Sports en Thu Aug 05 16:58:50 IST 2021 hit-man-to-helm <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The 2019 Indian Premier League final. Chennai Super Kings needed nine runs to win off the final over. Mumbai Indians’ skipper Rohit Sharma tossed the ball to Lasith Malinga; the Sri Lankan had gone for 42 runs in his three overs that night, had dropped a catch and had missed a run out.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mumbai won by one run.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The match had been deeply tactical, with momentum see-sawing throughout the night. Chennai captain M.S. Dhoni was cool under pressure, as expected, but Sharma was cooler that day.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is one of the reasons Sharma is the frontrunner to be India’s T20I captain after Virat Kohli bows out at the end of the ongoing World Cup. It is a campaign that has, so far, gone horribly for one of the favourites. India now depends on the results of others to make it to the semifinals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The question is, will the BCCI bank on Sharma’s experience and success—he is the current vice captain, has captained India, was part of the T20 World Cup-winning team of 2007 and has led Mumbai Indians to five IPL titles—or will it be more forward-looking and add freshness to the team by choosing a younger captain? The names of K.L. Rahul and Rishabh Pant are doing the rounds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Whoever the choice, he will, along with new coach Rahul Dravid, have nearly a year to correct course, before the next T20 World Cup in Australia.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dravid, the former India captain and former head of the National Cricket Academy, has previously coached the India A and Under-19 sides, and would look to translate that success to the highest level.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Given Sharma’s experience and ability to keep things simple, along with Dravid’s eye for detail and preparation in the back room, it is likely that Rahul and Pant would be understudies to Sharma for now.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In this context, the 14 bilateral T20Is India will play in the next year will be crucial for the new captain and coach to shape their team for the World Cup. It will be a transition period, and a hectic one at that.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This new journey begins with India taking on New Zealand at home later this month. The first match will be at Jaipur’s Sawai Mansingh Stadium.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said former India pacer Ajit Agarkar: “If there was not a World Cup next year, you would want to look at long-term [captaincy]. If you look at the IPL record, Rohit is the frontrunner. The other two have been around as leaders only in the last year and a half. For a World Cup, you want someone with experience.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Added former chairman of selectors Kiran More: “Rohit is very good. He knows what he wants from players, has a game plan and is mature. He has played under M.S. Dhoni and with Sachin Tendulkar, and has learnt a lot.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But what about T20 being a young man’s game? Rohit, after all, is 34. “You need not have young captains in T20s,” said More. “Look at Kane Williamson (New Zealand), Kieron Pollard (West Indies) and Eoin Morgan (England); they are all experienced players.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pravin Amre, who has closely watched Rohit play for Mumbai and has observed Pant as Delhi Capitals assistant coach, said the choice would depend on what the BCCI wants. “If the BCCI wants to promote a future captain, it will look at Rahul or Pant. If the priority is to win an ICC trophy now, then experience should matter. Do you want a skipper who will win you cups in 2022-23 or a player who will lead the team for the next five years? It is entirely dependent on the team management.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Currently, the sense of urgency within the BCCI to win an ICC event outweighs plans to install and groom a long-term captain. Though the country is home to the high-voltage, star-studded IPL, India’s only T20 World Cup win came before the league was launched—in the inaugural 2007 edition. Since the first IPL season in 2008, India has reached the World Cup final once, losing to Sri Lanka in Bangladesh in 2014.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“With another T20 World Cup next year, you need someone with experience to lead, which I think is Rohit,” said former India spinner Harbhajan Singh, who has played with Sharma for India and Mumbai Indians. “If [BCCI] is thinking long term, I feel someone like Jasprit Bumrah can be given the responsibility. He is a champion bowler and a certainty to start in the playing XI.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For Amre, a point in Sharma’s favour is that he is “very popular” among teammates. Agreed Agarkar: “Rohit is a great guy. I have known him for 20 years now, and he is an easy guy to get along with. As captain, you need to have a feel for the game and he seems to have it. He is a captain in control on the field. Rohit is his own man.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He is also a team man. “I remember a low-scoring game in the IPL versus Rising Pune Supergiant,” said Harbhajan. “He takes a lot of advice from teammates on the field, which is important. You cannot do your own thing in a pressure game.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sharma is also known to make the youngsters in the team feel comfortable. “A junior player can easily approach him and share his views on what can be done,” he added. “Also, he will always give the bowler the first shot (regarding setting fields and plans for batsmen). If that does not work, he will tell the bowler what to do. He is aware of the mindset of his bowlers and is spot on with his bowling changes.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is also the question of whether the change in T20I captaincy will spill over to the ODI format as well. India will host the 2023 ODI World Cup, and there would be high expectations to lift the trophy at home, a la 2011. That could be Kohli’s last chance to win an ICC ODI title as captain, and it remains to be seen whether the selectors will entrust him with that responsibility.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Following the ODI World Cup, there would be a generational shift, and perhaps that is when contenders like Rahul and Pant would be given the nod.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Former India captain Sunil Gavaskar said that Rahul can be Sharma’s deputy in the shortest format, even as Pant is earmarked as a future captain. There is reportedly talk among selectors that, if Sharma is rested for the upcoming New Zealand series, Rahul could be the stand-in captain. He had, on the tour to New Zealand in 2020, captained and won in a T20I after Sharma retired hurt while batting.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Punjab Kings’ skipper recently found his lost mojo during the series in England and has made a comeback to all formats after a year-and-a-half-long lull.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Like Sharma, Rahul, too, is mostly unruffled on the field and is coming into his own as an IPL captain. Said former chief selector Sandeep Patil: “KL has the temperament to lead a team, but Rohit has cemented his place. KL has been consistent only since the England series.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As for Pant, Gavaskar had praised his “street smartness” and ability to read the game and act immediately as traits that would make him a good “future captain”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, Pant has age on his side; he is 24. Said Patil: “Rishabh has to wait; he has shown great skills as Delhi Capitals’ captain. I feel Rohit should be made skipper. He is calm; I see a bit of MSD in him. He does not panic, and his handling of the bowlers has been good. He is a good tactician.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>More thinks Pant would be ready by 2023. “Rishabh is yet to mature as a player. He is growing in the IPL as a leader, and he can be thought of as a vice-captain or an understudy. He is captaincy material for the future. He is street smart, his progress in Test cricket has been fantastic, but he needs to do well in white-ball cricket. He needs to win matches first, especially T20s. He is my student, but he has yet to deliver on his talent.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Added Amre: “Rishabh is a match-winner, he is young. I see shades of Dhoni in him. He likes to take responsibility, be it keeping, captaining or batting. He is more for the future.”</p> Sat Nov 06 23:06:16 IST 2021 t20-world-cup-a-look-at-the-men-who-could-be-game-changers-for-their-teams <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Carlos Brathwaite, remember the name!”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This declaration from Ian Bishop during commentary was perhaps the most unforgettable line from the 2016 ICC T20 World Cup. Chasing 156 against England in the final, the West Indies needed 19 runs off the last over. Brathwaite smashed four consecutive sixes off Ben Stokes’s bowling to lead his team to its second title; it is the only team to have done so.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Five years after from that iconic moment at Eden Gardens in Kolkata, much has changed in T20s. Brathwaite is not part of the West Indies side that will compete at the ongoing World Cup in the UAE. Neither is an injured Ben Stokes. As far as their teams are concerned, the latter will be missed more.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The format itself has evolved in the past five years. Batsmen have become ‘batters’ and the shot-making is now different: the paddle sweep, reverse sweep and the scoop are old; Rishabh Pant’s reverse flick off a pacer or the ramp shot against the seamer’s bouncer are some of the newer, more daring shots. As for bowlers, slower balls at the death or the carrom ball for a spinner are passé; the mystery spinner, instead, is a plus to any team. While wrist spin is still in, the finger spinners, too, have made a comeback this World Cup—the prime example being Ravichandran Ashwin, who will play T20Is for India after four years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The game changers are not only the good-old finishers at number six or the established top-order batsmen or the biggest six hitters. The past few years has seen the rise of the super specialist. Roston Chase of the West Indies, Aussie Marcus Stoinis, England’s Dawid Malan and South Africa’s Tabraiz Shamsi are some of the specialists who have honed their skills in various T20 leagues around the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Josh Inglis, the 26-year-old wicket-keeper batter from Australia, has been a surprise pick. He is yet to make his international debut for Australia in any format, but got the call after a prolific season in the Vitality Blast for Leicestershire; he already had the reputation of being a busy player in the Big Bash League. England’s Liam Livingstone also comes in with the reputation of being an impact player. A fine run of form in 2021 led to his return to the national T20 setup after four years. He then scored England’s fastest T20I hundred, against Pakistan this year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As the tournament begins, THE WEEK takes a look at some of the players who can anchor an innings, strike the ball hard, innovate both with bat and ball, and, most importantly, win matches for their team.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>K.L. Rahul</b><br> <br> </p> <p>India</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“King Legend” Rahul—as some fans on Twitter have dubbed him—has been in sublime form of late. Though he lost the Orange Cap in the IPL in the last match, he made his runs (626) in fewer games, and at a better average than the eventual winner—Ruturaj Gaikwad (635). And that was when he had the task of carrying his franchise’s batting effort in several games. There are many who feel that the added responsibility of being Punjab Kings’ captain smothered his attacking game, and that he would be free to unleash in the company of Rohit Sharma while opening for India. He did that in the warm-up match against England on October 18. Opening with Ishan Kishan, the 29-year-old scored 51 off just 24 balls, setting up a confidence-boosting win for his team.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I think K.L. Rahul, coming off a great IPL, is the pillar that the guys can build around,” former Australian quick Brett Lee told Fox Sports recently. “It takes the pressure off [Virat] Kohli if Rahul is scoring runs.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The elegant right hander can score in all areas, is innovative, and has one of the most beautiful lofted drives in the game. What makes him extra useful is that he can bat in several positions and can also keep wickets (he does that for the Kings). If the team management allows him to cut loose from ball one, expect fireworks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Batting average (T20Is)</b></p> <p><b>39.92</b></p> <p>7th best of all time</p> <p>(minimum 20 innings)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>2018-2020 (T20Is)</b></p> <p><b>Batting average </b><br> <b>41.69</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Batting strike rate</b><br> <b>145.11</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Glenn Maxwell</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Australia</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The explosive batter goes into the World Cup in superb form. He scored 513 runs in 15 matches, including six half centuries, for Royal Challengers Bangalore in this year’s IPL. More importantly, he was better in the second leg of the tournament, scoring at an average of 41.43. The World Cup preparation could not have been better.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a format where the Australians have never won the highest prize—this is their seventh attempt, this time under captain Aaron Finch—Maxwell’s performance will be crucial. The right-handed batter has credited Virat Kohli and AB De Villiers for the surge in his form. “I was a sponge to Virat and AB, just watching the way they go about things,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though seen as the linchpin of the Aussie batting for the tournament, the 33-year-old has played down the importance of his role. “If I continue the process I have followed in the IPL, I know I’m going to have success,” he said ahead of the warm-up game against India on October 20. “It is a nice position to be in mentally, that I have come off a good run of form. I am not over-thinking the stuff in-game.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The slow and low pitches of Sharjah and Dubai—usually regarded difficult to bat on for fluent scorers like Maxwell—did not affect him much. Known for his unconventional stroke-play, he used switch hits and reverse hits against both pace and spin in the IPL. “In T20s, I have found a nice little rhythm batting at number four [for RCB],” he said during the IPL. “It is something I probably had for Australia over a long period of time as well, which is probably why I have success over there.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also a handy off-spinner and one of the best fielders in the Aussie side, Maxwell is a complete package when things go right.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Batting strike rate (T20Is)</b></p> <p><b>158.92</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All-time best<br> (among players of full members; minimum 250 balls faced)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of two players, with Chris Gayle, to score two 100s in <b>50 balls</b></p> <p>or fewer</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Liam Livingstone</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>England</p> <p>This July, Liam Livingstone hit England’s fastest 50, off 17 balls, and converted it into England’s fastest 100, off 42 balls, against Pakistan at Trent Bridge.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The following month, the 28-year-old became the MVP of The Hundred, a new, shorter format the England and Wales Cricket Board introduced to woo younger fans. In nine innings, the right-hand bat scored 348 runs at a strike rate of 178.46. He also hit 27 sixes.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His power hitting notoriety—especially in a team packed with the breed—earned him a spot on a Sky Sports Masterclass with former England batter Kevin Pietersen in August. In that video, after hitting a monstrous six, he says: “We talk about being able to hit big sixes, it’s an entertainment thing, it’s great fun. But it’s also a great thing to have [as a batter] because you can back yourself to clear an 80m boundary with a long on rather than being able to clear a 30-yard circle for a one-bounce four.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though he did not have a great outing with the Rajasthan Royals this year, leaving the bubble out of exhaustion, he made 30 off 20 balls in the warm-up match against India on October 18, signalling a return to form.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also a useful spinner, Livingstone gave away only 10 runs in two overs and felled Indian captain Virat Kohli. He later injured his finger taking a catch, and might miss England’s first game in the tournament. England fans would hope it’s only one. Fingers crossed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>2021 (T20Is)</b></p> <p>Batting average</p> <p><b>47.50</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Batting strike rate</p> <p><b>182.69</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Lockie Ferguson</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>New Zealand</p> <p>Though the UAE will offer slow, sluggish wickets, Lockie Ferguson, 30, has shown that tearaway pace—regularly hitting 150kmph—can still rattle stumps and plans. He will be teaming up with veterans Tim Southee and Trent Boult, armed with his knowledge of the conditions and a lethal bouncer.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He had a good IPL season for runners-up Kolkata Knight Riders; he took 13 wickets in eight matches. In one of the matches, he got the ball to skid and ripped through Rajasthan Royals’ middle order. “Lockie is arguably one of the best T20 players in the world,” said KKR chief mentor David Hussey. “He regularly executes his balls and tonight (versus Rajasthan Royals) his first two overs changed the tempo and momentum of the game.” In the 13 T20Is he has played so far, Ferguson has taken 24 wickets at an economy rate of 6.86.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His team has done well in recent ICC tournaments, having made the final in the 2019 ODI World Cup and having won the inaugural Test Championship this June. If the dream run has to continue, Ferguson might have to run riot.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Bowling average (T20Is)</b></p> <p><b>13.16</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Bowling strike rate (T20Is)</b></p> <p><b>11.50</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Average and strike rate are both among the best in the world</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Tabraiz Shamsi</b></p> <p>South Africa</p> <p>Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan had been called magicians for what they did with the ball. Tabraiz Shamsi plies the same trade, but is an actual magician to boot. He wanted to be an illusionist growing up, and one of his most famous celebrations sees him pulling out a hanky from his pocket and turning it into a mini sword.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Antics aside, he is currently ranked number one in the ICC T20I bowlers’ rankings. He has taken 28 wickets in 17 matches this year; this is the second most in a calendar year. He could go past Aussie Andrew Tye’s 31 in 19 matches (in 2018) during this World Cup.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“When it comes to the best spinner at the World Cup, it’s hard to look past Tabraiz Shamsi,” former West Indies leg-spinner Samuel Badree wrote for the ICC. “Left-arm wrist spinners are rare in international cricket—he is very consistent, can turn the ball both ways and has tremendous control. He has the ability to bowl in different phases of the game, too, which is important.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>While several experts have written off the South African team—especially as management left out Faf du Plessis and brought in as captain Temba Bavuma, who is seen as a Test specialist—the pitches in the UAE should help 31-year-old Shamsi shine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Fellow leggie Rashid Khan told The Cricket Monthly that “it should be a spinners’ World Cup”. Shamsi would certainly hope so; the Protean batters, perhaps not as much.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Wickets (all T20s)</b></p> <p><b>187</b> (162 innings)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>2021 (T20Is)</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bowling average 12.85</p> <p>Wickets</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>28</p> <p>World’s leading wicket taker this year</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Roston Chase</b><br> <br> </p> <p>West Indies</p> <p>That Kieron Pollard and company are a major force in T20 cricket is a given. The only team to have won the World Cup two times (2012 and 2016), its players are in high demand in leagues around the world. Among the many power hitters, though, stands Roston Lamar Chase, the anchor.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The type of cricket he plays fits right into our balance,” Pollard said during the captains’ interaction before the start of the World Cup. “We need a guy who can manoeuvre the ball, hit the occasional boundaries, and keep the run rate going. That is an area we keep working on, and we thought he was the right fit at this time. He has not played much white-ball cricket, and teams may not have that much data [on him]. We look forward to reaping rewards of his form from the CPL (Caribbean Premier League).”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The tall 29-year-old from Barbados has shed his image of a Test specialist in the past two years. He has now become St. Lucia Kings’ most impactful player of in the CPL. It helps that he can chip in with his off spin, too.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Coach Andy Flower said of him: “A quality all-rounder and a very clever off-spinner, he fields well and can marshal the innings in the middle [overs].”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Chase himself describes his role as akin to that of Marlon Samuels’s in previous editions. “It is an easy role for me,” he said. “With the power hitters we have in this team, my role should be just to really give them the strike and let them do their thing. If the ball is in my area, I will put it away.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Batting average (all T20s)</b></p> <p><b>44</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Bowling average (all T20s)</b></p> <p><b>23.94</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>T20I debut will be at the World Cup</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Rashid Khan</b><br> <br> </p> <p>Afghanistan</p> <p>Let us cut to the chase. If Afghanistan are to do well in the tournament, Rashid Khan needs to turn up. Coming out of the Indian Premier League, Khan had pocketed 18 wickets at a miserly economy rate of 6.69. The 23-year-old has already taken 392 T20 wickets, and is number five on the all-time T20I wickets list, with 95 scalps.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In a 2019 Fox Cricket video with Shane Warne, Khan said his pace set him apart from the other leg spinners. Unlike the Warne saunter, Khan almost charges in like a medium pacer. Like his idol, Shahid Afridi, Khan bowls fast, with an average speed in the early 90s (kmph). Warne bowled between 78-82kmph.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the same video, Khan said he foxed batters with five different grips on the ball, as opposed to Warne’s two, and that that helped him adjust, regardless of the nature of the pitch. The pitches in the UAE are not expected to be too pacy, especially in Sharjah.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Tactically, opponents will look to play out his four overs without taking risks; maybe getting 18 to 20 runs without letting him taste blood. And, given the rest of the Afghanistan bowling—most of whom do not play against the best in the world, across continents—it would not be such a bad idea.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, in the context of the strife back home, with the Taliban taking over his homeland and the future of Afghan cricket in limbo, Khan would hope that his spells of magic would brighten up a few faces in Kabul.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Wickets (all T20s)</b></p> <p><b>392</b> (282 innings)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Bowling average (T20Is)</b></p> <p><b>12.63</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>All-time best</p> <p>(minimum 500 balls)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Shaheen Shah Afridi</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pakistan</p> <p>The baby-faced bowler stands at 6.6”, and is among the latest in a long line of talented fast bowlers from Pakistan. The team’s pace attack is a mix of new and slightly old, with Afridi, 21, bringing fear and excitement to the line-up.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Unlike a Wasim Akram or a Mohammad Amir, he relies on pace more than swing. However, he is still young, and still learning. The left-armer is just three years into his senior international career, and this will be his first T20 World Cup. Though he bowls fast, he also has discipline, and will look to extract bounce from the slow wickets, using his 140+ kmph pace and height. He is also, apart from skipper Babar Azam, the only certainty in the playing eleven in all formats.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Young Afridi is not an overnight find, and has come through the age-group domestic system. A lot, however, will depend on how well Azam makes use of him. Former India opener Gautam Gambhir described him as a “dangerous and raw pace bowler”. He goes into the World Cup on the back of a good outing in the National T20 Cup—the domestic T20 competition played after New Zealand and England cancelled their tours to Pakistan. Turning up for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Afridi played six matches and took 12 wickets, the third most in the competition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Wickets (all T20s)</b></p> <p><b>130</b> (96 innings)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Bowling strike rate (all T20s)</b></p> <p><b>16.40</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>First cricketer born in the 2000s to represent Pakistan</p> Sun Oct 24 09:47:42 IST 2021 babar-azam-interview-t20-cricket-has-changed-a-lot-since-the-2016-world-cup <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>PAKISTAN CRICKET IS</b> going through yet another turbulent phase. It had to deal with the cancellation of tours by New Zealand and England, upsetting its preparations for the T20I World Cup. The abrupt cancellation forced the Pakistan Cricket Board and its new chief, Rameez Raja, to hastily arrange a National T20 Cup, to give the T20I squad much-needed match practice. And, just two days before the deadline of the submission of the final squad for the World Cup, Pakistan revamped its team, recalling former captains Shoaib Malik and Sarfaraz Ahmed, and batters Fakhar Zaman and Haider Ali. Pakistan captain Babar Azam, however, appears unflustered despite the turmoil around him. He remains an oasis of quiet assuredness, much like his batting.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Azam, the world number two in T20I batting rankings, said Pakistan had become a more consistent team. He downplayed the significance of the India-Pakistan opening game in the World Cup. Azam, however, pointed out that playing in the UAE gave Pakistan an advantage in the tournament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Excerpts from the interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How satisfied are you with Pakistan’s preparations? The National T20 Cup was hastily put together after New Zealand and England cancelled their tours.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ T20 is a format in which you have to perform consistently and win matches consistently. This is what we have been missing. You cannot afford to relax at any time during a match. One or two overs going bad can cost you the match. As captain, I want the team to perform consistently. We have been trying to do that in the last three-four series; we are becoming more consistent in our performance. Inshah Allah, we will take confidence from these results and compete in this tournament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Will you continue to open in the World Cup, considering the last-minute changes to the squad?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Most probably, I will open the innings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ India and Pakistan kick off the campaign playing each other. How big a challenge is it?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Pakistan-India matches are always high-intensity ones with full of excitement. We enjoy these a lot. Just like fans of both sides, we, too, wait for this opportunity. The aim is to play good cricket and win the match.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What is your advice to tearaway fast bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi, who is playing his first World Cup?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Shaheen is mature and experienced enough. All I want to tell him is to play to his strengths and bowl his best. He must bowl with a lot of self belief and exploit the weaknesses of the batters.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How much has the T20 format evolved in recent years?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ There have been a lot of changes since 2016. Cricket is more fast-paced, batters have created more shots and scores are upwards of 200 more often. People, too, enjoy this format. As a player, I enjoy this format. You need to take quick decisions on the field as a player or skipper, you need to think on your feet, you have to think of your opponent and decide what you need to plan next. It has become a very fast game.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you think playing in the UAE gives you home advantage?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Yes. We have played a lot in the UAE. These conditions suit us as we know how to play here. But at the end of the day, we need to keep it simple, and do well in all departments.</p> Fri Oct 22 18:32:56 IST 2021 relinquishing-t-20-captaincy-could-help-kohli-rediscover-the-superstar-batsman-in-him <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When Virat Kohli tweeted his decision to step down as T20I captain, it caught many people off guard, including officials in the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Kohli said he had consulted his inner circle, coach Ravi Shastri and his deputy in white-ball cricket, Rohit Sharma.</p> <p>The BCCI took quite some time to come up with appropriate reactions. A few days earlier, BCCI treasurer Arun Dhumal had denied reports of Kohli's possible resignation. Said BCCI secretary Jay Shah: “I have been in discussions with Virat and the team leadership for the past six months and the decision has been thought through. Virat will continue to contribute as a player and as a senior member of the side in shaping the future course of Indian cricket.”</p> <p>The selectors remained incommunicado.</p> <p>On September 20, Kohli announced that he would also step down as captain of Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) after the current edition of the IPL.</p> <p>There were many questions; foremost among them was whether he had chosen to or was he nudged to give up captaincy. Also, why only T20Is? “Understanding workload is important and considering my immense workload over the last eight-nine years, playing all formats and captaining regularly for the past five-six years, I feel I need to give myself space to be fully ready to lead the Indian team in Tests and ODIs,” Kohli said in his statement.</p> <p>THE WEEK has learnt that giving up T20I and RCB captaincy had been on Kohli's mind for a long time. He had reportedly brought this up with Shastri a few months ago, but the latter told him “to wait some time before taking a final call”. The discussion, however, intensified after India lost the World Test Championship final to New Zealand this June.</p> <p>Reportedly, it was entirely Kohli's decision. The BCCI had, no doubt, been getting impatient with the lack of an ICC trophy; India last won one in 2013—the Champions Trophy, under M.S. Dhoni.</p> <p>Under Kohli, India has played three ICC events, winning none. However, under him, India was the number one Test team, winning the ICC Test mace from 2017 to 2019.</p> <p>At RCB, where he has been since 2008, Kohli has not won a title as captain (since 2013). This has been an issue for the franchise and its supporters. He has led RCB to a solitary final in 2016 and the playoffs in 2015 and 2020. Announcing the end of his captaincy gig on the eve of RCB's first match of the second leg, he said, “I recently announced that I was stepping down from [India] T20 captaincy as well to manage my workload, which has been immense. And I want to continue to be committed to the responsibilities that I'm fulfilling and I felt I needed this space to refresh, to regroup and be absolutely clear in how I want to move forward.”</p> <p>Reacting to Kohli's move, former chairman of selectors Dilip Vengsarkar told THE WEEK: “Virat is a fantastic cricketer, a world-class batsman and a good captain as well. Yes, he has not done exceptionally well in the T20 format, even in the IPL (as skipper). This was possibly in the back of his mind as he has always set very high standards for himself. That he wants to concentrate on his batting is fair enough; this decision is entirely his call.”</p> <p>The primary reason was not the trophy drought, but workload management. The world's premier all-format batsman wants to focus more on his batting. By giving up captaincy, Kohli had informed people close to him that he wanted to free himself from the pressures of being a T20 captain. The decision was hard, because Kohli thrives on leading a team; giving up T20 captaincy was the easiest option as the stakes were lower.</p> <p>Reportedly, he had found no time to work on his batting, especially in the past two years. “A lot goes on in T20 matches, and while there is a team strategy, things change rapidly on field. Besides, with so many matches in the IPL, where is the time to work on your batting issues?” asked a source very close to Kohli. Life in the bio-bubble, too, appears to have contributed to the decision.</p> <p>Former chief selector Kiran More agreed with Vengsarkar. “I also think it is an individual decision,” he told THE WEEK. “He needs to work on his batting a bit more and that is bound to benefit India. He has been playing for a long time, since the India Under-19 days, and it is not easy to captain either. I feel it is a great decision.”</p> <p>Kohli's batting form is key to India's fortunes in all formats. In the past two years, he has averaged 40.64 in 17 Tests, hitting two 100s and five 50s. His overall batting average in Tests is 51.08. In 15 ODIs, he has an average of 43.26 with eight 50s. For someone with 12,169 runs in the format, including 43 centuries, this period has been tepid. His T20I form, however, has not dipped in the same period. He has averaged 59.83 in his last 19 T20Is; his career average is 52.65. Given that India will be playing two ICC T20 World Cups in 2021 and 2022, a relaxed, focused and hungrier Kohli will be a major boost.</p> <p>As for who takes over, there has been hectic speculation. Rohit is widely seen as the successor, but the selectors could throw up a surprise. BCCI president Sourav Ganguly said Virat had been one of the most successful captains, but also that the decision had been made “keeping in mind the future roadmap”.</p> <p>Experts say that even if Sharma is chosen, it will be a stopgap solution. Though he has five IPL titles, he is almost two years older than Kohli. Said Vengsarkar: “The BCCI and the selectors should groom the next captain, a youngster from India or India A. Unfortunately, our selection committee has not shown that kind of vision. They have to see whether they want a senior pro like Rohit in-charge till, let's say the T20 World Cup in 2022 in Australia, or groom a youngster.”</p> <p>More, though, said Rohit “deserves the captaincy” and that his record speaks for itself. “Youngsters still have a long way to go; in T20s, there are a lot of senior cricketers leading sides around the world,” he said. “In this format, you need a decent team, but a good leader.”</p> <p>While former India captain Sunil Gavaskar pitched for Punjab Kings skipper K.L. Rahul, Rishabh Pant, who leads Delhi Capitals and whom Ganguly has immense faith in, will also be observed. It will be an interesting year post the T20 World Cup as India gets a new captain and coach. As for Kohli, it will be about rediscovering his batting mojo.</p> Thu Sep 23 16:49:01 IST 2021 strong-backing-of-athletes-reaps-rich-paralympics-medal-harvest <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Yogesh Kathuniya had</b> shut himself in his bedroom on returning home from Tokyo. With a silver medal in discus throw F-56 (seated position) in hand, he landed in Delhi into a whirlwind of receptions. He had finally managed to get some shut-eye on reaching his home in Bahadurgarh, Haryana. He spoke to THE WEEK, bleary-eyed but wearing a wide grin, the sense of achievement having finally sunk in. The 24-year-old son of an Army officer suffers from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a neurological disorder that eventually led to paraplegia. At the Paralympics, a throw of 44.38m in his last attempt won him the silver medal.</p> <p>Kathuniya is one among the 17 Indian Paralympians who contributed to a national record haul of 19 medals—five gold, eight silver and six bronze—at the Games. Before Tokyo, India had a total of 12 medals from all its previous Paralympics appearances combined, resulting in the euphoria on the return of these champions.</p> <p>At the Kathuniya household, the medallist’s mother, Meena Devi, understands what it means for her son to make it to the podium. When he was a young boy, Devi would strap him to her scooter as she took him for physiotherapy sessions. To her, after all the hardship, this silver is as good as gold. “Life has changed drastically since I won in Tokyo,” said Kathuniya. “People recognise me now. Those who used to say I could not do it are now congratulating me.” The BCom graduate from Delhi University wants to specialise in sports management.</p> <p>Meanwhile, Noida district magistrate Suhas Lalinakere Yathiraj became the first IAS officer to win a medal at the Olympics or Paralympics. In 2019, the badminton player was posted in Lucknow and was training with coach Gaurav Khanna for the Paralympics when he was transferred to Noida as district magistrate. When Covid-19 struck, badminton took a back seat as he had to deal with lockdowns and other issues. He would train early in the day or late at night. He would find sparring partners to train with and Khanna would share his analysis through video calls. In the final of the men’s singles SL-4 category (for a congenital deformity in his leg), Yathiraj bagged the silver after losing to world No 1 Lucas Mazur of France. “During Covid [lockdowns], I could not practise enough. But once things reopened and as the Games drew near, I practised well. It is not how many hours you spend in training but what you do during it that is important,” said the 38-year-old from Karnataka. He received a rousing reception on his arrival. “I would like to be recognised as a good human being who helped at least one person in his life,” he said.</p> <p>Khanna, who was instrumental in Yathiraj’s performance, is the national para-badminton coach and runs the Gaurav Khanna Excellia Badminton Academy (GKEBA) in Lucknow, India’s first professional para-badminton academy. Besides Yathiraj, his wards Pramod Bhagat (men’s singles SL-3), Krishna Nagar (men’s singles SH-6) and Manoj Sarkar (men’s singles SL-3) also won two golds and a bronze, respectively. The bond between him and his wards was made evident when both Bhagat and Nagar jumped into Khanna’s arms on court after their respective medal-clinching matches. “I am super happy for the gold medals we got and happy, too, for the rest who did not,” he told THE WEEK from Tokyo. “I had promised Deepa ma’am (Paralympic Committee of India president Deepa Malik) five medals; we got four.”</p> <p>Khanna started his academy in 2019, ahead of badminton making its debut at the Paralympics in Tokyo. Khanna, who has also worked with the deaf badminton players, has considerable experience coaching players with disabilities. “Bhagat was already the Asian and World champion. The only thing left for him was to win a Paralympic medal,” said Khanna. “He is our strongest player. In the last two years, we have worked on his strength, speed and stamina.”</p> <p>On his other golden boy, Nagar, who has short stature impairment, Khanna said, “The idea was to overcome the issue of reach by working on his strength and speed.” Nagar, who hails from Jaipur, took up badminton at 14. The 4’ 3” Nagar joined GKEBA in 2019. The academy boasts of four state-of-the-art badminton courts, world-class gymnasium, sauna, Jacuzzi and hostel facilities.</p> <p>Shooting, too, delivered multiple medals for India. While Avani Lekhara was the toast of the town, winning a gold and a bronze, Manish Narwal, who turns 20 in October, is also quite the star. He has a congenital impairment in his right hand, but the young pistol shooter won the gold medal in the mixed 50m SH-1 event, setting a Paralympic record of 218.2. Shooting was a hobby for him, but he participated in the India trials for the 2017 Bangkok World Cup, and was picked. His rise from there was consistent. His first coach had taught him to shoot with his left hand. The hard work paid off in Tokyo, where he pipped senior teammate Singhraj Adhana, who won silver in the same event. Both are from Faridabad in Haryana.</p> <p>For Adhana, the silver was his second medal at Tokyo, having won bronze earlier in the men’s 10m air pistol SH-1 class. The 39-year-old, who was afflicted by polio at a young age, hails from a farming family and took to shooting while chaperoning his two kids and nephew to a shooting range in 2017. Within a year of taking up the sport, he made the cut for the 2018 Para Asian Games and since then has competed in numerous international competitions. “I contracted polio when I was one. There were no polio drops in the village. But my parents and grandmother did not give up. I used to walk with a stick and my mother would always say I had to trust in myself to walk on my feet. By the grace of God, I stopped using the stick when I was 14-15. <i>Vishwas ki jeet thi</i> (It was a victory of belief),” he said after the medal win.</p> <p>For PCI president Malik, a former Paralympic medallist, the Tokyo Games was a watershed moment in the Paralympic movement in India. Speaking to THE WEEK about the change that has come about, a beaming Malik said, “It is all courtesy of beautiful coordination between government (Sports Authority of India and Target Olympic Podium Scheme), federations, coaches and athletes. Plus, right amount of funding for equipment and prosthetics. The coaches, too, are training and upgrading themselves. Most importantly, timely help is given.” Malik takes pride in the quick interventions by the PCI. For instance, emails from players or coaches do not sit in the PCI inbox for long; quick correspondence between key stakeholders has helped immensely.