Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Magic of Murali

"Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige". - This is how Michael Caine's character Cutter describes a magic trick in Christopher Nolan's brilliant film 'The Prestige'.
Muttiah Muralitharan has been giving a fairly good demonstration of what is said above over the past two decades. Murali's PLEDGE is the cricket ball in his hand, same for every other bowler on the planet. And then he begins his mesmerising bowling action, eyes bulging in concentration and focus.... His TURN is literally that... A lot of turn.... No one has turned a cricket ball more than him. And he has mixed his turn, with flight, pace, direction and a lot of smiles. And then comes his PRESTIGE - the crowning moment - when he gets his man - a wicket !
My favourite Murali, and for that matter Sri Lanka, performance is his 16 wicket haul against England at the Oval in 1998. In a match where Sanath Jayasuriya hit a sensational 213 and Aravinda De Silva a magnificient 152, it was ultimately Murali's magic which brought the Lankans that brilliant win. You can enjoy some of his wickets here .
And like, Alfred Borden, the question Murali has been asking the batsmen over the years has been a simple one: "Are you watching closely?" As it turns out today on his retirement from test cricket, 800 times, they were not.
[PS: This blog has been inspired by the brilliance of Murali, Christopher Nolan and this blog by Gradwolf where he reviews INCEPTION. A must read if you have seen the movie]

