Monthly Archives: April 2011

Fire In Babylon

Waited in line Thursday night to catch Fire In Babylon, a hugely compelling documentary of the West Indies cricket team (1975-1985). My quick review: this is an unbelievable piece of cricket folklore. Get the DVD now. My long review:

1. I’m young, so I missed this whole era. To be re-introduced to legends like Viv Richards was hugely gratifying. It’s not just that Richards was a good batsman; he also had, as he says, a certain amount of swagger — chewing gum while batting; staring at upstart bowlers; not wincing when hit by a fast ball. Few batsmen have that same presence now, even though batsmen rule the game now. (The best part of this movie is seeing batsmen squirm; few in the audience will realize just how far the scales have tipped in their favor since the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ruled.)

2. The film itself does a good job of moving quickly (though the Kerry Packer episode could have been edited out, in my opinion). First, it sets up the political/cultural moment in the Caribbean circa 1960s/1970s, so as to explain just why the West Indies cricket team mattered so much. Then, it follows the team’s initial failure in Australia, to its never-ending victories. A good amount of political commentary as well.

2A. It could have been better with more cricket though. There’s a moment when the film slows to show Michael Holding bowling an angry over in England, and it’s electrifying. (It’s this over, against B. Close.) The producers/editors should have done more of this — though I understand why they felt wary, given that they were trying to get as big an audience as possible. (Seeing Malcom Marshall catch and bat with a broken arm — simply incredible.)

3. How brutal is cricket? I complain now about injuries to cricketers, and they are serious, but to watch what batsmen faced in those days…the audience in the cinema gasped several times, and with each one, you got the sense they had discovered a Big Lie — this cricket, it hasn’t and never has been for gentlemen! What separates this from rugby?

4. The movie’s central premise, though, is a difficult one for me. Basically, Clive Lloyd and the West Indians swear never again to fare as badly as they did while touring Australia in 1975, when Lilee/Thompson scared the form out of them. Lloyd’s answer — we can bowl just as fast as they can — is satisfying on one level (political equality; beating the masters at their own game), but also disappointing (imitation isn’t the best political protest). Now, there’s a place for this logic initially in the post-colonial moment — I just don’t think it’s useful 60/70 years on. In other words: India, please, please, don’t try to become Australia. Imagine a different trajectory! (See Gandhi/Tagore’s views on nationalism for more on this line of thought.)

5. The filmmakers made a smart, but risky, decision to feature only West Indians talking about West Indian cricket. You see almost no one else — no Ian Botham, no Tony Grieg — in the present day reflecting on that period. I like it. This is as much about history and the power of a region’s narrative as it is about what the world thinks.

6. I feel really, really sorry for Colin Croft.

7. Sunil Gavaskar comes off very badly. The next time you hear him commentating in his trademark condescending tone — oh, these batsmen, they don’t know how bad we had it! — remind him about India’s disastrous tour of the West Indies.

8. The central mystery remains, though: how did one region — mere dots on the globe, as one team member said — produce so many greats over such an extended period?

8A. It’s hard, by the end of the movie, to see these old West Indian men talk about their team. You see footage of them bowling, batting, protesting, training, and drinking beer in their dressing rooms…The best part about Fire in Babylon isn’t just that it’s a great historical tribute to these athletes; it’s also a two-hour exercise in nostalgia and lives and days gone by.


Rahul Bhattacharya On WNYC and at PEN

Cricket writer Rahul Bhattacharya (whom I generally admire, but gently criticized here) is on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show, promoting his new book The Sly Company of People Who Care. Catch the audio archive here. If you’d like to see him in person, he’s at the Pen World Voices Festival today at 2 p.m., and he’s doing a cocktail hour reading at 5 p.m. Can’t beat New York City!