</p> <p>With the Paris Paralympics just three years away, Malik is already preparing for the challenges that would arise. “My challenge is to get athletes to qualify early; most do so towards the end. Ten to fifteen athletes get aid from TOPS, and only for two or three months before the Games,” she said. Malik suggests that TOPS start with B-level para athletes. “A-level athletes are the top-ranked ones who would have already qualified, but [a focus on] B-level athletes is a must so that they get their prosthetics and equipment early.” While Malik has praised the system in place with SAI and the Union sports ministry, she also wants the states to be more proactive.</p> <p>The attention that the Tokyo Paralympics has received has pleased the community. Its mainstreaming—primarily due to broadcasting and media coverage—is a crucial development in India. Malik acknowledges this and says a shift is happening, but she also wants “coaches to take para sports more seriously”. While there is no paucity of talent, the key to India’s para athletes succeeding would be to have more coaches like Gaurav Khanna.&nbsp;</p> Thu Sep 09 19:21:37 IST 2021 tracing-the-journey-of-paralympic-history-maker-avani-lekhara <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Avani Lekhara’s journey</b> from her home in Jaipur to the Tokyo Paralympic Games has catapulted her to national fame, courtesy of her double medal. The calm, soft-spoken 19-year-old made history by becoming the first Indian woman to win gold at the Paralympics. It was a world record equalling feat in R2 women’s 10m air rifle SH-1 event (for athletes with lower limb impairment). A few days later, she added a bronze to her collection in the women’s 50m three-position SH-1 event. This was her first international medal in the three-position event.</p> <p>Lekhara’s achievement made her only the second Indian ever to win multiple medals at the same Paralympics; Joginder Singh Sodhi won three medals at the 1984 Games. She also joined Sodhi, Devendra Jhajharia and Mariyappan Thangavelu on the list of Indians with two or more Paralympic medals.</p> <p>Lekhara, who is currently pursuing a law degree, met with an accident in 2012 while travelling with her family from Jaipur to Dholpur. A bubbly, talented Lekhara had become moody and reclusive after becoming a paraplegic.</p> <p>Her father, Praveen, did not give up. In 2015, he took her to Jagatpura Shooting Range and also gave her a copy of Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra’s autobiography, <i>A Shot at History</i>. “I went to the shooting range during my summer vacation in 2015. I took up shooting just as a hobby, going there once or twice a week,” she said. “[The book] inspired me. [Bindra] really gave his 100 per cent. I always wanted to become like him.” She would go on to emulate her idol, but it was a difficult journey. There were mental demons to fight and the challenge of adapting with her non-functional lower body.</p> <p>In 2015, Lekhara started training under coach Chandra Shekhar. She also roped in former air rifle Olympian Suma Shirur as her personal coach. Her first international medal was a bronze at the 2017 World Shooting Para Sport (WSPS) World Cup in Bangkok. She followed it up with a silver and a junior world record at the WSPS World Cup in the UAE the same year. Two more silvers came at the 2019 and 2021 World Cups in Croatia and the UAE, before she finally struck gold at Tokyo.</p> <p>During the lockdown ahead of Tokyo, the Sports Authority of India ensured that Lekhara had a digital target installed at her home in Jaipur, where she would practice for the 10m air rifle event. Her foreign exposure trips and equipment requirements were taken care of by the government’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme.</p> <p>Despite her achievement, the bronze in the three-positions event left her disappointed. The event is far more demanding for her. “It requires a lot of equipment,” said Lekhara. “For kneeling, prone and standing it is all different. Because I am on a wheelchair, adjusting and setting it all up takes time. Physically, too, it requires a lot of work as the competition lasts two hours and 45 minutes.”</p> <p>Unlike with the Olympic shooting team, where there was bad blood between coaches, the Paralympics staff seem to have worked well together. “We have a very wonderful team—coaches J.P. Nautiyal, Suma ma’am, Harsh Rana—it is a very friendly environment and that helps a lot,” said Lekhara. “It is like a team effort.”</p> Thu Sep 09 19:10:37 IST 2021 javelin-thrower-sumit-antil-is-not-satisfied-with-just-one-gold <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>It is not easy</b> to overshadow an Olympic gold medallist, but Sumit Antil did so, that too with a javelin, on August 30. The 23-year-old from Sonipat, Haryana, broke his own world record three times en route to a gold in the F64 category at the Tokyo Paralympics. He threw an impressive 68.55m.</p> <p>“My competitors had prepared well, I got nervous seeing them,” he told THE WEEK. “I told myself I had been working so hard for this day. I had sacrificed everything else for javelin. I broke the world record in my first throw; it boosted my confidence and I played without fear or hesitation thereafter. Also, I knew I had done everything possible to compete at the Games.”</p> <p>As expected, life has changed post Tokyo. “I had never imagined the response when I returned,” he said. “When I reached my village Khewra, there were around 10,000 people waiting to welcome me.”</p> <p>The villagers had gathered to watch his competition on television; this pleased Sumit no end. As did the 06 crore the Haryana government has promised. Other rewards are expected to follow. Former hockey Olympian and state Sports Minister Sandeep Singh welcomed him at Delhi airport; Chief Minister M.L. Khattar dropped in at his home.</p> <p>Sumit, once a budding wrestler, lost his father—a retired junior warrant officer in the Air Force—when he was just six. In 2015, biking home after tuition class, Sumit had an accident; a truck ran over his left leg. It had to be amputated. It took him two years to walk.</p> <p>But Sumit had always been positive. He transitioned to para-sports and took up the javelin. It was painful, and his mother cried seeing him suffer. “I told her maybe something good will come out of this,” he said.</p> <p>He had a prosthetic leg, but the run-up to launch the javelin was too painful. “I would get wounds on my leg,” he said. “My biggest hurdle was to tolerate the pain. I would watch motivational videos, as I had no other option but to tolerate the pain. My entire body weight would fall on my left leg. I told myself that there were three months, two months, one month to go for the Paralympics.”</p> <p>He has three prosthetics now. The one he used in Tokyo was made for throwing; another one is for running and gym work. There is one for regular use. All three are imported—Go Sports Foundation gave him one; SAI, two. He even has a reserve in case one breaks during competition.</p> <p>Even as celebrations continue, it is time to focus ahead. And, not just on Paris 2024; his aim now is to throw 75m. “There is still a lot to achieve,” he said. “I am not satisfied with just one gold medal.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Sep 09 19:06:14 IST 2021 how-city-football-group-plans-to-dominate-the-football-world <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>IT WAS A BIG MOVE</b> for Aaron Mooy. In June 2016, the 25-year-old Australian midfielder joined Manchester City after two stellar seasons with its sister club, Melbourne City. “Aaron is an extremely talented player who possesses the attributes we hope to foster and encourage within the City Football Group,” said Brian Marwood, managing director, City Football Services, in a statement released by Melbourne City. Marwood, who is now managing director of global football, City Football Group (CFG), had added that Mooy’s move to Manchester would help “ensure his professional growth”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Manchester, however, there was little to no interest in Mooy. And, understandably so. It was the same season in which Pep Guardiola finally took the Manchester City job, after years of being wooed. The club reportedly spent over £190 million to modify an already world-class squad to Guardiola’s specifications. This included signing John Stones, Leroy Sane, Gabriel Jesus and Ilkay Gundogan. Rivals Manchester United brought in the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, the latter for a world-record fee.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mooy, virtually unknown to fans, was almost immediately loaned out to Huddersfield Town in the English second division. He had a brilliant season, and helped Huddersfield gain promotion to the Premier League for the first time ever. This prompted the club to sign Mooy on a permanent deal; the fee was reportedly around £8 million. Mooy never played for Manchester City. But, the transfer fee the CFG pocketed from his sale was more than what the group had spent to buy Melbourne City in 2014.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>However, this seemingly profitable transaction is the exception rather than the trend. The CFG, owned by Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan’s Abu Dhabi United Group (77 per cent), the China Media Capital Consortium (13 per cent) and Silver Lake (10 per cent), is in for the long haul. So, even as the group continues to operate at massive losses, there is no dilution of its grand ambition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It currently runs 10 clubs and has partnerships with two clubs (see graphics). The plan is to find the best young players from across the world, develop them and then ‘promote’ them to the bigger clubs within the group or sell them (for example, Mooy). But even when sold, the player stands to benefit immensely from being in the CFG ecosystem. This could be a path to the top leagues for players (hopefully, Indian players, too) who may otherwise have gone undiscovered by European clubs. This system would, in theory, ensure a smooth supply of talented players for the group’s flagship—Manchester City—as it seeks to become the world’s greatest football club.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Key to this vision is creating a football ideology that can be followed at all CFG clubs to deliver an exciting and forward playing game. This is a part of Guardiola’s job at Manchester City—creating an entertaining style of football that would become synonymous with the City brand. Clubs and academies across the world would try to implement this style, meaning that in the future, players would be able to adapt to playing for different teams in the group with relative ease. There is no doubt that in places like New York, Melbourne or Mumbai, the quality of football will be lower, at least in the medium-term, compared with England and Spain. But, the attempt is to make the philosophy consistent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Winning trophies is understood to be a basic requirement. And CFG has done well on that count. Senior teams of clubs under CFG have won 39 trophies, including lower division leagues and minor trophies, since 2008, when CFG personnel took over Manchester City (CFG was formally formed only in 2013 as the group started adding more clubs to its portfolio). This haul comprises 26 trophies in the men’s game and 13 in the women’s game. Reigning league champions in the CFG are Manchester City, Melbourne City, Troyes (French second division) and Mumbai City.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mumbai City won the Indian Super League in its first full season under CFG, thanks to sweeping changes. The group recruited coach Sergio Lobera from FC Goa. Lobera was briefly assistant manager to Tito Vilanova at Barcelona and is a known proponent of the Guardiola way. And, at Goa, he had shown that he could make it, or a modified version of it, work in India. In Mumbai, he emphasised on trying to play that style of football—now the City way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To help Lobera do that, Mumbai City signed Hugo Boumous—player of the season in the previous edition of the ISL—from Goa. The reported fee was around Rs1.5crore. According to reputed football news website, it was more than the total of transfer fees Mumbai City has paid since the inception of the ISL. As per the website, Mumbai has already broken this record by shelling out around Rs1.9 crore on recent signing Lalengmawia “Apuia” Ralte, from North East United.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Striker Adam Le Fondre, who was the team’s top scorer with 11 goals in the 2020-2021 season, has said that the City brand was a prominent reason behind his one-year loan move from Sydney; he felt that a CFG club would be “more professional, have the best coach..., facilities”. Though Le Fondre had been in sensational form, the club also wanted an experienced striker who was more familiar with Indian conditions. Quite remarkably, it managed to bring in Bartholomew Ogbeche, who had starred for Kerala Blasters and North East United in the two previous seasons, not as the star man, but to enhance squad strength.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>CFG’s work with Mumbai City highlighted the group’s ability to transform its teams in a short span of time. This has been consistent despite CFG’s presence in regions with vastly different football cultures and heritage, such as Europe, South America and Asia. CFG’s former India CEO Damian Willoughby, who left the group in July, told THE WEEK that the consistency is a result of the multi-club model where methodology, learnings and experience are shared to benefit all teams. “[The group] has a range of experts who work across all areas of sporting performance,” he said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Mumbai is not one of the football hotbeds in cricket-crazy India and was perhaps an odd choice for CFG’s entry into India. But Willoughby explained that the group looks at a wide range of considerations before investing in a team. “Mumbai is one of the world’s truly great cities,” he said. He added that there was enormous potential to develop the team and participate in the growth of football in India. “Wide range of considerations” and “enormous potential” may be acknowledgements of the huge untapped market in India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The country already has a significant number of people who consume European football. If CFG is able to transform Mumbai City into a team which plays good football while consistently challenging for national and continental titles, it will help the City brand immensely and in turn generate more interest in Manchester City, at least among those Indians who have not already declared support for one of its English or European rivals. The same principle applies with respect to CFG’s ventures into other relatively untapped markets.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The only hiccup in CFG’s operations so far has been that Manchester City, despite its meteoric rise in the football world, has been unable to win a European title. (It lost the final to Chelsea last season.) This is a major disappointment, especially because City have spent an incredulous £1.92 billion (over Rs19,000 crore) on transfer fees since 2008, including the £100 million signing of Jack Grealish in August.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The signing of the talented Grealish, for the biggest fee ever paid by a British club, is noteworthy considering that the team did not lack good options in his role. Grealish has predominantly played off the left in recent years. At his new team, he would be competing with Raheem Sterling for a starting berth. The likes of Phil Foden and Ferran Torres are also capable of playing on both wings. In short, City spent £100 million to enhance squad strength. It was a stark statement of its intent ahead of the 2021-2022 season which began on August 14. It is also interested in signing Harry Kane, whose price tag would be higher than Grealish’s.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Apart from the spending on the squad, the club has also invested heavily in infrastructure and youth development. The new youth setup has already produced at least two potentially world-class players in Foden and Jadon Sancho, who recently signed for Manchester United. The eventual target is to emulate Barcelona’s youth academy—La Masia—which has produced legends such as Lionel Messi, Andreas Iniesta, Xavi, Carles Puyol and Guardiola himself. The man who conceptualised CFG’s global empire, CEO Ferran Soriano, a former Barcelona employee, has said that the group is “globalising the Barca model”. Ironically, the club on which Soriano based his blueprint seems to have fallen on hard times, even as Manchester City strives to emulate it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the context of the inflation in the transfer market, Soriano told The Guardian in 2017 (the year of Neymar’s world-record-breaking transfer): “This is a typical ‘make-or-buy’ challenge. You can’t buy in the market, so you have to make. This means spending a lot of money—on academies, coaches, but also in transfers for young players. It’s like venture capital in that if you invest 10 million each in 10 players, you just need one to get to the top who is going to be worth 100 million.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The group’s aggressive transfer strategy with regards to signing young players and massive spending has come in for scrutiny on many occasions. Manchester City has been fined for flouting the UEFA’s financial fair play rules and there has been criticism for taking “hidden state aid” in the form of sponsorship contracts from public companies in Abu Dhabi. The Australian league even changed its transfer policies to level the playing field. There are also concerns regarding human rights issues in Abu Dhabi. But, despite all challenges, the CFG juggernaut has continued to roll on. In 2019, the group was valued at $4.8 billion (around Rs35,000 crore).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In July, CFG borrowed $650 million (around Rs4,800 crore) to invest in its clubs. This money is expected to go towards infrastructure, especially a new stadium for New York City. There is a glimmer of hope for India, too, as Willoughby revealed that the group wanted to build and develop its presence in the country and was working on a range of proposals that would keep it busy “in the months and years ahead”.</p> Thu Aug 19 16:08:13 IST 2021 neeraj-chopra-journey-from-talented-teen-to-olympic-champion <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>After he ran in and released the Nordic javelin for the second time, Neeraj Chopra bent down to balance himself, turned around and raised his right hand to signal he had done it. He did not need to look where the spear had landed. Chopra had made the winning throw at the men’s javelin finals at Tokyo 2020.</p> <p>For the record, the javelin had travelled 87.58m; no one would match the distance.</p> <p>With this, the 23-year-old from Khandra village in Panipat, Haryana, walked into an exclusive club with only one other member—shooter Abhinav Bindra. They are India’s only individual Olympic gold medallists; Bindra won his at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Chopra also became independent India’s first Olympic medallist in athletics; Norman Pritchard had won two silvers at the 1900 Olympics.</p> <p>The achievement was enormous, but there was no jumping with joy. Subedar Neeraj Chopra was all understated swag. Simple, down to earth, humble. These are some of the words his mates, seniors, officials and coaches use to describe the golden boy. Athletics Federation of India president Adille Sumariwalla describes him thus, “A dedicated, well-behaved athlete totally focused on his game.”</p> <p>Chopra is the reigning Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and now Olympic gold medallist. “What makes him different from other javelin throwers in India is his athleticism,” coach Klaus Bartonietz told THE WEEK from his home in Germany. “What he does in the gym, he does with speed. He is well coordinated on rope floor, high bar, parallel bars; you cannot compare with gymnasts, of course, but what is key is athleticism. This is what we need in javelin throw, all-round preparation.”</p> <p>When it comes to his sport, Chopra is serious, committed and goes deep into the subject. But, like a lot of youngsters, he, too, loves his branded apparel. He also loves his long flowing hair, but had to chop it off while training in Sweden, weeks ahead of Tokyo. In food, he likes chicken and fish, and is partial to grilled salmon; he absolutely loves fruit juices.</p> <p>Chopra’s talent was spotted much before he became the world junior champion in 2016. He was part of Mittal Champions Trust till 2012, but when that shut shop in 2014, he was brought into JSW Sports’s Olympic/high performance scheme. Said Manisha Malhotra, head of sports excellence and scouting, JSW Sports: “He is a hard worker, never shies from training harder. If you ask him to do certain things more times, he will always do so. He is very young but takes considered decisions when it comes to his sport—he will listen to all views and then decide what to do. He is very mature for his age. He is, in fact, an ideal athlete to work with.”</p> <p>Malhotra had also worked with Bindra during her time as CEO of Mittal Champions Trust. “He [Chopra] is an optimist,” she said. “He did not take the [elbow] surgery (2019) as a huge setback; the only time he felt frustrated was when he was not getting competition abroad because of the second Covid wave in India. SAI (Sports Authority of India) and we were trying to get him abroad.”</p> <p>SAI, through its Target Olympic Podium Scheme, had paid for Chopra’s travel, training and competitions, and his personal foreign coaches Gary Calvert (who died in 2018), Uwe Hohn and Bartonietz. JSW Sports had helped scout the right coach, had brought in physiologist Ishaan Marwaha and had supported Chopra through surgery, rehab and recovery. Said Bartonietz: “The effort [put in] post his surgery was more mental than physical. It was very tricky to increase the training load after surgery; the physio needed a lot of knowledge. Marwaha did a very good job; there is trust between the two. That is why we could increase the load week by week from basic exercises to lifting [weights]. [The progress in] such a relatively short time was amazing.”</p> <p>JSW also worked with SAI to get Chopra to Europe ahead of the Olympics. He had been starved of competition in the lockdown, and eventually flew to Portugal. He was enrolled in several competitions and soon set up his training base in Sweden. The supportive role of the AFI, too, cannot be undervalued.</p> <p>Dissecting Chopra’s throw, Bartonietz said: “If you break it down in terms of science, he had the highest velocity by amount and direction. Compare his 87.58m with the 86.67m of silver medallist Jakub Vadlejch of Czech Republic—the difference is 91cm, which is almost nothing at the 87m level. His (Neeraj’s) javelin was a little bit better in the air. He could focus. These guys (top javelin throwers) are very close in what they do; one is stronger, the other is faster, but Neeraj is a good technician. He threw the javelin 90m in training, which is a good result. We had set 88m as our goal before leaving for Tokyo.”</p> <p>The European stint helped Chopra get into a good frame of mind. “We could train well in Sweden,” said Bartonietz. “The track, throwing field and gym were near each other. The mindset was to do our best. Our belief was that [German Johannes] Vetter was the best; we could not imagine that he would get troubled with technique in Tokyo, we thought he would go for gold. But Neeraj got his chance and, most importantly, he was able to use this chance. It was a mind game for all the top guys in Tokyo.”</p> <p>For now though, it is time for Chopra to go back to his family, home-cooked food and some much-needed rest. Sponsorship deals and marriage proposals are pouring in, but these are not priority right now. So hectic were the hours after the win that he could not speak to his family until he arrived in Delhi. But his family is patient and so is he. A homecoming this special is a rarity.</p> Thu Aug 12 20:09:36 IST 2021 my-journey-as-a-javelin-thrower-has-just-begun <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>Can you describe the hours leading up to and after the final?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ It is all a blur. Before the competition, it felt like the Olympics is right here upon us and after winning the gold, it is a different feeling. When you are preparing for a competition there is a pressure on you both mentally and physically. Post the event I am feeling a bit relaxed. Feeling that I am an Olympic champion, yes. The medal stays with me most of the time. Even if I do take it off, I keep it near me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>People have always expected you to win medals, right from the junior level. Have you felt the pressure of such high expectations?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ The expectations were rightfully there. The entire country was expecting me to achieve something at the Olympics. It depends on you how you take this—as pressure or as motivation. If one has the ability [to deliver] it means people’s confidence is rightfully placed.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> At what point during the final did you believe you would get gold?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ While I was competing I had to do something extra, something different. I had not thought about getting the gold.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>You are 23, but have shown maturity beyond your years. Where do you get this from?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ It is important to keep your feet on the ground. My family and seniors have guided me to be like this. I believe whatever one achieves, one must always be respectful towards others. There is something [beyond sports], so it is important to be grounded.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>What was the lowest point in your career? Injury or not being able to compete because of the lockdown?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ The injury time was definitely the lowest point for me. It happens with everyone. When I was injured, I was helpless, unable to throw the javelin or train. But it taught me that maybe you have hit a low, but time will change things eventually. I took it in a positive way.</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>How challenging was that injury and recovery period?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ It lasted six to seven months. After recovery, I entered my name in the open nationals. I was just so desperate to compete again. But then the AFI (Athletics Federation of India) advised me not to rush into it, so I withdrew. The surgery process was not as bad; I was advised bed rest for a week post the surgery, followed by rehab. Then I was told I could start light cycling and training. I felt happy to just get back to physical training.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>Who supported you during that time?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ My seniors were there to help me out. Jaiveer (early coach) and my friend Monu. There was my family; my uncles would motivate me. It is team work. Everyone in the federation (AFI), SAI (Sports Authority of India) and JSW Sports supported me. I went for my rehab to IIS (Inspire Institute of Sport), Vijayanagar (Bengaluru). Each staff member there helped me a lot. Dr Dinshaw Pardiwala at Kokilaben Hospital, who did my elbow surgery, too helped a lot.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>There has been a lot of talk this past year about achieving the 90m throw, with Johannes Vetter doing it so often. Did you get bogged down by that question?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ He is a very fine athlete, and throwing 90m distance so consistently [makes him a] one-of-a-kind thrower. Maybe he went in overconfident at the Olympics. But I was focused on my own thing. In our sport, it all boils down to how you throw on that day. So I really was not bothered about the 90m buzz.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b>What next? Rest and time with family?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Yes, but my journey as a javelin thrower has just started. Yes, I have won gold at the Olympics, Asian Games and Commonwealth Games, but I still want to improve and perform consistently. I do not want to be satisfied with these achievements.</p> Thu Aug 12 16:34:41 IST 2021 fitness-mental-toughness-of-players-gave-india-olympic-medal-in-hockey-after-41-yrs <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>P.R. Sreejesh had a lot on his plate before and during the Tokyo Olympic Games. As the senior-most member of the Indian hockey team, he had to ensure that the team remained focused and motivated; and as the goalkeeper, he had to ensure that he was on top of his game when the moment came. He did both jobs remarkably well. “I slept peacefully before every match at the Olympics,” he told THE WEEK from Tokyo.</p> <p>After August 5, however, life became different for Sreejesh and his teammates. On that day, India beat Germany 5-4 to win the bronze medal. The Indian hockey team was back on the podium at the Olympics after 41 years. The players could not sleep properly for a few days after that owing to innumerable protocols and demands on their time.</p> <p>After spending two days in Delhi after returning from Tokyo, Sreejesh made a dash to Kerala to meet his family before returning for the Independence Day function in the capital. So did the rest of his teammates. None of the players or support staff had been home for nine months, as they camped and trained on the Sports Authority of India campus in Bengaluru. “I had a wonderful Olympic Games,” said Sreejesh. “Whenever there was a chance I was able to save goals and give life to my team. Being the senior-most player, I had to be an example for youngsters and motivate them.”</p> <p>The Indian hockey team led by Manpreet Singh and coached by Graham Reid has dared to dream. “It is a very big achievement,” said Manpreet. “We had heard stories of winning medals, but all those medals had happened before I was born.” It was the same for the likes of defender Harmanpreet Singh, 25, or midfielder Hardik Singh, 24, or Simranjeet Singh, who came in as a reserve player outside the squad of 16 and scored two important goals in the bronze medal match against Germany. This group of players, however, showed no signs of carrying the burden of the past, and they wrote an entirely new chapter in Indian hockey.</p> <p>For former Australian player and coach Reid, a podium finish was no unknown territory. But he wanted it with India. “I always had hoped we could stand on the podium. I had seen the team during the 2018 World Cup. I was with the Dutch team then. The aim was to try and build some consistency in their performance and some belief, which we had been able to do,” he said.</p> <p>Tokyo 2020 has been a watershed Olympic Games for not just Indian hockey but the entire nation. Generations have seen the dream of an Olympic medal in hockey fade; generations have now realised what it means to win an Olympic medal in hockey. “When I started my career, I would hear the history, medal-winning days. Now I have become part of that,” said Sreejesh. Hockey makes India weep with joy and pain; it is a love affair that never fades.</p> <p>Tokyo was Manpreet’s third Olympics. “It feels good after having experienced the disaster in London 2012 and the pain of not going past the quarterfinal stage in Rio 2016,” he said. “This time we did a lot of hard work; we were at the SAI campus for 15 months, made lots of sacrifices for a good result.”</p> <p>This win pushed the men’s team to the third position in the FIH World Rankings. The rise, however, did not happen overnight. The signs were there in Rio, but the team failed to make it past the quarterfinals. The brief for Reid when he took charge in April 2019 was a podium finish.</p> <p>This Olympic campaign was different from the others in the past. The team has no big stars unlike earlier, but it has a deep sense of self-belief in its capabilities. “We can beat any team and we have done so in the past. We had sacrificed so much to get here. After losing the semifinal match, in the team meeting, we said that the team wanted to go to the finals, but unfortunately, we couldn’t. If we did not win the bronze medal we would go empty-handed and we would regret that for the rest of our lives. So the last match against Germany would be the most important 60 minutes of our career,” said Manpreet.</p> <p>This campaign was also about team effort and cohesiveness. “The last 15 months added to team bonding and togetherness,” said Reid. “I was telling these guys for the last few months not to underestimate its effect when you are put under pressure. To be 3-1 down against Germany in the last match after the semifinal loss, we dug deep and it was great to see. The support staff along with players have made sacrifices that paid off.”</p> <p>The road to success has not been smooth—seven players got Covid-19 and there was little top-level competition before going to Tokyo because of the restrictions. Yet, the team kept working hard.</p> <p>One of the standouts at the Olympics was the team’s fitness levels. “Our fitness levels were extraordinary,” said Reid. “You saw that in the game against Germany.” To achieve this, it took a lot of doing. “In 2019, we went to Japan for the test event. We knew it would be hot and humid during the Olympics. So we trained in the afternoons at home to get used to the heat there,” said Manpreet.</p> <p>The team with 10 Olympic debutants was also a mentally stronger side than its predecessors. Gone were the days of nervy last few minutes of the match when Indians habitually conceded penalty corners and goals under pressure. Reid prefers to describe it as one of the downsides of the modern game rather than any apparent weakness in the Indian team. “We were 3-2 up against New Zealand in the test event in Tokyo in 2019, and then they scored two goals in two minutes and we lost the game. We tore that game apart. Piece by piece, play by play we checked what was going through the players’ minds. I don’t think it’s just India. It’s the modern game. You can turn it around in two minutes as you saw with the Indian girls.”</p> <p>The team worked hard to overcome this issue in training. “In the 2018 Asian Games, we lost to Malaysia like this in the semifinals,” said Manpreet. “Something happened. We worked very hard on our defence to ensure that it does not happen again. We would not take it easy in the last five minutes; the aim was to keep the opposition on the other side if we were leading in the last few minutes of the game.”</p> <p>With the Paris Olympic Games just three years away, the big question being asked is what India needs to do to bridge the glaring gap it has with the top two teams—Australia and Belgium. The only two games India lost in its Tokyo campaign were against Australia (1-7) and Belgium (2-5), the eventual silver and gold medallists, respectively. Reid, who is continuing as the chief coach, said he would be investigating to work out what needs to be done to close the gap. “Teams that succeed are ones that can string one good corner after another, match after another. We had one lapse in the middle. The Olympics is different,” he said.</p> <p>After months of staying in the camp, living and breathing hockey with teammates, it is time now to savour the bronze. Time to put up their feet with family and friends. Soon, it will be time to get back to hockey, to national duty.</p> Thu Aug 12 16:25:52 IST 2021 regardless-of-result-the-women-performance-could-change-indian-hockey <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>If there is one thing that the Indian women’s hockey team knows, it is survival. On the field or off it. Captain Rani Rampal’s family has fought poverty; her father was a tonga puller in Shahbad, Haryana. Midfielder Neha Goyal, 24, escaped an abusive, alcoholic father; she worked with her mother in a cycle factory to earn two meals a day. Defender Nikki Pradhan, 27, hails from Hesal, a Naxal hotbed in Jharkhand; her sister worked as a labourer to buy her a hockey stick. Midfielder Nisha Warsi, from Sonipat, Haryana, found encouragement in her tailor father, but her wings were clipped when a paralytic stroke hit him. Her mother worked in a foam factory to make ends meet, and Warsi eventually made it to the national team.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is this grit and determination that shocked powerhouse Australia in the quarterfinals in Tokyo. This was the third time the Indian women’s team had made it to an Olympics—the previous being Moscow 1980 and Rio 2016—and this was its most successful outing. In Rio, the team finished its campaign without a win.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Five years later, the women had a disappointing start once again; the Netherlands beat them 5-1. They then lost to Germany and Britain. A repeat of Rio was on the cards. The aim was a quarterfinal finish, for which they had to beat Ireland and South Africa. They did it. “We did not have many practice matches before the Olympics, so we kept telling the girls to improve with every match,” chief coach Sjoerd Marijne said of the early matches. “After we lost to the Netherlands, it looked as if everything was shattered; it was not. We only needed to make a few small improvements.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Before the Olympics, the Indian women had been together on the Sports Authority of India campus in Bengaluru for 18 months. Their lone tour in 2020 was to New Zealand; they then toured Argentina and Germany in January and March 2021. That was the only international exposure heading into Tokyo.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Life on campus was no vacation either. There were strict Covid-19 protocols in place.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It would have been all worth it if they made it to the semi-finals. They did so by strangling the Australians. They themselves struck once and entered the semi-finals to take on Argentina. There, they fell 1-2 to end their quest for gold. They had, however, won hearts and hope for the future.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dare to dream, Marijne had told his players before and after the quarterfinals. He also showed them a movie—about staying in the moment—on the eve of the match against Australia. “I told the players that at the end of the match, they shouldn’t [be able to] feel their legs after running so much. The defensive structure during penalty corners was very good. If you start believing and you keep believing and you keep working hard, things can happen.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The result shocked the entire hockey world. Even back home, it took time to sink in. Col Balbir Singh, member of the bronze-winning team at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, and coach of the women’s hockey team in late 1990s, said, “We had the upper hand in the first half. That is when I started thinking that this team can do something.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Dr Anil Kumar Bansal, a hockey coach who has given India a steady stream of talented players: “Yes, for many it was an unexpected result, but the girls played so well. The combination of attack and defence was good.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Sita Gosain, former Indian hockey captain: “Every match at the Olympics is difficult. But Australia didn’t play well. It also shows that if you prepare well and execute your plans well, you can beat anyone. Qualifying for the Olympics is in itself so difficult, we know it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Post-Rio, the Indian team had to depend largely on a few players like Rampal, goalkeeper Savita and forward Vandana Katariya. However, in Tokyo, several youngsters have risen to the occasion. “Girls like Neha Goyal, Sharmila Devi and Gurjit Kaur have all done well this time, which is very heartening to see,” said Sunita Dalal, member of the Indian team that won silver at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok. “The forward line has combined well, but for me the standout has been the defence.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There was also a lot of focus on fitness. Hockey India’s scientific adviser Wayne Lombard will get a lot of credit for that. Before leaving for Tokyo, Marijne had said: “There will be the likes of Australia and the Netherlands who are physically stronger, but that doesn’t matter. We have fast hands. For the past year, Wayne has worked a lot on their strength and speed.” The results were evident—the players kept pace with the Aussies, never giving them a chance to find space. Marijne also roped in former USA women’s coach Janneke Schopman to help fine-tune tactics and technique during the lockdown.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>One of the areas where the Indian team had appeared vulnerable was penalty-corner conversion, but Gosain pointed out that, traditionally, it had never been India’s strong suit. However, when it mattered the most, drag flick specialist Kaur fired one in against Australia.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Dalal felt that it was the forward line that needed a bit more work. “If we cannot score goals, how long can the defence save us?” she asked. She added that the team needs to be more proactive in creating chances inside the D for penalty corners. “In big matches you cannot let these chances go to waste. That needs improvement,” Dalal said.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Experts said that, regardless of the final result, the Indian women’s “real Chak de” moment in Tokyo will do a lot to boost the game back home. “They have made history with this performance. They have [delivered] more than what was expected of them,” said an ecstatic Ajit Pal Singh, former World Cup-winning captain.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Added Bansal: “This performance will change everything in the country as far as women’s hockey is concerned.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With the Paris Olympics three years away, Indian women’s hockey will have its hands full trying to build on the gains from Tokyo. The dream has only just begun to turn into reality.</p> Thu Aug 05 18:52:20 IST 2021 it-was-harder-to-win-medal-in-tokyo <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Having the entire nation’s eyes on her is nothing new for P.V. Sindhu. She was 21 when she won her first Olympic medal—a silver at Rio 2016. In the next five years, she added more medals to her collection, including the World Championships gold and an Olympic bronze. If anything, the latest medal needed more work, sweat and strength. Work on the court aside, she had to navigate several controversies, including a spat between her father P.V. Ramana and national coach Pullela Gopichand, and questions about her changing her coach. But Sindhu kept her head down and focused on her game.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, she is one of India’s greatest athletes, having won individual medals at two successful Olympics—the first woman and second overall to do so.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Speaking to THE WEEK after her medal win, Sindhu talked about the work she put in for a podium finish in Tokyo, how she dealt with controversies and how she struck a fine working relationship with her Korean coach, Park Tae-Sang. While Sindhu wanted to change the colour of her Olympic medal, Park wanted to taste success as a coach. Excerpts from an interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q\ You were just 21 when you won silver in Rio. Is this bronze sweeter?