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Tic Tac Toe Finals

In its current format, it takes 62 matches in the World Cup to determine the two finalists. The 63rd match is largely pointless, the winner gets the consolation for finishing 3rd and then we have the Final. The most important match in world football for four years.
The 2010 World Cup, hosted quite beautifully by South Africa (if I have a concern, its been the sluggish nature of pitches which have not lent well to quick passing along the ground), has now reached the final stages. Tonight Germay and Uruguay will play in the 3rd-4th place play-off match, but really everyone is waiting for tomorrow when The Netherlands and Spain will face-off in what is an unlikely final match. Unlikely because, inspite of having produced some of the finest footballers in the world; inspite of having clubs that have often been kings of Europe (Ajax, Real Madrid and Barcelona), these two countries have continued to under-perform at the world stage for a long time. Things have changed this time for the better, and I am particularly happy to see both these teams in the final. So here's my take on both the finalists
IN DEFENSE OF THE DUTCH: Ask anyone (who pretends to know football) about Dutch football, and chances are they will start talking about Total Football and Johann Cruyff. The term has stuck around the Dutch team for far too long and for no reason. The two final appearances in 1974 and 1978 remain the high points of their history along with the magnificient team of 1988 starring Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkard that lifted the 1988 Euros. And despite having some of the world's best footballers through the nineties and noughties ( Bergkamp, Overmars, the De Boer brothers, Stam, Kluivert, Van Nistelroy, Seedorf, Davids to just name a few) and coming close several times (W Cup 1998 Semi finals, Euro 2000 Semi finals), the Dutch are reaching a major final for the first time since 1988. The thing to note this time is that this team is very different from the Dutch teams of the past and comparisons have almost inevitably led to criticism.
This Dutch team doesn't play Total Football (circa 1970's). This much we know. Has any other team played like that ever ? Not that I am aware of. So the point is: Not playing Total Football cannot be a reasonable ground for criticism. What has however, also been missing is the usual free flowing, attacking football and flair, that one has come to associate with the Oranjes.... But a closer look at the team and the current talent pool will tell us why.
In goal - Stekelenburg and the back four in front of him - Van Der Wiel, Heitinga, Mathijsen and GIOvanni van Brockhorst are competent players. None of them are what one might call world class. Apart from a couple of dodgy goals let in by the keeper from shots outside the box, they have been solid, without being spectacular. Well, other than, GIO's screamer of a goal in the semis against Uruguay that is :).
Next we have the defensive mid-field partnership of Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. At their best, they are two tigers on the prowl in the centre of the park, who have been extremely effective in stopping the opposition attack; at their worst, they might be accussed of two thugs in disguise. In fact, some of Van Bommel's challenges have been horrendous to say the least, and yet he has got away with just a couple of yellow cards. The joke going round on twitter is that Harry Potter wants his invisibility cloak back from him, so blind have the referees been to his indiscretions so far.
Up front, they play with Sneijder as the playmaker, Kuyt on the left wing, Robben on the right and Van Persie up top. Four very different players, who have at times not combined very well at all. Dirk Kuyt provides work-rate, defensive cover for Gio, and intelligent runs and passes, and has had a very good tournament. Robben, who started the tournament late, recovering from an injury, has been playing the way he does best, making runs on the wing, cutting in at times and shooting. He has drawn a lot of fouls too, and has sucked the opposition into kicking him as Brazil did. He dives, sometimes, to win freekicks, generally makes most of whatever contact he gets, and then produces the occassional moment of magic or brilliance which can turn a game. Van Persie, coming into the world cup from an injury plagued season at Arsenal has remained largely subdued, and yet with the talents at his disposal keeps the opposition sufficiently occupied. His off the ball runs and some deft touches around the box are all that we have seen and yet he has been at the centre of confusion in the opposition penalty box when the Dutch have scored. And the person who has been doing most of the damage has been Wesley Sneijder, the man, who I believe has been influencing more big games in the last 3-4 months in world football than anyone else. Sneijder plays the game with intelligence. Often he drifts in and out of games. His genius is in picking moments to make a sublime defence splitting pass (as he showed for Inter against Chelsea or Bayern) or a shot/ cross as he has done throughout the world cup with his 5 goals. Off the bench, Van der Vaart remains their most likely creative force capable of changing a match and he has played well at times during the tournament. The Dutch as a team in this tournament have been a reflection of how Sneijder has been playing. Largely functional, effective and efficient for the duration of the game, yet having moments of brilliance and inspiration, doing just enough to get the job done for a match and then move on. What they have done well so far is not to have an implosion wherein they lose their bearings during a crucial period of a match, or get too gung ho while attacking, leaving their defense exposed.  They appear to have a resilience about them, as witnessed in the comeback against Brazil, in a tournament when not many teams have over-turned deficits to win. They have managed to get goals from unlikely sources too - headers from Sneijder and Robben, (two not too big, bald men), proving to be winners in the quarter finals and finals. Their success has come at the cost of beauty and flair, but right now Coach Van Marwick and his men would be happy to follow their sponsor Nike's tagline and JUST DO IT!!
(Note: In case you are interested in knowing about Total Football, how the current Dutch team are nothing like it, read this interesting piece from Brian Phillips . It's just that I don't agree with his conclusion) 
PASSING the parcel with Spain and other fun and games: Spanish football, so often at the top of the European club scene with Real Madrid and Barcelona had been the biggest under-achievers in world football till 2008, when they won the Euro, with largely the same team. In fact it is remarkable to note that this is the first time they have ever reached the world cup semi-finals, let alone the finals. A country that has always produced talented footballers over the years, often believed to have failed due to dissensions and in team politics, Real vs Barca fights and so on. However, something did change in 2008 when playing a short passing and movement game based on the style that has evolved over the years in Barca, popularly known as Tiki-taka, the Spanish conquered all comers and won the tournament in some style. However, as Sid Lowe (this link provides a brilliant analysis) has pointed out tiki - taka is as much a defensive tactic meant to suffocate the opposition of possession, as it is an attacking ploy. While the aesthetic pleasure derived depends from person to person, its a matter of taste after all; the effectiveness cannot be questioned, having gone through six consecutive knock-out matches now (Q/F, S/F and Final in Euro '08 and Round of 16, Q/F and S/F in W Cup 10) without conceding a goal. Watching Spain pass the ball around with care and style, with a quickness of foot and mind, is a bit like seeing a jealous boy-friend taking around his girl-friend around a park, always possessive and protective from others.
A look at their team now and as we go along we will see how significant the influence has been of the style and the personnel of one club - Barcelona. Iker Cassilas, goal-keeper and captain, world class keeper for a long time, has been largely under-used throughout the cup; his highlight coming in the penalty save against Cardozo. The back 4 is largely settled with Ramos at right back and Capdevilla at left back; Ramos rampaging on the right, more often than his counterpart. Pique and Puyol provide an all Barca centre of defense and have been very good, Puyol having the added honour of scoring the winner in the semis against Germany. Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets are the defensive shield in front of the back 4, yet very different players. While Busquets who has come through the ranks at Barca is an interceptor of the ball, who makes very quick and efficient use of it, quickly moving it forward, Alonso has the added advantage of having possibly the most comprehensive passing range in the game. His ability to hit long passes almost makes him "quarter-back" like on a football field and provides a wonderful variation to the generally short passing style employed by the team. Just in front of them is Xavi, the conductor of the orchestra, the man who symbolises Tiki-taka in all its glory. Arguably the greatest midfielder Spain has ever produced (Pep Guardiola his Barca coach is a tough contendor though), Xavi plays the game with such simplicity and grace, that it can leave the spectators and often, the opposition, simply admiring his beauty. Andres Iniesta, the puppet master can make runs, dribble, pass and shoot from all possible ways and is mesmerising at times. David Villa up front has provided the much needed fire-power, the elusive end product,  scoring 5 goals, and basically establishing himself as the world's best striker. He often starts on the left wing, cutting inside, he can shoot from distance or can score from a scrappy situation. That makes 10 almost certain starters. The 11th player has been different from time to time and coach Del Bosque has some incredible options to chose from. He could go for an out of form Torres, who on his day, is a spectacular striker with pace, power and precision; Pedro - Barca's pacy little winger who can run rings around the opposition; Cesc Fabregas - Talismanic captain of my club - who can provide penetration and finishing from midfield. Or he could go for David Silva or Jesus Navas - exceptional wingers or a target man in Llorente - the options are simply mouth watering. And any of these can come in later in the game to make the difference depending on the game situation.
THE MATCH: There will be several intriguing match-ups especially in mid-field which might go on to decide the match. Unless something extra-ordinary happens, Spain will have a majority of the possession.The Dutch will not be too bothered about it. Iniesta and Villa will make the runs and test the Dutch defense thoroughly. How Van Bommell and De Jong deal with Xavi and Iniesta will be interesting, how Howard Webb will deal with Van Bommell will be even more so.... A quick yellow card and Van Bommell might just become more careful, subdued and less of a problem. The Dutch will try to find Robben on the flanks, his matchup against Capdevilla is one of the few they will fancy to win. And then there will Sneijder, lurking, stalking, waiting for his moment to strike and change the course of the game.
I suspect it will be a very close game. I am going for a very tight Spanish victory (2-1), although I would be more than thrilled if The Netherlands become world champions. (Why is that - I am a massive Denis Bergkamp fan :D)
PS: This match is all about Johann Cruyff. If The Netherlands win, his country would have become the world champions. Or if as he predicts here, Spain win, it would be the successful culmination of the short-passing game that he developed at Barcelona. In other words, his style would win. Take your pick :)

