Thursday, March 31, 2005

Another Busted Script

Indo-pak cricket is becoming quite repetitive, when it comes to *not* adhering to the script (except in Sharjah, I'm guessing). As another test series throws up its share of surprises, here are some thoughts to chew on:

Chokers or Heart Patients? (Part 2)
In what has probably been the best illustration of playing to the strengths of an opponent, India succumbed meekly to Pakistan in the final test in Bangalore. It's been 4 losses and 1 draw in the last 5 tests in my hometown, and one begins to wonder if the Indians are the victims of a Chinnaswamy curse, or is this just a repeat of ineptitude under pressure?

Some would argue, and vehemently at that, that the Indian test side has become much more adept at dealing with pressure situations over the past couple of years. I don't doubt the improvement. But the scenes on the final day at Bangalore seemed to destroy all the hard work done in one fell swoop.

Why, why, why? I suspect I know where I can find some answers, in this little jewel called the 'Inner Game of Tennis'. Watch this space.

Goliath Loses Again
With player after distinguished player batting with a level of defensiveness that suggested a cracking Sabina Park track, rather than an intrinsically playable Bangalore wicket, Anil Kumble, that under-rated over-achiever, showed the light and almost forced a draw single-handedly. Once again, he has been faulted for the shortfall in his bowling, instead of gaining plaudits for his valiant efforts with the bat in both innings. He seems destined to remain India's forgotten great, till he underperforms, that is.

The Southbound Southpaw
People in the know repeatedly say that a game is played as much in the mind as it is on the field. Old as it this cliche is, nowhere is this more true than over 5 days of test cricket. As Roshan pointed out, Ganguly's captaincy has been banal, almost what you expect from the local sides playing on the maidans and in gully cricket. He has followed convention to the letter, and what is troubling is that the convention that been pursued here has been entirely his, rather than a precedent set by any of history's better captains. A classic example of this was his doggedness in having 2 slips at all times, despite the abundance of catches that flew just wide of the 2nd slip in a test match that was India's for the taking at Mohali. I don't want to take a crack at Ganguly's rapidly fading batting skills, not only because enough has been said elsewhere, but also because I can't quite comprehend such a dramatic decline.

Clairvoyance or Decree?
I remember Imran's comment like it was yesterday. Not so much the delivery, but rather the content. Imran practically decreed that Inzamam should give way to Younis Khan as captain of Pakistan during the annihilation of the Pakistani team down under. A close Pakistani friend of mine said that his country seldom goes against Imran's cricketing decrees, so it was little surprise then, that Yousef Youhana gave way to Younis as vice-captain (I suspect that Woolmer would have stuck his head out for Inzamam).

For a while, it seemed like a baseless decree, with Younis struggling to get anything right at the start of the India series. Now, looking back over the next couple of tests, I begin to see the immense clairvoyance that Imran is blessed with, notwithstanding the fact that this is not the first time such insight has been exhibited in no uncertain terms. Not only did he contribute with 500 runs in the next 4 innings, stunning catches and inspired captaincy in short stints, Younis also epitomized the ultimate team man, a refreshing change in a traditionally individualistic Pakistani side.

Reap what you Sow
Indian cricket has more problems that what might be immediately visible at the surface. The one day team is yet to establish any measure of consistency. The test side finds itself in a spot of bother, carrying, it seems, one non-performing middle-order batsman (even India, with Dravid and Sehwag and Tendulkar and Laxman, cannot afford this) and an increasingly insecure leader. The side needs a burst of energy, a fresh face in that middle order, and our bench strength of Yuvraj and Kaif needs to be given an extended run in tests sometime soon. While Kaif and Yuvraj are studies in contrast in batting styles, their approaches are essentially the same. Not only are they busy middle order batsmen, but they also raise the fielding by a couple of notches, as was apparent with the amount of pressure the introduction of Kaif as a substitute created on Pakistan in the 2nd test. Will the captain who championed young blood to revitalize Indian test cricket have to bear the fruits of his extraordinary vision by giving way to the budding talent that he nurtured?

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Born to be Wild

"Get your motor running
Head out on the highway
Lookin' for adventure
And whatever comes our way"

- Born to be Wild, Steppenwolf

Well, what came America's way was the new Mustang, and not a minute too late. Ford might have just given itself a new lease of life (and saved it's investors a few worries) with the new Mustang, but one really has to see the car for the most powerful reaction of them all: a smile, broad, even wicked perhaps. Because the car connoisseur knows that Ford has got it right the minute he or she sets eyes on the new Mustang.

For once, what Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Blink about rapid cognition resonated with me. In that split second, I could 'thin-slice' sufficiently to establish that this car would be a hit. I just knew it, and when people asked me to explain myself, I could'nt (not on the spot, atleast. Another good illustration of what Gladwell's being saying in Blink about not being able to really explain how one arrives at those split-second judgements).

Anyway, before I go further, I wanted to say that the only reason why I have'nt written about my feelings on a topic so dear to me (i.e. cars in general) earlier is because I wanted to see if my initial feelings about the Mustang's success were justified. Several months later, I think they are:


"Ford Mustang continues torrid sales pace; convertible production underway"

I think I now understand my initial feelings better (kudos to Gladwell, his is a book that one can find rather superficial, till one tries to relate to the crux of his argument through personal experience). How did I feel, almost know, that the Mustang was going to be a resounding success?

