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Silence of the Damned – Sports, Asia and the taboo that is Depression

A mental condition characterized by severe feelings of hopelessness and inadequacy, typically accompanied by a lack of energy and interest in life. (Depression, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary)

In the last few years, cricket has seen a spate of revelations from former players who have confessed to bouts of depression during their playing days. It all began with former England opener Marcus Trescothick, who opened up in 2008 about his crippling battles with the affliction which would often leave him in tears and shivering with anxiety. Since then, a few other cricketers like Michael Yardy, Tim Ambrose, Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff, Steve Davies, Shaun Tait, Lou Vincent and Iain O’Brien have come forward to share their personal experiences of dealing with depression as a sportsperson.

Now there have been plenty of articles written recently about depression in cricket, and sports in general. So it is good to see that ignorance and stigma is being replaced with awareness and acceptance in most societies. Players are less afraid these days to open up and share their stories, in the knowledge that it might help others going through the same situation. While they may have been subjected to ridicule in eras gone by,  sportsmen in the present can breathe easier as there is a shifting perception towards the better, among the media and general public. Still, there is one issue that has bothered me with regards to this topic over the last few years.

Why are there no players from the Asian countries coming forward to share any similar experiences they may have had? If you look at the history of depression in sports, you will find that it is littered with examples from Australia, New Zealand, USA and the European countries, but nary a squeak from the Far East. Either, it is possible that Asian sportsmen are not as prone to it when compared to their western counterparts, or that the stigma of suffering from mental illnesses has not truly lifted off from the region yet.

The truth is, while rates of depression in the Asia Pacific region are marginally lower, they are still comparable to western countries. Every year the number of reported cases increase, as more and more people are emboldened to come forward and seek help when they realize that they need it; yet, there is a long way to go for depression to be treated as a mainstream disease.

Let me draw from experience. In the United States, I have encountered people (friends and strangers alike) who are not averse to admitting that they have issues which they can’t sort out by themselves and that they need help. They then seek out this help either professionally or from family and friends. In India, I have rarely seen people (even close friends) admit to any kind of weakness, even if it is very obvious to everyone else.

I discussed this with some of my colleagues and a few elders from my family, and the following are some of the most commonly cited reasons as to why depression is not made as big a deal in the subcontinent, as elsewhere:

  • Asians are mentally stronger and generally not riddled with self-doubt and anxiety
  • Presence of strong social support at home helps to deal effectively in early stages of depression 
  • Unwilling to be stigmatized as ‘crazy’ or be ostracized from rest of society
  • Right from a young age, individuals are told to ‘man up’, to not let down their guard and reveal any insecurities or weakness to others
  • Asians are conservative in nature and prefer to deal with these issues privately

Before I expand on these reasons, let me bring cricket into this. In the international game, players from the subcontinent are subjected to the most scrutiny. Every day their games are dissected in print and online media, their private lives serve as fodder for public consumption and the slightest miss-step on their part can lead to a deluge of outrage and criticism fostered upon them. With so much pressure from all corners, how do they deal with the inevitable stress and not let themselves get sucked into a vortex of anxiety or depression? Why have we not heard of any Asian cricketer stepping up and admitting that they too have suffered from crippling self doubts and battles with inner demons?

In this context, I tried to understand the reasons stated previously.

  • There is no evidence supporting this theory that Asians are mentally superior; it is just something that people would like to believe about themselves. Nothing about the performances of the Asian teams over the years suggest that this is true. It is more likely that the players have learnt to stow away their despondence and abject feelings of hopelessness better than players from other countries.  

 

  • There is a lot of merit to the idea that a strong social support can help deal with depression. When you have a parent or best friend who is always at hand to help or guide you through tough times, it is unlikely that you will push yourselves into a corner. In Asia, family members are very involved in each other’s lives, sometimes bordering on the intrusive. If an individual shows any sign of deviancy from usual routine, an alert family member or companion will usually notice. Taking the case of cricketers, it is rare to hear of any player who isn’t close to his family or of one who has made it to the top without support from his kin; but what happens once he makes the team? Especially in Asian countries, where there is a cut-throat competition for places in the squad, one needs a strong social support group to navigate the tricky terrain. As much as teams like to give the impression that they are one big family, there will always be a few individuals who can slip through the cracks; the tales of Trescothick and co need to be cautionary. Given the present state of cricket in most Asian countries today, is there anyone confident enough to say that cricketers have strong social support networks within the teams?

 

  • The fear of being labelled as ‘crazy’ or ‘mentally unstable’ is not exclusive to Asians alone; it is an universal phenomenon and only now it is being slowly peeled away in western culture. By the nature of sports, those kinds of labels are career-breakers, and it makes sense why players have been reluctant for so long to come forward and reveal their personal battles. Still, the times are changing and with each passing day, there is growing social acceptance of this genuine medical condition. Will we see any Asian sportsperson in the near future who is willing to confront this issue publicly?

 

  • Yet another cause which is universal, but definitely more pronounced in Asian cultures. I can personally attest to it and so can many of my friends, who while growing up were never allowed to feel morose for too long, as it was a “sign of weakness and low confidence” in ourselves. ‘Man up’, ‘toughen up’ and ‘stop pitying yourself’ are some of the commonest refrains from elders if they suspected that all was not well. In this kind of background and with this prevalent attitude, which sportsperson would be confident enough to accept that he has a problem?  Read any interview of a cricketer who is fighting for his spot in the team, and you will find that they will talk about loss of form, fitness issues and bad luck; but apart from Gautam Gambhir, not many will mention if they fight with self doubts or issues of insecurity. It’s almost as if you are a cricketer in Asia, mental frailties are supposed to be of a foreign nature. The current environment is all about being confident and aggressive; it is not really conducive for a player to go against the grain in these cases.

