Tag Archives: sports

Review: Amole Gupte’s Hawaa Hawaai

hh1It is a rare and wondrous thing when students genuinely admire a teacher.

I remember sniggering cruelly many years ago when my kid brother, extolling the virtues of one of those self-aggrandising heads of tuition institutes, resolutely referred to him as “Sir Vipin” instead of “Vipin Sir,” convinced of his greatness and boardexam-beating power. Growing up, we’re naturally disposed unfavourably toward teachers, but the few who shine through and make us believe also win us over completely. Merely being their student becomes a point of young pride, and we begin thus to look to them for perfection, unreasonably expecting flawlessness and answers to everything.

It’s stunning, faith. And this is the wide-eyed keenness Amole Gupte captures so well in Hawaa Hawaai, where a skating-instructor is merrily deified by his adoring children, hoisted by them onto a rockstar-high pedestal. “Lucky Sir, Lucky Sir”, they chime in unison (younger but wiser than my knighthood-conferring sibling, clearly) as their sharp-eyed teacher shows up to an empty parking lot — and encourages them to fly.

Lucky Sir happens to be sitting in a wheelchair while cheering the kids on, but this doesn’t stop eager tea-boy Arjun from instinctively recognising a superhero. He sees the swish kids swoosh around on their rollerblades and dreams of wheels on his own feet, and the film is about following those dreams, come what may.

It’s a smart angle for the film, too. Rollerblades, by their very nature — that of something normal stuck onto something normal to make something relatively extraordinary — lend themselves perfectly to the Do-It-Yourself concept, and armed with an ensemble of talented (and adorable) youngsters, Gupte affectionately crafts a truly sweet underdog story. Modelled on those American movies where fathers and sons build flimsy soapbox-racers that go on to beat karts many times as expensive, Hawaa Hawaai is simple but wonderful. It’s a well-textured and etched film, one refreshingly lacking in villains — even the richest, chubbiest kid isn’t a meanie — and one that heartbreakingly but smilingly illustrates the disparity between the kids shown in the film and the kids who can afford to buy theatre tickets to watch this film. Which is exactly why you should drag every kid you care about to this movie.

It is also the kind of film that may well have been dismissed as cloying, predictable or manipulative, but so stridently does Gupte’s sincerity shine through that cynicism is left at the door very early on. The film opens with a father singing an ode to the daily bread while a mother makes chapatis, and this, naturally, is a massive gamble, a move that could make the film seem dated, stagey and too much of a morality tale, but Gupte (who literally sings this song) endows this basic moment with such heart and warmth that it serves only to make the audience feel cosier about the idea of a moral lesson.

hh2Played by Gupte’s son Partho, Arjun is an indefatigable youngster, a well-raised boy who wears a constant smile to fend off hard times. Partho is a fine actor and an irresistibly cute kid — with superb Hindi elocution —  and Gupte surrounds him with a quartet of kids who are every bit his equal. These four — Gochi (Ashfaque Khan), Bhura (Salman Khan), Abdul (Maaman Menon) and Murugan (Tirupati Krishnapelli) — play homeless kids working several rungs below minimum wage, and they make for an amazing entourage, the real wheels pushing Arjun ahead. It’s hard not to smile (and sob) at them

Saqib Saleem, one of those naturally talented actors lacking in false notes, plays Lucky, and he’s a great fit for Gupte’s cinema considering how his performances hinge on believability instead of bluster. His is a more demanding character than initially apparent, and Saleem handles it well. He takes one look at Arjun’s homemade skates and incredulously dubs him his Eklavya, his ‘unworthy’ student and true champion, and thus do the kids begin calling him “Eklaava.” Most of the cast is on the money: Makarand Deshpande is beatific and blissed out as Arjun’s father, Neha Joshi is terrific as the boy’s mother, and it’s always good to see Razzak Khan grin. But the kids are the champs.

This is a brisk, enjoyable film, and while the climactic race is somewhat marred by an overdose of melodrama — Gupte’s far better at subtler strokes than the few broad ones he tries — it is rare to find a Hindi film hero more deserving of our cheers than Arjun. That unfortunate hint of Bhaag Milkha Bhaag in the final race doesn’t alter the fact that this is an earnest, important and evocative film.

Important? Yes. Gupte’s first film, the marvellous Stanley Ka Dabba was better-realised cinematically and held more to cherish, but Hawaa Hawaai tries to bite off more. And while its larger point about farmer suicides certainly ought have been handled more subtly, at least this film — like its characters — goes for broke. And that’s what makes it special. Or, as Arjun would say, “peshal.”

Rating: 3.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, May 8, 2014

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Michael Matters: Our virtual vigil by Schumacher’s side

I owe Michael Schumacher my career.

Writers write, quite simply, because they must. What they write, however, makes for a far more fiendish decision. I’d dabbled with journalism, copywriting, poetry and bad drafts of first novels nobody will ever get to read, but it took a certain hero to spur me on and find a voice.

Michael Schumacher mattered right from the time I’d heard his name. It was irrational, this admiration of a man in blue-green overalls dominating a sport I — or anyone else I knew — didn’t really watch, but there was just something about the young German popping up so frequently in the sports pages. A youngster who looked assuredly at home on top of the world; a champion racing for a team that made most of my winter-wear.

At the time, my Formula One viewing was occasional and erratic, and I refused even to become a casual fan daunted by the technical intricacies of the sport, harsh-sounding multisyllabic names, and decidedly too much cricket-fanaticism for any other sport to make a difference. Then, fifteen years ago, I shuddered as I read about Michael breaking his leg in an accident at the British Grand Prix. I thought of the thirty-year-old, wished him well, and wondered how barbaric the sport was.

A few months later, he returned. And almost won. Actually, to be fair, he more than won: he made his teammate win. From that day to this one, I’ve missed watching maybe eight grands prix over twice as many years. Cricket became insignificant in comparison. And this passion was born out of that one extraordinary man.

I was, admittedly, Michael obsessed. I wore vampire-red sunglasses to watch races through (Ferrari-tinted, I called them) and made friends, dates, colleagues “wear red for Michael” on those all-important Sundays. I vividly remember rounding third-base and closing in on home for the first time ever, on a park bench in Delhi, but choosing instead to bolt in time to catch the five red lights going off at the race-start. (I can still recollect that exact podium.)

I still only ever play F1 video games as Michael’s partner — never daring a try as Michael himself — and, if when rounding the final corner he happens to be a few hairs behind me, I can’t help move over and applaud instead of being applauded. Seeing anyone else on the top-step of even a virtual podium feels wrong, you see.

Quizmasters hosting at sports bars soon stopped letting me answer questions, and I won a gigantic Ferrari flag by betting on a Michael streak despite impossible odds. But there was no scheming here, no form-book to look up: I bet on Michael because anything else would be inappropriate. In 2003, as a student in the UK, I whimsically placed a Ladbrokes bet with hard-scraped savings despite the season looking madly bleak at the time, and, at 8/1, made back enough to buy my first Macbook. The odds were never unreal enough to be of consequence.

~

I was a copywriter in 2004 when Rediff asked me — based on an impassioned Dravid-bashing blogpost — to write for their sports section, and I suggested I start writing about Formula One. Because of Michael; because of the compulsion to write about true genius.

