F-1: Monaco – The Inflection Point

A bizarre event. The man who replaced Michael Schumacher does an accidental replay of what the German ‘deliberately’ did a year ago. To top it, Kimi Raikonnen’s Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa nearly dislodged the Finn from the stationary position he had got comfortable in. Yes, you could be forgiven for thinking this was a ‘Salute to Schumi’ from Ferrari at Formula 1’s glitziest Grand Prix.

Massa qualified third, while Raikonnen’s brush with the surreal pushed him back to 15th. Meanwhile, on the front row a two-time defending champion managed to pip the rookie who is seen capable enough by many to win the World Championship. A lot of talk going into this weekend was about the successes McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton has had at Monaco, albeit at lesser levels of motor sport.

However, teammate Fernando Alonso has once again out-qualified the Briton (a 4-1 record this season so far). But Hamilton will surely be looking to outdo the Spaniard at the start in Monaco. And a win at Monaco would definitely be one of the defining moments of world sport this year.

It is heartening to see that the BMWs have been pushed back to the fourth row, followed by the Hondas in Row 5. Giancarlo Fisichella in the Renault, Nico Rosberg in the Williams and Red Bull’s Mark Webber fill the slots 4-6. Hopefully, Monaco shall mark the inflection point for a few teams and their drivers.

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Roger Cracks Rafa Riddle

Kunal Diwan

It’s official. Strap your wiggly butts to your lazyboys and prepare for launch. Roger has started liking the dirt. It doesn’t choke his nares as before. His air-maxes have attained firm footing. And a certain someone in three-fourths is certainly frowning in displeasure.

If Federer’s pummeling of Nadal in the final of the Hamburg Masters is anything to go by, we have a French Open of epic proportions awaiting us.

It was not the eventual victory that mattered. It was the timing and manner of it – a handful of days before the French, all knives out against a ‘suspect’ Federer on clay, and this ripped teenager in highly un-recommended tennis attire having his own disdainful way with the champion. Here was a man who had just parted ways with his coach because he did not want any “interference” from any quarter in his preparation for the French. Was this the supercilious decline of a haughty champion? This was surely it. Or so we thought.

Federer’s scowl in the first set was representative of the 2-6 scoreline. His forehand lacked punch. His first serve was off by a mile and did nothing to extricate him from the hypnotic domination that his Majorcan opponent exercised over him each time they met across the net. It was been downright embarrassing, the way this teenager had made the magician appear to be a semi-professional drifter in their earlier encounters.

The first set followed an expected course. Nadal powered his way through whatever Federer hurled his way. Federer scowled, flicked his hair in that arrogant manner of his and (to the best of this writer’s tennis acumen) resigned himself to the ignominy of yet another defeat. Nadal even had a better percentage of points won at the net.

Then suddenly the first serve started hitting the sweet spot. The forays to the net seemed increasingly sure-footed. And before anyone could breathe a familiar gasp of awe, the Federer we knew was back at his dismissive best. He out-ran, out-hit, out-rallied, and out-played Nadal in every possible aspect of the game – in the second set Nadal was out-Nadal-ed by Federer. Second set in his pocket, we waited like scared cats for Rafa to step up a gear in his well-oiled musculature. He did. But Federer out-geared him there as well. I guess all the propitiating on my part had worked wonders. Not that this man needs the help of any Gods that require pleasing.

The decider was vintage (pardon the usage) Federer. He did not play as much as he rammed his brilliance into his opponent’s face. Nadal was blasted off court and ended his 81 match-winning streak on clay with an embarrassing 0-6 drubbing. But then there is no shame in losing to someone who would beat you with equal ease with a toothpick. Spectatorship was elevated to such euphoric levels that Custom Officials may well accost Federer for carrying contraband.

Midway through the third set, (with the end a good ten minutes and three games away) a commentator chimed – “It is going to be a deserved win for Federer. Nothing that Nadal can do about it now”. When someone is playing at this humanly unattainable level, precognition may well be excused.

