Posted by & filed under cricket, Indian abroad.

The elusive search for a cricketer-turned-commentator who doesn’t spout clichés and actually talks in an entertaining and informative manner is over. Two days are no sample size to make a decision on but the search for that good ex-cricketer turned commentator has gone on for so long and has been so wrong in the past that a risky pick based on initial excitement seems warranted.

haydencsk3

Matthew Hayden, that stoic and burly Queenslander who epitomized the ugly Australian over a decade is cricket’s next great commentator…by a country mile.

I listened to Hayden for the first time on the pre-match show on the first day of the Hyderabad test. He immediately caught my attention when he was shockingly cliche-free. Years of watching cricket on TV have made me cynical and so used to the clichés that are spouted that listening to Hayden was like listening to someone speak about cricket in a different language. But it sounded and felt good. It was as though someone had skipped the mandatory indoctrination/commentary manual provided to anyone who decides to talk about cricket for a living.

hayden2

I then listened to Hayden thru various stints on the first two days of the test. He was refreshingly different from anyone else I have heard in a long time in just how self-effacing he was. He humanized himself and talked in great detail about his strengths, weaknesses and memories in a manner few people can. He talked about meeting Venkataraaghavan in Chennai in 1995. He talked about learning to play the sweep shot against spinners. He talked about the time MS Dhoni visited his house for a meal. He described Dhoni the person and how he decompressed away from the game. He talked about playing Ashwin in the nets as a member of the Chennai Super Kings and how it was different from playing other offspinners.

He talked about Biryani and the beaches near Chennai. He talked about bat lengths and reverse swing. He joked about his skills in the most self-effacing way possible and at no point tried to act better-than-thou to the Aussies on the field who were struggling on a day 1 pitch.
He is also a tremendous follow on Twitter as these tweets below should indicate.

Most TV commentators forget that most of their audience is not blind and can see the pictures and numbers on the screen as well as they can. Good commentary is about capturing the experience at the venue for those watching in their homes. It is about finding analogies and describing personal memories that add flavor while being relevant to the play on the field. It is about doing all this without intruding on the actual action on the field and while also allowing other commentators to get their words in.

hayden1

Matthew Hayden did all of this and more. He was such a revelation that I am already bummed he is not expected to be part of the series beyond this test match. When he batted, no one was more annoying to watch (as an Indian fan). I am shocked about this as much as anyone else but Matthew Hayden is already my favorite commentator. He is fresh, he is interesting and entertaining. The search for the good commentator is harder than that for a batsman or an administrator. Here’s hoping the powers-in-charge agree and give Matthew Hayden plenty of chances soon.

Posted by & filed under cricket.

Every time the calendar moves to the 1’st March, I need little spiritual me-time. No single date on the calendar has affected the sports fan in me, as much. 11-year-old me watched a cricket match on a 1’st of March only to have faith and passion ripped out in the most brutal fashion imaginable. 22-year-old me watched a cricket match on a 1’st of March only to have faith and passion rewarded in the most glorious way possible. Here below is a recollection of two glorious games of cricket which share not much more than a date……

March 1’st 1992 –

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tpWNKurlUt0?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

The Indian team had been in Australia for nearly four months. They had defeated the Aussies only once in eleven tries. However both teams came into this game winless. It was a crucial game because the round-robin format meant every remaining game became quite the must-win if this one ended in a loss. Australia won the toss and chose to bat. India put up a decent display with the ball and on the field highlighted by a catch for the ages by a youngster named Jadeja and a ball for the ages by a young genuine quick named Srinath. Dean Jones played a lone hand and ran hard. Australia finished with 237/9 in 50 overs, a total that seemed just about par for course.

dean jones

India batted nine-deep and were familiar with the conditions and the Aussie attack. Moreover, injury to Ian Healy meant David Boon would be keeping wickets for Australia. David Boon was a lot of things, but a good keeper he was not. Krishnamachari Srikanth’s tournament of misery continued as he was out for a duck but skipper Azharuddin promoted himself to #3 and looked in pristine touch as the shepherd of the run chase. Ravi Shastri struggled to get the ball off the square and wasted precious deliveries as a thunderstorm stopped play for about 30 minutes. (Those watching the game then would not have fathomed how much impact the rain and the ensuing rain rule would have on the world’s biggest tournament and stage. While the number of total overs was reduced from 50 to 47, India’s target was reduced only by 2 runs. This is hard to fathom in this age of analytics and big data but the rule for the tournament stated that the target would be reduced by the number of runs scored in the three least expensive overs of the Australian innings. The rule made no sense then and doesn’t today. If this incident happened a few years later,the clout of the BCCI may as well have resulted in secret beheadings of the architects of the rule. Unfortunately this was still 1992 and the game moved on.)

Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev would indulge in brief cameos that would help undo some of the damage that Ravi Shastri’s painstaking 25 caused. Azharuddin and Manjrekar though were India’s knights in shining armor as the two played delightful shot after wristy stroke to get India within 42 of the winning total and with five overs and six wickets to spare. In the previous World Cup, India had lost to Australia by one run. A year prior to that they had tied in a test match. Surely this one would end less hauntingly for my team!

