Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Stop blaming the poor

 Population growth is not a problem. - it's among those who consume the least. So why isn't anyone targeting the very rich


It's no coincidence that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it's about the only environmental issue for which they can't be blamed. The brilliant Earth systems scientist James Lovelock, for instance, claimed last month that "those who fail to see that population growth and climate change are two sides of the same coin are either ignorant or hiding from the truth. These two huge environmental problems are inseparable and to discuss one while ignoring the other is irrational." But it's Lovelock who is being ignorant and irrational.


A paper published yesterday in the journal Environment and Urbanization shows that the places where population has been growing fastest are those in which carbon dioxide has been growing most slowly, and vice versa. Between 1980 and 2005, for instance, sub-Saharan Africa produced 18.5% of the world's population growth and just 2.4% of the growth in CO2. North America turned out only 4% of the extra people, but 14% of the extra emissions. Sixty-three percent of the world's population growth happened in places with very low emissions.

Even this does not capture it. The paper points out that about one sixth of the world's population is so poor that it produces no significant emissions at all. This is also the group whose growth rate is likely to be highest. Households in India earning less than 3,000 rupees (£40) a month use a fifth of the electricity per head and one seventh of the transport fuel of households earning 30,000 rupees or more. Street sleepers use almost nothing. Those who live by processing waste (a large part of the urban underclass) often save more greenhouse gases than they produce.


Many of the emissions for which poorer countries are blamed should in fairness belong to the developed nations. Gas flaring by companies exporting oil from Nigeria, for instance, has produced more greenhouse gases than all other sources in sub-Saharan Africa put together. Even deforestation in poor countries is driven mostly by commercial operations delivering timber, meat and animal feed to rich consumers. The rural poor do far less harm.

The paper's author, David Satterthwaite, points out that the old formula taught to students of development – that total impact equals population times affluence times technology (I = PAT) – is wrong. Total impact should be measured as I = CAT: consumers times affluence times technology. Many of the world's people use so little that they wouldn't figure in this equation. They are the ones who have most children.


While there's a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there's a strong correlation between global warming and wealth. I've been taking a look at a few super-yachts, as I'll need somewhere to entertain Labour ministers in the style to which they are accustomed. First I went through the plans for Royal Falcon Fleet's RFF135, but when I discovered that it burns only 750 litres of fuel per hour I realised that it wasn't going to impress Lord Mandelson. I might raise half an eyebrow in Brighton with the Overmarine Mangusta 105, which sucks up 850 litres per hour. But the raft that's really caught my eye is made by Wally Yachts in Monaco. The WallyPower 118 (which gives total wallies a sensation of power) consumes 3,400 litres per hour when travelling at 60 knots. That's nearly a litre per second. Another way of putting it is 31 litres per kilometre.

Of course, to make a real splash I'll have to shell out on teak and mahogany fittings, carry a few jetskis and a mini-submarine, ferry my guests to the marina by private plane and helicopter, offer them bluefin tuna sushi and beluga caviar, and drive the beast so fast that I mash up half the marine life of the Mediterranean. As the owner of one of these yachts I'll do more damage to the biosphere in 10 minutes than most Africans inflict in a lifetime. Now we're burning, baby.
Someone I know who hangs out with the very rich tells me that in the banker belt of the lower Thames valley there are people who heat their outdoor swimming pools to bath temperature, all round the year. They like to lie in the pool on winter nights, looking up at the stars. The fuel costs them £3,000 a month. One hundred thousand people living like these bankers would knacker our life support systems faster than 10 billion people living like the African peasantry. But at least the super wealthy have the good manners not to breed very much, so the rich old men who bang on about human reproduction leave them alone.


In May the Sunday Times carried an article headlined "Billionaire club in bid to curb overpopulation". It revealed that "some of America's leading billionaires have met secretly" to decide which good cause they should support. "A consensus emerged that they would back a strategy in which population growth would be tackled as a potentially disastrous environmental, social and industrial threat." The ultra-rich, in other words, have decided that it's the very poor who are trashing the planet. You grope for a metaphor, but it's impossible to satirise.


James Lovelock, like Sir David Attenborough and Jonathan Porritt, is a patron of the Optimum Population Trust. It is one of dozens of campaigns and charities whose sole purpose is to discourage people from breeding in the name of saving the biosphere. But I haven't been able to find any campaign whose sole purpose is to address the impacts of the very rich.

The obsessives could argue that the people breeding rapidly today might one day become richer. But as the super wealthy grab an ever greater share and resources begin to run dry, this, for most of the very poor, is a diminishing prospect. There are strong social reasons for helping people to manage their reproduction, but weak environmental reasons – except among wealthier populations.

The Optimum Population Trust glosses over the fact that the world is going through demographic transition: population growth rates are slowing down almost everywhere and the number of people is likely, according to a paper in Nature, to peak this century, probably at about 10 billion. Most of the growth will take place among those who consume almost nothing.
But no one anticipates a consumption transition. People breed less as they become richer, but they don't consume less – they consume more. As the habits of the super-rich show, there are no limits to human extravagance. Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers. Anyone who understands this and still considers that population, not consumption, is the big issue is, in Lovelock's words, "hiding from the truth". It is the worst kind of paternalism, blaming the poor for the excesses of the rich.
So where are the movements protesting about the stinking rich destroying our living systems? Where is the direct action against super-yachts and private jets? Where's Class War when you need it?
It's time we had the guts to name the problem. It's not sex; it's money. It's not the poor; it's the rich.

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Saturday, 26 September 2009

Unanswered Questions on 9/11

Fifty questions on 9/11
By Pepe Escobar

It's September 11 all over again - eight years on. The George W Bush administration is out. The "global war on terror" is still on, renamed "overseas contingency operations" by the Barack Obama administration. Obama's "new strategy" - a war escalation - is in play in AfPak. Osama bin Laden may be dead or not. "Al-Qaeda" remains a catch-all ghost entity. September 11 - the neo-cons' "new Pearl Harbor" - remains the darkest jigsaw puzzle of the young 21st century.

It's useless to expect US corporate media and the ruling elites' political operatives to call for a true, in-depth investigation into the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001. Whitewash has been the norm. But even establishment highlight Dr Zbig "Grand Chessboard" Brzezinski, a former national security advisor, has admitted to the US Senate that the post-9/11 "war on terror" is a "mythical historical narrative".

