22 Apr 2012


It’s cricket in the Ferrari lane. It is a revolution that has challenged the orthodox style of cricket, to carve a niche for itself,” says former cricketer and commentator Navjot Singh Sidhu, who could well have fashioned himself as one of those Indian Premier League (IPL) Twenty20 stars. The fifth season of the DLF Indian Premier League—which started on 5 April—may be struggling to garner viewership and television ratings but it is nonetheless the closest we have to a cricket carnival, with glamour, cricket stars, celebrities on the sidelines, huge amounts of money, and some peculiar cricketing challenges.

It has legends of the sport like Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly continuing to dream on a cricket pitch after wearing out their national colours; there are young boys struggling to find a place in the Indian squad; sidelined men waiting in the wings to spring yet another comeback; and also-rans who sparkle on this stage, yet flatter to deceive.

Criticized for short-changing the nature of the sport, the IPL is a potpourri of hunger, passion, overnight stardom and some imperfect journeys.

Consider what this edition of the IPL means to Harbhajan Singh. After a disastrous England tour in June that put a halt to his international career, the IPL has come at a time when the spinner is yearning to get back into national reckoning. “When you are out of the team, all you can do is play whatever games come your way and try to perform to the best of your ability. I’ve worked on my fitness quite a lot. For me, the next level is the Indian team and I’ll continue to work hard to get to where I deserve to be,” says Singh, who is leading the Mumbai Indians this season after taking over from Sachin Tendulkar.

Singh might not have much to share with S. Sreesanth, the man he reduced to tears with an onfield slap during the 2008 edition of the IPL. But Sreesanth, who plays for Rajasthan Royals, too is using the IPL as a platform to return to the national team. “The key is to be consistent throughout the season,” Sreesanth says, “and I have my own expectations, of wanting to perform throughout this IPL. I would like to be that key player and contribute in every way possible for my team’s victory. I am definitely eyeing a comeback.”

Irfan Pathan, who has been in and out of the Indian team since 2006, is looking for consistency in the IPL too as he continues to search for that elusive spot in the national squad. “A lot of people talk about too much cricket but for me, the more you play, the better it is,” says Pathan, who plays for Delhi Daredevils.

The IPL, however, is not just about comebacks—it’s also about those who have shone in the glitzy league in the past, but failed to use it to get a foothold in international cricket. Remember the man who scored the fastest 100 in South Africa in IPL 2010? Or the rookies franchises fought over last season? “IPL is a big stage and it’s almost like playing for your country,” says Manish Pandey, who scored the first century by an Indian in the IPL in 2009 in South Africa. “After that 100, people have come to know and recognize me and my talent. IPL has given me a face.” Despite that, Pandey has never been included in the national squad, nor did he manage to stay with Royal Challengers Bangalore, the team he scored the century for. This season, he is playing for the relatively new Pune Warriors.

Mumbai Indians batsman Ambati Rayudu—one of the leading scorers in both the 2010 and 2011 IPL editions—has been touted as a world-class talent, but has never earned a call to the national side. Pandey and the 26-year-old Rayudu, like many others who have blazed through the IPL (think M.S. Gony, Shreevats Goswami, Murali Kartik, Amit Mishra), remain IPL wonders.

Does this fast-paced, almost exhibition-style cricket come in the way of talents that can be groomed for the future? Has the IPL, in some ways, bred and glorified mediocrity? “A good rapper will not be able to do a classical song,” says cricket analyst and commentator Harsha Bhogle. “Not everyone who performs and sings live will be able to rap. These are different genres. Someone like a Harmeet Singh troubles no one at the domestic circuit but here he does well. But that doesn’t mean we look down on him. We should stop weighing IPL vis-a-vis the traditional form of cricket, then we’ll find it easier to accept it.”

The IPL also prolongs the shelf life of some of the world’s most incredible players—giving both fans and colleagues another chance to see genius at work. Dravid might have put his international career to rest just a while ago, but he still revels in the thrill of leading Rajasthan Royals in the IPL. Former India captain Ganguly, indefatigable at 39, continues to use his leadership qualities in the IPL as Pune’s captain, and continues to be hungry for success. “What the IPL does is it allows youngsters to spend time with a Dravid, or a Ganguly and Tendulkar,” says Bhogle. “Just being around them you learn the attitudes and imbibe them. Yusuf Pathan grew as a cricketer in those three years in the league, so too someone like a Ravindra Jadeja.”

