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All in a year’s work: Looking back at 2017 through Sports glasses

As an action-packed 2017 draws to a close, The Indian Express’ writers list out the stories from the road, and some off the beaten track, that will stay with them....

By: Express News Service | Updated: December 31, 2017 11:34 am
steve smith, virat kohli, steve smith brain fade, drs, brain fade, the journey, india vs australia, test series, cricket, sports news, indian express Before the series, India skipper Virat Kohli had spoken glowingly of his friendship with the Australians, but after the series ended he admitted his relationship with them was permanently fractured. (Source: PTI)

Brain fades, bad blood and broken arrows

By Sandip G

His arms curled up, like a street fighter ready to throw punches, Virat Kohli scowled at Steve Smith, his Australian counterpart who seemed to gaze towards the dressing room after being adjudged lbw to Umesh Yadav in a nervy chase of 188 in Bangalore. Umpire Nigel Llong’s timely intervention prevented an on-field fist-fight, but Kohli had saved his words and thoughts for the press conference later in the day.

He stopped short of invoking the famous quotes of his then coach Anil Kumble — that only one team played in the spirit of the game — after the Sydney Test of 2008, but implied that the Australians were cheating, bringing up prior instances of the batsmen consulting the dressing room, a blatant breach of the DRS protocol. Smith’s batting partner then, Peter Handscomb owned up to the crime, confiding that it was a “brain fade”. But Kohli was in no bend of mind to forgive, or forget, and suddenly, the series blew up the artificial veneer of good-naturedness it had till then woven around it.

The antipathy bubbled into the Ranchi Test, in the build-up to which both skippers made veiled verbal tirades at each other, though the surface-from-Mars strips offered a passing distraction. But it all turned for the worse, when Glenn Maxwell, after saving a boundary, clutched at his left-shoulder, impersonating Kohli, who had hurt his shoulder while trying to save a boundary. Later, Smith too was accused of the same upon Kohli’s dismissal. Though Smith denied it—Handscomb again the culprit—Kohli was intent on reciprocating in kind. Soon after David Warner perished, Kohli grabbed his shoulder, his face awkwardly contorted, and frenziedly ran around his teammates. Smith wasn’t spared a verbal barrage when he batted either.

Though Kohli missed the decisive Dharamsala Test, the fractiousness simmered on, flaring up after the BCCI aired on-field exchanges between R Jadeja and Matthew Wade through a video clip on its website, in which umpire Ian Gould could be heard trying to intervene.

After the series, Smith apologised for his (at times) puerile behaviour. “I have let my emotions and actions just falter a little bit throughout this series and I apologise for that,” he said. But Kohli wouldn’t buy that, and stated in as many words that his relationship with certain Australian players were as good as over.

The episode seemed to be buried then and there, but Smith dug it up in his autobiography The Journey, in which he claimed that the DRS fiasco was Kohli’s conjecture. He also wrote that Kohli had mellowed down the next time they met, during the IPL. “He was friendly and it was as if any ill-feeling he may have had over the incident had disappeared,” he recollected. But expect more of the same, when India tours Australia later this year.

‘Only poor people play sir …’

fifa u17 world cup, indian football, north east football, manipur football,

By Sriram Veera

Suddenly, Mina started sobbing. Behind her stood her mother, jaws tightening, an eerie stoniness on the face as she let her daughter cry out. Mina, the sister of teenaged footballer Ninthoinganba Meitei, was talking about her father who had succumbed to cancer in July, and how her family is now dependent on her brother making it big in Indian football.

A small thatched hut, her father’s portrait hung on the wall, a cowherder whose cows were sold off in efforts to save him – a family’s life derailed and now hung on the boots of a teenager. Poverty exists across the country but in Manipur it’s situated in the context of historical strife. To dream about playing for country is a dare, but it still remains the best bet out of trouble. “Only the poor play sir” a brother of India U-17 captain Amarjeet had said. Even as Mina would wish for her brother to come home from the club in Chandigarh, her mother would say it’s best if the son remained away. Who would pay for nutritious food back home? She is out of the house hours before the sun peeps out, goes to the market, buys dried fish, tries to sell as much as she can.

By noon, she is waiting. For a phone call with an odd job, for some good news from a sponsor for her son – anything that would pull the family ahead. Ninthoingamba, who was close to his father, didn’t nearly make it for the funeral. The family wasn’t sure whether the news should be broken to him, even as he prepared for the world cup. Eventually, someone convinced the mother that he should know, and he sought permission from the coach to reach. It’s in this context the young footballer went to represent the country.

