Tuesday, March 25, 2008


Actor Raghuvaran's death last week brought back memories of a conversation at Chennai's Besant Nagar Beach. A friend was reminiscing about a booze party with his college gang at night a few years ago. A lone stranger passing by starts chatting with them and says in a reflective mood, "don't indulge yourself too much or you will end up in the same mess like me."

That stranger was Raghuvaran, who, when the fancy took him, effortlessly breathed life into ill-etched roles. The tall figure was mostly confined to villain roles, but stood out especially in Ram Gopal Varma's Shiva as the counterpoint to Nagarjuna. Come the 1990s, overcoming Raghuvaran's compelling presence in Baasha propelled Rajinikanth to superstardom. And then there was the corrupt Chief Minister in Mudhalvan.

It was not just snarls though. Raghuvaran did get the occasional chance for tears, memorably as the hapless father in Anjali. Also sticking to my mind is the oh-so-brief but suave turn as Tabu's understanding boss in Kandukondein Kandukondein.

Pity he didn't do too many Malayalam films. But a couple of them stand out. Sangeeth Sivan's watchable action thriller Vyooham (1990) featured Raghuvaran in the lead as a conscientious customs official. And in 1992, he looked and acted the part of Father Alphonse, a character who drowns himself in drink after the French left Mahe, in Lenin Rajendran's Daivathinte Vikruthikal based on M Mukundan's book. A performance which got him his share of awards.

Saturday, January 26, 2008


Novak Djokovic shows Roger Federer the exit door at the Australian Open semifinals, that too in straight sets. The harbinger of a change of guard in men's tennis or a slight blip in the path of a genius? Does this mark the beginning of the end of the Federer stranglehold over men's tennis?

Federer has dominated and enchanted the past few years with the game of a chameleon, with his genius adapting with supreme ease to opponents and surfaces. The likes of Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick have been reduced to rubble, with Federer making short work of them match after match. Marat Safin once showed Federer is not invincible (Australian Open 2005 semifinal), but the Russian has been too busy battling his inner demons and injuries. Clay court supremo Rafael Nadal has shown repeatedly that he can give Federer a tough fight outside the comfort zone of clay, but the Spaniard is a one-dimensional player.

I first noticed Novak Djokovic last year at the US Open, where he took on Federer in the final. The 20-year old Serb had a booming serve and oddles of power, reminding me of his countryman Slobodan Zivojinovic of the 1980s (1986 Wimbledon semifinalist). He had come into the US Open fresh from stunning Federer to clinch the Rogers Cup in Montreal.

Djokovic lost in straight sets (7-6, 7-6, 6-4), but in the first two sets Djokovic stretched Federer to a tiebreak. The youngster had his chances to put it past Federer, but the big match temperament was missing.

Djokovic had arrived though, becoming the first Serbian to reach a Grand Slam final. Come January, Federer was to realise the power of the Serbian brigade. Round three of the Australian Open, Janko Tipsarevic came perilously close to packing off Federer.

A small blot in the copybook, or so it seemed, when I switched on the television to catch up on the Djokovic-Federer semifinal. And my eyes literally popped out on seeing the scores. Federer was two sets down, struggling to survive. The world number one was clearly not at his best, with one sublime passing shot followed by two unforced errors. The third set was still evenly fought, with Federer unwilling to surrender. But the Djokovic of January had the nerves to match his shots, when confronted with 'set point Federer'. Unlike the US Open, Djokovic's booming serve saved him when the chips were down.

Federer still remains peerless but there is nothing like a big defeat to give a fresh impetus to others. The 1986 World Open in squash saw the end of Jahangir Khan's five-year unbeaten run, which covered over 500 consecutive wins. New Zealander Ross Norman's upset triumph opened the floodgates, and a year later Jansher Khan had become a constant thorn in Jahangir's flesh.

So will Djokovic go the Jansher way or remain a one-title wonder like Ross Norman? In tennis, there is the case of the 1996 Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, who dismissed a Pete Sampras in his prime in the quarterfinals in straight sets. But the talented Dutchman simply faded out, never living up to his billing as a potential challenger to the Sampras throne.