37 year old Allan Border begged to differ and had one last special in him in front of his home crowd as he unleashed a direct hit for the ages to run out his counterpart. The unstoppable force of Mohammed Azharuddin was cut short by a direct hit. India’s late order fought gamely but two more run outs meant Kiran More would be asked to score 13 off Tom Moody’s final over. More resuscitated Indians everywere with back-to-back boundaries to suddenly make the ask 5 runs off 4 balls. Surely nothing will go wrong now? Surely I was mistaken as Moody yorked More to change the equation to 5 runs off 3 balls with two wickets in hand. Javagal Srinath had the unenviable task of scoring 4 off the last ball. Srinath’s hoick would miss the boundary by the length of his bat and go straight into Steve Waugh’s hands who would somehow drop it but retain enough of his composure to recover and unleash a great throw thru to David Boon who would dislodge the bails just in time to dismiss Venkatapathy Raju as India would fall one run short of sharing the points with Australia in a World Cup game for the second tournament in a row. It is a passage of play about 15 seconds long that felt like eternity and still gives me the creeps after all these years.

An intuitively wrong rain rule that had escaped public scrutiny, four run outs and untimely dismissals of two batsmen in roaring form all culminated in a loss by mere inches. If Venkatapathy Raju were a touch quicker or if Javagal Srinath had started eating meat a touch earlier, March 1’st is nothing more than a footnote in this Indian cricket fan’s book of memories. Instead it was the game that made me want to run towards sports atheism. It made me wonder if it was worth spending 8 hours on a Sunday watching adults throw, hit and catch a cricket ball? This was a cricket match that I will never forget and one I will always point to, when someone tells me sport is not a metaphor for life. You’re telling me that punches to the gut don’t happen in life?

Life lessons in the form of sport. This is why I watch. Self-flagellation, thy name is cricket.

March 1’st 2003

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgATzx08JjY?rel=0&w=420&h=315]

11 years after that painful day in Brisbane, India met Pakistan in Pretoria. Both teams came in needing a win to cement a place in the Super Sixes phase of the competition. Pakistan batted first and scored 273 in 50 overs. India’s bowling was vanilla and uninspired as arch-nemesis Saeed Anwar scored yet another ODI hundred versus the Indians. 274 was a stiff target against an attack that had Akram, Akhtar, Razzaq and Younis.

I remember saying a prayer between innings. I did not pray as much for an Indian win as I did for a painless second half. My mind repeatedly went back to March 1’st 1992. “Gods, give me a win but if not can you please make sure they lose by a lot?”, I muttered. This made no sense then and doesn’t now.

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Sachin Tendulkar played the greatest ODI innings of his life as he tamed the Pakistani bowling with exceptional strokes all around the ground. He put India way ahead of the required rate before falling to a Shoaib Akhtar snorter in the 28’th over. Sachin’s batsmanship that day was exceptional. He attacked independent of the situation and paid no attention to the context, pressure and a level of expectation from fans that may never be seen again. India needed less than 100 when Sachin got out and had three premier batsmen including Rahul Dravid waiting in the wings. The journey from that point A to victory point B was as excruciating and tense as any my cricket mind has traversed. Rahul Dravid and Yuvraj Singh calmly steered the ship home and removed any last-minute surprises from the game.

dravid yuvraj

It was a day that ended well. It was a day that brought out the very best from the greatest batsman of my lifetime against one of the great bowling attacks of all time. It was a day that I will never forget. It was a win over an arch-rival achieved with panache, patience and passion. It was an once-in-a-decade sporting event that made the 800 other games I watch, worth it.

This is why I watch….Unbridled joy, thy name is cricket!

Posted by & filed under Indian abroad.

Saravanaa Bhavan

I visited one of the many popular, tasty and authentic South Indian restaurants in the Bay Area this weekend. Going to these restaurants on a weekend during lunch/dinner involves quite the wait. The experience waiting for a table and then the food in these restaurants is quite similar to the experience waiting for lunch/dinner at popular joints worldwide. The lines are long and the waits are indeterminate but proportional to the size of one’s party. The commute times to get to the restaurant and the quality of food typically make people stick it out however long the wait and however angry/grouchy their stomachs make them. By the time one gets to the process of ordering and eating, exhaustion is almost as much the emotion of the moment as satisfaction. The assignment of vacant tables to parties is also inefficient with several groups of 2 or 3 people occupying booths and tables meant for much larger groups. I timed a party of five (including a baby) waiting almost 45 minutes for a table while couples who showed up later were led to booths that seat four, much sooner. All of this is inefficient and frustrating and yet thousands of people go thru this, weekend-after-weekend to sate their cravings for the closest thing they have to home cooking from their childhood. Experiencing this last weekend, I wondered if there was a way for the restaurants to serve as many customers as there is demand while also making the experience more palatable to the customers.

Here’s what I think they should do – Price the dishes differently on the weekends so that a to go or take out order is cheaper than ordering the same dish for here/to eat at the restaurant. I think this model will work. Here’s why –

a) Food first – 90% of the people who visit these restaurants (Saravanaa Bhavan, Bhimas, Komala Vilas, Ananda Bhavan etc.) are there for the food first, the company of friends/family a distant second and ambience a distant 25’th. While almost all of us would prefer to be seated with no wait, eating the same food elsewhere (park, car, friend’s house, own house) is a very good consolation. These restaurants should realize that their unique selling points are the food and should do as much as possible to feed as many people as possible. The reason people are willing to put up with long waits is because the food is so darn good. If the same food can be made available without the wait, I think customers will shift to wanting the same food with negligible concern for losing the ambience they eat in.

thali meal

b) Incentives work – Currently dishes cost the same or more if you order takeout. Some restaurants even eliminate take out during busy hours to service their customers who are at the restaurant. This seems ass-backwards to me. Why turn away customers who are willing to wait longer (as long as it is deterministic) and make the experience of those who are physically at the restaurant, much worse? By pricing the take out orders cheaper and by providing the customers a deterministic wait time, the restaurants will incentivize the same. Incentives work in a rational, free market and I would be shocked if this did not make more families and individuals to choose ordering ahead and waiting in the comfort of their home or weekend errands over loitering in the corridors looking in to their smartphones while their stomachs rumble.

c) Takeout logistics are easier than ever before – One excuse for these restaurants all these years was that the logistics to handle and implement ordering is hard. However this is not true anymore. With startups like eatstreet, grubhub and many others, the task of integrating online or phone ordering for a restaurant is easier than ever before. The restaurants can focus on cooking and packing while outsourcing the hardware and software needed to execute to go orders and payment processing to established players.