The following questions, some multi-part - and most totally ignored by the 9/11 Commission - are just the tip of the immense 9/11 iceberg. A hat tip goes to the indefatigable work of 911truth.org; whatreallyhappened.com; architects and engineers for 9/11 truth; the Italian documentary Zero: an investigation into 9/11; and Asia Times Online readers' e-mails.

None of these questions has been convincingly answered - according to the official narrative. It's up to US civil society to keep up the pressure. Eight years after the fact, one fundamental conclusion is imperative. The official narrative edifice of 9/11 is simply not acceptable.

Fifty questions
1) How come dead or not dead Osama bin Laden has not been formally indicted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as responsible for 9/11? Is it because the US government - as acknowledged by the FBI itself - has not produced a single conclusive piece of evidence?

2) How could all the alleged 19 razor-blade box cutter-equipped Muslim perpetrators have been identified in less than 72 hours - without even a crime scene investigation?

3) How come none of the 19's names appeared on the passenger lists released the same day by both United Airlines and American Airlines?

4) How come eight names on the "original" FBI list happened to be found alive and living in different countries?

5) Why would pious jihadi Mohammed Atta leave a how-to-fly video manual, a uniform and his last will inside his bag knowing he was on a suicide mission?

6) Why did Mohammed Atta study flight simulation at Opa Locka, a hub of no less than six US Navy training bases?

7) How could Mohammed Atta's passport have been magically found buried among the Word Trade Center (WTC)'s debris when not a single flight recorder was found?

8) Who is in the possession of the "disappeared" eight indestructible black boxes on those four flights?

9) Considering multiple international red alerts about a possible terrorist attack inside the US - including former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice's infamous August 6, 2001, memo - how come four hijacked planes deviating from their computerized flight paths and disappearing from radar are allowed to fly around US airspace for more than an hour and a half - not to mention disabling all the elaborate Pentagon's defense systems in the process?

10) Why the secretary of the US Air Force James Roche did not try to intercept both planes hitting the WTC (only seven minutes away from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey) as well as the Pentagon (only 10 minutes away from McGuire)? Roche had no less than 75 minutes to respond to the plane hitting the Pentagon.
11) Why did George W Bush continue to recite "My Pet Goat" in his Florida school and was not instantly absconded by the secret service?

12) How could Bush have seen the first plane crashing on WTC live - as he admitted? Did he have previous knowledge - or is he psychic?

13) Bush said that he and Andrew Card initially thought the first hit on the WTC was an accident with a small plane. How is that possible when the FAA as well as NORAD already knew this was about a hijacked plane?

14) What are the odds of transponders in four different planes be turned off almost simultaneously, in the same geographical area, very close to the nation's seat of power in Washington, and no one scrambles to contact the Pentagon or the media?

15) Could defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld explain why initial media reports said that there were no fighter jets available at Andrews Air Force Base and then change the reports that there were, but not on high alert?

16) Why was the DC Air National Guard in Washington AWOL on 9/11?

17) Why did combat jet fighters of the 305th Air Wing, McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey not intercept the second hijacked plane hitting the WTC, when they could have done it within seven minutes?

18) Why did none of the combat jet fighters of the 459th Aircraft Squadron at Andrews Air Force Base intercept the plane that hit the Pentagon, only 16 kilometers away? And since we're at it, why the Pentagon did not release the full video of the hit?

19) A number of very experienced airline pilots - including US ally Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a former fighter jet pilot - revealed that, well, only crack pilots could have performed such complex maneuvers on the hijacked jets, while others insisted they could only have been accomplished by remote control. Is it remotely believable that the hijackers were up to the task?

20) How come a substantial number of witnesses did swear seeing and hearing multiple explosions in both towers of the WTC?

21) How come a substantial number of reputed architects and engineers are adamant that the official narrative simply does not explain the largest structural collapse in recorded history (the Twin Towers) as well as the collapse of WTC building 7, which was not even hit by a jet?

22) According to Frank de Martini, WTC's construction manager, "We designed the building to resist the impact of one or more jetliners." The second plane nearly missed tower 1; most of the fuel burned in an explosion outside the tower. Yet this tower collapsed first, long before tower 2 that was "perforated" by the first hit. Jet fuel burned up fast - and by far did not reach the 2000-degree heat necessary to hurt the six tubular steel columns in the center of the tower - designed specifically to keep the towers from collapsing even if hit by a Boeing 707. A Boeing 707 used to carry more fuel than the Boeing 757 and Boeing 767 that actually hit the towers.

23) Why did Mayor Rudolph Giuliani instantly authorized the shipment of WTC rubble to China and India for recycling?

24) Why was metallic debris found no less than 13 kilometers from the crash site of the plane that went down in Pennsylvania? Was the plane in fact shot down - under vice president Dick Cheney's orders?

25) The Pipelineistan question. What did US ambassador Wendy Chamberlain talk about over the phone on October 10, 2001, with the oil minister of Pakistan? Was it to tell him that the 1990s-planned Unocal gas pipeline project, TAP (Turkmenistan/Afghanistan/ Pakistan), abandoned because of Taliban demands on transit fees, was now back in business? (Two months later, an agreement to build the pipeline was signed between the leaders of the three countries).

26) What is former Unocal lobbyist and former Bush pet Afghan Zalmay Khalilzad up to in Afghanistan?

27) How come former Pakistani foreign minister Niaz Niak said in mid-July 2001 that the US had already decided to strike against Osama bin Laden and the Taliban by October? The topic was discussed secretly at the July Group of Eight summit in Genoa, Italy, according to Pakistani diplomats.

28) How come US ambassador to Yemen Barbara Bodine told FBI agent John O'Neill in July 2001 to stop investigating al-Qaeda's financial operations - with O'Neill instantly moved to a security job at the WTC, where he died on 9/11?

29) Considering the very intimate relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and the ISI and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), is Bin Laden alive, dead or still a valuable asset of the ISI, the CIA or both?

30) Was Bin Laden admitted at the American hospital in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates on July 4, 2001, after flying from Quetta, Pakistan, and staying for treatment until July 11?

31) Did the Bin Laden group build the caves of Tora Bora in close cooperation with the CIA during the 1980s' anti-Soviet jihad?

32) How come General Tommy Franks knew for sure that Bin Laden was hiding in Tora Bora in late November 2001?

33) Why did president Bill Clinton abort a hit on Bin Laden in October 1999? Why did then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf abort a covert ops in the same date? And why did Musharraf do the same thing again in August 2001?

34) Why did George W Bush dissolve the Bin Laden Task Force nine months before 9/11?

