Saturday, 29 January 2011

Indian Football – Can A Foreign Coach be Effective?

The recent mud slinging match between India’s football coach Bob Houghton and the All India Football Federation (AIFF) had me thinking.

What is that makes a good coach? Can a foreign coach be as effective as a home grown one? A good coach, in my opinion, requires, in addition to technical knowledge, the ability to understand the players, suss out the players’ strengths and weaknesses and find ways of building on the strengths and plugging the weaknesses. Understanding another individual becomes undoubtedly easier if one belongs to the same culture, speaks the same language and eats similar food. Assuming a local coach has the same amount of technical expertise as a foreigner, the local is bound to do a much better coaching job. Why then do teams put in so much effort to hire foreign coaches? Usually it is for their technical expertise.

Think of successful coaches and the following names immediately come to my mind.

• O.M Nambiar who coached P.T. Usha
• Béla Károlyi who coached Nadia Comaneci
• Ramakant Achrekar who coached Sachin Tendulkar, Vinod Kambli and a number of other young cricketers in Mumbai
• Eric Arnold, who coached Kajan Singh
• Arsène Wenger who has coached Arsenal since 1996
• José Mourinho who once coached Chelsea and now coaches Real Madrid

Think of infamous or unsuccessful coaches and, in addition to Bob Houghton, Kapil Dev, Sven-Goran Eriksson and Fabio Capello’s names comes to my mind. Kapil Dev survived for less than a year and was hit by match-fixing allegations during that period. Sven-Goran Eriksson was the first foreigner to coach the English football team. He did a decent job, but the English team always faltered towards the end, be it the 2002 or the 2006 World Cups or the 2004 Euro Cup. His successor Fabio Capello has not done even half as well, so far at least.

I personally think that in football a foreign coach can never be as effective as a local man. In the most recent world cup, Maradona coached the Argentine team and seemed to do a pretty good job despite some routine tantrums and outbursts. No foreign coach would have done as good a job as Nambiar did with P.T. Usha or Karolyi did with Nadia Comaneci. I feel that Nambiar and Karolyi were so successful because they understood their wards very well, much better than any foreign coach could ever hope to. Eric Arnold enjoyed some success, but Kajan Singh never won an Olympic medal. Arsène Wenger and José Mourinho are foreigners alright, but they coach club teams which are composed of mercenary foreign players from all over the world.

Syed Abdul Rahim was India’s football coach from 1950–1962 and under him India was the best Asian football team. In 1962, India won the gold medal at the Jakarta Asian Games, a feat which has never been repeated since then. After 1962, it has been downhill all the way for Indian football. After Rahim’s departure, India hired a number of foreign coaches for its football team (who alternated with Indian coaches) with mixed results. Harry Wright, an English coach came after Rahim and he lasted for just a year. There was Robert Bootland who coached a number of Goan clubs before and after serving as India’s football coach. Former Red Star Belgrade’s coach Ciric Milovan did a good job for India. Under Milovan, India qualified for the Asian cup in 1984, but failed to deliver at the main games. Rustom Akhramov (from Uzbekhstan) was by all accounts a disaster and lasted just over a year. Stephen Constantine enjoyed some success and he served for almost 4 years. And now, we have Bob Houghton.

In my opinion, and I say this keeping in mind Fabio Capello’s performance in the last World Cup, India’s football team ought to have an Indian coach. In football, the team’s cohesiveness is much more important than in a game like cricket. A coach should be able to understand the players so well that he is able to select the right team and not just the best players. A local man will be able to sniff out underlying tensions, jealousies, grudges and other silent undercurrents much better than an outsider. An Indian will also be able to play the patriotism card much better. Of course, there will be instances where foreign technical know-how will be required and these can be addressed by sending the coach overseas for some training.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Shaving Cream – Do we really need it?

In July 2009, I had gone on holiday to Russia. As I always do when I travel, whether on work or for pleasure, I carried with me a small blue toilet case, which has all the toiletries I need while on tour in “check-in luggage friendly” sizes. However, when I unzipped the case in Moscow, I realised that after my previous trip, I had thrown away the empty tube of shaving gel and hadn’t replaced it. Rather than cry over the missing item, I rather stolidly wet my face, lathered my palms with the toilet soap provided by the hotel, liberally applied it to my face and ...... started shaving. There was no pain or any discomfort. What was more, I thought I could shave better, because unlike traditional shaving creams and gels, which are very foamy, the lather from toilet soap merely covers your face with a thin transparent film. For the whole of that trip, I relied on plain toilet soap to get the stubble off my face.

