy has been fleeting in the New Zealand series. In South Africa, in all likelihood Rohit will be Kohli’s deputy. Your most emphatic form of leadership will be with the bat. After tough days, of which there will be plenty, if you score, expect to be asked to speak to the press. Something that you revel in. 

Here’s to making it to 100 Tests and 7000 runs. Prove the naysayers wrong. Prove me wrong too.

When it’s time to say goodbye, hope you leave with a whimper. Or what is often mistaken to be a whimper. Hope you outdo yourself. Hope you take 100 deliveries to get off the mark. And when you do, I hope you raise your bat to a standing ovation. Here’s to never conforming. Here’s to being forever stubborn. Here’s to you, Cheteshwar Arvind Pujara. Here’s to stretching five days. Here’s to the last Test batsman. Here’s to the vanishing art of denial. 

Sincerely,

Gaurav Sethi

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On a personal note to Rahul Dravid

by Gaurav Sethi

 Welcome back, Jammy. Here’s to leading more back-to-the wall fightbacks

Dear Rahul,

In that summer of ‘96, we both were at the Delhi airport, catching a flight westwards. I did not see you, but I spotted your Karnataka mate, Venkatesh Prasad from afar. I raised my hand, he raised his, so high, as if he was prepping to release the ball. 

Then in spring, 2012, as I prepared to leave for another airport, your retirement announcement started to play out on TV. I uncharacteristically delayed my departure so I could take in the full import of your farewell to the game.  

A few hours later in the pool, the hotel pickup turned out to be a swimming instructor. He regaled me with his cricket stories; how he was on the verge of playing for Goa. Then politics did him in. And somebody’s son took his place. I took this opportunity to talk about you. He was more interested in Ganguly. You know how that pans out. 

Then in 2015, you delivered the MAK Pataudi lecture. You spoke, unusually, of altered bowling actions because kids were made to bowl the full 22 yards. On one of my jaunts past Madan Lal’s cricket nets in Siri Fort, this compelled me to intervene. 

A few years later, you quit from your position as the Delhi Daredevils’ mentor; something about conflict of interest, they said. I found it odd, you appeared to be the only one with a conflict of interest doing anything about it.  

***

But what are these personal anecdotes? Some, where you weren’t even there. They’re personal, because, I knew soon enough, that this was personal. When in your debut series, you fell short of your Test hundreds repeatedly, and Sourav scored his, I knew. This would be ache and triumph in equal measure. That when your Test batting average started to slide below Tendulkar’s, threatening to go below 50, I wanted this to end.

Then came salvation, in 2011, when the team was buried, you scaled with Test batting porn – not one, not a double, but a triple. Three hundreds.

It came to that. That you even made your T20 International debut after that. What was that? It seems so far away, I had to check the stats, three sixes really. You did not play another T20I. 

After that England series, a home series, against the West Indies: another Test ton, two more fifties. 

Sitting in the Kotla pavilion, with Nikhil Kalaan alongside, I watched Fidel Edwards go right through you; he went right through me too. Hell. It’s come to this. Another clean bowled. That’s how it would read, right? The cracks in The Wall. Such an occupational hazard: You’re called The Wall, the headlines come readymade. They gnaw at you, like insects, like vultures, and somewhere, if you’re prone to introspection, which I suspect you are, is this it? 

But it wasn’t, was it? Could you have called it off then? In England, before that, on a high? It’s so way back, more than a decade back, why now? But, I will repeat, this is personal. This is all the pain I chose to take on, for it came with so much joy. So that when you walked away, it was worth every moment. Every f***ing moment.

