February 16, 2006

When the halo went missing

By H Natarajan

Twenty five years have rolled by since international cricket witnessed a Test in Mumbai that will be eulogized by cricket historians as long as the game is played on this planet. It was a Test that had a moment which symbolised what sport should stand for. Ironically, it came at exactly around the same time when everything that sport should not stand for was being enacted in far away New Zealand.

The West Indies under Clive Lloyd landed in New Zealand with an awesome reputation. It was hailed by many as the finest-ever team in the history of the game. New Zealand were featherweights in comparison and despite enjoying the advantages of playing on home ground had little pre-series hope against the lethal Caribbean pace attack of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner. But what unfolded in the series was beyond the realms of comprehension and reason of the present generation that is used to seeing players under the scanner of ICC match referees and neutral umpires.

For sheer acrimony and deplorable sportsmanship, the 1979-80 New Zealand-West Indies Test series must rank among the worst in cricket’s Hall of Shame. From all accounts, the umpiring was diabolical. As Michael Holding says in Whispering Death, a book he collaborated with Tony Cozier: “In the three Tests, Deryck Murray estimated that two dozen clear decisions went against us, mostly for catches behind the wicket. I had long since stopped counting – or even appealing. The excuse was put forward that the umpires had never witnessed bowling as fast as our and couldn’t detect the edges. Such laughable talk only made things worse.”

New Zealand, understandably, were on a mission to make the seemingly impossible possible: defeating the West Indies. But the tourists soon discovered that the New Zealand umpires also had the same agenda. The West Indies believed it was 11 of their men against 13 of the Kiwis. As a result, frustrations scaled new highs and ungentlemanly conduct plummeted new depths.

One such moment came in the first Test at Dunedin. New Zealand, needing 104 for victory, were in trouble after Michael Holding packed off openers John Wright and Bruce Edgar pretty early. Holding thought he had two-drop John Parker caught behind for duck and went down the wicket on his follow-through to celebrate with his team-mates. But when Parker stood his ground, he turned back and found that the umpire had not declared the batsman out. Holding gave vent to his pent-up anger and unleashed a right footer that would have been more appropriate on the ground of Manchester United than on a turf hosting Test cricket. The uncharacteristic expression of rage sent the stumps flying at the striker’s end.

That incident, however provocative, is probably the only incident in his cricketing career that he may be ashamed of. Holding’s conduct has otherwise been exemplary and like Sunil Gavaskar would surely regret that blot in his career. Gavaskar expressed his regret, while addressing an august MCC gathering at The Colin Cowdrey lecture a few years back, for almost getting India to forfeit a Test at Melbourne after a poor umpiring decision was compounded by abusive comments from the Aussies.

Worst was to follow after Holding’s distasteful behaviour. In the second Test at Christchurch, Croft ran in and rammed into umpire Fred Goodall after the umpire turned down a catch against Richard Hadlee. This may have been considered a mild way of settling scores in the ghetto, but it was sacrilegious on a Test ground. Lloyd stood still in the slip like a Madame Tussaud’s creation while the victim walked all the way to the other end to speak to the captain about his bowler’s behaviour. At one point of time in the series, Lloyd refused to take his side back onto the field after the tea interval.

Ironically, Lloyd rose to become the ICC match referee, whose duty it was to uphold the sanctity of the game - an avtaar in which he sensationally terminated India’s campaign in the 1996 World Cup semis at the Eden Garden. LLoyd was made to apologise by the West Indies Cricket Board for his failure as captain on that ill-fated tour of New Zealand as were Holding and Croft.

Croft’s career may well have been over had he done anything close to what he did at Christchurch in today’s scenario, while Holding – in the years to follow, he made it to prestigious ICC panels - would have been out for long time for the transgression he committed at Dunedin.
While West Indies were getting creamed in New Zealand, in neighbouring Australia, England were getting tanned by the hosts. The Poms under Mike Brearley played three Tests, all of which they lost. But one man emerged with his head high – Ian Botham, with 19 wickets and a hundred in the final Test during which he and Bob Taylor rescued England from 92 for six.

