While a bunch of Oscar-nominated contenders make their way into Indian screens on the eve of the 89th Academy Awards – Jackie and Lion release this week, after Moonlight and Hidden Figures last week – the world of sports continues on its merry way. It has been a somewhat packed week of many events – not so much in action as in spirit. The T20 auction, Champions League football, a thrilling women’s cricket final, the beginning of the main test series this summer…and a lot more. So, just a few days before La La Land breaks a few long-standing records, let’s take a look at the best of the rest:
If the baffling cricket auction made you doubt the soul of the sport, football put itself at the forefront of heartlessness by what transpired on Thursday night. Claudio Ranieri, the miracle worker and Italian coach of EPL champions Leicester City, was sacked by his club directors 25 games into the new season, less than a year after leading the team to the singular greatest moment in English football history. A day after his team scored a crucial away goal in Sevilla in their Champions League first leg tie in a 2-1 defeat, Ranieri – declared by FIFA as manager of the year only a month ago – was relieved of his responsibilities. This is mostly down to his team’s plunge back into a fight for survival in the top flight again – when LCFC came thudding back down to Earth this year with just 5 wins in 25 games, and 1 point off the relegation battle with 11 to go. But to fire the manager – perhaps the only one who could have even kept them afloat this year, given their impressive Champions League debut – is an action indicative of modern football’s kneejerk ruthlessness. While Jose Mourinho’s sacking from a big club and contender like Chelsea less than a year after winning the league is understandable, this is not – simply because Leicester weren’t even expected to be playing top-flight football in 2017, let alone enter it as defending champions. The gravity of the achievement seems to have faded upon its own owners faster than it has on the rest of the world – with football pundits and ex-players crying foul in disbelief. If anything, Ranieri should have been given a lifetime position at the top of the club, yet their ‘change in expectations’ seems to have robbed the underdog club of any universality and integrity, colouring dizzy memories of perhaps the finest sporting moment of 2016. They will host title contenders Liverpool next week without a full-time manager.
Real Madrid’s lead at the top of the Spanish Premier League was cut down to 1 point (with a game in hand) over rivals Barcelona after they lost only their second game of the season, this time to Valencia away. All three goals came in the first half, including Cristiano Ronaldo’s half-time effort.
THE TOUR BEGINS
Australia’s tour of India began on Thursday with the first test at Pune. As I write this, Steve Smith’s men are giving a fine account of themselves, after putting up 260 on a crumbling pitch, before Mitchell Starc took out Cheteshwar Pujara and Virat Kohli in the space of 4 balls early in the Indian reply. This could well be a competitive first match, given that the pitch is unlike anything most experts have ever seen for a first few days of the first match of a tour. Kohli went for a duck to Starc, caught in the slips, the first time he has gotten out without scoring in a test since the England tour in 2014. Perhaps the most fascinating moment of the first day was the ‘retired ill’ moment of opener Matt Renshaw, who ran off the ground when partner David Warner was dismissed – because of an upset stomach. He came back to battle to a well-earned 68 – his first fifty outside Australia after he was drafted into the squad in the famous ‘revamp’ when they lost the series to South Africa at home in November.
Days after whitewashing Sri Lanka 5-0 in the ODI series at home, South Africa continued their winning streak after traveling to New Zealand – tough opposition in their own conditions. They won the first ODI very easily with an Imran Tahir 5-for, before falling to Kane Williamson’s men by four runs in the second match, ending their streak, leaving them deadlocked 1-1 in the 5-match ODI series. South Africa rarely loses bilateral limited-overs series, and their main concern remains multi-team ICC tournaments, like the Champions Trophy coming up in June, no matter what their form or team on paper looks like. Interestingly, ODI captain AB de Villiers, after taking a break from test cricket, has turned into more of an accumulator and ‘anchor’ in his team’s batting order over the last few months, intent on finishing games without fireworks – taking over the senior statsman position, given the marauding form of Quinton de Kock and Faf du Plessis. The third ODI will be played at Wellington on Saturday.
With the Indian women needing 8 off the final 2 balls in the World Cup Qualifiers final against South Africa in Colombo, Harmanpreet Kaur struck a six and a two to give the team their most distinguished victory in recent memory – as pandemonium broke loose in their chase of 245. Both teams had already qualified for the World Cup this year, but the trophy remained of utmost importance to the team, which finished the tournament unbeaten. They join South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka as one of the four out of ten teams to qualify for the World Cup – joining the elite list of England, world champions Australia, New Zealand and West Indies.
Expect a lot of Trump-bashing and strong statements about immigration and humanity on Sunday night (Monday morning IST), in addition to the slew of top awards at the Kodak Theatre in LA. The favourites for the main awards remain Casey Affleck for best actor (Manchester by the Sea), Natalie Portman for best actress (Jackie), Damien Chazelle for best director (La La Land) and La La Land for Best Picture.