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What a fantastic game it was yesterday ! Last year, when the Patriots won after trailing by 25 points in the second half, I didn’t think there could be a more exciting game. I was wrong and how! Last year’s game was one-sided for more than a half ; this year, there was tension throughout. The Patriots and the Eagles traded scores before New England nosed ahead only to see the Eagles grab the lead and strip -sack Brady to put the game almost out of reach. With just over a minute remaining, it would have taken a miracle ( a TD and a two point conversion) for the Pats to pull it out but Brady’s Hail Mary fell short.

In the past, I’ve gone along with those who think a defensive struggle ending in a tight 9-7 or 10-9 finish as the ideal game. I’ve changed my mind. Yesterday’s game showed that a high scoring game can be just as enjoyable, if not more so. If the game is close throughout, and if the lead changes hands once or more, a high scoring game is more exciting to me.

Yesterday, there were Super Bowl records set for most yards gained and most points scored. What is one to make of this? Some sports scribes label this a failure of the defenses.  I can’t agree. The Eagles pass rush was fierce throughout and, if they sacked Brady only once, I credit Brady for his coolness and poise under fire. Many times he only just escaped the pass rushers to throw strikes to his receivers. Foles too was equally impressive. Thus, I wouldn’t fault the defenses on either team; it’s just that the offenses were outstanding.

So was the play calling. After the first quarter, almost every time the Patriots had the ball they looked likely to score and often did. I’m not sure whether to give all the credit to Josh McDaniels, the offensive coordinator ( or reserve some for Belichick) but as, the game wore on, it seemed like the Pats were one step ahead of the Eagles defense. One has  come to expect that from Bill Belichick led teams but, yesterday, Doug Pedersen, the Eagles head coach, was just as brilliant. His play-calling was innovative and daring, never more so than on the two fourth down plays both of which the Eagles came through, once for a TD.

One topic that will be the subject of much discussion is Bill Belichick’s decision not to start Malcolm Butler, the cornerback who became a Super Bowl star when the intercepted Seattle QB Rick Wilson on the goal line and preserved a Patriots victory. Belichick is, of course, mum on his reasons for doing so. One school of thought is that Butler was benched in favor of Eric Rowan because the latter being taller would be more effective against the Eagles athletic receivers. Considering that Rowan was repeatedly torched by the Eagle wide-outs, it boggles the mind that Belichick did not relent and re-insert Butler.. if indeed the reason for the original decision was as surmised above. Belichick is always pragmatic and you’d think he would not let his stubbornness get in the way of what was best for the team. Another ( rumor?) is that Butler was benched for disciplinary reasons. What the truth is we may never know. In any case, Butler will soon be an unrestricted free agent and has probably played his last game for the Patriots.

I had been rooting for the Eagles to win, though I had no real hope that they would do so. Even though I consider Brady as perhaps the best QB ever and Bill Belichick unquestionably the greatest coach and judge of talent in the NFL, I was tired of seeing the Patriots win. Furthermore Brady,  though he says and does all the right things, strikes me as being arrogant. Thus I was very happy when the Eagles pulled off an upset yesterday even though I’m not an Eagles fan. Nick Foles has had an up-and-down career and I was glad for him and for the Eagles as they won their first Super Bowl rings ever.

For a variety of reasons, chief among them the fact that my team (the N. Y. Giants) was dismal this season, I’d not really followed the NFL this season. Yesterday’s game was only the second I’d seen all season long, the first being the Patriots- Jacksonville thriller two weeks ago. Hearing about the Eagles roster, how they are loaded with talent and will be a force for years to come, makes me apprehensive for the Giants future. With an aging QB in Eli Manning and with gaping holes at a number of positions, the Giants are in for a long re-building phase. Since I’m not a fair weather fan, I won’t abandon the Giants but it looks like rough seas ahead. But all that is in the future. For now, congratulations to the Philadelphia Eagles for a game well played and a tremendous victory.

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I didn’t watch Roger Federer win the Australian Open yesterday; the match occurred in the middle of the night,  East coast time, and by that time I was fast asleep. Apparently, there was a delayed telecast, but I heard about it too late and missed that too. No matter. I hope to watch the full match on YouTube. I have already watched the highlights and the Fed seems as awesome as ever. Marin Cilic tried hard and uncorked some gorgeous shots of his own but Roger merely shifted to a higher gear and pulled away in the fifth set.