The Englishmen would have preferred to fly home and nurse the wounds of their 0-3 whitewash in the series Down Under, but they had to break journey for a one-off Test in Mumbai. The Test had a strange beginning. Sunil Gavaskar, the epitome of all what a conventional Test opener stood for, began his scoring with a six in the first over of the match - inspired by the presence of the flamboyant Syed Mushtaq Ali in the stands, as he was to say later. He scored 49 in 68 balls before he became the first of the 10 catches Taylor took in the Test.

But the talking point of the Test and this column came during the English reply. The combination of Kapil Dev, Karsan Ghavri and Roger Binny had England reeling at 58 for five after India were bowled out for 242. England ‘lost’ another wicket when Taylor was given out caught behind by umpire Hanumantha Rao, but Gundappa Viswanath, at first slip, realized that the ball had brushed Taylor’s pads enroute to keeper Syed Kirmani. Vishy walked up to the umpire and in a spirit that he has played the game right through his career, he withdrew the appeal.

Taylor and Botham (114) strung together a partnership of 171 runs and took the match away from India. Vishy’s act of sportsmanship was decorated with the “Spirit of Cricket Award” at the Wisden “Indian Cricketer of the Century” Celebrations in London, but back home at that time his act came under fire as India lost the Golden Jubilee Test – the second and Test he ever captained. Vishy’s act was seen as particularly misplaced charity as the same Test saw Geoff Boycott giving an Oscar-winning performance to hoodwink the umpire after he edged a catch to Kirmani. Boycs batted on without bothering about niceties. It was I, Me and Myself for the Yorkshireman at all times. His career ended on that selfish and unsporting note after he got past Sir Garry Sobers as the highest run-getter in Tests on the 1981-82 tour of India. He said he was unwell to do duty in the Test match at Eden Garden and instead ended up playing golf! Boycott was packed off home, which is probably what he wanted as he had achieved his personal goal and now wanted to jump into the ‘randwagon’ by joining forces with the English Rebels for the tour of South Africa.

Playing hard and playing fair are two different things. You can knock a batsman down with a bouncer. But after helping him to his feet and enquiring about his well being, it would be perfectly normal to fire another bouncer. That is playing hard. The bouncer is a legitimate weapon and batsman at international level is cannot expect concessions and charity.

Javagal Srinath exemplified that spirit after he had struck Ricky Ponting with a bouncer. But Srinath got a mouthful in return from Ponting who swatted him away in the most disgraceful manner. Srinath, who hails from the state of Karnataka that has produced gentlemen sportsmen like Vishy, Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, Prakash Padukone and several more, showed his pedigree by walking up to his victim in the true spirit of sport. And Ponting, in his misquided spirit of agro, barked in a manner that epitomized the tag of Ugly Australians his predecessors earned.

In the days bygone, Vijay Amritraj won the hearts of the people by applauding the good shots of his opponent. In contemporary sports, men like Roger Federer, Vishwanathan Anand, Sachin Tendulkar and Dravid have all been exemplary role-models in both their play as well as their conduct on and off the playing arena. If these sportsperson can be tough nuts without being boorish, there is a lesson in it for the rest of the sporting world.

The Scar That Would Deface, Defame and Define a Champion

By Raam Shanker

A new season was taking shape. There were speculations galore in the Piranha Club, which is the inside word for the F1 team bosses’ unofficial league. Sir Frank Williams had signed Heinz-Harald Frentzen after his world champion driver Damon Hill opted out. Frentzen would now partner Jacques Villeneuve, son of the famous Gilles Villeneuve, who incidentally drove for Ferrari.

Maranello bosses had reasons to smile, too, as it was the reunion of two Formula 1 greats, former world champion, Michael Schumacher and his technical director Ross Brawn, who also quit Benetton for Ferrari. The big question: Will they succeed this time around?

A word about Ferrari, the oldest and most prominent of the teams in Formula 1. The racing division of Ferrari Automobili is called Gestione Sportiva. It is famously known as Scuderia Ferrari Marlboro as Phillip Morris is the chief sponsor for the team.

Jean Todt was at the epicenter of resurrection at Sportiva. His first major change was to bring world champion
Michael Schumacher and the car No 1 to Italy. He achieved this in 1996. He then set forth inviting Ross Brawn to join the stables in 1997, which was quickly accepted. All set, they had the motivator (Todt), the strategy wizard (Brawn) and the best driver in the world (Schumacher). But more importantly, what they did not have was a world-beating machine, a fact best illustrated by Giovanni Agnelli’s words: “If Ferrari does not win the title with Schumacher, the fault is with the car and the team.”