After that trip was over I went back to shaving the way I usually did – which was to lather my face from a gargantuan can of shaving foam. However, when it was time to buy another ozone-busting can, I took a brave decision, one that I have not regretted so far. I started shaving the way I had in Moscow and St. Petersburg, with lather generated from a toilet soap. And it made no difference to the end result. What was more, the actual shave was easier for reasons mentioned above.

Which brings me to the question posed in the title of this piece. Is shaving cream really necessary for a shave? Can it provide a benefit which toilet soap cannot? Other than being foamy and more fragrant, is shaving cream any different from ordinary soap? Have a few generations of men from all over the world been misled by manufacturers into buying something they don’t need? Come to think of it, adverts for shaving cream don’t really address any of these questions, do they? And finally, if shaving cream is a waste of money, what of shaving brushes which, when I last checked, cost a small fortune?

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Happy Associate by Urja – A Book Review

Spending most of your waking life in an office doing a white collar job is a relatively new phenomenon for human beings. For many thousands of years, our ancestors hunted in forests and tilled the land. The industrial revolution forced many Western Europeans and later North Americans to suddenly adapt to a life regulated not by sunrise and sunset or the crowing of cockerels, but by the factory foreman’s watch. India started industrialising much after the West and most Indian genes (like mine) switched from country-life to a post-industrial lifestyle without having to undergo the trauma of working long hours in a factory’s production line.

Not much creative juice has been spilled in portraying or caricaturing white-collar lifestyles. At least not as much as has been wasted over war or love or crime. There are exceptions of course. Dilbert comes to mind first. And his colleague Asok (sic). Recently I read and reviewed a book “In Office Hours” by the celebrated British journalist Lucy Kellaway which takes a very detailed look at modern day corporate lifestyles

However, there has been a total absence of Indian writing on this subject. Total absence until Urja (a pseudonym) took up the pen and wrote The Happy Associate. A delightful book of 114 mid-sized pages, The Happy Associate shines a light on Kirti, a not-so-delightful metrosexual (male) tax expert in his mid-twenties who works for an accounting firm in Delhi. Kirti has taken the metrosexual train so far beyond that he seems to spend most of his time at the hair dresser’s and cries when he doesn’t have a date for the weekend. The office culture is very much (non-MNC) Indian. First names are rarely used (peers use nick-names), the boss is called Sir and attendance seems to be mandatory at the office Holi-party.

Having worked in offices which demanded near-total sacrifice of employees’ lives and having co-existed with colleagues in an environment where scheming and plotting is a part of daily life, so much so that not only does one take it for granted, but also enjoys it to a limited extent, I immediately recognised various characters and mini-plots in The Happy Associate. Urja’s writing, elegant at all times, is also very smooth and when she slips into Indian office lingo, one hardly notices.

Kirti wants to tame and wed the arrogant Mandira, his colleague at work. Whether he manages to do so forms the main focus of this book, which ends with a surprising twist. However, because Urja puts in so much effort in caricaturing Kirti and telling her readers of his peccadilloes, one (at least I did) ceases to care whether Kirti succeeds or not. In other words, Kirti doesn’t evoke too much sympathy. This is the only notable negative in what is otherwise a very good read.

As mentioned earlier, this book is not very long, a novella more than a novel and can be read in a couple of hours’ time. I would rather not say any further and spoil your fun in reading this for yourself.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

“Pakistan” published by Granta: A Book Review

This collection consists of a number of articles, short stories, poems and even photographs of Pakistan. I got a free copy of this book when I attended a Pakistan themed Granta event a few months ago in London, but managed to finish reading it only now.

“Leila in the Wilderness” is a short story by Nadeem Aslam which shows the extremes to which human cruelty and capriciousness can be stretched on account of a deadly mix of religion, ignorance and feudalism. In this case, the villains are a landlord husband and his mother and the main victim is child bride Leila who is subjected to sadistic violence on account of her inability to bear a son. It’s fine writing by Aslam, though Aslam has taken his share of the fiction writer’s licence.

“Portrait of Jinnah” is an excellent sketch of Jinnah by Jane Perlez, Pulitzer Prize winning correspondent for the New York Times, who has covered Pakistan for the last three years. Perlez’s 9 page article does a better job of sketching Jinnah than Jaswant Singh’s 669-page tome on Jinnah. In particular, Perlez gets closer (than Jaswant Singh) to answering the following questions: Did Jinnah really want partition or was he merely bargaining for greater autonomy and concessions for the sub-continent’s Muslims? Could partition have been avoided if the Congress and Nehru had pushed back harder and conceded more? Did Jinnah envisage a Muslim majority Pakistan where all minorities would be free to practice their religions or did he want a theocracy? Please read this excellent article to reach within guessing range for the answers to these questions.

