All Hail Greg Chappell – The Destroyer of Cricket Teams!

Few people associated with the Indian Cricket scene are as reviled as Greg Chappell, the former Australian batsman and captain, later the coach of India preceding over a disastrous World Cup in 2007. In fact the only other person who has been despised more is probably Mohammed Azharuddin in the aftermath of the match-fixing scandal.

Chappell took over the reins of coaching the Indian team in May/June 2005 after John Wright’s long and successful stint. John Wright, it must be remembered, forged a combination with Sourav Ganguly that helped take India to the finals of the 2003 World Cup, and pushed India up the test and ODI rankings. Under his tutelage and Ganguly’s leadership Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman became the architects of many groundbreaking victories (2001 Eden Gardens, 2002 Headingley, 2004 Adelaide), Virender Sehwag became the first Indian to score a test triple century and the Indian batting order morphed into the juggernaut that it always had the potential to become.

Tracing the Roots

During the halcyon years of the Wright-Ganguly partnership, two tours stand out: India in Australia in 2003-2004, and India in Pakistan in 2004. During the former everybody expected Australia to stomp over India. However what took most fans by surprise and changed the tone of the series was the very first match – a rain-marred drawn fixture at Brisbane. The match featured a stunning innings worth 144 runs of counterattacking brilliance from India’s captain, Sourav Ganguly. The innings was surprising because it came from the least expected link in the Indian lineup: prior to the series the batting hopes had been pinned on Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar. Ganguly was seen as an asset on the team more as a captain who could bat rather than as a pure batsman. It was before this innings that Ganguly took some suggestions on playing on the bouncy Aussie wickets from Greg Chappell. Chappell was a legendary left-handed batsman in his day and his advice to Ganguly proved invaluable.

Convinced that Chappell would be of immense help as a coach, Ganguly proved to be the catalyst in hiring Chappell when Wright retired. And so Chappell started amidst a lot of fanfare in a role that must rank as one of the toughest in all of Cricket.

Initial Successes

Things weren’t all bad when Chappell started out. It is an oft forgotten fact that he was the coach when India strung together a remarkable record of 17 successive victories while chasing in ODIs, starting from September 2005 and running up to May 2006. India won ODI series at home very handsomely against Sri Lanka (6-1) and England (5-1) and trounced Pakistan in Pakistan (4-1). In tests the showing wasn’t very good: 2-0 against Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe, 0-1 against Pakistan in Pakistan, 1-1 against England in India and 2-0 against Sri Lanka in India. One test result worthy of mention was the 1-0 victory over West Indies in West Indies: India’s first test series victory outside the sub-continent in a country other than Zimbabwe in a long time. The other test achievement of note was the 2-1 defeat against South Africa, where India managed its first test victory on South African soil.

Premonitions of a Debacle

What the sensational 17-match chasing streak successfully hid however, was a simmering discontent in the team. There were reports that all was not well between Chappell and the seniors of the team. The strife within the team and the management was hidden for the most part by the victories, but cracks in the team’s capabilities on the ODI front were there for critics to see. It was chastening to lose 4-1 to West Indies, and a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of South Africa was all the more humiliating.

However, with some token victories India landed in the Caribbean for the World Cup in 2007 tagged as one of the tournament’s favourite teams.

The Tipping Point

All issues of infighting and conflicts aside, matters came to a head after India suffered a shock defeat at the hands of Bangladesh in its very first match in the 2007 World Cup. This resulted in putting a lot of strain on the team in its last league match against Sri Lanka, and India spectacularly crashed out of the World Cup in the first round for the first time since 1992.

As a post-mortem Chappell prepared a report slamming eight seniors in the team for not allowing younger players to grow: Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Harbhajan Singh, VVS Laxman, Zaheer Khan, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Ajit Agarkar.

At this point things boiled over. A player like Tendulkar, who is well-known for his frustrating levels of equanimity, felt compelled to express hurt at Chappell’s insinuations. And in India if Tendulkar says something against you, you might as well leave the country or create a new identity for yourself and start afresh in life for, his fans will not let you live in peace.

The Backlash

If the board is happy with a coach, it tries to retain him when his contract comes up for expiration. Chappell’s contract ended right after the World Cup and neither did the Board consider renewing it, nor did he request an extension. Indian fans, who aren’t exactly renowned for moderation, tend vacillate between extremes of adulation and castigation. During his spat with Ganguly he was vilified in Bengal (Ganguly’s native state) and by Ganguly’s supporters, and yet he found appreciation in other places in India (where people felt less charitable towards Ganguly). However, after the debacle in the World Cup an abhorrence for his methods spread across all of India. The dislike worked both ways – while an Indian fan hit Chappell on the back in Bhubaneswar, Chappell returned the gesture by allegedly showing his middle finger to the Kolkata crowd from the team bus (he didn’t deny showing the finger, but claimed that the media maliciously misinterpreted what he did).

While most of India was up in arms against him, the rest of the world looked on in bemusement wondering what the fuss was all about. And quite expectedly Australian cricketers and fans did jump to his defence.