Federer is closing on Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles, with 12 slams already. But it is better for the game if Federer is made to sweat it out for those titles. Whether it is Federer vs Nadal or Federer vs Djokovic tennis needs rivalries. A genius casting his spell across the court may be a pleasure to watch, but the game needs rivals up to the challenge. Rivals who can force Federer to push the envelope further.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008


Yousuf Sale may be just a footnote in the history of first-class cricket. But a few horizontal movements of this first-class umpire's hand in 1988 changed the face of Indian cricket. Sale had noballed a schoolboy bowling medium pace for chucking. The schoolboy switched to legspin. Circa 2008, Anil Kumble is 600 wickets old.

I read about Kumble first in 1989 as an under-19 player who slammed a century against his Pakistani counterparts. He seemed a batsman who could bowl a bit. Somebody who could be a useful bits-and-pieces player in the one-day game. A year later he made a tentative test debut against England. The accurate leg-spinner who did not spin the ball was out after a few onedayers. The unassuming youngster wearing glasses I thought would end up a fringe player.

Cut to 1992. Maninder Singh was having a good domestic season and seemed a strong contender for the South Africa series. It all boiled down to the Delhi vs Rest of India Irani Trophy match. Maninder was thrashed for 218 runs, emerging with three wickets as Rest of India amassed 638. RoI followed it up by reducing Delhi to oblivion - winning by an innings and 122 runs. The chief architect - Anil Kumble with a rich haul of 13 wickets. There was no turning back after that.

Four tests in South Africa produced 18 wickets. And back in India, Kumble became the spearhead in the Azharuddin-Wadekar formula of victory after victory on slow designer pitches.

Dubbed as a seamer masquerading as a spinner, Kumble's relentless accuracy and bounce fetched him a bagful of wickets, and with time there was more spin too. In ODIs the accuracy meant it was difficult to get runs off him.

It was a different story outside the country though. Kumble had inspired India to a test victory over Sri Lanka in the early 1990s (India's only win abroad in the entire decade). But Kumble lacked bite when it came to tests in Australia, West Indies, England, New Zealand and South Africa through the 1990s and the early 2000s.

Even at home in the early 2000s, Kumble was no longer indispensable. In 2001, Harbhajan Singh was in the forefront, with a mind-boggling 32 wickets in three tests against Steve Waugh's Aussies, while an injured Kumble missed the entire series. Kumble did return and remained a certainty in the test side but an ODI spot was slipping out of his grasp. The highest ODI wicket-taker for India (he still is) missed out on the final XI for most of the 2003 World Cup matches.

Later that year, Harbhajan was preferred over Kumble in the Brisbane Test against Australia. The World Cup and now this, Kumble was becoming increasingly peripheral in then skipper Sourav Ganguly's scheme of things. But soon after Brisbane, it was an injured Harbhajan's turn to return the favour (of 2001 when Kumble's injury had given Harbhajan a place and 32 wickets against Australia). Kumble grabbed the chance with both hands, churning out 24 wickets off three tests. Nobody could label him a paper tiger abroad anymore

The much-hyped test series in Pakistan was next, a country where India had never ever won a single test, forget winning a series. Kumble was in his elements, striking at regular intervals as India pulled off a historic 2-1 triumph. By now, he was employing guile as much as his time-tested tool of accuracy.

Kumble did get to captain in an ODI against England in 2001-02 (with both Ganguly and Dravid missing) . But that seemed just a matter of trivia, for an unsung hero who was far away from the ad-mad world. Conventional wisdom (in India at least) had it that only a batsman made it to captaincy (the last bowler being Kapil Dev who was removed in 1987).

The BCCI does deserve some credit for not getting swayed by the Twenty20 heroics of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and opting for the veteran soldier Kumble, after Rahul Dravid stepped down.

There's been method in Kumble's leadership, just like his bowling. And the air of dignified articulation made the world sit up and listen, when he announced after the Sydney Test that only one team played fair. The same words from Sourav Ganguly would have sounded very different.

Guts Kumble has in plenty. No words can describe him dismissing Brian Lara, bowling with a bandaged face in 2002.

And he can think out-of-the-box too. December 2007 against Pakistan at hometown Bangalore , Kumble lit up the final day of the test with a surprise return to his bowling roots. Unleashing medium pace to extract full capital out of the unveven bounce, Kumble's five-wicket haul nearly propelled India to victory. Wonder what one of the spectators thought of this foray into medium pace. A certain Yousuf Sale.