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A shining silver lining - Srinivas Kanchibhotla Column
by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
Jan 22, 2009
2008 would probably go down as one of the most tumultuous years in recent memory, and a lot had to do with the economic turmoil that enveloped the entire world. Add to that, the geo-political events around the globe haven't made it any easier on the optimists. The American Presidential election and its result briefly lifted the spirits up, but the din soon subsided in the rumble of doom and gloom. Amid such a morbid scenario the only sector that posted record profits, playing fully to its potential was sports. And it wasn't just cricket. The Olympics grabbed majority of the headlines, with world records shattered and created, history being re-written and made, individual performances soared and peaked. Even Chess, with its no-nonsense way of handling things, has seen its share of excitement at the World Championship event. And the year also happened to be one that witnessed 'the greatest match ever played' in the game of Tennis, when Nadal finally humbled Federer on grass at Wimbledon, in a marathon match that spanned over a few rain-interrupted sessions. On the American side of things, 'the greatest final' in Football, 'the ultimate dream-run' in the annals of baseball, all transpired during 2008.

Historians (specifically the ones dabbling in sports) have a way to play up the importance of sports, specially in dire times. 'Seabiscuit lifted the hopes and spirits of a nation during the Depression era', 'Muhammad Ali's defiance against the draft echoed the voice of the generation', 'England's return to India to resume the series was a slap across the face of terrorism'. As Tendulkar rightly pointed out in his post-match speech in Chennai, nothing that happens in the stadium really matters particularly when people are losing their lives outside of it. Though it is hard to see sports supplanting the struggles of every day life, it does provide some solace and succor, even if it is for a brief period, in testing times. And that is the extent of its importance or even relevance. As soon as the spectators leave the stadia and audiences turns off their TV sets, the hard realities of life are back, right in the front, erasing the sweet comforts of sports. Sports can never be a replacement, they are at best, a welcome distraction. And 2008 welcomed it with open arms.

Cricket had plenty to cheer about in the year, with riveting series, record run chases, rise of old and new superstars, end of reigns, all this, amidst record viewerships and attendances. Add to that, the phenomenon that was IPL, which became an examplar of how administration should handle sport. Anti-Murphy's law was in full effect for much throughout the year - everything that was planned right, went right. But what's a postulate without a few exceptions. The number of cricketing nations whose contests that really mattered shrunk from last year, and Pakistan became the biggest casualty to it, for reasons not of its doing. West Indies and New Zealand further slipped on the relevancy scale and the margin separating them and the really irrelevant - Zimbabwe, Kenya and to a certain extent, Bangladesh, became alarmingly close. But the contests involving the rest - Australia, India, England, South Africa and Sri Lanka - remained one of the exciting, contentious and competitive match ups in recent times. None could be singled out as a sole victor, but several emerged as the strong contenders. While South Africa is just a step away from the crown and the throne in Tests, India had a dream run in the abridged version, beating all, but South Africa. And it was only fitting that Australia was to give up/away the titles (and the bragging rights) in both the versions on their home soil, with Sydney acting as a pivot for their story that came a full circle. That Sydney was in fact the place when Australia won on both occasions, during the start of the year and its end, yet lost it in the final tally, could well be the irony of the year.

The welcome sign for cricket in the past year, is the resurgence of and renewed interest in test cricket, in spite of T20. IPL's success (and the Stanford fiasco) laid to rest once and for all that the fears that the shortest version of the game would bully the old residents out of their home turfs. Instead it positioned itself in the untapped segments of the business and proved to be a welcome addition to the family. But the big news of the year centered around the toppling of Australia from the top spot. With the revolving door of the Australian dressing room in constant action during the year, the wane of the famed and feared Australian domination was inevitable, as it is natural. It has been a phenomenal run for the team for more than 15 years, starting from the humble beginnings with the win of the World Cup in 1987, and would surely qualify for the terms 'dynasty' and 'era'. And given their strong domestic circuit and infrastructure, not to mention, passion for the game, it is only a matter of time before the next Gilchrists, McGraths and Warnes are discovered and immediately put to work, much to the intense displeasure of the opposition. Since as per Einstein, a loss at one place has to transform as gain somewhere else, Australia spoils turned into South Africa's and India's gains. But having not dropped a test series yet, and beating the Aussies in their own back yard, South Africa edges out India by an arm's length to lay claims on the No.1 title, the official rankings notwithstanding.

What had been the hallmark of great test teams, a strong bowling unit, South African and India seem to have found a pitch perfect combination, that could stare down any opposition on any kind of surface. And with the able bodied batting units willing to back up the tall talk of the bowlers, 2009 bodes well for test cricket with exciting match-ups and interesting duels. Perhaps this year would see the formal coronation of the new king. More than the batting records, that fell by the wayside in plenty in the year, it is the revival of the art of bowling that sweetened the deal.

The 'cat on the hot tin roof' show put up by Ponting and Ishant, the stirring soliloquy of Dale Steyn, and the dulcet duets of Murali and Mendis mesmerized the senses of the onlookers and the ones on the other end of the pitch. The expressions of the departing batsmen after succumbing to the brute force of the pace or sweet charms of the spin, alone are worth the price of the admission (Of particular mention is Mendis' loot against the Indians both in Tests and ODIs and the word of the year became 'carrom ball'). It has been a long time in cricket when almost all the teams competed on even footing, the bat and the ball ended up in a photo finish and every session in test cricket actually counted for something.

Sure, all these don't matter when life is getting hard just to get by in the outside world. Sports many not be necessary for the ticking of the daily clock. But it has the uncanny ability to grease up the gears and make life zip by a lot faster and a lot smoother. And 2008 can be best remembered as the time when sports put its hands up, while the rest lay amid ruins, to shoulder much of the burden of the gloom. Which is precisely the reason why historians (have to) resort to hyperbole when viewing sports in the context of contentious times. Sometimes words (have to) speak louder than actions.

 
More Views by Srinivas Kanchibhotla
  The road to rebuild
  India can win from anywhere
  No clear cut winners and no outright losers
  India's lower order works twice as hard!
  India-South Africa series have been Even-Stevens
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