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A\ I would say both are different. The silver in Rio was fantastic; it changed my life. This is special [because it needed] more work, more sweat and sacrifices [by] family members, trainers, sponsors, everyone. Getting a medal at the Olympics is always a dream come true, [and this is] definitely one of my proudest moments.</p> <p><b>Q\ Has it sunk in yet?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A\ No. I’m just enjoying the moment, cherishing it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q\ Can you talk about the ups and downs you faced in the past five years?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A\ It has been a long [and hard] journey. [After] Rio, I won some, lost some. Yes, there were a lot of ups and downs, but it was important to come back stronger and do well. Getting a medal in Tokyo, especially, was much more difficult. In Rio, there was not much expectation, pressure or responsibility. Actually, you cannot compare it with the Rio performance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q\ How and when did you get on board with what Park had planned for you on your Olympic journey? What training programme did he design for you?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A\ A lot of things were planned; he was focusing a lot on my defence. Obviously, we worked hard together for the dream. Training wise, we got players from the Suchitra Academy [in Hyderabad]; boys, too, would come and spar with me. [I needed that] to get used to different skills, techniques and mind-sets. It was important that we communicate, plan and then execute. We focused a lot on my strokes. He worked very hard and it worked out really well. I am really happy training with Park.</p> <p><b>Q\ You are more experienced now. How much harder was it to medal in Tokyo?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A\ It was definitely harder. I have been the world champion, [so] they (opponents) read your game and come prepared with a strategy. I had to be prepared and give my best. That is what I did.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q\ How did you not get affected by controversies, like you no longer training with Gopichand?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A\ There is nothing much to say. I have been training with Park for more than one-and-a-half years. I know there have been controversies and I know what I am doing. I do not want to let anything go into my ears; I take what I want to hear and let go of [everything else].</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q\ Which match at these Olympics kept you up the most?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A\ Every match was important. Not even one match was easy because you never know which way it will go. It was important to be in the moment from the first round, play my game and finish it off.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q\ You won the World Championships in 2019. Did it help to finally win that tournament before you focused on Tokyo?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A\ When I got the World Championships [gold] in 2019, everyone started talking about an Olympic medal. For me, there were a lot of competitions before 2020, so I was focusing on them. That was the immediate goal. I was working on skill and technique, [thinking about] what mistakes I was making and what needed to be done. Everything came to a standstill because of the pandemic. A lot of competitions got cancelled, the Olympics got postponed. But even when we were not sure it would happen, we were still working for the Olympics.</p> <p><b>Q\ How difficult was it to add more dimensions to your game?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A\ Every day is a process; I was working hard daily. I used the pandemic in a good way. I worked on my technique and strength. I did whatever my coach said; I rectified my mistakes, and worked hard on all aspects, physically and mentally.</p> Thu Aug 05 16:57:42 IST 2021 olympics-lovlina-borgohain-had-fun-at-tokyo-erasing-the-pain-of-her-past <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Going into the quarterfinal bout against Chen Nien-Chin, the boxer in red neither had her name nor that of her country on her vest. Her compatriot suffered a similar fate the previous day, but there, everybody knew Mary Kom, the legend. Mary Kom lost, and raised hell over the last-minute order by officials to change to a plain vest. The other, little known Indian boxer won, and a whole nation learnt her name.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Lovlina Borgohain out-boxed the fourth seed welterweight (69kg) from Chinese Taipei, to become only the third Indian pugilist—after Vijender Singh (silver, 2008) and Mary Kom (bronze, 2012)—to win an Olympic medal. Despite her subsequent semifinal loss, she clinched the bronze that is given to both losing semifinalists.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Before every bout in Tokyo, Lovlina wore a playful smile for the cameras. For a 23-year-old Olympic debutant, there seemed to be no nerves. “I enjoyed the bout; I played freely,” she told the media after her quarterfinal victory. The 15-year age gap between Lovlina and Mary Kom, for whom Tokyo was most likely her Olympic swansong, should tell us that the baton has passed on and there is a new queen in the Indian boxing circuit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Lovlina is a fighter outside the ring as much as she is in it. She grew up in Baro Mukhia, a non-descript village in Assam’s Golaghat district, and picked up Muay Thai at her school in a nearby district. There were financial difficulties for her father, who worked at a tea garden, but he encouraged her sporting dream. She switched to boxing in 2012 and left for Guwahati after she was scouted by popular boxing coach Padum Boro.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After making it to the senior camp in 2016, she collected a series of bronze medals at three Asian Championships and two World Championships before Tokyo. Yet, the difficulties persisted. She had to overcome an injury in 2019 that nearly threatened her Olympic qualification, had to train alone at home for months during the pandemic, was under mental stress when her mother underwent a kidney transplant earlier this year and had to endure a Covid scare in the boxing camp that left her isolated once again just months before the Games.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, Assam’s first woman boxer at the Olympics rose above her more illustrious colleagues in the Indian contingent. Amit Panghal, Vikas Krishan, Mary Kom and Pooja Rani were the headline acts of the nine boxers that left for Tokyo. But the youngster returns as the only medal winner.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For her semifinal, Lovlina got a blue vest with ‘BORGOHAIN’ and ‘IND’ printed on the back in bold. She went down against Busenaz Surmeneli, but there was no shame in the defeat against the world No 1 Turk. Because the boxer in blue had already made it to the Indian boxing legend. Lovlina Borgohain. Remember the name.</p> Thu Aug 05 18:49:34 IST 2021 simone-biles-decision-to-walk-away-could-be-a-watershed-moment-in-sports <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>On July 27, after a sub-par vault by her standards, Simone Biles knew her mind was not playing along. She had a decision to make. Either persevere like she had always done—she had previously won events for her country with broken toes and a kidney stone—or step aside and let her teammates pursue gold. She chose the latter.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For all the emotional turmoil she was going through, Biles was quite pragmatic at the press conference later in the day. She said she knew “mental’s not there” and she did not want to “risk the team a medal because of her screw-ups”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Biles admitted to getting a ‘bit of the twisties’,” says Dr Swaroop Savanur, mental conditioning and peak performance coach with the Punjab Kings IPL team. “This is when the build-up of pressure becomes so intense that the player has a biophysical manifestation of that stress and there is an interruption in the signals that the brain sends to the muscles; this results in a lack of muscular coordination. In gymnastics, even a small delayed reaction can have disastrous consequences. And when that plays in your mind, there is no way a gymnast can pull off a performance at that level.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is another harmless-sounding term called the ‘yips’ in golf. “It’s a similar physical reaction to pressure,” says Savanur, “and the player cannot even hold the golf club.” But, if Rory Mcllroy has the yips and still plays, he might miss a putt; if Biles springs off the vault with a muddled mind, she could break her spine.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To understand what Biles is going through, it is crucial to differentiate between mental health issues and the general pressure of performing under bright lights. “Game stress is just one factor leading to depression, insomnia etc,” says Savanur. “Every athlete will feel [performance anxiety] and could fail because of it, but that doesn’t mean he or she has a mental health issue. It is dangerous if this clarity is not there.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Choking” might be part of it, but the issues athletes like Biles have, or are facing, builds up over years. Biles, specifically, has had a tough life. In a 2019 interview with actor Priyanka Chopra Jonas—after news of team doctor Larry Nassar having sexually abused her and many others broke—Biles said, “I was sleeping all the time because it’s the closest thing to death.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is likely that Simone is dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder owing to the sexual abuse she has had to endure,” says Singapore-based sports psychologist Sanjana Kiran, who has worked with nearly 200 Olympians through four Olympic cycles. “Elite athletes experiencing intense trauma find refuge by immersing themselves into their craft, almost robotically, as a coping mechanism to sustain their self-worth that has been tarnished by the abuser/s. However, intrusive memories of the traumatic incidents can be triggered by competition anxiety, which affect the ability to maintain mental poise. Fortunately for Simone, she recognised the ‘twisties’ and made the right decision.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In stepping away, Biles had taken a cue from Naomi Osaka; the tennis star had withdrawn from this year’s French Open and Wimbledon citing mental health. Three years earlier, at what was supposed to be her moment of glory, Osaka was viciously booed by the crowd because she beat Serena Williams in the US Open final. Since then, Osaka has been open about suffering long bouts of depression and reluctantly became the face of sports and mental health. Now she has company.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>According to a study published in BMJ in 2019, about one in three elite athletes suffers from anxiety or depression. In recent years, superstars such as Michael Phelps—the winningest Olympian by a fair margin—have talked about their troubles openly. For him, it wasn’t the pressure of the pool, but life outside the water that got to him. After the 2012 London Olympics, Phelps told CNN, “I didn’t want to be in the sport anymore... I didn’t want to be alive anymore.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Abhinav Bindra, the only Indian with an individual Olympic gold, went through similar lows after the greatest win of his life. “You know, it’s pretty ironic that my biggest mental crisis in my life came when I actually succeeded,” he said about facing depression, in a YouTube show called Mind Matters.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Virat Kohli, the captain of the Indian men’s cricket team, also spoke about feeling lost following his woeful tour of England in 2014. He said he felt “like the loneliest guy in the world” and that it “seemed like the end of the world”. He later spoke to Sachin Tendulkar, who himself faced anxiety for almost half of his 24-year international career.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Yet, it is only now, when Biles made the loudest statement by just walking away, that the sports world is intensely debating the subject. This is primarily because she spoke up while in action. It is also, in part, because of the pandemic. “Generally, most elite athletes are unable to recognise the signs and symptoms that tell them they are not okay,” says Kiran. “The lockdowns forced them to pause their hectic lives and analyse their self-worth outside of an athletic identity.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But just because mental health is being talked about doesn’t mean the discussion is empathetic or even civil. For all the tweets in support of Biles and Osaka, there were accusations, too. They were called soft, scared and, in Biles’s case, “a national embarrassment”. Mixed within those sexist and racist rants were questions about the legitimacy of the athlete’s concerns. After all, there was no sling or crutch; Biles was all smiles as she cheered on her teammates from the side-lines. “The traditional belief is that an elite sportsperson can’t be mentally weak; the belief that anything to do with the mind of an athlete is performance-related breeds scepticism,” says Kiran. “Athletes feel the need to ‘prove’ [that they are struggling mentally] and it doesn’t help with their situation as that is an uphill task in itself.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That a Biles or an Osaka laid bare their concerns is also telling of another stigma in the sporting world. “Men find it hard to accept that they experience mental issues,” former Indian cricketer Robin Uthappa said in a webinar last year. The batsman had battled clinical depression and said that he would sit in his room and think of jumping off the balcony on the count of three. “I know so many guys going through difficulties in our fraternity,” he said, “so many guys who are not willing to accept that they are going through difficulties.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Both Savanur and Kiran agree that women tend to be more open about mental health and seeking help. “We [in India] still have a long way to go towards basic awareness about providing the right ecosystem that will allow athletes to start training mentally without any prejudice,” says Savanur. Adds Kiran: “Some parts of the sports ecosystem in India seem to be pretty active with these conversations. That is a good first step. In terms of expecting a top [Indian] star to do what Biles did, perhaps not in the immediate future.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Globally, though, could the Biles episode be a watershed moment in sports? After all, within days of Biles’s announcement, English cricketer Ben Stokes took an indefinite leave from the field to focus on his mental health.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Absolutely,” says Kiran. “Stepping away from an Olympics for one of the most bejewelled athletes is no small feat. In doing so, Simone has given more steam to the athlete’s mental health conversations. However, it remains to see if she was only heard, or listened to as well.” Savanur, though, is not as optimistic. “We have to be a bit objective about it. Biles’s decision was also a safety issue. But, yes, the awareness that the player’s mental health should be an equally important consideration is a welcome fallout of it. How it really pans out practically remains to be seen.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On August 3, Biles returned to action—two days after her aunt died unexpectedly—to win bronze in the balance beam final. “After the team final, we went to the village, and honestly I expected to feel a bit embarrassed,” she said on August 3. “[Athletes] were coming up to me saying how much I meant to them; how much I had done for their world. That was the craziest feeling ever. In that moment, I was like, ‘There’s more than gymnastics and medals.’”Biles was expected to leave Tokyo as the best gymnast of all time. She will now do so as perhaps the most important.</p> Thu Aug 05 16:55:53 IST 2021 tokyo-olympics-questions-asked-of-coaches-as-indian-shooters-draw-a-blank <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Covid-19 cut people off from each other. For Indian shooters, their performance in the opening days of the Tokyo Olympics put even more distance between themselves as the pistol and rifle shooters failed to live up to their reputation and ranking. The Indian camp had turned quiet, each shooter retreating into a shell. Those with events yet to go had to focus on what lay ahead; the rest were left to mull what went wrong.</p> <p>Despite the team consistently featuring on podiums in most events over the last five years, that they drew a blank at the Olympics came as a rude shock. The men’s, women’s and mixed event shooters in both 10m air pistol and 10m air rifle got India into just one final—19-year-old Saurabh Chaudhary in 10m air pistol, where he finished seventh. He then combined strongly with Manu Bhaker, as expected, to top the first qualification round in the mixed event with a score of 586 out of 600, showing glimpses of the form that won them four World Cup gold medals. But the duo fell short of the medals rounds in the second stage. At the other events, the Indian shooters fell like ninepins.</p> <p>Stalwarts Apurvi Chandela (10m air rifle), Elavenil Valarivan (10m air rifle), Abhishek Verma (10m air pistol), Deepak Kumar (10m air rifle), Bhaker (10m air pistol) and Divyansh Singh Panwar (10m air rifle) did not make it past qualification rounds. The teams in the mixed events did not make it to the finals either.</p> <p>Chaudhary and Bhaker were India’s best hopes, followed by the 10m air rifle and pistol mixed teams. While Chaudhary stood out as the lone star who began his Olympic journey on the right note—he topped the qualification table—Bhaker had a pistol malfunction in her singles event.</p> <p>As questions of the shooting team’s ability arose, Abhinav Bindra, the 2008 Olympics gold medallist in 10m air rifle, told THE WEEK, “It just goes to show we are an emotional nation. The more the sport gets popular, the more the emotional reaction,” he said. “But yes, there has to be dissection of the performance. We cannot be emotional in that.” On the team’s performance, halfway through the shooting schedule, Bindra said, “I am disappointed as a fan. But in sport, nothing can be scripted. You need to continuously adapt to situations.”</p> <p>The no-medal show in the first and most crucial days left Raninder Singh, president of the National Rifle Association of India, stunned. “What can I say, they shot well below their standard; succumbed under pressure I guess,” Singh told THE WEEK. “We thought we had mentored them enough and that they were in the Olympic zone. Clearly, they were not.”</p> <p>The warning signs came over the last few months. The young shooting squad—most of them under 21—was taken to Croatia by the NRAI for 80 days before flying to Tokyo. Zagreb became their training base and the shooters got much-needed competitive action by participating in the European Championships and the World Cup in Osijek. But they did not look up to the mark.</p> <p>“Prior to the Croatia camp, not much information was coming through from the Indian team,” said Joydeep Karmakar, former air rifle shooter who finished fourth in London 2012. “At the European Championships, they did OK. Their performance in Osijek was not good at all. I thought maybe the coaches were not keen on shooters peaking prior to the Olympics, but now I feel they were clearly struggling.”</p> <p>At Osijek, world no 1 Panwar, Valarivan, Kumar and former world no 1 Chandela had scores that were not good enough for the Olympics. Both Chandela and her fellow 10m air rifle shooter Anjum Moudgil lost form during the pandemic, and Kumar suffered from long Covid.</p> <p>The 18-year-old Panwar’s form reportedly dipped due to a judgment error by coaches. They changed the trigger of his weapon ahead of the Osijek World Cup, and he ended up shooting below his usual scores of 630s. He was made to do holding exercises with his gun the night before his competition. After some stern words from Raninder Singh, the old trigger was restored but that mess-up proved costly in Tokyo. Meanwhile, reports of national coach Deepali Deshpande not allowing a foreign coach to work with Moudgil also emerged.</p> <p>Karmakar felt the decision of the NRAI to announce the Olympic squad early shut the door on changes. While that may be debatable, he reiterated that the preparation for the Olympics has to be different than what it is for World Cups, Commonwealth Games or Asian Games.</p> <p>Bindra concurs with his former teammate. “Every Olympics is an adventure, a roller coaster ride,” he said. “Winning medals at the Olympics is not like putting coins in a vending machine and getting Coca-Cola cans out. You will meet with both failure and success, [and you] need to keep building on it.”</p> <p>Singh blamed a few individual coaches for ruining India’s medal chances. In June, he had read the riot act to all pistol coaches, asking them to pull up their socks. Guns are now being trained at former Indian pistol stalwart Jaspal Rana, who groomed Manu Bhaker from the junior ranks but parted ways with her before the Olympics. Singh is fine with the selection process and does not believe the shooters are too young. “They are seniors now. Age is not a factor [for poor performance]. Frankly speaking, it will be the same squad mostly, with a few changes, for Paris 2024. But yes, one area where we can do more is mental conditioning,” he said.</p> <p>Speaking to THE WEEK from Tokyo, pistol coach Ronak Pandit said: “Saurabh did brilliantly. It is unfortunate that he could not get enough support from Manu in the mixed team event, but I do not think he is lacking in anything. He was well prepared.”</p> <p>The Rana-Bhaker split has been the talk of the shooting camp. There was alleged conflict of interest as Rana was pistol coach with the Madhya Pradesh shooting academy, and he pushed for his ward Chinki Yadav—New Delhi World Cup gold medal winner in 25m air pistol—to be included in the event instead of Bhaker. “I have done what I could do—gave him charge of juniors and backed him for the Dronacharya Award. But when he asked me to overlook merit, I could not,” said Singh.</p> <p>Such was the falling out between Rana and Bhaker that on the last day of the Delhi World Cup, the coach reportedly wore a T-shirt that had messages he received from an agitated Bhaker scribbled on it. “It damaged his reputation as a coach and damaged the athlete,” said Singh. “Manu had a fantastic qualification. She is a sensitive girl who needs to be handled with kid gloves during the event.”</p> <p>Singh brought in Pandit to coach Bhaker leading up to the Olympics. Pandit was to start training with her in April but he could only join her in Croatia in June. “I do not think her previous coach stood by her,” Pandit told THE WEEK. “In spite of the time shortage caused by her pistol malfunction, she needed only an inner 10 to qualify. She could not, but her performance was still heroic. I was told she had anger issues but I did not find it so.” Pandit was aghast to learn that she had been taught to focus on “parameters not in her control rather than those she could control”. THE WEEK tried to reach out to Rana, but got no response.</p> <p>Bhaker felt a little lost in Croatia without her individual coach and without the luxury that comes with being “Rana’s wards”. “She confided in me her issues and insecurities,” said Pandit. “She had too much to deal with going into the Olympics and she is just 19.” Pandit added that whatever issues pistol coaches had in Croatia, “they ensured it did not affect the shooters”.</p> <p>Karmakar pointed out that there is no communication between athletes’ individual coaches and national coaches. “And, the individual coaches are totally cut off from the wards when they are in national camp,” said Karmakar. There should be a system where all of them work seamlessly together, he said. He also underlined the need for a high-performance director who would work in tandem with all coaches.</p> <p>Bindra says that they have to figure out what works best for India. “One cannot copy-paste other systems,” he said. “China has a very strict system, the USA has its collegiate system, which is a tremendous success. Germany is based on club culture, where national coaches work with club coaches.”</p> <p>The shooters have got all the financial and other support requested by them from the Sports Authority of India and Target Olympic Podium Scheme. There is a view that perhaps Indian shooters are mollycoddled, leading to poor results in the Olympics. Singh believes it is not the federation that does it. “Maybe they are, but by their coaches!” he said.</p> <p>Bindra denounces this attitude. “You have to support your athletes but there has to be some accountability that comes from understanding how they went about preparing,” he said.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jul 29 17:43:22 IST 2021 how-a-nurse-with-a-surgeons-precision-won-iran-its-first-olympics-gold-in-shooting <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>There might not be a perfect recipe to create nerves of steel, but Javad Foroughi has been in the kitchen for most of his life, trying. Sample this: the Iranian shooter was born with a damaged heart, has been in war zones in Syria, is a nurse who spent the pandemic in Covid-19 wards, and contracted and survived the disease himself. So, in a sense, the gold medal in the men’s 10m air pistol was just the garnish.</p> <p>Growing up, Foroughi couldn’t compete in sports; his heart was not his ally. In his latest tournament before the Olympics, though—the ISSF World Cup in Croatia—Foroughi won the gold medal.</p> <p>In terms of calibre (yes, that’s a gun pun), not much separates Foroughi and Indian wunderkind Saurabh Chaudhary. Yet, on that day, it all came down to nerves. Foroughi, 41, is the age of Saurabh’s uncles back in Meerut, yet has about the same shooting experience at the world level. He turned pro at 37.</p> <p>Foroughi claims to have first picked up the air pistol in the basement of his hospital a handful of years ago. He apparently shot about 85 points from 10 shots. In a sport whose binary code reads 9 and 10, this was a great start for an amateur. Cut to 2021, at a dry-of-fans Asaka Shooting Range in Tokyo, Foroughi set a new Olympic record of 244.8 points (of a maximum 261.6), taking home gold. At a post-match news conference, Foroughi said he had always dreamt of the Olympic gold; he had even put the medal as his profile picture on social media, and knew “how much it weighs”.</p> <p>After his last shot in the medal event, he promptly took out a small prayer mat and expressed his gratitude. “I’m very happy I did my job on both sides,” Foroughi said through an interpreter. “As a nurse, we battled Covid and it was very hard. As a shooter, I worked a lot the last two years for this moment.”</p> <p>The father of three had to battle much more than inner demons en route to the podium. While he was celebrated as a national hero by most mainstream publications back home in Iran, there were detractors.</p> <p>On July 24, in an undated video, Iranian network Press TV put out a clip of Foroughi on a reality show, blowing off the tip of a toothpick with a rifle shot. It was meant to be an endearing snapshot of an Olympic champion. However, his personal history had inerasable scars. The United States of America, led by its spray-tanned commander-in-chief Donald Trump, branded Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organisation in 2019; Foroughi is a proud member of the group. He had, in fact, dedicated his win to Iran’s supreme leader Ali Khamenei. Expectedly, after his historic victory, a slew of Twitter handles worldwide, including those of many Iranians, beseeched the International Olympic Committee to strip Foroughi off his medal.</p> <p>In what is undoubtedly the most woke Olympics ever—some athletes have prepared political gestures if and when they reach the podium, fairly so—a Foroughi may seem like a relic, not least by his age. While some may feel that his presence in Tokyo is in a grey zone politically; in terms of sport, it is golden.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jul 29 17:38:19 IST 2021 mirabai-chanus-medal-is-what-weightlifting-in-india-needs-at-the-moment <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Saikhom Mirabai Chanu is a stickler for the rules. Not once since she completed her competition in the women’s 49kg weightlifting event did she remove her mask, be it on the podium or in the athletes’ village or at the Narita International Airport on her way back to Delhi. When she made her way out of the arrival hall at the IGI International Airport, surrounded by a bevy of security men, the mask was intact. Only when she was away from the crowd did she unmask.</p> <p>And, not even once did she complain about the media frenzy that greeted her when she landed in Imphal. The endless stream of visitors, the countless social engagements, the felicitation programme at the City Convention Centre hosted by Manipur Chief Minister N. Biren Singh, Chanu coped with the sudden attention with no complaints.</p> <p>Ever since she became the first Indian weightlifter to win an Olympic silver on July 24, days and nights have passed in a blur. “People are happy for me. I am a bit tired, but it feels good. My family and I have waited for this day, made so many sacrifices,” she told THE WEEK from her home in Nongpok Kakching in Imphal East district.</p> <p>Chanu, 26, came home last five years ago, and she wanted to spend time with her family. But that seemed impossible. She slept at 2am on the day she arrived, as visitors kept coming. Day two was jampacked with interviews and social engagements. She woke up at 6am and did manage to enjoy her mother’s fish curry and rice, something that she had been hankering for after winning the medal.</p> <p>Heady moments kept hitting Chanu after her moment of glory. The most unforgettable one was a phone call from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “That is my favourite moment when after the competition PM Modi <i>ji</i> called to say thank you! He said I had done wonders winning the first medal on the first day of the Olympics. I can never forget that phone call,” she said. Manipur has decided to appoint her additional superintendent of police (sports).</p> <p>It is her simplicity, discipline and humility that made the 4’11” Chanu stand out in a group of junior weightlifters back in 2014. “What stood apart in her was discipline and determination,” said coach Vijay Sharma. “I felt she had something special. She has achieved what she has because of these qualities.”</p> <p>Weightlifting in India has had its share of taint and controversies owing to doping scandals, and occasional highs. India’s only previous Olympic medal in the sport was the bronze in Sydney in 2000 won by Karnam Malleswari. Chanu’s achievement is perhaps what the sport needs at the moment. Nobody knows it better than Malleswari. “How will the sport get popular until we take it forward? When I won the medal, there was not much awareness or support, but things are different now. There are problems in all federations, but in weightlifting, it was highlighted. There has been a sort of a clean-up now. So hopefully things will only get better from here,” said Malleswari.</p> <p>Chanu has not had it easy. In fact, far from it. She and Sharma had embarked on a tireless journey seven years ago. A silver at Glasgow Commonwealth Games in 2014 was the first breakthrough. Then came the big challenge of the Rio Olympics in 2016. That she had the talent was undisputed, but was she ready? Rio turned out to be a disaster as she failed to lift any of the three attempts in clean and jerk. Scarred by the setback, she started questioning her abilities. It took a lot of motivation and pep talk from Sharma to get her back to training. “I was disheartened with the Rio performance. I could not win anything. But sir made me understand and come out of my depression,” she said.</p> <p>The Rio debacle meant Sharma had to redraw the entire strategy, including the way Chanu trained. “That setback taught us we had to work hard with more determination and focus. We changed our training path and strategy. The results came in 2017 (World Championships), and we got a medal in 2018 (Commonwealth Games), too. There was consistent growth. Mira has done nothing but eat, sleep and train. Two and a half years were spent on qualification, and one and a half years were gone due to the pandemic,” said Sharma.</p> <p>Chanu staying away from family meant Sharma had to follow suit. “Initially it took some adjusting, but my family gradually understood why I was away from home. There was no Holi or Diwali with the family in the past few years,” said Sharma, who is from Ghaziabad.</p> <p>The new training regimen was tough. Muscle memory, for one, is not so easy to erase. After years of working in a particular way and then changing into an entirely different way took time to master. “To change the technique at the base level, it is even difficult to explain. But she worked hard and results came with 75-80 per cent change in that technique,” said Sharma. In the 2017 World Championships, Chanu won the gold medal in the 48kg category by lifting a meet record of 194kg in total (85kg in snatch and 109kg in clean and jerk). “For some time it was very difficult to adapt to the new technique, but then I got used to it gradually,” she said.</p> <p>The new technique brought in not just medals, but also plaudits from her seniors. “Her technique is very good,” said Malleswari. “She executed the snatch with remarkable stability [in Tokyo].” Snatch was Chanu’s weakness, and a lower back injury in 2018 and the lockdown in 2020 resulted in her losing muscle mass. That was when Sharma and Mirabai went to St Louis in Missouri. Two training stints in the US with Dr Aaron Horschig, a former weightlifter and strength and conditioning expert, strengthened her shoulder muscles and took care of the lower back problem. The second stint lasted three months ahead of Tokyo when she also worked hard on improving her snatch technique. In April 2021, she won the bronze at the Asian Weightlifting Championships in Tashkent, lifting 86kg in snatch and a world record 119kg in clean and jerk.</p> <p>The ghost of Rio had been buried. Or that was what she thought till the night before her competition in Tokyo. “I was more nervous in Tokyo than in Rio before the competition. Everybody had expectations of me and I felt the pressure. But then I decided to just focus on what I did in my training and execute that,” she said.</p> <p>Sharma, too, went without sleeping a wink on that night thinking about the event. He did not sleep the following night as well, reminiscing about their journey. “The lesson learnt from this experience is that life is an experiment,” he said. “You have to keep trying and then you get the result.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Jul 29 17:34:25 IST 2021 why-messi-2-0-will-be-force-to-reckon-with-at-2022-world-cup <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><i>Bailá! Bailá ahora!”</i></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Colombia's Yerry Mina was shocked, and a shade embarrassed. He was still wrapping his head around missing his penalty in the shootout of the Copa America semifinal against Argentina. The centre-back had let goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez into his head before the spot-kick.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But, more than Martinez's trash-talk, what caught the eye was Lionel Messi's reaction to Mina's mess-up. The usually reticent and impassive Argentina skipper was doing (forgive the irony) a Cristiano Ronaldo! All pumped up and bouncing ahead of his teammates, Messi was shouting, "Dance! Dance again!" to his ex-Barcelona teammate, in Spanish. His legions of fans were pleasantly surprised. It was a sign of things to come, they predicted, they hoped.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Argentina went on to beat Colombia 3-2 in penalties (1-1 at full-time), and then upset defending champions and arch-rivals Brazil 1-0 in a dream final at the iconic Maracanã, to lift their first major international trophy in 28 years. Messi wept tears of joy. He danced with his team, video-called his family from the ground and wept some more. The monkey was off his back, and he had led the Albiceleste in characteristic, yet uncharacteristic, fashion to a title triumph.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Was Messi taunting Mina for the latter's 'thumb-suck and dance' celebration after scoring in the penalty shootout against Uruguay in the quarterfinal? Only he can say. But, the desperation and hunger to win his first bit of silverware with the senior team was more visible than ever before. The bleeding left ankle in that game is part of Argentine folklore now. In fact, after the title win, Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni revealed that Messi was carrying an injury during the semifinal and final, though he did not specify the nature of it. Before the Copa this year, Messi reportedly told his journalist friend Veronica Brunati, “I would swap all my Golden Boots for one trophy for Argentina.” This time, he got to keep the Golden Boot (four goals, five assists), and that one trophy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But the wait was long and painful. Messi's 'final jinx' started with the 0-3 loss to the Seleção at the 2007 Copa America. Then came the triple-whammy—the 0-1 extra-time loss to Germany at the 2014 World Cup, followed by a penalty shootout setback against Chile at the Copa America next year. It was déjà vu for 'La Pulga' in the 2016 Copa America, as Argentina went down to Chile once again in a penalty shootout, with Messi missing his spot-kick. A frustrated Messi announced 'retirement', only to reverse it months later. He had won the 2008 Olympics gold with the senior team, but for the football-crazy nation, it was not enough.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The pressure to deliver in Argentine colours was immense. “The World Cup is like a revolver to his head,” former coach Jorge Sampaoli once said about Messi. Another former head coach, the late Alejandro Sabella, put Messi’s habit of throwing up on the pitch, down to anxiety. “Nerves. I reckon that in these moments there is anxiety more than anything,” Sabella had said before departing for Brazil for the 2014 World Cup.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Every loss in the iconic blue and white colours broke him, but Messi endured it all with an eerie calmness, on the outside, which was often mistaken for aloofness or detachment from the national team. For, Argentina was used to a certain Diego Maradona—the 'El Pibe de Oro' (golden boy), who delivered them the World Cup in 1986, and wore his heart on his sleeve. It was a crown that sat nicely on the late maverick genius's head, but Messi was still growing into the Argentine 'Pibe' (street-smart kid) concept.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was at Camp Nou that Messi evolved from a right-winger—under manager Frank Rijkaard at 16—to a more central (and the legendary false 9 position) role under Pep Guardiola, which seems to be working for him at the international level, too, now. Soon after Luis Enrique took over as the Barca manager in 2014, Messi went back to the right-wing, but would drift inside with devastating effect, with Neymar and Luis Suarez for company (the dreaded M-S-N). "His (Messi's) evolution is beyond doubt,” Enrique famously said in 2017. “It has been a process helped by his maturity as a person. There were years in which he was a goalscorer, but now, he is a total footballer, capable of everything in attack and defence."</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, at 34, he does not run as much as he used to, does not dribble for fun, or press ahead for adventure. And yet, he is at his effective best. Under Scaloni—the former assistant coach who took over from Sampaoli after the 2018 World Cup debacle—Messi has a free role, with the burden of building play being shared by the talented bunch of Rodrigo De Paul, Giovani Lo Celso and Guido Rodrigues, along with the ageing but occasionally brilliant Angel di Maria. And with Lautaro Martinez usually deployed as the sole striker who draws the centre-backs, creating open spaces upfront, Messi does what he does best—conserve energy for the bursts down the middle, or find his mates on either side in the final third. Like he did in the match against Ecuador, which Argentina won 3-0. He assisted two of the goals—the second one defying logic, really—and scored the third off a free-kick, which had Messi written all over it. “I’d never seen two assists in a single goal: He leaves Nico González facing goal first and then, tac, serves Rodrigo De Paul a pass which Messi himself could barely see. He finds an impossible corridor for the ball to reach De Paul. Only Messi could do that,” said former Argentine great Hernan Crespo about that wonder assist.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The other visible change has been the improvement in his free-kicks. Seven years ago, with Germany leading 1-0 in extra-time, Messi had one last chance to save his team in the World Cup final. But his free-kick sailed way above the bar. He was inconsolable for hours in the changing room after the loss. Since then, however, he seems to have worked on his free-kicks with a vengeance. Between 2004 and 2015, for Barcelona, he had scored only 16 goals off free-kicks. But, since then, by mid-2020, he had already doubled the tally for the club. At the Copa this year, two of his four goals came from free-kicks.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Off the field too, change was in the air. Last year, he took to social media to post an emotional tribute for the departing Suarez, in which, unlike in the past, he took a dig at the sorry state of affairs at Barcelona. His rift with club president Josep Bartomeu is well documented, and he even threatened to leave the club he had played for all his life.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Perhaps, Messi 2.0 has finally found his feet and voice. He also seems to be more comfortable in his role as a leader and mentor, and being an integral part of the Scaloni set-up. “Nobody disputes Messi’s sense of belonging in the Argentina squad,” Brunati was quoted as saying. “Today, the country believes in this team.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Post the Copa America win, Messi, too, must believe that he can fulfil the prophecy with a World Cup win next year in Qatar, and put to bed one of the greatest debates of all-time.</p> Fri Jul 16 22:27:58 IST 2021 mancini-euro-2020-heist-involved-a-dangerous-gamble-to-shake-up-Italian-football <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>One of the lasting images of the UEFA Euro 2020 final will be of Italy captain Giorgio Chiellini’s Zen-like visage as the notorious English crowd booed the Italian national anthem. Chiellini, 36, stood with his eyes closed, chin up and with a flicker of a smile on his face. The hostility was not going to spoil his day, because nobody enjoyed this Euro as much as he did.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Throughout the tournament, in tense moments or even after committing fouls, Chiellini wore a smile, transmitting calmness to his teammates. He celebrated every crucial clearance by his team as if it were a goal scored. The bearhug he wrapped Spain captain Jordi Alba in, at the coin toss for extra time in the semifinal, unnerved the latter. Chiellini was a warrior and a giddy child at the same time; sword in one hand, bubble gun in the other.