A Tale Of Two Medias: Duncan Fletcher As India Coach

Andrew Miller has a balanced take on Duncan Fletcher’s appointment as India coach. He focuses in particular on Fletcher’s strained relationship with the English press:

[S]o much of this went unappreciated throughout Fletcher’s often fractious England tenure, ironically because his single biggest failing was one of communication – not within the squad, for his man-management was by all accounts superb (at least among those who bought into his approach), but through (and to) the media. The advent of central contracts aided and abetted the creation of what became known as the England “bubble”, and Fletcher simply did not see any reason to prick the surface tension, and serve up his thoughts to anyone beyond the inner sanctum.

That obstinate attitude made for some memorable battles of wills with the British press in the course of his seven-year tenure. To his lasting credit, Fletcher invariably fronted up when his team had suffered one of their intermittent stinkers in the field, although those dreaded “Duncan Days” had become a self-parody long before his time in the job was up, with every new transcript an exercise in forensics.

So what will Fletcher face in the Indian media? For my part, I have increasingly little respect for India’s broadcast news industry, and just a smidgen more for its biggest English newspapers. The Times of India, the biggest game in town, has become utter filth — the writing is awful; the rah-rah India tone unbearable, and the news judgment largely absent. And when you think of some of the controversies that dogged Greg Chappell — namely, did he or did he not give the middle finger to Indian fans? — you have to fear for Fletcher’s heart.

But on the other hand, as Miller notes later in his piece, it’s become accepted practice for smart foreign coaches — that is, everybody other than Chappell — to keep the press at arm’s distance. And I think most Indian reporters accept this practice, even though they no doubt hate it. Gary Kirsten gave almost no interviews during his term, and only consented after the World Cup victory (when coverage was unlikely to be hostile, to say the least). Now, Kirsten pulled that off for two reasons: 1) Dhoni can handle the press well, when he wants to; 2) India did well — really well. If India falter in the next two years — more specifically, if they fail badly in Australia — Fletcher will need to be prepared to answer questions like, “Uh, why aren’t you Gary Kirsten? Oh, and also, did you just give us the middle finger?”

On the whole,- and, please, correct me if I’m wrong, it seems much tougher to control the English press, rather than the Indian one. Indian journalists can be invasive, they can be prickly, and they can often times be foolish, but when the BCCI wants to ignore them — or, at the very least, say that Fletcher is off-limits — I don’t see what recourse Indian cricket reporters have.

What Duncan Fletcher Thinks About India

Read Duncan Fletcher’s last column for The Guardian (written about the time he must have been approached by India). Full of great tidbits: a) a summary of his long, long relationship with Gary Kirsten and Eric Upton and Paddy Upton; b) his dissection of why Greg Chappell failed as a coach (“He was abrasive and always spoke his mind”) and c) his feelings about M.S. Dhoni:

I have studied Dhoni closely over the years, and these days I am impressed with every single aspect of what he does. Technically, he is not a very good cricketer, but mentally he looks as though he knows how to work with the ability he has got. Just like Kirsten.

You get a sense now why the BCCI liked Fletcher. Basically, if you wanted someone just like Kirsten, the feeling must have been — well, why not someone who coached Kirsten, then worked with him in South Africa, knows the current Indian supporting staff and shares the same philosophy (learn how to advise players without berating them). I.E.: Duncan Fletcher.

Duncan Fletcher Rises

Samir Chopra is skeptical about the Duncan Fletcher pick:

Fletcher is a big mouth, prone to talking too much about his wards to the press. This has the makings of a disaster in India’s media scene.

Well, actually. The Guardian has details on the contract Fletcher signed, which includes some interesting clauses:

Fletcher has been employed to work as a head coach, not a manager. He will not act as a team selector and he will be working alongside a team manager who will be in charge of disciplinary matters. A clause has also been included in his contract stating that he will not necessarily have to talk to reporters in an official capacity or attend press conferences, though it gives him the option of doing so if he wants to. Given how fractious and distracting his relations with the press became in England – media-management was not one of his strong-points – he saw this as another sign that he would be allowed to get on with what he is good at. [Emphasis added.]