The Chappell Dossier of Offences

Chappell’s failure as a coach stemmed from several corners, primary among which was poor man-management. Of course, there was ego too, but the Indian team wasn’t really low on that front.

A Clash of Personalities

The most notable fight that Chappell picked was with Ganguly, the man responsible for hiring Chappell. There were several leaked email transcripts highlighting how Chappell wanted Ganguly out of the team. The Board, toeing the line Chappell had drawn for them, first stripped the captaincy off Ganguly, then yanked him out of the team. This was of course compounded by Ganguly’s loss of form. But compelled by cricketing and non-cricketing factors Ganguly had to be brought in again. However the damage had been done.

Of course, to have a “clash” you need to have two personalities. Ganguly, having been at the helm of affairs for so long felt he deserved some slack to help him recapture his form, but Chappell would have none of it. The result was, obviously, quite a lot of bad blood.

Breach of Confidence

Chappell and his staff struggled with keeping things to themselves. Private conversations between players and the team psychologist would become matters of public record. From an interview with Sehwag in 2009:

PTI: And Greg Chappell wasn’t quite like that? He also tried to change your batting style?

Sehwag: He had his view on my front-foot play, my footwork. The thing with him was that whatever you shared with him, it was promptly disclosed to media and selectors. He talked and that hurt the trust. I wasn’t comfortable with him.

PTI: He made you visit psychologists. The most uncomplicated of batting stylist was made to curb his instincts?

Sehwag: I never went alone to psychologist Rudi Webster. In a session with Webster, we all had our chunk of time. I am one who believes that if you open up your thoughts to someone you trust, you feel lighter and thus better. But I found out that Webster couldn’t keep things confidential.

Making matters worse were Chappell’s open criticisms of the team members. These typically happened after defeats, and often were handed out “off the record” as juicy nuggets to the rabid media. He had also been accused of breeding his own coterie of journalists to whom he would leak out any story of any player who expressed any sort of dissent towards his methods.

Mixed Signals

The biggest fallout as a result of Chappell’s team-development plan was Irfan Pathan. An enthusiastic young bowler who could bat a bit, Irfan had made a very strong impression in Pakistan in 2004 under Wright-Ganguly. The Pakistan coach and former batting legend Javed Miandad had disparagingly said prior to the series, “Your Irfan Pathans are in every gully and mohalla of Pakistan. We don’t even bother to look at them”. The test series obviously showed that Pakistan was to master the art of playing their own gully and mohalla players, as Pathan picked 12 wickets at 28.5 in the series, only bettered on either side by Anil Kumble.

A couple of years later India again visited Pakistan, but this time under Chappell-Dravid. In a sensational first over in the third test at Karachi Irfan became the first bowler in the world to take a hat-trick in the first over of a test. And, quite curiously, this match showed that all was not well with him. By the end of the match he and the entire Indian bowling attack was panned for being totally unthreatening with the ball, and within the timeframe of one match Irfan transitioned from an ace bowler to the gully-mohalla player of Miandad’s appraisal. In the meanwhile, Chappell tried to actively transform Irfan from a bowler into an all-rounder by making him bat at different positions. Towards the end of it all, Irfan couldn’t find place in the team either as a bowler or as a batsman.

Fostering Instability and Insecurity

A lot of other established players started having their places in the team questioned on a daily basis. The BCCI policies forbid players from airing current grievances in public, so anything that came out did so via the grapevine. Several players recounted their troubles later.

Sehwag mentions in the same interview linked above:

PTI: You cut your teeth under Sourav Ganguly. He was the one who made you an opener?

Sehwag: Yes, it was in Sri Lanka I hit gold in the third match with that blistering century off 69 balls (against New Zealand). A lot of youngsters, including me, came to the fore under Dada. Remember, when he took over world cricket was reeling under the impact of match-fixing.

He always backed us. For instance when I was Man of the Match against Australia early in my career, he assured me that I would play in at least next 30 one-day matches. Even when he promoted me as an opener, he told me to bat without worry as he wouldn’t touch me for the next 30-35 games.

When your captain backs you in this manner, your confidence is sky-high. He was also an extremely aggressive captain.

More criticism of Chappell flowed from other players, notably Harbhajan Singh, who rarely got along well with him:

(Under him) our mind was not working properly. He put a lot of doubts in my mind and in other players’ as well. That you know you are not good enough.

Lot of things were happening and we were not happy with lot of things.

He (Chappell) just wanted to say whatever he felt and didn’t want to listen.

As told to the Times Now channel

Another player anonymously said:

Give us a foreigner, give us an Indian, give us anyone but him. Chappell was a great player, he’s a brilliant batting coach, but he has not done any good for this team. He has no respect for the players and looks to blame one of them any time the team loses. A coach is supposed to give the players confidence, not create insecurity in the team.

And then there was Zaheer Khan’s latest salvo:

It was as if you’ve been framed. It was like “We don’t want you in the team. It’s not about performance, we don’t like your attitude, you’re stopping the growth of cricket in the Indian team”. I felt it personally because I was dropped straight after the Sri Lanka tour, even though I had not performed badly.

