Wicked Wicket

May 30, 2008 at 9:17 pm (Rajib Sarkar, Sports)


As I’m writing the post, spectators are trooping in to watch the first semi-final of IPL. The match is about to begin.


Since India’s last test victory over South Africa less than 50 days ago, we’ve witnessed a whirlwind of 56 IPL matches already, causing a collective amnesia.  As if a steroid called T20 has numbed the cells preserving the memories of what once was a classy battle between a bat and a ball.


This post is not about IPL though. It is about how cricket becomes a different ballgame when the pitch turns treacherous.


On pitches where you’ve no clue whether a good length delivery will fly past your ears or your ankles, you’ve got to play to save both your wicket and your limbs. You live dangerously from  one delivery to the next, flirting with failure every moment of  your stay in the crease.


A hostile two paced wicket with cracks combining with the furious pace of the likes of Dale Steyn or Makhaya Ntini can create that perfect storm which can be weathered only by wizardry from a watchful willow.


Sourav Ganguly’s match winning 87 against South Africa on a deceptive Green Park wicket in Kanpur this April should rate among the finest of Indian knocks on a snorter friendly wicket.


Sunil Gavaskar’s resolute 96 on an under-prepared Chinnaswamy wicket in Bangalore in 1987 against a fiery Imran Khan should qualify as the Qutub Minar of this category.  Unfortunately, India lost the match by 16 runs despite Gavaskar’s monumental effort.


In my book, the Taj Mahal of this category is Gundappa Vishwanath’s immortal innings of 97 (n.o.) on a dodgy Chepauk wicket against Clive Lloyd led West Indies side of 1975. Imagine a diminutive Vishwanath, playing without a helmet, caressing cannon balls from Andy Roberts to the boundary! Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi led Indian side won the Chennai test by 100 runs. It still ranks as one of the most memorable test match victories by India.


What makes such knocks special? The same pitch that puts the fear of God in other accomplished batsmen, transforms magically into a docile strip when an innings displaying rare skills and  great courage  gets essayed. Much like how tennis courts get wider when Roger Federer returns a volley. Or, how a golf hole becomes larger when Tiger Wood takes a swing.


Legend has it that no one could master (yes, no one, not even Sir Donald Bradman) a vicious pitch like Victor Trumper.  As long as there is any romanticism left in cricket, accounts of Trumper’s 1902 century (104 with 14 boundaries) scored before lunch against England at Old Trafford will be read with awe and reverence. As others perished to Bill Lockwood’s pace, Trumper’s silken strokes of sublime grace mesmerized the Manchester crowd.


Australia won the test by four runs. And the game of cricket won over all the plots of predictability. Since then cricket hasn’t stopped playing the game of life.


– Rajib Sarkar. 


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Heads We Win

May 20, 2008 at 1:25 pm (Rajib Sarkar, Sports)


Just one day away from the UEFA Champions League final at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, my mind is veering towards the last encounter between the contenders of the club football’s greatest prize this year.   


On the 26th of the last month during the English Premier League, the Battle of Stamford Bridge witnessed something really special. It was the head of the resurgent German, Michael Ballack who struck first with a plunging header and then unleashed the sort of clear headed penalty with which his countrymen have broken so many English hearts down the years.    


I don’t want to dwell more on Chelsea’s that breathless victory over Manchester United.  For me, there was only one incandescent moment  in that match.   


It was Ballack’s first goal by that lightning of a header.   


As the first half went into stoppage time, Didier Drogba’s cross from deep on the right, picked out an unmarked Ballack who lunged diagonally from the far post and headed the delivery flush across that redoubtable keeper Edwin Van der Sar.    


While much of the header was trademark Ballack, what made it a stand-out was the way Ballack transferred his momentum by collapsing his tall frame of 6’2.5’ into a single point of contact with the ball and directing it with the typical German precision. What Van der Sar’s left hand managed to elude was a bullet of the size of a football.   


There are a few things about headers that fascinate me.   