My first column was about a Michael win, and in that and the ones that followed, the words rushed out all at once, struggling to keep up with the tremendous sporting feat, the historic run we were all fortunate enough to watch in realtime. The rush of capturing the immense drama of a race in words soon put my day job to shame. Rediff, however, needed someone to write about films. So then, um, that happened. But the Formula One columns — especially those about Michael magic — have always been remarkably close to my heart.

~

How good is Michael Schumacher?

It is dashed difficult to explain Michael Schumacher to someone who doesn’t know Formula One. The world of sport, usually a fine provider of parallels, fails to throw up a satisfactory legend, leaving us to clumsily nail together an invariably inadequate amalgam from elsewhere, and here’s mine: Imagine if The Beatles lasted as long as The Rolling Stones.

If the Fab Four wrought their revolution not over ten glorious years but sixty, outlasting and triumphing over not just their contemporaries but rubbing shoulders with modern bands, getting used to the new realms of punk and metal and rap and beating Bowie and Radiohead and Madonna at their games. And even when they finally abdicated, and were visibly not the best or loudest in the world, they still played on with gusto and — despite some calling them a bit long in the tooth — still occasionally conjured up something special enough to turn hearts to yo-yos.

Imagine, if you will, what that discography would be like.

~

The last few days have been spent manning the news-wires, in prayer, in wish-making, in questing for hope. On Sunday a friend who works at a news channel texted me saying Michael was hurt in a skiing accident. An hour later the news was that it wasn’t serious. Two hours after that it began to look like a nightmare.

It is one thing getting a piece of news and coming to terms with it, but social media gets hold of a developing story and runs with it terrifyingly fast, often too blinded by its own pace to look at the facts. I spent the next days and nights on Twitter, hoping for updates, hoping for news, hoping for a picture of him lying in a hospital bed, winking that world-conquering wink at the camera.

What I continue to get is a steady stream of information and rumour, with old facts being republished by websites fishing for traffic, sensationalists who want to be the first to break bad news, and — alongside the rare but reliable daily updates — a few informed people who care enough to discuss the situation and explain its severity. A former Formula One doctor, Gary Hartstein, has been invaluable as a sane voice on Twitter (@former_f1doc), giving us perspective.

The rest is prayer. Footballers are refusing to sleep because they don’t want to wake up to fatal news. Cricketers playing the Ashes are saying they don’t care about it. Those who have never been Schumacher supporters are willing him on in what is being described as his greatest ever battle. A battle he never chose, and one for which he wasn’t even wearing warpaint. The rest of us, prone to tearing up, are cheering him and chanting for him and awaiting good news. The world, it is abundantly clear, has its fingers crossed.

David Coulthard, a former McLaren driver who once gave Schumacher the finger on the racetrack, and a man who was once almost beaten up by a furious Schumacher, has written the finest column about the legend and the situation. It is a column that, in its honesty and its timing, is worth more than Coulthard’s career, and I urge you all to go and read it.

~

“You only like him because he’s born on your birthday,” a girl accused, back in college. My jaw dropped open. Not out of indignation (for it was patently untrue) but out of the sheer thrill of discovery. We all share our birthdays with people worth admiring, but somehow sharing January 3 with Michael Schumacher matters.

He turned 45 and I turned 33 today. And all I want for my birthday is what  millions around the world — millions touched by his brilliance, his spirit, his myth, his philanthropy and his grace — want, as they pray to varied gods and continue to hope: for him to smile that smile again. And yes, that wink he winks after winning a race. This 92nd win would be extraordinarily well deserved.

I choked when Michael teared up as he went past Ayrton Senna, and again when he announced his retirement in 2006. I scampered to the next race in Shanghai and saw his last race win, in grand style. Then he returned to the sport, buckled down and learnt to lose, and even came to India where I got to see him, talk to him, say a couple of things that made him grin back at me.

And now that super smile feels distant. Distant, yes, but far from insurmountable as the odds he beat every alternate Sunday, so, so many times over.

Conquer this too, Michael. Happy birthday to you, and may you get well soon. Wearing red today, naturally.

~

First published Rediff, January 3, 2014

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Sachin From The Stands: Day One

(Reporting from the cheap seats, that last time.)

The most curious thing on the ticket for the second match in the India vs West Indies test ‘series’ is a warning that “banners, flags etc” displaying any commercial logos which may be in conflict with those of the official match sponsors will not be allowed into the ground. Neither, as those carrying Indian flags soon discovered, is wood, so while you can take your tiranga into Wankhede Stadium, you can’t take the mast it’s wrapped around. As a result, most of the teeming, restless crowds waved a Star Sports banner which said, quite simply, “Believe.”

A portly gent in the row ahead of me, trying to make smalltalk with a flag-distributing girl in that way men do when they’d really rather know how to flirt, asked her, “but what do we believe in?” before sniggering as he looked around vainly and optimistically for a neighbouring laugh. Similarly occupied with sporadic audience-seeking were young boys unfairly in the possession of vuvuzelas and people who had printed out poorly spelt banners.

IMG_2179It was, then, a lazy morning at the Wankhede, largely because MS Dhoni had won the toss and elected to field. While this indeed gave the crowds a glimpse of Sachin throughout the morning — every time he stopped the ball the crowd sounded like it’d just climaxed — we’ve been raised as a batsman-celebrating nation, and despite Pragyan Ojha wrapping up the Windies with a five-for, the spectators cheered only and exclusively for that fellow playing his two hundredth, that guy who occasionally waved back when he was close enough to a fortunate (and suddenly louder) part of the outfield.

It was electrifying, yes, but in a somewhat expected kind of way. As the afternoon shadows stretched across the field, with bad chicken pizzas sold by the bushel and water impossibly hard to come by, it felt like a pleasant but unspectacular rush, that of a crowd of well-meaning non-fanatics who wanted to yell out the local legend’s name and maybe trap him in their cameraphone sights.

Things changed rather dramatically, when, after India began batting and motoring along rather beautifully, moustache-twirling young stud Shikhar Dhawan holed out. The crowd — which had been cheering West Indian lbw appeals with confounding vociferousness, as if a pair of Pakistani blaggards stood in the centre instead of two of our brightest — now lost it, and roared with approval. Damn the scoreboard, the wickets, the game, the nation. They wanted Batsman No 4 out there, and a couple of balls later, there he was.

The rumble grew with every second as he strode out, swinging his weapon belligerently, as if he fancied a spot of casual slaughter to go with tea-time. And then began the glorious cacophony of support as the entire ground gasped and clamoured for him in mad, heady unison. With every ball he faced — or indeed, every ball even his partner Cheteshwar Pujara faced — the instinctive “Sa-Chin, Sa-Chinnn” yells got louder and more manic, and every spectator swayed in a sea of love and adrenaline. The momentum swallowed us whole, making it impossible not to join in, not to yell your lungs out, not to hope and fear and then exult as he leaned into that drive.

IMG_2230For what it’s worth, he seemed to be enjoying it. The madness, the collective adulation, the indescribable hysteria. He looked around and played with exquisite fluency, his each poetic flourish making us achingly aware that we were seeing what we wouldn’t, ever again. He looked buoyed by the unconditionality of the attention rather than pressured by it, and we just stood and yelled and gaped. We celebrated his mother Rajni when the TV cameras swung in her direction right before the close of the day’s play, and hoped we sounded gratefully overwhelming enough to that lady watching her maiden Test Match.