 

  • Finally, dealing with the illness is a matter of individual preference. None of the cricketers who have come forward in the last few years were obligated to reveal their conditions to the public. Yet they did, for a reason. Players like Trescothick, Flintoff and O’Brien have channeled different avenues to talk about their personal battles and spread awareness about the condition, which is proving beneficial in removing the stigma attached to depression and helping individuals with similar experiences to tackle their issues head-on. It is why I believe that if there are any Asian celebrities out there (let alone, sportsmen) who are debilitated by this condition and prefer to deal with it privately, it would be a tremendous boost for mental health awareness in the region if they share their experiences on a public forum. You will never see a public personality shy away from revealing that they have cancer or diabetes, so why the reluctance to help fight a condition that is still very much under-reported and untreated? A lot of causes have been helped over the years by the active participation and promotion of celebrities, thanks to their unique position of influencing public opinion in these matters; in countries like India and Pakistan, who better celebrities than cricketers to help not just their fellow players but their countrymen as well? It may not be an obligation, but you only need to read about the responses to Trescothick’s book and Flintoff’s TV program to understand the value of a player understanding his responsibility.

To summarize, I believe that given the constant pressures, hectic schedules and cut-throat competition for spots that an average Asian cricketer is subjected to, they are as likely, if not more, to suffer from depression as their western counterparts. The present culture and associated stigma might be preventing them from coming forward, but if they do, the benefits outweigh the risks. It not only helps the player to face his condition and effectively counter it; it will also empower the unknown number of people hiding in the shadows – flailing in the dark, ashamed of their affliction and hoping that no one finds out about their ‘mental instability’.

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Dhoni’s Delhi Belly

First off, let me clarify that this post is based on hypothesis. I don’t know for sure if there is a rift in the Indian camp. Reports of Sehwag and Gambhir being unhappy with Dhoni is just rumors at this point. All that we have are reports like these. Though comments from certain players indicate that all is not well, without hard facts, it is hard to know for sure.

Having said that, this post is about whose side I would be on, assuming that the Delhi boys have a problem with the skipper.

Based on the media reports through the tournament, MS Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag are the three major players in this story.

Gambhir got tongues wagging, when he subtly criticized Dhoni for taking the game till the last over, the same one in which Dhoni got the team over the winning line. Recently, Sehwag feigned ignorance of Dhoni’s reasoning for rotation of the senior batsmen and maintained that the skipper had given them different reasons. Some other soundbites from the same presser indicate some sort of frostiness between the two. Read it and judge for yourself.

The usually unflappable Dhoni himself has started to show signs of frustration, with the finger wagging at the umpires in the Australia game coming as a rare sight. Poor performances on the field are nothing new for him, so this could hint at some tough times off the field as well. Now, with Sehwag’s comments he might feel as if the Delhi boys are ganging upon him.

Anytime a player or a group of players rise up in mutiny against the incumbent skipper, that too during the middle of a tough tour, I’m always going to support the incumbent skipper. Whatever issues one may have, and there are a few legitimate issues to be sorted out regarding the captain’s recent decisions, public signs of dissension are never a good idea. For two experienced international cricketers, they have not been very bright about how this might be interpreted outside the team circle. Team loyalty has been thrown out the window, and this team is increasingly starting to resemble the Pakistan team of the 90s with all their infighting.

Gambhir is one of the finest batsmen in the Indian team and he has a big role to play in the coming years to guide the side when the Big Three leave the arena; but that doesn’t mean he has to let his ego get in the way of the team’s greater good. If he had a problem with Dhoni’s tactics, it should be discussed behind closed doors, not in the public forum. He might be a prickly character to the opposition, but we don’t need that to be displayed against his own team-mates. This is where he differs from Virat Kohli, another Delhi batsman with an aggressive outlook. Can you see Kohli making the same comments Gambhir did, even if he had felt the same? That is why, I would rather see Kohli being groomed as the next captain. He might have attitude problems, but you know that he will never cast aspersions on his own team-mates.

Virender Sehwag. For the last 10 years, everyone is comfortable with the explanation, “Thats the way he bats, and thats the way he talks’. Why not? His records speak for themselves, and his quips have made many a press conference and post-game more livelier. Nowadays, it can be grating. Sure, he has taken a couple of good catches this summer, but with the bat, he has been a major disappointment, mostly getting out to poor deliveries. Now, with his recent comments, he has made the dressing room environment more tense. Reports of a rift between the two have been around for a long time. If I’m not mistaken, there was a similar issue during the last Champions Trophy or something. While he and Dhoni may display overt signs of camaraderie on the field, it doesn’t matter if Sehwag can’t back it off the field. Like Gambhir, if he had any doubts with Dhoni’s explanation for the rotation policy, he should have clarified with the skipper before making any statements to the press. What this all does is create a suspicious environment around the team; something they don’t need at this point in the tournament, or for that matter, at this point as a team in transition.

Dhoni’s captaincy has been disappointing this summer and some of his decisions on the field are plain baffling; but he is the captain of the side, and the players have to respect that. This is not the time to harbor captaincy ambitions of their own, but to ensure that the team does better in the remainder of the tournament. Beyond this tour, the players, the coach and the board have to band together to work out a way the team can get better. Hopefully, whatever differences there may be between players, saner heads will prevail. A team with Dhoni, Gambhir and Sehwag all working on the same page, can be the best news for a team which is crying out for  a strong and unified leadership.

 

Not sufficiently excited about the Mohali clash?

A World Cup semi final featuring India and Pakistan. It will be the mother of all cricket matches. War sans the weapons. A battle for pride and honor. A blood feud between two warring neighbors.

Yawn.