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is this strange combination that got the team past the finish line, beating England on penalties to win their first European trophy in 53 years. Il Capitano’s energy and enjoyment were just what the doctor—head coach Roberto Mancini—had ordered. For decades, Italian football had attracted contempt for being too pragmatic, too negative with their iconic catenaccio system that put excessive emphasis on defence. The Italians did not care as it won them four World Cups. But Mancini knew that a revolution was necessary to succeed in these times. In a tournament filled with captivating and heartwarming tales, the rebranding and revival of Italy was a narrative that emerged above the others.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Following the ignominy of failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, the Italian football association found few credible takers for head coach for a team that showed little promise. The hiring of Mancini, whose career had nosedived since winning the Premier League with Manchester City in 2011, was perceived as a lack of ambition. In retrospect, it seemed like the right move, as his new philosophy had aligned with a churning developing in the Italian domestic league.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Italian teams like Atalanta, Sassuolo and Napoli were ditching the Italian style of defending for more offensive styles considered anathema in the country. The bigger teams started taking notes when legendary former Italian coach Arrigo Sacchi slammed reigning domestic champion Juventus in 2019, after the team lost to plucky Dutch side Ajax in the Champions League quarterfinals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“In Italy, soccer is still defensive and individual, whereas in Europe it's necessary to offer a more offensive and collective approach…. Glory in soccer is achieved by teams that make beautiful play an integral ingredient,” Sacchi had written in Gazzetta dello Sport. He would know. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sacchi tasted success by trashing the Italian football rulebook and implementing elements of the Dutch Total Football that was mesmerising the world. But it stopped with him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, Sacchi is delighted to see the systemic changes being implemented to that effect. A few months after his criticism of Juventus, he would praise his former player and the current national team coach Mancini for the creativity and sense of adventurism he instilled in his players. It was a bold move to change an age-old formula that Italians stubbornly refused to forego. A failure to succeed with this new philosophy would have invited the wrath of fans and forever consigned Mancini to the category of failed optimists.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>To Mancini’s relief, this change in mindset in Italian football would be pathbreaking. On the domestic front, Italian teams scored 1.53 goals per game in the recently concluded season, outscoring their English Premier League (1.35), Spanish Liga (1.25) and German Bundesliga (1.52) counterparts. This is unprecedented for the traditionally low-scoring Italian sides. Attack, attack, attack is the new Italian way of football.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the international front, the journey led to the team transforming from dour, unimaginative customers to the real entertainers of Euro 2020. Just before the loss against Sweden in 2017, which denied Italy a place the 2018 World Cup, Chiellini ranted to the media that possession football was “ruining a generation of Italian defenders”, and was bitter that it had become the norm across Europe rather than a tactical switch of play. Four years on, the centre-back was cheerfully charging with the ball up the field, spraying passes around.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That Italy had 66 per cent possession of the ball against England in the final, and took 19 shots on goal (as against England’s six) says more about Italy’s attack-mindedness than it does about England being defensive. England’s opening goal, scored by Luke Shaw, came in just the second minute—a rude shock to the Italians, but they did not abandon the philosophy they had carefully adopted. For the remaining 118 minutes, Chiellini and defensive cohort—Leonardo Bonucci, Emerson, Giovanni di Lorenzo and goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma—held fort and were practically impenetrable.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In Mancini’s 37 games in charge, the team has never conceded more than one goal, and is now on a 34-match unbeaten streak. Two more games without a loss and they will have the longest unbeaten run by any national team in football history—Brazil (1993-96) and Spain (2007-09) hold that record.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Despite these impressive runs and figures, Italy did not arrive at Euro 2020 with any big stars. An ageing defence and an insipid attack were not cut out to be champion material. Forging a winning team out of these players shows the genius of Mancini. He had shed his club-football image of being a troublemaker and an attention-seeker, and taught his wards the benefits of camaraderie, positive football and playing for each other. The whole was turning out to be greater than the sum of the parts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Before every game, Mancini would tell the media he wanted his players to “have fun”. He knows a thing or two about what it means to pull on the national shirt, but his biggest regret was that he never got to play at a World Cup. And so, he ensured that his players did not suffer the same fate of missing out on a big tournament. He played 25 of the 26 players in his squad in just the three group stage games of this tournament, even bringing on veteran goalkeeper Salvatore Sirigu for a few minutes against Wales. This worked as a morale boost for the whole squad.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The grey-suited coaching staff that Mancini assembled also tells a story in itself. He roped in set-piece specialist Gianni Vio, a former banker, who reportedly has an arsenal of 4,830 different set-piece routines. But the most notable inclusion is that of best friend and former strike partner Gianluca Vialli as chief delegate of the team in 2019. Vialli had been battling pancreatic cancer and it affected Mancini emotionally. He invited his friend to join him in the national team. Vialli’s very presence, that of a fighter who successfully beat cancer earlier this year, pushed the players even further to reach for the stars. The image of Mancini and Vialli, Sampdoria’s ‘Goal Twins’, celebrating the win against Austria to reach the quarterfinals gave Italians goosebumps.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The team will now turn their attention to Qatar 2022. They will have to prove their mettle on the grandest stage. Italy is one of the only two countries to win back-to-back World Cups. But since their 1938 victory, every time they reached the final of a World Cup or Euro, they failed to make it past the quarterfinals of the subsequent big event. Mancini can ensure legendary status for himself if he does what only France and Spain have done before<br> —win the World Cup-Euro double on the trot.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For this, he will be closely watching and scouting local talent to bolster his squad. The Bonucci-Chiellini duo needs long-term replacements while the search for a world-class striker continues. But more than anything, he will need to ensure the mood in the camp and the determination to win with<br> entertaining football remains constant.</p> <p>Then, the revolution would be truly complete.</p> Fri Jul 16 22:25:22 IST 2021 how-bhopal-lost-its-grip-on-hockey0 <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>The elderly gentleman has sharp eyes and an easy smile. Soaking up the morning sun in his lovingly curated little garden, he recites a Ghalib couplet in typical Bhopali accent: “Go haath ko jumbish nahi, aankhon mei toh dum hai; rehne do abhi saghar-o-mina mere aage (Even if my hands lack motion, there is power in my eyes; let the glass and goblet remain in front of me).”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That is Olympian hockey player Inam ur Rehman explaining why he keeps golf balls and a club in his drawing room. “When I am unable to sleep at night, I putt the golf balls one by one into an imaginary hole across the drawing room till I feel satisfied enough to get back to bed,” says the 77-year-old. “I do not have the strength to play hockey now, but golf gives me that much-required satisfaction of moving a ball deftly with a stick—that is the meaning of Ghalib’s famous couplet for me. It is difficult to imagine life without hockey.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>About 12km from Rehman’s house, at the historic Aishbagh Stadium in Bhopal, 13-year-old Afraz Rasool watches intently as another Olympian, Sameer Dad, gives tips to the trainees at his informal academy. “I practise here regularly,” says Rasool. “Sameer sir and Shadab sir (Railways hockey player Shadab Khan) coach us well. I, too, want to play in the Olympics like Sameer sir when I grow up and ensure that Bhopal’s name shines again in international hockey.”&nbsp;Dad was a regular at his informal academy till he was recently appointed as coach of the MP State Men's Hockey Academy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The line-up from the passionate veteran to the starry-eyed teenager confirms that Bhopal is still devoted to hockey. Once known as the hockey nursery of India, Bhopal has produced 10 Olympian hockey players (see infographics) and the iconic Bhopal Wanderers team. The locals first tasted the game around 120 years ago, when some youngsters picked it up from British officials.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In an Urdu article published in 1996, former joint secretary of Bhopal Hockey Association (BHA) M.T. Ansari (who migrated to Pakistan after the partition) says that as hockey sticks were expensive, the youth used branches bent at one end—locally called khapota. Balls were made of twine-wrapped stones; the more enterprising players shaped balls out of date palm roots. With their pyjamas rolled up to the knees, they played in the narrow lanes, lined with open drains. The drains were a crucial feature; the players had to develop excellent ball control and dribbling skills to keep the ball from rolling into the drains.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Slowly, Bhopal become renowned for its skilful and artistic hockey players. Maulana Mohammad Ahmad, one of the pioneering players, encouraged local youth to embrace the sport and came to be known as baba-e-hockey.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Competitive hockey started in 1909, when the British organised an interstate forces tournament. When Nawab Hamidullah Khan joined Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in 1911, he made the university hockey team quite easily, and word about Bhopal’s gifted players started to spread. Soon, hockey clubs were born in Bhopal; by 1915, there were around 15, including the Sikandariya, Rashidiya, Alexandra and Bhopal Heroes. The Iqtedar Silver Cup tournament (1916 to 1921) gave exposure to the local talent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 1925, Bhopal became a founder member of the Indian Hockey Federation (IHF); a Bhopal state team started playing national tournaments in 1928. The royal family formally constituted the BHA in 1931 (affiliated to the IHF) with Hamidullah as patron-in-chief and his nephews Saeed uz Zafar Khan and Rashid uz Zafar Khan as patrons.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The royal family patronised the game with active participation, jobs in the royal army to talented players, provisions of nutritious diets, including fruits and dry fruit shakes, and transportation of players during the weekly local matches,” says Olympian hockey player Aslam Sher Khan. They also started the national-level Obaidullah Khan Gold Cup in 1931, giving Bhopali players and enthusiasts exposure to national and international players.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, at the AMU, where many Bhopalis were studying, the university team was not allowed to play in the 1931 Mathura Gold Cup because of upcoming exams. So the students formed another team. As eight players were from Bhopal, they named it the Bhopal Wanderers. The unknown team won the tournament. It was a sign of things to come.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In its first four years, the team won 10 prestigious tournaments across the country, and along the way it was reconstituted into Bhopal’s official state team. Two players from the side—Ahsan Mohammed Khan and Ahmed Sher Khan (Aslam’s father)—struck gold at Berlin 1936, under the captaincy of the legendary Major Dhyan Chand. The legend reportedly said, “Give me the Bhopal Wanderers and I can beat any team in the world.” From 1931 to 1950, the team won 30 tournaments in India and, according to Aslam, in 1938, it won all major tournaments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The partition left behind raw wounds and it also affected sports. The first hockey nationals after the partition was held in 1948. It saw hockey powerhouse Punjab fielding a significantly weakened team because of the migration of players to Pakistan. Bhopal, which had first won the nationals in 1945, was not as badly affected, yet. It won in 1948 and two Bhopalis—Akhtar Hussain and Latif ur Rehman—were selected for London 1948, where India won gold. But, both Hussain and Rehman later migrated to Pakistan and played for the national team. This was seen as a betrayal and would have an impact on Bhopal hockey, years later.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bhopal merged into the Indian Union in June 1949. The Bhopal Wanderers were disbanded the very next year, after key players migrated to Pakistan. The migration continued till about 1952. Bhopal hockey hit its nadir because of this exodus, says Aslam. “However, the first chief minister of Bhopal, Shankar Dayal Sharma, commissioned my father, Olympian Ahmed Sher Khan, as the official coach and asked him to revive hockey at school level,” he says. Ahmed, supported by another Olympian, Roop Singh (Dhyan Chand’s brother), went about the task and things started picking up.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In 1955, the Bhopal school level team, coached by Ahmed, participated in the nationals and won. After the reconstitution of states, the Madhya Pradesh school level team (also coached by Ahmed) won in 1956. By the early 1960s, Bhopal hockey peaked to such a level that at least 40 to 50 Bhopalis were playing for clubs across India, primarily the three big Kolkata clubs—East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Mohammedan Sporting.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Often, all teams at national level tournaments would have players from Bhopal,” says Rehman, who turned out for East Bengal and Mohun Bagan in the 1960s. Bhopalis were in majority in the first Indian Airlines squad, which went on to receive much acclaim in the 1970s. All post-independence Olympians from Bhopal—Rehman, Aslam, Syed Jalaluddin Rizvi and Dad—were Indian Airlines players.&nbsp;Dad also worked for the company, now Air India, as a senior assistant general manager till his deputation to the MP Men's Hockey Academy recently.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Until the 1980s, the city had around 70 clubs, in addition to teams of government departments and public sector undertakings. This machinery continued to polish the abundant local talent in Bhopal. But soon, the clubs started closing down and government departments stopped patronising teams, sounding the death knell for hockey in the city, says Rizvi. In the last two decades, Bhopal has produced barely a handful of India internationals. The last Olympian was Dad (Sydney 2000). But, there have been flashes of brilliance from players like the cousins Affan Yousuf (gold, Asian Champions Trophy, 2016) and Mohammad Umar (gold, Junior Men’s Asia Cup, 2015). The only current India player from Bhopal is junior women’s team goalkeeper Khusboo Khan.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, what ailed Bhopal hockey? The issues were many—from losing royal patronage and facing alleged bias, to getting mired in the politics of hockey management, and the inability to adapt to the changes in hockey. Rehman, Aslam and Rizvi say that because Bhopali players had migrated to Pakistan and done well for its team, there was a bias. Even if Bhopalis figured in the squad, they would not be fielded. Aslam was the first Indian Muslim to play against Pakistan; he did that in the 1975 World Cup, which India won. He went on to captain India in the Qaid-e-Azam trophy in Pakistan in 1976.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Punjab, which saw Bhopal as competition, had a dominant presence in hockey management and this, too, made things difficult for Bhopalis, the Olympians feel. They add that Bhopalis had always banked on skill, but lacked stamina and endurance. Rehman says that as hockey became a power game on AstroTurfs and rules changed (such as the abolishing of the offside rule), Asians, and within India, Bhopalis, started floundering.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Europeans used their majority in the international federation to change the rules and techniques, because otherwise, they could not beat the skill of teams from the subcontinent,” says Rehman. He also points out that hockey has become an expensive game now and much of the Bhopali talent comes from economically backward families.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Madhya Pradesh government took major steps to revive hockey in the state by opening the Women’s Hockey Academy in Gwalior in 2006 and the Men’s Hockey Academy in Bhopal in 2007. It also funded AstroTurfs, set up feeder centres to scout for the academies and provided infrastructural and coaching support. However, Bhopal did not seem to benefit much. The academies produced India internationals, especially for the women’s team, but few were from Bhopal or even Madhya Pradesh. The talented youngsters scouted from other states benefited the most. Has Bhopali talent then dried up over the years? “Bhopal hockey was destroyed by its own people,” says senior sports writer Ramkrishna Yaduwanshi. “There was intense factionalism and politics in the BHA for years.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even the prestigious Obaidullah Khan Gold Cup started facing major hiccups at the turn of the century, and after an attempted revival in 2010, was finally discontinued in 2014. In January 2020, the BHA lost its recognition as a state-level body because there were two other associations in Madhya Pradesh affiliated to Hockey India (which replaced the IHF in 2009). Under the ‘one state one unit’ rule, the Jabalpur-based Hockey Madhya Pradesh, which started many years after the BHA, became the affiliated body from MP. The other body to lose affiliation was Hockey Madhya Bharat, Gwalior.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Rizvi, who is secretary general of BHA, says: “We petitioned Hockey India to continue our affiliation, but to no avail. Now, Hockey Madhya Pradesh has been asked to coordinate with Bhopal and Gwalior. But, the recent meeting was a disaster, because of the unprofessional attitude of the Jabalpur unit. But, we will continue to work and fight for the revival of hockey in Madhya Pradesh and in Bhopal.” He adds that creating jobs for hockey players by reviving government department teams and reviving clubs could go a long way. In January, the state home department decided to recruit national and international level sportspersons to 60 posts in the police every year (sub-inspector and constable level).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though revival of Bhopal hockey does not seem easy, Dad is intent on doing all he can. His informal academy at Aishbagh Stadium pulls in interested young players from across the city. Youngsters who fail to get into or continue at the Sports Authority of India institute or the state hockey academies, also seek out his classes. “If only we can find some financiers who could take care of the kits and diets of these children, I am certain a lot of them will do very well and once they perform, we will be able to push them into the national and international level,”&nbsp;Dad told THE WEEK earlier.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Now, as the coach of the MP Men's Hockey Academy, Dad's expertise and passion is likely to help the young aspirants in Madhya Pradesh and Bhopal to realise their big hockey dreams.</p> Thu Jul 08 23:23:22 IST 2021 i-do-not-allow-politics-in-sports <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q/What are the initiatives to revive hockey in Madhya Pradesh and Bhopal?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/The history of Bhopal hockey need not be emphasised. Hockey… was the game of the state and of Bhopal. When I became sports minister in 2006, there was no movement regarding hockey and I had it in mind that hockey needed promotion. We opened the Women’s Hockey Academy in Gwalior in 2006 and the Men’s Hockey Academy in Bhopal in 2007, because within the state, these two places are best known for hockey.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Are you satisfied with the way the academies and players have shaped up?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/In women’s hockey, we have done extremely well. The academy girls comprised half the Indian women’s hockey team at Rio 2016. In every national camp we have 10 to 15 girls from the academy. In the junior hockey team that toured Chile in January (2021), both the captain (Suman Devi Thoudam) and vice-captain (Ishika Choudhary) are Madhya Pradesh academy girls.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As for the men’s hockey, Vivek Sagar Prasad (from Hoshangabad) is now in the national team and represented India in the 2018 Asiad (in Indonesia) and led the junior team in the 2018 Youth Olympics (in Buenos Aires, Argentina).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Has there been enough focus on local talent?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/The academies are allowed to take only 20 per cent outsiders. Also, this quota was made only last year. Till then, 90 per cent of the players trained were from Madhya Pradesh. In the women’s academy, most of the girls are now coming from Gwalior and showing huge talent for hockey.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Is local politics, too, damaging Bhopal hockey?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Of course, there is also huge local-level politics. But I do not allow politics in sports. If anyone starts recommending anything when the talent search is on—like this is my nephew, or this is my uncle—then that player is immediately discounted. Let the boy himself apply. If he is talented he will get through. The only criterion of selection is talent. I am myself a national player (equestrian) and I have seen how much politics there is in sports. So I have vowed to myself that I will never allow politics in sports.</p> Mon Jul 12 10:02:36 IST 2021 bias-politics-caused-bhopal-hockey-downfall <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q. What made Bhopal the hockey nursery of India?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Before independence, the Indian hockey team was the best in the world; within India, Bhopal was beating all other teams. Three things helped Bhopal hockey: natural talent, royal patronage, and the immense support of the local people. There was a craze for hockey here similar to that for football in West Bengal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q. What are the reasons for Bhopal hockey’s downfall?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Intense politicking and factionalism in the Bhopal Hockey Association is the single biggest reason. Groups among associations are not a big thing, but they should have been united for the cause of the game. But in Bhopal, factionalism was at the level where they would rather kill hockey than let the other group succeed. The politics got most intense in the 1980s and hockey managers themselves destroyed the team and the game. Talented youngsters were left demotivated and slowly they started avoiding hockey.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q. There have been talks of bias against Bhopal players at the national level.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Yes. Prima facie there was a communal bias and favouritism towards certain players. Muslims were either not selected in the Indian team or were benched like the great Inam ur Rehman at the 1968 Olympics. I sat for the longest time on the sidelines. In the selection camps, the Muslim players would be psychologically discouraged by the coaches with such behaviour and that would make players uncomfortable. I have seen many Muslim players leave camps because of discriminatory behaviour. At the India team selection level, coaches and management would favour some players. This was not communal, but personal bias and favouritism.</p> <p><b>&nbsp;</b></p> <p><b>Q. You were the first Muslim to play against Pakistan?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We were up for finals with Pakistan in the 1974 Tehran Asian Games. I was being played in the tournament because Michael Kindo (who was always favoured over me earlier) had been injured at the selection camp. But I was excluded from the finals and I got to know that it was because never before a Muslim had been played against Pakistan. But the top officials of the Indian contingent intervened, manager Leslie Claudius supported me, and I finally played in the game. We drew the first game with Pakistan and my performance as a defender was much appreciated with headlines like ‘Aslam saves India against Pakistan’. We, however, lost the replay of the final by 2-0. But my performance busted the myth and opened up the team further for Muslim players, and later, Zafar Iqbal even captained the team. Also, I captained the Indian team for the Quaid-e-Azam trophy in Pakistan in 1976.</p> <p><b>&nbsp;</b></p> <p><b>Q. You were instrumental in getting India its only World Cup in 1975?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even during this tournament, I was relegated to the sidelines despite my good performance throughout the year. This was because I had offended the team management by not attending the first selection camp due to my final graduation exams. However, when we started losing to host Malaysia in the semi-finals, a desperate manager Balbir Singh asked me to go in ‘Aslam ab tu hi ja, tera khuda hi bacha sakta hai ab Bharat ko’ (Aslam, you have to go in and only your God can save India) and I replaced Michael Kindo in the field with just seven minutes to go in the game. I got the penalty corner with two minutes left in the game. My God was with me and I scored the equalizer. We went on to beat Malaysia 3-2 in extra time with Harcharan Singh scoring the winning goal. Our unexpected win unnerved Pakistan to the extent that we won the finals against them 2-1. This was the only time India won the World Cup and it got me immense love from across India.</p> <p><b>&nbsp;</b></p> <p><b>Q. Are Bhopal players not suitable physically for the current form of hockey?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Bhopal hockey was always ‘hockey of the brain’. We were masters in grass hockey because of our expertise in dribbling and stick work, and our mindset and attitude. Bhopalis were ‘thinking’ players. Artificial turf and change in rules like the doing away with the offside rule changed the game. It became a power game and speed, endurance and fitness became the new mantras. To achieve this, daily practice of at least six hours and a very good diet are needed. The Bhopal players normally came from economically backward families. How can they build stamina just by drinking water? Also, they could not find the facility and time for the required practice and lacked access to grounds and kits.</p> <p><br> <b><br> </b></p> <p><b>Q. But the government has set up hockey academies and is promoting hockey.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/The government has indeed developed infrastructure, but they have made a big blunder. They did not employ local coaches, a decision I could never understand, especially as my father (Olympian Ahmed Sher Khan) had revived hockey post-independence. He understood Bhopal hockey, something an outsider cannot do. (It was only recently that Olympian Sameer Dad was appointed coach of MP State Men's Hockey Academy)</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Also, government authorities never discussed or sought guidance from any local people. Bhopal boys who went to the academy could not at first make a mark on the artificial turf. So, perhaps to hide their failure as an academy, they opened it to outside players. They should come out of this lie that Madhya Pradesh players are improving [at the academies]. They are just putting the stamp of Madhya Pradesh academy on outside players and taking credit for their performance.</p> <p><b>&nbsp;</b></p> <p><b>Q. Do you see a chance to revive Bhopal hockey? How can we achieve that?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is still a chance to revive hockey and there are also funds available. If the state sports and youth welfare department leaves aside its prejudice and starts supporting the local hockey association for uplifting players with infrastructure and funds, then not only Bhopal players, but also more players from across Madhya Pradesh gain a lot. They should come out of this deception that MP hockey and players are improving (at the academies). They are just putting the stamp of MP Academy on outside players and taking credit for their performance. Unless they invest in local coaches and supporting staff and focus on Bhopal or MP players, hockey cannot improve at the local level.</p> Sat Jul 10 14:52:28 IST 2021 my-refusal-may-have-affected-bhopal-hockey <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>We came from a modest background and my father (Abdur Rahim Siddiqui) was a religious, honest, disciplined and upright man. I got the virtues of devoutness, honesty and truthfulness from him and they have stood me in good stead. I would like to narrate an incident from my early playing days as an example. I was playing for East Bengal in 1963. A night before we were scheduled to play a crucial match against arch rivals Mohun Bagan, which was the top club then, I was called to the home of the Mohun Bagan president Dhiren Dey, the owner of Dey’s Medicals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was offered a Rolex to not score the next day. I said: ‘Dada, you keep the watch and if a goal is to be scored tomorrow, I will score it.’ As it turned out, I scored and East Bengal went on to become champions that season. This incident later became public and brought all the Bhopal players a lot of respect in Bengal. I played 10 years in Bengal, though I joined Mohun Bagan the next year at higher wages.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was instrumental in Mohun Bagan winning all four major national tournaments in 1964. As a result, I was called up to the 1964 Olympic trial camp. During the camp in Jalandhar, Ashwini Kumar, the president of the Indian Hockey Federation, offered me a job with the Punjab Police (Kumar was a senior cop) though I was still only a student. But, keeping in mind the focus on education in my family—my siblings studied till doctorate level—I refused as I was not yet a graduate.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kumar was unhappy and this resulted in me not being selected in the Olympic side despite being highly rated and performing outstandingly against Olympics host Japan the previous year. There was also the historic reason of Bhopali players migrating to, and doing well for, Pakistan. The resultant negative sentiment further hampered my chance of making it to the 1964 team.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In retrospect, I feel that my decision to refuse Kumar’s offer turned out to be a historic blunder not only for me, but for all Bhopal hockey players. He had made me an irresistible offer that would have allowed me to continue my studies. I was also offered an attendant to take care of all my needs, but naive as I was, I simply decided to say no. Had I said yes, the negative sentiment against Bhopal players may have reduced and many more talented Bhopal players would have found places in international and Olympic tournaments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>I was included in the Mexico 1968 camp and this time, luckily, our coach was dada Dhyan Chand. I was dropped again, but Dhyan Chand refused to sign the team list unless I was selected. Thus, a Bhopali made it to the Olympic squad after 20 years. But, I was not fielded in any of the initial matches. Then there came a crucial match against Japan, which we had to win to get into the semi-final and I was included in the team given my record against them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Japanese team walked off to protest a penalty stroke awarded to us after I was pushed down, and were disqualified. The movements by me that could have led to goals were then calculated and we were awarded five goals. I was not fielded in the semifinal and the Indian team lost to Australia. Then for the bronze medal, I played again and we easily beat Germany (2-0). Pakistan won gold; we were far better than Pakistan and would have easily beaten them had we reached the finals. I later joined Indian Airlines and formed its first team by drafting in seven boys from Bhopal. I captained the team for many years and it became one of the top teams in India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>As told to Sravani Sarkar</b></p> Thu Jul 08 16:52:31 IST 2021 tokyo-might-be-india-best-chance-at-a-table-tennis-medal-in-olympics <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>After qualifying for the Olympics at a tournament in Doha in March, Achanta Sharath Kamal and Manika Batra had been itching to train together. They were in Chennai and Pune, respectively, and Covid kept them there. Eventually, with some doing, she went to Chennai to train with him, and then Kamal went to Pune. The duo also managed a three-day training stint at the national camp in Sonepat, Haryana, in June.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Manika, India’s highest-ranked women’s international (No 63), has been training with her coach, Sanmay Paranjape, and her Belarusian sparring partner, Kiril Barabanov, at the India Khelega academy in the heart of Pune.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“The pandemic has been really tough for everyone,” Manika, 25, told THE WEEK. “I was doing really well before that, but then things just stopped and left us with no tournaments. [But] I learnt work ethic during the lockdown. After the mixed doubles qualifying match in Doha got over, I went to the gym. When I returned to Pune, I began training without any break.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile, Sharath, the world No 32, has to focus not only on the mixed doubles, but also on the men’s singles competition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Speaking to THE WEEK about his and Manika’s stunning win against world number five Sang-Su Lee and Jihee Jeon of South Korea in the Asian Olympic Qualification Tournament in Doha, Sharath said: “[It] was the most important performance for Indian table tennis. Winning [bronze] at the 2018 Asian Games in Jakarta was also big. [I could start thinking that] if we can win at the Asian Games, we can do so at the Olympics, too. If I have a fantastic run in Tokyo, I have a small chance of [winning a] medal. But now with mixed doubles, we are actually looking at it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The mixed doubles is perhaps India’s best chance to win an elusive Olympics medal, and the duo is currently ranked 19 in the event. This will be the first time since the sport was introduced at the Olympics, in 1988, that India will compete in more than two events; mixed doubles has been introduced this year.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Olympian Kamlesh Mehta: “We were expecting India to get two berths. The qualification in mixed doubles is a big boost to Indian table tennis. Mixed doubles is not played much in India and there is not much exposure. Both Sharath and Manika are mature players. Doubles is about teamwork; each player has to take the ball alternatively. Players must have good coordination and understanding.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sharath and Manika are a study in contrast. This will be his fourth Olympics; her second. He has experience, but has to train doubly hard to take on younger, faster opponents; she is 13 years younger, more outgoing and splashier. His bandana is his trademark look; she paints the tricolour on her nails, has a high ponytail and, at times, glittery hairbands. “We are very different,” said Sharath. “The way we handle ourselves, the way we play. What is common is that we play better under pressure. She slows her game down, I play at a high speed. When we get going, it becomes very difficult for the opponent.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Manika: “I think it is important to train well for singles. Only if I am doing that can I support my partner well in a doubles match. We are really looking forward to a good performance in Tokyo.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Manika also credits her training in Pune. “Since I moved here, I have worked on the technical aspects of my game, such as my forehand, which I never did before,” she said. “My coach Sanmay Paranjape is knowledgeable about these things, which has really helped me. I worked a lot on my fitness to play better against quick and powerful opponents. I have a personal physio here, too. All this has given me good results.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A key factor in her improvement has been the Ultimate Table Tennis league. It presents an opportunity to play against and alongside many top players of the world in home conditions. “UTT is the only league I play and it has helped me improve my game,” she said. “UTT has changed the game drastically in the country. It has given a lot of players the confidence to face international players.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said Sharath: “The reason I went to Europe was to get that exposure. You could play with different players and not be intimidated when going for international tournaments.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This will be the most prepared Sharath has been for any Olympics, the lack of international tournaments notwithstanding. He has a full team of coaches working with him, and his trainer Ramji Srinivasan ensures that his physical conditioning is perfect. “Last time, I started my preparation in May-June [in 2016],” he said. “But I did not peak during the Olympics. I figured out that my preparation has to start two months earlier this time. I have never gone into an Olympics so highly ranked. I am in a better mental frame, and I understand what is required to perform well. The most important thing is that I have understood my own self over the years.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The other Indians in the fray are world No 38 Sathiyan Gnanasekaran and world No 98 Sutirtha Mukherjee. Sathiyan is heading to Tokyo after a satisfactory stint in the Polish league. He had missed the 2016 Olympics because his father died during the qualification period. “I was confident of making it to the Olympics,” the 28-year-old told THE WEEK from Poland. “The mission, of course, is to win a medal. Missing the Rio Olympics has made it more special. [My father’s passing] made me more determined to play like [I have] nothing to lose.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sathiyan, coached by former paddler S. Raman in Chennai, was lucky to play in the Polish league; many other tournaments, including the UTT, are yet to resume. “I worked on my counter-attacking skills and aggressive play,” he said. “I went into small details, analysed mine and my opponents’ game, and came up with solutions. I am constantly improving my ranking. The Polish league was excellent, [I had an] unbeaten streak.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The youngest member of the Indian team, in terms of experience, is 25-year-old Sutirtha. After qualifying for Tokyo, she is back at her coach Soumyadeep Roy’s academy at Jadavpur in Kolkata. Though she is from Naihati, in the 24 North Parganas district, Sutirtha moved to Jadavpur to train full-time at the academy. On her win against Manika in the Olympic qualifier, Sutirtha said, “I was nervous. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, but I played my game and attacked her weak points.” She is now focusing on improving her fitness and plugging the weaknesses in her game.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With Tokyo round the corner, India is looking at what could be its best chance to finally win a table tennis medal at the Olympics.</p> Thu Jul 08 16:18:54 IST 2021 new-zealand-cricket-past-imperfect-present-glorious-future-tense <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Eleven blokes walk into a nightclub. Two of them, presumably drunk, rip their shirts off and do the haka—the Maori ceremonial war dance. The manager of the club politely asks them to put their shirts back on as it violates club rules. A commotion ensues and the group is eventually escorted out by bouncers. Another brawl arises outside, punches are thrown and before the fight escalates any further, the 11 men are bundled into cars by security guards and driven away to safety.</p> <p>The unruly 11 were members of the New Zealand cricket team at the 2003 ICC World Cup in Africa. The team had an unforeseen off-day in Durban, South Africa, as New Zealand Cricket (NZC) refused to let the teams go to Kenya for a group match, because of a bomb blast in Mombasa a couple of days before the match. The Kiwis, led by captain Stephen Fleming, hit the town, before landing in Tiger Tiger club. Young wicketkeeper Brendon McCullum and veteran all-rounder Chris Cairns were the rowdy shirtless duo that brought blushes to the tiny island nation.</p> <p>That was the New Zealand side of the noughties. Unruly, aggressive and scorned by opponents, the players were even accused of unsporting conduct on the field (see snippets).</p> <p>Though worse days were in the offing, the 2003 incident was a particularly low point for a team whose only significant international achievement was winning the 2000 ICC KnockOut Trophy. From the land of the highly successful and respected All Blacks rugby side, these cricketers were like clanging empty vessels.</p> <p>Eighteen years down, two other men would walk up to each other on a cricket pitch and share a warm embrace under the Hampshire sun after seeing their team through a memorable victory. Ross Taylor and Kane Williamson, the two batting mainstays of the 2010s New Zealand team, had calmly put the finishing touches to help their side win the inaugural ICC World Test Championship final against India. No more the underdog, no more the aggressor, the 2021 New Zealand side is the toast of the cricket world. The good guys, the humble winners, the ambassadors of the gentleman’s game.</p> <p>It was fitting that Taylor and Williamson were out in the middle to cap off a nearly decade-long process. Because if it was the controversial removal of Taylor from the captaincy that plunged New Zealand cricket into the abyss in 2012, it was Williamson’s leadership that completed the revival.</p> <p>The change—from being brash and erratic, to becoming large-hearted and consistent—literally happened overnight, 10 years after the 2003 debacle. “What does it mean to play like Kiwis?” was the question hanging in the air as McCullum and members of the team staff sat in his hotel room on the night of January 2, 2013. It was the end of the first day’s play in McCullum’s first Test as captain, and the team had been bundled out for 45, New Zealand’s third-lowest total ever. McCullum and head coach Mike Hesson accepted the fact that the team had long battled an identity crisis and no longer represented the nature of their folks back home.