As a part of an aggressive chop-and-change policy a well-functioning batting order was changed innumerable times. Well-playing members of the team were “rested” to try and blood younger players. The stated reason was the formation of a core for the 2007 and 2011 World Cups, never mind that the frequent rotation created an alarming instability in the team and the team didn’t really get its core defined. The proof of the pudding lay in India’s crashing out in 2007, then winning the 2011 World Cup with pretty much a team built by Wright-Ganguly. The only player of prominence from the Chappell era who finds a place in the team regularly is Suresh Raina.

An Unintended Casualty: Dravid

Perhaps the most unintended and tragic casualty of the Chappell fiasco was Dravid. In the first half of last decade Dravid as a batsman had no peer anywhere in the world. During that period the only persons who could give him a run for his money were Brian Lara and VVS Laxman on their days. But there was none as consistently brilliant as him for such a long time. Purely statistically, his test average went over Tendulkar’s and it was befitting of him as a player.

As a part of Chappell’s political machinations Dravid was made captain of the team, displacing Ganguly. Whatever the intentions, this was a good choice, for given Tendulkar’s slump (and general disinclination towards captaincy and his poor performance therein) and Laxman’s not being a permanent fixture in the ODI side, the only other choice would have been Anil Kumble who was the oldest of the lot.

Now, cricket captains can be compared to train engines. The first is a “Lead by example” kind, where the captain is the best player in the team or close to the best. If the rest of the team can keep up with him the team does well, but otherwise the captain cuts a forlorn figure. This is the most common kind of captain, and in the Indian context Tendulkar was the clearest example of this kind of captaincy, where his teammates simply couldn’t match up to his high standards. Brian Lara too would fall in this bucket. In the train analogy the engine would be at the front of the train, but the train would only move as well as the links between the coaches let it move. Tendulkar and Lara would be really powerful engines, but the rest of the train would have a tough time living up to the examples set by their illustrious captains.

The second is a “Push the team forward” kind of a captain. Ganguly is the best example of this kind of captaincy. If he were a train engine, he would be at the back of the train, pushing everybody else forward. The train would move, but the engine itself might perform at a much reduced level. Case in point: Ganguly’s return to cricket towards the end of his career showed what kind of a batsman the team had forsaken for captaincy skills. In 2007 Ganguly finished as the second highest scorer in tests and the fifth highest in ODIs. A few more batsmen in this mould would be Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh, both of who were instrumental in taking their teams to the top.

The third kind would be the captain of a team where everybody is an engine. Ricky Ponting reaped the benefits of this sort of captaincy for a long time, when he had a team of champions bequeathed to him by Steve Waugh. It didn’t matter if you didn’t play well: every person in the team was capable of turning a match on its head. When Ponting lost the champions on his team, the Australians started looking a lot less like the all-conquering team it used to be.

There is a fourth kind of captain: one of a team where everybody is an engine but is running on a different track. To be a captain of that kind of team you would have to be Imran Khan, who led a bunch of supremely talented and equally uncoordinated players to World Cup glory.

Though Dravid played the role of a captain of the first kind with aplomb, he really started out as one of the third kind, where his team was packed with match winners (not as good as the Aussies, but good in their own way), all on track. And yet, due to Chappell’s divisive and disruptive policies, the team morphed into one where each team member had to fend for himself, and basically started running on different tracks. The media stoked the flames by putting forth unsubstantiated reports of the players revolting against both Chappell and Dravid making it a battle between Tendulkar and Dravid. A cohesive unit painstakingly constructed by the Wright-Ganguly pair was now a chaotic mess for little fault of the captain or the players. Dravid’s got caught in the crossfire and his own form kept crumbling, and barring the priceless contributions in the test victory in West Indies, he had very little to write home about.

Following the World Cup debacle Chappell was gone, but Dravid was allowed to continue. A few months later Dravid led a coach-free India to a glorious 1-0 triumph in England. And then he resigned. It seemed like the English tour was his catharsis – a way of atoning for all the bad things that happened under his reign, and he simply wanted to go out on a high. People felt that free from the shackles of captaincy he would be able to recapture his batting form. Though the old Dravid does make an occasional appearance, gone is the consistency or the reliability. It has been a while since he has set up or won a test match for India, particularly against opponents of high calibre. Combined with Tendulkar’s renaissance and Laxman’s emergence as India’s Houdini, Dravid might soon find himself staring at retirement. That will be one sad day for Indian cricket.

Chappell Vs Wright

Taken in isolation the coaching efforts look bad enough, but Chappell’s stint looks decidedly terrible in contrast to the ones that immediately preceded (Wright) and succeeded (Kirsten) his. To understand why, you need to see how each approached the same issue.

In John Wright’s Indian Summers, Wright recalls an incident from the 2003 World Cup days. As the Indian team was trying to build a winning mix, some players were slotted into uncharacteristic roles. Notably Dravid was made to double up as a wicketkeeper to accommodate an extra batsman, and Tendulkar was asked to bat at number 4. Both had been fairly successful in their roles, and more importantly the team did quite well with this arrangement. In particular, Tendulkar scored some sparkling centuries in the NatWest series in 2002 batting in this position. So the preliminary draft of the World Cup team had Tendulkar slotted at #4. However, when India fared disastrously in a warm-up match, Wright had some interesting discussions (quoted verbatim from John Wright’s Indian Summers):

I consulted Javagal Srinath and Anil Kumble, two wise old heads, telling them I had enough; the batsmen had been batting like lottery winners for months, and it was time they were told a few home truths. They advised me to hold fire, but if it happened again, then by all means let rip.