35) How come the (fake) Bin Laden home video - in which he "confesses" to being the perpetrator of 9/11 - released by the US on December 13, 2001, was found only two weeks after it was produced (on November 9); was it really found in Jalalabad (considering Northern Alliance and US troops had not even arrived there at the time); by whom; and how come the Pentagon was forced to release a new translation after the first (botched) one?

36) Why was ISI chief Lieutenant General Mahmud Ahmad abruptly "retired" on October 8, 2001, the day the US started bombing Afghanistan?

37) What was Ahmad up to in Washington exactly on the week of 9/11 (he arrived on September 4)? On the morning of 9/11, Ahmad was having breakfast on Capitol Hill with Bob Graham and Porter Goss, both later part of the 9/11 Commission, which simply refused to investigate two of its members. Ahmad had breakfast with Richard Armitage of the State Department on September 12 and 13 (when Pakistan negotiated its "cooperation" with the "war on terror") and met all the CIA and Pentagon top brass. On September 13, Musharraf announced he would send Ahmad to Afghanistan to demand to the Taliban the extradition of Bin Laden.
38) Who inside the ISI transferred US$100,000 to Mohammed Atta in the summer of 2001 - under orders of Ahmad himself, as Indian intelligence insists? Was it really ISI asset Omar Sheikh, Bin Laden's information technology specialist who later organized the slaying of American journalist Daniel Pearl in Karachi? So was the ISI directly linked to 9/11?

39) Did the FBI investigate the two shady characters who met Mohammed Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi in Harry's Bar at the Helmsley Hotel in New York City on September 8, 2001?

40) What did director of Asian affairs at the State Department Christina Rocca and the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan Abdul Salam Zaeef discuss in their meeting in Islamabad in August 2001?

41) Did Washington know in advance that an "al-Qaeda" connection would kill Afghan nationalist commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, aka "The Lion of the Panjshir", only two days before 9/11? Massoud was fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda - helped by Russia and Iran. According to the Northern Alliance, Massoud was killed by an ISI-Taliban-al Qaeda axis. If still alive, he would never have allowed the US to rig a loya jirga (grand council) in Afghanistan and install a puppet, former CIA asset Hamid Karzai, as leader of the country.

42) Why did it take no less than four months before the name of Ramzi Binalshibh surfaced in the 9/11 context, considering the Yemeni was a roommate of Mohammed Atta in his apartment cell in Hamburg?

43) Is pathetic shoe-bomber Richard Reid an ISI asset?

44) Did then-Russian president Vladimir Putin and Russian intelligence tell the CIA in 2001 that 25 terrorist pilots had been training for suicide missions?

45) When did the head of German intelligence, August Hanning, tell the CIA that terrorists were "planning to hijack commercial aircraft?"

46) When did Egyptian President Mubarak tell the CIA about an attack on the US with an "airplane stuffed with explosives?"

47) When did Israel's Mossad director Efraim Halevy tell the CIA about a possible attack on the US by "200 terrorists?"

48) Were the Taliban aware of the warning by a Bush administration official as early as February 2001 - "Either you accept our offer of a carpet of gold, or we bury you under a carpet of bombs?"

49) Has Northrop-Grumman used Global Hawk technology - which allows to remotely control unmanned planes - in the war in Afghanistan since October 2001? Did it install Global Hawk in a commercial plane? Is Global Hawk available at all for commercial planes?

50) Would Cheney stand up and volunteer the detailed timeline of what he was really up to during the whole day on 9/11?


 More questions on 9/11
By Pepe Escobar

Osama "dead or alive" bin Laden would rather lose his kidney than pass up the opportunity to celebrate the eighth anniversary of September 11, 2001, on the United States. And like clockwork, he resurfaced in an 11-minute, al-Sahab-produced audiotape last week (sorry, no video, just a still picture), where he states how a series of grievances had "pushed us to undertake the events of [September 11]".

But there may be no mobile dialysis machine operating in a mysterious cave somewhere in one of the Waziristan tribal areas of Pakistan after all. According to David Ray Griffin's new book, Osama bin Laden: Dead or Alive? and based on a Taliban leader's remarks at the time, the mellifluous Saudi jihadi died of kidney failure in Tora Bora on December 13, 2001. Problem is, by that time, according to local mujahideen, Bin Laden had already escaped across the mountains with a bunch of al-Qaeda diehards to Parachinar, in Pakistan, and then to a shadowy underworld.

A decoy? A ghost? The devil himself? Who cares? Bin Laden, the brand, is still very good for ("war on terror") business. All this with the Barack Obama administration insisting the US is fighting the elusive, seemingly eternal Taliban leader Mullah Omar and the Taliban plus al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, while General Stanley McChrystal - General David Petraeus' former top death squad operator in Iraq - insists there is no al-Qaeda in Afghanistan (but he wants up to 40,000 extra troops anyway).

Last week, Asia Times Online published Fifty Question on 9/11. The article stressed the questions were only a taste of the immense, mysterious 9/11 riddle. (Arguably the best 9/11 timeline on the net may be seen here.

Due to overwhelming reader response, here's a follow-up with 20 more questions - with a hat-tip to all who joined the debate.

1. In the first months of 2001, three years after Bin Laden's 1998 fatwa against the US, Mullah Omar wanted to "resolve or dissolve" the Osama-Taliban nexus in exchange for Washington maneuvering to lift United Nations sanctions. Would anyone from the first George W Bush administration confirm a solid Taliban offer? Kabir Mohabbat, a Houston-based, Paktia (Afghanistan)-born businessman also involved in the (failed) 1990s negotiation for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan pipeline, and then named by Bush's National Security Council as a key Taliban contact, has sustained that was the case.

2. Eight names on the "original" Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) list of 19 Muslim hijackers happened to be found alive and living in different countries; the FBI has always sustained that the identity of the hijackers was established from DNA collected at all four sites - the World Trade Center (WTC), the Pentagon and the Shanksville, Pennsylvania, crash site. Would the FBI explain how is that remotely possible?

3. All four planes referenced in the official narrative have thousands of parts with a serial number, plus tail numbers. Any one of these would have been enough to identify the plane(s). How come all of these parts disintegrated or vaporized? Why was not a single one of them recovered and/or matched up with all the mass of data about these four flights?

4. How come cell phones miraculously find a signal and work properly at 10,000 meters?

5. How to explain the enormous surge in "option puts" on both United Airlines and American Airlines on September 10?

6. How come the passport of alleged hijacker Satam al Suqami (and not Mohammed Atta, as reported) was miraculously found amid massive World Trade Center debris - either by "police and FBI" or by "a passerby who gave it to the NYPD", according to different versions?