</p> <p>The decision was to channel this aggression in behaviour into an aggression in their game. Moulded in McCullum’s image, the squad turned into a band of big-hitting entertainers. But more importantly, they also became the nice guys of cricket, on and off the pitch.</p> <p>McCullum took New Zealand to its first ODI World Cup final in 2015, and Williamson repeated that feat in 2019 before captaining the side to become the sport’s first Test champion. Ranked eighth, eighth and ninth in Tests, ODIs and T20s in 2012, today the Black Caps are ranked first, first and third respectively.</p> <p>More than their talent, it was the collective spirit of this group of players that got them to the top. As the Kiwis started playing their natural game, rather than mimicking the aggression of rivals Australia, a new breed of cricketers emerged—players with with equal measures of passion and commitment. They were encouraged to be gentler, better sportsmen, reflecting the values of their people and giving rise to a new team culture.</p> <p>Taylor, who was humiliatingly ejected from the top job in 2012, returned to the team a few months later and got down to working with the new captain and Hesson, who had removed him from the post. On his return, he swallowed his pride, described his relationship with Hesson as a “work in progress” and continued to be a team player. Taylor’s seniority and reading of the game was of much use to McCullum and his successor, Williamson. It was an example to the youngsters that Taylor was committed to the cause of a resurgent side.</p> <p>A core group of players have been involved in this run. New Zealand has fielded just 35 players in 60 Tests since 2014. This is the lowest among all teams. In comparison, 45 players have played for India in that period, while Australia has had 46 players and England, 59. There was stability, but it did not obstruct the entry of promising new faces. The two standout performers for New Zealand in the WTC final, Kyle Jamieson and Devon Conway, were only seven and two Tests old ahead of the match.</p> <p>The mix of players in the current squad is being called the best in the nation's history. None other than fast bowler Richard Hadlee himself had pronounced that verdict after the WTC final. The New Zealand dream team of the 1980s, of which Hadlee was the biggest star, has long been considered the greatest. After all, the 1985 squad is the only one to record a Test series victory in Australia.</p> <p>It was during that three-match series that Hadlee took a staggering 33 wickets. While Hadlee tore through the Australian batting lineup at the Gabba for a haul of 9 for 52 in the first innings, Martin Crowe helped himself to an elegant knock of 188, the combined effort of the two legends scripting a famous innings victory. Other stars in the team included Hadlee’s bowling partner Ewen Chatfield, opener-turned-coach John Wright and wicketkeeper Ian Smith. But statistics back Hadlee’s opinion on the current side.</p> <p>While it is true that the current fast bowling trio of Trent Boult, Tim Southee and Neil Wagner cannot hold a candle to Hadlee, the three of them have impressive numbers to form the strongest pace combination in New Zealand history. With bowling averages of 25.92 (Wagner), 27.16 (Southee) and 27.84 (Boult), the three of them are among the top five New Zealand bowlers with the best averages to have bowled in at least 40 innings. The other two are Hadlee (22.29) and late 1960s star Bruce Taylor (26.6).</p> <p>As for the batsmen, Williamson and Taylor will walk into anybody’s New Zealand all-time XI. Opener Tom Latham has made a strong case for himself as he sits seventh on the all-time list of Kiwi run-scorers (4,736 runs) with an average of 41.18. Middle-order batsman Henry Nicholls, too, has been consistent with the bat, averaging 42.52 in his 40 Tests. The four of them figure in the top 10 New Zealand batsmen with the best average to have batted in at least 40 innings.</p> <p>The now-retired wicketkeeper B.J. Watling holds the record for most fielding dismissals ever (318) by a New Zealander and has on average the best dismissals per innings, too (1.95). The spin department has been New Zealand’s only area of worry, but the country has rarely had world-class spin bowlers barring the likes of Daniel Vettori and John Bracewell, another member of the 1980s club.</p> <p>The team’s post-2013 revival was masterminded by Hesson, who had the worst possible start to a coaching stint. Hesson was a relatively unknown figure when he took over the coaching position in 2012, replacing the much-loved John Wright. It was a time when cricket in New Zealand was fast losing its popularity, owing to a string of bad results. And here was a 38-year-old coach who had never played first-class cricket.</p> <p>Over the first year, Hesson took a lot of dirt, literally and figuratively, from the fans. They hurled abuses at Hesson and even left faeces at the front door of his house for stripping the likeable Taylor of captaincy for “not being a good-enough leader”. Hesson has often spoken of how it was the most difficult period in his career, and admitted that he could have handled the situation better.</p> <p>Taylor and Hesson eventually patched up. Over the following years, Hesson’s players would heap compliments on him for different qualities: for being “superbly organised”, an “intricate planner”, a “solid man manager”, and for having a “sound cricket brain”. Wright added to the praise, too, when in 2015 he told <i>ESPNcricinfo</i>: “There is a preconception that it helps to have played to coach, but it is not completely necessary. If you have not played you need to be able to look, learn, watch and absorb—Mike's got those qualities.”</p> <p>The New Zealand cricket authorities, meanwhile, backed the team making use of limited resources. They gradually improved facilities across the small nation and relaid several pitches with Patumahoe soil to provide more pace and bounce to the slow, seaming pitches. Of the two clay soils available in New Zealand, Patumahoe dries quicker, tends to get flatter over the first three days of a Test, and does not usually break up in the last two days. The pacers took advantage of this and harassed visiting batsmen.</p> <p>But the board continues to bleed money, with very few series returning a profit. The gap in resources between New Zealand and the Big Three of world cricket made the Test championship victory even more impressive. According to NZC’s 2019-20 Annual Report, the association earned a total revenue of NZD$66.6 million (Rs317 crore) during the financial year. This amount is dwarfed by the Rs3,730 crore that the BCCI made in the same period.</p> <p>Despite all of this, there has been criticism and scepticism, too, of whether their WTC win accurately represents a dominance. For one, since the start of 2017, 10 of the 14 Test series that New Zealand played were on home soil. The away series included a 0-3 drubbing in Australia.</p> <p>Moreover, the team is lucky to have had to deal with few injuries to their first-choice players. Unlike India, which has 608 players to choose from 38 domestic teams, New Zealand has just 96 players to choose from their six local teams.</p> <p>On an episode of S<i>ky Sports Cricket Podcast</i> last year, Kiwi veterans Simon Doull and Ian Smith shared their worries about the team’s future. “My concern is where is our next batting talent?” said Doull. “Watching first-class cricket, I don’t see a lot of it. I see a lot of bowling talent coming through and I don’t think we have many issues there. But I worry about where our next batting talent is coming from.” He went on to talk about the need to expose more players to international cricket, starting with T20 internationals.</p> <p>When asked about the state of domestic cricket, Smith sounded despondent. “It does not get me too excited,” he said. “[Domestic cricket] just drifts along. There is absolutely no public interest, and no one goes to watch games. Probably 80 guys play first-class cricket, and of that I’d be dreaming to say 20 of them are capable of playing Test cricket. Somehow, we have to identify the talent much earlier.”</p> <p>The two new entrants who have flourished, Jamieson and Conway, are late bloomers at 26 and 29. The six-foot-eight Jamieson caught the attention of national selectors when he picked up 22 wickets in the 2018-19 Super Smash T20 league in New Zealand. He was man of the match on his ODI debut against India in 2020. He would make his Test debut, too, against India, and now has five five-wicket hauls from his eight Tests.</p> <p>Conway, originally from South Africa, moved to New Zealand in 2017, and was the leading run scorer of the 2018-19 season of the Super Smash tournament and the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons of Plunkett Shield, the domestic first-class tournament. Conway made his Test debut against England in May and already has a century and two fifties to his name in just three Tests.</p> <p>Late debutants like them seem to be the norm rather than the exception. Eleven out of the 12 players to earn their first Test caps since 2016 are 25 or older, with the median age being 28. In comparison, the current backbone of the team comprising of Latham, Williamson, Taylor, Boult and Southee all made their debuts at 23 or younger.</p> <p>Williamson, particularly, rose through the ranks quickly and emerged on the global stage as a fresh-faced 20-year-old. His contribution to the team cannot be quantified by just the numbers, though they are far greater than any batsman the country has ever produced. He is the modern-day Mr Cricket, exuding calmness, simplicity and, most importantly, sportsmanship.</p> <p>For all the obvious differences between the New Zealand captain and his Indian counterpart Virat Kohli, there are similarities, too, that are rarely discussed—the elegance in their batting strokes, the steely resolve and focus at the crease and their ability to rally their respective troops. Another similarity is how the two have tried their best to lead fiercely private lives.</p> <p>Though Kohli has been forced to do so in recent times—to protect his family from frenzied fans and paparazzi—Williamson has always been a reticent character. When he and his partner, Sarah Raheem, had their first child in December 2020, there was little fanfare around it, compared with the birth of Kohli’s daughter just a month later. Maybe that says more about the fan culture in the two nations, but it also reflects their public personas. There is little that the public knows about Raheem, a nurse he met during medical treatment, though they have been dating for over five years.</p> <p>In 2015, McCullum cleared doubts whether Williamson’s introversion would affect his prospects as a leader. “Kane is passionate, but he is level with his emotions,” the former skipper told <i>ESPNcricinfo</i>. “At times, he can be a little bit mistaken for not being passionate or caring—he just gets in his zone. But you don't fight that hard unless you care about something. He does have blood in his veins.” Be it blood or ice in his veins, Williamson has led New Zealand from the front.</p> <p>The WTC final that he won was not only expected to be a celebration of cricket’s longest and most cherished format, but also the culmination of the first Test championship season conceived to revive the waning interest in the format. Despite two days being washed out and low scores in all four innings, the last two days provided enough to keep fans hooked. Not just because there was plenty of action, but because David was taking on, and defeating, Goliath.</p> <p>The nice guys won, and their redemption arc has been captivating. Where this nation goes from here depends on the domestic system's ability to churn out players consistently. But having got this monkey off their back—after two consecutive failed World Cup finals and six previous semifinals—at least they are no longer cricket’s eternal bridesmaid.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jul 01 16:58:33 IST 2021 credit-to-dravid--nca-for-bench-strength <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As captain of the Indian team or president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, Sourav Ganguly has always treated Test cricket as the pinnacle format of the game. Therefore, as Team India marched into the inaugural ICC World Test Championship final in England, the charismatic Ganguly gave a thumbs-up to not just the concept of the WTC—which has taken nearly 10 years to take off—but also to the riveting game that unfolded in Southampton despite rains playing spoilsport. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Ganguly gave credit to the evolution of both young batsmen and the bowling unit for India’s march to the final. He said that India’s series win in Australia, in the absence of key players, was the biggest highlight for him in the journey to the WTC finals. Excerpts from the interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Are you happy with the introduction of the WTC and what are your thoughts on the final being a one-off match?</b></p> <p>It is a very good concept for sure. I think Test cricket is the biggest and strongest form of cricket and it should have a final. As far as the one-off Test as a final is concerned, it is the first [edition]. Things will be looked into for the future. The ICC will get feedback from all stakeholders.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Like head coach Ravi Shastri, are you also in favour of a best-of-three final?</b></p> <p>It is too early to say. Let this season finish. The ICC will look at a lot of things. At this stage, I would rather wait before saying anything.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What do you make of the finalists? Both teams had different journeys to the final, and some are not happy that New Zealand got there having played fewer matches.</b></p> <p>Both India and New Zealand have played well, and that is why they are in the final. As for the qualification criteria, it was based on the percentage of wins. Hopefully, in the next WTC cycle, there will be some tweaks. Last year, due to Covid-19, lots of matches and series were cancelled. Hopefully, the next cycle will take all this into account.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Your thoughts on India’s journey to the WTC final.</b></p> <p>I think their [series] win against Australia was the highlight for me. Australia is always a strong team, and beating them in at home was a huge [achievement] by India. With key players missing out, it was huge that their replacements delivered. India has played consistently well and that is why they are in the finals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Looking at the bowling unit and the youngsters who emerged during this two-year phase, what according to you was key to India’s performance during the WTC?</b></p> <p>I think everyone got better as the WTC progressed. The fast bowlers developed very well as a unit, and young batsmen emerged and impressed. We have done well in England so far, although rain took away two days.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What will it take for Team India to remain on top in Test cricket in the coming years?</b></p> <p>We can [remain at the top]; we have enough talent to do it. To remain as one of the best teams in Test cricket, you need to do well in every series.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>How do you view New Zealand’s evolution as one of the best Test teams in the world?</b></p> <p>New Zealand’s performances have been very good. Not just at home, they beat England [away], ahead of the WTC final. They have performed very well throughout the WTC. I think this is the best New Zealand team I have seen in a long while. Their bowling is very attacking and they have fine batsmen like Kane Williamson. Overall, they are a balanced team.</p> <p><b>While the attention has been on youngsters in India, the real foundation was laid by experienced seniors to take the team to where it is in the WTC standings. Your comments.</b></p> <p>Everyone has contributed in this WTC journey. Ajinkya Rahane has been the highest scorer for India in the WTC. Don’t forget Mohammed Shami and Ishant Sharma. For Ishant, a fast bowler, to have played 100 Tests, is not a mean achievement. After Kapil Dev, he is the only Indian pace bowler to have done so. There have been worthy contributions from Rohit Sharma, Rahane and skipper Virat Kohli. Ravichandran Ashwin has performed with the ball right through.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What about the role of the National Cricket Academy and Rahul Dravid in creating the bench strength that held India in good stead during the WTC? You must be extremely happy to see it had results.</b></p> <p>Oh yes! The role of the NCA in grooming the group of players is very important. Their progress needs to be monitored. A lot of credit goes to Rahul Dravid and the NCA team for creating this bench strength. Also, you must remember, the BCCI has a structure, and the number of matches the players get to play adds to it. [Before] Covid, India A tours, too, would precede the main team’s tours. All this has made a difference.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>You are all for the WTC. Do you wish it had been there in your time as a player?</b></p> <p>It does not matter, to be honest. Things will keep changing, evolving with time. I really don’t look at it that way.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Fri Jun 25 14:18:56 IST 2021 would-have-been-nice-to-have-a-wtc-in-my-days-sachin-tendulkar <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>It is a one-off match </b>to decide the Test champion of the world. A culmination of a two-year-long journey for both India and New Zealand. And it ends at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton, starting June 18. The ICC World Test Championship (WTC) started in August 2019, ten years after the ICC approved the idea. It featured 71 Test matches in 27 bilateral series.</p> <p>The WTC points table—with Virat Kohli-led India right at the top with 520 points—may not tell the full story. India has played in six series as part of the WTC, notching 12 wins, four losses and one draw. Kane Williamson’s New Zealand is second with 420 points, having played five series, winning seven Tests and losing four. Percentage points were calculated taking into consideration how Covid-19 affected tours and schedules of all the nine nations involved. These points show more parity, though this updated system was not to Kohli’s liking. India, with 72.2 per cent, is closely followed by New Zealand with 70 per cent.</p> <p>The actual difference between the two teams is even less. Both sides are well balanced, led by world-class captains, have bowling attacks that the likes of Australia and England are wary of, and have batting lineups that do not give up. Both sides boast of long servants (like Cheteshwar Pujara or Ross Taylor) and exciting players (like Rishabh Pant and Devon Conway). The bowling units of both teams are comparable, especially the pacers with their right mix of pace, variety and experience. India though may just about have the edge in the spin department. And finally, there is no better stage for Kohli and Williamson to face off, their batting and captaincy contrasting in nature. Both are eager to get their hands on an ICC trophy, something that has eluded them thus far.</p> <p>Master blaster Sachin Tendulkar cannot hold back his excitement when discussing the WTC final with THE WEEK. He finds very little to separate both teams. The batting legend brushes aside any disadvantage for India over the lack of preparation ahead of the final. He also feels that in the final, it will be all about collective effort—like it was for India against Australia in January. Excerpts from the interview:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Do you wish the WTC had been there during your time as a player?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ It is a different concept. It would have been nice if it had been there. It gives a different perspective; something to look forward to.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Do you think deciding the world Test champion with a one-off Test is fair after teams played it out over two years to reach this stage?</b><br> <b>A</b>/ I feel it is not correct that teams played multiple Tests in the last two years to get to the most important match, where there is only one chance. For example, India played a four-Test series against Australia and England, for which it got points in the WTC, and then you play one final. Ideally, continuity should be there. The ICC has to figure out how to accommodate a three-Test series to decide the winner of the final. Due to time constraints, the ICC should decide it in advance.</p> <p>If you have a four-Test series being played as a bilateral series, then the result of the fourth Test should be counted for the WTC final match, and not the other three Tests, to maintain uniformity. So, all teams play one Test for the WTC and then [the two teams with] most points graduate to the final. If you are playing a three-Test [final], then it should be a best of three—any side which wins the first two Tests is the champion, then you do not need to play the third Test. There has to be some uniformity.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How would you describe India’s rise to the top of the Test rankings and its journey to the WTC final?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ I think it has been a fantastic journey. For the series win against Australia, some key players were missing, yet the way the team performed in the last Test match was unbelievable. I think that win will be remembered for years. For me, that is what matters.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Do you think the pace attack of both New Zealand and India will be the x-factors in this final?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ In the New Zealand team, Kyle Jamieson is tall and hits the deck hard. It is the same case with Ishant Sharma. [Jasprit] Bumrah is a completely awkward bowler; I don’t think anyone bowls like him! Tim Southee and Mohammed Shami both swing the ball. Trent Boult creates different angles altogether, going over the wicket. So yes, both teams have good variety in their fast-bowling attack. It is not going to be a monotonous match for sure. You have attacking, well-balanced bowlers in both teams.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Is winning the WTC akin to winning the WC as some Test specialists have said?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ It is a good feeling to be world number one, so it will be a big achievement for whoever lifts the trophy. Given the challenges we have faced, it will be a fantastic achievement if we do it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How should youngsters like Shubman Gill and Rishabh Pant approach the WTC final?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ It is not about an individual. If you noticed in Australia, Virat was not there after the first Test, and a few others had injuries. Eventually, you need the whole team to perform; to put their hands up when needed. It was the same case with NZ in their second Test match against England. The [Indian] team is a combination of youngsters, a few who have been around for eight to ten years and a few with almost 15 years of experience. That combination works really well.</p> <p>The ideal balance for a team to perform is the experience of senior cricketers and the enthusiastic energy of youngsters. Players like Rishabh Pant and Shubman Gill have recently started their journey and look raring to go out there and perform. In bowling, too, [Mohammed] Siraj appears keen to perform and support bowlers like Ishant, who has been around for a long time. Bumrah has done very well since his debut in 2017 and Shami has been around for some time. Siraj is the youngest member in the pace department in terms of experience, and he is bubbling with energy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How important will this WTC final be in the evolution of youngsters like Gill and Pant?</b></p> <p>It is a great opportunity to go on a tour like this. In my playing days, if you scored runs against good sides, you got noticed. Everyone will be following the WTC final. It will create an impression if you go out there and make a statement. This is a platform for the world to take notice of you.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Southampton is usually spin-friendly. Both teams have very fine spinners in Ravichandran Ashwin, Ravindra Jadeja and Ajaz Patel. Will spin play a big role?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ I know the curator has said that he is aiming to have a pitch with pace, bounce and carry. From a batsman’s point of view, the good-length spot becomes smaller and the margin of error is smaller for pace bowlers. If the conditions allow the ball to swing and seam, then the batsmen have to play differently. If there is pace and bounce, I see that as an opportunity to score runs. Southampton traditionally has helped spinners. It will be interesting to see whether India goes ahead with an extra batsman, or have two spin all-rounders, four seamers and one spin option. These are the choices they need to make. A number of elements come into play—the weather forecast for the match, for instance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How would you describe Ravi Shastri’s tenure as coach?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Ravi has played a big role in getting the team to believe that they can go out and perform no matter what the situation. Like in Australia, there was injury after injury to key players, yet the youngsters kept performing. Each session saw someone raise their hand. That makes a huge difference—the atmosphere in the dressing room, everyone playing together as a team… a coach plays a big role in that.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jun 17 17:06:48 IST 2021 abhimanyu-mishra-world-youngest-grandmaster-in-the-making <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>THE MILITARY SYMBOLISM</b> of the pieces on a chess board is hard to miss. Before the Europeans tweaked the pieces to reflect their social order, chess, in its early years, was a game of war using purely military units. But while war is loud, brutal and erratic, chess is quiet, logical and safe. The battle is restricted to the players’ minds.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nevertheless, Hemant Mishra wants to revive the original metaphor. “It is a war, for all practical purposes,” he says as he sits down for a chat over Zoom. He is talking about the long hours of rigorous training that his son, Abhimanyu, is undergoing to become the youngest chess grandmaster (GM) ever. The 12-year-old from New Jersey has already earned two GM norms. He has until September 5 to collect his final norm and break the record of 12 years and seven months set by Sergey Karjakin in 2002.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The path to rewriting history is a painful one. Abhimanyu trains for 10 to 12 hours a day, as against the four to six hours that others his age spend on chess. It helped him become the world’s youngest international master in November 2019, beating the record set by R. Praggnanandhaa. At the time, Abhimanyu had a cool 22 months to crush Karjakin’s GM mark. But to his dismay, he lost 14 of those months to the pandemic. Though there were online events, GM norms can be earned only on over-the-board events. Hemant promised him to take him to wherever events were held as soon as things opened up. And that is what they did.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On April 12, the father and son left the US on a one-way ticket to Budapest, one of the few places offering frequent GM-norm tournaments. With Covid still looming, they left nothing to chance. They packed bedsheets, pillow covers and even comforters. At every hotel room, Hemant would strip off the sheets and thoroughly disinfect the room. While travelling around the US for events, Abhimanyu’s doting mother, Swati, would pack all their meals. The home-cooked food is what they miss the most now, having spent nearly two months on the road.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Covid stopped me for 14 months, but it can’t stop me forever. We’re here to break it (the record),” Abhimanyu says. He won his first two GM norms in quick succession by early May. There are days he feels down and defeats hurt, but he understands and trusts the process. “Yes, it is painful. But no one reaches the top without pain,” he says, his rationality belying his years.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Abhimanyu’s ability to grasp the seriousness of any situation is his forte. Swati says that he seeks a logical explanation for things he is asked to do. She recalls the time when a four-year-old “Abhi” had become an elder brother. He had developed a cold and was asked not to go near his mama or little sister as she would fall ill. Obediently, he stayed away from their room for a whole week. “I often think about how a four-year-old could understand that he might transfer his illness to a baby. He took care of that,” said Swati.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The Mishras are from Bhopal and have lived in the US for the last 14 years; both work for software firm Commvault Systems. Hemant played chess in college and in corporate events. To prevent his son from drowning in a sea of devices like other kids, Hemant introduced Abhimanyu to the game at the age of two. Swati shares a video in which the two-and-a-half-year-old happily sets up the pieces on a chess board. Toys are strewn around the room and his babbling is barely intelligible, but with an unwavering focus, he sets up the board ready to play, as a proud father urges him on from behind the camera.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is this steely resolve and focus that he has taken him places over the last decade. His coach GM Arun Prasad was surprised by this quality when he first met him. “Here I had a six-year-old boy who would sit straight for two-hour sessions and have the same enthusiasm even at the end of the class,” said Prasad. “He was like a sponge, absorbing information. In our fourth of fifth class, I gave him something extremely advanced, thinking let me see what he would do. And he understood even that! That is when I knew this kid is going to achieve great things.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Swati describes Abhimanyu as a “sweet and gentle boy” who works harder than anybody she has seen all her life. But the gentleness stays off the board. His game is aggressive and his peers have noted that he does not back away from a challenge. Lost in the moment, he wears a scowl every time he plays—which scares his mother—and opponents often complain that he stares at them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“It is true, he has been an offensive player, but that is starting to change,” said Prasad. “He is trying to become a universal player at such a young age. If [Garry] Kasparov was an attacking player and [Magnus] Carlsen is generally a positional player, future chess stars will be universal players. Abhi has realised that at 12. Even before becoming a GM, he is expanding his knowledge base and has learnt new opening moves that people pick up much later.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The aggressive approach has often proved costly leading to defeats, and Hemant does not tolerate such mistakes. In the Mishra household, working hard and working smart must go hand in hand. Hemant believes that chess’s cause-effect nature is very close to life. Abhimanyu concurs. “The game is very important in my life,” he says. “I’m sure it will help me take better decisions in my life later, too.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Hemant chose to go it the “Indian way” of taking tough calls for his son. He accepts that the American way of letting kids make their own choices in life might work for them, but not for him. “When you give a kid two options, either to go out and play with friends or to work on chess for 8-9 hours a day, they will not always pick the second option,” said Hemant. “That is where I prefer the Indian way of doing things where parents take control of the situation and take the best decisions.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>This is sure to bring up concerns of helicopter parenting, of which there are no dearth of examples in India. GM R.B. Ramesh, coach to numerous chess prodigies from Chennai, is of the opinion that inordinate external pressure on a child, without proper assessment of their capabilities, could impact their confidence and lead to long-term problems. But cases like Abhimanyu, Ramesh agrees, are exceptions, where the child’s drive to succeed matches—even exceeds—that of others around him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“You will find many kids like this across generations, but only about 10 in a particular generation,” said Ramesh. “For them, this will not be any pressure, but rather an exciting journey. I still see the excitement with which Praggnanandhaa plays his games. They have the capabilities to produce results. For others, they just have to revise their targets.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In an age when it is has become commonplace even for pre-teens to reach the upper echelons of the chess world, Abhimanyu’s mission to become a truly universal player is in keeping with what chess experts expect the future chess player to be. According to Prasad, reigning champion Magnus Carlsen might just be the last person to dominate chess, because of how competitive the sport is about to get.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“To be good at one [strategy] you have to learn X, and to be good another you have to learn Y. But nowadays, the game demands X plus Y,” said Ramesh. “This means more investment of time and effort. The earlier you start, the more receptive the mind is to acquiring new knowledge. But this means these kids will probably retire by 40.” Ramesh says gone are the days when competitive chess players would play into their eighties.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ever since Garry Kasparov lost to an IBM machine in 1997, artificial intelligence has gone from being reviled by chess players for ruining the game for them, to being the best trainer. The pursuit of chess greatness is by trying to replicate the cold, hard logic of a computer. The elimination of emotion and subjectivity, impossible as it sounds, is the means to the end. That is akin to what Hemant wants from his son. Like the obsessive chess legend of the 1920s, Alexander Alekhine, who once joked that he killed a tramp who repeatedly beat him in exactly nine moves, Hemant and Abhimanyu are aware of the need to be merciless in hunting down records.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It is a self-financed expedition with no corporate sponsors. Unlike Karjakin, who had the backing of Russian schools of excellence and an environment to work with greats of the game, Abhimanyu is on his own. Hemant has invested over $2,70,000 (approx. Rs2 crore) on Abhimanyu’s chess career, but has no regrets. “I used up all my savings, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so let him go live his life,” he said. “As long as he works hard, we should go all the way.” He has launched a <a href=" ">fundraiser on GoFundMe</a> to cover trip expenses, hoping that lovers of the game will pitch in to help the boy on his quest.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Back in New Jersey, Swati goes about her day as usual as her son battles it out in the First Saturday event in Hungary. She does not watch his games as she does not follow chess and does not want to “jinx it”. But she says she is more affected by Abhimanyu’s losses than he is. His seven-year-old sister, Ridhima, shares her brother’s obsession with chess, and wants to break records in the women’s game. She played her first tournament before the onset of the pandemic restricted her to online events.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Among his other goals in life, Abhimanyu wants to earn a black belt in karate. The physical toll that the game of chess takes on a player is grossly understated, and so his interest in karate is also to a logical end as it helps him stay fit.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His mother misses him and wants them to return home as soon as possible. “I’ll try,” Abhimanyu tells his mother. “After I get the GM title, I am going to take two weeks off and have fun and not really worry about chess,” he tells me. But the break is sure to be short-lived. For, the next targets will be set by then: youngest super GM, youngest world champion… you name it. When he was six, Abhimanyu told Chess Life, “Every game I play, I literally feel like a king and feel the thrill of a live battle.” This battle may be soon won, but the war will go on.</p> Thu Jun 10 23:27:40 IST 2021 sushil-kumars-road-to-perdition <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Sushil Kumar</b> and Delhi’s Chhatrasal Stadium are inextricably linked, it seems.</p> <p>He first came to the stadium as a 14-year-old rookie, hoping to learn the finer points of wrestling from the legendary Satpal Singh—coach, stadium administrator and, as it would turn out, his father-in-law. After a decade of learning the ropes and scoring many a famous win on the mat, Sushil created history in Beijing in 2008. He became the first Indian since K.D. Jadhav (Helsinki 1952) to win an Olympic bronze in wrestling. Most people would have been happy to hang up their boots there, but not Sushil. Four years later, at the London Olympics, he did himself one better—he won silver.</p> <p>In 2015, Sushil began grappling with another challenge. He joined the Delhi government on deputation from Northern Railways, as an officer on special duty for promoting sports at the school level. As president of the School Games Federation of India (SGFI), Sushil took over from his father-in-law—he was now the legend looking for promising rookies.</p> <p>Sushil’s dream-come-true story, however, came crashing down on May 4 this year. The nightmare began at the same place where the dream had begun—the Chhatrasal Stadium. That day, Sushil and a group of wrestlers allegedly attacked Sagar Dhankar, a 23-year-old former junior wrestling champion, in the stadium’s parking area. Two of Sagar’s friends, too, were badly beaten up. Sagar later succumbed to injuries.</p> <p>Sushil and his accomplices soon went absconding. The police finally tracked him down on May 23, three days before his 38th birthday. The sight of the wrestler being produced in court by armed policemen was in sharp contrast with his moments of glory in Beijing and London. An icon had fallen from grace.</p> <p>Investigators say Sushil was allegedly mixed up with several gangsters, who often respectfully referred to him as “<i>pehelwanji</i>”. If the many serious charges against him are proven true, Sushil could spend years in prison and be stripped of several honours he had won—including the Khel Ratna and Arjuna awards and the Padma Shri.</p> <p>“As per the principles of jurisprudence, a person is innocent until proven guilty,” Union Sports Minister Kiren Rijiju told THE WEEK. “The ministry will not take a decision in haste. We will take a call once things are clearer in judicial terms.”</p> <p>Both Sushil and Sagar, son of a head constable in the Delhi Police, had clean records. But some of their associates, apparently, did not. Both of them had links to gangsters and bouncer-cum-wrestlers, who often help the rich and powerful close murky land deals. Investigators say Sushil was associated with notorious Delhi-based gangsters Neeraj Bawana and Kala Asauda, while Sagar had connections to the rival Kala Jatheri gang, which is active near the Delhi-Haryana border. Kala Jatheri, whose real name is Sandeep Kala, is a wanted criminal believed to be hiding in Dubai; he was earlier said to be in Thailand.</p> <p>Officers say Sushil was once close to the Jatheri gang, but fell out with it over property disputes. “Sagar was a good wrestler, but his friend Sonu Mahal is a known criminal with nearly two dozen cases against him,” said a police officer. Sonu is Jatheri’s nephew.</p> <p>Officers say Sushil had “disturbed” the inter-gang power balance. “The respect for him in wrestling circles was such that he could make people listen to him with just a phone call,” said an investigator. Depending on which side they were on, gangsters could either love him or hate him. But the wrestlers who worked for them—many from villages near the Haryana border—all looked at Sushil with awe.</p> <p>According to the Delhi Police, Sushil’s history with the Bawana-Asauda gang goes back years. Kala Asauda (born Rajeev, at Asauda village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district) was shot dead outside a court in Rohtak. He had been on trial for allegedly killing the Asauda sarpanch in 2016.</p> <p>Investigators began unearthing the web of Sushil’s shady connections on May 25, 2021, after an informant told them that four gangsters who had assaulted Sagar were travelling to Ghewra village, near Asauda, to meet an associate. The Delhi Police swooped down on Ghewra and arrested all four—Bhupender, 38; Manjeet, 29; Mohit, 24; and Gulab, 24. All four belong to the Asauda gang and have non-bailable warrants against them. The gang is now led by Bhupender and Manjeet, apparently. Bhupender, who has nine cases against him, was in jail till February this year. Manjeet allegedly runs guns across the Delhi-Haryana border. After Kala Asauda’s death, Bhupender and Manjeet joined hands with Bawana’s gang. Bawana is in Tihar Jail on charges of murder, extortion and land grabbing.</p> <p>The Delhi Police say Sushil summoned the four gangsters to the Chhatrasal Stadium to attack Sagar and friends. The gangsters have apparently confessed to the police that they had reached the stadium at around midnight in two SUVs to beat up Sagar. The confessions, along with a video of the assault they had shot on phone, are said to be clinching evidence of Sushil’s involvement. The Central Forensic Science Laboratory is expected to certify the authenticity of the video.</p> <p>“Investigation is on to determine Sushil Kumar’s links with [the four gangsters],” said Pranav Tayal, deputy commissioner of police. “One thing is clear, though: They reached the stadium only after Sushil contacted them.”</p> <p>Shots were fired during the assault, after which the nearby police station was alerted. The police unit that reached the spot found Sagar and his friends grievously injured. They were rushed to hospital. There were five cars in the parking area, including the SUVs the gangsters had arrived in. “[They] could not escape with their vehicles when they heard the police siren,” said Tayal. “So, they left behind their vehicles and weapons.”</p> <p>A double-barrel gun and three rounds of ammunition were seized from one vehicle. Two wooden sticks were recovered from the parking lot. After registering a case against them, the police immediately tried to track down Sushil and his associates. But by then, they had gone into hiding.</p> <p>The police say Bawana had been working from jail to expand his network. He had apparently joined hands with Naveen Bali, another jailed gangster. The inquiry is likely to reveal shady land deals in which Sushil could have been involved.</p> <p>As of now, the Crime Branch has custody of Sushil till June 3. The Delhi Police have charged him with sections 302 (murder), 308 (culpable homicide), 365 (kidnapping), 325 (causing grievous hurt), 323 (voluntarily causing hurt), 341 (wrongful restraint), and 506 (criminal intimidation) of the Indian Penal Code. If the police decide to book Kumar under the stringent Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act—which was extended to Delhi in 2002—it will get six months to file the charge-sheet. But sources said the Crime Branch case might not qualify for MCOCA sections.</p> <p>On his part, Sushil has denied all charges and is trying to obtain bail. “The victims are falsely implicating the applicant because he had asked Sagar to leave his property as the same was being misused by him,” says his bail plea.