“Kashmir’s Forever War” by Basharat Peer (author of Curfewed Night, a memoir of the Kashmir Conflict and a fellow of the Open Society Institute in New York) is a reasonably fair and even handed account of the agitation in the Kashmir valley, as seen through the eyes of a Kashmiri. In addition to tracing the history of the violence in Kashmir, Peer tries to explain why teenagers have launched a Palestinian-intifada style stone-throwing agitation in the valley.

“Ice, Mating” by Uzma Aslam Khan, is one of those modern stories, set in various parts of the globe, which, though very well written, wasn’t exactly to my liking. “Butt and Bhatti” by Mohammed Hanif (author of A Case of Exploding Mangoes) on the other hand, is a modern story (with a story) which was to my liking. I’ll leave it to you to read these stories and decide for yourselves whether they are any good.

“The House by the Gallows” by Intizar Hussain is an excellent piece on how Zia-ul-Haq introduced fundamentalist thought and values into Pakistan. For those who don’t know (with apologies to those who do and who will be offended by this basic introduction) Intizar Hussain was born in what is now the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in 1923 and migrated to Pakistan after Partition. He is the recipient of the Sitara-i-Imtiaz, Pakistan’s third highest civilian honour. Hussain writes in Urdu and his piece has been translated into English by Bhasharat Peer. I once read a collection of short stories by Hussain and his writing reminded me of Vaikom Mohammad Basheer’s.

In addition to articles and short stories, there are poems galore. “Trying Tripe”, a poem by Daniyal Mueenuddin, (author of In other rooms, Other Wonders) is the best of the lot. “Life and Time” is a very thought provoking poem by Hasina Gul, almost equally good. “PK 754” by Yasmeen Hameed didn’t impress me as much as the other two.

Bang in the middle of this book, are a number of excellent photographs provided by Green Cardamom, a London based not-for-profit organisation, which specialises in international contemporary art viewed from the sub-continent’s perspective. Titled “High Noon”, these pictures are preceded by a thought provoking foreword by Hari Kunzru.

“Arithmetic on the Frontier” by Declan Walsh (Guardian’s correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan) is an exciting narration of how Pashtuns live, feud, fight and die in Lakki Marwat, an impoverished district in Pakistan, close to the border with Afghanistan. The focus is on Anwar Kamal, a lawmaker who hails from Lakki Marwat and belongs to the Marwat tribe, The Marwats are hardcore Pashtuns, but they have elected to not to toe the Taliban’s line. As a consequence, Walsh explains how on 1 January 2009, a suicide bomber detonated himself during a volleyball match causing 97 deaths among the Marwats. As this report shows, such attacks continue to take place in Laki Marwat even now.

“A Beheading” is a very gripping and very short story by Mohsin Hamid (author of the Reluctant Fundamentalist). It is about, ahem, ahem…… a beheading. Do read it, unless you are the squeamish sort, you know what I mean?

“Pop Idols” by Kamila Shamsie is an article about how Islamic fundamentalism has affected music, especially pop music in Pakistan, Interesting stuff, it is.

“Restless” by Aamer Hussein (author of Insomnia and Another Gulmohar Tree, lives in London) is about the author’s restlessness when he moved from Pakistan to London as a teenager in the 1970s.

“Mangho Pir” is an excellent account of the Sheedi (Siddhi in India) community by Fatima Bhutto. Yes, Pakistan is racist towards black people, even if they are Muslims. I do know for a fact that this community faces similar issues in India.

“White Girls” by Sarfraz Manzoor is an account of the narrator’s search for a companion. The narrator lives in the UK and has been brought up to believe that white girls can only bring misery to a man of Pakistani origin. Surely he cannot fall for one?

On 1 May 2010, Faisal Shahzad, an American citizen of Pakistani origin tried to detonate a car bomb at Times Square. He failed. But why on earth did he want to do that? Shahzad was the son of a very senior Pakistani Air Force officer, who was liberal. Lorraine Adams and Ayesha Nasir examine this incident and its background in the “The Trials of Faisal Shahzad”. An incisive piece for sure.

“The Sins of the Mother” by Jamil Ahmad (a civil servant who has served in the Pak embassy in Kabul) is the last piece and the best short story in this collection. Like the current state of affairs in Pakistan, it ends on a very depressing note.