For the record, Roger Federer beat Rafael Nadal 2-6 6-2 6-0.

Chess Writing

Here are links to pieces written for the Emmanuel Chess Centre, Chennai. The Emmanuel Chess Centre is an institute for professional chess training exclusively for young children in the age group of four to sixteen years. Their website is http://www.emmanuelchesscentre.com/.

Article Links:
Chess at RCC

India’s first FIDE Trainer

Jerome – India’s best bet for the Under-8 World Championship

The Role of Trainers

Musings (contd…)

Imran Nazir was blazing away when Pakistan decided to return a favour to the Lankans and lost two quick wickets to run-outs. Hadn’t we seen this one time too many? This phenomenally talented team from the other side of the border self-destructing after a bright start. A cramped Nazir was done in by his ‘runner’ Afridi who took off for an impossible third and was caught woefully short by an accurate Jayasuria throw. Nazir departed for a quickfire 38 which included a viciously pulled six off a Malinga (who else?) no-ball. As usual the Lankans were alert and agile in the field and a fierce throw by Kapugedara found Butt in no man’s land after a yes-no exchange with Mohd. Yousuf. Yousuf couldn’t make amends as he was soon deceived by a seemingly innocuous leg-cutter by Maharoof. The ball appeared to be suspended in space and the batsmen merely watched it rattle onto the off-stump. The Pakistanis were now four down for 105 and a brilliant start had all been undone.

Somehow, this was familiar territory for Pakistan as well as Sri Lanka. The Lankans have been past masters at strangulating their opposition during chases, and the Pakis have been known to squander gift horses with reckless abandon. All this must have preyed on skipper Shoaib Malik’s mind as he strode in and was joined by Kamran Akmal in the middle.

Pakistan needed 131 off the last 20 overs with Malik and Akmal desperate not to yield an inch. But then the unfortunate happened. Continuing the spate of mix-ups Malik was run out by a brilliant retrieval at the boundary by Tharanga. In walked Afridi, who was offered a few words of advice by his skipper as he was leaving the arena.

Times aplenty Shahid Afridi has flattered to deceive, but even he would have admitted that the situation was tailor made for his brand of cricket. Two good overs would have swung the pendulum the crescent’s way. He took cautious singles off the first few balls. The asking rate of barely over five runs an over did not demand any batting calisthenics.

And then all hell broke loose. He unleashed a flurry of boundaries – Jayasuriya for consecutive fours, Bandara over cover and then straight back, but the best was yet to come. Afridi had something special planned for Bandara’s last over – Two screeching fours followed by four stupendous sixes – one of which was barely four feet above the ground in its flat journey to the advertisement hoarding. It was a 32 run over (4 4 6 6 6 6). Suddenly, a match which promised much more drama was turned into a no-contest by a man capable of ferocious hitting. This was what the world had waited for with bated breath during the World Cup. But then Afridi has a penchant for being unimaginably talented and infuriatingly callous. He also belongs to that rare breed of batters who try dispatching every ball to the boundary irrespective of the situation/ bowler/ pitch/ weather etc.

Needless to say, the Pakistanis raced to the target with 5 wickets to spare as Akmal smashed the winning boundary and reached 50 in the process. The Pathan ended with 73 off 34 balls (8 fours and 4 sixes.) Many thanks Shahid, for the unadulterated, unbridled power that you bring to the game in an age dominated by bare statistics.

Musings on the Cricket in the Middle-East

Kunal Diwan

Maybe I am anti-patriotic to the extent of being vitriolic, but you will have to accept that cricket matches not involving ‘Team India’ are markedly refreshing. The kind of zeal that lanky youngsters from Sri Lanka and Pakistan bring to the game is sorely lacking in the overweight, over-hyped paper tigers from India. Anyways, there must be something in the air of these Middle Eastern countries (Sharjah, Morocco, Abu Dhabi…) that unfailingly produces dramatic, edge-of-the-seat contests.

