Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Missing out building on Indian football's recent international success with sloppy hosting of the 34th Federation Cup

Sports is all about making the most of a winning momentum, for you never know when a bad run is around the corner. It is this winning spell that can do a lot to raise the profile of the sport, especially when the sport itself is showing signs of catching the imagination of the public after lying in deep slumber for years. 

Indian football can be seen in the same light - it had everything going for them recently – first, with the men’s team making it a hat-trick of Nehru Cup wins with a stupendous win over much-fancied Cameroon and second – the women’s team covering themselves in glory, annexing the 2nd SAFF Football Championship, staging a come-from-behind victory over Nepal and asserting their regional supremacy in no uncertain terms.

Clearly, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) must have been experiencing a ‘feel-good’ feeling given that they have so much to gloat about when it comes to our national team faring well in international competitions.

The country’s governing football body should have capitalized on the new-found self-belief and confidence in our national teams by promoting and staging the 34th Federation Cup – the country’s second biggest football tournament after the I-League – in the best possible manner.

The successful hosting of the 34th Federation Cup would have given further fillip to Indian football in terms of throwing up new talents. The onus (of hosting the Federation Cup) lies with AIFF and its commercial & broadcast partner IMG-Reliance. 

Of course, there might be hushed whispers that AIFF should not be squarely blamed for the fiasco,  since the commercial and broadcast rights are entrusted to IMG-Reliance, but no one can deny the fact that the football body has to take the blame along with IMG-Reliance.

The organizers' failure to provide live telecast of the event panned out to be a bitter pill to swallow as sports channel Ten Action backed out at the last minute. 

The 34th Federation Cup took a ‘lethal punch’ on its face with this broadcast fiasco and was nearly on the ‘canvas’ when the organizers shifted one of the two venues (other being Siliguri) from Ranchi to Jamshedpur  just a week before the start of the tournament. The Ranchi ground was deemed unfit to play and this is shocking when you consider that AIFF officials had inspected the ground a few weeks back and rendered it ‘playable’.

Thus, the non-telecast of the tournament coupled with the shifting of venue has indeed sullied the image of Indian football, which was riding a new wave of overflowing confidence, following the twin title wins by our men’s and women’s teams. 

Even AIFF's commercial partner IMG-Reliance failed to land a title sponsor for the 34th edition. Many would say securing a title sponsor for a sport like football in India is a tough ask, but lets not forget the 2005, 2006 and 2007 editions of the Federation Cup, which roped in title sponsors like Alchemist, Peerless and Hero Cycles. This just goes to show that getting sponsors is not something which is beyond the organizers. 

These two shoddy happenings were massive setbacks for the organizers; so what if it was largely their creation only. It’s a different matter whether the organizers at all see this developments as a ‘setback’ for them.

The Federation Cup clearly failed to live up to its billing. The late monsoon also did not help matters as teams engaged in slushy ground conditions for most part of the tournament with ‘quality’ football being the ‘casualty’.

For a tournament, which has a rich history dating back to 1977 when Mohun Bagan won the inaugural championship, edging out ITI-Bangalore by a solitary goal, the Federation Cup has been a victim of dwindling spectacular interest over the years.

Talking of the tournament’s early days, Kolkata clubs (Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting ) literally made Federation Cup their own fiefdom, winning the Federation Cup 22 times and finishing second-best 16 times. The Kolkata clubs’ stranglehold over the Federation Cup was broken in the last eighties when Goan club Salgaocar won the 1988 edition after settling for a bridesmaid finish a year earlier.

Salgaocar’s title win opened the floodgates for the non-Kolkata clubs to lay their hands on the winning trophy. The likes of Kerala Police and Phagwara-based JCT won the Federation Cup twice in the nineties and soon the Kolkata clubs' overwhelming dominance was halted. 

Sadly, both Kerala Police and JCT are a thing of the past – Kerala Police hardly takes part in big-ticket tournaments, while JCT had shut shop few years back along others like Mahindra United and FC Kochin.