This makes too much sense to not happen. Giving takeout orders a discount to increase the foot traffic into a restaurant and improve the overall experience seems logical and intuitive to me. Here’s hoping some one takes this idea up and runs with it…’Cos I am hungry and can’t wait any longer and there’s only so many times I can check Twitter in a minute.

Posted by & filed under cricket.

This post will be irrelevant an hour from now. Day 3 of the gripping test match between India and Australia at Chennai would have commenced then. And the anticipation and predictions in our head would have either been disproved violently or validated indelibly. But for now I want to talk about the anticipation and how it is the very best thing for me about test match cricket.

Indian ace batsman Sachin Tendulkar raises his bat

Going into day 3, India are 198 runs behind Australia with seven first innings wickets in hand. They have the present and future of Indian batting walking out to resume a great-looking partnership. The optimistic fan in me (and millions of Indians) sees the storyline where the present god and future leader bat into lunch and beyond as familiarity of conditions and depth in the line-up take over to grind the young Australians to dust. The images of beleaguered Aussies wiping a gazillion liters of sweat off their brows as local heroes walk back to standing ovations after a Sachin 100 seems very very possible. This real possibility and this anticipation is unique to test match cricket. Whatever’s transpired so far is great. The anticipation of what is about to transpire is even greater. I am savoring it….

pattinson

Going into day 3, Australia are 198 runs ahead with seven first innings wickets to get. But they will know that they really only are one fallen bail away from taking the series by the horns. Young, lean and fast is James Pattinson. He will get about 30 cracks at Indian batsmen his morning. And if he can knock off Sachin/Virat early on, this will be a completely different ball game. The optimistic Australian fan can taste it already. Indian glory boys knocked over by killer pace and Aussie batsmen sucking up precious time and scoring precious runs as the knowledgeable madding crowd starts withering in the afternoon sun. This real possibility and this anticipation is unique to test match cricket. Whatever’s transpired so far is great. The anticipation of what is about to transpire is even greater. I am savoring it….

The city of Chennai, a Sunday full house, Peter Siddle, Chennai’s very own MS Dhoni and a pitch of variable bounce are all crucial and interesting characters to the main act. The anticipation on how these will affect or be affected by the protagonists is exactly the sort of thing that makes test match cricket unique and great. Too many words have been written about the death of test match cricket. For six hours today in Chennai, test match cricket will be less dead than any sport will ever be. I anticipate it…….

Posted by & filed under NFL.

Green-Bay-Packers-Charles-Woodson-shows-off-his-Super-Bowl-ring

Charles Woodson was released by the Packers today in a typical to-be-expected Ted Thompson move. Here are five thoughts on the release –

1) A Ted Thompson special – The pickup of free agent Charles Woodson in 2006 will always be one of Ted Thompson’s highlights. When the Oakland Raiders released Woodson, nobody in the league really wanted to sign him to a contract. There were whispers about his attitude and declining skills. The Packers were rebuilding and ridiculously young and Woodson was going to be paid more per year than all the Packers not named Favre.

In spite of all that, Woodson played seven years for the Packers at a high level and was an integral member of the team’s 80-42 record since then. I cannot think of many free agents in the league that last seven whole years. Ted Thompson is due a lot of credit for this. How many GMs in the league could have foreseen this fit and been as ahead of the curve? The drafting of Aaron Rodgers and Randall Cobb still rank as Ted Thompson’s two best moves to me but the Woodson signing comes pretty darn close. When Charles Woodson goes to the Hall of Fame in 2019, he better have a paragraph in his speech for Mr. Ted Thompson.

2) The timing is right
– Sentimentality aside, the timing of Woodson’s release is right for the Packers. He counts $10 million against the salary cap and is 36 years old going on 37. The Packers have to find a way to re-sign and extend at least two of their core three (Rodgers, Matthews and Raji) in the next 6-12 months. They can use any cap relief that they can get. While Woodson probably has one good season left, the Packers cannot afford to risk finding out otherwise. The secondary right now is young and hungry and will likely deal with some growing pains without its vocal, experienced leader. But in the big picture, the time to ramp and grow may not be anything that other teams in the NFL don’t encounter regularly. Replenishing units with youth every 3-4 years is the cost of doing business in the NFL. I think the timing is right.

New Orleans Saints v Green Bay Packers

3) Versatility – What I will remember most from seven years of watching Charles (apart from his powerful stare of course) is his versatility. He was all over the field and took over games by aggressively prefetching and processing quarterback intent. He was also a mean tackler and a more than capable returner. There will not be another one like him any time soon. Versatility, thy name is Woodson. Turnovers generated is one of the statistics that has been shown to regress to the mean much more often than not. Charles Woodson is a key reason why the Packers bucked the trend a lot these last seven years.