Searching unity under a young captain after the World Cup and Woolmer debacle, Pakistan matched skills with Sri Lanka who were looking to reassert their status as Cup Finalists.

Batting first Sri Lanka stuttered, pottered and finally sprinted to 235, a total which hinged on a brisk 69 by Maharoof. Shrugging off three untimely run-outs and some accurate fast bowling by Sami and Gul, SL was helped on by a solid knock 47 by Chamara Silva.

With his team far from safety at 194-7 in the 44th over, Maharoof was seen striding down the pitch to converse with his partner Bandara. He thumped his chest as if to say – “I am in charge here, just don’t do anything silly.” In fact, Maharoof countered wasteful batting by both Bandara and the very irritating Lasith Malinga by some lusty hitting at the end.

Both Sami and Asif bowled fast and straight; Umar Gul picked up three wickets but was carted for 61 off his ten. Maharoof managed a smile when he was outwitted by a wily slower one
from Gul, and yet another smile when he hoisted the next delivery over long-off for a six. It was an apt representation of Kipling’s lines – “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat these impostors just the same.” These are the young and fearless of modern international cricket, unblemished by nauseatingly burgeoning bank accounts and channelling their gully-cricket instincts into the international arena. Australia had better watch out. But then, the
Aussies ain’t scared of anything either.

Pakistan began in trademark fashion, Imran Nazir whacking the wayward Malinga and Maharoof for boundaries in the first few overs. It is one of crickets great mysteries how a bowler with an action as ungainly and discordant as Malinga can be so successful at this level. I guess the batsmen are distracted to the extent of losing their wicket, for at the time of release, Malinga’s arm, forget about being parallel to his torso, is nearly perpendicular to his body. Nevertheless, I shall keep my trap shut in light of the freak’s great success in the games’ premier event.

Razzaq looks like a roadside romeo in his new hair-do. Even though they’re essentially of the same genetic stock, I can somehow identify a Pakistani miles away. Maybe it’s their prognathic upper teeth or the general ‘cheapness’ that surrounds them. This is not to say that the VHP inspired miscreants in UP and Bihar are not cheap – they’re even cheaper – but still the Paki brand of crassness is singularly unique. I would have to attribute my skill to endlessly watching Pak mutilate India on the cricket field in my formative years, where I painstakingly studied each and every mannerism of these brash victors for the secret of their success. “Killer Instinct” is what Henry Blofeld and co. called it in those days. Where is Mr. Blofeld these days? He’s probably too old now to even admire earrings, but you never know. You can take a man out of voyeurism, but you can’t take voyeurism out of a man.

An Aussie World Cup Winners’ XI

The culmination of any sporting event brings to focus the players that made a difference. This year’s Cricket World Cup ended on a hat trick of consecutive Cup wins for the Australia, and with the 1987 triumph the men from Down Under have won four World Cups out of the nine held so far.

Great players have donned national colours for this Australian one-day side, and before the current side left for this year’s World Cup in the West Indies, an All-time Aussie One Day International (ODI) XI was announced. In this analysis, we shall pick an Aussie XI as well, but an All-time Aussie World Cup Winners XI. The selection process is simple; we shall pick the best Australian players to have successfully represented their country at a World Cup.

Here’s the eleven that made the cut:
1. Adam Gilchrist
Ball in glove or not, ‘Gilly’ is perhaps the easiest choice to make in any all-time XI. In 31 World Cup matches, Gilchrist has scored 1085 runs, averaging 36.16, and scoring at marginally less than a run-a-ball. His blistering 149 in this year’s final at the Kensington Oval seemed to have been made on a different wicket to the rest, as he teed off on a scoring spree while the rest of the Aussie batsmen – in prime form too- struggled to force the pace.