They had a question for me: where did Tendulkar want to bat? Their view was if we were going to do well in the World Cup, our best player needed to be batting where he wanted to bat. The issue wouldn’t have come up if we were playing well, but we weren’t, and what we needed above all was some leadership with the bat.

That evening I went to see Tendulkar and put the question to him. “I’ll bat wherever the team wants me to bat,” he said. “Wherever they need me most.” “Fine,” I said, “but forget the team for the moment; where do you want to bat.” After some toing and froing, he finally said, “Well, if you really want know, I’d like to open.” The next step was persuading Ganguly and Rahul Dravid that that was the way to go.

Contrast this with Chappell’s approach to the 2007 World Cup. In a book titled “SACH” by Gautam Bhattacharya, Chappell offered his views:

It wasn’t just me alone. Rahul Dravid was also involved in the thinking which felt the matches were going to get decided in those middle overs and you needed the brilliance of either a Sachin or Sehwag to play in that position.

Sehwag didn’t seem very keen. So we sat down with Sachin who in any case was the first priority. We put it down to him and he seemed reluctant. He thought top-of-the-order was the best place for him as it has always been.

But we were still in the discussion as Rahul and myself were convinced no other batsman in the team would be able to do it. Sachin finally agreed. Next day he got back to Rahul.

Though he made it known that he was not happy doing it. He felt that his reputation demanded two places higher in the order.

This was four years after the World Cup, and you can still see a dig at Tendulkar (“He felt that his reputation demanded two places higher in the order”), in spite of all his assurances that he admires Tendulkar’s commitment.

Wright wasn’t a soft person by any stretch of imagination. In his book he talks about various disagreements he had with team members at different points. But he also describes how the conflicts were resolved, either by having one-on-one chats with the players, or by someone else educating him about some aspects of Indian social mores so that he could work things out. As a net result, none of any of the players with whom he had any tiffs ever has had anything bad to say about him. Chappell, of course would have to walk to the ends of this world barefooted to find such appreciation.

Chappell Vs Kirsten

As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20: five of the players whom Chappell reported for not kowtowing to him were later core members of the victorious 2011 World Cup team – Tendulkar, Sehwag, Yuvraj, Zaheer and Harbhajan. Tendulkar ended up as the second highest run getter in the tournament, Zaheer finished as the joint top wicket taker, Yuvraj was the Man of the Series and Sehwag finished with the top score in an individual innings in the tournament (175 against Bangladesh). Of the remaining three members, Laxman continues to be the world’s unarguably best fourth innings batsman in tests (he has never played in the World Cups) and Ganguly had a second coming that even his most vociferous critics are compelled to appreciate. He eventually retired happy and content.

The players were effusive in praise of Kirsten and his approach to coaching. To quote Sehwag:

He is the best coach I have ever seen. He doesn’t force things on you. His basic premise is: you all are international cricketers and you know how to succeed and how important it is to succeed. So I won’t thrust myself on you. But whenever you need me, for practice, throwing balls, sharing ideas, worries, I am always there.

And Zaheer:

He has given everyone their space. He’s understood the Indian culture and how we do things. He’s taken that step of coming closer to us rather than dictating. He was our friend, not a coach.

After the World Cup victory the Indian team carried Tendulkar and Kirsten on their shoulders to show their love and respect. Kirsten’s good coaching credentials aside, you could almost sense that the team was giving him a lap of honour as a cathartic release of the gloom of 2007, as if to tell Chappell to shove it.

Chappell – Mark II

Chappell’s stint in India was painted by many as a failure due to clash of cultures. Supporters of his methods said that the Indians couldn’t adjust to the Australian way of professional sports, and that it was the Indians’ loss.

Creative supporters claim that it was due to his “innovative” methods that players were unable to take their places for granted, hence they started playing better, and therefore Chappell is indirectly responsible for India winning the World Cup in 2011. That is an apologist’s defence at best, and a Neanderthal one at worst. It is almost like saying, “A rapist is to be given credit if his victim comes out of the rape ordeal with a stronger character”.

If Chappell’s methods were indeed beneficial, the team would have played better while he was coach, and wouldn’t have to wait for him to leave and the older nucleus to re-form to start playing better again. After all, he had 2 years at the helm and the team went from  being good to very mediocre.

When Chappell was made a selector in the Australian side in October 2010 a lot of Indians rubbed their hands in glee, as seen in evidence on Cricinfo’s forums. While India-Pakistan matches still stir up extreme emotions particularly in World Cups, a lot of Indian fans relish the prospect of a match with Australia a lot more, because at the time of Aussie domination in tests India was the only country that had an enviable record against the champions. Seeing Chappell join the Aussie selectors therefore gave Indians visions of Australian humiliation.