</p> <p>According to Sushil, people had been trying to falsely implicate him in criminal cases. Last year, the SGFI under him had run into trouble with the Union sports ministry over alleged violations of the 2011 National Sports Development Code. Sushil himself had made allegations of fraud against the federation’s secretary. The Delhi government had recently decided not to give him an extension as officer on special duty.</p> <p>Sushil’s image had taken a beating in recent years. He had started missing major tournaments as early as 2014, including the Asian Games that year. He opted out of the world championships in Las Vegas in 2015, following which he was left out of the squad for the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Olympics. In 2018, he pulled out of the Pro Wrestling League launched by the Wrestling Federation of India, alleging that the league’s commercial partner had ill-treated him. But it was said that he was miffed at being offered a fee that was lower than what fellow Olympic medal-winner Yogeshwar Dutt had received. Sources say Sushil’s father-in-law also contributed to the worsening of relations between him and the WFI.</p> <p>The bitter fight over the selection process for the Rio Olympics was apparently a turning point. Soon after Sushil pulled out of the Pro Wrestling League, the WFI announced that there would be no selection trials for the 74kg category, in which Sushil was expecting a berth. He unsuccessfully moved the Delhi High Court against the WFI decision. Later, Narsingh Yadav, who had won the Olympic berth, alleged that he was being pressured to quit and that his life was under threat. Yadav was later caught in a doping controversy and could not compete in Rio. His allegations that Sushil had sabotaged his career triggered a CBI inquiry, but nothing came of it.</p> <p>Meanwhile, fellow wrestlers had started distancing themselves from Sushil. Bajrang Punia, who is India’s top medal hope in this year’s Tokyo Olympics, had to leave the Chhatrasal <i>akhada</i> after locking horns with Sushil in 2015. One-time confidant Yogeshwar, too, had a public fallout with Sushil in 2016.</p> <p>Sushil’s behaviour had also been raising eyebrows. His love for guns grew to such an extent that, during a meeting organised by Northern Railways, he reportedly showed off a fully loaded pistol to a shocked fellow Olympian! People had also begun noticing that he was keeping bad company. His links to the toll mafia in Delhi had become a talking point, with many people commenting on his entourage of musclemen and armed security personnel. There were reports that goons were allegedly “using” Sushil’s name to evict people from disputed properties in Delhi.</p> <p>Also, there was the case of wrestler Praveen Rana, who was Sushil’s opponent in the selection trials for the Commonwealth Games in 2018. Praveen and his brother were attacked by people who were allegedly Sushil’s supporters. The assault left Rana and his brother hospitalised, and a first information report was filed against Sushil and his associates.</p> <p>Sushil’s bid to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics failed the same year, after he suffered a shock defeat in the 74kg category in a qualifying round in Jakarta. This led to the Sports Authority of India dropping him from its prestigious Target Olympic Podium Scheme.</p> <p>It appears that the murder case has now brought the curtain down on his illustrious wrestling career. A life of guilt and shame is what could be waiting for him. Sushil, according to the police, had broken down during interrogation, saying his aim was to test Sagar’s strength and not to kill him. A confession, however, is apparently still not forthcoming.</p> <p>“It will be premature to conclude anything at this stage,” said Shibesh Singh, additional commissioner of police (crime). “And the leak of any crucial piece of information can jeopardise the investigation.”</p> Thu Jun 03 15:13:10 IST 2021 lockdown-brought-Indian-hockey-team-closer-made-it-better-prepared-for-olympics <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>As the clock ticks down to the Tokyo Olympics, athletes worldwide are hoping that it is not another false start. Especially the Indian men’s hockey team. For the past 15 months, the 33-member squad has been following an intense schedule charted out by chief coach Graham Reid when the pandemic first struck. They are based at the Sports Authority of India centre in Bengaluru. Breaks from the campus have been few and far between; the latest were tours of Germany, Belgium and Argentina in March and April this year. A ten-day quarantine upon return, and it was back to training.</p> <p>There was talk of another much-needed foreign tournament in May, but Covid-19 dashed those hopes. As part of the FIH Hockey Pro League, India was scheduled to take on England in London on May 8 and 9, Spain in Valencia on May 15 and 16, and Germany in Hamburg on May 22 and 23. The host countries, however, banned all flights to and from India.</p> <p>The players, though, are laser-focused on Tokyo. While bio-bubbles worldwide have led to burnout among athletes, India’s hockey team has brushed aside any such talk. Said captain and star midfielder Manpreet Singh: “[It has been] a difficult time, but we have utilised it well. When the FIH Pro League matches were postponed, we were extremely disappointed. But we understand these are really unprecedented times, and there are travel restrictions in place.”</p> <p>Veteran goalkeeper P.R. Sreejesh, who is preparing for his third Olympics, told THE WEEK: “We were in a lockdown last year at the SAI campus. We had the 90-acre hostel to ourselves; we had our own gym. It was tough for the players to hear that there was one more year to go for the Olympics. The team was performing well and was in good shape. Gradually, everyone accepted it. The best part was that we were able to train together.”</p> <p>Up-and-coming forward Gurjant Singh said the time spent together at the national camp had bettered communication between players, the results of which were visible in Europe and Argentina. “I do not think any other team would have spent this much time together during the lockdown,” he said. “After the nationwide lockdown ended, we never stopped training. I think it has built a natural understanding among us and, because of that, the team has been working as a unit.”</p> <p>Reid, meanwhile, has found himself working, not for the first time, on plans C, D and E, hoping that the team would be allowed into Europe in June.</p> <p>As coach, he has to ensure the well-being of each player, but he himself has not gone back home to Australia in over a year.</p> <p>The 57-year-old former Olympian and former head coach of Australia called the past year-and-a-half surreal. “Most kids dream of going to the Olympics,” he told THE WEEK. “We are carrying their hopes and dreams. Usually, guys get to go home after four weeks, [but] these have been four- to five-month camps. We have tried to keep the guys focused on what we can control.”</p> <p>To make matters worse, six players—Manpreet Singh, Mandeep Singh, Jaskaran Singh, Surender Kumar, Varun Kumar and Krishan B. Pathak—tested positive for Covid-19 last August.</p> <p>Reid and the support staff have been trying to keep the players mentally upbeat. They have each been made to record videos, talking about their families, their past and their dreams. “We shared [all this] with each other…,” said Reid. “What is also interesting is that we created scenarios, like what happens if we get redirected from airport, how do we react? What happens if we get into the Olympics village and find all of us in one room? It has helped make us stronger.”</p> <p>Having taken up the coaching job in 2019, Reid had his wife, Julia, for company till about two months ago. “She was with me till the German trip,” he said. “It is difficult without kids. We have two of them, Scott and Emma, whom we have not seen for 16 months now.”</p> <p>Currently, Reid and his players are analysing the recent victories against Argentina. Ranked 4th in the FIH world rankings, India beat the Olympic champions 2-2 (3-2 penalty shootout) and 3-0 in the FIH Hockey Pro League matches, and 4-3, 4-2 in practice matches. India lost one practice match 0-1 and drew another one 4-4.</p> <p>Former Olympian Jagbir Singh said the wins were no fluke. “I think we are the best-prepared team for the Olympics,” he told THE WEEK. “This lot has been training continuously. It is a squad with a mix of experience and youth. These boys have come through the structure. Players like Dilpreet, Hardik, Harmanpreet and even Manpreet have grown with the seniors. I am sure they will not come back without a medal.”</p> <p>The lack of enough top-level matches did not bother Jagbir. “[It] does not matter,” he said. “You can play 10 matches more than the other countries, yet you have to deliver at the Games. These boys have got proper training, and they are not just mentally prepared, [but] they are also hungry.”</p> <p>Sreejesh agreed. “In the past 15 months, we have understood where we are,” he said. “Every player understands his skill level and what he is good at. [It is] good that we will not play other teams; no one would know what we are going to do. It will be a surprise for them.”</p> <p>Captain Manpreet said that the seniors like him, Sreejesh, Chinglensana Singh, Surender and Harmanpreet Singh had made the youngsters in the team feel secure and confident. “If a junior makes a mistake, we try to ensure that it does not stay in his mind. For example, [in a recent match], Vivek mis-passed and Argentina scored. At half time, we told him it happens, and we will win and lose as a team. He started playing better after that.”</p> <p>Sreejesh said India’s consistent performances since 2019 had ensured that top teams did not take it for granted anymore. “The confidence level of the team is visible to everyone,” he said. “The youngsters have gradually improved. Early last year we did well against Australia, Holland and Belgium, which gave confidence to all the players. We are now following a proper structure; while we had foreign coaches five years back, we were still playing individual styles. Now the youngsters are coming into a well-constructed team and are gelling with others.”</p> <p>As for his own swan song—his planned retirement has been put off for a year—Sreejesh said: “In the past two years, I have set smaller targets—the World Cup, the Pro League, the Olympics. My family supported my wish to carry on till the Olympics. If you start comparing yourself with youngsters, you make things difficult for yourself. But if you are comparing yourself to what you were five years back, you see an experienced, improved goalkeeper. The best goalkeepers in the world are in their 30s.”</p> <p>“A goalkeeper does not quit early,” said Jagbir, pointing out that Argentinian Juan Manuel Vivaldi, 41, was eyeing a second Olympic medal at Tokyo.</p> <p>He added that a strong pool of players and the extra time for the Olympics had given Reid enough options for the makeup of his squad. “He has rotated the players for various matches since he came in, and has taken the team and players forward. He knows their skills, strengths and weaknesses well. This is a fearless set of players. They will play <i>bindaas</i> (daring) hockey.” </p> Thu Jun 03 15:00:46 IST 2021 the-team-is-getting-a-lot-of-internal-competition <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> What were your expectations from the Argentina matches and what were the gains?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ The main objective was to keep getting better with each performance. Realistic goals were to play well and handle the ball well, [and] there was improvement. If we do that, the results will look after themselves.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How tough is it for a team to get back to top-level competition after a long break?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ We have a squad of 33 that can get good competition internally. However, a practice game is a practice game. I have been trying to change that mentality to make sure we extract the most from these games. We tried to really ramp that up last year; we started to get a little bit more science behind it to see where we are, and we present it in relation to a Pro League game. By doing that, hopefully we have managed to crank these internal games up to a point where, when we get international competition, the gap is not that great.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> What were the key takeaways from the recent tours?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ We could get our confidence levels up, [which becomes] more relevant now that we may not get more competition. The stuff we are doing here keeps us at that international standard.</p> <p>In our last camp before Germany, we had a real focus on sustained attacking pressure—the ability to move the ball around until you see an opening in the opposition’s defence. Historically, we have not done that well. We did not see much of it in Germany, but against Argentina we started to see it more.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How frustrating was the postponement of the Pro League matches in Europe?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ It is very frustrating, but there is not a lot we can do about it. What we can control is planning. Trying to keep the players motivated is also difficult. I have always tried to be as realistic as possible. I have told the team that every opportunity to be on a tour could be our last.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Are you hopeful of getting more tours before the Olympics?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Towards the end of June, we can get something. Europe depends on whether we are on the red list or not.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How different is the team now compared with before the pandemic?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ It is difficult to judge. What sets the benchmark is international competition. Argentina was very difficult to beat at home. [But] having some good performances was (encouraging).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Will the team be undercooked if it goes to Tokyo without any more exposure?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ As far as I am concerned, we will be at our best. The stuff we are doing on a daily basis to keep [the team] at the highest level is a lot about basics. We need to reproduce that under pressure.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How do you assess the other teams in your group at Tokyo?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ The Olympics is a very difficult competition. No one sends a half-baked team there. [In] our pool, New Zealand and Australia [are] probably in a similar situation [as they have also] been starved of international competition. Historically, they also thrive in that situation and are very self-motivated.</p> <p>Spain will be very seasoned. They are having a tournament in the end of June against Argentina and Germany. Japan, the hosts, will fight till the very end. [They] beat Great Britain recently in Kuala Lumpur.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How difficult will it be to pick your final squad without much exposure?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ All the messages we have been getting from IOC (International Olympic Committee) have been very positive. It (Olympics) is going to go ahead, I am sure. If you had asked me after the Argentina and Europe tours, [it] would have been easy to make a selection. Every team you pick has a core group, the ones in the middle and the last ones for specific skills. </p> Thu Jun 03 14:53:22 IST 2021 fool-ball <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Yes. I was also told that boys should not cry. Well, to hell with that. If the situation warrants it, I will cry like a baby. And what seemed like the death of football as I knew it certainly warranted a tear or two.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In the early hours of April 19 (IST), 12 of the world’s biggest football clubs announced that they would form a breakaway European league. The move would guarantee them more revenue and deny a fair opportunity to smaller clubs. Simply put, it was an elitist cash-grab which threatened the soul of the game. I did not sleep all night and fellow football fans woke up to ominous messages from me along the lines of “football is dead”.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But luckily it was not to be. Six of the teams were English and they started buckling under the onslaught of criticism in England—from fans and pundits to the authorities, the prime minister and even Prince William. As the English teams withdrew, the league collapsed, just a couple of days after it was announced.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Football had been saved “from greedy Americans”, as the English put it (three of the six English clubs had American owners). It was time to rejoice. I literally did a little jump of joy; it was too much for my overweight frame and I hurt my back.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though now bedridden, I was still full of energy and abuzz with hashtags: #fanpower, #footballnotsoccer, #uniteagainstgreed. Greed! That got me thinking again. Corruption in FIFA, UEFA and other football bodies. Moneymen running the game. Rising costs for the fans. “Super” agents. VAR and the new, messed up handball rules. Football was no longer the sport I fell in love with.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>That’s it! I am done with football, I told myself. Now, I just needed to find something else to fill the void that football would leave. Right on cue, I remembered a friend saying she enjoyed knitting. And it was decided. I would take up knitting. I could just Google “Learn knitting” and proceed from there.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>So, I started typing the words into the search bar with all the speed of a toddler seeing a keyboard for the first time: L, E.... Google, helpful by nature, immediately started offering suggestions. Left handers day (I didn’t know that existed), Leonardo DiCaprio (your countrymen tried to kill football, I shouted at the actor) and ...uh oh! About 40 seconds later, I was, like an idiot, watching a replay of Leeds United vs Liverpool from the previous night.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Football may be corrupt, but even a broken version of the beautiful game makes life so much more bearable.</p> Thu Apr 29 19:50:10 IST 2021 indian-shooters-internal-competition-for-tokyo-spots-was-on-display-at-world-cup <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Fifteen gold, nine silver and six bronze medals. India had its best-ever medal haul in an ISSF Shooting World Cup, topping the table at the New Delhi event that concluded on March 28. The USA, with four gold, three silver and one bronze medals, came a distant second. The performance put a big smile on the face of Raninder Singh, president of National Rifle Association of India (NRAI). But several of his shooters were not as happy, because their Tokyo Olympics dreams had hinged on this competition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For all the 294 shooters from 53 countries, this World Cup was crucial. It was the first international outing for rifle and pistol shooters during the pandemic, and the second for shotgun shooters, following the ISSF World Cup in Cairo in February. There were important ranking points to garner, too. Those who are in the top ten and have not yet got a quota for the Olympics will be awarded world ranking quota places in June, as per the ISSF’s new Covid-adjusted rules.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The line-up in Delhi was not the best as top shooters from powerhouses like China, Japan and Russia gave the event a miss. Nevertheless, it was still a much-needed event for them, perhaps even the only international event before the Olympics. Baku is scheduled to host one more World Cup in June, but there is uncertainty over it.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“This World Cup was the first competitive analysis we had at our disposal since the Covid lockdown,” Singh told THE WEEK. “I do intend to send our team to European championships to shoot MQS (minimum qualification score). There is the Baku World Cup too. But I cannot wait till then [to decide the Olympic team].” Before the tournament started, the NRAI had even spoken of the possibility of holding bilateral “unofficial” competitions to get the Indian shooters ready but as the World Cup unfolded, Singh felt bilaterals may not be required.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The results in the World Cup helped Indian shooters shake off their rustiness, but scores in most events were way below the best scores in the World Cups prior to the lockdown. “I want to close [the selection] now so that they can get on with their preparation. It is already too late,” said Singh.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The NRAI will also announce two reserves per event, in case any of them falls ill before the Olympics. Singh further added: “You may be the best in the world, but you will be rusty if you do not have regular international exposure. Whatever shortcomings coaches have seen or the technical issues the athletes have, they will be sorted.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The pandemic broke the momentum of Indian shooters who were Tokyo bound as they were at their peak performance levels before the lockdown. It was tough as being restricted indoors for months meant only physical training and dry practice indoors. Divyansh Singh Panwar, the world number two in men’s 10m air rifle, had emptied out two bedrooms and the lobby of an apartment in Faridabad—all adjacent to each other—to get a clear 10m shot at a makeshift target. The 18-year-old won the bronze medal at the Delhi World Cup after a slow start.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“I had forgotten what a competition was like,” said Panwar of his performance. “When I started, I was nervous and my heart was racing. During the lockdown, everything had stopped. I had no idea when things would restart. I had forgotten how to shoot.” Every time he thought he needed help, he would look at his coach Oleg Mikhailov for guidance and reassurance. “I maintained eye contact with him. He would tell me what to do. I was blank at times. I cannot handle it if one shot goes bad,” said Panwar. He also grew a few inches in the last year and worked on his posture. Divyansh paired with the world number one in women’s 10m air rifle, Elavenil Valarivan, to win the gold in the 10m air rifle mixed event.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Given the restrictions likely to be imposed at the Tokyo Olympics, the support staff needs to be finalised, too. In India, issues related to which coach would accompany players often crop up. Beijing Olympics gold medallist Abhinav Bindra told THE WEEK: “You need to surround athletes with limited people. Decide who will go to Tokyo, now. This plays an important role going into the Games. Not only does it avoid ambiguity, the athlete, too, is prepared and comes to terms with who he or she is training with. Tokyo will be very restricted.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Team India had one of its best run-ups to an Olympics until Covid-19 struck. Indian shooters secured an unprecedented 15 quota places for the Olympics. They won 21 gold medals in the 2019 World Cup series—10 more than second-placed China.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>At the home event this time, the NRAI and its selectors had a problem of plenty in a few rifle and pistol events.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Even though Valarivan won the gold in the mixed team event with Panwar, there was little joy for her in the individual event. India has already bagged the maximum two quota places available to a country in the women’s 10m air rifle, courtesy Apurvi Chandela and Anjum Moudgil’s performances at the ISSF World Championships in Changwon in 2018. However, the rise of Valarivan from the junior ranks to the senior level and her subsequent rise to the world number one spot made it tough for the selectors. At one point in 2019, the trio occupied the top three positions in world rankings.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Valarivan, 21, was reportedly given a chance to make a bid for her selection for Tokyo during the Delhi World Cup. However, she finished 12th in the qualifier. World number four and quota holder Moudgil was the lone Indian to qualify for the final; she finished fifth. Chandela finished twenty-sixth, struggling to find her rhythm and form.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Satisfied with the way the air rifle squads were shaping up, high performance coach of the team, Deepali Deshpande, said: “I am planning to ask the NRAI for one more domestic competition or trials. They need competition exposure. I have been watching all of them since October, when we restarted training. We saw some brilliant scores. Others are not yet there, they are in the process [of getting there].”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Deshpande also brushed aside concerns about Chandela’s dip in form. “Apurvi is where Anjum was a month ago,” she said. “There had been some technical issues with the equipment, [and so] calling her out of form is unfair. In rifle shooting, a shooter rarely goes out of form. So many things matter.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Meanwhile in the pistol event, 25m pistol world number one Chinki Yadav won the gold medal to secure her berth for Tokyo. The toss-up was between her, Manu Bhaker and Rahi Sarnobat in this event. This was Yadav’s first World Cup medal. She held her nerve in the final to prevail 4-3 over Sarnobat. Bhaker won the bronze medal making it a clean sweep for India. Yadav, 23, is a protege of India’s finest pistol shooter, Jaspal Rana, who has coached her right from the junior level at the Madhya Pradesh Shooting Academy in Bhopal. She had already won her quota place in 2019.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>When asked about the pressure of Tokyo selection and that of an international competition after a long break, Chinki says that everyone has match pressure. “I am not alone in feeling this,” she said. “With me, pressure is not about who you are competing with. What is important is how I have trained and how I should give my best.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is fierce internal competition in the women’s 10m air pistol team, too. Yashaswini Deswal of Haryana beat Bhaker in the final of the event this time. Both shot low scores in the final. Asked about the competition between teammates, Yashaswini said: “I was just trying to do my best. I had to focus on my temperament and technique. It was hard to do that. I am happy there were three of us in the final. Ultimately, the competition in shooting is with yourself.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Pistol coach Smirnov Pavel has his hands full when it comes to the women’s team. Though most experts feel this internal competition is good as it keeps the shooters under pressure to deliver consistently, there are some who believe that such intensity between teammates is not always good. “The shooters are not relaxed enough to give good scores,” pointed one top coach who was watching the finals.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There were heartening performances from the likes of Aishwary Pratap Singh Tomar, the 20-year-old world number one in the men’s 50m rifle three positions event. He won the gold medal in New Delhi. Seasoned shooters Sanjeev Rajput and former world champion Tejaswini Sawant, both quota holders, paired up to win the gold medal in the 50m rifle 3P mixed team event. Tomar and Sunidhi Chauhan won the bronze.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Raninder Singh stressed that the selection of the Tokyo squad would be based only on merit. “The interest of the nation would be foremost when fielding the best shooters in each event,” he said.</p> Fri Apr 02 11:43:16 IST 2021 pushing-for-the-podium <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>When P.V. Sindhu won an Olympic silver five years ago in Rio de Janeiro, all she wanted as a gift from her parents was a puppy. They bought her a labrador, and she named it, quite aptly, Rio.</p> <p>As the puppy grew, so did India’s expectations of Sindhu. She struck silver at the 2018 Commonwealth and Asian Games, and became world champion, a title she desperately wanted, in Basel, Switzerland, in 2019.</p> <p>Now 25, India’s gold medal hopeful is wiser and more experienced. As she prepares for a second crack at an Olympic gold in July, Sindhu is training harder than ever. She wakes up at dawn, trains with Korean coach Park Tae Sang in Gachibowli, Hyderabad, and then does fitness training at the Suchitra Academy there. Lunch is at home, with some much-needed rest. Evening is for more training, followed by family time and playtime with Rio, before going to bed.</p> <p>Early this year, in a major move, Sindhu moved out of the Pullela Gopichand Academy; she now trains at the nearby Gachibowli indoor stadium, away from the core group of shuttlers she grew up with. It has a large competition hall, similar to the one she will play in in Tokyo, and it would be easier to simulate those conditions.</p> <p>Also, she no longer trains with chief coach Gopichand. The former All-England Open champion had laid the foundation of her game.</p> <p>Though Park and Gopichand work in tandem, the familiar sight of the latter sitting near the court during Sindhu’s matches is a thing of the past. Park travels with Sindhu for competitions, accompanied by a physiotherapist and trainer under the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS).</p> <p>Post-lockdown, Sindhu’s return to competitive badminton has been slow yet steady. The Badminton World Federation resumed the World Tour with the Thailand leg in January. Sindhu lost in the first round of the Yonex Thailand Open—her first tournament after a year—but reached the quarterfinals in the Toyota Thailand Open.</p> <p>In the European leg a month later, she reached the final of the Swiss Open, but lost to world number one Carolina Marin. The All England Open followed, albeit with a depleted field. Sindhu beat Japan’s Akane Yamaguchi in a thrilling quarterfinal, but lost to 11th ranked Pornpawee Chochuwong the next day.</p> <p>Former chief national coach U. Vimal Kumar, however, said there were no concerns about her form. “I was quite impressed with the way she played Yamaguchi,” he told THE WEEK. “It was her first good match after a long time. Sindhu is our best bet for an Olympic medal at Tokyo. All she needs is a couple of matches more and to work on some specific areas.”</p> <p>He also stressed the importance of Sindhu being in a good place mentally. “Badminton is an individual sport,” he said, “and you have to be happy in an environment. For her, mental peace is very important.”</p> <p>He added that she and Park were working well together. “Maybe she could get a few better people to spar with,” he said. “[She] needs a few more matches like the one against Yamaguchi.”</p> <p>Sindhu’s recovery from the Yamaguchi match, however, was a concern. “She is not unfit, all she needs is a very specific recovery plan,” said Kumar. “More than the coach, it is her physio who should be aware of that.”</p> <p>He also felt that maybe Sindhu faltered in her strategy against Marin. “She tried to push the pace, [there was] too much focus on attacking Carolina,” he said. “Instead, she should have kept the shuttle in play. But I am not worried. Sadly, expectations are such that [people] want her to win all the time.”</p> <p>But Sindhu soldiers on. Always friendly and polite, Sindhu remains, as former doubles player and fellow Hyderabadi Jwala Gutta said, “a sweet girl”. “Obviously, she has grown up a lot since she started, but I like that she is still grounded,” said Gutta.</p> <p>The pride in P.V. Ramana’s voice was obvious as he talked about his daughter. “She is so sensitive and committed,” said the former volleyball player and Arjuna awardee. “She has never said no for any session. I know I have troubled her a lot, at times even on Sundays. If I tell her ‘Do this <i>beta</i>, why can’t we try this?’, she will do it.</p> <p>“Earlier (pre-Rio), she was more emotional,” he added. “She has slowly become more aggressive on court and now, especially, I see that she is a bit more determined. Mentally, too, she is stronger.”</p> <p>Said Gutta: “She knows there is a lot more responsibility on her shoulders, but she takes that pressure well. Her game is much stronger [now]. All she needs is loyal people who really want her to win.”</p> <p>With Sindhu having played so many international tournaments, Gutta said she did not need much on-court guidance. It is off court that Sindhu’s badminton life has been making headlines.</p> <p>Late last year, in the midst of a lockdown in Europe, Sindhu went to London to train at the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. The news became public only when she posted a picture of her with sports nutritionist Rebecca Randell.<br> “She asked us but we told her it was not the right time as there was a pandemic,” said Ramana. “We said she could go when she was free. [She said] ‘Daddy, when will I be free?’ So we told her it was up to her; she has grown up now!”</p> <p>While both Sindhu and her father refuted reports of differences within the family over this decision, he did reportedly make some damning allegations against Gopichand, saying that the coach had not taken interest in her training after the 2018 Asian Games. He also said that she was not given a proper practice partner. While Ramana has at times gone public with his dissatisfaction with the coach’s methods, Gopichand has maintained a studied silence. Sindhu has had to step in more than once to defuse the situation.</p> <p>Ramana has been a helicopter parent, standing at Sindhu’s side throughout her life. He could not go with her for the first two events post-lockdown as the family was in the process of moving to a new house. However, he had asked the physiotherapist/trainer to send him videos of her training sessions.</p> <p>About the England stint, he said: “We are happy it was refreshing. Now she will not ask us to go and train there again.”</p> <p>Ramana is satisfied with her training individually with Park and a separate set of support staff; Gopichand, meanwhile, has further delegated training of senior team members to the rest of the foreign coaches.</p> <p>Ramana was confident that training without Gopichand “will not affect her at all”. “If you train her, she will give you her 100 per cent,” he said. “The quality of an athlete bringing laurels to the country is purely based on the commitment, hard work and desire of the player.” In fact, he said that if Gopichand could produce a Saina Nehwal or a Sindhu, he could produce more champions.</p> <p>Gopichand, it seems, has made peace with the fact that Sindhu is no longer under his direct watch. However, he is still very much in the loop and he and Park take decisions on Sindhu’s game. He knows Sindhu is India’s best bet for an Olympic medal and, reportedly, does not want to say or do anything that might affect her preparation. For the time being, the distance between Sindhu and Gopichand has lowered any animosity between Ramana and the coach.</p> <p>Ramana acknowledged the increased pressure of expectations on Sindhu, but said that he and his wife have been trying to ensure that it does not get to her. “We tell her, ‘You have got everything... now whatever you are getting is bonus, <i>beta</i>,” he said. “Play with all your heart and enjoy the game.’ That is all we tell her.”&nbsp;</p> Thu Mar 25 14:42:08 IST 2021 i-have-grown-up-can-control-my-emotions <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How was your training stint in England?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ It was really nice and different. I went to the Gatorade Sports Science Institute. I am glad it really worked out as I wanted to go for a long time. This was an opportunity I had; there were no tournaments happening. It is important to work on your body. It is different from my training sessions here, [and there was a] different coach. [It is] good to take tips from everyone as all [of them] have different perspectives and see your matches differently.</p> <p>Former England player Rajiv Ouseph was there and he would give me feedback. I worked on my strokes and skill set. It is a long process. It is not like you change overnight. I learnt many things game and skill-wise. I enjoyed myself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Were you in touch with chief coach Pullela Gopichand and foreign coach Park Tae Sang regularly?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ I was talking to them, yes. I was also in touch with my trainer back in Hyderabad.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> What did you learn from the Thailand Open, your first tournament after the lockdown?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Park was happy. See, at the end of the day, you win some, you lose some (Sindhu lost in the first round). Game-wise, I was fine. It felt good to be back on court. It was the first tournament after a long time; it happens, things might not work out. I was excited to get back. I felt the difference coming back after so long.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Most of the other top players, like Carolina Marin and Tai Tzu Ying, came back all guns blazing after the break. Did you feel rusty?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ The game has changed and so have the strategies. All players got a long time off, and they will be more competitive and aggressive. The top 10 players have the same standards; it just matters who plays well on that day. Rusty? I think so, yeah. Every player is different. One day [you may feel] rusty, the next day you are giving your 100 per cent.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> What have you been focusing on in your game?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ I am working on my skill and defence. The Olympics will happen in around five months, and it is important to prepare and focus on these tournaments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> What was the experience of being in a bio-bubble?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ This is something new to all of us. It is important to take care. Thailand was good. Conducting a tournament is not easy [and] they were careful. It is important to get yourself checked regularly. It is challenging but you have to get used to these conditions.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How has it been training separately at the Gachibowli indoor stadium?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Every day I train with Park from 6am to 8am. I do not train with anybody else; if we need a sparring partner, we call another player or coach. It is a big venue of international standards, and it is important to get used to conditions where drift plays a major role. It will be useful when Tokyo happens.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Given the uncertainty regarding tournaments in the run-up to the Olympics, how are you planning the preparations for Tokyo?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ We need to get used to the situation. I need to focus on tournaments that will happen. That is important.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> While you train with Park, what is Gopichand’s role in your preparations?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Park makes plans and interacts with Gopi sir, who is busy training with other players. Park travels with me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How would you describe your journey as a badminton player and as a person, from Rio to now?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ As a badminton player, there would be a lot of difference, game wise; as a person, with age, I have gained a lot of confidence and belief in myself.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> So does Sindhu still follow coaches’ instructions or does she collaborate to figure out what works best?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ I apply what the coaches tell me; if it does not work, as an athlete I have the right to say that it is not working out, ask why it is so, and also what is next. If it works, brilliant. If it does not, then they work together on plan B. It is a combination of coach and athlete. As athletes, if it does not work on court, we also have to think of something else.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> When you were a teenager, would you question or analyse as much?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Back then, not much. With so much experience, it is a bit different. Back then, playing in the Olympics for the first time (2016), you are still in the process of learning. Even now I am in the process of learning, but now it is also about improvising because you know. Now if I tend to make mistakes, I bounce back; one has to. With all the past experiences, you learn a lot more and respond accordingly.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> As you have grown in stature, what are the challenges you have faced on and off the court?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Off court, I have been happy as my parents are always supportive and encouraging. It is good that I got to spend a lot of time with them because of the lockdown. On court, I have learnt a lot when it comes to matches, win or lose. They say when you lose, you tend to learn a lot more from your mistakes. I have fallen down, I have won… that win (2019 World Championships) took my confidence to another level. I have grown up. I have been able to control my emotions. You need the self-confidence to stay calm. There are times when you tend to lose yourself in the game or go blank; that is where the emotional and mental aspects come in.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How has your understanding of your own game changed over the years?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Now if I go blank when I am playing, I have option B. I know what she (opponent) is doing and what I need to do to counter that. Before, I would think about what to do, or listen to the coach on what needs to be done. Also, one needs to have the capacity to execute the options. I am more in control of my game [now].</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Is this Sindhu more ruthless and clinical on court?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ I think I am normal, friendly Sindhu (laughs). But when it comes to the game, you have to be ruthless and aggressive.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> You have often had close matches with opponents in major competitions and have lost a few. How do you overcome the disappointment and fight back?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ It (losing close matches) does hurt me! Even now, I feel bad or upset for some time, but it is important to let go and focus on the next match. When I was young, I would feel bad but my parents would tell me ‘It is over now, time to think of the next one.’ It comes with learning. You imbibe it. Also, you start thinking on your own. After some time, you feel it is okay to lose sometimes; you cannot change it, [so] move on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How are your parents coping with this grownup Sindhu?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ (Laughs) They are always happy. Who does not want their child to grow up and be independent? They are there with me no matter what, and they support me in whatever I want. At the end of the day, that is what parents want (laughs).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> The Olympic silver, Asian Games silver, world championship gold—how do you cope with growing expectations?