By this time, everything that can be said about Roger’s matchless style has already been said and I am not going to repeat it here. Rather I want to talk focus the pleasure he gives us tennis fans every time he steps on court. It is not just the beauty of his game but the way he conducts himself: the sportsmanship, the modesty, the lowkey demeanor that makes us all his acolytes. What a treat to see an all-time great like Rod Laver in the stands applauding and later taking a selfie with the Fed. How wonderful to hear what other greats like John Newcombe, Mats Wilander, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova and Lindsay Davenport had to say about the Fed. And to see the overwhelming support that Roger enjoys from the fans in the stands no matter where he plays. Pity Marin Cilic and all the other opponents that Roger faces: every game must seem like an ” away” game.

I think it was ESPN which came up with an amazing statistic: The 2018 Australian Open marks the 200th Grand Slam of the Open era which began in 1968 and, by winning his 20th Grand Slam, Roger has won fully 10% of all Grand Slam finals played. As amazing as this is, it doesn’t go far enough. Why include the Grand Slam tournaments that Federer never competed in ? If you consider that he has competed in 70 Grand Slam tournaments over the course of his career, his winning percentage  is 28.6% ( 20/70). If you consider that he has entered 30 Grand Slam finals, that percentage works out to a phenomenal 42.8% ( 30/70). The percentage of semi-final appearances is close to 50% !

No one else is in the same league.

Generally, when a player or a team is so dominant, fans tend to root for their opponents , the underdogs. So it is that football fans ( outside of New England) are overwhelmingly rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles to pull off an upset in next week’s Super Bowl even as they know it is highly unlikely. Not so with Federer. Now that he has won his 20th, we Federer fans have begun to dare to dream of # 21 at Wimbledon in May. Part of this is because of the Federer- Nadal rivalry and  the worry  that Nadal may yet catch up with the Fed in terms of Grand Slam wins.( Admittedly, this is a very faint possibility with Federer four ahead of Rafa. However, one can never be sure. Nadal is five years younger and, with the injuries to Murray and Djokovic, there is no one other than the Fed in Nadal’s way if he is able to overcome his injuries). A bigger reason is the sheer pleasure of watching Federer play. He is now 36 and, sooner or later, age will catch up with him. This is at the back of our minds every time we see him on court; we want to see him play as long as we can.

P.S. One final story about Roger Federer that I simply have to share with you. Roger Federer’s first coach , Peter Carter ,was an Australian who died in a car crash in South Africa way back in 2002. Roger has never forgotten the man whom he credits with having molded him into a tennis player and whom he calls the ” most influential coach” he has ever had. He has kept in touch with Peter Carter’s parents, Bob and Diana, and every year he has hosted them at the Australian Open, paying for their airfare, hotel, limo service etc. This year too they were in the players box cheering Roger on to his 20th Grand Slam.

It is such actions that make Roger Federer the most beloved athlete in the world and it is why everyone roots for him.

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Even though India lost the Test series to South Africa 2-1, and even though their lone victory came after the series was already decided, the Indian team’s performance was commendable and the result as good we could have expected. Even in the first two tests, India were always in the game and had their catching been better and had they fielded the right team, they could have won at least one of the first two matches and taken the series 2-1. This is not to offer excuses or indulge in ” coulda, shoulda, woulda.” South Africa won the series all right but for Indian fans there is much to be happy about. Topmost among them is the lion hearted performance of our bowlers. In all three tests, India were able to bowl out South Africa in both innings, a feat rarely achieved by past touring sides from India. Before the tour started, I’d been very curious about how our pacemen would fare on  the fast sporting South African tracks. They did just fine. True, they did not always bowl the right lengths and were sometimes wayward in their deliveries but overall they acquitted themselves very well. When they were all bowling well, they mounted sustained pressure on the Proteas batsmen.  Bhuvaneshwar was magnificent, Ishant slightly less so. Shami and Bumrah were not always consistent in their lines and lengths but they had their moments. Overall, a very good performance by the unit.

The other thing that is praiseworthy is the fighting spirit displayed by the entire team, particularly the batsmen who stood up to a fiery pace attack in the second innings at Wanderers. On a pitch with unpredictable bounce with balls rearing up sharply, the entire team showed grit as they compiled a match-winning total of 247. This sort of stout hearted resistance has not often been seen in past Indian teams. Full credit to the batsmen and to Kohli for fostering this never-say-die attitude. Kohli also deserves accolades for his batting in the series, never more than in the second test when he gave a batting masterclass in the course of his superb innings of 153.