4) Senior Statesman Rodgers – Donald Driver just retired. Charles Woodson has been released. In a matter of weeks, the Dolphins, Seahawks or Vikings will sign Greg Jennings to a lucrative free agent contract. In a flash, Aaron Rodgers will have become the oldest and most experienced starter on the roster.
Think about that for a second! It feels like yesterday when we were arguing about whether the newcomer Rodgers was a better bet than old man Favre. In five seasons, Aaron Rodgers is the old man on the roster.

aaron_rodgers_and_brett_farve

Rodgers is not yet 30 and has shown great leadership skills so far. He has led on the field with his performance and off the field with his work ethic and calm. Just as he was figuring out the league, here’s his newest challenge. Past history tells me he will be up for it and guide a roster full of flux to more success. But nothing can be taken for granted and Rodgers’ next five years as the leader, elder and statesman will be a fascinating watch for all of us.

5) Unlucky number 2013 – Every NFL team faces personnel loss and churn every year. Some years, more so than others. After four successive years of making the playoffs, the time is now for the Green Bay Packers to go thru some serious churn themselves. They will have a younger, less experienced roster than most teams. They will play a tougher regular season schedule than they have in the last two years. Their margin for slip-ups and injuries just got a lot smaller.

Like I wrote earlier, making the playoffs five years in a row is really really hard. The deck is stacked against the Green and Gold. How they draft, train and reload thru these next six months will reveal a lot about whether they can make something out of a brutal 2013.

Go Pack, Go and thank you for the memories Charles Woodson…

Posted by & filed under cricket.

Dean Jones vomiting at Chepauk 1986 courtesy Wisden

Dean Jones vomiting at Chepauk 1986 courtesy Wisden

My first memories of test match cricket are of a batsman vomiting. Five year old me watched Dean Jones puke, many times over. I don’t remember what I thought or what my dad and his friends told me as Dean Jones puked, peed and sweat his way to a double hundred. But I remember watching his innings and the extraordinary finish three days later and knowing I had watched something special. My dad regaled me with stories of Conrad Hunte, Bill Lawry and the first tied test as if he’d been there. He then explained how rare it was to see a tie and how a tie was different from a draw. He also told me Maninder Singh was the worst batsman ever and that Ravi Shastri was a damn fool to give up strike during that last over.

Since that day, India vs. Australia in India has provided the most memorable test matches of my life. A few days ahead of the latest installment of this unique rivalry, here below are my six most lasting memories –

1) The Tied Test Alan Border set India 348 runs to win on the final day. I remember Indian batsman after Indian batsman playing aggressive shot after shot all through the day. I remember first innings centurion and captain Kapil Dev being the lone failure as a vaunted middle order fresh off success in England took on two spinners who bowled marathon spells. Greg Matthews bowled with his baggy green cap on. He was a gregarious character who reacted to every dismissal with a lap around the ground. I remember Alan Border looking puzzled and scratching his prickly beard all thru the day (unaware of the era of success and dominance that lay ahead of his team and nation). I remember getting excited by a spree of Ravi Shastri boundaries. I remember thinking this would be an Indian win. I remember Maninder Singh being given out lbw with one measly run to get.

Image courtesy Wisden

Image courtesy Wisden

It was some start to a life of watching test matches.

Here below is a documentary of the test on Youtube –

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rjr-XxEGKQc?list=PL2661F86279EC0114&w=560&h=315]

2) The worst wicket taking delivery ever bowled Australia did not tour India for tests for another decade. The next time I got to see Steve Waugh play a test on Indian soil, it was on a smoggy October afternoon at a characterless Feroze Shah Kotla. It was the first appearance on Indian soil for Rahul Dravid, Saurav Ganguly, Ian Healy and Glenn Mcgrath. The absence of another legend (Shane Warne) though meant Australia would field mediocre spinners in the form of Peter Mcintyre and Brad Hogg who were no match for the home team. Ten years away from the unique climes and soils of India showed and India pulled off an easy win. Nayan Mongia scored a hundred and Anil Kumble made the batsmen dance but my lingering memory from the game is of a horrendous Michael Slater dismissal.

David Johnson was one of the many ‘fast’ bowlers who played for India in the 90’s. He was inaccurate, inconsistent and lasted all off two test matches. One of his deliveries to Michael Slater would have missed the tenth stump. It would have been called a wide. Except, Mr. Slater decided to have a go at it only to be caught at slip by Azharuddin. Slater would be dropped from the test side for the next three years. Rarely has a ball that bad produced a shot even worse and affected a batsman’s career as much. I will not forget it. Ever.

If you have not seen or do not remember this delivery, watch it below.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6scfdQynUc&w=420&h=315]

3) Tendulkar vs. Warne

I was at the Chepauk on March 6 1998. Sachin Tendulkar was the best batsman in cricket and Shane Warne was the best bowler. Their head-to-head battle was much-anticipated and lasted all off 7 minutes. Sachin was out caught at slip for four as Warne won bragging rights and shed any psychological baggage he may have held from a practice game in Mumbai a few days earlier. 72 hours later the two men were at it again as the match and series lay poised on a razor’s edge.

No one who witnessed the carnage that Monday afternoon will ever forget it. Tendulkar was prepared for everything the maestro had up his sleeve. He played strokes with and against the turn and negated the greatest spinner of all time on a fourth day Chepauk pitch. It was beautiful, brilliant and the first signs that the all-conquering Aussies will have to work just a bit harder to conquer what would eventually be called the final frontier.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dlycfOdxxoY&w=420&h=315]

4) Do you believe in miracles?

Faith, fandom and fairness in life were all questioned midway thru the Kolkata test of 2001. A new India captained by Saurav Ganguly and coached by John Wright was supposed to stop the omnipotent 16-wins-in-a-row Aussie squad. Steve Waugh had called India the final frontier. The only issue was that the Aussies were pretty darn good. If test cricket had a hall of fame, that Aussie team had eight hall-of-famers.