7.Why was a military grade of thermite - a super-explosive - found at all sample sites surrounding Ground Zero? A peer-reviewed, scientific journal analysis is here.

8. How come Barry Jennings, who worked for New York City's Housing Department, reported on 9/11 to ABC News how he heard an explosion on the 8th floor of WTC 7? Jennings happened to die just a few days before the release of the NIST report on the WTC 7 collapse. A great number of actual 9/11 witnesses also heard and saw explosions going off inside the Twin Towers long before their collapse. A montage of news reports about these explosions can be seen here.

9. Why did the BBC confirm live on air the collapse of the WTC 7 building - which was not even hit by any plane - no less than 23 minutes before it actually collapsed? In the BBC live report, the WTC7 building is shot still standing.

10. Why there has been no investigation of Dov Zakheim? He was a prominent member of the Project for the New American Century group, and chief executive officer of SPC - a company making systems for remote control of airplanes - for four years prior to 9/11. Six months before 9/11, he became supervisor of a group of Pentagon comptrollers responsible for tracking no less than $2.3 trillion missing from the Pentagon books; many of these comptrollers died on 9/11.

11. The "five dancing Israelis" question. How come Oded Ellner, Omer Marmari, Paul Kurzberg, Sivan Kurzberg and Yaron Shmuel had set up a video camera on top of their white van pointing at the Twin Towers even before they were hit? Later they were seen celebrating. The FBI established that two were Mossad agents and that their employer, Urban Moving Systems, was a front operation. The investigation about them was killed by the White House. After being deported from the US, they admitted on Israeli TV that they had been sent to New York to "document" the attacks. How about other reports of vans packed with tons of explosives intercepted on New York bridges?

12. How come two US employees of Odigo, an Israeli instant messaging company based in Herzliya, the headquarters of Mossad, received an SMS about an attack on the WTC two hours before the fact?

13. How come there was no investigation of ICTS International, owned by Ezra Harel and Menachem Atzmon, and crammed with former Israeli Shin Bet agents? This was the company responsible for airport security at Dulles, Logan and Newark airports on 9/11.

14. Why was there no full investigation of the circumstances related to how Larry Silverstein leased the WTC only seven weeks before 9/11 - as facilitated by New York Port Authority chairman Lewis Eisenberg? Silverstein over-insured the WTC against terrorism and made an astonishing profit.

15. Why were anthrax packages mailed to the only two US senators who voted against the Patriot Act?

16. Why did situation room director Deborah Loewer follow Bush to Florida on 9/11 - considering that's not part of her job description?

17. Where are the full tapes from the Pentagon's security cameras? The hole in the Pentagon may be the most glaring hole in the official narrative - as the destruction caused by a Boeing 757 was simply not compatible with the size of the hole. Why were no significant plane debris and remains of passengers ever found?

18. Why did the 9/11 Commission not consult reputed engineers and architects to show that in the real world, steel and concrete skyscrapers simply cannot dissolve into molten metal and fine powder in only 10 seconds after very localized and relatively low-temperature fires? Kerosene simply cannot melt steel.

19. Why did the 9/11 Commission not consult airline specialists who insist trainee pilots who had practiced on very light aircraft for a few weeks simply cannot land a jet on the ground floor of the Pentagon after allegedly slicing through half a dozen light poles and evading a series of trees, cars and overpasses?

20. How come no one investigated claims by the two co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission, Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, who wrote in the New York Times on January 2008 that the Central Intelligence Agency "failed to respond to our lawful requests for information about the 9/11 plot [and] obstructed our investigation?"

Pepe Escobar is the author of Globalistan: How the Globalized World is Dissolving into Liquid War (Nimble Books, 2007) and Red Zone Blues: a snapshot of Baghdad during the surge. His new book, just out, is Obama does Globalistan (Nimble Books, 2009).

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Thursday, 24 September 2009

Shadow-practise, dream, wait



The final nets are over, there are about 18 hours to the start of the Test. How do cricketers spend that time?


Aakash Chopra

September 24, 2009


Matt the Bat - Matthew Hayden concentrates on the pitch ahead of the fourth Test , Adelaide, January 23, 2008
Matthew Hayden liked to be left alone with the pitch he had to play on the following day © AFP
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You may have wondered why Matthew Hayden sits on the pitch on the eve of a match. Does he meditate sitting there? Or why Rahul Dravid shadow-practises shots at both ends? Hasn't he played enough in the nets? Chris Gayle also does the same thing, albeit in the middle of the pitch. What are these guys up to?

All of them use an extremely important tool for preparation, visualisation. Hayden visualised everything, good and bad, that could happen in a match, so as not to be surprised during the match. All of us, knowing or unknowingly, do it.

I had my formal introduction to this technique just before the first Test against Australia in Brisbane in 2003. John Bell, an Australian coach I had met in Holland, told me about its application and importance. He told me to walk out from the dressing room on the eve of the match assuming that I was walking out to bat on the first morning of the game.


I had to psyche myself into seeing the packed stadium, the Australian team waiting in the middle along with the two umpires. I also had to imagine my partner, Virender Sehwag, was walking alongside me. Then I did my ritual, running a couple of mock runs, before settling in to take strike. To avoid looking completely insane, I skipped the part where I asked the imaginary umpire for a leg-stump guard. Apart from that, I did everything I would in the real match. I mentally drew a line just outside the off stump, to use as a marker for letting balls go. Anything pitched outside that line would be allowed to go through to the keeper and the rest were to be played. Then I'd stand in my stance and visualise all the Australian bowlers running in and bowling in different areas. It is a routine I've followed ever since.


Ground reality

Every ground and track has a different feel and the earlier you get used to it the better. Batsmen identify certain shots for certain tracks. For example, on slow and low tracks you realise the need to get onto the front foot as much as possible and play with a straight bat. Similarly, on tracks with more bounce and pace, you prepare yourself to stay on the back foot and play horizontal bat shots. That's exactly why players shadow-practise while standing in the middle. Bowlers also identify the areas they'll be expected to bowl in, and do mock run-ups to get a feel of the approach to the stumps.