And true to form, the once invincible Aussies now find themselves 5th in the test rankings and for the first time since 1992 weren’t able to reach the finals of the World Cup. Of course, this is not Chappell’s fault – he is only a selector.

What really thrills most Indian fans today though, is Simon Katich’s reaction to his own contract not being renewed. Over the past few years Katich has been the best and most consistent test batsman for Australia, far ahead of Clarke, Ponting and even Mike Hussey. Furious with not getting a renewed contract, Katich made a statement:

He is an inspiration to all of us older guys, because he was written off a couple of years ago, ironically by one of our selectors, and the fact is he has proved him wrong.

No praise is higher than that bestowed by a worthy opponent, and no indictment more damning than one provided by someone close. The “he” above is Sachin Tendulkar, and “one of our selectors” is, obviously Chappell. After Chappell questioned Tendulkar’s commitment and motivation following the 2007 World Cup (and then ceased being the Indian coach), Tendulkar’s resume reads 4000+ runs in tests with 16 centuries (and 2 double centuries) at 63.87, and 3200+ runs in ODIs with 7 centuries at 51.00 with a gasp-inducing ODI double century, the first of its kind in men’s cricket. Obviously Chappell’s policies don’t cut it amongst people of his own country too.

These are still early days for Chappell as an Aussie administrator. On the face of things he seems to have already made one bad decision. Time will tell if he ends up wrecking the team of his home country, though his countrymen will be thankful he is only a selector and not a coach. A lot of Indians (myself included) believe he got away lightly after his Indian debacle. If he succeeds in destroying the team of his native country, the circle will be complete indeed.

Thoughts on the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup

28 years after Kapil Dev led an unfancied India to a sensational World Cup triumph at the Lord’s 25th June 1983, M. S. Dhoni led a thoroughly efficient Indian outfit to repeat the feat.

When Kapil won:

  • I was as old as my son Aikataan is at present: not yet 5.
  • Colour TVs weren’t in vogue in India. You had to place an order for one and it could take up to a few months to get one, as my father found out when he tried to buy one before the LA Olympics in 1984.
  • The only sport where India had previously made a mark internationally was hockey, where it had won the Olympic gold medal 8 times (3 times as British India, including Pakistan). This happens to be a record not yet broken.
  • ODI matches in cricket had 60 overs a side and they were played in whites with a red cricket ball.
  • Cricket World Cups were named after their chief sponsors. The 1975, 1979 and 1983 trophies were called the Prudential World Cup, the 1987 trophy was called the Reliance World Cup, in 1992 it was the Benson & Hedges World Cup and in 1996 it was the Wills World Cup. Only from 1999 did the trophy start being called the ICC World Cup.
  • India were beyond rank outsiders, quite in contrast to being the favourites this year. In fact David Frith, the founder-editor of the Wisden Cricket monthly had claimed he would eat his words if India won the World Cup. He famously kept his word.
  • Broadcasters were too few and Kapil’s breathtaking knock of 175* against Zimbabwe was lost forever due to a BBC strike.
  • The Man of the Match for the Finals took home £600. In contrast the BCCI has promised $200,000.00 to each member of the winning team this year.
  • There was no concept of a Man of the Series.

I haven’t a recollection of the 1983 World Cup (we didn’t have a TV then), and I am pretty sure Aikataan is too young to have a recollection of his parents celebrating this World Cup. One of our lighter moments throughout the World Cup was getting him to say “India will win”, or “India has won”. Whoever the opponent – Australia, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, he was always giving two thumbs down to India and saying that the other team would win. The superstitious lot that we are, whenever India’s fortunes were on the downturn my wife and I prodded him for his opinion as to who the winner would be. He would promptly answer “Sri Lanka” and immediately there would be something good happening for India.

Continue reading Thoughts on the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup

Anatomy of an Ekta Kapoor Soap – The Regurgitating Plot

Folks in and from India are probably familiar with Ekta Kapoor and her unending saga of soaps. It is my belief that it is algorithmically possible to define the plot for these:

The Core Engine behind Ekta Kapoor's Soaps
The Core Engine behind Ekta Kapoor's Soaps

PS: I have been really busy with Suffusion, and weekly transcontinental travel isn’t helping either (actually it is from one coast of the US to the other, but transcontinental sounds so much more imposing). Hence the delay between posts.

Truth and Seek

Following my article about the Harry Potter series I have decided to write another summary, this time of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Before I begin, a few words about books and me. I love books, though I am not obsessed with them. On an average I read around 12-15 novels a year. That translates to approximately 1 a month. Of course, it doesn’t mean that I read one every month – it is entirely likely that all the novels are finished in the span of 2 months. I have a pretty decent collection of books, running close to a thousand.

My foray into fantasy was fueled by a K-Circle quiz in 2003, Harry Potter and LOTR notwithstanding. I decided to try out the books that happened to be the answers of the quiz and took recommendations from my good friend Vishy. Vishy suggested that I try the book Wizard’s First Rule from the Sword of Truth series. And I was hooked. If I might add, Vishy stopped following the series through the middle of the third book (Blood of the Fold), but I went on to read the entire series of 11, plus the prequel Debt of Bones. The series has been adapted to a TV series called Legend of the Seeker. The challenge of adapting a book for the idiot box is that you have to make things formulaic, whack some events out of sequence, introduce your own elements and drop a few others. Keeping these in mind the Legend of the Seeker comes off as an attempt that is not very satisfactory. More of it later. But I must add that they have a rather pretty leading lady in Bridget Regan.