It’s what Shane Warne did during the first IPL season in 2008—lead a rag-tag Rajasthan Royals of largely unknown players to victory in the league, kick-starting the careers of players like Yusuf Pathan and Australian opener Shaun Marsh. It’s Warne’s legacy that another Australian, Adam Gilchrist, wants to emulate. Having led the Deccan Chargers to a memorable win in South Africa in 2009, Gilchrist would love to do it a second time with another outfit—this time, the Kings XI Punjab. “I still have great incentives and the desire to be successful here (IPL 2012),” Gilchrist says. “I have a role leading this team and I am really enjoying that. Seeing players with and against whom I have played in the past is one of the greatest things about the IPL.”

So who/what will be in the limelight this year? Comeback kings, ageless champions, flukes, or slumping TRPs and Test vs Twenty20 debates?

As published on Hindustan Times Mint edition on 18 April 2012

2 Oct 2011


It’s almost as if he sneaked up on court when everyone was looking the other way. But one glance at his shot-making and you know that Ajay Jayaram has worked hard to get here.

The 23-year-old made a great debut at the World Championships in London in August, toppling a higher-ranked opponent in the tournament. He shocked 15th seeded Kenichi Tago in the first round and gave sixth-seeded Jin Chen a run for his money in the round of 16 before bowing out. A good show at the Yonex-Sunrise Vietnam Open Grand Prix around a week later, where he reached the semi-finals, and Jayaram seems to be hitting all the right notes.

Validation also comes from a career-best ranking of 25, which he achieved earlier this month and has maintained since.

“He is a good player, and has had a great year with some memorable wins. Ajay has the potential to be even better. I am sure he will achieve it in the next few months,” says former All England champion Pullela Gopi Chand.

It’s surely a bumpy road ahead. Jayaram is not only snapping at the heels of India’s highest-ranked player Parupalli Kashyap (ranked two places higher), but is also racing against his compatriot for a spot in the London Olympics next year. “Ranking is important but the focus shouldn’t be on ranking or competing with Kashyap,” said Jayaram, before leaving for Tokyo for the Yonex Open Japan Super Series event which started on Tuesday. “I am looking at performing well at big tournaments like the Super Series events. I have shown that I am capable of beating top players. So now I am aiming at those victories consistently. The ranking will take care of itself. The first phase is the qualification for the London Olympics. That in itself is a race,” added Jayaram.

The comparisons though are hard to ignore. “Ajay is unorthodox, depending on an attacking game,” says Gopi Chand. “He picks good angles from different corners, making him an effective all-court player. Kashyap has a more all-round game but falters on the mental side. He has struggled more in close matches.”

Prakash Padukone, whose academy in Bangalore Jayaram earlier trained in, says it will be a close contest between the two. “At this stage, even though there are others closing in, it does look like either Ajay or Kashyap would get that (Olympic) berth. The one who remains injury-free, focused and more consistent will be on top at the end of the year.”

Jayaram’s father encouraged him to play the sport, and what began as a compulsion soon grew into an obsession. Jayaram willingly admits that without one man, his coach Tom John, this obsession would have been no fun. “He has brought a lot of change in my game. My approach itself is different now. He will push you, shout at you, abuse you and he really gets the best out of you. That’s his quality and it is working for me,” says Jayaram, smiling.

Former Portuguese national coach John was sold on the prospect of dedicating himself to the shy 22-year-old when he first saw Jayaram last year. “I spotted Ajay in Bangalore with many other players and he was in the bottom of the lot. I told him to train with me. I believed in him; he has taken that decision and that’s why we are sticking together,” says John.

Eccentric, stern and aggressive, John proved to be the perfect foil to the quiet ambition in Jayaram. He trained under his new coach in Portugal for three months in 2010 and constantly played tournaments during that time. Earlier this year, he started closing in on the big guys. He battled hard at the SCG Thailand Open Grand Prix against current world No. 6 Jin Chen (then ranked No. 4) in early June and then lost to former All England champion Muhammad Hafiz Hashim in three games at the Li Ning Singapore Open a few days later. It was no surprise then that in the space of a year, Jayaram went from languishing in the 60s to No. 25 in the world.

“Ajay is a talented player, but he lacked confidence. Playing abroad has given him the exposure that he needed and that has made him the more confident player that he is now,” says Padukone, the first Indian to win the prestigious All England Championships.