Individual approach

Batting and bowling in the nets on the eve of the match is strictly according to each individual's liking. No one tells you to bat in the nets if you aren't comfortable, and the support staff does everything to help you get into the groove. Rohan Gavaskar wouldn't play a single ball in the nets, while Viru likes a long hit. Similarly Gautam Gambhir needs his throw-downs before every match, while Sachin Tendulkar's batting in the nets depends purely on how he's feeling about his game at that point of time. While Sachin didn't bat too often in the nets during the 2003-04 series, when he did, he made someone bowl at him from 15 yards most of the time.

There was one extraordinary instance of Dravid and Viru missing the practice session and watching a movie instead. It was before the memorable Adelaide Test in 2003. Sometimes, simply unwinding is the need of the hour.

You often find cricketers sitting together till very late on the eve of a match. That's to ensure that the moment they walk into their rooms they fall asleep. There's also the tendency to get up a few times during the night to check if you have slept through the alarm, only to find that dawn is still a few hours away

At the end of the practice session, most batsmen take their match bats with them to the hotel. Some batsmen shadow-practise religiously in their rooms. Others just want the bat handy in case they feel like doing so.


Sleepless nights

Sachin didn't sleep well for 15 days leading up to the match against Pakistan in the 2003 World Cup. He would stay awake planning how to handle each bowler. He admits that he played the entire innings in his head way before it happened on the field. Gautam couldn't sleep the night before the 2007 Twenty20 World Cup final.

You often find cricketers sitting together till very late on the eve of a match. That's to ensure that the moment they walk into their rooms they fall asleep. The anxiety doesn't let your mind rest, and that makes it very difficult to sleep. There's also the tendency to get up a few times during the night to check if you have slept through the alarm, only to find that dawn is still a few hours away.


A common dream for batsmen is that a wicket has fallen and you're slated to go in next. But you haven't put on the leg-guards and panic sets in. You try your best to get ready but something or the other always goes wrong. In reality, gearing up is a two-minute exercise that has been done a million times, but dreams seldom follow a logical pattern.


The morning of the match

Every player has his own routine on the morning of a game. Some, like Dravid, wake up well in advance, read newspapers and have breakfast before boarding the bus. Others sleep till the last possible minute and rush to the bus, grabbing a muffin on the way. Then there are those who indulge in incessant chatter all the way to the ground - and often occupy the last rows of the bus. Still others, like Sachin, listen to music. These routines depend a lot on temperament: some can't handle the anxiety and hence rush through everything, while others want everything in peace.


After reaching the ground

Almost everyone rushes to the square immediately after getting to the field. Although nothing dramatic can happen, since you've seen the track the previous day, you need to be certain. It's like going through your notes one last time before an exam. You want to be 100% certain that you didn't misread the pitch.


Then there's the eternal wait for the toss. While one part of you wants it to be delayed for another couple of hours so you can hit a few more balls against throw-downs, the other part wants to be done with the suspense. Openers and fast bowlers watch the toss with great interest, and depending on the result of the toss, either prepare or relax.


Instead of warming up with cricket, most teams prefer playing a different, non-contact sport, like volleyball, just before the game. It lightens the atmosphere and helps you ease into the match day. Contact sports like football and touch rugby are generally avoided because the chances of getting injured are higher.

Gary Kirsten offers a few tips to Sachin Tendulkar, Lincoln, February 22, 2009
Gary Kirsten gives Sachin Tendulkar throw-downs after a net session © Getty Images


Batting first

The environment in the dressing room becomes a lot quieter if your team is batting. Even though the bowlers slip into a relaxing mode, they avoid making unnecessary noise. Both the openers and the batsman at No. 3 are left alone. Everyone wishes the openers luck as they go through their last little routines before stepping onto the field. But there are some batsmen who don't like to be wished before walking out to bat. One such was Sunil Gavaskar.


Some batsmen will watch every single ball being bowled, as they wait their turn, either on TV or from the balcony, and then there are others who'd read newspapers and magazines (Mohammad Azharuddin) or sleep (Sir Vivian Richards) while waiting for their turn to bat. VVS Laxman likes to listen to music, while Yuvraj Singh prefers chatting.


I can't stop myself from watching. Thank god I'm an opener.


Bowling first

While batsmen relax, the bowlers are required to be on the field 10 minutes before the start of the game to warm up. But bowlers have the luxury of easing into the match, as they're not absolutely required to be at their very best right from the beginning. One mistake doesn't mean the end of the innings for them; an advantage that gets evened out with the heavy workload they have to bear. Their planning and plotting happens more on the field and during the match.

The opening batsmen start their preparation again when the opposition loses its eighth or ninth wicket. You see them standing in their stance and looking down the pitch every now and then. They also tend to go quieter in the field after the loss of the ninth wicket.


My endeavour through this three-part mini-series on preparation was to tell my readers what goes into the making of a good ball, a marvellous catch, an unsparing shot, a great cricketer. I hope that from now on every time you see a batsman fail or a bowler bowl a half volley, you remember that lack of performance is not necessarily because of lack of preparation. It's just that, in the game of cricket, like in any other walk of life, it's only human to err.


Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Beyond the Blues, an account of the 2007-08 Ranji Trophy season. His website is here

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Sunday, 20 September 2009

Moral hazard is back

 By Chan Akya

"Spare the rod, and spoil the child." - Anon

In a controversial case a good 16 years ago this month, Singapore's much-vaunted legal system ruled on administering a punishment of caning for a 18-year old American student by the name Michael Fay. After much protests from United States president Bill Clinton and 24 assorted Senators among a series of legal and government nominees, Singapore agreed to reduce the sentence from six lashes to four. Fay's Asian compatriots in the crimes of vandalism were less lucky, each getting a few months in prison and more lashes of the cane.

Four years later, in 1998, Michael Fay shot back to prominence, accused of possessing drugs in Florida; he was set free on a technicality involving arrest procedures. No further crime reports  were ever received for the Asian compatriots of Michael Fay who didn't receive the leniency that he did.

The above isn't to suggest that this author supports corporal punishment; rather that the idea of people receiving the full penalty of applicable laws is the functioning basis for any society. Whenever that aspect of implementing laws breaks down; or where special favors are granted for any number of reasons, it is likely that results prove counter-productive.

In the above example, the US government intervened in the laws of a democracy that had a history of applying its stern disciplinarian measures on all of its citizens; in an attempt to protect the narrow interests of one individual. It is possible that the individual felt "good" enough about his government's intervention to feel special; which then translated into behavioral problems later on. In contrast, the boys who got the full punishment under Singapore law never did return to the world of crime, petty or otherwise.