Indeed, the Federation Cup has a rich legacy to flaunt but is reeling under unprofessionalism. One can’t help but feel that this was a great opportunity for the powers-that-be to promote Indian football and revive spectator interest given the recent the national teams' (men and women) impressive showing on the international stage. 

After all, for how long, are we going to watch matches on substandard grounds, in front of sparse crowds or near empty stands and viewers being bereft of live telecast? I dig deep and put my thinking cap on and ask again: Have the people who run football in the country missed out on a huge opportunity to cash in on the recent international success of our national teams (men and women)? I am fully convinced we indeed have….

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Does Team India have the ammunition to win the T20 World Cup?

No team has won the T20 World Cup more than once and can the men in blue become the first team to achieve this feat and answer the fervent prayers of billion Indians?

Obviously, it doesn’t need a rocket scientist to figure out that the Indian team appears imperious in sub-continental conditions, and the staging of the marquee event in Sri Lanka only lulls me into thinking that Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s men have to be one of the favorities on this front alone.

As I delve deeper, I wonder whether only familiar playing conditions (sub-continental conditions) and formidable batting line-up are enough to secure the passport to ‘glory’.

On umpteen occasions, we have heard this; and surely we have not heard the last of it! India possessing one of the world’s best batting line-ups almost sounds like a tedious one-liner given its overuse in public domain over the years.

We have an opener Virender Sehwag, who loves to take the bulls by its horns and pummel the opposition into submission. The hassle with him is that he is becoming a bit of a ‘cameo master’ in recent times and often exudes a false confidence about shouldering more responsibility and using his head to bat deep in the innings.

The damaging impact Viru has on its opponents when he fires on all cylinders is known to us but I want to ask one question? How many times have Sehwag got the 70s, 80s, 90s in the shorter version? Even for a format like T20 it is imperative for a top-order batsman to score the 70s, 80s and 90s, if not a hundred to help the team post an imposing total, if batting first, or while chasing down a tall target.

Viru has been guilty of chucking it away when he has the bowlers at its mercy – something which is becoming a regular sight these days. Gautam Gambhir has also fallen prey to the ‘inconsistent syndrome’ though it has to be said that the southpaw at least tries to drop anchor if not on an consistent basis.

There is enormous pressure on Virat Kohli – who is in the form of his life – to bail out his side day in day out because our openers haven’t quite been able to stamp their authority given their combined rich experience on the big stage.

You got to understand that one Virat Kohli cannot alone lift our batting department in its pursuit of glory. There has to be guys who should be ready to play the support cast roles around Virat, allowing him the leeway to play his natural game.

The immensely talented Rohit Sharma thankfully announced his return to 'form' in the practice game against Pakistan after enduring a dreadful run off late. But knowing Rohit’s propensity to ‘flirt’ with 'inconsistency', one is not sure whether his effort against Pakistan was just a flash in the pan.

Suresh Raina has been doing exceedingly well in the ODIs in the last few months and with the comeback man Yuvraj Singh in the fold, one hopes our middle-order wears a settled look. Yuvraj, in particular, would be itching to have another impressive run on the World Cup stage after a prolonged battle with cancer. His heroics at the 2011 World Cup (50 overs format) is well documented and this time around Yuvi would be extra motivated to cap off a successful comeback.

Skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni would be better off not to leave things to the final over. The Chennai T20 defeat against New Zealand must have enhanced the number of Dhoni-bashers, but to be honest, one would expect Mahi to learn from that defeat and put in place better gameplans to counter such situations in future. Surely, we had enough of last-ball wins and Mr. Dhoni, we don’t need any more of that please!

The biggest selection headache for the team would be to play seven batsmen or five bowlers. Let’s face it; Dhoni seems comfortable with the idea of playing seven batsmen as it beefs up the batting department.

Playing seven batsmen implies that some of them have to double up as part-timers – the likes of Yuvraj, Rohit, Raina and Kohli – but such a strategy can backfire if the part-timers are taken to the cleaners and those ‘runs’ decide the fate of a match. Personally, I have also felt that if the number six batsman is not going to deliver, I don’t expect the seventh batsman to do any wonders.