In truth, it will be a high pressure match between two very talented teams, who will play the game like their lives depend on it (in some cases, their lives do depend on it!). There has been a lot of hype as usual, with politicians and movie stars wanting a piece of the action and the security and secret service are being kept on their toes, but the real pressure will be on the players, who dutifully have to maintain that they feel no pressure at all, in front of the cameras. For the agnostic who wonders what the fuss is all about and who feels left out, take a look below, as to why you should get excited about the Mohali clash:

1. Miandad sets a template for things to come…

2. ‘More’ Miandad (see what I did there?)…

3. Prasad and Sohail share the love in 1996…

4. Kanitkar’s moment in the sun (floodlight!)…

5. Will we see a contest between these two for the final time on Wednesday?

6. Afridi does what he used to do best…

7. Dhoni returns the favor…

8. Its a tie!

9. Misbah gives birth to IPL…

10. Yuvraj and Gul…will we see Act 2 in Mohali?

11. Gambhir and Afridi…all they want is some space..

12. Gambhir’s comments on Akmal’s keeping skills gets him riled up..

13. The last time they met each other…

 

I rest my case.

(If anyone has a problem with my selection of clips, stop whining and let me know which ‘moments’ should make the cut; and I will be gracious enough to add it here….)

My thoughts on the IPL auctions

It’s been a while now, since the IPL auctions got over. I needed some time for the dust to settle, and understand who went where, and how the teams stack up now. Luckily, some sites have done a good job in breaking it down, and following is my personal take on the 2-day television spectacle which gripped cricket-watching people all over the world, whether they loved or hated the IPL.

First of all, when I started following the auction on day 1, I never expected it to be so gripping. It was 12:30 am here, when it started and I expected to go to bed after a couple of hours. Instead, watching the whole drama unfold live, including discussions about it in real time over Twitter and Paddlesweep, kept me awake till 7 am! Throughout those six and a half hours, my emotions varied from excitement to amusement to shock to disgust and finally a sense of resignation. One of the main reasons I stayed up for was to find out where the likes of Swann and Lara would end up, and you can imagine the anger/disappointment, when they were not snapped by any team. Eventually, there were tons of players who were not picked by any team — Ganguly, Gayle, Tamim Iqbal, Ntini, Jaysuriya among several others; and there have been several theories trying to explain them away. So, I am not going to bother trying to understand them. All I can say is, the team owners seemed to have learned their lessons from the first time around, and were building teams which stood a winning chance, instead of giving opportunities to old-timers for one last hurrah or picking players who would miss a sizable portion of the tournament. The Modi-less factor was evident, with teams looking serious and professional, and the auctioneer himself did a commendable job of hurrying the auction along and making sure everything went smoothly. All in all, it was an interesting auction on day 1 which lost a bit of steam on the 2nd day, but nevertheless it was an eyeball-grabbing extravaganza, which will please the BCCI and the Modi-less IPL. Here is the breakdown of the teams:

CHENNAI SUPER KINGS

Batsmen: Suresh Raina (retained), M Vijay (retained), Michael Hussey ($425,000), S Badrinath ($850,000), George Bailey ($50,000)
Bowlers: Doug Bollinger ($700,000), R Ashwin ($850,000), Ben Hilfenhaus ($100,000), Joginder Sharma ($150,000), Nuwan Kulasekara ($100,000), Sudeep Tyagi ($240,000), Suraj Randiv ($80,000), Faf du Plessis ($120,000)
Allrounders: Albie Morkel (retained), Dwayne Bravo ($200,000), Scott Styris ($200,000)
Wicketkeepers: MS Dhoni (retained), Wriddhiman Saha ($100,000)

My thoughts: CSK have been my favorite team, ever since I found out that Hussey, Murali and Ntini figure in the same team in IPL-1. Since then, the team has undergone minor personnel changes, with the loss of Murali and Ntini this year; but they still remain my favorite team. They were the only side, which stayed loyal to the team it has been building for the last few years. You could sense the genuine disappointment, when they couldn’t get back the likes of Murali and Balaji. Having said that, they look one of the better and balanced sides in the tournament, with the inclusions of Styris, Bravo and Randiv. The selections of Hilfenhaus, Joginder and Tyagi are a bit baffling to me, but more surprising is the lack of an alternative opening option for Vijay and Hussey. Hopefully, they will get a good opener from the uncapped player list (I’m hoping for Mukund). All in all, Fleming and Dhoni will be happy to have got the core of the band back together, and will be one of the favorites for IPL-4.

DECCAN CHARGERS

Batsmen: Kevin Pietersen ($650,000), Cameron White ($1.1m), JP Duminy ($300,000), Shikhar Dhawan ($300,000), Michael Lumb ($85,000)
Bowlers: Ishant Sharma ($450,000), Dale Steyn ($1.2m), Pragyan Ojha ($500,000), Amit Mishra ($300,000), Manpreet Gony ($290,000), Chris Lynn ($20,000), Rusty Theron ($85,000)
Allrounders: Dan Christian ($900,000)
Wicketkeepers: Kumar Sangakkara ($700,000)

My thoughts: One of several teams, which have undergone a total revamp. There is no Gilchrist or Symonds this time; neither are Rohit Sharma, Ryan Harris or Scott Styris. Instead, they have gone for ex-RCB big players Pietersen, White, Steyn and have made a couple of smart buys in Sangakarra (who might double as their next keeper-captain), Duminy and Lumb. The Indian contingent so far, doesn’t impress me too much with the likes of Ishant, Mishra and Gony; but Ojha and Dhawan have had success at previous IPLs which will stand them in good stead. They also have a lot of money left, which might yet get them some good domestic uncapped players.

DELHI DAREDEVILS

Batsmen: Virender Sehwag (retained), David Warner ($750,000), Aaron Finch ($300,000), Venugopal Rao ($700,000), Travis Birt ($20,000), Colin Ingram ($100,000)
Bowlers: Morne Morkel ($475,000), Ajit Agarkar ($210,000), Ashok Dinda ($375,000), Umesh Yadav ($750,000), Robert Frylinck ($20,000)
Allrounders: Irfan Pathan ($1.9m), James Hopes ($350,000), Roelof van der Merwe ($50,000), Andrew McDonald ($80,000)
Wicketkeepers: Naman Ojha ($270,000), Matthew Wade ($100,000)

My thoughts: I am not too sold on this team. True, they have the likes of Sehwag, Warner, Finch and Ingram who make up a devastating batting order, but their bowling lineup is too weak. They will miss the control of Vettori and the guile of Nannes. Morkel, Agarkar, Dinda will go for runs on most of the days, and Irfan Pathan is not the smartest of buys either, considering his fitness and form concerns. They better hope that they get some good uncapped players, otherwise they don’t stand much of a chance this time.