Kahlan Amnell and Richard Cypher / Lord Rahl
Kahlan Amnell and Richard Cypher / Lord Rahl

The Character Universe

  • Richard Cypher / Lord Rahl – The protagonist of the tales. He goes by several titles, the first of which is “The Seeker of Truth”. He wields the Sword of Truth, a magical sword (seen in the picture above). The series focuses on Richard’s growth as a character as well as in magic. He is shown to be free-thinking, compassionate, intelligent, strong and with an intuitive understanding of his power.
  • Kahlan Amnell – The Mother Confessor and Richard’s love interest. As a Confessor she can “confess” any person by touching him / her. This makes the “confessed” persons lose themselves completely and becomes slaves, obsessed with obeying and protecting the Mother Confessor and losing their free will. Of course, she controls her power most of the time so as to prevent people from becoming unwitting slaves. However Confessors cannot control their power throes of passion, which results in people never falling in love with them. Kahlan is an extremely powerful Confessor, who is very beautiful, just, intelligent and dedicated to her cause.
  • Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander / Zedd – The First Wizard and mentor of Richard. Zedd is an extremely powerful wizard, who was responsible for killing Panis Rahl – father of Darken Rahl. Zedd is portrayed as a perennially hungry old man who is friends with Richard from before the series begins.
  • Darken Rahl – The villain for the first 2 books and the ruler of D’Hara. He makes an appearance in the fourth book as well. Richard becomes Lord Rahl after killing Darken Rahl.
  • Jagang – Also known as the Emperor of the Imperial Order or Jagang the Just or the Dream Walker or the ruler of the Old World. Jagang’s role grows as the series progresses. He is only mentioned as the Emperor of the Old World in the second book (without being named), starts driving things in the third book, he shows what he can do with his powers in the fourth book and becomes the chief villain from that point on.
  • Mord-Sith – Mord-Sith are the personal guards of Lord Rahl. They have the unique ability to turn a person’s magic back on him/her. Mord-Sith are created by torturing girls from a very young age and they develop into women who can administer unbelievable amounts of pain using a tool called an Agiel. Two Mord-Sith feature prominently in the series – Cara and Denna
  • Sisters of the Light and Sisters of the Dark – These sorceresses are good and evil respectively. By birth people with the “gift” of magic possess the additive side of the gift. However, the Sisters of the Dark have pledged their souls to the Keeper of the Underworld and have gained use of the subtractive side of the gift. The Sisters getting repeated mention through the series are Prelate Annalina Aldurren (Ann), Verna Sauventreen, Ulicia, Nicci and Merissa.

Each book mentions one Wizard’s rule

  1. Wizard’s First Rule: People will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they’re afraid it might be true.
  2. Wizard’s Second Rule: The greatest harm can result from the best intentions.
  3. Wizard’s Third Rule: Passion rules reason.
  4. Wizard’s Fourth Rule: There is magic in sincere forgiveness; in the forgiveness you give, but more so in the forgiveness you receive.
  5. Wizard’s Fifth Rule: Mind what people do, not only what they say, for deeds will betray a lie.
  6. Wizard’s Sixth Rule: The only sovereign you can allow to rule you is reason.
  7. Wizard’s Seventh Rule: Life is the future, not the past.
  8. Wizard’s Eighth Rule: Talga Vassternich. (Deserve Victory)
  9. Wizard’s Ninth Rule: A contradiction can not exist in reality. Not in part, nor in whole.
  10. Wizard’s Tenth Rule: Willfully turning aside from the truth is treason to one’s self.
  11. Wizard’s Eleventh Rule: The “Rule Unspoken”, the “Rule Unwritten”, “The rule from the beginning of time.”

Each rule is explained in the context of the story. The last rule is particularly interesting and is not explicitly quoted. However Richard figures it out and that is instrumental in his victory at the end.

The books are quite captivatingly written. I recall starting the first book and turning the pages in excited anticipation of what was going to happen next. I didn’t rest till I had finished the book at around 4:30 a.m. That being said, there is a lot of gore and violence at several places, along with talk of rape and abuse in every novel. However, if you are not squeamish about such things then you will enjoy the ride. You have to be careful, though, about giving the books to younger kids. Another aspect of the book is the angst. The lead characters never spend much time happily with each other – they are almost always separated by some machination.

And now for the books themselves. I am keeping my reviews as spoiler-free as I can. As a result I am leaving out key plot details and character traits at several points.

  1. Wizard’s First Rule
    The first book of the series, which sets the tone by introducing the main characters. The story starts with Richard meeting a very beautiful but mysterious lady in white (Kahlan), being chased by a group of four assassins. He takes her to meet Zedd, learns a few very important things about himself and Zedd and becomes the owner of the Sword of Truth, an ancient object of power. He then gets involved in the journey to save the world from the rule of Darken Rahl. On the way he meets a witch woman (not to be confused with a sorceress), gets captured by a Mord-Sith called Denna who tortures him to within an inch of his death, befriends a dragon and eventually manages to prevent Darken Rahl from gaining control of the world by making him open the wrong Box of Orden. And yes, he gets Confessed by Kahlan.