It’s just not the footballers but the cricket girls from Manipur too come to the mind. One in particular, Monika, stood out for her exuberance. She played cricket a decade back in a land of footballers and boxers, and turned even stories of hardship into delightful anecdotes.

Once, during a long train journey where the entire team of girls were in a packed general compartment of leering men, they decided to get off at a station midway and try catch another train. It was such a short stop that Monika and two others were trapped in the moving train. One by one, they jumped out and landed on the gravel tracks. “I was so injured that I couldn’t even play that game!” Or about the time when she played Jhulan Goswami without a helmet as she wasn’t used to wearing one, and the tall legendary Indian bowler muttered out, “yaar, helmet toh pehen lo, hamaari bowling itni be slow nahi hai!” Or the time in Bihar when they for the first time they had a big crowd turn up to watch them play. “The local cable channel even showed us live!” It’s this slice of real India where sport is more than just a game that would stay in the mind from this year.

The lost, the found and the reincarnated

By Bharat Sundaresan

“Are you trying to tell me that I just spoke to Franklyn Rose?” Davis asked quizzically, turning his head sideways and raising one eyebrow, the way Jamaicans do when they don’t completely trust what they’ve been told. The old cabbie, nearly 70 and a true cricket tragic, had just mentioned the names Franklyn Rose and Patrick Patterson as being the only Jamaican fast bowlers of menace post Michael Holding. It was part of his lament about how his island no longer produces genuine pacemen. And when I reiterated that it was indeed Rose, who had booked this cab for me and had even given directions to Davis over the phone, “Praise da lawd,” he shouted.

Little did he or I know then that a day later, we would come face-to-face with that other fast bowler he mentioned, and be the first people from the outside world to catch a glimpse of Patrick Patterson in 25 years. Davis was the one who dropped us to the bar by the Marina where I had my first interaction with the former fastest bowler in the world. But it was only a couple of days later when we met again that the Davis acknowledged having recognized his passenger and said, “And that was Patterson right? Please make sure you call me whenever you go looking for lost souls again.”

It was that kind of a year overall, discovering and unearthing those seemingly lost to the cricket world. Before Rose and Patterson, came Winston Benjamin and Omari Banks, one who’s gone from being the next Malcolm Marshall to earning an honest buck through fixing advertising boards at the stadium in Antigua and the other who’s gone from being youth cricketer of the year to a reggae sensation headlining acts around the world.

Henry Olonga was then tracked down during a personal visit to Adelaide, where he now resides as an Englishman. It happened only a month before the dictatorship of Robert Mugabe—the man the former Zimbabwean pacer protested against in 2003 to be subsequently exiled—was finally brought to an end. There was also a more home-grown and popular rediscovery, the enigmatic Vinod Kambli who has gone from not quite living up to being Indian cricket’s big hope to now embracing faith to get his life back on track.

Money for nothing, well almost

(Source: PTI)

By Mihir Vasavda

The picture of Jeremy Edwards, the Australian hockey team’s centre-half, was splashed on the back-page of a national daily along with his teammates — gold medal around their necks, holding aloft the World League trophy. But it didn’t interest Peter, Jeremy’s father. Instead, a small news item next to his son’s photograph intrigued him more. “Rs 10 lakh!” he gasped. “Not bad for a bronze.”

Edwards Sr did well to mask his surprise at the Indian players receiving a million rupees for winning one match the whole tournament, which, luckily for India, turned out to be a bronze medal playoff. Rather, he seemed to begrudge them. “Our guys get a monthly-stipend, just enough to meet your needs,” he said.

Indian players, across sport, often lament how poorly they are rewarded. But the series of world-class events India hosted this year put several things into perspective.

Rio Olympics silver medalist Felipe Wu, Brazil’s first shooting medallist since the 1920 Games, did not let the pessimism set in despite travelling to Delhi for the World Cup in March at his own expense after his government completely cutoff the sport’s funding to save costs. Indians, on the other hand, had their budget increased despite zero medals.

Samuel Fabin, Ghana coach at the U-17 World Cup, mocked India’s perennial lament for better infrastructure, saying his players grew up on dusty, uneven fields. At the World League, most hockey players said they have a day-job to support their ‘hobby’, unlike Indians who are the only professionals—getting paid to play —apart from the Dutch.

The money, most said, is invested at the entry level where an aspiring athlete actually needs support. It’s the other way round in India—struggle at the entry level while money is unevenly splurged at the top. Time to invert the pyramid? Perhaps.