Earlier in the day, when a West Indian batsman had flicked a ball to a boundary and one of our boys dived on the rope to save it, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar, ever-eager to save a single, deftly took the ball from the lad and tossed it towards the wicket in a graceful, flawless arc, a coconut-shy of a throw that landed inches away from the astonished wicketkeeper, who applauded. The audience, you guessed it, went wild. Right behind me a kid of about 7 nudged his friend and said, wonder dripping from every syllable, “he can do anything, na?”

Hah. And here we were wondering what to believe in.

~

First published Mumbai Mirror, November 15, 2013

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Review: Ron Howard’s Rush

Formula One has the habit of making other sports look absurdly insignificant.

What, you run real quick? What, you flog a bit of leather? What, you hit another bloke in the face?

Well, I battle gravity and push physics to the limit by hurling myself at the apex of a curve, calculating and strategising about the car behind me, braking crucially late while knowing full well that I could careen into a rival inches ahead of me, and shatter a chassis or two or a neck or two.

rush-movie-1Comparisons will forever appear laughable, but not quite as much as when Formula One was bloodsport, days when — as Niki Lauda says in Rush — two out of 25 drivers died every year. Those insane statistics nutshell the relentlessly, giddily gladiatorial sport F1 had become in its quest to straddle speed and danger, and even by that unacceptable norm, 1976 was a particularly dramatic year.

So dramatic, to be precise, that one would be forgiven for thinking Ron Howard’s film, set around that year’s Formula One World Championship season, is fictional. But sport is where fact often leapfrogs the imagination, when true human conflict supersedes acceptable writing. Where we only suspend our disbelief because we’re told all that’s happening on screen, no matter how preposterous, has its roots in reality.

You couldn’t find more diametrically opposed racing drivers than the technically proficient Austrian great Niki Lauda, and swinging, Union Jacking superstar James Hunt. Lauda was one of the first drivers who understood the importance of aerodynamics, and revered for his excellent understanding of a car’s limits. Hunt was the definitive F1 playboy, a man with the badge “Sex: Breakfast Of Champions” sewn onto his overalls, a lad who’d gargle champagne before winning races. In 1976, these rivals put daggers between teeth, stared death in the face and lived to finish the tale.

Ron Howard’s film is written by the infallible Peter Morgan, the playwright and screenwriter who fashions known historical facts into riveting narratives so laden with plot they’d make George RR Martin jealous. The two had worked before on the astonishing Frost/Nixon, but armed with this much deliriously cinematic meat, they go one better. This is a Scorsese-worthy story, and Howard rises to the moment and does it justice. Rush is not just the best film of Ron Howard’s career — a rip-roaring smash about a great human story, and two damn fascinating men — but among the finest sports films in modern cinema.

The casting is spot-on, with Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth playing the frequently unzipped Hunt and Daniel Bruhl of Inglourious Basterds as the nearly-Vulcan Lauda. Both actors are in exceptionally fine form. Hemsworth gets the swagger right, Bruhl masters that accent, and together they bring to life an intensely passionate rivalry. (To be fair, it is a bit exaggerated. The two fought on the track but never loathed each other like the film showed; by all accounts, their’s was a relationship of competitive respect. But then again, Hunt did always say Lauda looked like a rat.)

The racing action is brilliant, with inventive cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle fitting cameras into peculiar crevasses in the vintage chassis. The viewer is forced closer to the action — and much, much closer to that Sherman Tank of an engine — than television can allow, and the results are dizzying. You do not have to be a fan to love this film, though a fan would derive much pleasure by seeing the doppelgangers cast in important smaller roles, like that of Enzo Ferrari or Clay Regazzoni. (The finest supporting actor here is Christian McKay as the memorable Alexander Hesketh, a whimsical team-owner who introduced the F1 pitlane to oysters and caviar, and a man worth a movie all his own.) The acting is top-notch all around, and the women — Alexandra Maria Lara, Natalie Dormer and Olivia Wilde — up the film’s stakes considerably.

rush-movie-2For there is so much more to this film than racing. There is a whole lot of sex: on the most important day of his career Hunt is shown waking from a Japanese hotel bed with two pairs of feet flanking his own. And then there’s even more insight: Hunt prepares for a Formula One race by lying down with his eyes closed, visualising the Monte Carlo grand prix circuit in pre-simulator times; Lauda learns that no woman can rev up an Italian man’s motor quite like a Ferrari driver can. There are even exquisite details for fans of motorsport history, including quotes that have since become legendary, and women even more so. Also, Hunt’s beloved budgerigars make an appearance.

Don’t look up 1976, don’t look up file footage, just go watch this rousing film. And then get a hold of the BBC documentary, F1’s Greatest Rivals: Hunt vs Lauda so you can watch the real men and marvel at how perfectly Morgan and Howard took the story and ran with it. Many years ago, John Frankenheimer’s 1966 stunner Grand Prix cemented my then-fledgling love for motorsport, and now Howard has, at long last, created another film evocative enough to ignite pitlane-passion in hearts that haven’t yet thumped for Formula One.

Rush is a film about a racing season — and two seasoned racers — so damned thrilling that it would compel the most stubborn Formula One hater, those people who insist mastering technology isn’t a sporting enough achievement and forget every other part of the invariably human equation. For the Formula One fan, this is a film worthy of a magnum of Mumm’s finest champagne — if only for the chance to hear those massive V12 engines explode across the big screen. VrrrRRRRRRooom.

Rating: 4.5 stars

~

First published Rediff, September 20, 2013

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Fernando Alonso and the scarlet dream

I once made a Fernando Alonso voodoo doll.

Well, not an Alonso doll per se, but a few of us fanatically pissed Formula One supporters took a tiny F1 car, wrote Renault on it with a felt pen, and called it the Spaniard’s vehicle. Tacks were jammed into tyres, and a magnifying glass may or may not have been used to ignite its nose. Either way, we wanted nothing more than that perpetually whiny, arrogant and exasperatingly talented World Champion to crash out in Brazil, the final round of the 2006 season.

It was Michael Schumacher’s last race, and while the retiring German had handled an unfortunate, gruelling season with grace, Alonso was crying himself blue saying his own team was sabotaging his chances. It was the last straw after two years of watching a bizarrely quick brat of a champion constantly blame either his team or other drivers. In a team sport, with a team solidly behind him — later proven to even be illegally behind him, but more on that in a bit — he was enough of a jerk to compare himself to a lonely Tour De France cyclist, going uphill all by himself. It was nauseating, watching an obviously brilliant driver who happened also to be a whinging putz. Champ and chump all at once, he could win the title but couldn’t come close to earning our respect.

~

1In November 2012, Fernando Alonso and I rode up a New York elevator in silence. We smiled at each other, him because he had to, me because I really felt like. I felt, as a matter of fact, like reaching out and grabbing his hand and pumping it with the love and gratitude of a sworn Ferrari fan.

This was two days after the US Grand Prix, and, again, five days before the World Championship finale in Brazil. Again, it was Michael Schumacher’s last race. Again, Alonso was locked in battle with a flawless German racer. Again, I had my fingers crossed for the result.

Things had changed. Tacks were not involved.

