Sunday, September 20, 2009

Half a million cheered “Good old Pip” and the King hailed the triumphant Prince

This is the story of a man who followed his dream, of a prince who set his eyes on a lofty goal, worked towards it assiduously, relentlessly and intelligently, with passion and patience, and eventually won the biggest prize of them all. Horses were the passion of Maharana Vijaysinhji, ruler of Rajpipla. He wanted to own the best horses in the world, and to win the most prestigious horse races devised by man. Minor successes did not satisfy the ambitious young man. He wanted dearly to reach the pinnacle, and did. That is why it is such an inspiring tale.

Succeeding his father Maharana Chhatrasinhji as ruler of the 4,000 square kilometres first-class Rajpipla State in the Rewakantha Agency of the Bombay Presidency in the year 1915, the adroit Vijaysinhji established himself as a leading light of the Indian racecourses very early. In 1919 he won the first-ever Indian Derby, then known as the Country Bred Derby and run in Calcutta, with his Kunigal-bred horse Tipster, ridden by the famous Australian jockey ‘Bunty’ Brown.

Having been bestowed with the title of Maharaja in 1921, Vijaysinhji then set his eyes on the centre of the Empire and travelled extensively the next year in the British Isles, Europe and United States of America, not just exploring the racing world and western society, but also studying the workings of modern governments, systems and institutions. He called on President Warren Harding in Washington, and visited New York to gain first-hand knowledge of the stock exchange. Back in England, he bought himself an estate near London on the banks of the Thames, with a 27-room Victorian mansion and extensive grounds, named ‘The Manor’ at Old Windsor in Berkshire.

The world’s leading trainers and jockeys were regular guests at Maharaja Vijaysinhji’s sprawling seaside ‘Palm Beach’ Napeansea Road residence at Bombay, and the grand ‘Sommerville Guest House’ at Nandod (New Rajpipla town), the capital of Rajpipla State. Steve Donoghue, an expert on the great Epsom Derby, was a visitor in 1924. Quizzed about the path to a Derby win, the legendary jockey advised his host to buy a good yearling or two every year. On returning home Donoghue purchased Embargo for the Maharaja that summer, and rode him to victory in the Irish Two Thousand Guineas as well as Irish Derby in 1926. Vijaysinhji, who had been knighted the previous year, felt convinced that he was well on the way to realising his big aspiration.

Winning the blue riband of the turf was, however, not such an easy ride. A caller in 1932 was the celebrated trainer Fred Darling, whose input was to start breeding with good mares (which matter 75 per cent as the Maharaja himself held) and a proven stallion. And so the keen Vijaysinhji started a stud in England with Embargo as sire, even as he continued buying high quality yearlings.

In July the same year, Darling’s protege Marcus Marsh, now training for the Maharaja, spotted a promising colt at the Newmarket sales, and received approval to purchase him. They named him Windsor Lad. The genial animal shaped extremely well under the tutelage of Marsh, a younger son of the late Richard Marsh who had trained three Derby winners for King Edward VII, and later trained the horses of the reigning King George V.

In 1933 Windsor Lad won the Criterion at Newmarket. As a three-year-old in 1934 he finished at the head of the field in the 1 ½ miles Chester Vase and the mile-long Newmarket Stakes. His discerning owner was now certain that the colt had the requisite stamina as well as speed.

The favourite for the Derby was the unbeaten Colombo, winner of seven races in 1933 and two in the current season. But he had not proved himself in a twelve furlong race, and Maharaja Vijaysinhji confidently stated that Colombo did not worry him. So sure was he of Windsor Lad’s prowess that in a signed article later he declared that he didn’t think he would win the Derby, he knew.

An estimated half a million people began descending on the Epsom Downs right since daybreak on 6th June 1934. Around noon dark clouds drifted in and a sharp shower broke the three-week-long dry spell. Just at this time the royal cavalcade drove in led by the Rolls-Royce of King George V and Queen Mary; and followed by those carrying the Duke and Duchess of York, who later became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, parents of the present Queen Elizabeth II; other members of the family and the King of Greece. The Prince of Wales, who succeeded as King Edward VIII but abdicated soon, joined them a little later.

There was a huge buzz around the race as usual, but more so for the prophesy of Gipsy Lee, made as far back 1868, that a horse with a ‘W’ in its name would win in 1934. There were also a number of uncanny coincidences around the number 13, which particularly fancied the ladies, who backed Windsor Lad.

They were off five minutes after the scheduled 3 o’clock start, and Donoghue on Medieval Knight set a fast pace along the rails, with Colombo right behind. But reaching the top of the hill, the leader cracked and Colombo was baulked. Seizing the opportunity, Tiberius slipped by the side of the rails, pursued closely by Easton and Windsor Lad, down the hill towards the iconic Tattenham Corner.