I’m out of luck, I’m out of form

Don’t know how I’ll weather the storm


The legs will move, the blood will flow

Take it easy, nice and slow

Do it little by little, blow by blow


I watch the ball, can’t watch my back

The knives are out, want me on the rack

Looking for luck, needle in a haystack


Forget the world, stare at a bird’s eye

You’re not a myth, you’re not an evil Sith

You’re still playing, you’re still brick-laying


I’m out of luck, I’m out of form

Don’t know how I’ll weather the storm


Open your mind, open your stance

Look at the field, give it one more glance

Forget about luck, forget about chance


I hear voices and I hear noises

I hear raves and I hear rants

I hear don’ts and I can’ts


Blank the crowd, blank the bowler

Let ‘em boo, let ‘em holler

Treat ‘em like another blank caller


I’m out of luck, I’m out of form

Don’t know how I’ll weather the storm


Out of form, song written for Rahul Dravid in November, 2008.  

***

Those Gregg Chappell years, when the two of you were clubbed together, when he was busy calling a spade a spade, putting both Ganguly and Tendulkar under the microscope; I even saw some reason to all the upheaval. 

That early 2007 World Cup elimination was way more painful because you were captain. Rising above all that ODI gloom though, is that straight six off Alan Donald. And an innings against England, where you scorched the square boundaries, like some maverick trying to make a first impression. 

I often wondered about perception, still do. And this puts it squarely in a comparison with Ganguly. If you look at the numbers closely, there’s hardly anything in them: Averages of 39.16 vs 41.02. Strike rate of 71.23 vs 73.70. It’s another thing, if you’re comparing either of you with Tendulkar’s ODI record, but Dravid vs Ganguly in ODIs, really? 

Sure, he has 10 more ODI hundreds, but he played largely as an opener. The Test comparisons are a non-starter, you’re streets ahead. It is accepted belief that Ganguly was and is a born leader, and his greatest accomplishment as a player was captaining India followed by taking his shirt off at Lord’s. He did far fewer ads then too. The most compelling, when he returned with a smirk and a “Dada ko bhule toh nahin?”

But yes, there is a dynamic between you and your peers from that era. This is not to redefine it, but for me to put it out there, to question certain preconceived notions. And while we’re on this, declaring with Tendulkar on 194, that was acceptable too. You probably would’ve declared with yourself on 194. Here’s hoping you influence another such decision as coach. Nothing like an unpopular declaration with someone on the verge of a milestone. More so in milestone obsessed India. You thinking that 100th 100 too? 

***

This s not clear cut, or chronological. This is led by a swirl of memories. That used to nibble at me, now they don’t seem so distant – for, you’re back. You’re no longer an India A or India U-19 coach, you are Team India coach. I did not expect you to take this job, yet I do not question why you did. It’s probably the most sought after coaching assignment in cricket, the most well-paying too. Is it worthy of you? And what Indian cricket comes with? This is limelight, this is political, often messy, seldom not Machiavellian. You’re only too aware how it panned out for your mate, Anil Kumble. Of course, that was a time when the captain was all-powerful. So much has changed in the last few months. So much more could in the next few weeks. You probably had this figured out, you understand Indian cricket, as one understands a dysfunctional family and accepts it for what it is. That really is something. You also have accepted that your life is cricket, not from the sidelines, but in the thick of it. Through thick and thin. 

***

Barely a few overs into your coaching gig, when New Zealand got a move on, you made a move on your nails. I was watching. Then some brilliance on the field, and you patted R Shridhar, your fielding coach, on the back. There was much mirth around. When a player reached a milestone, you stood up, applauded. There was so much decorum to the clapping, it could’ve been a book launch at the Lit fest. 

But then there are the Tendulkar mimicries, and we all know, there’s this other side. Like that ‘Indranagar ka gunda’ ad. Like that yin and yang you had with Virender Sehwag. 

Thanks for the 46, 564 deliveries you faced as a player in international cricket. Here’s to many more as coach. I’m confident, sitting on the sidelines, you’ll be happily taking a few on the body, on your chin, in the post-match. Thanks for not once using the word, ‘intent’ in Kolkata after the series win. Here’s to new beginnings in India cricket. Where the only deception is on the cricket field. 