2. Matthew Hayden
Matthew Hayden’s batting exploits at the recently concluded World Cup bagged him the opener’s place alongside Gilchrist, ahead of the elegant Mark Waugh. Waugh’s career average of 39.95 at a strike rate of 76.90 is impressive, but pales in comparison to Hayden’s average of 43.99 at a strike rate of 78.53. Although Waugh’s World Cup batting average of 52.84 is better than Hayden’s 51.94, it has been scored at a slower pace, thanks to the Hayden’s powerful hitting – a result of his strong upper body.

3. Ricky Ponting
The skipper of this side will come in at No.3. Ponting and Clive Lloyd are the only two captains to have won two World Cups, but Ponting is one-up over Lloyd – he’s won three as a player. Ponting is the only Aussie batsman to have scored over 10,000 runs in ODIs, with 22 centuries. His 140 not out in the World Cup Final against India in 2003 is one innings to remember.

4. Dean Jones
Jones is the only player in this side from the 1987 Australian World Cup winning side. He averages over 44 in ODIs, a phenomenal record when compared to his contemporaries. Although his 6068 runs have come at a slow strike rate of 72.56, the gritty middle-order bat was still considered a better bet than Damien Martyn.

5. Michael Clarke
At the 2007 World Cup, ‘Pug’ – as Clarke is known – played with a touch of finesse and consistency, and with Hayden and Ponting formed a solid top-order that hardly left any work for the rest of the line-up. He averaged 87.20 in the 11 matches he played at the 2007 World Cup, nearly double his average of 45.60 in 112 ODIs. Along with the batting, Clarke is also a useful left-arm slow bowler, and he would be one of the better fielders in this excellent fielding side.

6. Michael Bevan
The ‘World’s best finisher’ tag still belongs to this southpaw. His penchant for never getting out is reflected in his average of 53.58, only to be perhaps outdone by a fellow southpaw and namesake Michael Hussey in recent years. His quick running between the wickets will come useful in the end-overs, and his cool head has guided the Aussies to a win from many a difficult situation. Bevan’s left-arm chinamans will also add variety to the bowling attack.

7. Andrew Symonds
A giant on the field, Andrew Symonds has an astounding batting average of 103 in World Cup matches, his 515 runs coming at a strike rate of 93.29. An uncertainty for the 2003 World Cup, the man was picked on captain Ricky Ponting’s behest. Symonds obliged his skipper by scoring an unbeaten 143 after Pakistan had the Aussies tottering at 86-4. Although an injury seemed to have dashed his World Cup hopes this year, Symonds made a remarkable recovery and played the tournament after missing the first two matches. Symonds can also bowl off-spin or medium pace and his strong arms and athletic prowess make him one of the best outfielders in the game.

8. Shane Warne
Although leg-spinner Shane Warne has not played an ODI after the infamous ‘Mommy gave me a pill’ episode that ruled him out of the 2003 World Cup, many felt he should have been part of the 2007 campaign. Warne retired from Test cricket following the Ashes, perhaps as the best spinner that the game has produced. Warne walks into this side ahead of the man who replaced him – left-arm chinaman bowler Brad Hogg. Hogg’s performances have ensured Australia did not miss Warne, picking up 34 wickets at an average of 19.23 in 21 World Cup games. Warne’s 32 wickets in 17 matches come at 19.50 apiece, at an economy rate of 3.83 runs conceded per over. However, the Man-of-the-Match four-fors in the semi-finals and finals of the 1999 World Cup clinched the specialist spinner’s spot for the ‘Wizard.’

9. Brett Lee
The ‘Express’ bowler in this side, Brett Lee averaged a wicket nearly every 23rd ball he bowled at the 2003 World Cup. Unfortunately, an injury ruled him out of this year’s World Cup, where the tearaway Shaun Tait replaced him with some success. Lee is no slouch with the bat either and both he and Warne could chip in with a few runs if needed.

