Monday, December 31, 2007

Crisis in the Australian Cricket Team

Tempers are frayed in the board-room of the Australian Cricket Selection Board. An unnamed source told us that the entire team was summoned today and given a dressing down by the Chairman of the Selectors. Captain Ricky Ponting took the brunt of the assault and later tearfully admitted to the unnamed source that he was powerless to do anything about it. The Chairman of the Selectors later played down the incident and promised that his team would be turning around soon and that they would learn from the mistakes of the past.

At the heart of the trouble is the crushing defeat that the Aussies inflicted on the Indian cricket team, visiting and currently playing a test series. As is well known, the immense popularity of the game in the Indian subcontinent is what is paying everybody's salary. Worried that frequent defeats of the Indian team might lower viewer interest and thereby hurt the board's advertising revenues, the Australian Cricket Board had specifically instructed their team to lose to the Indians or, if for some reason they can't, as often happens to teams playing chronic losers like India, at least win by extremely slender margins.

This, the board felt, was completely ignored by Ponting and his men. First, they pounded the Indian bowling attack all around the field on the flimsy grounds that it was ineffectual. Ponting's sarcastic remark, that if the board wanted batsmen who could lose their wickets to the Indian attack, they had better recruit blind players, did not go well with the selectors. Ponting later apologized for it, though he privately told our source that he was not sure that even blind batsmen could manage this.

The meeting broke for lunch, in an attempt to cool tempers, but when it re-convened, the bowlers came in for a bit of stick, as they say in cricketing terms. It has been decided to enrol them for the crash course on bowling half volleys, a regular course being conducted by the advanced training program of the Indian Cricket Board. The Indian cricket board have been informally sounded out about this and have graciously agreed to impart the necessary skills to the Australian bowlers. A sports psychologist's services have been sought, to "de-competitise" the Australians. India has some of the best in this field.

When this reporter contacted the Chairman of the Selectors for his comment, the official reply was that there was no problem and the situation was under control. Privately, an unnamed source assured this reporter that the team has been instructed to lose by an innings. The idea is that even if they goof up, they could still lose by a narrower margin.

What will happen is something that only time will tell, but there is no doubt that the Australians are serious this time. The national coach of Australia is reported to have told the Indian batsmen Dravid and Jaffer that the rules of the game permitted a player to actually hit the ball with the bat, something which they reportedly found shocking and heretical, but being the fine players that they are, are actually considering it.

The situation, in short, is hopeful.

Narendra Shenoy
Special Reporter on Global Cricketing Matters

Friday, December 28, 2007

Cellphones - their part in my hair loss

Every once in a while I get the feeling that I am really not part of this world. You know, like you've just come out of the Kalahari desert, lost and disoriented. Except that bushmen can find their way around by the stars. I can't find may way around in the mall, because I find the signage confusing. Nothing is written in words, just internationally accepted symbols. I frequently land up at the baggage counter for a pee. Anyway, thats a different story. What I was getting around to saying is that every once in a while I get the feeling that I'm lost and cellphones are guaranteed to make me feel that way.

My basic attitude towards buying cellphones is to get away with buying the cheapest one possible. I would much rather spend my money on fine alcoholic beverages, you see, than buy expensive cellphones so that the people who make them can buy fine alcoholic beverages. So when my finely honed instincts drag me towards the crap-phone counter, Sheela and the boys feel I'm being a cheapskate. "Dad", one of the boys said, "even the guy who washes the car has a better phone". There was much truth in that statement. The guy who washes our car is quite a happening dude.

I really can't understand, for the life of me, why a "better" cell phone is better. Consider the one that they persuaded me to buy. Its from the Sony Walkman series whose selling point is that you can listen to music on your phone. When it was thrust into my hands and its features explained, I did something I don't usually do - I thought. "Guys," I said, "this is a silly idea. On the rare occasions that I listen to music, I like to do it in the peaceful surrounds of my living room, preferably in the company of a chilled bottle, not when I'm having a heated conversation about missed deadlines." The lads corrected me on this point. "Dad, this is really cool. Trust me", said Gautham, who's been watching too many American movies.