Ever since he joined Ferrari in 2010, Alonso had turned into a different man: a team player, a good sport, a man candidly generous with praise and one who looked at (most) on-track mishaps with unflappable calm. Just when fans around the world had made up their minds to dislike him, he switched abruptly from Heel to Face. Dashed inconvenient, but there it was. In Ferrari gear, he was a Champion’s Champion (even without winning the title) an extraordinary warrior who made even mediocre cars shine. It was as if he’d decided the Darth Vader mask didn’t go well with scarlet overalls.

~

We were in Manhattan because Kaspersky Lab, the anti-virus software folk who now rent some inches of real estate on those aforementioned red overalls, were hosting a press event to highlight their links with Formula One. The Russian outfit’s charismatic CEO Eugene Kaspersky was on hand to break the ice with Fernando before handing him over to us, and this he did like a particularly personable pickaxe. Having started out collecting computer viruses when “other children collected postage stamps or butterflies,” the information security expert spoke of how he related to Ferrari as a team. “Like my company, Ferrari is like a group of friends, a gang that fights for success.” The gang is also the oldest team in Formula One, a company who started selling cars so that they have money to go racing, instead of the other way around. And all their hopes rest on 31-year-old Alonso’s shoulders.

2Alonso began go-karting at the same time that the late great Ayrton Senna — the legendary three-time world champion Alonso hopes to emulate — made his Formula One debut: which means the Spaniard was all of three years old. “I don’t remember anything,” Alonso admits, “but there are the videos and pictures at home, and also I have the drivers licence which says 1984, so it should be true. I only know that the first race was a 20-lap race in a straight circuit in a go-kart, and I think I did 3 or 4 [laps] and the winners did 20, so they had lapped me some 20 times.” Progress, however, was remarkably swift. “At 8, or maybe 7, I won the karting championship of my area, my region, and then competed in the Spanish championship, then the European championship… and when I was 14, I was World Champion in go-karts. So it was something that happened very quick.”

Success that rapid that early in life can be sufficiently heady, but Alonso’s family kept him grounded. “When you’re racing and you’re winning trophies at this young age, everyone is very friendly with you and everyone wants something from you, and you become like a toy to them; they try to use you all the time.” Alonso’s family — with his mother working in a perfume shop and his father in a mine — was quick to disabuse him of any growing notions of glamour. “Every time I went home, my father always told me that ‘you are racing now, but next year you will be studying or helping me repair homes or put in windows. I have a good friend that now puts elevators, so I think I can find a job for you in the future.’” The very idea of becoming a Formula One driver was too absurd, too unreal. “I honestly thought it sounded like a good opportunity; that I am driving right now but maybe next year I have no contract, and so maybe I’ll put elevators.”

But those hands just weren’t meant to install lifts. “After I won the World Championship, I started getting paid to race in go-karts and I said this is fantastic. I’m 14, doing what I like to do, and I receive some money. A dream come true. And when they offered me single-seaters I said ‘no way.’” Eventually Alonso hesitantly took the jump, and instantly won in single-seater racers. There was no looking back. “Yeah, I was the third youngest in history to make the debut in Formula One in 2001, at 19, and then youngest to win a race, youngest to get a podium, and youngest to win the World Championship in 2005. So, yeah, everything was coming very quickly and I enjoyed it.”

“My first car was a company car,” he says, smiling. “It was a Renault Megane when I was racing for the Renault team. And it was quite a big day because I was 18, and got my driver’s licence, and my only thought at that time was to go to school in that car. And the school is 400 metres from home! It was impossible to park, a big problem. But it was my dream to take my car to school. I was looking for a car that was nice, that was fast, but that was not the case and so I enjoyed it anyway.” A racer who leaves all the adrenaline on the track and ambles about when in a roadcar, Alonso took it so easy during his driving licence test that the teacher had to comment. “I passed the exam and it was all okay, but there was a small note from the teacher saying that I was too slow.”

It’s a complaint motorsport pundits could never consider with the Spaniard, a driver known for instinctively finding the sweet spot in weaker cars and driving them beyond their optimum. It’s a rare gift, and so adept is Alonso at disguising a car’s weaknesses that even his team engineers have complained in the past that his driving style doesn’t give them enough to work with; that he makes bad cars look deceptively good. And when given a genuinely good set of wheels — as Renault did in 2005 and 2006 — he took the fight to none other than Michael Schumacher and his wheezing Ferrari.

~

3Fernando Alonso hasn’t won since then. Primed to dominate the decade, he has looked on as Kimi Raikkonen (2007), Lewis Hamilton (2008), Jenson Button (2009) and Sebastian Vettel (all three years since) have marched away with the titles. In 2007, he joined McLaren for one season where he was trounced by Hamilton, then a rookie. The scowl on the Spaniard’s face was permanent and, it must be said, most amusing. In 2008, Renault boss Flavio Briatore wilfully engineered an accident to give Fernando an on-track advantage in Singapore, bringing about his first win of the season. An investigative committee later found Alonso innocent of the conspiracy, banning Briatore and others involved.

In 2010, Alonso moved to Ferrari, and now seems so vitally a part of the team that even his accent sounds spaghetti-flecked. He has also started to smile a winning smile. A lot. (On YouTube, there are videos of Vettel playfully doing impressions of other drivers. The popular Alonso clip, on the other hand, has him casually cracking open a walnut using his neck.) He seems to be relishing racing, more than ever.

I can’t help but ask him about the discernible change in his approach, the way he has gone from being a person who badmouthed his team whenever possible to a man who stands firmly behind his team, however big the gaffe. Is it because he’s happier at Ferrari or has he just matured as a driver? “I think it’s because they do a hundred percent. If I feel the team does 99% while I’m doing 100%, 365 days a year, I say it to everyone. It’s strange because a team should do 100% for their goal, and for winning, and some teams didn’t do this in the past, and the year after that I’d change the team. I have this [kind of] luck.”

6He clearly feels things are different now, and he speaks of his new team not just effusively but firmly enough as if declaring war on rival teams. “With Ferrari, this is a racing team. They do everything for racing. They love racing, they have always been in Formula One. We can win or lose, we can do better or worse, we can have the fastest car or not, but every single person in the team dedicates 24 hours a day to this team, and they love this team. Even when they see, passing in the street, one Ferrari GT, they feel like they did something. Maybe they just painted the mirror, maybe they painted something, but they feel like it is theirs. This is very different with Ferrari compared to any other team, so I love this team.”

Another reason Alonso loves Ferrari is because he has been handed the reigns to the stable, with teammate Felipe Massa clearly in a Number Two position. This suits Alonso, who hated his torrid McLaren year with Hamilton, a partner who’d fight him to the end. Alonso prefers and flourishes in the captain’s role, even though it may not suit Ferrari’s needs: a more competitive teammate than Massa (in current form) may have taken Ferrari to the Constructors Championship. In 2012, it may well have helped Alonso’s chances to have a partner nimbly holding back his rivals. But then everything last year was achieved against all odds.

When the 2012 season began, the Ferrari was one second off the pace. It started to improve, but very slowly. Alonso — as if a crummy car (and, resultantly, poor qualifying position) were immaterial — kept his foot down and decided to stay flawless. Midway through the season — a whimsical season that saw seven different winners in the first seven races, a season with no formbook — Fernando Alonso led the field by no less than 40 points.