KINGS XI PUNJAB

Batsmen: Shaun Marsh ($400,000), David Hussey ($140,000)
Bowlers: Stuart Broad ($400,000), Praveen Kumar ($800,000), Ryan Harris ($325,000), Piyush Chawla ($900,000), Nathan Rimmington ($20,000)
Allrounders: Abhishek Nayar ($800,000), Dimitri Mascarenhas ($100,000)
Wicketkeepers: Adam Gilchrist ($900,000), Dinesh Karthik ($900,000)

My thoughts: Looks like Gilly has to go from captaining an average team, to captaining ANOTHER average team. Despite having lots of money left in their budget, KXP didn’t seem to know what they want, and consequently didn’t pursue any player with particular intent. Their weird spending is highlighted by the equal pay to both the wicketkeepers, and the exorbitant amount spent to purchase Chawla when they could have easily got Swann for less than half that price (I know, I’m ranting again!). They have a couple of good T20 players in Hussey and Broad, but not enough to win matches consistently. Preity has to pray extra hard that she can get some top notch domestic players to fill the gaps before the tournament starts.

KOCHI

Batsmen: Mahela Jayawardene ($1.5m), VVS Laxman ($400,000), Brad Hodge ($425,000), Owais Shah ($200,000), Michael Klinger ($75,000)
Bowlers: Sreesanth ($900,000), RP Singh ($500,000), Muttiah Muralitharan ($1.1m), Ramesh Powar ($180,000), Vinay Kumar ($475,000), Steve O’Keefe ($20,000)
Allrounders: Ravindra Jadeja ($950,000), Steven Smith ($200,000), Thisara Perera ($80,000), John Hastings ($20,000)
Wicketkeepers: Brendon McCullum ($475,000), Parthiv Patel ($290,000)

My thoughts: Someone at Kochi didn’t think this through. Seriously, how could you value a Laxman over Ganguly in this format? They have also supplanted some expensive bowlers in RP Singh and Sreesanth (though this choice is understandable) and chosen possibly the two most maligned spinning allrounders in Smith and Jadeja. They have packed their side with foreign bowlers and allrounders, which means that they will have to rely on their Indian batsmen to get good scores; their options—Laxman, Parthiv and Jadeja. I will give them points for picking Owais Shah, Hodge, Jayawardene, McCullum and (*sob*) Murali.

KOLKATA KNIGHT RIDERS

Batsmen: Gautam Gambhir ($2.4m), Manoj Tiwary ($475,000), Eoin Morgan ($350,000)
Bowlers: L Balaji ($500,000), Brett Lee ($400,000), Jaidev Unadkat ($250,000), James Pattinson ($100,000)
Allrounders: Yusuf Pathan ($2.1m), Jacques Kallis ($1.1m), Shakib Al Hasan ($425,000), Ryan ten Doeschate ($150,000)
Wicketkeeper: Brad Haddin ($325,000)

My thoughts: King Khan can be pleased with the squad he has got so far. First off, they made a ballsy move by not retaining Ganguly, despite the enormous fan base he has in Bengal. Then, they made some good picks in Gambhir (possible skipper), Yusuf Pathan (born for IPL), Kallis, Shakib and Ryan Ten (three of the most valuable allrounders there is). Their bowling attack looks lite considering Balaji’s inconsistency, Unadkat’s inexperience and Lee’s fitness concerns but this should be made up for by their strong allrounders. Ofcourse, they did start the initial IPL with a similarly good team and high hopes; so they will want no repeat of their performances in the first three seasons. Under Gambhir and coach Whatmore, they have possibly the best combination to ensure that. Apart from CSK, they will be favorite team for including the likes of Morgan, Lee, Shakib and Ryan Ten.

MUMBAI INDIANS

Batsmen: Sachin Tendulkar (retained), Rohit Sharma ($2m), Aiden Blizzard ($20,000)
Bowlers: Harbhajan Singh (retained), Lasith Malinga (retained), Munaf Patel ($700,000), Clint McKay ($110,000)
Allrounders: Kieron Pollard (retained), Andrew Symonds ($850,000), James Franklin ($100,000), Moises Henriques ($50,000)
Wicketkeeper: Davy Jacobs ($190,000)

My thoughts: Imagine that you are the opposition captain when the Mumbai Indians are batting. First up, you have Sachin and Davy Jacobs opening. Then you take a look at their team compostion, and see that still to come, are Rohit Sharma, Pollard and Symonds. That is the plight which most captains will find themselves in during the course of IPL-4. They also have a good bowling attack suited for this format in Harbhajan, Malinga, McKay and Munaf. Once, they fill up their squad with uncapped players, they should be having one of the best teams in the tournament. As an aside, I do hope that Harbhajan takes out some time from playing, to teach Symonds Hindi and explain the real meaning of ‘Teri maa ki…’

PUNE WARRIORS

Batsmen: Robin Uthappa ($2.1m), Yuvraj Singh ($1.8m), Graeme Smith ($500,000), Callum Ferguson ($300,000)
Bowlers: Ashish Nehra ($850,000), Murali Kartik ($400,000), Wayne Parnell ($160,000), Jerome Taylor ($100,000)
Allrounders: Angelo Mathews ($950,000), Mitchell Marsh ($290,000), Jesse Ryder ($150,000), Nathan McCullum ($100,000), Alfonso Thomas ($100,000)
Wicketkeeper: Time Paine ($270,000)

My thoughts: A so-so team really. They have good T20 batsmen in Utthappa, Yuvraj and Graeme Smith but I don’t expect them to fire consistently. They have a canny spinner in Murali Kartik (who went shockingly unpicked intially) but injury-prone bowlers in Nehra, Parnell and Taylor. Their allrounders and wicketkeeper consist of foreign players, who are decent, but not awe-inspiring. So, they have a lot of work ahead if they want to compete with the big boys.