Rarely do you use the header in the midfield. A header gets its importance only near the goalpost – either in saving or scoring a goal. There is an air of climactic thrill around a header.   


When a center gets floated near the post, bodies defy gravitation to change the trajectory of an airborne missile. To control the direction of a vector, balancing both power and position, calls for an instinctive ability to conquer suddenness.   


If a dazzling dribble is about stretching a golden moment, a blinding header is about seizing it.    


Now let me share with you the list of three best headers I’ve ever seen.   


In 1982 (Spain) World Cup, Italy’s Paolo Rossi’s header in Italy (3) vs. Brazil (2) Italy match was a spectacular beginning to a classic cliff hanger. It was a second round match in the Group of Death, comprising of Brazil, Argentina and Italy. Incidentally, Azzurris went on to win the cup with Rossi receiving the golden boot.    


Germany’s Jorgen Klinsman’s header following an angular dive in 1990 World Cup (Italy) in Germany (4) vs. Yugoslavia (1) match was one of the rare moments that lit up which was otherwise a very dull tournament.    


O.J. Simpson lookalike Sweden’s Martin Dahlin header in Sweden (3) vs. Russia (1) match in 1994 (the USA) World Cup was a fine fusion between ballet’s pirouette and boxing’s power ducking.   


There are, of course, quite a few headers who come very close. Among the current exponents of the art of heading, two German headmasters – Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski come to mind readily.   


As long as football is played, there will be no dearth of soaring moments involving heads.   


After all, football remains the only macho head game in town.     


– Rajib Sarkar.   


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Drama with the Dead Ball

April 17, 2008 at 9:54 pm (Rajib Sarkar, Sports)

Last Sunday’s English Premier League match between Manchester United and Arsenal had a couple of magical moments for me. And both were conjured up with a dead ball on the ground!


First, Emmanuel Adebayor bundled in one (did it come off his arm?) for the Gunners. Just six minutes later, the Red Devils equalized through Christiano Ronaldo’s twice-taken penalty kick. It was not the exquisiteness of the shot that was the highlight. It was Ronaldo’s supreme confidence in executing an action replay of a free-kick which was disallowed. Within seconds, Ronaldo, who was largely marginalized during the rest of the game, produced an encore, demonstrating once again how to glide a ball into a sublime trajectory. 


The second magical moment came when Owen Hargreaves’ free-kick (with Ronaldo playing a decoy) curled the ball over the wall and made it dip into a kissing distance from the left post, reducing Jens Lehmann into a helpless bystander.


Poor Lehmann! He didn’t do too badly under the bar otherwise. Blinding beauty of some free kicks can leave the very best in business stunned and stupefied.


Much greater terror had struck the German goalkeeper’s immediate predecessor in Arsenal, David Seamen during England’s encounter with Brazil in the semi-final of World Cup 2002. Ronaldinho’s free-kick taken from 35 meter was fantasy football at its finest.  Not only the ball went over Seamen’s head, this piece of wizardrdy dazed and demoralized David Beckham’s (himself, a fine dead ball artist) entire team.


How could Ronaldinho send a stationery ball with that precise amount of spin, drift, pace and elevation, sailing yards through wind, past coiled up bodies, over heads and shoulders huddled together , ultimately to rest at a precisely defined landing point? Did God himself navigate the flight?


This is what makes free kicks so fascinating!  Here is a moment where stillness is allowed to triumph over motion.  Modern power football is about relentless kinetic energy. While all the frenzied pace is about creating space, it is only when you are awarded a free-kick,  the space becomes yours to freeze.


Only during  a free -kick, the spectators can witness a duel between pre-meditation (striker) and pre-sentiment (goalkeeper).  A vision of beauty and grace is given a chance to be wrought out of choking pressure. As if, in a sudden twist,  focused tautness  transforms the intense physicality of the game into a silent prayer.  


On a football field, nothing can bring out the play between life and death better. 


– Rajib Sarkar.




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