Just after taking the big bend to the left, Tiberius began to fade and was passed. The dashing Charlie Smirke - returning after a ban of five years - soon breezed Windsor Lad past Easton. Meanwhile Colombo recovered and made a great run on the outside in the centre of the course. The crowd thought that the hitherto invincible favourite would carry the day yet again, and began yelling “Colombo wins”. In the final furlong the three horses were bunched closely together. At this moment Colombo’s stamina failed him even as Windsor Lad surged to the post, equalling the record of 2 minutes 34 seconds set up by Hyperion the previous year.

The jubilant 44-year-old Maharaja was already a popular figure on the English racecourses and had been affectionately nicknamed ‘Pip’ by friends and the public alike. Now the multitude roared “Good old Pip” as he led his victorious colt back to the unsaddling area. Soon the King invited Maharaja Vijaysinhji to the royal box, high up above the finishing post, and raised a toast to this exhilarating win.

Lady luck had indeed smiled on the Indian prince when Colombo got hemmed in behind Medieval Knight, but ultimately it was the deft training of Marsh, the speed and stamina of the muscular Windsor Lad, and the skill of Smirke that carried the day.

No other Indian owner had won the Derby before, nor one after, in its history dating back to 1780. One of the first to congratulate Maharaja Vijaysinhji was his close friend the Aga Khan, himself a distinguished Derby winner. Dreams do indeed come true, if you persist long enough. During the Second World War, Maharaja Vijaysinhji donated three Spitfire aircrafts named ‘Rajpipla’, ‘Windsor Lad’, and ‘Embargo’,  and a Hawker Hurricane night fighter ‘Rajpipla II’, and the headlines ran “Windsor Lad will fly”. The Maharaja was honoured with a GBE in 1945, and when the winds of change wafted in, he merged his State with the Union of India in 1948, bringing down the curtain on the 600-year rule of the Gohil Rajputs over Rajpipla State.

(Indra Vikram Singh’s forthcoming book ‘A Maharaja’s Turf’ on the victory of his grandfather Maharaja Sir Vijaysinhji of Rajpipla in the Epsom Derby 1934 will be published shortly. The erstwhile royal family of Rajpipla celebrated the platinum jubilee of this triumph on 6th June 2009 when a special postal cover was released to commemorate the occasion).

ICC Champions Trophy: a test for 50-overs cricket

Even though I feel that the International Cricket Council (ICC) Champions Trophy is redundant at this point, the tournament is a test for 50-overs cricket. Is there enough public interest left in this format, are the media buyers picking up enough advertisement spots, and will the event make a healthy profit? These are questions that will throw up interesting answers that will be a pointer to the future of the game itself.

With the first ball to be bowled just two days on, there is little media hype of the kind that usually envelopes an international cricket tournament. There is little doubt that Twenty20 has eclipsed One-day cricket. How deep are the scars? We will begin to know soon. Recently, the comparative valuation figures for One-dayers and T20 raised eyebrows. It is reckoned that not long ago a One-day International (ODI) involving India generated revenue of around $ 6 million from title sponsorship, telecast and in-stadia advertising. After the advent of T20, this figure has nose-dived to a million dollars.

An Indian Premier League (IPL) T20 match, on the other hand, was valued at $ 8 million, while a T20 World Cup match raked in $ 5 million. The anomaly is staring at us in the face right here. A much higher valuation in a domestic tournament than a World Cup! It does not make sense. Scratch the surface and the reality appears for those who can see it. It only confirms that the financial boom that cricket is witnessing is fueled by the great Indian middle-class with rupees to spend. For this huge mass of people, IPL is just the latest reality show, the newest tamasha. It is not just cricket for them, but a terrific evening’s entertainment for a month and a half, by the end of which they have had enough of the good thing, lapped up the razzmatazz, glitz and glamour, bet to their hearts’ content and in the process seen something on the field that resembles the game of cricket. They are left satiated, and they are not true cricket fans. And the media buyers have spent all their big bucks, with little in the bank for other things.

If that is it, so be it…..for the time being. Cricket makes the money and the real show, Test cricket, and the sideshow, One-day cricket, go on. The moot point is: are these two formats of the game making losses? Can the game go on without these two formats, and with only T20 day in and day out? Until just a year and a half ago it was being preached that the One-dayers would wipe out Test cricket. Now it is being professed that it is the One-day game that will die. Two decades ago, if we had let the ignorant media, cricket illiterates and moneybags have their say, Test cricket would indeed have been history. Not only did that not happen, today there is little danger of One-day cricket being obliterated. Just wait for the World Cup in a year and a half.

The fact is that a 50-overs Champions Trophy match is expected to raise $ 3 million. So how much does the ICC stand to make from the jamboree? A sum of $ 45 million, perhaps more, is not bad for a fortnight’s exertions. As we have discussed earlier, the need of the hour is the right balance in the bouquet of cricket, not just roses but also carnations and lilies, and in the right measure.