We can see the same examples everywhere. In both of the world's largest countries, China and India, there is clearly a class of people who do not face the full force of the law because of who they happen to be. In other words, political or economic superiority protects some people from laws designed to be applied across society. The net result is stunning levels of corruption (see my article "The wages of corruption, Asia Times Online, August 19, 2006) as well as, perhaps more importantly, rising criminality. China's ruling classes are the very epitome of corruption and petty theft from government coffers; while in India the selective application of laws has resulted in politics becoming the archetypal dirty profession.

When looking at the political classes of both China and India today, I am reminded of Mark Twain's eternal quote, "There is no native criminal class in America, except Congress". Interestingly, almost 100 years after he made the statement, events of the last year have contrived to create a new criminal class across Western society, and that is the world's bankers.

It wouldn't be an idle speculation in my mind at least to compare the politicians of India and China today to the bankers of America and Europe tomorrow.

How did we get to this point? What can be done about it?

The Lehman boondoggle
Over the past few days, newspapers around the world have dredged up their one-year calendar observance special - ie on the aftermath of Lehman Brothers and what it meant for the global financial system. Comments have veered around the following poles:

  • Groups of inevitably "liberal" commentators whose refrain has been a steady "Lehman should have never been allowed to fail" which then explains their follow-up assessment of how the right-wing views on financial system integrity were reversed and therefore benefited the world. This group has an altogether rosy view of the world economy, certifying that bailouts have worked and so on.
  • The conservative, right-wing view is of course the opposite, namely that the failure of Lehman Brothers was a good thing for the world economy and the wider financial system; this group also holds that bailouts of the financial system that followed would create resource misallocation, inflationary panic and the like.

    No prizes for guessing which group I belong to.

    This article isn't about the merits and otherwise of the Lehman rescue; but rather about the moral hazard construct that is integral to these situations. In particular, I will seek to examine the behavioral aspects of the past year's government efforts on a new generation of bankers and financiers, broadly continuing the themes first suggested in past articles such as The New Brahmins [Asia Times Online, March 29, 2008] and Easy bets with other people's money [Asia Times Online, May 23, 2009].

    In previous articles, I have pointed out time and again that creative destruction is an integral part of capitalism much as bureaucratic sloth is integral to communism; disallowing failures of private companies while also preventing necessary reforms will essentially create the worst of both worlds.

    This is broadly where we are today:

    1. Governments have spent hundreds of billions of dollars and euros on the rescue of banks around the world, guaranteeing all manner of senior and junior debt obligations in addition to deposits at the banks (actually, according to the International Monetary Fund the total bill thus far is a staggering US$12 trillion; as in $12,000 billion or $12 million million).

    2. Governments' slivers of equity, instead of giving them management control, have provided adverse incentives to pushing through real (structural) reforms. Politicians have spent inordinate amounts of time discussing what to do with their shares in the banking system, rather than what to do with the banking system itself.

    3. All manners of public securities have been purchased directly under the programs initiated by the European Central Bank (ECB), the Federal Reserve (Fed) and US Treasury. Further in this article, I will specifically discuss the game theory aspects of the US mortgage market securities (RMBS); resulting from the fact that governments are the largest owners of privately issued securities.

    4. Bank balance sheets have actually expanded because of the adverse incentives pushed through by the largest shareholder (governments) and easy refinancing available at the "discount" window.
    I am no mastermind like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, but it does appear to me that the simple implications for each of the above can be or more importantly, should be the following:

    1. The wide use of monetary stimulus in dealing with the current crisis is roughly equivalent to 40% of the combined GDP of the United States and Europe, this means that today's asset values are vastly inflated. In addition, the apparent illusion of wealth so created by seemingly higher stock and property values also engenders inflationary trends on key commodities (why oil prices have risen), over-optimism on the part of suppliers (emerging market countries have seen stunning rebounds) and a failure to reduce leverage (while savings rates are up in the US and Europe, these are more than dwarfed by rising government debt). None of this though is nearly as important as the increase in volatility implied for the future: at some point, all this money has to be removed from the system one way or another (ie, either through withdrawal of quantitative easing or through inflation of asset and retail prices). Oh and did I mention - in conjunction with all that, governments around the world but particularly in the US and Europe will need to raise taxes or cut public services?

    2. Controlling the banks hasn't made governments in the US and Europe any smarter. If anything, incentives to restrain the financial system and put institutions on a self-sustaining course have actually gone in the opposite direction, with a new generation of "value maximize initiatives" in each government being tasked with making sure that banks produce more profits. That has immediately led banks to increase their balance sheets, which given poor economic data, also means that the quality of balance sheets has become worse not better under government tutelage. You don't hear much about banks being forced to become smaller, because they aren't being told to become smaller. So let's see now: we have financial institutions with significant exposure to high-risk assets. Gee, what a refreshing change from 2007.

    3. The US government, through the Treasury and the Fed holds hundreds of billions of securities in basically, itself. Let me explain: the Treasury bought some $700 billion of "troubled assets" from US and European banks. In addition, the Fed is authorized to purchase $1.25 Trillion (that's $1.25 million million) of conforming mortgages that are backed by Federal agencies (Fannie Mae, Ginnie Mae, and Freddie Mac), $300 billion of long-term US Treasury bonds and $200 billion of the debt issued by (the now nationalized) Federal agencies.

    4. This self-ownership of debt raises important questions on the market reaction: Chinese government sources have released details of the country's concerns at the Fed essentially printing money to purchase US debt, but it doesn't appear that a wider acceptance of this position has been found with other Asian central banks or indeed, global bond investors. As with the stunning rise of the stock market, I am left dumbfounded by the complete avoidance of risk discussions in the middle of this mess by the investors most exposed to downside risks of the strategy: namely Asian investors.

    5. Then again perhaps I have been blindsided in the past, too: the part of the program detailing the purchases from US Federal agencies was clearly an attempt to mollify the Chinese government which had the biggest exposure to such MBS and Federal agency debt. In other words, the US government may have bailed out the Chinese government directly, in return for the latter to continue buying other US government debt. Indeed, there have been a number of articles on the Internet suggesting that Fed purchases have been directly linked to asset disposals by Chinese government entities. This raises a very interesting game theory argument, which I explore later in the article.

    6. Amid all this liquidity sloshing around, the world's bankers have been quietly having a nice party in the back. Banks still making markets in securities - a fancy way of saying that they can both buy and sell these securities - have reaped the benefits of extremely wide spreads between the buying and selling prices ('bid-ask spreads' in the jargon). Additionally, they have managed to refinance the most illiquid stuff on their balance sheets with the respective central banks, and used the borrowed money to buy very toxic assets (As I wrote in previous articles including Easy bets with other people's money, Asia Times Online, May 23).