He did not speak a lie. It seems that the entire teenage population of the world thinks that this concept is cool. Sony is raking it in till its arms hurt and one or two of the dour faced Japanese elders at Sony corp are rumored to have actually smiled. If I was a Japanese elder at Sony corp, I would have been exchanging high fives in my underwear with other Japanese elders. Now of course all phones are a music special and allow you, should you fancy it, to listen to Eminem holding forth on Puke when you should be paying attention to the stern looking lady from HR.

But the real problem with cellphones is the service providers. I have my usual tiff with them once a month because they call up about a week before the payment is due and ask me if I have made the payment and if I have, to provide them with the cheque number, the name of my bank, my sixteen digit bank account number, my mother's maiden name, three distinguishing marks on my body and the name and gender of my childhood sweetheart. Really. And they usually get the timing down to within a minute of my having received a seriously pissed off call from one of my customers for having missed a deadline. I am really not in a mood to exchange light hearted banter with the lady about my commercial obligations with her cell phone company.The payment isn't even due, damn your soul, I yell at her. Even as I do it, I realize that its not her fault. She is just doing her job, trying to earn an honest living. Respect that, you ass, my conscience is saying to me. But even my conscience finds itself at a loss for words when we have one of those rate plan conversations. The phone rings. You pick it up. Nice lady coos to you and before you know it, she is explaining a tariff plan that apparently requires a PhD in abstract mathematics to understand. The main principles of a cellphone tariff plan are as follows

1. Like life, the universe and everything, it cannot be understood by mortals
2. It is better than your current tariff plan
3. You will end up paying more in the total but less per call.

The episode usually leaves me with a throbbing sensation in the temples. I retire to my den, curl up with a book and conduct some research into the therapeutic properties of chilled beer. Then the boys turn up with the latest news.

"Dad, the guy who washes the car has an i-phone."

Friday, December 7, 2007

A Pooh-Poohing primer

"The Pakistan manager pooh-poohed the suggestion that his players were involved in match-fixing", said a major newspaper recently. This being one of my brighter days, I found myself thinking about this. Not the part about the Pakistan manager. Saying that they fix their matches is a bit like accusing Toyota of manufacturing cars. Core business, as they say in MBA speak. No, what interested me was the "pooh-poohed" part.

How do you pooh-pooh a journalist at a press conference? I can imagine the journalist standing up and asking the Pakistan manager
Journalist: "Is it true, sir, that you and your team are actively involved in match fixing?"
Pakistan Manager: "Pooh-Pooh"

Everyone that matters, everyone who is news worthy, is doing it. Manmohan Singh recently pooh-poohed journalists' claims that his government was anti poor. Dubya pooh-poohed allegations that the US was losing ground in Iraq. Even someone as lowly as the Mumbai Police Commissioner pooh-poohed the hell out of someone for saying that the crime rate was going up.

I have therefore taken it upon myself to educate the public in the basics of pooh-poohing.

Q. Can you pooh-pooh a proposal?
A. Not unless it alleges something

Q. What is the correct procedure for pooh-poohing?
A. You wait for a journalist to ask you something. Then you stand up, face him squarely and say "pooh-pooh"

Q. Will this kill the journalist?
A. Alas, no, but if you say it right, he will wish he was dead because all his brother journalists will nudge each other when he walks into a party and say "Don't look now, but that's the guy who was pooh-poohed the other night"

I have of course only scratched the surface of this fascinating and complex subject. Needless to say, it will take months of patient practice before you achieve any kind of expertise at pooh-poohing. Longer, for a doofus like you. But keep at it. Pooh-pooh everybody at every opportunity. before soon, the world will tremble when you walk.