A close friend recently asked me: "How does one attribute beauty or ugliness to a car? I mean, it's a thing, after all, isn't it?" At first, it was quite hard to explain, and I grappled with a verbal explanation of the concept (even though, in my mind's eye, I know *exactly* what a beautiful car is all about). Providence decided to pay us a visit at the next traffic light, as one of the ugliest cars of all time (in my opinion) pulled up next to us (the new Honda City). Now, with a real-life manifestation of ugliess, it was easier to characterize beauty (proportional rear and front overhang, consistent body design theme, low-slung body, to mention a few). But it was still hard for my friend to get it (I dont blame him) while it was crystal clear to me why the Honda City was uglier than, say, the Skoda Octavia.

I have a confession to make. My first word as a baby was not 'mum', 'dad' or any variants of these. It was 'auto'. My parents could'nt believe my audacity! Who did this kid think he was? Anyway, the bottom line was that even after I learnt how to say mum and dad (and their variants), I still knew more variants of autos. And this growing up in a country which had all of 4 different car makers then. I absolutely adored cars, and through TV, my dad's frequent model car gifts from travels to other places and an insatiable desire to see the rear badge of any new car that I encountered, I slowly became (very unconsciously) a pretty good judge of what constitutes good car design. For instance, I knew that there was beauty in the Jaguar E-type, the Mercedes Benz 300SL, the Ferrari GTOs, the Lamborghini Countach (this was before the days of the inimitable Diablo), the Aston Martin Vantage, the Maseratis, the Careera, the Bugatti Type 57 and the AC Cobra.

In short, through experience, passion and a lot, lot, lot of exposure to a variety of cars over the last 20-odd years, I've developed what Gladwell has termed the database in the subconscious mind. I've spent so much time looking at, criticising, admiring, acknoledging, accepting and rejecting car designs that it's now (for me) a process that happens so quickly that it cannot be readily explained. I know with my first glimpse of seeing any car if there is something intrinsically wrong in the design, but find it much harder to put my finger on it and put my doubt in words. It's rapid cognition all right. However, my criticism of cars like the Honda City ends at their overall design. Honda's engineers have done a marvellous job with the engine, and in putting so much value in 15 feet of car length. Maybe they would say that their design is forcibly unconventional (in order to provide so much interior space, for instance), but I don't think I will ever outgrow my initial repulsion to the design.

So, back to the Mustang. The Mustang has endured a lot of pain as a brand after it's initial runaway success, with the positively sissy mustang designs of the early 80s right through the more muscular, yet uninspiring Mustangs of the 90s. And then came the 2005 Mustang. It reverted to the intial design of the late 60s, with more muscle, proportional curves, compact sizing, a competent engine, in short, the common man's sports car again. One look at the Mustang, and the aficionado knows that this is a serious contender, purely because at first glance, it just feels right. And, for those like my friend earlier, who find it hard to see beauty in car design, the Mustang evokes images of the American hey-day, a time when people aspired to explore the 'wild side'. If this isn't enough, during times like these, when American carmakers are struggling with a severe crisis of confidence, the new Mustang brings back the distinctiveness in the American craftsmanship. Sure, the Mustang is likely to lose to the Japanese cars in quality and to the European machines in pure performance, but it has one thing that the others dont. It is the essence of the American dream, at a very competitive price.

The Mustang will be Ford's saviour, again. But Ford needs to focus on getting it right with the Mustang in terms of quality and service. Most of all, they need to follow their hunches about why the Mustang was so popular in the first place. Stay true to the Mustang spirit, and you can't lose in America.

BIG is In

From BIG malls to BIG superstores, BIG Mac to BIG cars, even BIG portholes to BIG idiots on the road, Bangalore is under MASSIVE attack. While this is what many purport to be the inevitable outcome of the increased prosperity of the middle class, the democratization of information, the Americanization of the east, etc etc (none of which I disagree with), I was, nevertheless, taken aback by the scale of the attack. And apparently, you can't really escape this resizing exercise, as Roshan found out, aghast at seeing this huge SUV parked in his driveway. "Not here also now, please!", kind of sums up his reaction (it was his precise reaction, I think).

I dont necessarily have a problem with big things. But I do have an issue with what these things are doing to a city not made to accomodate them. Yes sir, Bangalore is cracking at the seams, struggling to contain it's own growth. Pensioners' paradise has now become BIG's backyard, rather faster than any of us would have imagined. A lot of us from Bangalore have strong emotional links with the city, and we've kinda been optimistic about the fact that Bangalore has been India's shining light, a modern, green city. Modern it is, but it's green is being very swiftly obliterated to make way for more development. Couple that with a new government that was formed as a backlash against urban development at the expense of rural upliftment, and what we get is a city growing organically, multidirectionally like an amoeba, without any overall direction or systematic planning for this growth.

As the infrastructure buckles under the weight of BIG mania, Bangalore has become one BIG paradox. For Bangaloreans to attain the comfort of the Forum mall or the convenience of shopping at Metro, they need to endure hours of endless traffic and the discomfort of pollution and noise on bone-jarring road surfaces. And somehow, so many people want more: The Bigger, the Better! Is it only us, the old-timers, who pine for the city, seeing as we have, what it once used to be like? Look no further than the meaning of Bangalore for the inherent paradox that signifies the city's current state: Bangalore (benda kaalu ooru) = 'village of boiled beans'?!

What does the future hold? Either the city continues on it's random ways similar to an amoeba, which may not be so bad, because, eventually, like an amoeba that reproduces by splitting into smaller amoebae, Bangalore may split up into smaller, satellite towns, each with their own governance responsibilities. But even the amoeba scenario seems rather optimistic, as the reverse phenomenon has been characterizing Bangalore's growth for a while now. Bangalore subsumes its satellite towns, forming one big, gory mess. For those who prefer visual analogies, think of a cracked raw egg, the insides of which spill out, covering everything in it's proximity to form a gooey, sticky mass. Thats India's garden city for you.

"The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
Rapidly fadin’.
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’"

- The times they are a-changin, Bob Dylan