    7. Then there is the whole mark-to-myth malarkey that has been egged on by central bankers and regulators - thanks to their ownership of the banks as highlighted two points above - which means there is no longer any reason to take accounting losses on problem assets. Let me be clear - banks haven't stopped having loan losses; they have simply stopped accounting for them. Lastly, with low deposit rates and high lending rates, their basic businesses have made substantial profits this year. Out of all this, readers should expect that banks will set aside bumper bonuses for their executives, and do these out of stock grants to mollify critics; but don't for a moment forget where the money for those equity gains comes from.
  • Game theory: Why Americans should default on mortgages
  • There is also an interesting point about the circularity of US mortgages that bears close monitoring. At a very simplistic level, Americans borrow money from their banks, which sell (conforming) mortgages to Federal agencies, which then issue securities that are bought by Chinese banks that are then repurchased by the US Fed. What happens when some people start repaying their mortgages? The ultimate losers would be the US Fed in the above scheme. This is handled either through money made available by the US Congress (new taxes) or interest rates being raised (more expensive mortgages). Either way, the average US homeowner will find his costs of living going up.

    If you were an American taxpayer and homeowner, what would be the most optimal course of action? Think of it this way - if the government owns all the housing debt effectively, and there are a number of defaults every year, everyone who defaults will be better off (financially) than those that continue to pay. If you were one of a 1,000 people getting a mortgage and say 100 people defaulted, then you would in effect (one way or another) be paying for those 100 people who default. As the number rises, you would be pushed towards greater financial pressure as both taxes and mortgage servicing costs rise. Meanwhile, for the people who default, the scheme of arrangement for their debts will mean lower fixed mortgaging costs and other benefits such as tax holidays. For self-employed people who tend to receive cash for their work, defaulting on mortgages could easily become the route to prosperity with low taxes and little debt repayment.

    So the logical course of action for a hardworking taxpayer holding a mortgage would be to default right away. This becomes more compelling when you consider the general tightening of credit across the US and Europe, where other forms of credit that used to be easily available previously (credit cards, personal loans) are more difficult to come by now. In typical game theory perspective that means the "penalty" of defaulting on mortgages in the form of reduced credit availability isn't really applicable because that is the case for everyone now.

    Add the bit about all that money basically enabling the Chinese to sell their risky assets to the US government in return for US government liabilities, then something far worse looms. At best, this means China executed a perfect portfolio switch, going to better quality assets with lower durations; at worst it means that their direct leverage over the US government has increased substantially. This means that a "buyers' strike" from China will inevitably lead to higher interest rates; which could further increase the pain for US mortgage borrowers. The persistence of that risk on the horizon simply makes the need for Americans to default on their mortgages that much more likely.

    Learning from hedge funds
  • The performance and risks of the banking system wouldn't be so bad if we didn't have anything to compare them with. Unfortunately for the banks, that isn't the case really. Look at hedge funds, those much derided vehicles of capitalists that had been billed as the most destructive forces in the world barely a year ago:

    1. A vast number of hedge funds have closed down since the middle of 2008, a trend that continues till today. This bout of creative destruction has meant that strategies that were wrong have been shut down; only hedge fund strategies (and managers) that worked well through the volatile period of 2008 and the more benign conditions of 2009 have survived. Contrast this to the banks, where good and the bad bankers not only co-exist, but bad bankers actually appear to be thriving.

    2. While some smaller hedge funds have opened shop, by and large capital hasn't been made available; and certainly nowhere to the degree of stating 'business as usual'. Contrast this with the hundreds of billions in largely public funds that have been pumped into the banking system, as previously highlighted.

    3. Consolidation has increased, with the largest hedge funds attracting a greater amount of new capital than smaller entities. This effectively means that the average risk of hedge funds as a financial asset group has declined in the past year; again to be contrasted with the rising risks of the banking system.

    4. Overall leverage in the sector has declined, as hedge funds trimmed their overall asset size relative to their capital bases. For example, credit hedge funds have on average cut their leverage by over 25% with the median around 50%; these are interesting statistics because credit hedge funds approximate the basic qualities of banks (that have certainly not cut leverage and indeed may have increased the same).

    5. So far, there has been one major scandal involving a hedge fund (Bernie Madoff's $50 billion caper). Compare that to the multiple number of scandals plaguing banks across the world, that are virtually too numerous to highlight.
    In effect, hedge funds prove that capitalism does work. By imposing significant penalties on failures combined with rewards for success, it has been relatively easy to align the interests of all parties concerned. Risks have declined for investors, and returns have increased.

    Over the horizon
    The inevitable conclusion from all this is that capitalism provides a readymade whipping tool, ie bankruptcy, that keeps errant capitalists in check. Confuse that picture, be it for a delinquent teenager or an overextended banker, and the results are fairly predictable: ie a repeat of previous behavior. This then is the true legacy of Lehman Brothers: the aftermath that virtually ensures that eventually there will have to be more such bankruptcies

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    Friday, 18 September 2009

    Trafigura's attempts to gag the media prove that libel laws should be repealed


    Defamation laws which Trafigura tried to use must no longer be allowed to hide corporate malpractice or stifle criticism 



    trafigura toxic waste investigation in ivory coast

    Members of the team specialised in treating toxic waste take samples of the toxic waste dumped in Akouedo, Ivory Coast. Photograph: Issouf Sanogo/AFP

    If you are not convinced that Britain's libel laws operate against the public interest, check out the Trafigura case. Thousands of west Africans fell ill and an unknown number died in 2006 after hundreds of tonnes of the oil company's toxic oil waste were dumped in densely populated parts of Ivory Coast.

    Now that the Guardian has found the smoking gun — the cynical and disgraceful emails from Trafigura traders discussing the creation and disposal of dangerous wastes – the company's attempts to stifle its critics have collapsed. But until now the coverage of the case in Britain, with a few honourable exceptions such as Newsnight and the Guardian's investigations team, has been curiously muted. This could be one of the worst cases of corporate killing and injury since the Bhopal disaster, but much of the media wouldn't touch it with a bargepole.

    The reason isn't hard to divine: Trafigura has been throwing legal threats (pdf) around like confetti. It's true that the company has also threatened journalists in the Netherlands and Norway, but the law is less kind to such plaintiffs in those countries, and its threats were taken less seriously.