I remember days four and five like they happened yesterday. Day four dawned with prayers to the gods that the team put up a fight. By tea on day four pride and passion were restored. By lunch on day five, an impossible dream seemed very possible. By the end of day five, I was speechless, stunned and could not believe what I just saw. Harbhajan Singh picked up 13 wickets including a hat-trick and was only the third biggest story of the game.

I remember frustration turning into tears of joy as only test cricket can. A generation of Indian fans would believe that anything was possible as the country entered its most fruitful decade not with a whimper or a bang but with a sonic boom.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQGTXhqVmCQ&w=420&h=315]

5) Do you believe in shambles?

Being a fan has its downs too and not many moments match the abyss that Indian cricket reached in October 2004 at Nagpur. India had retained the Border-Gavaskar trophy in Australia and won a test series in Pakistan in the previous twelve months. Few fans expected this hard-earned success to be lost any time soon especially at home.

Oh, how we were wrong!

After rain had destroyed the prospects of a thrilling fifth day at Chennai, Australia entered the Nagpur test with a chance to win the Border-Gavaskar trophy and an away series in India. What Steve Waugh had failed to achieve, domestic politics would. A fracas between the host Vidharba Cricket Association and the BCCI would ensure that the pitch resembled Napier more than it did Nagpur. Frustrations over the pitch and selection would bubble over in to Saurav Ganguly ruling himself out of the test match. An insipid Indian team would get dragged all over the stadium and asked to watch as Adam Gilchrist and his friends would become the first touring team to win a real series in 17 years. The final frontier would be conquered not with a bang or a sonic boom but with a whimper.

Never had a home series been lost with such little fight. This, I will never forget.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FDzfWEhuLCw&w=420&h=315]

6) The final installment of Very Very Special

Image courtesy WordPress blog - bizarreness

Image courtesy WordPress blog – bizarreness

VVS Laxman was Australia’s nemesis from 2000-2010. Something about seeing the baggy green made him elevate his game to heights seldom seen. And in a decade full of special knocks, VVS held on to produce one final masterpiece at Mohali.

I didn’t watch this game live. Let me rephrase that. I couldn’t watch this game live. With India needing close to a 100 and with only two wickets in hand, I had given up. For some reason I couldn’t fall asleep as much as I tried and I kept refreshing the scorecard and my Twitter feed. VVS Laxman was shepherding Ishant Sharma thru to the end and I held on to my steadfast belief that me not watching the contest was in some way responsible for what was going on.

To this day, I cannot believe that this night happened. It was an unbelievable too-good-to-be-true sporting event. Like so many that seem to happen when India plays Australia in India.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3x5RZ0fZB_k&w=420&h=315]

Happy test series everybody…

Posted by & filed under Indian abroad, Media.

rajini

Rajinikanth is the most popular living human being in Tamil Nadu. With a zillion fans who have worshipped him thru the years, he possesses the biggest bully pulpit in the state. The people of the state have showered their love on him for nearly three decades. The people of Tamil Nadu have embraced his movies and performances virtually every time, to make him the safest investment in the industry. The media have stopped covering him as a human being capable of flaws and moved on to the worshipping stage for nearly 15 years now. Like several demigods of the common man he is known just by his one word title ‘Superstar’. If any one should be stepping in front and center for Kamal Hassan and the gross censorship of freedom of expression and creativity in this time of his need, it should be Rajinikanth. So far he has uttered statements that read as a pathetic plea to the protesting Muslims. Instead of defending free speech and expression and fighting for his industry and peer, he has tried to placate the rabid mobs that are seeking a pound of Kamal Hassan’s flesh.

The religious sentiments of a vocal Muslim minority and their place in the political puzzle are being used to muzzle one of Rajinikanth’s greatest peers. This isn’t enough to make his blood boil? Is this not the sort of situation where he can use his influence and vast accumulation of street-cred? If he went on cable channels tomorrow and asked the government and those who have protested to do the right thing, does that not have a profound impact on the story? Does he not influence the way the story is covered? Does he not make those who havent established themselves in the industry yet feel good about their choice of profession? If he requested a meeting with the Chief Minister and used all of his powers of persuasion to remind her of the industry she came from, would that not affect even the most political decision at its core? Does he not owe this simple defense and disobedience to the industry and creative form that gave him so much?

(Also we have the small fact that if he uttered some thing once, we know it is like he really said it a 100 times…)

rajini2

Rajinikanth in his various roles has ridiculed Brahmin practices (in Dalapathi), endorsed polygamy (in Veera) and even articulated a vastly different role for women in society (Padayappa) than the roles his wife and daughter have taken. Each of these roles could someday be the butt of similar censorship as ‘Vishwaroopam’ is today. Rajinikanth had a chance and based on today’s events still has a chance to stand up for the industry and creative expression. I hope he does. I truly truly hope he does and that I get to delete this post in a day and apologize. Standing up for free speech in a big and bold way is the right thing to do. Otherwise Rajinikanth may as well be known not as a Superstar or a reluctant Superstar but as the Irrelevant Superstar.

Posted by & filed under Indian abroad.

P.S: I have written more about this topic with upto-date posts on the state of immigration reform 2013 here and here.

Half of the bipartisan senate immigration committee. Picture courtesy www.talkingpointsmemo.com

Half of the bipartisan senate immigration committee. Picture courtesy www.talkingpointsmemo.com

A bipartisan group of American senators (Four Republicans + Four Democrats) released a framework for an immigration act today. This means that comprehensive immigration reform is very likely to happen in the United States this year. Such reform has reached the point of bipartisan consensus as the incentives to attract enough Republican support have been reached. While much of the media focus and coverage of any ensuing Senate bill, House bill and law will be on the impact on the 10 million+ undocumented immigrants from Mexico, reform is also likely to have sweeping impact on the hundreds of thousands of Indian families that have a F1 or H1B visa holder/seeker in them. In short, the paths to these visas, a green card and eventual citizenship are likely to get easier while also more expensive.