“We’d like to have boring seasons where we know [what will happen in] the races,” he smiles. “That will be our dream season. But it is very difficult to get that. So this year we arrived at a circuit and didn’t know if we will be tenth or pole position on Saturday. It’s something we can  try to enjoy as drivers, and the engineers and teams don’t like it too much, because with the computers and simulations everything is ready and all settled, and when something is out of control they get a little bit distressed. But it’s a wonderful season, I think, because people enjoyed it from the outside. And hopefully we’ll enjoy it more next time.”

4It has indeed been a miraculous year for him, and even after his luck wore thin and Sebastian Vettel’s Red Bull started looking characteristically good, Alonso continued bullishly to guarantee victory. In a field littered with increasingly young winners and prodigious prodigies, Alonso appears an alpha-male scrapping it out with boys. The Spaniard has a samurai tattooed on his back, and frequently, in a run up to last year’s finale, began referring to himself as both gladiator and samurai, assuring the world he would win, despite Vettel having usurped his lead.

He is clear, however, that this self-assurance has nothing to do with rage. (Which also means he doesn’t have a katana handy to slice Seb’s front-wing off if he gets too close at the second chicane. Pity. ) “It is not revenge, not at all,” he assures. “This is sport and sometimes everything goes good and sometimes not so good, and what’s important is to give it everything you’ve got. And we did that this year. And I think if we win, it will be some kind of justice. Not revenge, but I honestly feel we deserve it more, so 99% of the people watching, I think, will be happy.” That includes the drivers: a poll before the last race of the year showed nearly 90% of the pilots in the paddock agreeing on Alonso deserving the title more.

Alonso says the first world championship is the hardest, because it’s so hard to sleep when fighting for that first title. It gets easier, but — when a season is heading into its climax — not by much. As a multiple World Champion, how important is winning on a race-by-race basis? “Oh, it’s not that we enjoy winning,” he beams, bathed in confidence. “It’s that we hate losing.”

~

Five days later, he lost the 2012 World Championship to Sebastian Vettel. By three points. Vettel, six years younger, pipped him to the third world title, and will be gunning for a fourth. And that’s not all, by a long shot. Hamilton, Button and Raikkonen, all with blood on their fangs, are furiously circling the trophy now, each with a point to prove. There will be new regulations and engine changes, and more to get used to. As the F1 circus gets into gear again later this month, the Spaniard’s task is going to be anything but simple.

5

Then again, Fernando Alonso has never had anything to do with simple.

~

That November afternoon, Eugene Kaspersky gave the world’s press a tip, a tip to will Alonso to victory: “All of you please support Fernando by drinking to him. Don’t do it before, but just after the start of the race. Raise your glasses, drink to Fernando and it’ll help. We need you.” Raising an imaginary toast to himself, the driver laughingly nodded agreement.

In 2006, I had tacks. In 2012, I had tequila. Fernando Alonso defied wishes each time. Champions, clearly, carve their own fortune.

 

~

 

First published Man’s World magazine, March 2013

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Why Jenson Button has enough to smile at

button12012 was supposed to be a Jenson Button year.

No, the ridiculously fast Red Bull cars weren’t suddenly backing off. No, the McLaren hadn’t gotten away with photocopying Ferrari’s notes again. It’s just that this year was all about the tyre, and the whole field looked on the 32-year-old Englishman as being extraordinarily kind to his rubber, a master of preservative driving who would surely find a competitive advantage. Not so. Nothing has quite gone to plan, or to formbook, this season turning instead into a free-for-all, the first seven races — for the first time in F1 history — seeing seven different winners. Button, the first of those winners at the Australian Grand Prix, languishes now in sixth place far from title dreams.

But you can’t tell from looking at him.

Button flashes that wide grin, that cheeky toothy one that makes women around the world swoon, and starts talking about moustaches. He wants to grow one for November, to raise money for prostate cancer — for a movement called Movember— and is taken aback by my gargantuan Dali-meets-darwan mouch. “I wish I had one like that. It would be so impressive.” I ask him to try and he laughs his head off. “Me with a handlebar? Can you imagine? Big blond fluff on the upper lip?” It’s the 26th of October, and it’s true, both driver and aforementioned lip are running out of time. We’re sitting in a Delhi hotel the night before Qualifying for the Indian Grand Prix, and Jenson — who admits to a tattoo, quirkily enough, of a shirt-button somewhere on his body — is as relaxed as can be.

“In terms of the Driver’s Championship, it’s over, yes,” he admits, ever more realistic than teammate Lewis Hamilton who still points to mathematical chances. “But the Constructor’s Championship is a possibility — it’s tough but it’s a possibility.” That possibility at the time of writing this, hours after that very weekend’s race, with McLaren ten points behind Ferrari and over a hundred behind Red Bull, seems bleak. “For us, winning races is very, very special. For the team. The emotions, the adrenaline. And while a world championship is twenty races, in a Grand Prix you don’t know you’re going to win until that last lap. And that really means a lot. That’s some very good emotion you see on people’s faces within the team, and those moments really pull you a lot closer. So that’s what we’re hoping for, ending the season with style.”

button2Putting the team first isn’t new for Button. He talks about relishing back-to-back weekends as a racer, but immediately undercuts this enthusiasm with concern for his overworked engineers, and how he is fortunate enough to travel with family and girlfriend but the mechanics have to spend longer away from their families. Said girlfriend is the stunning Jessica Michibata, a half-Japanese half-Argentine model now engaged to Button, and — in the McLaren motorhome minutes before the Qualifying session — she shares a couch with Jenson’s father John, a rallycross driver in his day, now best known for wearing the Union Jack as a cloak to cheer his son at every race. She throws giant smiles all over the place, and they work wonders.

Jenson walks in, his heavily insulated racing suit undone above the waist, making him look like half a silver superhero.

He digs into a salad, smiles at the family who leaves him be, as key mechanics and engineers huddle around. In a nearby corner that seems somehow distant, Lewis Hamilton’s father sits and scowls into an orange Gatorade; Hamilton’s kid brother sits all the way across the room, staring at a screen. Lewis isn’t here yet but it’s hard not to assume that McLaren has indeed become Jenson’s team — quite the feat considering Lewis cut his teeth here and has been headline-grabbing top dog.

Even Jenson’s biggest fans thought he was taking too big a risk coming to Team Lewis after winning with Brawn GP in 2009, but Button held his own in 2010 and trounced Lewis in 2011. Now Hamilton’s the one moving to Button’s old team, now called Mercedes GP, even as the rest of the racing world is calling it a monumental blunder. Hamilton’s gone because of salary negotiations and because Mercedes will let him keep the trophies he wins for them, something McLaren doesn’t allow, though it remains to be seen how much Mercedes — who have won one race in the last three years —  can do for his trophy cabinet.

Button, on the other hand, was staunchly loyal to the Brawn team (formerly Honda) taking a massive pay-cut to allow that team to even come into existence, and striving with them for many years in the midfield before Ross Brawn pulled the 2009 season out of his hat with a conjuror’s flourish. Now, as Hamilton moves out and young Sergio Perez enters McLaren, Button will formally be team leader — a role he looks already to have naturally assumed. An engineer squeezes his shoulder, another cracks a gag. Laughter. Jenson stands, stretches and struts out, smiles remaining trained on his back. His rival’s corners stay quiet; McLaren may have said its goodbyes.