Sincerely,

Gaurav Sethi 

Keeper captain close in slip


You did it all

Coz you were the wall


One down open middle order flip


You did it all

Coz you were the wall


Dropped declare resign blip


You did it all

Coz you were the wall


Rahul Jammy Dravid Skip


You did it all

Coz you were the wall


Shooter target trigger click


You did it all

Coz you were the wall


One day no way go away hick


You did it all

Coz you were the wall


T20 not empty scored plenty tick


You did it all

Coz you were the wall


Coach’s boy, very coy, one big kick


You did it all

Coz you were the wall


Whipping boy, favourite toy, very, very sick


You did it all

Coz you were the wall


Soft spoken, invisible, just another brick


You did it all

Coz you were the wall


Written for Dravid in 2008. The latest verse is waiting to be written.


First published here

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A note to Rohit Sharma.

by Gaurav Sethi

To Rohit Gurunath Sharma, who knows “easy come, easy go, little high, little low” better than most

Dear Rohit,

Watching you bat in the last few Test series has been a source of immense joy.  Your leaves, ball after ball, of the new ball, have brought so much comfort. It’s as if right there, when you left the ball, and sprouted those Jagger lips, it was Rock ‘n’ Roll Test cricket – and I liked it.

Bat and pad so close, even a pesky wasp wouldn’t have eked its way through.

You had teleported into another dimension. Your Test cricket wait was over; at the crease, you were prepared to wait, no matter how long it took.

That waiting game, something you had warmed up to in the first few overs of white ball cricket too. Some kind of osmosis this.

Yet you must know, in the last decade, if ever there was batting royalty that India indulged in, it was you. Those decisions that enabled one more chance to you, meant one less chance to someone else.

Your long cricket journey has been possible only because so many others have been cut short.

For years, I saw this as a betrayal of quite a few batting careers. Eventually your white ball game flourished; how could it not, you had a blank cheque of nigh 100 ODIs. As you became an ODI batting monster, the prophecy was confirmed. The Rohit-narrative continued to feed on this prophecy. Then one day, the narrative grew such an appetite, you laid your claim to a five course Test cricket meal. It was ordained. You were not leaving the table. You were leaving the red cherry. You belonged, you knew it, those who doubted, knew it. And those who knew it all along, felt obliged to say: We knew it.

Just as over the years, extended faith in you gave you that added comfort, you returned the favour, on top of the order. And vitally, to the youngsters in the squad. Those that gravitated towards you, in the knowledge that you will not judge: through extended bio bubbles, you appeared to be the go-to guy. It even led to a protocol breach when you all sat indoors at a restaurant.

In Australia, when you appeared after quarantine, Ravi Shastri in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts greeted you with a “How was quarantine, my friend? You’re looking younger”. There was much mirth around; it felt like Onam, the return of the King, even the quiet ones appeared thrilled; you repeatedly patted Pujara’s tummy. As Pujara battled a lean patch, your animated conversations with him in the middle were not lost on camera.

You have extended that same bonhomie to Pant; be it on the field, or when you were posing at the stadium hotel in England. There appeared to be an unmistakable bond; and who more than you would know the burden of expectation on a youngster. 

14 years after your T20I debut, you are India captain. 14 years. Return of the king, again? Slated at seven, you did not bat in that World T20 match against England. That Yuvraj six 6s game. That’s how long back it was.  You signed in against South Africa with a 50* at five, and a 30* vs Pakistan in the finals.

During that 2007 T20 World Cup, your peers were Gambhir, Karthik, Yuvraj, Sehwag, Harbhajan, Irfan. Way back in 2012, Gambhir backed you by saying you were “batting the best among all of us in the nets”. The belief in you often seemed comical. Yet, those that were close to you, had played cricket with you, did not waver. Today, many of them sit back and enjoy the fruits of their labour in commentary. You are one long term investment, Rohit.