RAJASTHAN ROYALS

Batsmen: Ross Taylor ($1m), Rahul Dravid ($500,000)
Bowlers: Shane Warne (retained), Johan Botha ($950,000), Shaun Tait ($300,000), Pankaj Singh ($95,000)
Allrounders: Shane Watson (retained), Paul Collingwood ($250,000)

My thoughts: Possibly, the unluckiest team in the fray. Their purse was cut due to some wrangling with the BCCI, which meant that they had to be smart with their buys. Instead, they spent a whopping amount on Botha alone. Maybe, they are preparing for Warne’s departure by grooming another foreign spinner/captain. Apart from that, the two Indians in the squad – Dravid and Pankaj Singh – are not going to set the world alight. Their remaining picks consist of, an inconsistent but dangerous batsman, a specialist T20 speedster prone to breakdowns, an allrounder who has had reasonable success with the team and an allrounder who has been in poor nick. Apart from CSK, they might be the only team hoping praying for a repeat of the first season!

ROYAL CHALLENGERS BANGALORE

Batsmen: Virat Kohli (retained), Saurabh Tiwary ($1.6m), Cheteshwar Pujara ($700,000), Tillakaratne Dilshan ($650,000), Mohammad Kaif ($130,000), Luke Pomersbach ($50,000), Rilee Rossouw ($20,000), Jonathan Vandiar ($20,000)
Bowlers: Zaheer Khan ($900,000), Dirk Nannes ($650,000), Abhimanyu Mithun ($260,000), Charl Langeveldt ($140,000), Nuwan Pradeep ($20,000)
Allrounders: Daniel Vettori ($550,000), Johan van der Wath ($50,000)
Wicketkeepers: AB de Villiers ($1.1m)

My thoughts: A team, whose batting will revolve around the promising trio of Kohli, Pujara and Tiwary. They also have a couple of good left arm pacers in Zaheer and Nannes, complimented by the spin of Vettori. Other notable foreign imports include de Villiers and Dilshan. Still, I feel that something is missing. I think that they had a better team last year and will have to rely a lot on their uncapped players, to progress far in the tournament. Also, it will be interesting to see their choice of captain – Dictator Dan, young Kohli or a left field pick in Zaheer Khan?

So, my picks for the semifinalists in this season’s IPL include Chennai Super Kings, Kolkata Knight Riders, Mumbai Indians and Deccan Chargers. The bottom four will possibly be Delhi Daredevils, Kings XI Punjab, Rajasthan Royals and Team Kochi, and the middling teams – Royal Challengers Bangalore and Pune Warriors. Feel free to share your thoughts!

Lessons from the Castle Lager Test series in South Africa

  • Gautam Gambhir: Everyone knew Gambhir has been a brilliant opener for India at home and abroad against weaker teams; but the question was how he would fare in Tests against tougher opponents in countries like England, Australia and South Africa. He took a big step towards answering that by performing creditably in the two games he played. He faced the might of Steyn and Morkel at their furious best, and survived to ensure that India would walk away with a share of the series spoils. Dravid might be out of the team soon, but in Gambhir, India has a batsman who can battle through the tough times to see them through.
  • Virender Sehwag: Possibly, the biggest disappointment of the series. There was big anticipation for the clash between him and Steyn, but there was no contest really. In conditions favorable to the bowlers and against a pumped up pace attack, Sehwag could only manage 144 runs in the series at an average of 24 and a shockingly low SR of 70.24! He will be keen to put this series behind him and come out, all guns blazing in the World Cup at home.
  • Rahul Dravid: In an earlier time, Dravid against this attack and in these conditions would have seen a couple of marathon knocks atleast. Instead, all we got was the sad sight of seeing him struggle to get 120 runs at a SR of 33 and a highest score of 43. He played his part in saving India on the last day of the series, but there is no doubt, that the end is near for a wonderful career.

  • Sachin Tendulkar: In a series featuring the two top teams in the world, it was appropriate that there was a shoot-out for the best batsman in the world today, as well. Tendulkar might not have scored the amount of runs that Kallis did, but his performance was equally awe inspiring. In the first Test, he instilled self belief in the rest of the batsmen over the course of scoring a 50th Test ton, and at Newlands he faced one of the most hostile spells of fast bowling one will ever see, and came out with an innings which made sure that India were on level terms with South Africa. After 21 years in International cricket, there is no end to his gluttonous appetite for runs.
  • VVS Laxman: In a year featuring many classics from this man, the 96 he scored in the second innings of the 2nd Test was perhaps the most important of them all. In the company of the tail, he rescued his team from a precarious situation and gave them a total to defend. In the process, he helped them secure one of their most memorable wins in Test cricket. Its time, India and the rest of the world treasure his batting skills for as long as he is around.
  • Cheteshwar Pujara: It was always expecting too much from Pujara, to face the likes of Steyn and Morkel in their own backyard and come up trumps. Still, the numbers don’t tell the entire story. In the second innings at Durban, he played the most important innings of his brief career so far and weathered the bowlers for close to one and a half hours while giving Laxman valuable support. He would have learnt a lot from this tour and still remains an exciting prospect for the future.
  • MS Dhoni: He came within one wicket of securing his most famous series win yet, but Dhoni will take the eventual scoreline. After all, he has yet to lose a test series as captain. As a captain, his tactics were criticized and his handling of Sreesanth was also open to debate; but as a batsman, he did a decent job and as a keeper, he was safe without being spectacular. This series might have got away, but he can look forward to England and Australia with confidence.
  • Harbhajan Singh: It has been quite a while since he topped the bowling charts for India, and Harbhajan will be satisfied with his performance after receiving a lot of stick from fans and media alike, prior to the series. At Durban, he hastened South Africa’s demise in the first innings; and at Cape Town, he gave India its best shot at a series win. In the end it was not to be, but for once he starred with the ball, rather than with the bat.
  • Zaheer Khan: He was sorely missed at Centurion, and on return at Durban he made his presence felt. He might not have the speed of Steyn or bounce of Morkel, but he has plenty of guile and variations to make up for it. Once again, he had the wood over Graeme Smith so much that Smith asked his opening partner to take first strike against him. He faded ever so slightly on the 4th day at Cape Town, which allowed Kallis and co to take command; but overall, he led the attack very well, and will be a vital weapon for India in 2011.
  • I Sharma: While Zaheer and Sreesanth featured in the news throughout the series, Ishant had a relatively quiet series. A horror match at Centurion was followed by a modest one at Durban and he finished the series with another quiet performance at Cape Town. These were conditions tailor-made for him, but he was thwarted by some good batting and his own indiscipline. Still has problems with no-balls, and I have no idea why Eric Simons has still not found a remedy for that.