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Expectations are always there. I do not think about them when I go into a match. I just think about giving my best. If I do that, it is good for me, the country and its people. If I think that people want me to win, there will be added pressure. It is important for an athlete to be focused.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Did you feel the burden of expectations during the 2016 Olympic final in Rio and the 2019 World Championships final in Switzerland?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ More than that, I desperately wanted to win for myself! At Rio, I did not know what the situation was like back home! [At the] World Championships, I had two silver and two bronze [medals] already. It was a much-awaited win for me; I was desperate. Before the match, I just wanted to give my 200 per cent, which I did.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> You are one of the most popular athletes in India, on par with cricketers. How do you cope with the fame?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ People who support and love me will always do so. It is nice when they support and encourage you on social media. I have never felt it is too much. When you are in the limelight you need to enjoy it, and I am enjoying it right now.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Do you enjoy being a superstar badminton player?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Of course. I want to enjoy it for a couple of years more! (Laughs)&nbsp;</p> Thu Mar 25 14:38:06 IST 2021 sindhu-will-be-a-favourite-going-into-the-olympics <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> P.V. Sindhu trained in England late last year. What do you make of her performance and fitness?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ She was a bit rusty in the initial matches, but not all players will come back after 10 months without tournaments and straightaway win them. I am sure she will be back to her normal self in the coming months.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> Will Sindhu training separately at the Gachibowli stadium affect other players?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Sindhu is training with [Korean coach] Park [Tae Sang]. He is an able coach and I am happy with the training. Park has made her programme; they have sparring partners and players helping her. At the end of the day, we have only two courts operational at Gachibowli. As time goes by, we will have a few more players training there. This helps them acclimatise to various tournaments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How was it to let go of a player you groomed for years?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Thanks to support from the government, BAI (Badminton Association of India) and SAI (Sports Authority of India), players now have a support team and their needs are taken care of. Unlike in previous Olympics, the players today—whether it is Saina [Nehwal], Sindhu or [Kidambi] Srikanth—have their own setup. So, we are in a position where I can focus on the younger group, and that is what I have been doing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> How do you look at Sindhu’s evolution from a 21-year-old Olympic silver medallist to now?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ Going into (Rio) Olympics or the earlier World Championships, Sindhu was not one of the favourites. This time around, in Tokyo, she will definitely be one of the favourites. I am sure the experience of winning at big events will definitely help. Having said that, we still have challenges from many players and countries. It is the Olympics; it will be tough. She is prepared for it and has the ability. Hopefully, we will have a better medal than the one we had last time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q</b>/<b> The Chinese have withdrawn from various tournaments. Heading into Tokyo, how dangerous a team are they?</b></p> <p><b>A</b>/ The Covid-19 scenario has been a bit unpredictable in the past few months. Of course, the Chinese not playing depletes the field. But I think these are still formidable competitions. We had a depleted field in Thailand as well. Many Indonesian, Japanese and Chinese players [dropped out of] these tournaments.</p> <p>Overall, I feel like other sports, badminton, too, is trying to get back as quickly as possible. Yes, there are challenges, but it is good to go ahead and the players are also supporting these efforts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> Thu Mar 25 14:27:32 IST 2021 saviour-swimmer <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>For Bengaluru city, it was just another day (Wednesday, August 21, 2019) with never-ending traffic snarls and incessant honking on its roads. But, it was a fateful one for Manu, 18, a Kerala-born lad who was in the city for his undergraduate studies, and four of his friends—George, Salman, Sanjay and Nidhi.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“Those were our initial days in college; Wednesdays were off-days for us,” says Manu. “We had been waiting for a chance to explore Bengaluru. Fortunately, or unfortunately, we got an offer from [rental car service] Zoomcar for a discounted ride. And, we decided to drive to the Royal Meenakshi Mall in Bannerghatta Main Road.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On the way to the mall, the group took a turn to the Bengaluru-Mysuru Infrastructure Corridor—popularly known as the NICE Ring Road. “We thought it would be fun to take a ride on the NICE Road,” says Manu. “But it proved to be a terrible decision.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The group entered NICE Ring Road from the toll booth on the Electronic City side around 11:30am. Just after the toll booth, they overtook Haradar Santosh Sashwath Jain’s car. The 30-year-old former national-level swimmer was heading home to Girinagar from Electronic City. “The way they overtook my car, I thought… it was rash driving,” recounts Sashwath. “My driver tried to throttle a bit and match them. I told him, ‘You drive calm. You know my mindset when it comes to NICE Road. Let them go’.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He had lost his older brother in a tragic road accident on NICE Road on March 26, 2019. “My sister-in-law was paralysed below the waist in that accident. She is still in wheelchair,” says Sashwath, who is vice president of Garuda Aerospace Pvt Limited, a company that builds drones and helps farmers in spraying fertilisers and pesticides.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Manu was driving the Zoomcar when they started the ride. Rattled by the speeding vehicles on NICE Road, he handed over the wheel to George. Their car took a U-turn close to Bannerghatta, and just after that, the accident happened. “We were going at 120-130km/hr,” says Manu. “I do not know what exactly happened. For a few minutes, we were all numb. I think the steering got locked. All I remember is that the vehicle toppled twice and the left side of the car hit the ground.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>As Sashwath crossed Bannerghatta, he saw the Zoomcar in a ditch and asked his driver to stop. “By the time my driver stopped the car, we were 200 to 300m past the accident spot,” he says. “So, I asked him to take a U-turn, and I ran to the accident spot. Some people were standing there as mere spectators—no one was helping the kids.” George and Nidhi were in the front seats, and Manu, Sanjay and Salman in the back. All of them were in panic and shock.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On reaching the spot, Sashwath took charge of the situation. “First, we pulled the girl [Nidhi] out, then Manu, and after that Sanjay,” he says. George and Nidhi were unhurt as they had worn seat belts. Manu also seemed to be stable. But Sanjay and Salman were in pain. Sanjay was bleeding from his ears and nose. “His face was covered in blood,” says Sashwath. “When we tried to pull out Salman, he screamed. I said, ‘Do not pull him out’ because I sensed that his spine must have been hurt badly. The same thing had happened to my sister-in-law.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sashwath then flagged down a taxi cab and asked for help. “I asked him, ‘Can you help us, because I cannot wait till an ambulance arrives. I will pay you the diesel price. You just have to follow me to the hospital.’ The cab driver replied, ‘No need for money, brother, I will help you out.’” By this time, Manu also started experiencing severe back pain.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Salman, Manu and George were taken to hospital in the cab, and Sanjay and Nidhi were taken in Sashwath’s car. “We took them to the SSNMC Hospital—the same hospital where my sister-in-law was admitted,” says Sashwath. “I paid the initial charges in the hospital.” He also ensured that the police case filed against George—who drove the car—did not have severe charges. “It was an unintentional incident,” he says. “They were all students. I did not want this incident to ruin their future.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sanjay’s condition stabilised after he was given the first aid. However, Manu and Salman had suffered spinal cord injuries. “Salman’s case was severe. He suffered damage to the nerves, too,” says Manu. “He had to undergo surgery. He was shifted to Government Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram, the next day. I had to stay in hospital for three to four days. Later I was shifted to a cousin’s home.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Sashwath stayed as a helping hand during their days in hospital. It has been one and a half years since the accident. Salman is still bedridden; he could not return to college. The group is still in contact with the good Samaritan who saved them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was the death of his brother that had made Sashwath a road warrior. “My brother’s life would have been saved if someone had helped him the way I did,” says Sashwath. “Those who have seen that accident waited for an ambulance for more than an hour. By the time he was taken to hospital, we had lost him.”</p> Sat Aug 07 16:42:08 IST 2021 it-was-the-biggest-moment-of-my-life <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>The Border-Gavaskar</b> series was perhaps a coming-of-age period for Rishabh Pant—wicketkeeper, batsman, match-winner of the final Test and the team’s funny man all rolled into one. Back home, he is feeling happier and more confident. Before leaving for Chennai to join the team camp for the England series, he spent a few days in Delhi with his mother and sister, who joined him from Roorkee, his hometown.</p> <p>When THE WEEK spoke to Pant, he was in a playful mood—wearing a Tom and Jerry sweatshirt and a cap. He talked at length about the series victory in Australia, the challenges of balancing his wicketkeeping, batting and fitness, and how he plotted the unforgettable run chase on day five in Brisbane. He admitted that after long, he is once again happy in his life.</p> <p>The win at the Gabba and all that unfolded after it are still hazy, and he cannot recall a single thing anyone said to him. But he has one grouse. That his mother did not pick up his phone call. “She never picks up my phone on time!”</p> <p>After just a day’s rest, he was back in the nets training with his childhood coaches, Tarak Sinha and Devender Sharma, at the Sonnet Club in Delhi. Management agency JSW Sports signed him even before he landed in Delhi. He already plays for the company, which owns Delhi Capitals in the Indian Premier League.</p> <p>Chirpy, cheeky and affable, this is the Rishabh Pant that the nation has grown to love. As a batsman, he has proven that he can be a match-winner for India anytime, anywhere. As a wicketkeeper, he is a work in progress. And he knows it. Excerpts from an interview:</p> <p><b>Q/ It has been a few days since the team returned from Australia. Has it sunk in that you were one of the heroes of the series win?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>Yeah, it is just sinking in. Spending time with my family has helped. [But] I do not want to keep thinking about it because there is a new series coming up. So yes, I am feeling happy after a long time!</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You had lost your place in the limited-overs squads. So going into the Test series, what was your approach and mindset like?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>I lost my place in the ODI and T20 squads, so I had to tell myself to focus on the [things I can control]. I had to focus on playing all four Tests. I was spending good time in the gym, training hard. I was practising well, so my whole focus was on how I could do better there and improve every day.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Your last tour to Australia was a good one too. Did that give you confidence going into this series?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>Yes, it does give you confidence when you tell yourself you have been there and done well, but I did not think about that too much. I was only focusing on myself and my cricket. My mindset was clear that I need to improve every day. I needed to make good use of the days ahead of the Test series. We had all gone there together and had enough time to prepare. I was putting myself through the furnace so that I could become better.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ After lockdown and during the IPL, you focused on fitness and lost weight. When you left for Australia straight after the IPL, how difficult was it to strike a balance between wicketkeeping, fitness and batting?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>The lockdown was long, but I have been playing cricket for 17-18 years now. So even if I do not play for 7-8 months, it still remains. But there is also no limit for improving. One has to distribute time accordingly for all aspects—sometimes you bat less and keep more during training, sometimes you spend more time on physical training. I have three roles—all three cannot be the same every day.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Were you feeling the pressure when the Melbourne Test did not go well for you as a wicketkeeper?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>No, there was no such thing. It did not go as bad as it looked from the outside. But since I was playing a Test match after a long time, the bounce (on Australian pitches) is different. No matter how hard you practise, you do feel a bit nervous. But I was confident. At the end of the day, it all ended well. I was in a better space at the end of the match.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How bad did you feel when you missed out on your century in Sydney?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>I was feeling bad not because of missing a century, but because I was thinking about the match. We had the game in our grasp. Pujji <i>bhai</i> (Cheteshwar Pujara) and I were playing, and winning the match would have been different. That was more heart-breaking for me than missing a hundred.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ During the second innings at the Gabba, at what point did you decide you would chase down the total?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>The plan was to play normal cricket, to let the game unfold and then see what happens. I was not thinking too much about winning, but it was there at the back of my mind. I did not try to do too many different things, and gave myself time to stay at the crease.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ When you saw the way Pujara was getting hit, did that give you incentive to play with more freedom? How is it batting with Pujara?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>I have been batting with him now for a long time. Most of the time, we get to play the role together. When he was getting hit, I was amazed at his commitment! Even after playing for so many years, he is getting hit, standing there doing his job. That is the kind of environment we have created in the team—that no matter what, we have to stick there and believe in ourselves.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What did you make of the Aussie tactics</b>—<b>bowling short or into the body</b>—<b>to get the breakthrough?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>We have been practising [short-pitched deliveries] so well with Raghu (throwdown expert D. Raghavendra) and our bowlers. We knew what their bowlers could do, and we had planned accordingly. We were prepared for everything.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You are young, but you played the senior role when Washington Sundar came out to bat. Talk us through what you told him.</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>When I am batting, I am very proactive and I keep talking to [my partner]. I like to appreciate the cricket­—if someone is leaving the ball, I say well left or good defence. All these things keep me motivated and involved, too. So, when Washy came, he was pumped up and said, ‘<i>Macha</i>, what should we do? I have to hit, etc.’ I told him to take a chill pill, one of us has to stay till the end. I told him to decide what to do, because both of us wanted to go for the win. Either you go for the runs or I have to go. He responded, ‘I will go for the runs, you anchor the innings.’ That is how it started.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you remember anything that was said to you immediately after the win? Or is it still all hazy?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>It is still hazy. When we won the match, I was standing there and everybody was rushing towards me. I had no idea what was happening. I looked around, seeing everyone jumping and told myself, ‘Something good has happened today, boss. It feels good.’</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Have you ever experienced this before in other series?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>This was the biggest moment of my life! To help win the series decider outside India was a different feeling for me.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ What was different about this series that you all got together and executed plans so well?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>I think it was difficult for everyone because once Virat [Kohli] <i>bhaiyya</i> left and [Mohammed] Shami <i>bhai</i> got injured, there were so many things happening. But it was an opportunity also for someone else to do something good for the team. It was an opportunity for others to stand up and help the team win the match. You will not get a better time to win a match for India.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ At the end of the day, one could say Rishabh Pant has grown a lot, courtesy this Australia series?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>No no, I still have black hair, I am still young! This series made me realise I am maturing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ There is not enough time to get over the tiredness or work on your wicketkeeping before the England series starts. How will you manage all this?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>Since my return, I have been training at the club. I guess one has to work on the mindset since you cannot work on your skills as much in such a short time. You just need to remember what else you need to do or add to your game.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you see England as an opposition?</b></p> <p><b>A/</b><i> </i>They are a very strong team, but as the Indian team, we have the self-belief. We know if we play to our potential, we can win the series.&nbsp;</p> Thu Jan 28 16:11:18 IST 2021 preparing-for-launch <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>I really miss playing tournaments,” said badminton star P.V. Sindhu, when asked what she misses the most from the pre-Covid days. Her last event was the All England Open in March 2020. “But with tournaments starting from January, I am really looking forward to performing well at the Thailand Open,” she said.</p> <p>The world champion is working with sports scientist Rebecca Randell of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute and training with Badminton England’s Toby Penty and Rajiv Ouseph at the National Badminton Centre in Milton Keynes, England.</p> <p>All Olympics-bound Indian athletes like Sindhu are itching to compete, having resumed their training in June. The break may have come as a welcome one for some initially, but the long period of inaction that followed had its own challenges.</p> <p>Javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra, India’s brightest hope for an Olympic medal in athletics, had an injury-plagued 2019 and an equally forgettable 2020, which saw him competing in only one event. “It has been a long time since I competed,” said Chopra, who is training at the national camp in Bhubaneshwar.</p> <p>For a young Sindhu or Chopra, time is on their side. But the clock has never ticked so loudly for seniors like P.R. Sreejesh, former captain of the Indian hockey team. “As a goalkeeper, it is good that I got more time to prepare,” said the 32-year-old. “But at the same time, I need to be playing at the highest level to remain at my best.”</p> <p>With teams undergoing training camps since June-July, coaches have had to prepare plans for different scenarios—be it for pre-Olympic competitions or for going to the Olympics without any international competitions.</p> <p><b>Shooting</b></p> <p>The National Rifle Association of India, along with the Sports Authority of India, held two national camps for Olympic core-group shooters in New Delhi. But 2020 was a tough one on Indian shooters who are used to training and competing all year round. “I usually train 365 days a year,” said pistol shooter Abhishek Verma. “But because of Covid, I was forced to take a long holiday. Only the 10m air pistol and air rifle shooters were able to train at home after the lockdown ended. And still, the ranges were closed.”</p> <p>For Suma Shirur, national coach of the air rifle team, the first camp organised for the core Olympic probables squad was to sort shooters’ equipment. “It was about fine-tuning equipment with their body and basic fundamental training,” she said. The second camp, which started in October, was about technical training. The third camp is set to resume after a break interspersed with selection trials. “The second camp was very positive,” said Shirur. “Everyone got into the groove of competitive training together, so they know what level they are at.”</p> <p>The national coaches have meanwhile devised all their plans keeping in mind the ISSF World Cups in New Delhi in March and in Changwon, Korea, in April. “Once it was clear that the Olympics would take place, we knew we have to be ready for it even if there were no competitions,” said Shirur.</p> <p><b>Hockey</b></p> <p>Rani Rampal, captain of the Indian hockey team, would rather look at the “extra time” her team got as a boon. Having qualified for the Olympics, the women’s team is looking to better its record at the Games. “I do not think Covid has affected our preparations because we are doing exactly the same things we would have been doing had the sport not stopped,” said Rampal. “When it comes to following the SOPs and the protocols, there have been some adjustments. But our focus has remained intact.”</p> <p>Sjoerd Marijne, chief coach of the women’s national team, feels the extended break has given players an opportunity to bond off the field. “One of the first things that came to my mind was to keep the team together as a family,” he said. “Another aspect was to keep the players fresh both mentally and physically. Our coaching staff made sure that the team could improve their fitness levels, and also utilise time to analyse their past performances.” Marijne is hopeful of travelling for competitions soon.</p> <p>Graham Reid, chief coach of the senior men’s hockey team, said the Covid-enforced break was an extended off-season that was turned into two four-month-long camps. The focus of these camps has been on tactical play and scenarios to prepare the team for any situation during games, said Reid.</p> <p>He expressed satisfaction with where the players were, technically and physically, despite no competitions. “It is challenging to gauge where the team is at, when compared with other teams in the world,” said Reid. “We have done everything possible to get the players back to the level they will need to be to compete against the best.”</p> <p><b>Athletics</b></p> <p>Javelin thrower Johannes Vetter recorded the second-best throw in the history of the sport in September 2020. The German, who made a comeback after an ankle surgery, competed in seven events in Europe in the last three months of 2020. In contrast, India’s number one javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra has competed only in one competition in 2020—in January, when he qualified for the Tokyo Games. “Yes, I faced a huge problem in training in 2020,” he said. “It had completely stopped during the lockdown. In 2019, it was like this too, because of my surgery and rehab.”</p> <p>The Athletics Federation of India revised its domestic competition schedule thrice in 2020 but failed to hold any meets. They persisted with training camps at NIS Patiala and now Bhubaneshwar, but it has not been easy for the athletes. In November, the AFI’s high performance director (HPD) Volker Hermann resigned as he could not meet his “self-imposed expectations”.</p> <p>“We are absolutely on track,” said AFI president Adille Sumariwalla. “People like Neeraj who were undergoing rehab got a little more time to recover. While they (Chopra’s competitors) are more experienced, Neeraj is younger. He has an advantage. The whole contingent is very young. Therefore, one more year of preparation will put them in good stead.”</p> <p>Sumariwalla admitted that the lack of international competitions was a setback. “We definitely missed the competitions, but we are planning for our top guys to be outside India competing from January-February onwards,” he said. “It is important to keep athletes safe also. It is a real balancing act.”</p> <p><b>Boxing</b></p> <p>The Indian boxing contingent has perhaps been the best-placed in terms of competition exposure in 2020. Nine Indian boxers (five men and four women) qualified for the Tokyo Olympics and Indian boxing’s HPD Santiago Nieva had eyes on a few more berths to make it India’s best-ever qualification.</p> <p>After the lockdown was lifted, boxing camps were held at NIS Patiala, followed by a training-cum-competition tour to Italy, France and Germany from October to December. Nieva was a happy man as the Indian team bagged nine medals at the Cologne Boxing World Cup, including three golds. “We were in the final [stage of] preparations for the Olympics, but then we had to wait for almost a year,” said Nieva. “But we are in the same situation as the rest of the world. We had good preparation and fortunately we could come to Europe and do this 67-day trip.”</p> <p>Raffaele Bergamasco, coach of the Indian senior women’s team, though happy with the results, said he will have to come up with some new training plans in January. “The Italian federation arranged a joint training camp and a small tournament in Milan with good opponents,” he said. “I plan to start the preparation from January in India after some initial evaluation tests and improvisation in training methodology.”</p> <p>Bergamasco said that European nations held mini-competitions by creating small bio bubbles and their boxers had their noses in front. “It is good to have more international exposure than training with the same partners at home,” he said. “In Europe, they are organising small tournaments even during the pandemic by taking good precautions. In 2021, from February, there will be tournaments in Bulgaria, Spain, Hungary, Belarus and Ukraine as preparations for the Olympic Games.” Apart from the European events, the BFI will host the Asian Championship in the first quarter of 2021.</p> <p><b>Wrestling</b></p> <p>It has been a very different story for Indian wrestling, being a contact sport. Following the high of 2019 with several World Championships medals, the grapplers had almost a full year of restrictions. From March to August, it was about individual training at home. Then the wrestling federation announced camps with severe restrictions and only Indian coaches. Women’s coach Andrew Cook had his contract terminated during the lockdown while foreign coaches for the men’s team could not travel to India. The women’s camp in Lucknow was called off entirely after Diwali.</p> <p>An Indian contingent participated at the Individual World Cup in Belgrade against a depleted field in November. India returned with only one medal—a silver by Anshu Malik in women’s 57kg division—winning 15 bouts and losing 28. World Championships silver medallist Deepak Punia was beaten in the bronze-medal playoff and Rio Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik could not progress to the second round. The lack of proper training was evident. The Olympic qualifiers start in February 2021. Bajrang Punia has been sanctioned a month-long training stint in the USA and Vinesh Phogat is recovering from Covid-19.</p> Thu Dec 24 16:16:33 IST 2020 tournaments-in-jan-will-tell-us-where-we-stand <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>Q\ Covid-19 made 2020 an unprecedented year. How do you assess the preparations of the Indian badminton team for the Tokyo Olympics?</b></p> <p><b>A\ </b>Luckily for us, we still have time. Players needed this break also, so I do not see much of an issue with that. It is going to be a challenging year. We start off with two tournaments in the first two weeks of January. The players are experienced and we should be on schedule regarding our preparations for the Olympics. 2020 was a tough year and players were looking forward to the Olympics from February. We had to encounter surprising circumstances, but our players are used to dealing with issues. Luckily for us, things seem to be on track. Tournaments in January will tell us where exactly we stand. We will take necessary actions after that.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q\ How did you approach the long break in 2020?</b></p> <p><b>A\ </b>The break was needed because the players were taking part in a lot of tournaments. If things had gone back to normal in August-September, it would have been perfect. But in the last three to four months, players were itching to get back and start playing. From a career perspective, it depends on who takes what out of it—some of the players would have come out stronger physically and mentally, and some careers would have finished by the end of it. So, we will have to wait and see until some tournaments happen.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q\ When players returned after the break, what did you observe in terms of their fitness and training?</b></p> <p><b>A\ </b>They came back well. The present lot of players, the seniors particularly, has the muscle memory to come back quickly. There is no rustiness. If there is, it is on the physical front. If you have about a month of training, they are back physically as well. For me, the challenge is more with the younger players who have lost a year-and-a-half in momentum compared with the seniors.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q\ P.V. Sindhu is training abroad. How is she shaping up?</b></p> <p><b>A\ </b>I think the proof of the pudding is when you play the tournament. That will decide where we are. Sometimes in training, we do not have similar competition. Wherever she is, she will have younger players to play with. So eventually, how well she trained and where she stands will be seen in the tournaments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q\ How are you managing the return and workload of players who had the virus?</b></p> <p><b>A\ </b>Satwik (Sairaj Rankireddy) came through after a prolonged spell of Covid-19 infection. It affects people differently. Satwik has put on a little bit of weight, so we are focussing on the physical strength since he came back. He has actually done a good job, so hopefully he should be in perfect shape before the tournaments. Saina [Nehwal], [Parupalli] Kashyap and [H.S.] Prannoy have been a little tired in the last few days, but they have been asymptomatic for the most part of it. Their lungs have not really been affected. That is the feedback. I think they will come back soon.&nbsp;</p> Thu Dec 24 16:08:18 IST 2020 willow-fight <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>THE SYDNEY CRICKET</b> Ground and the Manuka Oval in Canberra—venues for the three-match ODI series between India and Australia—are “sold out”. But, they will be at 50 per cent capacity owing to Covid-19 protocols. After two months of playing to empty stands in the Indian Premier League, the players will finally have a real audience.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Team India, led by Virat Kohli, returns to Australia as holders of the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. The three ODIs and T20Is will be a prelude to the real deal—the four-match Test series. The first Test is a day/night match in Adelaide. It will be India’s first pink ball match away from home.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>For Cricket Australia (CA), close to AUD300 million hinges on India’s visit. It has gone all out to ensure a smooth process. It got India’s request for soft quarantine cleared (they can train every day) and flew in players from South Australia early to ensure they do not get stuck.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Australia are bolstered by the return of Steve Smith and David Warner. Both missed the last Test series against India, in 2018-2019, because of the sandpapergate ban. Former India captain Anil Kumble told<br> THE WEEK: “Prior to their ban Smith and Warner accounted for 40 to 45 per cent of the team’s runs.ÅTheir return obviously is a huge advantage for Australia.”ÅSmith, the No 1 ranked Test batsman, had a tough time facing short balls by Jofra Archer in England and Neil Wagner in New Zealand. But, those were bowled at around 150kmph. All eyes will be on how Jasprit Bumrah and company plot and execute against Smith.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Marnus Labuschagne, the South African-born player who came on as the first ever concussion substitute (for Smith) during the Ashes in 2019, has had a superb run ever since. His batting statistics are right up there with Smith’s (1,459 runs in 14 matches, four 100s and an average of 63.43). Former Australia pacer Michael Kasprowicz said Labuschagne has adapted his game to suit conditions. “He will pose a big challenge, he is a real competitor, there is a desire to do well,” he said. Australia have promising youngsters Cameron Green and Will Pucovski on the bench.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India will be without Rohit Sharma for the ODI and T20I series, and Kohli after the first Test in Adelaide (Ajinkya Rahane will take over the captaincy). That means opportunities for the likes of Shreyas Iyer and Shubman Gill. The star of the last series, Cheteshwar Pujara, will also be vital. Last time, Pujara batted for 22 hours in the four Tests, scoring 571 runs, including three centuries. He never looked under pressure during long stays at the crease—a quality that is rare in modern cricket.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kumble said Pujara, India’s No 3, is the team’s batting fulcrum. “I am glad someone is talking about Cheteshwar and his value,” said the spin legend. “His success will decide how well India does, especially in Kohli’s absence.” Kasprowicz said: “It is great to see Pujara, someone who is batting [against] time. He is definitely the key wicket.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The bowling attacks are fairly even. Both teams have pace and variety, though India may miss Ishant Sharma. Navdeep Saini’s raw pace could complement the guile and experience of Mohammed Shami, Bumrah and Umesh Yadav. There is also the exciting prospect of Mohammed Siraj.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Bumrah was the first Indian to take five-wicket hauls in Tests in England, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies. He was destroyer-in-chief the last time with 21 wickets at an average of 17. Dangerous with both the new ball and the old, Bumrah returns to Australia with a formidable record—68 wickets in 14 Tests at an average of 20.33.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Kumble said the absence of a left-hand pacer, like Australia’s Mitchell Starc, would not be a disadvantage for India. “The bowling attack has enough variety,” he said. “You need to find a bit of reverse swing in Australia. If India can find that it will be a major challenge.”ÅKumble, Shami’s coach in IPL 2020, said the pacer would take confidence from his recent success into the series.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The hosts, too, have strength in depth in their bowling department, especially pace. “[Pat] Cummins, Starc and [Josh] Hazlewood keeping out the others coming through is indicative of the depth,” said Kasprowicz. “James Pattinson is in the squad, so is [Michael] Neser, Queensland player of the year for the last three to four years.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On Starc, Kasprowicz said: “Swinging the ball at 150kmph always helps! Yeah, you can compare him to fantastic left-arm pacers in history like Wasim Akram. He can get wickets at any point in the game. That is what Starc has shown. And if used the right way, that is important.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Team India needs its batting to click. “If your opening partnership is good and Pujara comes good, too, then it is game on,” said Kumble. “To be 40-3 and then try to build an innings will be a massive effort.” For a change, it will not be the bowling but the batting that will decide India’s fate Down Under.</p> Thu Nov 26 18:42:51 IST 2020 i-enjoy-leading-the-attack <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Since 2018, the Indian pace attack has thrived at home and away. Mohammed Shami has taken 61 wickets in 21 Tests. Shami led the pace attack of the Kings XI Punjab in IPL 2020, taking 20 wickets in 14 matches. He was as deadly with the new ball as he was with the old. His yorkers were spot on and his bowling rhythm was smooth. In an interview with THE WEEK during the IPL in the UAE, Shami talked about the series in Australia and the key to his success. Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/You had a successful IPL. What aspect of your bowling are you enjoying the most?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/When you are given the opportunity to lead the bowling attack, it becomes very important to back yourself and your skills and execute them. That is what I enjoy the most.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/So, you enjoy being a leader in the bowling unit, digging into your experience?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Yes, the weight of responsibility is more. But, as a senior, I always try to ensure that the other bowlers remain positive. When they do that the chances of executing plans become better.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Do you think you have cracked the T20 code, considering there will be a series Down Under and then the T20 World Cup in 2021?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I always strive to improve. In the IPL, for example, we did not start well. But we came to a point where we had to back ourselves, defend five runs in a super over. That was the turning point. It is important to be a good learner, to be hungry to learn even during adverse results.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Would you call yourself a complete bowler now?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Whatever the format, I want to use the skills accordingly. If you tell me to use yorkers in a Test match, it would not help. I did not get enough opportunities earlier to showcase all my skills. In the last two years, I have got that opportunity. I used to always believe in bowling yorkers. I have done that at international level, too, but just that with more opportunities it gets better.</p> Thu Nov 26 18:40:59 IST 2020 it-hurt-to-be-beaten-last-time <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>For the last two years, Mitchell Starc has been Australia’s most lethal bowler, across formats. Since 2018, he has taken 58 wickets in 12 Tests. Australian legend Glenn McGrath called him the team’s X factor because of his pace, swing and adeptness with both the new and old ball. He skipped IPL 2020 and is refreshed for India’s tour. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Starc said there was very little to separate the sides. Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Glenn McGrath called you the X factor. Do you feel your skill with the old ball gives you an advantage over Indian batsmen?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/That is nice of Glenn to say. I think consistency and pace are key. Being a left-armer can also help at times.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/How do you plan to exploit India’s lack of preparation for Test matches?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/They will be ready, they have too many world-class players.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Most Indian batsmen have experience playing both at the top and in the middle order, especially in Tests. How does that impact the bowling plan?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/We have plans for all of the batters we play against regardless of where they bat. It is [about] sticking to those plans.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Do you look at the tour as a revenge series?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/It certainly hurt to be soundly beaten last time. But, that was two years ago and we have a very different side. [One that has] not played together a lot. We played really well last summer, so we will be looking to continue that momentum.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Cheteshwar Pujara has not played competitive cricket for 10 months. Do you feel he is at a disadvantage?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Not at all. He was so important to India last time and will be again. He faced a lot of balls and kept us on our legs for long periods. We need to be sharp against him.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/India lacks experience in day/night Tests, especially away from home. Your thoughts on how to exploit the pink ball, especially in Australian conditions.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Hopefully, it is as much the conditions that will help, not so much the fact that it is a night game. India won their only Test under lights. We do not see that being an issue for them.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/What aspect of your bowling are you enjoying the most?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I really enjoy bowling as part of the unit and working together. I also enjoy the contest in the closing overs in tight games.</p> Thu Nov 26 18:39:15 IST 2020 rohit-is-still-70-per-cent-fit-ask-him <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>The Sourav Ganguly&nbsp;</b>era in Indian cricket administration has seen some pathbreaking decisions being taken. Just like the captain he was, Ganguly is leading the BCCI from the front, being the body’s voice and chief decision-maker. But he is also facing a myriad of issues.</p> <p>With the 2020 Indian Premier League running successfully, Ganguly pushed for the Women's T20 Challenge matches to happen alongside it, even though IPL chairman Brijesh Patel expressed reservations. The four matches took place, but the perceived lack of effort to ensure the Indian women get game time has raised questions on how serious the BCCI is about women's cricket. The women’s demand for a one-point person—preferably a woman in the BCCI—to go to with their issues is still pending. With the BCCI operating with an interim CEO and Saba Karim, general manager, cricket operations, set to serve out his notice period soon, Ganguly and secretary Jay Shah will have to ensure that day-to-day management is back in the hands of professionals and that key reforms of the Lodha Committee are not ignored.