On the other hand, Kohli also deserves censure for the team selection. No matter what he says, I’m sure his was the decisive voice in selecting the playing XI. He has tried to justify his moves in selecting Shikhar Dhawan and Rohit Sharma over K.L.Rahul and Ajinkya Rahane but his reasoning doesn’t hold water. The first two have well deserved reputations for being vulnerable on seaming tracks. Meanwhile,  Rahane was not only India’s best batsman in matches abroad but India’s best slip fielder. To have persisted with this folly in the second test while also leaving out Bhuvaneshwar Kumar, India’s most successful bowler in the first test, was indefensible. I cannot help thinking that Rahane was omitted because Kohli sees him as a possible rival for the captaincy.

One wonders what would have happened if Anil Kumble were still the coach rather than Ravi Shastri who doesn’t seem to do much. Shastri  seems to go along with everything that Kohli wants and he also does not provide anything in the way of strategy or coaching. If Kumble had been in his place, one feels things would have been quite different. There would not have been these selection blunders and Team India would not have been so sloppy in the field. Kumble is just as committed to winning as Kohli is even though his style is different. When Kumble was let go, we were told that unnamed team members thought he was too much of a taskmaster. Well, perhaps a task master is just what was needed for this young team. Perhaps then we would not have seen spectacles like Pandya being run because he failed to ground his bat, Pujara being run out twice in the second test and Pandya and Shami colliding as they fluffed a chance for a simple catch. Kumble’s experience would also have been invaluable to the bowlers. And finally, Kumble would have reined in Kohli’s aggressiveness and his unnecessary abrasiveness. As it is, Kohli is not making any friends for India with his behavior and is a terrible role model for the team.

Still, this has been a good start to the tour and cricket fans will be waiting with bated breath to see what happens in the ODIs and T20Is. Having run South Africa close in the Test series will have immeasurably increased the team’s confidence.

Go India.

 

 

 

 

 

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Two weeks ago, there were three Test series simultaneously in progress: New Zealand- West Indies, India – Sri Lanka and the Ashes Tests between Australia and England. Three of us – all of Indian origin- were following the cricket on TV and all of us plumped for the Ashes over the other two series. Granted this was the most competitive of the three  series but, had it not been so, we would still have preferred to watch it. Why? What is it that makes the Ashes so compelling even when the teams are not evenly matched ?

Part of the charm can be traced to tradition and the regularity of these contests. England and Australia have been competing in these series for more than a hundred years and the prize for which they vie ( the ashes of bails used in a long ago contest) adds to the mystique. Even though, South Africa, India , Pakistan and New Zealand often have strong sides and play good cricket they do not play each other with any regularity; traditions and rivalries have not developed to the same extent. But there is more to it and, in my opinion, these are the reasons:

The pitches and the conditions make for a more even contest between bat and ball. In Australia,  pitches are hard and fast, a paceman’s delight. Speedsters are able to menace batsmen with sheer pace and high bounce. In England, the heavy atmosphere enables the quicker bowlers to move the ball in the air and confound batters. Spinners play a supporting role to fast bowlers but, when they are really good ( Warne/ Laker), are equally a threat to opposing batsmen. And yet,  when batsmen are up to the challenge, it is a delight to watch them master opposing attacks before cutting loose.  In contrast, pitches on the subcontinent are usually batsman-friendly featherbeds on which bowlers ( particularly pacemen) toil without reward. Whether by accident or by nature, the pitches tend to break up in the latter stages of a match so that winning the toss plays a larger part in determining who wins the match. Sometimes , as happened at Nagpur and Pune the past year, the pitches are prepared to be unplayable  minefields where the best batsmen in the world struggle against even ordinary bowlers. In either case, it is an unfair contest and not as interesting to watch –  unless you are one of those ” fans” who wants your team to win at all costs.