  • S Sreesanth: There’s something about South Africa that brings out the best and worst in Sreesanth. One moment, he is bowling vicious snorters to get rid of one of the best batsmen in the world; and the next, he is in trouble with the opposing captain, his own captain, the match refree and the crowd – all for his behavior. He is supposed to be an experienced bowler for India by now, but he is more of an enfant terrible at the moment. He has the talent, but can he maintain his focus in 2011?
  • Raina, Vijay and Unadkat: None of them grabbed the opportunities that came their way, and they have only themselves to blame for that.
  • Graeme Smith: A poor series with the bat, where he could not kick on to make big scores; was more in the news for his poor track record against Zaheer and clash with Sreesanth. Before the series, he made comments alluding that India cannot be considered top dog if they can’t win in South Africa. Forget India, he will do well to remember that South Africa has not won in South Africa for the last three series. By his standards, that’s not the stuff of champions either.
  • Alviro Petersen and Ashwell Prince: Apart from a good innings here and there, did not do much to put their detractors at bay.
  • Hashim Amla: The bearded one had a modest series by his standards. He resumed his love affair with the Indian bowling at Centurion by scoring a century, had a quiet match at Durban, and scored a rapid fire 50 at Newlands before succumbing to a self described ‘sugar rush’. Still, he was the third highest run getter in the series, and he looks in the best of touch. Yousuf might be fading away, but another bearded batting master is taking his place.

  • Jacques Kallis: In a long and distinguished career, Kallis has played some important knocks against top quality bowlers in demanding conditions; but I doubt that any of his previous innings would have given him as much satisfaction as the one he played on the 4th day at Newlands. South Africa was in trouble at 130/6, when he played a vital innings which was as painful (due to injury) as it was gutsy. This was following the century he had scored in the 1st innings to get South Africa to a challenging score. Fair to say, if it wasn’t for him, India would be toasting a historic victory now. If it wasn’t for an unfortunate run-out and a ripper of a delivery, there is no saying what the eventual result could have been. Along with Tendulkar, he proved that age doesn’t matter when you are in a purple patch for as long as anyone can remember, and ignited a debate as to who the better batsman is. Ponting can only look over, with envy. Oh, did I mention that he scored his first ever double century at Centurion?
  • AB De Villiers: Like Amla, he started brilliantly at Centurion with a bruising ton which deflated the Indians, but couldn’t sustain the form for the rest of the series. He was a surprise disappointment of the series.
  • Mark Boucher: If it wasn’t for his fighting half century in the 2nd innings at Cape Town, this could have been his last Test for South Africa. Instead, along with his long time friend and accomplice, he took the game away from India in true gritty manner. If it does prove to be his final innings, he would have signed off in typical style.
  • Paul Harris and L Tsotsobe: While Harris was ineffectual as expected, Tsotsobe was the surprise package. While they were on the look for respite from Steyn and Morkel, Tsotsobe rarely released the pressure, and only uncharacteristic dropped catches prevented him from getting more wickets. He held a phenomenal catch at Centurion to boot.
  • M Morkel: Along with Steyn, great things were expected of him before the series. While Steyn stole the headlines, Morkel did his part. After routing the Indians in the first innings at Centurion, he handed over the honors to Steyn for the rest of the series. He continued to bruise the Indians with his awkward bounce and ended up as the 2nd leading wicket taker in the series. If this was supposed to be a contest between the world’s best batsmen and the world’s best pace attack, there is no doubt who was the winner.

  • D Steyn: While two batting legends set about enhancing their reputations and breaking new ground, there was only one bowling legend in this series. If anyone had any doubts as to the greatness of Steyn, they should watch his bowling in the 3rd Test at Cape Town. Speed, swing, accuracy…he had it all. He had some of the world’s best batsmen at his mercy, and it was only his presence which forbade the Indians to entertain any hopes of chasing down 340 to win. He ended the series as the leading wicket taker with 21 wickets and an average of just above 17. He single handedly nullified the Sehwag threat, and along with Morkel established themselves as the top bowling pair in cricket, without a doubt. Now, only if he could replicate this form in the shorter formats…

Overall, for the third successive time a contest between these two sides has ended in a fair stalemate. It may not compare to the Ashes in terms of history and prestige, but for the pure joy of watching top quality, competitive cricket, this is one clash always worth looking forward to.

Best moment of the series:

Quote of the series:

We’ll need two goats to feed on this grassy pitch.