One caveat, though. Dont say "pooh-pooh" to someone under 10 years of age. They will merely reply "Tigger Tigger"

Sunday, December 2, 2007

The stock market and I

“How do you make a small fortune on the stock market?" goes the old saying, "You have to start with a large fortune”

Stocks and stock markets are a sealed book to me. Some stocks go up. Some go down. Some, like the one’s I buy, go down so fast that you heave a sigh of relief when they reach zero. You see, they can’t go lower.

Still, there was a time when I was a big wheeler dealer on the stock market, way back in the late eighties and the early nineties. This was the Harshad Mehta Bull Market. The said Mehta was known as "the big bull" and was responsible for a heady time circa 1990. Every one regardless of age, sex and financial standing had become a gambler. Could one of my pronounced goofiness be far behind?

Back then, the stock market used to operate on the “outcry” system, where trades were verbal, noted down in little trade books and then settled at the end of the day. Not a computer in sight.

There would be a jobber who would give two way quotes for the stocks he was dealing in, adjusting prices according to demand and supply. For example, if there were too many buyers and too few sellers, he would keep upping the price till there was a match. Sometimes, if he upped the price too much, the buyers would go away, in which case he would have to lower the price.

This used to keep happening continuously and the whole thing had a buzz to it. Very audible. Only card-holding members of the stock exchange could go in and trade. We used to trade through a sub-broker who had a card. This guy was a good friend of ours and while he was a trifle prone to flinging food around when under the influence of alcohol, during trading hours he was the picture of composure.

And composure was sorely needed because when the markets were in turmoil, there could be a lot of shirt grabbing and vest pulling that would go on in the ring. He would regularly emerge from the trading floor with only a small percentage of his clothing intact, often to our great amusement. We once discovered, for example, that he had worn his wife’s underwear to work because he couldn’t find his own (he said), a fact that was revealed when he tragically lost his pant buttons in the process of purchasing shares of ACC.

The market those days operated on “tips”. The moves were made by the great Harshad Mehta and the rest of the herd tried to follow as nimbly and rapidly as possible. Everyone had a tip. Mine was “Radhakrishna Cement”. Someone, very possible the elevator boy in office, had told me about it and my information was to buy it as surreptitiously as possible so as not to tip off the jobber in the stock, because he would immediately up the prices and try to corner the stock himself.

The ruling price was 7 rupees a share. I formed a syndicate with three other friends and raised a corpus of the then incredibly large sum of 50,000 rupees. Five minutes before trading, we were at the exchange, striding purposefully to the entrance of the ring which was humming with activity. It took a minute to locate our broker friend and the need for discretion was explained to him. We told him to buy shares not more than 500 at a time. Play it cool, we told him, because this was BIG. He went in.

Hearts pounding, the four of us stood outside the ring. This was the pre-cell-phone-o-zoic era and there was nothing we would do but bite our nails. After about an hour, he came out for a smoke break. We rushed towards him. He told us that he was a little doubtful about the quality of the scrip. Apparently he went to the jobber for Radhakrishna Cement and asked for a quote. Selling seven rupees. Give me 500, he said. After about 15 minutes he went to him again and asked for a quote. Selling seven rupees. Give me 500, he said.
When he went for the third time, the jobber told him to take the whole damned company for seven rupees and stop hassling him. This should have told us something, but as the poet said, we were one and twenty and proud as peacocks. Do your job, we told him, and leave the thinking to us.

Well, we got our 50,000 worth of Radhakrishna shares and while I would not write it off as a dud investment, miracles happen, our little syndicate has often wished they had been printed on softer and more absorbent paper.

But we never fell out, the members of our syndicate, in spite of one dud investment after another. The fun of the whole thing kept our camaraderie up. Only after I was respectably married did my wife point out that I could do the whole thing faster by just burning up currency notes. And the little old helpmeet was right. What with one thing and another, the whole stockmarket experience began to lose its magnetism. Other than the occasional IPO or mutual fund, I ceased my endeavours to rock the economy.

Which is why the Ambani brothers are where they are.