The returns have been exponential in white-ball cricket. Beyond the runs, in the uncertain times we live in, you are a constant reminder that it’s just a game. The ability to laugh after goofing up a simple catch, few Indian cricketers can afford that, but you did recently. You were probably laughing at the silliness of it all. Whatever it was, you laughed. Sometimes, it’s important to laugh on a cricket field, at yourself even more so.

After the opening defeat against Pakistan, where you fell for a golden duck to Shaheen Shah Afridi’s killer yorker, you were demoted to three against New Zealand. Doubt you will do something that knee-jerk as captain, as you have continued to open for Mumbai Indians come rain or shine.

Less than ten days after India’s last World Cup match, you will lead the team against New Zealand in Jaipur. Equally challenging will be handling the animated comparisons with your predecessor. In the past, you have stayed clear of engaging the conspiracy theorists. You probably will stick to that mantra. Shooting straight in post- match chats in addition to that perplexed goofy look with that trademark twisted mouth, and an outrageously funny deadpan comment.

***

Somewhere in the stands will be your biggest fan, on edge. She probably knows you only too well: how impetuous, how high risk, high reward your game can be. She could be your wife, or a girl who called herself Mrs Rohit Sharma on twitter. I met her at the Wankhede during your second Test.  I was hanging with a friend who coined the term Nohit Sharma. That day, you scored your second Test hundred.

***

Few things more compelling than a cricketer, making you change your mind about him. The surprise is akin to Mathew Wade pulling off that 19th over heist against Shaheen Shah Afridi.

Rohit, in inspite of your many surprises, must confess, I didn’t see your Test rebirth. Will miss you in the upcoming Test series; hopefully it’s to recharge for the South Africa series.

***

Congratulations on being much, much more than those annoying buzz words. Lazy elegance, potential, talent, Hitman fall short in capturing the essence of your complexities as a cricketer and person. You’re one cool guy, and that is some accomplishment. As has been giving your ‘natural game’ the boot in Test cricket.

To paraphrase Queen, “Any way the wind blows doesn't really matter to you.”

Stay cool.


Sincerely,

Gaurav Sethi


First published here

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A new angle to India being knocked out.

by Gaurav Sethi


 

On Diwali, sparks flew - did shortsightedness regarding India's match-timings contribute to the team's early exit - with dew making so many matches a no contest, was there a case for slotting one of India's big games as a day game? Watch here

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So much thought to lose a game, wow!

by Gaurav Sethi


 

Talking about India's defeat to New Zealand in the T20 World Cup, how so much thought was put into it.

Can also watch here 


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A note to Virat.

by Gaurav Sethi

 To the current all-format Team India skipper: It’s a good thing you’re not formatted

Dear Virat,

Years back, when you rollicked on the verge of batting immortality, I would beseech the boys who had lapsed, to watch cricket again. I would tell them there is no better time, watch for Kohli, watch for what he’s doing with the bat.

They had lapsed so bad, even you couldn’t pull them back to cricket. Instead, they would romance a time they had played the game. They didn’t know what they were missing, they were missing out on you: your batting trance.

 ***

Then the other day, Asha aunty asked me to write about you. I excused myself then but maybe not entirely, so here we are.

Perhaps your knock against Pakistan compelled me to write about you again. Days later, I’m still thinking about it. The control, the saneness of it, the self-knowledge, yes, most importantly, the self-knowledge.

For the longest time, your batting had been about self-knowledge. About knowing your own abilities.  This was far more evident in the white ball game, where you read the course of the innings as a masterful composer – you summoned the ebbs and flows of the innings with your bat; eventually thrown into a tizzy with that final spurt. 

You were the batting equivalent of my Black & White TV memory when Zubin Mehta summoned his powers to Delhi in the mid 80s. If Mehta was “Baron of the baton”, you were baron of the bat.

But you know this, or at least I hope you do. Over the last few years, it’s been convenient for many to unknow this.

That is unimportant. Or is it? Has this marred your self-knowledge? Has this compelled you to reinvent yourself?