Harbhajan Singh, that delightful pitch expert, comes up with a novel idea to make the Kingsmead track more batsman-friendly

For my review of the Ashes, click here

India vs South Africa – Clash of the Titans

Finally, the much awaited non-Ashes test series of the year, is upon us. The No. 1 side takes on the No. 2 side, in a 3 test series, which will confirm if India has finally learned to crack the code in hostile environs. They are led by the capable MS Dhoni, under whom they have not lost a test series in two years, and are packed with world class batsmen and competitive bowlers. Their ground fielding is way behind some of the other teams, but importantly, they don’t drop too many catches. One of the biggest advantages they have going into the series, is the presence of Gary Kirsten and Eric Simons. Their local experience coupled with the extensive preparation they have put in, in the lead-up to the series, could prove to be the tipping point for India. Add to this, the fact that, this is the best Indian team to tour South Africa, ever. If they cannot win the series this time, they might as well forget winning here again for a while, considering that their big three (Sachin, Dravid, Laxman) would be playing in their last tour here.

As for South Africa, they will be having the odds on their side, given their balance and knowledge of the conditions. Any team, which has Steyn and Morkel marking their run-ups at the start of the opposition’s innings, will consider themselves favorites on fast, bouncy pitches. Their spin option is not threatening, but on these grounds, against Indian batsmen, they wouldn’t matter anyway. They have a powerful batting line-up, which can rival India, in terms of racking up big scores. Smith, Amla, Kallis and De Villiers are in no way inferior to Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar and Laxman. One area, where they are miles ahead of India, is their fielding; and in a tight contest, it could tilt the series in their favor.

Without further ado, here is player-by-player look:

INDIA (best XI)

Gautam Gambhir: Its been a long time, since India have toured South Africa, with a stable opening combination; This time around, they have, perhaps the best Indian openers since Gavaskar. It might be Gambhir’s first test tour of South Africa; but he is a driven cricketer, who has just returned to form, and his partnership with Sehwag will be an interesting plot-line in this series.

Virender Sehwag: He burst into the test scene, with a dazzling debut ton at Bloemfontein in 2001, against the likes of Pollock, Hayward and Ntini. Since then, his average in South Africa is a measly 26.44, compared to an ‘away’ average of 50.67. Needless to say, he will be bursting to set some records straight. He forms one half of the world’s most feared opening partnership, but his wicket will be the most cherished in a class line-up. Recently, he has combined an important trait to his run-away stroke-play: patience. His contest with Steyn and Morkel will be a treat to savor.

Rahul Dravid: He might be not be the same batsman he was four years ago; but, when India tour abroad, there is no better player to turn to. Like other batsmen in the illustrious line-up, his record in South Africa is a glaring inconsistency with the remainder of his ‘away’ stats. He struck a semblance of form in the recent series against New Zealand, but no doubt, Steyn and co, will try to re-inject some old misgivings. All said and done, this is his last opportunity to play a defining role in what could turn out to be India’s finest series win in years.

Sachin Tendulkar: He is playing so well this year, that, when he failed to register a century in the series against the Kiwis, it was a shock to all. He is one ton away, from a record setting 50 centuries in tests, but his mind will be on bigger things. He leads one of the strongest batting line-ups in recent memory and he will know that there is no better chance to beat South Africa in their own den. He averages a respectable 39.76 in SA from 12 matches, with an unforgettable 169 as his highest score. If he can improve on these stats, expect India to be dominant in the batting stakes, Steyn or no Steyn.

VVS Laxman: He has been needed a lot in the last few series, and he has not disappointed. One of the most under-rated batsmen of his generation, he will relish the challenge SA will throw at him. Even if India experience some top order blues, they know that they can rely on Laxman to bail them out. The biggest task for South Africa will be to ensure that he does not mistake them for Australia.

Suresh Raina: Possibly the only weak link in the batting, it is a no-brainer that the Saffers will target him with plenty of bouncers. After a dream start to his test career, his form has tapered off, and SA will consider him ripe for the picking; but there is no doubt, that he is the most talented of the young bunch. Kirsten has worked with him a lot on his batting, and it remains to be seen, if he has learnt his lessons. For inspiration, he needs not look further than fellow southpaw, Alastair Cook, who is changing notions about his batting, in Australia.

MS Dhoni: Captain Extraordinaire. He has a brilliant opportunity to go into the record books, as the first Indian skipper to lead his team to a victory in South Africa. While his keeping has always been steady, his batting form is iffy. He did score an important 98 in his most recent innings, but India will need more of that, to back up Laxman and lead the lower order, if the situation arises. Many critics have pointed out, that Dhoni’s good record is more due to luck, than anything else; but as the man himself said, if his luck is helping India win, then so be it.

Harbhajan Singh: Of late, he has come up with an interesting idea. If he can’t help India with the ball, he will try to win games with his bat. It is all well and endearing, but the focus will be rightly on his bowling. In a land renowned for its spinners, he is the leading tweaker, who hasn’t really managed to penetrate line-ups recently. While talk over his bowling form riles him up, he needs to calm down and realize that India needs him to be at his best against a powerful set of batsmen. Expect the likes of Kallis and De Villiers to target him and disrupt his rhythm. How he responds, will be crucial to Indian hopes of containing any severe damage.

Zaheer Khan: India’s most important bowler is under a fitness cloud right now. It would be an understatement to say, that in his absence, India will find getting 20 SA wickets, that much harder. So, expect the physios to be putting some extra time with him. At the least, India will hope that he can play, so that he can target his favorite bunny’s wrists.

Ishant Sharma: Will be a player worth watching this series. While South Africa has faced him before, it will be a different matter, when they come up against him, on their own pitches. If they prepare bouncy tracks for the benefit of Steyn and Morkel, they better be prepared for some roughing up by Sharma. After months of toiling on subcontinental pitches, he will be licking his lips at the prospect of bowling on lively pitches. If he can maintain control and reduce his no-balls, he will turn out to be a match winner for India.

S Sreesanth: Sreesanth and South Africa will always be remembered for his famous antics after hitting Nel for a six in India’s last tour here. While those might or might not be repeated, India will hope that his bowling in that series will be reprised this time as well. There were some promising signs in the recent series against New Zealand, and if he along with Sharma, can support Zaheer Khan ably, expect South Africa to reconsider their pitch preparations.