10. Nathan Bracken
The golden locks and gentle run-up make him appear to be easy pickings, but left-arm medium-pacer Nathan Bracken has a few tricks up his sleeve. He swings the new ball with good effect and bowls incisive cutters with the older one. Also entrusted with the ball during the death overs in the last World Cup, Bracken picked up 16 wickets with an average of 16.12, conceding 3.6 runs every over. His overall ODI record is not bad either, giving away 21.36 runs for the 112 wickets he has taken.

11. Glenn McGrath
“Mr. Line and Length’ could not have scripted a better finish to his cricketing career. McGrath finished the 2007 World Cup as the most successful bowler in World Cup history, and as the ‘Player of the Tournament.’ Glenn McGrath hates giving away anything to the batsmen, and his career ODI economy rate is an outstanding 3.87. McGrath’s 71 victims in 39 matches at the World Cup have been done in by his nagging accuracy and persistence. The consistent performer has won the coveted Cup three times as a player along with compatriots Gilchrist and Ponting. He also has a reputation for targeting the key batsmen in the opposition, and with a good measure of success that is.

The Aussie World Cup Winners Squad:
The XI: Ricky Ponting (captain), Adam Gilchrist (wicket-keeper), Matthew Hayden, Dean Jones, Michael Clarke, Michael Bevan, Andrew Symonds, Shane Warne, Brett Lee, Nathan Bracken, Glenn McGrath.
Stand-bys: Mark Waugh, Jason Gillespie, Brad Hogg, Damien Martyn.
Coach: John Buchanan.

Of Raikonnen and unreliable cars

The jury’s out once again on Kimi Raikonnen following his retirement on lap nine in the Spanish GP with an alternator failure. What irked the critics even more was the fact that Raikonnen was perhaps already checking in at the airport while Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa crossed the finish line in first place. Former driver and team boss Jackie Stewart has already questioned the Finn’s commitment.

If you have been following Formula 1, you still must be wondering how Kimi is to blame for a technical snag. Yes, Ferrari has had reliability issues this season and Massa suffered in the first race of the season. However, Raikonnen is no stranger to unreliable cars. Non-finishes plagued his stint at McLaren, especially in the last two seasons. Moreover, if this trend continues at Ferrari, Kimi will be facing the heat.

After four races, the tables have surely turned this season. What started out as a Fernando Alonso v/s Kimi Raikonnen battle is now a four-way affair, with both Felipe Massa and Lewis Hamilton leading their more illustrious counterparts at Ferrari and McLaren respectively. Rookie Hamilton is at the head of the pack, with 30 points, followed by Alonso on 28, Massa on 27 and Raikonnen on 22. McLaren with 58 points lead next-best Ferrari by nine points.

While the talk about Hamilton is on, the Brazilian Massa has churned out two consecutive race wins in his Ferrari. If he wins the upcoming Monaco GP, will this mean that Ferrari will consider him as their top driver for the Drivers’ Championship? In addition, if that does happen over the next few races, will Raikonnen feel comfortable at Ferrari? After all, Raikonnen’s move from McLaren to Ferrari was in quest of that elusive World Championship.

Monaco Preview

The next race at Monaco would be a challenging one. Overtaking is next to impossible on the streets of Monte-Carlo, and we have seen how Alonso lost track position following the ‘racing incident’ with Massa at his home GP in Catalunya. Interestingly, in the last three seasons the drivers on pole have gone on to win the Monaco GP – Alonso in 2006, Raikonnen in 2005, and Italian Jarno Trulli in 2004.

A collision at the start could create havoc, and with the four frontrunners vying for the top slot, we could just witness one. If this indeed does happen, we could well see constructors other than Ferrari or McLaren make their presence felt on the podium. Team BMW has been closest to the podium, with four fourth place finishes in the four races held so far.

After the impressive fifth-place finish at Catalunya, Red Bull’s David Coulthard will be looking forward to Monaco. Incidentally, ‘DC’ – who had won at Monaco with McLaren in 2002 – finished third in the Red Bull last year. Many would be hoping that the 36-year old Scot repeats the performance this year and end the stranglehold that Ferrari and McLaren have had on the podium in 2007.

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