“As a kid, I loved racing,” he smiles. “I used to watch my father, and he used to race a VW Beetle and it was so loud! I remember it was really, really loud, and as a kid you’ve got very good, very sensitive hearing. I watched Formula One the whole time, and Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost, those were the two guys I watched in the late 80s, and then my dad bought me a kart when I was eight. And it was just for fun, really, just to have fun on the weekends with my dad, and then somebody said ‘He’s quick, why don’t you race him?’ So I raced, and I won my first race.” He stops short, immediately, instinctively cautious against braggadocio. “And it wasn’t all a fairy tale, but it was a great start.” It certainly was, 11-year-old Jenson winning each of the 34 races in the British Cadet Karting Championship.

Looking back, he encircles 14 as the age when he knew this could be a career. “Before that I was asked the question — ‘Do you want to race in Formula One?’ ‘Yes, I would love to be a Formula One driver’  — but I didn’t understand what I was saying, you know? I was living in the moment, that’s what you do as a kid, but at 14, that’s when I realised this could be it, if I focus and work hard.”

Since his F1 debut in 2000, it’s been rough, and Jenson’s been impressively patient. He started with Williams, became the youngest driver to score a point, but was booted in favour of Juan Pablo Montoya. Benetton came next, where he had mixed results at the back of the field, and it was with BAR Honda, which dropped Jacques Villeneuve for Button, where he appeared to find his feet. The first step of the podium, however, remained elusive till 2006, after which the Honda became embarrassingly awful. It was in 2008 when team principal Ross Brawn decided on spending the year readying for the next, and after Honda pulled out in 2009, Brawn GP had their unlikely but miraculous season of perfection. Button won his first race in 2006; he was eighteenth in 2008; he was World Champion in 2009.

jensonandrajaAs mentioned, he is a perfect fit for McLaren, but this has been a season of tremendous uncertainty. A bit too uncertain, perhaps? “Uh, yeah. I think everyone was excited about having so many different winners, but I think it got to a point for the fans where it was very difficult for them to back drivers, and get excited about backing a driver for the championship. So yeah, I think after those 7 or 8 races, the normal resumed and you had the 3-4 top teams racing at the front, which I think people like, and there were so many good fights this year. There have been some really good races, and good overtaking moves and exciting results.”

Yet purists — and drivers themselves — have complained. That the overtaking has been artificially induced by whimsical tyre-wear, and that drivers have to play nursemaid to rubber more often than going as fast as cars, corners and cojones allow them. “I agree, it’s been tricky. And even with a very good car, if you can’t get the tires in their working range, you can’t exploit that great car. So it’s been tough in that respect, and it’s taken us a really long time to really understand the tires and get the best out of them. Today again,” he says of India, where he would qualify fourth on the grid, “it’s been difficult for us to get tyre temperature and to get the tyres working. So it’s hurt us, and we know what to do, but is that going to be enough for the weekend? I really don’t know.”

Not knowing is something that may well exasperate a driver so given to accuracy, to that smooth driving style spoken about so much. Isn’t this supposed to be his game? “Yeah, it is, if there’s high degradation with the tyres. It’s something that I’ve worked on a lot in my career, on looking after the tyres, and next year I think there’s going to even be high degradation, so it’s a good thing, I think, for my style.”

“The problem this year with the tyre is that it’s not the degradation that’s an issue, it’s getting the tyre into a working range. If the bulk of the tyre is not hot enough and the surface is too hot, the tyre doesn’t work; if the surface is too cold and the bulk [temperature] is too high, the tyre doesn’t work — it has to be perfect, and if it isn’t perfect, you don’t go fast. So it’s tricky, and sometimes you luck into it, and that’s why I think we’ve seen so many different winners this year.”

True, and there have been several races where last-minute tyre-changes have resulted in someone normally slower flying past frontrunners. That must be painful. “No, that’s part of the game. Either they’ve got lucky with the strategy, or they’ve done a very good job of understanding the strategy and the tyres. That’s part of racing,” he says, unflappable before frowning. “But actually never, never getting the tyres to work is frustrating and, you know, you work on so many different areas with the car and improve so many different things, but if you put the tyres on and they don’t work for you, you go nowhere. So that’s why it’s been tough for us.”

He sums up his season — one that began in fireworks but petered out with a whimper — succinctly, unemotionally. “We’ve had a bit of everything this year, yeah. And you can’t win them all,” he shrugs. “Only one team and one driver come out on top every season. It’s a very competitive sport, and we just learn from our mistakes and make sure they don’t happen again.”

This equanimity is at odds with F1 as we perceive it, the sport regularly rewarding aggression and even arrogance, the most meteoric drivers being the most talked about. Little wonder, then, that Button idolised Alain Prost, the fanatically precise French legend dubbed Le Professor. “I feel that Ayrton had more natural ability in terms of speed, and Prost worked harder at it, had to work harder at it. And he was a very clever guy, and that really added something for me, how he went about his racing. And that’s why I liked him. As a kid, I chose him over Ayrton because they were both so strong and I’m a competitive person, I had to have someone to cheer for.”

“But since then, I spent a lot of time watching his racing and also, he gave me an opportunity to drive one of his cars; my first test in a Formula One car was with him in a Prost car. And since then we’ve spent time together, we’ve done a couple of interviews together, for Tag Heuer, and he’s a great guy and, strangely, we’ve got quite a bit in common when we talk about racing, in the way we approach the sport.”

Prost, who won more titles than Ayrton Senna, while throwing far fewer tantrums. Yes, there is definitely a resemblance.

~

First published Man’s World magazine, November 2012

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The world’s shortest love story

How romance began, blossomed and withered all in the space of an epic 98.

 

I first saw her at the Arts Centre. The University’s cricket-loving population was sprawled under a giant screen, a distinctly visible demarcation between hundreds in blue and an equal number in green. Actually, I had seen her before — even held the door open for her, thanked refreshingly by a ‘shukriya’ instead of the ubiquitous ‘cheers’ — but with her beaming and bouncing and cheering, looking drop-dead delicious in her Pakistan tee-shirt waving some rude-yet-clever slogan at us, 1st March 2003 was the first time I had actually stopped to look.

An enthused Pakistani fan cheers her team to victory against Canada.

Wasim Akram began with two dot balls. I, with shaggy hair much bluer than my team tee, kneeled next to a friend and watched Sachin Tendulkar cream the next ball to the ropes. Obviously, I stayed on that left knee for more than half the match, while Sachin layeth the smacketh down, but, every time He wasn’t on strike, I pivoted back. To auburn curls, light eyes, an electrifying smile and lots of flag-waving sass. Eye-contact was made over Shoaib getting spanked, and there was much playful slogan-warring; she even thumbed her nose once and irresistibly stuck out a sharp tongue. I decided that I would keep the post-match gloating to a minimum, and instead offer to take her out for a consolatory slice of pie or something.