    The structure of the story is like most other works of fantasy – the young hero finds out that he is blessed and has to save the world, the odds are insurmountably stacked against him, he has a kindly mentor to help him in his quest and the villain is a nasty piece of work. However, what makes the difference is Goodkind’s deftness with words. The details about violence are graphic enough and scenes of angst are drawn out to just the right limit, so as to not only prevent the reader from getting bored, but also to paint the correct picture in the reader’s head. What works very well is the way the characters are fleshed out. If anything is wrong, it is the fact that the names are somewhat corny. Darken Rahl? More laughably, Panis Rahl?

    Continue reading Truth and Seek

Potting the Seven Potters

By nature I tend to avoid books and movies with a lot of hype associated with them, because the bigger the hype the greater the magnitude of disappointment in a large number of cases. So I was quite judgmental about the Harry Potter series when I first heard about it in June / July 2000 and I kept wondering what it was all about. When my dear friend Vishy tried hard to get me to read a Harry Potter, I was staunch in my refusal, going more by my brother Koke’s word about Harry Potter being like Enid Blyton’s novels. Not that I disliked Enid Blyton as a kid, but as a 21 year-old I did not want to be caught with a kids’ book in hand.

So when I had to start a train journey from Hyderabad to Kolkata aboard the Falaknuma Express in May 2001, I was quite surprised to see myself picking up a Harry Potter. I had no clue what the first book in the series was, but looking at the descriptions on the back flap I figured Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone had to be it. It was a decision that I wouldn’t regret. By the end of that trip I had finished reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (book 4) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (book 2) as well. To say that I was addicted would be an understatement.

After getting back to Bangalore I got myself a copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (book 3) and finished that. Then began an elaborate hunt for good fan-fiction. But nothing could keep me sated till the next installment came by. I was a bit disappointed with Order of the Phoenix (book 5), and while I felt Half-Blood Prince (book 6) was a definite improvement, I was also left wondering how on earth J. K. Rowling would finish up the series with so much left to do. With trepedition I looked forward to The Deathly Hallows (book 7), and what a fitting end it was to the series!! So pleased was I with it that I went ahead and purchased Tales of Beedle the Bard.

What makes me like the series so much? I could point out several reasons:

  • A really fertile imagination – Rowling comfortably rivals other fantasy writers with her world of fiction. There are several literary creations of hers to show that off:
    • The game of quidditch, complete with rules, a world cup and a supporting book, Quidditch Through the Ages.
    • The smooth blending of the world of magic with the world of “muggles”, as the magical folks would call them:
      • The hypothetical Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross, acting as a train stop for transporting between the two worlds
      • Use of fairy-tale concepts of magic, like flying broomsticks, magic carpets, cauldrons for potions and adding a modern spin of commercialism to them, like a Nimbus 2001 broom.
      • Introducing a minister for magic to handle liaison between the two worlds
      • Making the kids of the magical world go through an academic schedule similar to the kids outside – full-year terms, exams at the end of the terms and so on.
      • Saying that creatures like dragons, basilisks, phoenices, goblins, centaurs, elves and merpeople exist in the magical world. This kind of writing provides rich fodder to kids’ imaginations.
  • Great play of words
    • Avada Kedavara – Interesting how abracadabra and cadaver could be changed into a curse
    • Diagon Alley, Knockturn Alley
    • Voldemort, meaning “flight of death” for the villain’s name, though Rowling claims the name wasn’t intended to have a meaning.
    • Malfoy, meaning “bad faith” as a name for the villain’s lackey.
    • A werewolf called Remus Lupin
    • A person called Sirius Black, who can transform himself into a dog
    • Spellotape – much like cellotape, except that it is magical
    • Pensieve – from pensive, something where all your thoughts go in.
    • Rubeus Hagrid – based on Hagrid Rubes, or “Giant of the jewels”, a kind giant in Greek mythology who was framed by Zeus for murder and banished from Mount Olympus, but allowed to stay and take care of animals. Rowling claims that the name is derived from “hagridden”
  • The *very* witty writing style.
    • Poking fun at the arbitrary values in the FPS system of measurement using the concept of galleons, sickles and knuts (1 galleon = 17 sickles, 1 sickle = 29 knuts)
    • Some really funny dialogue, like the ones involving Kreacher, the mocking by Severus Snape and the bickering between Ron and Hermione.
    • The motto of Hogwarts was “Draco Dormiens Nunquam Titillandus”, meaning “Never tickle a sleeping dragon”.

