Saturday, 26 February 2022

Michael Atherton - pushing back against "woke" excess

The ever-sensible Michael Atherton puts one away

This post is to channel a thought from the ever sensible Michael Atherton. This is from his column in The Times, which unfortunately is behind a paywall. So here is the punchline:

"The increasing tendency for people to define themselves by identity (ethnicity, race, gender etc) was undermining empathy among Britons... the challenge is to ensure we don’t end up in a siloed world where everybody is hypersensitive about their own individual interests.

The key issue is how do we move beyond the ‘I’ to the ‘we’, how do we think of ourselves as citizens in a country or in the world .”

The context for Atherton's comment is the very English issue of social class in cricket. Cricket has long been unfairly, sometimes absurdly, portrayed as an upper-class game, which it never was. 

But at a moment when the biggest controversy in English cricket is the racism Azeem Rafiq says is endemic in Yorkshire, when the two hundred year old tradition of the Eton vs. Harrow game at Lord's has been cancelled, Michael Atherton has touched on a truth which is much bigger than cricket or even England. We become a better game/ country/ world by focusing on the humanity that unites us, rather than the many million identities that divide us.

Saturday, 12 February 2022

The "TATA" IPL: the IPL is no longer a "shady operation"


Nine years ago, the historian Ramachandra Guha asked the question – “why is it that companies like the Tatas, the Mahindras, or Infosys have not promoted an IPL team?”

Ram Guha just got his answer.

I’m watching the Tata IPL auction on TV right now.

That’s right. The Tata IPL.

India’s most sacred, most sanctified, most celebrated corporate brand is now the IPL’s title sponsor.

Ram’s point nine years ago was that the IPL was a “shady operation run by shady characters”, that “the IPL is representative of the worst sides of Indian capitalism and Indian society. Corrupt and cronyist, it has also promoted chamchagiri (sycophancy) and compliance”.

With the Tata’s now lending their name, there is no way the IPL can be described as “run by shady characters” or as “representative of the worst sides of Indian capitalism”.

What happened?

Time elapsed.

My inner amateur historian (Ram Guha is a professional historian) has noticed that most innovation starts outside the establishment. People associated with the innovation are vilified as “corrupt”, “cronyist”, “shady operators”, “tasteless”, “cheats”, “frauds” etc. This vilification intensifies as the innovation gathers momentum. Until, at some point, the innovation is simply adopted by the establishment, the former “shady operators” become “visionaries”, and pillars of the establishment like the Tata’s, Mahindra’s and Infosys lend their name to that innovation.

I guess that has now happened to the IPL. It is now one of the pillars of the establishment, proudly wearing its Tata badge.

Sunday, 29 August 2021

Kohli's team needs more players who are NOT like Kohli

Virat Kohli clearly sets the tone for the Indian Cricket Team
He needs more leaders around him, who are NOT like him

Should members of a team be tightly-knit?

Should a team be a band of brothers, so close that they can live each other’s lives, complete each other’s sentences, and even sense each other’s unspoken thoughts? Should they foster this sense of brotherhood by living every waking minute of their lives together, eating the same meals, listening to the same music, wearing the same clothes, sloping their shoulders at the same angle, sporting the same scruffy beards?

This is a Goldilocks problem. Some unity is clearly good. Too much of this good stuff is counter-productive. It creates group think (or more precisely, group feel). The hard part is to get the balance just right.

What we just saw from the Indian cricket team in England is both the good and the bad side of this Goldilocks problem.

In the Lord’s test, it was thrilling to see the passion, commitment, and belief in this Indian team. The energy India created was so thick that I could have cut it with a knife 5,000 miles away. They created this magic by feeding off and amplifying each other’s intensity.

Two weeks later, at Headingley, the same team were flatter than a dosa (or a pancake). They reminded me of Woody Allen’s truism: that eighty percent of success is just showing up. Our boys didn’t show up. Sure, there was technique involved – the optimal Headlingley length is about a yard and a half fuller than a Lord’s length – but this team has enough resources to have learnt and acted on that technical difference. We didn’t learn quickly enough. We weren’t unlucky. We were uninspired.

England feed off each other's energy
At Headingley, day 4

How can a team go from magical to uninspired in one match? When they’re too close to each other. When their moods, thoughts and feelings are too contagious. Or, when their moods, thoughts and feelings are being orchestrated by one individual. When that happens, the team starts to act like a single organism rather than a set of individuals with distinct minds and roles. When that happens a team, in any walk of like, the team's performance see-saws or yo-yos. They lack the resilience and stability a team should have. 

I think that is happening to Virat's Indian team. When a couple of members get inspired, several others lift their game. When a couple of them get into a funk, several others also get into a funk. This team is too united.

In the long sweep of history, this unity is an excellent thing.

My generation of cricket fans remember the long painful years when the Indian cricket team was anything but united. We remember the time of Gavaskar vs. Kapil Dev regional politics, of the East Zone quota (Barun Burman? Pranob Roy?), of the time when Raj Singh Dungarpur appointed Azharuddin captain to clip the wings of players asking for their fair share of the economic value they were creating, and – the lowest point in our history - the way Azharuddin went on to make money in his own way by throwing matches for bookies. After all those horrors, the unity, continuity, ambition and therefore excellence we’ve seen in the age of Ganguly, Dhoni and Kohli has been a delight.