</p> <p>Ganguly's appearances in various advertisements while holding office has also raised concerns about conflict of interest. Moreover, Dilip Vengsarkar, former chairman of selectors, told a national daily that by making statements on selection matters, the IPL and player injuries, Ganguly was “undermining the credentials of the national selectors and the IPL chairman”.</p> <p>Ganguly has dealt with critics in his own way throughout his career. Speaking to THE WEEK from Dubai, the BCCI president took the criticisms on the chin and attempted to clear the air on key issues. Excerpts:</p> <p><b>You must be satisfied with the conduct of IPL 2020. What aspect of it are you most happy about?</b></p> <p>Yes, I am very happy to conduct and complete a tournament in these testing times. What has satisfied me is the competitiveness. It has been a great tournament.</p> <p><b>Did you or the BCCI face any challenges going into this season?</b><br> </p> <p>No, it has been very smooth. The most important challenge was to create a healthy tournament for everyone. To safely conduct a two-and-a-half-month tournament with 400 people involved has been remarkable.</p> <p><b>All eyes are on the BCCI for what is next for cricket in India.</b><br> </p> <p>We could not have cricket activity because of Covid-19. We will slowly get back to cricket. We will organise our domestic cricket, then England tour India for ODIs and Test matches.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Some state associations have started local tournaments. Will you encourage more states to resume cricket activity after the IPL?</b></p> <p>A bio-secure bubble is very important in the current situation. That is the first condition. I think it is still early to ask states to hold their own leagues because health issues are a bit uncertain. It is important to organise first-class cricket and then the England tour in a healthy and safe environment.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>But if you are hoping to start the Ranji Trophy first, then the states will have to organise their pre-season training camps, trials and competitions.</b></p> <p>Yeah, a lot of them are doing it. They have created their own safety parameters and their players are getting tested regularly. The SOPs have been forwarded to them on how to hold tournaments.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Is it true that if not for your insistence, the Women'sT20 Challenge may not have taken place this season, and that women are not getting enough cricket?</b></p> <p>No, women will get a lot of cricket. It is not just me; the entire BCCI wants to see women's cricket go forward. We had challenges. So many tours got cancelled. Covid-19 has made things difficult for us. The women's game is very important.</p> <p><b>But if the BCCI could create a bubble for the IPL, could it not have gotten the Indian women's team to England to play a series there like Pakistan did?</b><br> </p> <p>No, we could not because the Covid-19 numbers were very high. And, we did not want our women to take the risk. When the whole world is suffering, one small tournament would not have made a difference. The Women's IPL (T20 Challenge) was very important. We wanted to send our team to Sri Lanka, but their cricket board cancelled that. We invited the West Indies to India. But the WICB said Covid-19 numbers in India are very high so they did not want to come. We had all these issues to deal with.</p> <p><b>There is a sense that there is not enough information coming from the BCCI—like injury updates of centrally contracted players like Rohit Sharma and Wriddhiman Saha. Is the BCCI lapsing into the old era of less communication?</b><br> </p> <p>How is that? Who should know? We know, the Indian physio knows, the NCA knows. I think people don't know how the BCCI works. The BCCI trainers, physio and Wridhi himself know that he has two hamstring issues. People don't understand injuries, that is why they talk rubbish. Wridhi is travelling to Australia because he will be fit for Tests. He is not part of the shorter formats. For the entire duration of the IPL, Indian physios and trainers were in Dubai. Dr Nitin Patel is managing injuries and monitoring it all.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>But what about Rohit Sharma? You and the BCCI said he is injured, but he played for Mumbai Indians immediately after that.</b></p> <p>Rohit is still 70 per cent [fit]. Why don't you find out from Rohit himself? That is why he is still not picked for the ODIs and T20s down under. He has been added to the Test squad. Certain things are confidential in a board. [We] don't need to tell everything, but things are going on.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>What about more communication with the states? It has been scarce till now.</b></p> <p>Of course, it will be given once dates [for domestic tournaments] are ready, when we are absolutely sure it is safe for everyone. We have to create bio-bubbles for 38 teams—20 players each, plus support staff and officials. It is not easy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>When will the BCCI hold its general body meeting? Many sports federations have done so online.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We will have the AGM after Diwali. The Registrar of Societies of Tamil Nadu, where the BCCI is registered, has stopped AGMs from being held online due to a court order. We will get it done.</p> Fri Nov 13 15:15:44 IST 2020 2020-has-been-crazy <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Ben Stokes has a larger than life image in English cricket: A superhero who has won England its first ever World Cup, followed by an Ashes victory; a cricketer who can do almost anything on the field, be it with the bat or ball. Over the last year and a half, Stokes’s cricket career has seen not a single blip.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>But 2020 has been more than just those unforgettable cricket performances for Stokes. It has been a tough time for his family as his father, Gerard Stokes, was diagnosed with brain cancer. In August, the Christchurch-born player rushed to be with his family in New Zealand after being granted leave during England’s Test series against Pakistan. He spent five weeks with his parents, before heading to the United Arab Emirates to join his IPL franchise, the Rajasthan Royals. Stoke’s IPL outings this season—including a 107 not out from 60 balls—has not helped his team seal a berth in the play-offs. But it has set the tone for an enticing 2021 season, which will see an India-England series in January.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He says that he was prepared to open the innings for the Rajasthan Royals even before joining the team. He credits the consistency in his performances to the maturity and experience he has gained as a cricketer. Edited excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/England captain Eoin Morgan stated that playing in a bio-bubble can cause early burnouts. What are the challenges of playing in a bio-bubble over a long stretch?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I think it is a very challenging thing to go through. Being in a bio-secure bubble takes away the freedom that we are used to, but look at the bigger picture. I think it is a responsibility that we have on our shoulders as professional cricketers—to keep the game on TV screens, [and] give the fans the entertainment that they want. It obviously comes with challenges, being away from family, being in the same place for such a long time, but we would much rather be in a bubble playing cricket, than sit at home and not being able to do what we need to do.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/How would you sum up the last year and a half—World Cup win, Ashes win, lockdown and father’s health?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/It has been crazy, really. We were in Sri Lanka in December [2019] when the virus had started to get serious, and we came home from that tour at the right time. If we had stayed for another week, we would have stayed in Sri Lanka, for God knows how long. If you look back at December 2019, everything was running smoothly. I do not know how long it will take for things to get back to normal.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Where do you get so much courage from?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I do not know.... [I] think just being a sportsperson, you always want to win your individual battles and be on the winning side as much as possible. Being an all-rounder, you always have to be switched on—you have to concentrate on your batting, your bowling and even fielding. Always being involved in the game is probably, I would say, a better way to explain the courage.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/This IPL season saw you in a different role—as an opener.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I am really enjoying it. It is something that I always wanted to slowly and gradually get into. In the England team it is tough [to become an opener]. Jason Roy, Tom Banton, Jonny Bairstow, Alex Hales—all these guys are phenomenal openers. So, it is a hard place to get into.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/The ongoing IPL season has already seen several Super Overs. Being involved in an unforgettable one—in the World Cup 2019 final—do you like the concept of Super Over?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I think it is in very rare occasions that it happens, even though this IPL [season] has seen it quite a few times. At the end of 240 balls, if there is no victor, then I guess it is the best way to go about it. I am sure both teams do not want to walk away with split points if it ends in a draw. I think it is good that since that World Cup final, few things have been adjusted to the rules. I do not think anybody ever thought it would go that way, so they [the International Cricket Council] went back, rethought the whole process of Super Over and decided to keep doing it till there is a winner. It is a great way to find a winner at the end of a tie.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/In terms of mindset and intensity, do you see a difference between playing in the T20 World Cup and the IPL?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/In the IPL, compared with T20 WC, you got more time to, maybe, find a formula that works. In a T20 World Cup, you do not have that much time—if you do not do well in the group stage you are gone.&nbsp;In the IPL, you can afford to&nbsp;try a few things like selection, and how your line-up looks, because there are so many games (in the group phase).</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Any bowler that you found challenging facing up in the IPL?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I think [it is] pretty obvious, if you look at the two top bowlers—Jasprit Bumrah and Rashid Khan. Rashid has all those tricks, he bamboozles batsmen every time he walks onto the field, he is fantastic. Bumrah is very good with what he does whether it is with the new ball or the old ball.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Do you feel you are at the peak of your performance? What will it take to maintain that consistency?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/I would have obviously loved to do a lot better this year, especially with RR. I am nearly 30 now, so I know what works for me in terms of preparation, and what I need to do before going into a game. I do not try to go too far away from that, [and] do not try to overcomplicate things too much because once you get to game day, there is not much you can do—you just try to perform as well as you can.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/Your thoughts on the upcoming India-England series in January 2021.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/Hopefully, that is the big one! One does not know what is going to happen. As always, one hopes to prepare well as a team and individual.</p> Fri Nov 06 17:26:18 IST 2020 knight-now-king-next <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>LONG BEFORE</b> the schedule and venues for this year’s Indian Premier League were announced, Shubman Gill knew his role and brief. The 21-year-old would not only open for Kolkata Knight Riders, but he would also be groomed for a bigger role—that of a team leader.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Around the halfway mark of the tournament, the youngster is his team’s top scorer (311 runs), and is in contention to play for the Indian side that will tour Australia later in the year. Gill is part of the 20s class—a group of standout cricketers including England’s Tom Banton, 21, and Ollie Pope, 22, —which the cricketing world is eagerly following.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>From playing a side role last season to being central to KKR’s plans this time around, Gill has earned a reputation quite quickly. Last year, captain Dinesh Karthik had drawn the ire of former India players such as Gautam Gambhir for sending Gill in at number seven in the batting order. The fact that Gill had scored three half centuries made the decision even more baffling.</p> <p>So, when former New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum became KKR head coach in August 2019, one of his first declarations was that Gill would open. “Shubman is better suited at the top of the order,”he said after landing in Dubai this year. “He is a quality player, especially when the wickets are a bit tricky. When you have fast bowlers, you want your batsmen with the best technique, batsman-ship and craft, and he is certainly one of those guys. I am really impressed with the way he carries himself and plays the game. I feel he has a bit of presence about him even at this young age, [and he is] very respectful.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>KKR is not the only side to see his leadership potential. In 2019, national selectors made him captain of the India Blue side for the Duleep Trophy. Before that, he was vice captain of the under 19 team that won the 2018 World Cup.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Though only two ODIs old, expectations from the Mohali boy are sky high. And he knows it. Asked about being groomed for a leadership role in KKR, he told THE WEEK: “My reaction was not that of surprise, but there was a sense of responsibility when I was told about it. My personality is such that, the more the responsibility, the better I like it and work for it.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>His ongoing apprenticeship under two dynamic leaders—McCullum, who raised the bar for New Zealand cricket as captain and player; and Eoin Morgan, who changed England’s approach to ODIs and led them to a World Cup—is an invaluable experience for the young man. “The way Brendon motivates players and boosts their confidence is unique,”said Gill. “When we used to watch him on TV, he played with an intensity; you could never keep him out of the game. The same is visible in our training sessions.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On captain Morgan, he said: “It is a good experience playing with him. He is a world-class batsman. His personality is inspiring. Whenever he speaks, on or off the field, he is always motivating us. He has an aura about him.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Ahead of this IPL season, and after months without cricket because of the lockdown, Gill and three of his Punjab teammates—Abhishek Sharma, Anmolpreet Singh and Prabhsimran Singh—were part of a month-long training camp with Yuvraj Singh at the Punjab Cricket Association stadium in Mohali. “We prepared for the IPL and the Tests against Australia,”said Gill. “The focus was more on Test cricket. We discussed the conditions Down Under; the pace attack, the wickets and how to deal with the short ball. In the last two weeks before heading off to Dubai, we practised T20 cricket with Yuvi&nbsp;paaji.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Said India Under-19 coach Paras Mhambrey: “The first time I saw him, I knew he had talent; he was special. Seeing his ability against the spinners as well as the quicks, plus his overall game at that age, you could see he had a little extra time than the rest to play the bowlers.”Mhambrey added that Gill’s ability to read the situation and his grasp of his own game, at 21, put him just above his contemporaries, in India and around the world.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gill has been a standout in every age group he has played in. In fact, in 2017, Punjab selectors led by former India player Yashpal Sharma fast-tracked him into first-class cricket, even before he had made it to the Under-19 World Cup squad.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>He got his maiden Test call-up for the 2019 home series against South Africa, but he is yet to get his Test cap. He got the ODI cap on the 2019 New Zealand tour, but got out cheaply in both games. The wait for a permanent spot has tested his patience, but he reportedly had many conversations with National Cricket Academy chief Rahul Dravid, who made him focus on the present.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was under Dravid’s coaching that he was named player of the tournament in the 2018 World Cup; he made 372 runs, including a hundred against Pakistan in the semi-final. And, as he was doing that, KKR snapped him up for a whopping Rs1.8 crore, a fat sum for an uncapped player.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Asked about playing at the senior level and in the IPL, he said: “Your game does go up. Confidence is a huge thing, and getting used to playing at that level is key. How quickly you adapt is totally up to you. I think it is more about mental adjustment than about technique.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gill was born in Fazilka, Punjab, but his father and first coach, Lakhwinder Singh, moved the family to Mohali to give his son access to better cricketing facilities. Punjab senior men’s team coach Munish Bali, who has watched Gill from his Under-16 days, said it was his ability to play long innings that stood out. “There was an Under-19 match against Tamil Nadu in Patiala; Punjab were 25 for five on a difficult wicket,”he said. “The ball was doing quite a bit. He scored 235 and took us to 500. He was just 16.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Spending time with the national team has made Gill even better, added Bali. “His shot selection has improved,”he said. “Even in T20s, he will not go at the ball from the start; he plays himself in. He keeps things simple and his work ethic is good. His preparation is very specific.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Coaches described Gill as shy and quiet on the field, but quite jovial off it. There are no over-the-top celebrations; he tries to be calm and collected on the field. And though he lost his cool with the umpire in a match against Delhi in the previous Ranji season, it was seen as an aberration.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>There is no doubt that Gill would one day take the baton from the likes of Kohli and Rohit Sharma. Till then, as Mhambrey put it: “Even though he is ready technically and mentally, we might have to groom him initially [for him to] make it to the next level.”</p> Thu Oct 22 19:44:13 IST 2020 i-do-not-encourage-mankading <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p>Kane Williamson is the antithesis of everything the Indian Premier League and Twenty20 cricket are about. Understated both in persona and with the bat, as opposed to the IPL’s glitz, glamour and loudness, Williamson is a quiet and cool leader in the most demanding T20 league. He brings an old-world charm to the neo-richness of the game. You will not get towering sixes but his class speaks for itself, as was evident in the 2018 season, when he captained the SunRisers Hyderabad to the playoffs, scoring a whopping 735 runs in the process. Above all, Williamson brings to the IPL his growing stature as one of the finest ambassadors of the game.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>SRH has consistently made it to the playoffs of the IPL in recent years; they won the title in 2016. The captaincy mantle has been returned to David Warner. But Williamson, Warner and Jonny Bairstow will be expected to shoulder most of the run-scoring responsibilities this year in the UAE. With the change in the SRH coaching staff, it remains to be seen how World Cup-winning coach Trevor Bayliss will use the Kiwi for maximum impact.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Williamson opens up about being in the bio-bubble, his thoughts on SRH’s preparations and also the ill-fated 2019 ICC World Cup final. Lastly, the statesman in him makes it clear that he, for one, is not a supporter of ‘Mankading’. Excerpts:</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How is the experience of being in the IPL bio-bubble, cut off from the outside world?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ It is pretty unusual for all cricketers and [it is my] first experience of the bio-bubble. Sports around the world are doing something similar. It is also great that the tournament can go ahead. It is definitely nice to get out after six days of quarantine to catch up with the team and have some social interaction.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ A lot of players have not played competitive cricket since March. How do you prepare for a high-intensity competition like the IPL after a long break?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Yeah, it is a challenge as all the players have been in different situations in terms of their preparations. But I guess having such a long period away from the game and coming to the IPL a few weeks early, getting used to the conditions and the demands of the league has been something quite nice as well. There is no doubt as [the tournament] progresses that match fitness will improve. There is a lot of excitement to get back to cricket after such a long time.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How do you feel about your game mentally and physically going into the IPL?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ When Covid-19 struck NZ, we were towards the end of our season. We saw the lockdown as a break from cricket, with the schedule being so intense. Having said that, it allowed for a pre-season mentality which we had not had. We had a couple of camps to try and get the fitness levels up to where we would like them to be. But you also want to manage your preparation well so that when the time comes to play again, you are fresh and you have not overdone it. The training volume here (Dubai) is high. We have tried to strike that balance.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ You scored over 700 runs in 17 matches in the 2018 season. What would you try to replicate to get those kinds of scores again?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ There have obviously been a number of changes here at SRH. The first thing is to get some clarity about my role. I am not captaining this year and the team has new players as well, so the balance always changes. I have to be clear about my role and make a big contribution. Rather than replicate things, it is about trying to prepare as well as I can and offer the team as much as I can with the bat. As well as support Davey (Warner) and the others in the team.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Glenn Turner mentioned in his book that coaches have taken a back seat, with the emergence of strong captains. Your thoughts?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ I think it is a really important relationship and without a doubt, there is a very important role for both captain and coach. The coach and captain drive the team and give it direction. It is important to have clarity and direction in the team, (and about) the style (in which) you want the team to play.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ SRH has consistently made the playoffs. What does the team have to do to come up with similar results this time?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ The key over the last few years has been the ability to play as a team, having a number of contributions throughout the season and adapting to changing conditions, which will be important here again. The team was picked based on the tournament that was to be played in India. The conditions and environment here are different. We talk of our squad having changed, but that is also the case for the oppositions. To make adjustments quickly will be important.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ How much of a challenge will it be for players to remain in the bio-bubble and do things as they would do on a normal tour?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ It will be a challenge. It is important for players to get out of their rooms and socialise. In India, there are whole travelling days. Here, it is about one-and-a-half hours by road. It will be important to come up with activities and options for players to get enjoyment on off days and to keep them fresh. It is a long time to be isolated. We are very fortunate that the hotels are brilliant. Franchises look after support staff and players very well. But the bio-bubble is unique. There will be something to address certainly when we see these [issues] surfacing further down the tournament.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Did the Covid-19 enforced break help purge memories of last year’s World Cup final?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ It was probably the first time since starting my international career that (I have had) a gap of four months. It was quite nice, getting into a new routine and not thinking a lot about cricket for four months. At home, spending a lot of time with family and friends and doing a few chores was really enjoyable. It was refreshing.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Do you still get stopped and asked about the World Cup?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ Sometimes. I suppose from the point of view of a viewer, it was one of the most amazing games to watch. They will probably make a movie out of it someday. But with the schedule that we have in cricket, the focus has to change quickly to what is next. And that has been a really good part of moving on from something like the World Cup [loss]. You cannot live in the past. You have got things right in front of you that you have to address and that is why we are here in Dubai and then there will be a summer of cricket in NZ and the T20 World Cups later. A lot of people watched the World Cup and felt strong emotions of how things unfolded. The special thing about sport is it does affect people and it is amazing that you get to be involved.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ People credit you with making the NZ team and cricket a lot humbler, happier and kind. Do you like that description?</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ People always have different opinions on what you do and how it should be done. As a team, the most important thing is to have an identity that is suited to the people involved in it. That is what we try and do, and we know if we are doing that day in and day out, then we can be proud of our efforts and know it was channelled in the right direction, rather than being somebody we have not been, which is a lot harder.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>We work hard at what we do and the behaviour we try and uphold. We want to always improve on those as well, remind ourselves of what is important and ensure we do not stray too far from it. It is an ever-evolving thing. Every time the team changes or support staff changes, there are always certain elements that change with it and you have to just keep moving with the times.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p><b>Q/ Your thoughts on ‘Mankading’? R. Ashwin is a strong advocate but Ricky Ponting is not too comfortable with it.</b></p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>A/ No, I certainly do not encourage it. That is not something that we look to do at all as a team. As I said, we have behaviours that are important to us as a group, and something like that does not fit with us, so that is my stance. However, if someone is looking to cheat, I think it would be worth having a quiet word with him and make sure the rules and spirit of the game are upheld. As ambassadors of the game, I think it is really important to stay within those lines.</p> Fri Sep 18 23:12:22 IST 2020 gold-rush <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>THE WIDE GRIN</b> on his face said it all. It had been several days since Vidit Gujrathi, grandmaster and Indian team captain, and his team of 12 were declared joint winners by the International Chess Federation (FIDE) in the first-ever online chess Olympiad. The victory was yet to sink in fully. “Right now, I am just waiting for the gold medal to arrive,” said Gujrathi, who turns 26 in October.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India’s number three chess player, Gujrathi had aimed to break in to the world top ten this year, before the pandemic struck. He has a popular YouTube chess channel, is a strong advocate of meditation and loves basketball.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>On August 30, the Indian team made history when it was awarded the chess Olympiad gold jointly with Russia, overturning the original decision in Russia’s favour. Two junior players, Nihal Sarin and Divya Deshmukh, lost their internet connections during the last match and forfeited on time, prompting Gujrathi to file an appeal immediately. FIDE ruled in India’s favour despite protests from Russia.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The victory was every bit hard-earned and fair. It tops the Indian team’s previous best performances—in 2014, when it won the bronze in the open section, and the women’s team’s best performance of a fourth-place finish in the 2012 edition.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>India was seeded seventh with an average rating of 2419 at the recent Olympiad, which had 163 nations participating, and was placed in Pool A alongside formidable teams like China and Georgia. Each team had to include one male and one female player aged 20 years or less. The top three teams from the three pools advanced to the knockouts.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Nashik-born Gujrathi is currently ranked 24 in the FIDE world rankings; the only Indians above him are Viswanathan Anand (15) and Pentala Harikrishna (20). He was a part of the Indian team in 2016 and 2018 as well. The ongoing infighting in the All India Chess Federation (AICF) led to him being made captain after R.B. Ramesh, who served as India’s non-playing captain for a decade, stepped down. “Both Hari and Vidit have the capability to carry the team along,” said Ramesh, who is a member of the selection committee. “They do not inflict any punishment on players who lose a match. Hari, however, was playing in a tournament, so we asked Vidit to lead the team, and he agreed.” Srinath Narayanan, 26, was made vice-captain, as he has worked with the juniors in the Indian team.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The victory is sweeter given that the credit goes solely to the players amid the turmoil in the national chess body. “Our problems were not chess-related but off-the-board problems,” said Gujrathi. “We had three-four days to install extra internet and power backup when we reached the knockouts. When the tournament started, I had one bad internet [connection]. Now I have three stable connections!”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>The captain and his deputy approached power secretaries and other top officials of state electricity boards to prevent load shedding during matches of all players. As a result, Koneru Humpy had an engineer and linesman stationed outside her house during matches and Anand’s neighbourhood had no power cuts for a change. The team did not even have a dedicated server due to the lack of federation support, but as they progressed, the duo arranged for one with the help of some Indian fans.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>“When R.B. Ramesh asked me to be the captain, I asked him what the job would entail,” said Gujrathi. “He said team selection and strategising, and that sealed the deal for me. I like to strategise. In certain team events, if one player lost, they immediately replaced him. His confidence would be shattered. That is one thing I was very mindful of. I was very clear we would select a team that was good for India, even if it meant dropping myself. As soon as I became captain, I realised I had to be ready to take responsibility for whatever happens. I had to be the problem solver.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>After much bickering between the two AICF factions, the team was carefully selected. “There has been no precedence to this event as we never had this format at the Olympiad before,” said Ramesh. “It was the first time there was a mix of seniors and juniors…. Online, there is likely to be less pressure than while playing over the board. It would have been easy for juniors to get overwhelmed, but all of them came through with flying colours.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>In normal circumstances, the AICF would organise preparatory camps before the Olympiad, but not this time. Giving an insight into the backroom work that had to be done before the tournament, Gujrathi said, “The first thing I had to do was take care of a lot of administrative work, correspond with FIDE and understand the rules. Srinath and I share a good rapport. We made a database about where every member stood. We planned an internal competition and the juniors agreed. This made us understand everybody’s style, strengths and weaknesses. It helped later on in the tournament to take a decision on who was better against China.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gujrathi and Narayanan drew the best out of the teenagers. Deshmukh, 14, played a stellar role in the tournament, as did R. Praggnanandhaa, 15, as they starred in crucial wins against a strong China in Pool A. But a loss in an earlier round put Deshmukh under pressure. Gujrathi reassured her. “She lost on time in one of the games,” he said. “It was not her fault but she was very upset. I told her that in the next few games, if she lost it would be my responsibility, and if she won, the credit would go to her. After that she won all the games.” Other senior members like Anand and Humpy, too, had called Deshmukh and encouraged her.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>It was not easy leading the team, considering Gujrathi had to prepare for his own matches too. “It used to be crazy,” he said. “Matches would happen between 1:30pm and 4:30pm. As soon as these finished, I would get on call with the team or Srinath to figure out who would play the next matches. The entire night used to be spent over the selection of juniors, and then I prepared for my matches in the mornings. During my games, Srinath took over completely.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Gujrathi had a fantastic 2019-20 season, hitting a high of 2736 in ELO ratings and even becoming the second-highest ranked Indian for a while. “Before the pandemic, I felt I was at my peak,” he said. “I had a very good tournament in Prague. The pandemic came at the wrong time, in that sense. Game-wise, I am [up] there, but I will use this year for preparation, so that when I am able to travel, I will go all out. I aim to be in the top five.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>With no competitions happening in India right now, Gujrathi spends time growing his streaming channel. He likes to multitask. “I have a lot of ambitious plans,” he said. “One of the things different in this Olympiad was the huge following. Even when I stream every day, I see a lot of people following. I plan to make it bigger and better from my end, maybe with some interesting collaborations.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Early in his career, Gujrathi was known to be a very emotional player. He has mentally trained himself to be calmer, more focussed. To take his game to the next level, he should have ideally been in Europe now, but due to visa and travel restrictions, he is training remotely with his coaches—grandmasters Vladimir Chuchelov and Alon Greenfeld. His stint with Anish Giri led to a marked improvement in his game, which also reflected in the results last year. “To be the best you have to train like the world’s best,” said Gujrathi. “You need a professional outlook and environment. I feel in India there is a lack of professionalism in sports. When I trained with Anish in the Netherlands, we had complete Olympic-level training—diet, fitness and the best trainers.”</p> <p>&nbsp;</p> <p>Amid the high of winning the Olympiad and gaining an online following in chess, Ramesh has some cautious words of praise for the Indian captain. “It is heartening to see how he has evolved over the years,” said Ramesh. “He is already working with strong players like Giri, who has been a good influence on him. He is more active on YouTube these days, and it could work both ways for him. I hope he can handle all these things maturely as his chess preparations should not suffer.”</p> Thu Sep 17 16:36:03 IST 2020 game-theory <a href=""><img border="0" hspace="10" align="left" style="margin-top:3px;margin-right:5px;" src="" /> <p><b>A separate </b>wing of the hotel or resort, a private beach, a gymnasium and swimming pool solely for the team, an exclusive tennis court and cycling track, rooms with a view or a balcony, and a dedicated Covid-19 treatment room. These were part of the must-have list of Indian Premier League franchises hunting hotels for their teams in the UAE, which will host season 13 of the IPL.</p> <p>All eight teams had landed in the UAE by August 23; they had been tested thrice before they boarded chartered flights from India. Each member of the squads and support staff—franchises had sent around 60 persons each—went into the mandatory six-day isolation. Once they clear three Covid-19 tests, the players and staff will move into a ‘bio-secure bubble’.</p> <p>That is not the end of testing. As per the BCCI’s standard operating procedure, every individual in the bio-secure bubble will be tested twice in their second and third week in the UAE. After that, there will be tests every fifth day for the remainder of the season.</p> <p>Welcome to cricket in Covid-19 times. Rigorous testing will be paramount; specialist teams will ensure foolproof security. The sound of dhols and music after each shot or wicket will echo in empty stadiums, because keeping the bubble secure will be key to the season’s success. “One person’s negligence can bring down the whole tournament,” said Dhiraj Malhotra, chief executive officer of Delhi Capitals. “When the travel dates were announced, we had to test every player thrice. It was tough monitoring players at home and asking them to go into isolation. But everybody saw the bigger picture.”</p> <p>Jake Lush McCrum, chief operating officer of Rajasthan Royals, is confident that the bio-secure bubble would remain safe. “Different zones have been identified for people with different roles within a group,” he said. “So even after the quarantine period is over, the zones will not mix with each other as much as possible. Individuals outside the bubble cannot come into contact with the players. That is a strict BCCI protocol everyone must follow.”</p> <p>Setting up and maintaining the bubble has not been an easy task. “We have managed to form a healthy cohort of individuals around us and have enforced strict measures to keep it that way,” said Dr Charles Minz of Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB). “Anybody coming in contact with the team must undergo two Covid-19 tests; only after furnishing two negative reports can he be part of the bubble. This includes all hotel, security and transport staff. They, too, will have to follow strict protocols once they enter the bubble.”</p> <p>Those inside the bio-secure bubble will only be able to travel from their hotel to the ground and vice versa. Teams have recruited their own net bowlers for training. All movements will be “tracked and traced” by Restrata, the security agency the BCCI has hired to keep the bubble secure. There will be around 450 persons in a venue during a match, including players and support staff, match officials, production staff and commentators, and security, housekeeping and administrative staff.</p> <p>Satish Menon, chief executive officer, Kings XI Punjab, said everyone knew the importance of staying in the bubble. “I don’t think anyone will breach it,” he said. “The hotel we have chosen is exclusive to us, completely cordoned off; there is no way people can go out. There will be punitive action [if there is a breach].”</p> <p>McCrum said the teams would soon get an SOP from Restrata, which would track all players and staff. “This will ensure that players are following protocols,” he said. “If there is a positive case, you will be able to see who that player has been in close contact with, and then you can isolate them as well. It will be a strict bubble, but given the fantastic facilities here, the players can relax and enjoy.”</p> <p>Team managements have been taking care of logistics ever since the BCCI announced in July that this year’s IPL will be held in the UAE. They had been testing domestic players and ensuring that they adhered to the standard procedures. “Our primary objective was to identify a hotel that is in complete compliance with the need of the team,” said Sanjeev Churiwala, chairman, RCB. “A full risk assessment was carried out while choosing the hotel. The SOP was explained to the hotel management. The dedicated staff serving the team members are part of the bio-secure environment; they will be tested every fifth day throughout the season.”</p> <p>Menon said the weeks leading up to the team’s departure to Dubai were maddening. “Starting from the choice of hotel to the choice of facilities and the size of rooms, we went into even small details,” he said. “We wanted rooms with a balcony, and cycling track, private beach, gyms, swimming pools and gaming rooms to keep players occupied.”</p> <p>McCrum said the Rajasthan Royals had plenty of time for preparation. “One key focus area was getting a really high-class hotel, which we have done,” he said. “The main focus, however, was to get the players and support staff [to the UAE] safely. Our international players [will] come in the next days and weeks.”</p> <p>If a person in the bio-secure bubble tests positive, teams will follow strict guidelines. “[He] will not be allowed to enter the bubble,” said Churiwala. “Individuals who are awaiting test results will also not be allowed to enter until their negative report is available. Those who test positive will be in quarantine for 14 days, during which they will be tested on the tenth, thirteenth and fourteenth days. If the results from days 13 and 14 are negative, and if the individual does not have symptoms for more than 24 hours after that, [he] will be permitted to re-enter the bubble. After recovery, players will have to undergo cardiac screening before they resume team activities.”</p> <p>The BCCI has prepared a list of accredited hospitals that would manage Covid-19 cases in the IPL. Each team has its own Covid-19 task force, and a senior team official will be in charge of the bubble. Teams are also planning to rope in psychologists.</p> <p>Families were allowed to accompany players, but most players and officials chose to travel alone. “We don’t know how families will cope when the team goes for training,” said Malhotra. “The players have PlayStations, pools and virtual reality games to indulge in during off-time. But what will the families do?”</p> <p>The season will last more than 80 days. Though the players are happy to resume competitive cricket, it will be tough to remain upbeat in the isolated bubble. “It will take time to settle down,” said Menon. “But once training starts, it will be intense. It won’t be easy, but there will be lots of practice games.” &nbsp;</p> Thu Aug 27 16:27:53 IST 2020