Boundary. Six. Pivot. Boundary. Dot ball. Pivot. Pivot. Halfway down the 28th over, Tendulkar was out. On 98. We sighed and fretted, but we knew he’d already given us an innings more special than many of his tons, and that the match by now was won. We patted each other on the shoulder as if we’d been running those ones and twos, smiled and applauded. Pivot. She stood atop a table celebrating the master’s dismissal, her eyes gloriously, gorgeously aflame as she mouthed and gestured ‘get out of here.’ To Sachin. If my left knee wasn’t already ground into the carpet, it might have buckled. The friend amused by my Pakistani preoccupation clapped his arm around my shoulder. I’m not sure, but I think he might have offered me pie. Or something.

You get it, right? I’m all for a pretty girl vociferously egging her team on and willing ours to lose. That’s passion, and that’s sport. But doesn’t Sachin move beyond merely geographic boundaries? Doesn’t everyone just want to watch Him bat?

From opposing bowlers to infamously partisan Australian crowds, they all applaud and marvel and wistfully, briefly picture Him wearing their own colours. In the IPL, I used to support Kolkata Knight Riders, but when we faced Sachin all I wanted to see was that legendary drive straight past the bowler. Or an audaciously square cut. Or just a bullying six. We all want to watch Sachin bat — like Warne turn or Murali decieve or Wasim york or McGrath castle — because that is as good as cricket gets.

Many years ago, at an Eden Gardens game, my mother cheered Viv Richards on to hit a six. This was admittedly because she wanted to see the handsome Nawab of Pataudi, then fielding near the outfield, to get closer to her stands while retrieving the ball. Still, dubious motive aside, her aghast fellow-spectators had to concede that they all wanted to see the same piece of savagely sculpted poetry. Because magic is for everyone.

I don’t know where that girl from eight years ago is, or even her name. I just wish, by now, that she’s learnt to appreciate Tendulkar. Because just watching cricket is a darned sight less lyrical without Him. And Sachin belongs to us all.

~

First published Mumbai Mirror, April 6, 2011

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Not just another sports movie

The problem with pitching a story way, way too good to be true.

“We open with a young boy,” gushes the director breathlessly — exaggeratedly enthused by every word he himself utters, his very tone an exclamation mark — hardselling his pitch. “Cute, middle-class, short even. With an afro. Wants to play cricket, be a fast bowler.”

The producer grunts, a non-committal, potentially dream-crushing grunt. “Another sports movie? And bowling toh already had Iqbal na. Make him a batsman.” “Okay, okay,” says the director, undeterred and eager to compromise. “Bowling coach tells him he’d bat better. So he does. Young teenager, total prodigy.”

“We can even have a Gavaskar cameo, where he gives the boy his own pads after seeing him bat. When he’s 15, he scores a hundred in every match he plays. At 16, they pick him for the team.”

“For India? At 16?”

“Yeah, yeah India, boss. And he debuts against Pakistan! Bloody fast bowlers hammer him. Just picture it: in slow-motion, he wipes the blood off his nose and plays the next ball.”

The producer scratches his belly, yawning. “So phir, success and more success?” “Haan boss, but the scale of it! Something else! Boundary pe boundary, century pe century! Soon, he’s the best player in India. And he’s only 20, 21. Whole world watches him bat. Stadiums chanting. Bowlers having nightmares.”

The producer leans forward. “Okay, okay, I get it. And then? What’s the twist? Health problem?”

“Well yeah, his back starts cramping. Long innings start to worry him. But then he gets over it.” The producer groans impatiently. “Uff. Then maybe some scandal? Match fixing?” “Oh totally, sir. Fixing changes the face of Indian cricket, but only proves this guy is super-clean. He even wins matches India is supposed to lose.” “Listen, how can this work?” demands the producer. “Where is the drama? Conflict? Any ladki issue at least?”

“No no, he marries early on.” “Then what, one day he just loses form? New kids start playing better?” “Actually yes, after he turns 30, the magic seems to dry up.” “Aha,” smiles the producer, finally relieved. “So then, loss of form, forced retirement, drinking, frustration. I see. And then at the end of the film,” he soothsays, getting ahead of himself in that way producers do, “we have redemption: he turns into a coach or something, gives something back. Interesting.”

Nahin boss, after a couple of years of bad form he starts clicking again.” “Huh? But you said he was 30. Retire nahin karega kya?”

Arre sir, what are you saying? This is when he gets really special. Becomes even better than he ever was. Breaks every record in the books. People routinely call him better than Bradman. Full-blown worship, you see?”

The producer’s exasperated hand slams sweatily onto the sunmica desk. “Abe yaar, what is this? You said sports drama. This is saala fantasy movie, like Krrish or something! Does he also have a cape? Your damn batsman is more than Batman even. No thanks,” he snorts. “I want to make something realistic, which excites people. This is a fairytale, a complete comicbook kahaani.  Nobody will ever believe it only.”

~

He’s right, you know, that hardboiled producer. As Mark Twain said, Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t. And, yeah, none of us would buy that film. Yet here we are, pinching ourselves in awe, year after year, match after match. Happy 50, SRT. And thanks.

~

Originally published Mumbai Mirror, December 22, 2010

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The article that inadvertently got me into Rediff*

*A friend forwarded this blogpost to someone he knew at Rediff, and they mailed in asking if I would write for the sports section. I was incredulous, because they had the one and only Prem Panicker. I did scribble a couple of cricket pieces but became their F1 columnist.. and one thing, as they say, led to another.

~

The Mediocrity Of Being Out Of Range

Some people are just not destined for greatness.

There is a tremendous unbridgeable difference between the very good and the great. The Good, gripping all their vast reserves of natural talent and indomitable spirit, push forward, either impetuously or stoically, and grind on, doing absolutely everything it is humanly possible to do. Theirs is a quest it is hard to raise a finger toward, and nearly impossible to demand higher stakes from. They give their all, and we appreciate and applaud.

The Great, on the other hand, sometimes do not even cover all the above ground so comprehensively. Or, at least, visibly. What they bring to our everyday existences is sublime magic and jaw-slacking awe. And the realization that these are the people who live beyond the confines of normality, these are the supermen, albeit uncaped. And, as we understand this, we demand more. And more. And more. Relentless, unceasing. Nothing is ever good enough. At this, The Great smile, throw their heads back, and continue, stretching towards an ultimate perfection.

No matter what the achievement, The Great will be dissatisfied, incomplete. This is what spurs them on. Inevitably, they fail. And this final, unreal failure is what pulls the mantle of true excellence tighter, more permanently, around their shoulders. Lesser men would pale at the thought of living with it; greatness is not for us all.

dravid2

Thankfully, a certain Mr. Dravid will never have to worry about this. He will forever remain entrenched in being very very Good indeed. As said, there is no doubting his talent, the man is a masterful technician. As cameras zoom in on his helmeted head and the sweat drips down by the gallon, even as he hits it through the covers for four, we are reminded of how hard he works. And how important he is to us, how valuable.

Today, India made history. We beat Pakistan by an innings, and more. In Pakistan. This is the stuff of absolute folklore. Rahul Dravid happened to be captain. What will he be remembered for? His stellar contribution of six runs in the Indian innings? His magnificence in building a fabulous, new-look, young Indian side? No. He will be remembered for carving a new chapter in ridiculous personal insecurity, the ingrate.

We all know what happened: Tendulkar 194*. The declaration was apparently made in favour of giving us the best possible chances for a win. Sachin turned to the pavilion, and was visibly stunned. After having played the cautious foil to a superb innings, he had just begun to cut loose, to treat the world to an exhibition of inimitable batting. He seemed uncharacteristically pained by the decision, and this was not because he missed out on a double ton: it was because he felt let down. Et Tu, Rahul?