Here below are four detailed thoughts after parsing the initial framework laid out by the Senate bipartisan committee –

1) Getting a green card is going to be easier – Much to the chagrin of Indian programmers and engineers who sought green cards from the 00’s, the path to a green card is likely going to get much easier and more deterministic. Until now, Indians who come to study in the US go thru anywhere from 3-x years of uncertainty dealing with the various stages in the work visa and green card processes. They are captive to quotas, political mood swings and global economic events. They struggle to plan their careers and lives as they hang on to familiar jobs in the hope that they don’t add more uncertainty to the process. Well, not any more!

Five-Tech-Giants

The big technology giants are role-model firms to members of both political parties. And for a few years now they have lobbied for and insisted on making it easier for America to hang on to talent that graduates from American universities. Mitt Romney took this to a logical extreme when he said,”“If the [immigrant] student does so well that they get an advanced degree, I’d staple the green card to their diploma”?” President Obama and the Democrats find natural allies in the socially liberal highly educated members of technology schools and companies. Couple these with constant pimping of a flat world and BRIC economies, the image of the foreign technology or engineering graduate has never been higher within American politics.

It is almost impossible to find a cause that has so much unity in Washington D.C right now. So whatever process takes shape and however much the framework gets pushed at the edges, the ensuing law will invariably make it easier for Indians in U.S universities to get a green card. This much we can be sure of.

2) Getting a green card is going to be more expensive – Much to the delight of the Indians who sought green cards in the 00’s, the path to a green card is likely going to get much more expensive.

New-US-Green-Card

The U.S Government is struggling for revenue right now. Raising taxes and cutting government spending are unpopular but the objective of cutting the nation’s deficit and debt have the public approval rating of a Deepika Padukone vs. Priyanka Chopra pillow fight among IIT hostelites.

So the nation’s politicians are in a constant search for money in ways that don’t hurt taxes or spending. One of the few ingenious but practical ways to do this is to make getting a work visa/green card easier but more expensive. How many middle class Indian families will let a one-time fee of USD 5000 – USD 15000 come in the way of their kid’s future? I don’t imagine employers footing much of the bill either. They have powerful lobbies and I expect the final bill will have a fairly expensive price tag for the future green card holder. What the current lot pay for in time, the next lot will pay for in cash. Seems like a very fair tradeoff for increased certainty about one’s country of permanent residence.

3) There will be much more Indian employee churn at technology companies – When an Indian is hired from a university into a technology firm today, he/she stays/is forced to stay very loyal for a long time. An employee spends his first few months (up to 24) on an Employee Authorization card (EAD), followed by up to seven years in H-1B purgatory before an indeterminate number of years waiting for something known as the priority date to become current. In most cases this process is driven by the employer. This meant that once the visa wheels started turning, the employer and employee had a distinct hidden contract to have a long-term relationship of convenience even if the job sucked ass.

EB-AH492A_Talen_NS_20110627175702

This will not be the case once immigration reform is done in the next 10-12 months. The employer will be more prone to hiring newbies including newer Indian graduates from universities knowing that the talent acquisition and visa sponsorship costs are now much lesser. The employee knowing he/she has the stability to hang around in the US much longer will be more prone to quitting unhappy jobs and/or constantly looking for better opportunities.

4) Conditions, checks and balances – American policy and politics is at a certain level a bunch of checks, balances and more checks and conditions. So look for the law to be written so that a lot of caveats are enforced. If it was as simple as Mitt Romney said it should be, the fly-by-night colleges that dole out Master’s degrees will be the bubble and scam of 2015. If a graduate was being given permission to stay on in the country, expect for some control mechanisms either thru expanded quotas/some new exotic flavor of the green card or just a bigger tax slice from the paycheck. Also expect universities to fight against the generous two tier system being set up based on field of choice. This will end up with some tweaking of the definition of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Management) or be tied to nature of job for a certain # of years.

The next few months will expose how this framework gets molded into law. I will follow-up on the progress of the bills thru various committees, on this blog. Do read.

Blogs I highly recommend for this issue and other US policy related issues are Ezra Klein’s fantastic Wonkblog and Matthew Yglesias on Slate.

P.S: On a related note, I have written a newer post on March 20 2013, on the state of immigration reform 2013 here.

Posted by & filed under Indian abroad, Travel.

I was blessed to indulge in fulfilling travel to parts of Europe and India in November and December. Here below are eleven meals that stuck out enough to warrant a plug to people I knew. Every meal chosen below and the comments behind them are from a vegetarian. So, obvious disclaimers. Here we go –

Vegan breakfast at Heathrow

Meal #1 is the protein rich heavy vegan breakfast at Heathrow Terminal 5 at a restaurant called the ‘giraffe‘. Fake meat sausage, baked beans, eggs and the whole shebang. Filling and just the re-energizer after a cross-continental flight and the immensely unfriendly security procedures at Heathrow. Cost of meal is around USD 10. I rate it 4 stars out of 5 for taste and value especially considering it is an airport meal.

Tofu satay Amsterdam

Meal #2 is Tofu Satay in an Indonesian restaurant in the vicinity of Van Ostadestraat in Amsterdam. Indonesian food is ubiquitous in Holland and the food didn’t really thrill me. While the presence of rice warmed the cockles of my South Indian heart, it was not as flavorful as it could be. Still, great meal on a cold wet Dutch day. I rate it 3 stars out of 5.