Mayweather-McGregor 2? Fool us twice, shame on us

(Source: AP)

By Gaurav Bhatt

Floyd Mayweather Jr was never going to rush out the gate. The defensive mastermind had amassed a record of 49-0 over two decades with his slick shoulder rolls and slipped punches. The onus thus was on Conor McGregor — the other undefeated boxer in the ring (albeit at 0-0) — to stay true to his word and force the matter. The mixed martial arts phenomenon did just that, pushing Maywea-ther back onto the ropes with a few body blows which were absorbed.

Seemingly off-guard by his opponent’s low-slung right hand, awkward stance switches, and the chants of ‘Ole’ ringing around Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena, Maywe-ather threw a big straight. McGregor dodged, smiled and put his hands behind his back. The Irishman then put an exclamation mark with an uppercut that landed flush on the elusive American. For the many pundits, analysts and scholars out there, nobody got the opening minutes of Mayweather-McGregor contest right. The UFC star won his first round in professional boxing on all three judges’ scorecards, and the second and third on one card. A city built on the backs of dreamers and suckers began fantasising of a colossal upset and a massive payday.

However, with the luck of the Irish and the fuel in the tank running out, Mayweather quickly restored order. The undefeated five-division champion peppered an exhausted McGregor with left-right combinations and the fight was stopped in the tenth round.

It took thirty minutes of fisticuffs to wipe away years of supposed bad blood between the two fighters, as the racial and homophobic slurs were swiftly replaced by odes of love and respect. The two embraced and laughed, like partners who had just pulled off a memorable heist. The second-richest fight of all time sold 4.3mn pay-per-views in North America, making both Mayweather and McGregor richer by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Less than a month later, Gennady ‘GGG’ Golovkin and Saul Canelo Alvarez ran the same building, in a bout with an actual world title at stake. While acclaimed, the drawn bout wasn’t in the same ballpark as August’s ‘superfight’.

It in turn raises the multi-million dollar question: Was the Mayweather-McGregor bout a fight or a farce? Well, a bit of both, it was an ostentatious mix of ‘sporting’ and ‘event’ that perfectly represents sport’s current reality of manufactured stakes and limitless hype and cash.

There are murmurs of a rematch, in an MMA octagon no less. Before you scoff, remember how farfetched a boxing contest between a retired 40-year-old and a UFC rookie sounded? Fool us twice, shame on us, we say.

Satwik and Chirag didn’t win but Paris loved them

By Shivani Naik

It is not uncommon for fans badminton to follow the sport on a rudimentary Live score update called tournamentsoftware.com. It’s like watching shuttle in the pre-radio age, but it’s terribly useful and terrifically exciting to check the scores and imagine what might have happened in those far-off lands where Indians battle.

And so it was when Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Chirag Shetty took to the court at Stade de Coubertin for the French Super Series this late October autumn. Parents, assorted coaches and friends were TS-ing galore. Here’s what happened.

5 matches were on simultaneously, but one court managed to attract the collective gaze of the entire stadium. On that Thursday, Satwik-Chirag were hustling two tall Danes with big names and bigger reputations – Mads Conrad Petersen ( 6 ft-1) & Mads Pieler Kolding (6-ft-7). Satwik’s lightning smashes were travelling faster than the raucous sounding roars, when scores stood at 18-12 in the decider. Indian doubles – badminton’s Cinderella before god fairy fetched up – was on the brink of a stunning upset.

Earlier, while the big boomer Satwik had done his thing – power-hitting, Chirag had found his groove at the net, playing half smashes and keeping the shuttle low to deny that lingering Tower of Pisa, Kolding, any room to tap steep.

Cruising at 18-12, the Indians promptly panicked. Giving away simple points, they’d bring almighty pressure upon themselves as the raucous French crowd cheered on the tall Danes levelling at 18. Memories of Indonesia and Australia, where the duo had lost from 18-14 flooded back. It’s when Chirag walked upto his partner and told him: “Zyada se zyada, we’ll lose. Big deal. Why play with pressure? Just smile and hit.”

The French were really noisy by now. A long rally ensued. Chirag would rush to the net, take a massive chance and push it on Kolding’s body. The Danes are Top 10 and seriously intimidating. But Shetty was counting on nerves of 19-all to course through the favourites. Kolding obliged. Had he flicked, the Indians would’ve been exiting Paris. He played the doomed drive, it would whistle out.

20-19, repeat, at double the speed. Satwik-Chirag were the Parisian crowd’s newest favourites. 22-20, 12-21, 21-19. The next day they’d hustle another pair of Danes. World No 1s. They didn’t win, but Paris loves them.

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