All things considered, it appears the BCCI has learned from the Graham Ford fiasco. They didn’t air a shortlist publicly (at least not officially; those leaks must have come from somewhere), and when they picked a candidate, they made sure to make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Don’t want to manage the team? Fine. Don’t want to talk to the press? We hate them too. Don’t want to start in the West Indies? Who does?

But two questions: The Guardian says Fletcher was impressed with BCCI’s modernization, an improvement he noticed over the past decade. True? Second: Fletcher wins praise for knowing technique, and knowing how to coach these skills. But in his previous incarnation as English coach — and in his Guardian columns — he came across more as a master strategist. Is this the right pick for Dhoni?

Kudos To Sai Prasad Mohapatra’s Duncan Fletcher Scoop

Haven’t heard of him? Well, apparently he’s a cricket journalist and early in April, while the rest of us were speculating about Andy Flower and Stephen Fleming as the next India coach, Mohapatra called it right:

Reliable sources have confirmed that the former Zimbabwe captain and ex-England coach Duncan Fletcher was approached by the top BCCI officials and Fletcher, in turn, is believed to have agreed to the terms and conditions for the coaching assignment.

Nothing better than getting a scoop and then watching it play out in front of you. Well done, Sai.

An IPL Reality Show

I’m watching The Voice (I know, I need to put this off now), and it got me thinking about a reality show for the IPL. This is the best idea I could come up with:

Pick two cricket teams, preferably from your franchise areas. These players should be all unknowns; you will fill in their narratives (where they’re from; how they dream of playing cricket at the international level; the personal stakes) during the show. The catch: only two members from each side will get signed by a franchise. (Different thoughts on how to judge — maybe someone from the current Indian selection committee? Or scouts from the franchise? Or even retired international players? Or, on a different tack, go objective and pick the bowler with most wickets or most runs).

And you can add some more spice — have a celebrity cricketer act as the coach for each side, and show the drama behind the dressing room as these two made-up teams play against each other. Open to suggestions to make this better — as long as we go 50/50 on syndication fees!

The IPL’s Worth To A Domestic Player

One of the talking points used to sell the IPL is its supposed ability to showcase domestic Indian talent. Teams need to fill a team with 11 players, and a fair amount of them — I think 7? — need to be from India. Quite an amazing opportunity for a slew of players who otherwise would languish in the doldrums of domestic tournaments that very few fans care about.

But does it ever really translate into something more meaningful for these players? Yes, each season, we have been introduced to some interesting characters, some of who have gone on to the international forum (e.g. Yusuf Pathan). Others enjoy the 3-week minutes of fame — who knew P. Valthaty or Manish Pandey before the IPL? And the chance to play alongside the greats — from all over the world — must of some value (though I don’t know if it necessarily leads to better performance).

Then again, is it worth it for most of these players? Look at the top run getters and wicket-takers of 2009 — not many no-names there (except, maybe, Y.A. Abdulla, who comes in 10th). A cursory look at the other seasons shows the same trends — a few low-fame players (Vinay Kumar, N. Ohja, A.T. Rayadu) — but not much else. This is to be expected, of course; there’s a reason international veterans fill the top ranks.

But then, what’s the objective of a domestic player? Pull a Valthaty and enjoy the ride? Get your name out there? (If so, for what?) Or just do your best at your real task: play the ‘extra’ on a giant film set.

IPL/Cricket Crashes YouTube

Right now, if you search for either “cricket” or “IPL,” this is what you get:

500 Internal Server Error

Sorry, something went wrong.

A team of highly trained monkeys has been dispatched to deal with this situation.

Meanwhile, funny cat videos and Shakira highlights are still working. Life is OK.

Can I Follow English County Cricket?

The IPL doesn’t work for me, time-zone wise (and conceptually). I can’t follow IPL games at work, but I think I could maybe figure out a way to watch bits of ECB county cricket.

But how? Does anyone know? Does broadcast this stuff? Or are there some streams online?