What has become striking lately is that our part-timers haven’t been able to keep the opposition on a tight leash, which have given the India bowling a weak look. Here, I am no way to trying to pin the blame on the part-timers - after all, its a gamble that sometimes pays off and sometimes it doesn't.

This not to shield our frontline bowlers – Zaheer Khan has loads of experience and he needs to put that into play. In the T20 format Zaheer hasn't inspired much confidence in recent times. Even the likes of Lakshmipathy Balaji, Ashok Dinda and Irfan Pathan would also have to come up with the goods because its only teams having penetrating bowling attacks, who would be the favourities to win the T20 World Cup. 
In the spin department Ravichandran Ashwin is in fine fettle while another comeback Harbhajan Singh would be keen to make a big impression and cement his spot in the national side via the T20 route and subsequently earn recalls to the Test and ODI teams.

India’s famed batting department may run up towering totals but what’s the point if our bowlers keep leaking runs. It’s as simple as that.

Playing five bowlers would be a brave move on Dhoni’s part but at some point of time the Indian team management would have to explore such an option if the part-timers are clobbered. Talking of playing five bowlers automatically means Irfan Pathan has a big role to perform not just with the ball but also with the bat.

To be fair to Pathan, he is a decent bat who can play the big shots and has a pretty sound technique to weather the best of bowling attacks. Playing Pathan as an all-rounder would allow Dhoni to play three seamers and two spinners or even two seamers and three spinners, but knowing the Sri Lankan conditions he might be tempted to play two seamers and three spinners.

To top it all, India is an ageing side with as many as seven players in the 30-33 age bracket. India are also one of the slowest movers in the field as compared to most other top teams. A weak bowling attack and slackness in the field are two aspects India would look to cover up with their strengths, which is going to be a tough ask as the men in blue seek to pop the champagne on October 7!

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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Double Dhamaal: First Nehru Cup and now SAFF glory

Indian football is surely on the upswing! First, the Indian men’s team did the country proud when they upstaged a much higher ranked Cameroon in the final to win the Nehru Cup for the third consecutive team. Now, the Indian women’s team gave all of us another reason to rejoice as they retained the 2nd SAFF Football Championships in perhaps the most clinical style – outwitting Nepal 3-1 in the summit clash.

And this winning highs have to be seen in perspective. Any victory in Indian football is celebrated and appreciated all right; but it is also accompanied by cynicism – especially regarding the quality of opposition India won against.

For instance, Indian men’s team Nehru Cup wins in the 2007 and 2009 editions may not be talked about in the same light as the 2012 edition for the sheer ‘Cameroon’ factor. Okay, Cameroon came into the tournament sans the likes of Samuel Eto and Alex Song but their absence no way diluted the competitiveness of the African side, who seemed to have enough firepower in the side. 

The manner in which Gourmangi Singh gave India the lead against Cameroon and later skipper Sunil Chettri brought us back on level terms in the dying moments of the game are enough indications of the new found self-belief that this team can dish out much better brand of football than their current 169 FIFA ranking suggests.

The winning momentum was built upon by our women footballers in the SAFF championship. Of course, their triumph would be greeted with talks of inferior opponents and the ease with which they cornered glory. 

It’s not our women’s footballers’ fault that most of the SAFF football playing nations have failed to bring any improvements in their playing standards.

Save for Nepal, who emerged the second best team in the tournament by a long shot, India were engaged in lop-sided matches for most part of the tournament. In fact, apart from the final match where Nepal took an early lead against us, Indian women were either having target practice or toying with their opponents. 

The decimation they inflicted on their opponents is a further indication of their 52nd FIFA ranking and should not be seen the other way around (that the title win was a piece of cake for the girls).

Two international titles in a matter of one month have given Indian football the much-needed leg up and one hopes that AIFF puts its best foot forward to sustain this winning momentum in both men’s and women’s football. 

When I say this, I mean AIFF must make every effort to stage more international games on FIFA match days as that is the first logical way to move up in FIFA rankings before we think of other ambitious targets like World Cup qualifiers among others.