SOUTH AFRICA (Best XI)

Graeme Smith: One of the best openers in international cricket, Smith (fitness permitting) will be a tough nut to dislodge once he gets going. Interestingly, he has never scored a century against India in 10 matches, falling to Zaheer and Sreesanth 4 times each. What better chance to set the record straight, than in a contest between the top two teams in international cricket, at home.

Alviro Petersen: After scoring a debut century against India at Eden gardens, Petersen has had a steady career. While there are no immediate concerns, this is an ideal opportunity for him to establish his position in the team. India have been known to be generous to batsmen seeking to make it big on the international stage, and Petersen will be hoping that he will be the beneficiary of India’s largesse.

Hashim Amla: It remains to be seen, how much Amla’s arm injury will affect his form. Just as well – A fully fit and firing Amla will be one of the biggest threats to India’s fortunes. Blessed with the calmness and patience of a monk, he has reeled off several hundreds in the past year. Only time will tell, if he will become a great; but for now, he is doing a damn impressive job and the Saffers will be hoping that he will continue to display the run-scoring appetite he did, in their last series against India.

J Kallis: South Africa’s own Tendulkar. When was the last time this man was out of form, anyway? Along with Amla and De Villiers, he forms one of the most strongest middle orders in the game. His duel with Harbhajan will be worth watching, and expect a lot of words to be exchanged between the two. Add to this, his catching at slips and breakthroughs with the ball – as always, he could prove to be India’s nemesis.

AB De Villiers: The next big superstar of international cricket. Expect him to be breaking a few records this series. He is fresh off a mammoth unbeaten 278 against Pakistan; and at home against the likes of Harbhajan and Sreesanth, he will fancy his chances. If India don’t get him out early, they will be chasing the leather on most days of this tour.

Ashwell Prince: A man whose career mirrors Laxman in more ways than one. Perennially, on the verge of being dropped, it is easy to forget that he is a former skipper of the national team. He tried his hand at opening, to stay in the team, but has rightfully returned to the middle order. He faces competition from Duminy for his spot, and only consistent big scores will make the number 6 slot, his own. Despite having a poor record against India overall, his average shoots up to 61 against India at home. So, he has atleast one thing going for him.

Mark Boucher: His best days might be behind him, but Boucher is the man you need, when you’re in a scrap with the best team. He will relish the challenge of leading the lower order, and his safe keeping will be a source of comfort to the bowlers. Expect his palms to take a lot of pounding, this series.

Paul Harris: While it is easy to rubbish Harris’ performances at the top level, one look at the current state of Australian spin bowling, will show how much worth he is to the SA side. He runs into a line-up, which has demolished better spinners, and his average of almost 50 against them, confirms the non-existence of a threat. He will be expected to perform a containing role, allowing the lines of Steyn and Morkel to run amok.

Dale Steyn: India’s biggest threat to a landmark series win. There is a reason, why there is a lot of talk of Steyn in the lead-up to the series. While his overall bowling average is 23.77 with a SR of 40.4, against India, it drops to 20 and 36.3 respectively. India will not forget his devastating spell at Nagpur in a hurry and their preparations so far, mirror the respect they have for Steyn’s capabilities. His contest with Sehwag will prove to be the biggest of all mini-clashes in this series.

Morne Morkel: If Sehwag and Gambhir form the toughest opening partnership in international cricket, Steyn and Morkel form the most lethal new ball pair going around. While his bowling stats against India are not very impressive, sheer pace and bounce (that old nemesis of Indian batting) will prove to be a handful on home pitches.

L Tsotsobe: He will be the most inexperienced bowler among the two teams, and India will hope they can get some respite from Steyn and Morkel through him. Don’t take him lightly though. With good left arm swing, complementing the fiery pace of the new ball bowlers, he could yet prove to a wild card. Afridi and Pakistan found out the hard way.

All in all, it promises to be a riveting series. At least, it will prove to be more of a contest than the one taking place down under!

Meanwhile, in a parallel non-Ashes world…

As England continue to ruthlessly break down Australian spirit, down under in Adelaide; there are quite a few interesting things happening elsewhere in the world of cricket:

  • Under a stand-in captain, and without most of their first choice players, India has been doing an ‘England’ to the Kiwis, by demolishing them in one-sided games; with two games to go, India has already claimed the series, thanks to the Delhi pair of Gambhir and Kohli. When the seniors return, this Indian side will be a handful, in the World Cup. For New Zealand, there is simply nothing to write about.
  • West Indies and Sri Lanka played one of the most rain-affected series, in a long time. Except for Gayle’s triple ton and Darren Bravo’s stroke-play, the series didn’t really excite. Darren Sammy made a decent start to his captaincy stint and if he continues to have the respect and loyalty of his team-mates, West Indies can start to hope again. 
  • Zimbabwe and Bangladesh are playing yet another series against each other; though i admit, the cricket is usually entertaining because it is like a battle of equals. Shakib Al-Hasan, who is turning out to be the Vettori of Bangladesh, is once again at the forefront with a couple of good performances so far. If you don’t mind the lack of star players, and fancy some well fought cricket, this series is worth watching.
  • The IPL saga rambles on. Kochi is back in, Rajasthan and Punjab are still in limbo, and the auction looks like it is going to be postponed again; despite a flurry of IPL-related activity, which happens every day, nothing really changes. It is a spectacle in itself.
  • South Africa have included Ryan McLaren to the squad for the first test against India. I don’t think it is going to make too much of a difference. Steyn and Morkel are the only bowlers, India will worry about.
  • And finally, in Pakistan, Shahid Afridi has wisely played down any hopes of winning the World Cup next year; while their batting in tests seems to have improved in their last two matches, their ODI batting has to improve, and I doubt if they have enough time for that.  

I’ll conclude this post, by posting a good quote by Ian Chappell, regarding the merits of the team huddle:

If speeches were that important, Winston Churchill would have made a great captain.