Because of the nature of the pitches in Ashes tests, the result is often in doubt until late in the match. In the test now being played in Perth, at the end of the first day’s play, England were in a great position at 305 for 4.The morning of the second day , Malan and Bairstow carried on where they had left off overnight and took the England total to 368 for 4. A huge total, 500 even 600, seemed likely. Then the unthinkable happened and the last 6 wickets fell for only 35 runs. England were all out for 403, a good total but not formidable. It looked even less daunting at the end of the day’s play with Australia at 203 for 4, and Steve Smith still unbeaten on 92. Suddenly, the Test which had appeared to be in England’s favor was dead even ( perhaps even slightly in Australia’s favor). Considering that Australia have to bat last, it is not possible to say with certainty what will happen next. Either side could win or it could end in a draw. Whatever the outcome, cricket fans will be captivated until the end. In comparison, particularly in matches in the subcontinent, the result is often a foregone conclusion by the second day’s play and, once one side has established an advantage, the result is never in doubt. Most often it is a victory for the side batting first; otherwise, it ends in a tame draw.

In Ashes tests, because the pitches do not deteriorate as fast, it is possible for underdogs to battle for a draw. That too makes for a compelling spectacle. Such tussles which feature dogged resistance and fightbacks against hostile bowling are full of tension. Runs may be slow in coming but that is immaterial. Defending one’s wicket is the order of the day and spectators watch every ball with bated breath. Such draws are different from those mentioned in the earlier paragraph where there was never a chance of a decision.

Finally, the Ashes usually feature good fast bowlers on both sides and, for me, it is a most exciting spectacle. It is thrilling to watch a genuine speed merchant gallop to his mark and hurl a thunderbolt to the crouching batsman. The latter has only a split second to decide whether to play the ball, duck or sway out of its path or leave it to thud into the gloves of the wicketkeeper. Every delivery is an adventure. Spectators feel a frisson of excitement because of the element of danger; a slight misjudgment on the part of the batsman could result in a catch or an lbw shout or , God forbid, injury. Helmets and pads provide some protection but a 145 kph delivery thudding into the ribs can cause severe damage.

And those are the reasons why I like to watch the Ashes.

P.S Some of the reasons I mention are, of course, generalizations. They are not always true. South Africa often has a good pace attack, Indian groundsmen sometimes prepare sporting pitches and Ashes contests sometimes result in 5-0 whitewashes. On the whole, however, my reasons hold good. At least I think so.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Some years ago, when we were in Siena, Italy our guide told us about pro basketball as it is played in Italy. He described a match between Bologna and Siena played on the latter’s home court before 6,000 frenzied fans. Before spectators could enter the arena, they were searched for concealed weapons. Just before the game started, five busloads of Bolognese fans were escorted into the stadium by policemen in riot gear. They took their places in the visitors section – a virtual cage surrounded by metal bars. This was for their own protection as soon  became apparent. When the home team took the court, the visiting fans played drums and trumpets , then turned around as one, dropped their trousers and mooned the home fans. This resulted in an outpouring of rage as Sienese fans stormed the cage , throwing missiles, cursing and spitting through the bars of the cage. This set the tone for the rest of the proceedings which featured rude chants, constant drumming, taunting and frequent stoppages of play due to court invasions. When the visiting team won the game on a last second three pointer, there was a full scale riot during which the police were overwhelmed and dozens of fans wound up in hospital. I wish I could give you more details of the game but will not do so because I cannot do so without bursting into gales of laughter. It really was too funny though not to the participants. For them , these basketball games are deadly serious: a re-enactment of past struggles when city states were bitter enemies that fought constant wars over territory.

In comparison, American sports fans are well mannered and civilized. But, only in comparison. There are certain rivalries in American sports which generate the worst in people. One of them is that between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, two baseball teams many of whose fans hate each other with a passion. In the Bronx, there are certain bars which are for Yankee fans, others which cater to Red Sox fans. Woe betide the unwary fan who strays into the wrong bar. I remember reading about a fan wearing a Red Sox  journey who was walking home from a game at Yankee Stadium. As the fan passed a ” Yankee” bar, another fan came out and challenged the former to a fistfight. What blew my mind was that both fans- the Red Sox fan and the Yankee fan- were women ! Yes, women fans can be passionate too.

Too my mind, football and ice hockey attract the most aggressive fans because of the nature of the games and because more drinking goes on during these contests. My acquaintance Steve told me about a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Detroit Lions that he attended in Philadelphia. He was not a particular fan of either team but when a Lions receiver made a spectacular catch he applauded . At the time the Eagles were leading 38-9 and the game was not in doubt. However, an Eagles fan took umbrage and started directing obscene comments and threats at Steve. Steve took it quietly for some time but it finally got to be too much. He was there with his young son and did not want to give him the impression that he was a wimp. When the Eagles fan went too far, Steve got up and challenged him to a fight. Luckily, cooler heads prevailed and the other guy backed down. This is not to criticize Eagles fans; Giants fans, Jets fans are just as bad.