16 Euro Cous Cous

This is from a restaurant dedicated to Cous Cous right opposite the Centuurban tram station. The menu has only three items – Veggie Cous Cous, Chicke Cous Cous and Seafood Cous Cous. It has one wine pairing for each. The portions are also not particularly plentiful. And it costs a fortune. Almost 24 USD including taxes. But it was one of the best meals I had on my trip. Flavorful veggies, the smell of saffron and slow-cooked Cous Cous made for quite the unique experience. 1 star out of 5 for how expensive it was but 5 stars out of 5 for taste.

Alu Bhuji

When in India, these packets of Alu Bhujia (shown above) were my energy bars. They were ubiquitous, cheap and apparently very free of all the things that make Alu Bhujia unhealthy. I carried these with me on hikes, planes and plain old sight-seeing trips. 5/5 on all factors and 6/5 if the labeled nutrition facts are actually correct.

Doodh Feeni

The Lakshmi Mishtaan Bandaar (LMB to locals) is a must-stop sweet shop in Jaipur. It is frenetic at all hours and serves out many pounds of fresh sweets and savouries every hour in a very clean and sterile space. The service is absolutely stellar for how busy they are even if the women taking the orders hear the same questions a hundred times a day. The dish above is their specialty and called Doodh Feeni which makes it a milk based sweet. I do not know a lot more about it but it was delicious enough to be a meal for me by itself without ruining my stomach in ways I imagined it would. 5 stars out 5 on all counts and a must-visit if you are within 200 miles of it.

Paneer Ghewar

The other sweet I gorged on for my carbohydrates in Jaipur was the above – Paneer Ghewar. This too was a uniquely Rajasthani milk-based concoction that tasted great while not harming my digestive system in any way. 4 out of 5 for taste and 5/5 for value. I am mainly putting it in here so as to make you go to Lakshmi Mishtaan Bhandaar in the old Pink City.

Chettinad Idly

I was lucky to be in Chennai for the famed Kutchery season and enjoyed not just the music but also the food from the canteens that accompany the various auditoriums across South Madras (h/t to my friend Sury). One of my favorites from a very long list of yummy meals was this tiffin above of Chettinadu Idlis at the Mylapore Fine Arts club. The molagapodi, chutney and sambar accompaniments all were immaterial to the experience which is very rare for an Idli or Dosa. I give it 5 stars out of 5 and 6 out of 5 if the level of hygiene practised by the cooks here was better than what I think it was.

Rajdhani Thali

The Rajdhani chain of restaurants serving Gujarati and Rajasthani Thalis is very popular in Indian metros. I end up visiting one everytime I go back. I am glad they have maintained their quality even after a lot of expansion and enjoyed their spread in their Pacific Mall New Delhi outlet very much. The service here too is spectacular and the waiters do not let you have an empty plate for more than a minute. This is a seven course meal with some thing for every palate and a truly special experience. 6/5 on all counts!

Amar Pav Bhaji

Mumbai, while being the single favorite city I visited on my trip was generally disappointing on the meals front. I blame it more on my choice of places than the city. But the one meal that did stand out was the buttery rich Pav Bhaji that I had two of at Amar Chaat house opposite the far end of Chowpatty beach. At USD 1.5, this was a steal and the best Chaat I have had in a long time.

Music academy thali

A catering crew led by one Mint Padmanabhan prepares the food all day for the thousands of people who visit the famous Music Academy in Chennai during the Kutchery season. Most patrons claimed that this crew had a down year but my lunch experience was quite the opposite. I had their full meal at lunch (there really is no half meal or express meal. a meal is a full meal right?). Right from the bitter gourd chips to the Vatha Kozhumbu to the Sambar to the Pineapple rasam to the caulifower curry to the Pudina rice, the meal was real and spectacular. The cost of the meal was about 3 USD and makes it a 5/5 from me on all counts. The service here is not very good and the crowds make it so that you’re always under pressure to finish your meal and move so some one else can take your place under the Shamiana tents. But for this food, I’d put up with it. Like I did.

Annalakshmi Thali 2

Annalakshmi is a volunteer-based vegetarian restaurant in Chennai. Apparently it has been around for a long time but this was my first visit. It was a great vegetarian thali that had a wonderful cocktail of North and South Indian dishes. They do serve 4-5 courses that make it a really filling meal but they’re also on the pricey side. The service is excellent but the demand is high making this the one meal on the list that needs to be planned days ahead of time. 5/5 again and a must-visit for me the next time I am back.

I also enjoyed several Saravana Bhavan meals that I didn’t capture very well in my vault. There were also several forgettable meals. I wouldn’t go back to any ‘Barbecue nation’ in India in spite of their excellent service. That’s just not to my palate. I also did not take well to anything in the Amsterdam Red light district (insert obvious joke here) and pizza or salads in India in general. But the 11 meals above will be ones I will try to revisit the next time I am within 200 miles of these places.

Any restaurant or meals you want to mention here that you think I missed out on in Amsterdam, Brussels, Jaipur, Chennai, New Delhi or Mumbai?

Posted by & filed under cricket.

There are challenges aplenty facing Indian cricket and the idea of the nation of India, today. Happy days on either front are not as plenty as we’d like them to be. But to put this in context I wanted to take us back 20 years to the day and talk about a much harder day in the fabric of Indian cricket and India and how they both did not just survive but came out stronger. And the protagonist for this story is one Mr. Mohammed Azharuddin.

azza

Flashback to 29 January 1993 –

The Indian cricket airplane was in one of its periodic turbulent times at the start of 1993. In spite of the presence of its greatest bowling talent ever in Kapil Dev and the arrival of a once-in-a-lifetime talent named Sachin, the national team had kicked off the decade with epically unsuccessful tours of West Indies, New Zealand, England, Australia and newcomers South Africa. The team went 0/19 in tests and 8/28 in ODIS on these tours while also finishing seventh out of nine teams at the World Cup. The last decade had not been kind to the team at home as well. The 80’s saw India fail to win home series against England, Australia, Pakistan and West Indies with the only fleeting success coming against then-minnows New Zealand and Sri Lanka. It was a dismal time with fans seeking solace in random flashes of brilliance like a Javagal Srinath spell or a Praveen Amre 100.