Happiness is LSD !!!

Switching through channels about 20 minutes ago, I stumbled upon this wonderful show called Business Sutra on CNBC TV 18 (which I watch occassionally), where the remarkable Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik links our mythology and customs to business fundas in a wonderful way (The hyperlink also has links to the episodes of Business Sutra  in case you are interested). And the line that caught my attention was - Happiness = LSD !!! And here, LSD is not Love, Sex aur Dhokha ( which by the way is the best Hindi movie of the year so far :D). Instead, LSD stands for Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga - 3 of the most important Goddesses in Hinduism.
He then goes on to telling that Lakshmi represents material wealth/ happiness, Saraswati represents intellect, knowledge etc and Durga represents our emotional wealth/ state of mind. And how, Lakshmi is fully measurable, Saraswati - partially measurable and Durga is not measurable at all....
The bottom line being that Happiness is a combination of things, only parts of which are measurable; some factors will forever remain immeasurable at all times.
Fascinating stuff and a line of thought which had never occurred to me. So just wanted to share with this my friends.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Semi Finals Predictions

I have been doing fairly rubbish in these world cup predictions so far. And still I make another  attempt here to show off my football punditry.
Netherlands - Uruguay:  Looks likely to be a battle of attrition, considering how Uruguay approach the game generally and how the Dutch have been playing in this tournament so far. However, with Uruguay having just one match winner in Forlan, as opposed to several for the Netherlands, I will go for a Dutch win in normal time. 2-1 to the Dutch, with Dirk Kuyt scoring the winner. (Yes, you can laugh at it if you want)
Spain - Germany: Promises to the best game of the tournament so far. This youthful German team has pleasantly surprised everybody with their attacking prowess in the tournament. The Spanish, much fancied on the other hand, have underwhelmed to a certain extent, relying heavily on David Villa to take them to the semis so far. And yet, it has to be considered, that it is Spain's best ever World Cup performance (at least since 1950 where the format was different). Coming into the tournament, a Spain - Germany semi-final would have had Spain as the firm favourites, but I am going for a German win 2-1 in extra time, simply considering the momentum they have behind them.
So a Netherlands - Germany final is what I predict. What about you ?
PS: I definitely want to see the Dutch play in the final, I have been supporting them throughout. I am an admirer of this Spanish side since 2008 and would normally back them, but have developed a soft corner for this German team during the tournament, so planning to be strictly neutral in the second semi-final

Friday, July 2, 2010

Quarter Finals Predictions

After a largely exciting Round of 16, which produced some terrific football at times, here we go into the quarter finals. So here's another attempt to play the now famous Oracle Octopus myself.

Netherlands - Brazil - Brazil to win 2-1 although it could even go to penalties...... Rooting for the Dutch though :)
Uruguay - Ghana - Uruguay to go through comfortably - 3-1. Once again rooting for the underdog here - Come on Ghana !!!!
Argentina - Germany - Tough Match !!!! Going with Argentina 3-2 - Messi to have a blinder :) . But has to be a cracker of a game. No favourites here. Just hope the better team wins.
Paraguay - Spain - Easy choice. Spain win 2-0, as long as they don't get complacent. Torres to open his account.

And so my predicted semi-final line up looks like - Brazil v Uruguay & Argentina v Spain.  What's yours ?

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