Testing over, and it was race time. The 1997 season was about to be flagged off. Before we get into the nitty-gritty’s of the moment that motivated me to write this article, let’s take a moment to understand what defines a driver and how one distinguishes between a good and a great driver. We talk of only good and great because, if one is not good enough, then there is no job in Formula 1.

In simple terms, a Formula 1 driver is just an overpaid employee. Yes, that is what he is. But why is the driver given importance above all people in the high-risk circus of Formula 1? Simply because, what we see on TV on Saturday and Sunday is just the icing on the cake, baked over months and months of research and development.

A famous quote in the Formula 1 pits goes: “The glamour is only outside, inside it is all work, work and only work.” The driver’s inputs in the development of a car are as essential as the engineers’ or the mechanics’ and good teams make it a point that the driver, his race engineer and mechanics share a good rapport.

A very good example is Schumacher, Chris Dyer and Francesco Barletta. I am sure you would not have heard of Dyer and Barletta. Well, a good driver needs to be naturally fast, aggressive and should have amazing car control. Now ideally we will want the driver to treat the car as an extension of his persona. The four corners of the car are like natural extensions of his limbs. He feels every rev of the engine which conveys subtle secrets. Every time the car hits the kerb, the suspension sends coded messages to the driver. The relationship between a driver and his car is so unique and mystical that it cannot be defined or explained; it has to be experienced. The ability to read, understand and to communicate this message to the engineer is what makes a great driver. The reports given by the driver after a sortie of a few odd laps adds a lot of input to the way the final machine takes shape on Sunday afternoon. This symbiotic relationship with the car and the team is what makes him a champion and a multi-millionaire. This is precisely what Michael Schumacher is and always will be.

A point separated Schumacher and Villeneuve as the latter was disqualified from the penultimate race in Japan, bringing the championship to the wire. If you thought this was all, hold your breath! A cracker was in store. The top three cars, Schumacher, Villeneuve and Frentzen, had all set the same qualifying time! Sounds scripted, doesn’t it? Well, you never know!

The final round of pit stops had been made and now it was the relative temperaments of Schumacher and Villeneuve that would decide the outcome of a topsy-turvy season. Villeneuve was growing on Schumacher’s mirror with every passing lap. Then, at Dry Sack Corner, he made his move - a daring one, I must say. He jumped on the inside of Schumacher, who moved away, only to move back in. What happened thereafter is history. Yes, Schumacher was severely criticized by everyone around, most importantly by La Gazzetta Dello Sport, the Italian sports daily.

Now back to those three moments. Let’s freeze time and slowly analyse the situation, including the build up. Picture this, Schumacher sees Villeneuve coming and is expecting him, but he does not know when or where it will happen. Villeneuve knows getting behind Schumacher is one thing, getting past him is something else. The cat and mouse game continues while the world watches. The men in red and the men in white are barking team orders. But nobody in the world knows what will happen, not even the two drivers. This is the mystery, thrill, suspense and excitement surrounding a Formula one World Championship that makes it so glamorous and money spinning.

Will he? Won’t he? Questions are asked. Is this Schumacher and Ferrari’s year, or is this the year of a great son born to a great father? Questions, questions and more questions. And then the answer!

Villeneuve makes his move on Dry Sac Corner and catches Schumacher asleep. By asleep, I do not mean he slept off, I mean a momentary lapse in concentration. Schumacher suddenly wakes up. He does what is morally right, he moves out of the way. But then came the moment, the scar that defaced, defamed and defined the champion that he is. He had the ability to think what was right and move away. The very next instant, his logic and reason was back and he cut back in, resulting in a shunt and far greater repercussions like confiscation of all his points earned for the season and being antagonised by the world.

Knowing what is right, what is wrong, but more importantly, processing a set of complex events and arriving at a decision so complicated, crucial and controversial, after judging and analyzing the situation, then prioritising, acting and counteracting, all within fractions of a second, combined a mesmerising ability to steer the disobedient car and making it behave according to his requirements make him the champion that he is – Michael Schumacher!

(The writer is pursuing MSc Research in Automobile Engineering in the UK to make his mark in the world of F-1)