The plots are simple, yet engaging. I will try to summarize them without letting out too many spoilers:

  • Philosopher’s Stone
    This book was called Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the US because the American editors felt that the use of “Philosopher” in the title would misrepresent the contents of the book to children. Being the story that introduces it all, this novel has a special place in the hearts of most fans. The plot was straightforward – there is an attempted robbery where the thieves try to get a highly desirable object – the Philosopher’s stone. This could be the elixir of life for Voldemort, hence every attempt is made by Harry and his friends to foil the plot thereby delaying Voldemort’s return to power. The novel did set about highlighting those traits in people that would become cornerstones of the series.
  • Chamber of Secrets
    The theme here was certainly more innovative than Philosopher’s Stone. Mysterious messages show up everywhere in the school and people keep getting petrified. Harry keeps hearing mysterious voices and then he discovers that there may be a monster locked up in an unknown Chamber of Secrets. The book then proceeds to show Harry beating the odds to emerge triumphant. It also shows how brilliant Voldemort was and highlights class discrimination in the wizard world. Watch out for the anagram at the end of the novel – it is particularly intuitive.
  • Prisoner of Azkaban
    This is the book where Harry breaks free off the pack. He displays mastery over an extremely advanced form of magic and shows that when it comes to dark magic, he is better than most at defending against it. There is no Voldemort in this book and it is slightly low on action except for the last bit. Most people liked this novel for the titular character, but I felt that Sirius Black was more of a plot device than a character of much significance.
  • Goblet of Fire
    The most action-filled book of the series up to that point, bested only by The Deathly Hallows. It has a lot of things happening, like the characters developing into full-blown adolescents, a full-blown sequence with a dragon, some spectacular fights with other creatures at the end, the first death explicitly portrayed, Harry honing his magical abilities further, some great plot devices and most importantly the return of Voldemort. It also leaves a few very significant open ends (like a glint in Dumbledore’s eyes) that don’t get resolved till the very end of the series. And then it leaves the gates open for fans arguing what the romantic coupling in the novels should be.
  • Order of the Phoenix
    This is one depressing novel. It wasn’t a bad novel – it was just gloomy. Everything that could go wrong with Harry goes wrong, starting from nobody believing his story about Voldemort’s return, to a really sadistic teacher at school, to losing a dear one to coping with anger issues accompanying his age, to encountering romantic frustration. And given that it was longer than Goblet of Fire, it felt like a let-down when the climactic scene didn’t show much of a battle between Harry and Voldemort. Of course, that was compensated by a more competent wizard battling Voldemort. But nevertheless, this book was a let-down. This was also the book where “the prophecy” was revealed, in fairly ambiguous terms, if I might add.
  • Half-Blood Prince
    After the gloom of Order of the Phoenix, I was hoping that this book would lift my spirits. It did, though the end left me rather stunned. Luckily this novel did not have Harry brooding too much over the killed character from Order of the Phoenix. One of the key aspects here was some back-story for Voldemort, to help Harry and us readers understand his psyche. True to form Rowling killed off another character, but this was a character who had truly been central to the plot up to this point. I wasn’t able to wrap my head around how Rowling would be able to tie up all the lose ends in the last book. Statistically only 2/7 of Harry’s battle had been won and his most powerful ally was lost.
  • Deathly Hallows
    It is a testament to Rowling’s exceptional skill that she managed to tie up ALL loose ends in this novel. And what really took the cake was the whole aspect of the Deathly Hallows and Dumbledore’s back-story. More than anything else this was a tale of redemption. Several characters, major and minor found forgiveness and redemption and their stories received closure here. All in all the entire journey was well worth its wait.

Rowling’s writing style is so captivating that even the most mundane of sequences have the quality of an absolute page-turner. Though the books are all titled Harry Potter and something, each book shows what can be achieved by teamwork – Harry is never the smartest wizard, but he has a conviction and determination that is so desired in a hero, Hermione is most often the brains behind the operations (though Harry tends to overrule Hermione’s logical outlook of things) and Ron is all about heart. Also, each book chronicles one year in the life of the characters, so the characters grow with the series.

If there is one criticism that must be leveled at Rowling it is that she is an unmitigated disaster at the romantic aspects of the series. A common topic of discussion all over the internet during the first 5 novels was how the romantic pairings would work out. Fans were vertically split between Harry-Hermione vs. Ron-Hermione. Both camps were convinced that there was enough evidence for their “ship” to win out and ship wars ranged from dignified to vitriolic. Eventually one relationship triumphed, which most people could live with since it was the author’s prerogative. But the manner in which a new relationship was foisted on Harry by suddenly having a character pitched as “his equal” left a lot to be desired. More importantly the romantic interactions in Half Blood Prince and Deathly Hallows seemed extremely awkward and forced, almost as though Rowling felt obliged to include something romantic, but had no idea how and would much rather be concentrating on the main plot. But this must be the sole blemish in a remarkable series.

One thing that I will be grateful to Rowling forever is that she has given the kids of today something really good to read with contemporary settings. A lot of children today shun books for video games and movies and in that process, they really miss out on the undiluted thrill of turning through the pages of a book. Her books showcase very simple concepts like the values of love, kindness, forgiveness, courage, redemption and loyalty. They also highlight several issues in society like class distinctions, belief in superiority by birth, blind faith, presenting illusions of safety when things are not quite hunky-dory and so on.

I am waiting for Aikataan to grow up a bit so that he can start reading – books like these are bound to unlock a child’s imagination.