It is also bad captaincy. Ponting, Haq, Waugh, Miandad, Dev – a prolific list of captains felt outraged. For a second, forget that we are talking about Sachin. If one of your main batsmen had a particularly disastrous 2003, and is working himself back to form, with an undismissed rampage of runs against the world’s most feared bowlers, you let him take his second double ton on the trot, dammit. By the way, I’m curious: how many Indian batsmen have scored successive 200s, Rahul? [“The team is bigger than the individual,” was constantly parroted around on the day. “In this case”, said Dean Jones, “It’s hardly an accurate description.”]

Sachin, of course, is totally unfazed. The Great hardly ever need to even bounce back. It was heartbreaking to see him at the press conference that evening, looking visibly stirred, disappointed, surprised. He will go on, unabated, scoring his runs. O’Four, a year which is yet to see him dismissed, looks like it might be another of the unforgettable ones. His innings has been martyred into legend, like Gavaskar’s last innings 96, and is all the more memorable just because he was denied the last six runs.

dravid1Called to the dias, the winning captain today seemed to forget his was an extremely temporary, stand-in role. Kapil wrote about how the win should be dedicated to what he referred to as Sachin’s supreme sacrifice. Hah. The injured original leader stood, his black t-shirt visibly distancing him from the boys in their whites, his boys, and looked on as Rahul collected the accolades, and did not even credit Saurav. His is an arrogant, egoist heart, and it must have bled. Rahul might have to face consequences when the Prince returns. He deserves it, and I daresay it might provoke many a grin.

What really gets me is that I have always liked Dravid. He’s a good batsman, but that’s that: consistency redeems the lack of strokeplay, the sheer ordinariness of his shots salvaged by the man’s gritty doggedness. This match showed us who he was, as opposed to what he can do, and it was a disappointing awakening. Respect flew out of the window. Mediocrity of being an also-ran is going to hound this man forever. Greatness is something he can only dream of, and I would advise him not to.

The man has collected several epithets in his time – The Wall, Jammy, Mr. Dependable, and even, very recently, God. Let me do the deed and add the definitive:

Rahul Dravid, twat.

~

Blogged on April 1, 2004.

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F1 Column: Melbourne 2009

That magnificent Brawn and his flying machines

Goodbye, pecking order.

The last time a Formula One team won on its debut was 32 years ago, in 1977. The team was called Wolf, and owner Walter Wolf took some aid from then-collaborator Frank Williams, and an engineer went over from Williams to work on the cars.

The young man’s name was Ross Brawn, and he’s today’s Formula One superstar extraordinaire. With tremendous lyrical grace, his team this Sunday scored a phenomenal one-two on its very first race — without breaking a sweat.

Not that he’s new to the limelight, you understand. Widely considered the finest racing strategist of all time, Brawn tasted successive-year championship glory with Michael Schumacher and Benetton in the mid 90s, and then joined the German at Ferrari where the two — along with team principal Jean Todt — created a scarlet age winning six back to back constructor’s titles and carving out an era of dominance unprecedented in modern-day motorsport.

He had been working at the Honda team for a couple of years now, but the recession led the auto-manufacturer to pull out of F1. Brawn pleaded to let the team be, but Honda decided they would rather sell it. No buyers loomed near, and for a while it looked like drivers Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button — who took a voluntary £5 million paycut to keep racing — would be out of jobs, and F1 head honcho Bernie Ecclestone started saying top-rung teams would run three cars instead to make up for the lack of Honda.

With weeks to go before the season started, the magnificently wily Brawn engineered a full buy-out of the Honda team. He knew the car had what it takes; knew it so well he was willing to sign his name onto the team’s livery. The timesheets went crazy through the last two weeks of testing, but it was only at Melbourne that we saw the force of Brawn, demolishing the rest of the field with efficient brutishness.

And now Formula One finds itself, at least momentarily, without status quo. A Brawn GP car leads the field, a Red Bull car follows close, and a BMW pushes them both hard — all this while the Ferraris and McLarens limp and pray, nowhere in the same league. Wow. The emergence of Brawn doesn’t look like a flash-in-the-pan success, and could truly signal in an era of the aspirants, one where the hitherto mid-rung teams suddenly lead the race and, most importantly, an era where more than half the drivers on the grid can realistically challenge for race wins. Hold your breath, it’s happening.

The emergence of the gloriously logo-less (not for long, surely) Brawn GP team has been like a tabby cat landing in the midst of F1′s chubby pigeons. There is complete disarray as the teams protest Brawn’s diffuser, but my two cents are just that Ross has seen a technical loophole better and before anyone else, and he’s exploiting it to the fullest. Also, it cannot be enough emphasised that Brawn kickstarted work on this year’s Honda as early as the beginning of last season, which is what has made the most massive difference. Compare a year-long development cycle to, say, a team like McLaren too busy tweaking its 2008 challenger to the very last race to even start on development on its 09 charger before weeks past Lewis Hamilton’s celebrations.

The fall out is obvious. No, we’re not about the instant kneejerk reactions in the paddock, which will go from the frantic establishment of clearer rules on diffusers to the entire field me-tooing pretty much exactly the same diffuser Brawn has devised. Ha. The true impact that Brawn will have on its competition — especially if they take another win this Sunday at Malaysia — is that they will throw in the towel early. Teams like McLaren and Renault, more than a second behind the Brawn GP cars, are already making fatalistic statements about this season. It is only likely that at least 2-3 top tier teams will emulate Ross’ method and begin on the 2010 car right away, and try to use this season academically — ie, collect data as they lose.

This is a masterstroke. All Brawn has to do is turn up the heat in the opening few races, and watch the frustrated former frontrunners wistfully stare at their white-neon rear-wings, annoyed Ferrari drivers wishing scowling at the diffuser would crack it open. That is really all they need to make this season theirs, and while it’s admittedly far too early to talk about a season’s worth of dominance right after one race, the performance differential — and Brawn’s strategic acumen — cannot be discounted. These debutants have the greatest championship winning chance since.. since Lewis Hamilton in 2007. Then again, Ham lost that round so the old-money teams still have a hope.

Which brings me to a rather funny little coincidence. Following their disqualification in 2007, McLaren were listed lowest on the FIA classification in 2008. Their driver won last year. This time, because Brawn are completely new entrants, they find themselves carrying the last two driver numbers. Are we likely to see another incredible last-to-first upset? (And will this trend be Force India’s biggest hope?) Heh.

We’ve seen Ross Brawn on many a podium, most often as a scarlet-clad giant teddy bear whose arms Michael Schumacher would leap into with victorious glee. Yet Formula One is a driver’s sport, and there is only so much credit the car-makers, the thinkers can take. Especially behind a truly great driver.

This Sunday at Melbourne, Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button — drivers with largely underwhelming careers — got off their podium and doused their boss in unison. In my favourite moment of the day, Brawn used his trophy like a champagne shield as all of us rejoiced for the new team. Deservedly, Ross Brawn needs to be celebrated. He might be a little taller than Vitalstatistix, but by Toutatis, he’s sure brought the sky down on Formula One’s head.

Published Rediff, April 1, 2009.

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