While ICC is holding its event, it is also time to ponder a few aspects of the game that need addressing. One is about awarding a boundary when a fielder’s person or gear is touching the ropes and the ball at the same time while the ball is still inside the boundary. Four runs ought to be awarded when the ball, and not the fielder, touches or crosses a boundary. This criterion is alright for a sixer, not when the ball is on the ground.

Secondly, once the batsman crosses the popping crease with his bat or foot before the ball hits the stumps, he cannot be run out unless he attempts another run. This notion of the batsman being given out for not being grounded at the point of impact of the ball on the stumps, even if he is inside the crease, is idiotic to say the least. The idea is to cross the popping crease, nothing more.

Finally, with so much already on umpires’ minds, not to mention the intense scrutiny, why are they still burdened with the task of counting the deliveries of each over? Can’t the official scorer just post this information on the scoreboard? It is simple things that need addressing, with no need for sweeping changes, my dear armchair expert.


Saturday, September 5, 2009

A makeover for cricket

With the arrival of Twenty20 there has been much debate about the future of One-day cricket, the 50-overs format. The situation is not dissimilar to the one prevailing two decades ago when it was decreed by many who knew no better, that Test cricket was on the verge of extinction, that One-day cricket was the future of the game. Now it is being preached that Test cricket will, and must, co-exist with Twenty20, while the 50-overs game will perish.
Despite the huge popularity of Twenty20, one wonders what has changed so dramatically that the format that was said to be imminently suited to modern times only two years ago, is now thought to be languishing. Is it just the temporary stupor brought about by the dazzling success of Twenty20, or is there a deeper malaise?

One is inclined to think that Twenty20 is a bunch of freshly-cut, sweet-smelling, brightly-coloured flowers added to the splendid bouquet that we are already blessed with. Just as the new flowers, or a new, pretty girl on the arm, will attract greater attention, so is Twenty20 hogging the limelight. What can also not be ignored is that there was a fatigue setting in as regards the One-day game, and the sheer predictability and mechanical certainty of the format was beginning to get dreary. New ploys like super-sub, power play, and change of ball after 35 overs were tried, but this version was quickly losing its sheen.

Twenty20, and more specifically the Indian Premier League (IPL), arrived at the right time to give a fillip to the sport. But just as One-day cricket did not finish Test cricket, Twenty20 will not eclipse the One-day version. The English cricket authorities may appear to have over-reacted by scrapping the 50-over format, while retaining the 40-over game on their domestic circuit, or maybe they are on the right track.

Perhaps 100 overs are too many in a day. After all the English once played 60 overs-a-side One-day Internationals, and so were the first three World Cups on their shores, before they acquiesced to the 50-overs format. It is, therefore, ironic that they are the first to point towards the scaling down of the One-day game to 40-overs-a-side. Maybe that is indeed the solution. The crowd would get enough cricket in a day without looking for too much of a good thing. Here one would disagree with Sachin Tendulkar’s view that there should be two 20-over innings per team in a One-day match. That would be akin to playing two Twenty20 matches in a day, and will not have the One-day flavour in which players get a bit more time to express themselves.

If television makes sports viable in present times, then it is logical that the more live sports on television the more advertisement spots there are to earn revenue from. A One-day match offers two and a half times more opportunity for television commercials than a Twenty20 bash, and a Test match affords up to four and half times more advertisement time than a One-day International. So it makes commercial sense too to play all three forms of the game. To those who profess that Twenty20 will take over the game, one has only one question: Would you like to see 100 Twenty20 international matches per team in a year?

The key word is balance. One of the reasons for the fatigue with One-day cricket was the overkill, too much of it. The administrators failed to keep a proper balance between Test cricket and One-day cricket, and played too much of the latter. There was no need for an International Cricket Council (ICC) Champions Trophy after every two years when a four-year World Cup, One-day cricket’s Olympics, was doing fine. Individual boards like Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI neglected Test cricket in their greed to make extra bucks in the One-day arena.

Cricket’s administrators should be thankful for the bounty they are blessed with, the myriad hues of the game: Test matches, One-dayers and Twenty20. They should evolve a consensus, after due deliberations with the players, about the number of days of international cricket that each country should play. One would imagine that 90 days would be the threshold, comprising 12 Test matches, and 15 each One-day Internationals and Twenty20 games even in World Cup years. And the World Cups - One-day as well as Twenty20 - should be held once every four years. That is a lot of cricket, and when you add domestic tournaments and the IPL, it should be more than enough to satiate the fans and fill the coffers of the ICC and the Boards, and their partners - the television channels.

The agenda of the administrators should be sporting pitches that make for an engrossing contest between bat and ball, a four-year championship of Test cricket encompassing a points system that is easy to follow, with disincentives for batting too long and bowling too negatively, World Cups that are no more than a month long with a maximum of eight to ten matches per side, and a window for the IPL in April.

Everyone should accept that world cricket is governed by the Indian television market and so the IPL must become an international carnival of Twenty20 cricket for which all the mega stars of the world be made available, and each board should get a financial slice of. That is perhaps the road map for cricket at this juncture.