This unity can’t be taken for granted. We need only look around at the West Indies, Sri Lanka or Pakistan to know the cost of disunity. These countries continue to produce talented individuals. They haven’t had a decent team since Brian Lara, Arjuna Ranatunga or Imran Khan because they haven’t found strong leadership and therefore unity. India has been the only third-world/ emerging-market team consistently challenging the traditional superpowers of England and Australia in the twenty-first century, because we’ve consistently found leadership and unity, because we’ve learnt to play as a team rather than as individuals.

But in the short sweep of history, a couple of “outsiders” – players who haven’t been in the India-bubble for a long time, who break up the (comfortable) unity of the team – will surely help. 

The team can be united without the players thinking and sounding alike. What Khalil Gibran's Prophet said about marriage, "let there be spaces in your togetherness", applies to teamwork as well.

Virat's team needs more independent characters, fresh voices, contrarian thoughts, un-synced emotions. The team needs more mood-makers who can pick up the baton when Kohli is just exhausted, who can balance him out, who can zig when the rest of the team are zagging. 

I don’t think this is going to happen. All the signals from the dressing room are that Virat Kohli will double down on the guys, especially the batters, already in the playing eleven. Which means no "outsiders". Faith easily hardens into stubbornness.

If it’s any consolation, even the best Indian companies - Infosys, Tata Sons, HDFC Bank - have all had their share of difficulties in renewing their executive teams. Its not easy, but it is worth it. 

MSD: Bill Gates :: VK : Steve Jobs
Did Steve Jobs have strong voices around him?

PS: Yes, I could use this thought for a corporate workshop on building an executive team with resilience and bench-strength...

Saturday, 14 August 2021

The Power of Shiva's Third Eye. Now Known to Science as "Anthro-Vision"

Lord Shiva 
Also known as Triambakesh - the God with the third eye

Why does Shiva have a third eye?

To see the most important things.

And what are these most important things?

The things which cannot otherwise be seen.


This interpretation of Shiva’s third eye – that it is for the most important things, the things which cannot otherwise be seen – has long been a personal favourite. This interpretation just received scientific validation from Gillian Tett, Ph.D.

In her recent book Anthro-Vision, Gillian Tett, a Cambridge-trained anthropologist. explains that this Shivite thought – that the most important things are the things that cannot be seen – is right at the heart of Anthropology. She explains that Anthropology “enables you to see around corners, spot what is hidden in plain sight” by listening to “social silences”, by hearing what is left unsaid. Or, by observing the world through Shiva’s third eye.

Now that the provenance of Gillian Tett’s good ideas are clear, her exhortations to use Anthro-Vision in all walks of life take on an added urgency. Anthro-Vision is God’s will!

So let us open our third eyes, see the most important things, hear the sounds of silence, and therefore gain the empathy, insight and sense of humour needed to make the world a better place. 

Gillian Tett, Ph.D.
wants us to use our third eye

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Shapovalov vs. Djokovic :: Flamboyance vs. Economy of motion

Denis Shapolavov: the romantic's hero

Denis Shapovalov: airborne

I was cheering for Denis Shapovalov in the Wimbledon semi-finals last night. Shapovalov was the underdog. He is Rohan Bopanna’s doubles partner. He was also great to watch, hitting inside out lefty forehands into crazy angles and ripping backhand down-the-line winners while running full tilt.

Unfortunately, Shapovalov lost. He wasn’t outplayed. He hit more winners than the defending champion (40-32). He lost because he made twice as many unforced errors (36-15).

Why did Shapovalov make so many mistakes? It could have been nerves. But, watching the game, I got the feeling that Shapovalov’s higher error rate was something intrinsic to his style of play. The big backswing, flamboyant follow through, ball-contact while both feet are still in the air – great to watch, but error prone.

By contrast, Djokovic’s movements were never exaggerated. They were as economical as possible while still getting to the ball and generating that prodigious power. Roger Federer’s and Andy Murray’s styles are also similarly classical and therefore economical. They don’t just conserve energy. Minimizing the number of moving pieces reduces the error rate.

Should Shapavolov change his style?

Well, this style got him as far as the Wimbledon semis. It isn’t not working. 

Brian Lara, another stylish lefty, had an exaggerated back lift. He did all right.

Brian Lara's high back lift
(spot the ball!)

The right approach for Shapavolov is probably to reduce his error rate while retaining his natural style, rather than trying out any substantial technique reconstruction. Changing technique or playing style has high risk of unintended consquences.

Regardless, here’s a bet I’d be happy to lose: Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Stephanos Tsitsipas will all win more career Grand Slam titles than Denis Shapovalov. They make fewer mistakes.


Note: Are Infosys smart stats on tennis available to the public? I spent some time surfing the net looking for an analysis of unforced error rate by tennis player. Google didn’t manage to find anything.