It took some time for that self-belief to slip into place. John, who truly believes a coach should be a father figure, had a plan in place to prepare Jayaram. “He plays more shots now than he used to and he is more difficult to read. If you are predictable in any sport, it is easy for your opponent to understand you. If you have a lot of variation, then you can confuse your opponent and that is the big change we are working towards,” says John.

The biggest change, though, has come from within. Jayaram has been able to work on his temperament, which many saw as a weakness in his initial years. “I want to make him an aggressive individual, not a nice boy. Nice people don’t win. You have to be mean and a street fighter,” says John, laughing.

“We wouldn’t be going through all the tough training if we did not believe that he is capable of winning an Olympic medal. When the Olympics comes, everything changes and how well you are playing a month before that matters,” John says. “He has largely played well against top players, so the pressure will be on them to perform. Anything is possible if you believe you can do it.”

Gopi Chand believes that there isn’t a huge gap between Jayaram and his higher-ranked opponents. “It is all about self-belief,” Gopi Chand says. “If he can convert those tough close games into victory, the next ones will come more easily.”

*Wrote this piece for the Mint edition of Hindustan Times*

29 May 2011

Of Lunch Breaks and more...

He sits there behind an old, rusty, over-used billing machine, spectacles perched on his nose, his eyes tired yet darting around to check on each and everyone seated in front of him.

He slouches over his little chair all day, quietly taking his plate of food to a corner of the small hall before the crowd comes in each time. He looks up at the tiny TV set fixed high up on one corner of the wall as he polishes his meagre portions of dal-chawal-sabzi, wipes his mouth and gets back behind the counter.

He has only two people helping him serve the many hungry employees who come in for a bite, a meal or just a few conversations over some wafers and biscuits.

Anna, as we call him, (at most times with irritation) is our man at the canteen. Ask him for a plate of steamed rice and he would have rattled off the entire menu that could (or could not!) be eaten with it. It really did not matter that you only wanted some chawal! Tell him you want 2 chappatis and he would ask his man to give you 4. You finish your meal at last and go over to settle the bill and he would suggest a hundred things to have for dessert!

I was never one of his favourite customers as I found one too many occasions to give the old man a tough tough time. I either grumbled about his not-so generous portions, or his watery dal, his stingy jam sandwiches, or the runny maggi.

I silently smirked with my colleagues and friends as he, with some level of exasperation, would try to find a way to shut me up. He confidently uttered 'Ho jayega.. Chaka-Chak' as if that word would do magic and transform the abysmal dish to something utterly beautiful!

But soon enough my tantrums grew on him. He got used to and even prepared himself for the many trials my friends and I put him through.

He stopped rattling off the additions to our plate, but after suggesting I indulge in a piece of the plum cake next to his cash register, he would also remind me the next day of my gaining weight - chuckling with the rest as I seethed. So the old man was finally retaliating..!

That did not stop us from troubling him. As we left after lunch, we would at times sneak up to the huge white board with the day's menu written on it and re-create our own menu. So that COLD COFFEE became OLD COFFEE, STEAM RICE became STEAM ICE, CHICKEN CURRY turned into CHICK CURRY and BADAM MILK was now BAD MILK..!

He would never realise it till the canteen broke into titters, leaving Anna all flustered and miffed.

To give him some credit, Anna learned to laugh with us and lighten up a bit.

There were many times when we skipped meals due to our shoots or ate out instead. He would then enquire about me.

We had given our old man Anna, a slice of humour to spice up his bland canteen!

22 May 2011

Forward Planning

The IPL will be done and dusted with at the end of this month. The Indian cricket team will be happily sent off and I will (hopefully) have a month (atleast) of quiet around here. Time then to do all that I missed doing all these months:

1) Take that much-needed vacation and go to some place nice and cool to just relax and unwind

2) Swimming: There is a lovely pool in my complex. Might as well check it out and learn to swim while I am at it. :)

3) Start playing tennis again with Mulls - the weekends under lights (can't wait!)

4) Read 'Love in the Time of Cholera'. That has been on the shelf for years!

5) Buy some painting supplies and draw some. I know I miss it terribly and would just love to paint all over again.

6) Read up about new recipes and experiment a bit. I loved doing that briefly this month - could make it a weekly routine in June

7) Finish that home-shopping that I started earlier this month.

That's about it for now I guess. It will be great if I could get started on these. I will consider this space hugely inspirational! :)

And now I tag Pavitra to pen down her list of things to do in June.