Cricket is never good in taking on a role that analogizes it to life or the nation. But cricket plays an integral role in the entertainment of India and the mood of large swathes of the nation. So I think it is fair to talk about how this Indian performance or lack thereof fit in with the events across the nation at that instance in time. The country was still reeling from its worst religious riots since Independence and in parallel the nation’s middle class was being opened up to shinier and newer toys each passing month thanks to generational measures taken on by then Finance Minister – Mr. Manmohan Singh. Growing up in Bangalore I remember December ’92- January ’93 as being months where I got 45 days off from school for the riots that started 2000 kilometres away. It was also the period when cable TV became accessible and I could watch Doogie Howser, M.D, professional wrestling ,A question of Sport and Santa Barbara (not that I watched it). For a lot of lucky sheltered middle class Indians, this was not a scary time yet. No bombs had exploded in Mumbai yet and we only had to stay away from riot-hit areas. But it was a weird time. Unsure of what to make of this sudden influx of TV programming for a few hundred rupees per month while being told going out is unsafe.

Watching cricket on cable TV was the solace of many including myself. Watching professional coverage of the sport with actual pre-game and post-game shows on STAR SPORTS (then called PRIME SPORTS) was a brand new experience that I sunk myself into. Doordarshan had sucked the joy out of watching cricket for many years with its contempt for the language and quality. They also mastered the art of showing the worst camera angles and capturing none of the ambience or crowd noise. STAR SPORTS was a godsend and for once Indian fans did not have to wait for Channel Nine coverage to watch their players perform with some clarity. Also, cricket on cable TV was not disrupted by Lok Sabha debates.

So When India entered the Calcutta test match vs. England on January 29 1993, a nation chewed on its finger nails uneasily. Its first and only Muslim captain was on a one test trial presumably to be given one last chance at a test on home turf. The scope and nature of religious riots were yet to be fully understood. Whether they would impact teams visiting and whether the cash cow that was the Indian fan base would be overridden by factors such as religious and domestic violence was a legitimate concern. Cable TV and professional coverage had expanded to covering cricket in India for the first time via Trans World International and the success & experience of the commentary team of Charles Colville, Henry Blofeld, Geoffrey Boycott, David Gower, Sunil Gavaskar and Harsha Bhogle would determine the feasibility of professional broadcasting of Indian cricket that it so badly needed. A few unlucky breaks here and there and Indian cricket may have slipped into a few more abysses. Fans may have had to put up with universally hated Doordarshan for a lot longer and the IPL may have never come to be.

But what a test it was!

Azhar 1

Coming in at 93/3 in the post-lunch session in front of 90,000+, Mohammed Azharuddin went on to craft an innings of extraordinary style and fluency. Always stylish and languid to a fault, Azhar took English bowlers to the cleaners without a single chop or hoik. He rolled his wrists and then rolled them again and then rolled them some more as he scored more than 50% of the runs scored by the team’s batsmen. A lot of players put in tough spots like this may have fought thru the times with gritty hard-nosed survival. Azharuddin chose aggression, a free swinging bat and a strike rate of 90. Watch this Youtube video below (Thanks RobeLinda2!) to see how hard Azhar made it for the language to describe his knock. There’s only so many synonyms to stylish.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CrXTkg94jPI&w=420&h=315]

It was an innings that had a mezmerizing all-inspiring effect on the team and possibly the country. India resumed their reliance on spinners at home and picked three relatively new ones for this game. The move paid off spectacularly and a two-decade long home dominance premised on spin and batting commenced. India would go on to lose only three series at home over the next twenty years. This is rarefied air and dominance seldom seen in the history of test cricket. Little did those of us watching the match live think this would be the case. If anything, captains on one test trial runs should not be liberating a fan base of decades worth of baggage. But Azharuddin did and future felonies aside, for that India will be entirely grateful.

Eden-Gardens-View-from-the-stand_2747975

The success of the TWI broadcast and commentary cannot be understated either. TWI actually made money and made English-speaking Indian fans of the game happy. It made TWI so happy that they came back 10 months later for the HERO CUP and in conjunction with STAR SPORTS provided some extraordinarily memorable images and sounds of the Eden Gardens. This was the precursor to the influx of huge, previously unseen corporate money into cricket broadcasting which made cricket stand out from every other sport in India for its lucre and quality of coverage. Demographic trends may have made this inevitable but the success of the broadcast ensured sooner rather than later that the Dorodarshan model (don’t care) of covering cricket was a goner. Now I just wait for the day when commentators as good as the original six were, return.

It’s 20 years since and it is unlikely an Indian captain will ever face the personal pressures that Azharuddin did that day. Cricketers are better paid now, can extend their vocation days thru various T-20 leagues now and there is such a high volume of cricket now that match and series losses can be offset quicker. On January 29, 1993, Mohammed Azharuddin was a dead man walking. Indian cricket was going nowhere. All that happened next was an innings of majesty and unparalleled elegance that started a 20 year period of dominance at home. What happened was next was an unparalleled growth in popularity, coverage and money in cricket as well. Here’s to repeating history….