Novak Djokovic: doing what it take to win

Sunday, 27 June 2021

The Cerne Giant drinks beer! Ganpati drinks milk!

The Cerne Giant on his Dorset hillside

The Cerne Giant (pictured above) is one of England’s most cherished icons. He is a chalk figure etched into the lush Dorset countryside, just above the village of Cerne Abbas.

The Cerne Giant stands tall. At one hundred and eighty feet, he is about as tall as a twenty-story apartment block. His erect penis also stands tall; at twenty-six feet it is a big as the Giant’s head. He wields a big knobbly club with which he could clearly do some damage.

While the Giant’s origins are not well known, (this New Yorker article is the source of my fundas about Cerne Abbas and is guaranteed to improve your weekend) what is abundantly clear is that the Giant is relevant today.

Volunteers maintaining the Giant's chalk markings
The villagers of Cerne Abbas take take care of their Giant. He is in such good shape because hundreds of local volunteers, fortified by tea and cakes, turn out every year to keep the Giant’s chalk outline clear of weeds. The Giant reciprocates with good karma. Cerne Abbas was recently voted “Britain’s Most Desirable Village.”

Cerne Abbas has a local brewery, as a desirable village should. When the Cerne Abbas Brewery develops a new beer, the owner Vic Irvine, and his business partner Jodie Moore, climb the hill at night – often with friends – and hop the fence surrounding the Giant. Then they pour some of the beer into the Giant’s mouth “as a libation”.

Jonathan Still, the vicar of St. Mary’s Church, Cerne Abbas, also serves as the Spiritual Director of the Cerne Abbas brewery. He joined the brewers on one night-time climb to the hilltop. Irvine and Moore had brought plastic jugs filled with their latest brews—an offering for the giant. “It was a clear night, about half past twelve, and we could see the whole valley in the blue moonlight,” Still recalled. “It was freezing cold, with the smoke curling up from the chimneys below. We sat up around the giant’s head—which is totally illegal—and we tasted this one, and that one, and we poured some into the giant’s mouth.” After about an hour of sitting and drinking, Still said, an extraordinary thing happened: “We poured this beer into the giant’s mouth, and we saw his Adam’s apple go up and down as he swallowed it.”

I’ve heard this story before. 

I remember hearing it on 21 September 1995, when India came to a standstill to observe "Ganpati drinking milk”.
Neivedhyam in front of Lord Ganesha

Actually, I’ve heard it hundreds of times before. It’s the same thought as neivaidhyam, of pausing before a meal or celebration to offer one’s food to the Gods in thanksgiving.

Actually, it’s the same thought as leaving carrots and cookies out for Rudolph and Santa on Christmas night. The carrots and cookies we left out for Rudolph and Santa always got consumed. That proved that Rudolph and Santa actually, really brought our presents home.

I hope Santa takes some cookies for the Cerne Giant this Christmas. Or some crackers. To bring out the flavour of the new Cerne Abbas brews. The Giant behind Britain’s Most Desirable Village surely deserves some Christmas cheer. 

And I hope the vicar of St. Mary's Church leaves some carrots and cookies out for Rudolph and Santa on the hillside on Christmas night, for when they bring presents for the Cerne Giant.

Cerne Abbas Brew
As Preferred by the Giant

Sunday, 20 June 2021

Is The Umbrella Academy a remake of The Sound of Music?

The Umbrella Academy - Now on Netflix

The Sound of Music - circa 1965
Spoiler Alert

Season 1 of The Umbrella Academy is great. It features seven gifted children growing up in an exquisitely beautiful house. The children don’t have a mother. They’re being raised by an emotionally distant tyrant of a father who addresses them by serial number rather than by name.

The father is obsessed with the coming apocalypse. He has foreseen this terrible event by virtue of his unique insight. His only agenda is to forge his children into instruments of war who can prevent this apocalypse.

Through many adventures the children discover themselves, each other, and even learn to understand their father. They realise that their destiny is to prevent the apocalypse.

At the end of Season 1, they don’t quite succeed. They can’t stop the apocalypse. But they do escape from it. They live to fight another apocalypse on another day. Which, doubtless, will be the story of Season 2.

I was haunted by a sense of déjà vu through Season 1. I’d seen this story before. Until finally the penny popped – The Umbrella Academy is The Sound of Music, with the children rather than Maria as the central characters.

- Seven gifted children, check.
- Super-wealthy background, check.
- Distant tyrannical father, check.
- Looming apocalypse (the rise of Nazi Germany), check.
- Betrayal from within (Rolf the Nazi Postman), check
- Narrow but defiant escape from the apocalypse (Climb every mountain…), check.

The parallel is not perfect. By its logic, Maria would be a programmable robot, which is a bit harsh.

But the parallel also throws in relief what The Sound of Music didn’t show. Were the children really supposed to be pretty props singing along with Maria? What was it like to be Louisa? Or Brigitta? Did Friedrich ever hate his emotionally absent father? There is room for some creative reinterpretation...

The Von Trapp Family Singers

The Hargreeves Family Crimefighters