There was a time when visiting fans clad in their team’s colors could sit anywhere in the stadium, in the midst of home fans. They would have no fears for their safety. Both sets of fans would watch the game without fear of violence. This is still mostly the case but increasingly I read of altercations between fans of opposing teams. This is a pity because I fear such people are missing out on the real beauty of the contest they are watching. They may call themselves sports fans but what they really are fans of a particular team, not of sport.

My friend Arnie used to support all the New York teams at a time when none of them was doing well. Towards the end of the basketball season, as soon as the Knicks were mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, he would say ” OK. Game over. Time for hockey.” He would stop following basketball and switch to reading about hockey.A month later, the scenario would be repeated . ” Time for baseball”. And so on. It’s OK to root for a team but when you identify so closely with its successes and failures, you open yourself to disappointment.

 

 

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Compared to other sports, the game of tennis gives rise to fewer jokes. Many of them play off the tennis term ” Love”. For example, ” Never fall for a tennis pro. He thinks love is nothing.”  Or about tennis racquets. ” Why is tennis such a noisy game?.  Because each player reaches a racquet( racket).” There is a good joke about Little Johnny and the two black tennis balls but it is politically incorrect and I won’t repeat it here. You can look it up yourself.

After the Wimbledon final two Sundays ago, a friend from Malaysia sent me this joke which I think deserves a wider audience.

(As you will recall), Marin Cilic had all kinds of problems with Federer’s pinpoint serving in the Wimbledon final. The following day, he went to the library and asked to borrow a book that would teach him to better handle Federer’s serve.

The librarian flatly refused Cilic’s request for the book .

” You won’t return it either”, she said.

 

 

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I watched the  Wimbledon Mens Singles Final this morning, on ESPN, and it was both a delight and a relief. It was a delight because, as a Federer fan, I’d been waiting for Roger to clinch his 19th Grand Slam ever since the Australian Open in January. It was a relief to a Federer fan who knows all too well that anything can happen in a sport where 35 ( almost 36) years of age means that one is a geriatric.

From a tennis fan’s point of view, the tennis on display this morning was disappointing because the match was so one- sided. Marin Cilic had looked in great form in the earlier rounds including in his four set semifinal win over big serving Sam Querry, and his subpar display this morning was mystifying. Apparently, he suffered an injury to his foot … but when ? The tumble he took early in the match did not appear to be that serious, nor did it seem to result in any lasting injury. I thought I heard one of the McEnroes mention that it had happened in the semifinal but I could be mistaken. More likely, it was nerves that got the better of Cilic, who is a high strung type. In any case, he was outclassed and was never in the match.

Even though the quality of play was not outstanding, there was still a lot to enjoy, as there is in any match in which Federer is involved. First and foremost, there is his style which makes everything look so smooth and effortless. The flowing groundstrokes, the serve effective because of its pinpoint placement rather than sheer pace, the way in which he glides , seemingly unhurried, all over the court and the unparalleled beauty of that one- handed backhand. What I appreciate, too, is his approach to the game, the manner in which he goes for his shots rather than play safe and wait for his opponent to make mistakes. Finally, there is the obvious enjoyment he derives from tennis and his on-court demeanor. He is intense but always in control of his emotions; he is not one to yell, or curse, or abuse his racket. Those are the things that set him apart from everyone else. That is why he is such a fan favorite all over the world and why  the crowd is in his corner even when he is playing the home-town favorite. It was wonderful to see the reaction of the Wimbledon crowd this morning when he won.

With this victory, Roger Federer leaps into second place in the standings behind his arch rival, Rafael Nadal. Even so, even if he wins the U.S Open in September, I doubt that he will be # 1 at year’s end since he plays so few tournaments these days. At this stage of his career, the Number 1 ranking is no big deal. Far more important is to conserve his energy and prolong his career and, hopefully, win another Grand Slam or two and stay ahead of Nadal. With his two Grand Slams this year, Roger has increased his lead over Rafa, from three to four. I think he is safely out of reach but one more GS at Flushing Meadows would put the issue beyond doubt. Go Roger!

P.S There are some armchair ” experts” who will sneer at Roger’s win because he didn’t have to meet and defeat any of the Big Three ( Novak, Andy Murray and Rafa). It is a silly argument because all of them entered in the tournament and their early exits were not any fault of Roger’s.

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