Probably not. Not from what was evident against Pakistan. My realistic expectation of you is to strike at 120, steer the innings to a shore where the mad hatters and hitters can rave with their bats in the death overs.

In the IPL, as too against Pakistan, you were well within that ballpark of 120. Coincidentally, it’s been similar in the last two IPLs. Not that it matters. You could be AWOL during the IPL, it wouldn’t matter much to me. 

Or play fewer matches; when you spoke of player burnout not too long ago, you did mention that India regulars should be given a breather from the IPL calendar – but it doesn’t work that way. Even if the IPL is bang in the middle of a World Cup, chances are, key Indian players will have to play both.

For some reason, my mind always goes back to the aftermath of the 2011 World Cup win – followed by the IPL within no time, followed by the drubbing in England.

 ***

I cannot make sense of this entire mentor business. Or your twin retirement announcements.

The hype around the mentor business borders on propaganda, akin to those years when every Indian cricketer was thanking Tendulkar for anything good that happened to him. There is a mentor-cam. It’s a soap opera out there.

As with any soap opera, there’s this urge to suck this story dry. So the story goes on and on.

On the sidelines is a coach on his last assignment. There is little interest there.

And then there are your parallel stories, as captain and player. Gracious to a fault after a defeat, thoughtfully eloquent in your interviews.

This is all pretty much autopilot, both you and your handlers have excelled here.

There is you on the field, easily triggered, yet dispassionate in defeat.

There is both restraint and knowledge of the game’s vagaries.

What I wonder though is, how are you coping with the appointment of the mentor? Beyond the platitudes, the laughs on camera, what does it do to a team management already in place – in particular to the captain.

This is team India, not some IPL franchise where a dugout has to be endowed with former greats.

By the looks of it, you seem to be doing quite well. Who knows, maybe you saw an angle to this mentor business that’s eluded me. And if that’s the case, these last few weeks could be pivotal in your career as a captain.

The timing of your twin retirement announcements, the appointment of the mentor, everything moving to steady your batting grip.

That’s probably all that ever mattered. All those years where you just had to bat. Where you notched up those 70 centuries.  

There was also a time, not too distant, when you were at your batting peak; you often spoke in post-match interviews of not knowing how long you had in the game. 

It was a curious comment. One that made me wonder about you. And yet not altogether surprising, as who would know a sportsperson’s body and mind better than the player himself.

And that’s something you’ve been all along – the player. And Waddaplaya!

There is a point when the soundbites take over, and even through your driest patch, each innings tends to have that one bite, where the voice in the box becomes a child again.

Something which you yourself are quite familiar with – for often, that’s what you are on the field. No wonder you collude so well with Rishabh Pant standing alongside. It’s no mean feat, alongside you, even Pant appears to be the serious one.

And that, for whatever it is, is you, Virat. The prankster, the silly commenter on the field, the compulsive reviewer, the foot soldier hurling one from the boundary. Those uncalled for arguments with the umpire. The entitlement, yeah, that too. It’s far more telling than your post-match corporate avatar.

The comparisons with the mentor will only grow through this tournament – it’s that one narrative that needs no thought. If India wins this World Cup, chances are, the mentor’s guiding light will shine brighter. That’s the lazy narrative, it’s already written.

However, if this is yet another ICC trophy that eludes you, you know how that will pan out.

***

There are other noises which emanate from beyond the cricket field. Trust you have blocked them out.

These 22 yards are your f******g backyard.  Your language is your language. Whether it is in Hindi or Punjabi, Hinglish or English. Whether it is served at that West Dilli ka Dhaba or your Peruvian restaurant.

In a few days, you will turn 33. India will take on Scotland that day. You’ll probably make some Scotch jokes with the boys.

Before that though, there’s Afghanistan and New Zealand.

Happy cricket, and Happy Birthday. Prove the naysayers wrong. Whichever way you want to spell that.

Sincerely,

Gaurav Sethi


First published here

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