    In Britain, libel (or defamation) is used as the rich man's sedition law, stifling criticism and exposure of all kinds of malpractice. Dating back to the 13th century, it was reframed during the past 200 years specifically to protect wealthy people from criticism, based on the presumption that any derogatory remark made about a gentleman must be false. The law of defamation is the only British instrument which places the burden of proof on the defendant. Given the inordinate costs involved, it's not surprising that it discourages people from investigating abuses of power.

    How many Trafiguras have got away with it by frightening critics away with Britain's libel laws? How many Robert Maxwells have successfully fended off attempts to show that they have robbed, cheated and lied? These iniquitous, outdated laws are a threat to democracy, a threat to society, a threat to the environment and public health. They must be repealed.

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    Thursday, 17 September 2009

    Never Retract, Never Apologise, Never Explain

    Just raise the volume, keep moving and hope that people won’t notice the trail of broken claims. That's what Creationists and climate change deniers have in common: they don’t answer their critics.

    George Monbiot

    Creationists and climate change deniers have this in common: they don’t answer their critics. They make what they say are definitive refutations of the science. When these refutations are shown to be nonsense, they do not seek to defend them. They simply switch to another line of attack. They never retract, never apologise, never explain, just raise the volume, keep moving and hope that people won’t notice the trail of broken claims in their wake.

    This means that trying to debate with them is a frustrating and often futile exercise. It takes 30 seconds to make a misleading scientific statement and 30 minutes to refute it. By machine-gunning their opponents with falsehoods, the deniers put scientists in an impossible position: either you seek to answer their claims, which can’t be done in the time available, or you let them pass, in which case the points appear to stand. Many an eminent scientist has come unstuck in these situations. This is why science is conducted in writing, where claims can be tested and sources checked.

    So when the Australian geologist Professor Ian Plimer challenged me to a face-to-face debate in July, I didn’t exactly leap at the chance. His book Heaven and Earth, which purports to destroy the science of climate change, contains page after page of schoolboy errors and pseudoscientific gobbledegook. As the professor of astrophysics Michael Ashley wrote, “It is not ‘merely’ atmospheric scientists that would have to be wrong for Plimer to be right. It would require a rewriting of biology, geology, physics, oceanography, astronomy and statistics.” But never, as far as I can determine, has Plimer responded to the devastating points made by his critics. He just keeps shifting his ground.

    None of this stopped the Spectator from publishing a cover story promoting his claims. Plimer, the magazine suggested, has demonstrated that global warming theory is “the biggest, most dangerous and ruinously expensive con trick in history.

    I wrote an article summarising what scientists have said about Plimer’s claims and listing some of his obvious errors. In response, Plimer requested a debate. The outgoing editor of the Spectator, Matthew D’Ancona, took up this cause, with a series of emails pressing me to accept (all the correspondence is on my website). At first, having seen something of Plimer’s debating tactics, I refused. But then I realised that there might be a means of pinning him down.

    I told Plimer that I would accept his challenge if he accepted mine: to write precise and specific responses to the questions I would send him, for publication on the Guardian’s website. If he answered them, the debate would go ahead; if he didn’t, it wouldn’t happen. The two exchanges would complement each other: having checked his specifics, people at the public event could better assess his generalisations.

    Plimer refused. After I wrote a blog post accusing him of cowardice, he accepted. I sent him 11 questions. They were simple and straightforward: I asked him only to provide sources and explanations for some of the claims in his book. Any reputable scientist would have offered them without hesitation.

    But instead of answers, Plimer sent me a series of dog-ate-my-homework excuses and a list of questions of his own (you can read both sets on my Guardian blog). While mine address only what Plimer purports to know, his appear designed to be impossible to answer: they are less questions than riddles. Were you to take them seriously, every answer would require several years of original research. Gavin Schmidt, a senior climate scientist at NASA, examined them and found that most are 24-carat bafflegab, while the rest have already been answered by other means. But that wasn’t the point. Plimer’s purpose appears to have been to distract attention from the fact that he can’t answer my questions. Last Tuesday I offered Ian Plimer a £10 bet that he cannot answer his own questions. He has not yet accepted.

    Having put up with this nonsense for almost a month, I gave him a 10-day deadline, after which I would assume that he had chickened out of our exchange and forfeited the debate. The deadline expired on Friday. Answers came there none.

    There is nothing unusual about Ian Plimer. Most of the prominent climate change deniers who are not employed solely by the fossil fuel industry have a similar profile: men whose professional careers are about to end or have ended already. Attacking climate science looks like a guaranteed formula for achieving the public recognition they have either lost or never possessed. Such people will keep emerging for as long as the media is credulous enough to take them seriously.

    What’s odd is the readiness of publications like the Spectator to champion them. During my correspondence with Matthew D’Ancona, I asked what it is about climate change that makes intelligent people like him abandon all editorial standards. Why is he prepared to endorse Ian Plimer’s claims, but not those of people who claim that the entire canon of lunar science is wrong and the moon is in fact made of green cheese?

    He replied as follows: “All you say may well be true, which fortifies my belief that a debate would be fantastic!” I pressed him again. “I think the answer,” he replied “may be that what I call mischievous – and it is part of the Spectator Editor’s job description to be mischievous – you would call deeply immoral and grotesquely irresponsible. The response to Plimer’s piece – for and against – was passionate and cacophonous: exactly what I had hoped. Again, that may not strike you as an excuse. But perhaps it suffices as an explanation.”

    I told him that while the Spectator publishes noisy and provocative articles all the time, in most cases they are grounded in fact. This article was grounded in gibberish. So why climate change? Why is this issue uniquely viewed as fair game by editors who tread carefully around other scientific issues for fear of making idiots of themselves? And where is the mischief in doing what hundreds of publications and broadcasters have already done - claiming that manmade climate change is a myth? Surely to be mischievous you have to be original?

    D’Ancona replied “I can only speak for myself and say that, as an editor, I don’t single it out for loony treatment.” So I asked him for examples of loony articles he had published on other scientific matters. He replied “Well, MMR for a start where I supported Wakefield initially!”. But when Andrew Wakefield first suggested that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism, it was an original claim which, while unsupported, had yet to be debunked. Today we have 20 years of evidence, across tens of thousands of peer-reviewed papers, to show that people like Ian Plimer are talking out of their hats.

    So Plimer won’t provide his sources and D’Ancona won’t explain why he singled out climate change. But at least, after this frustrating episode, I have an answer to my questions: neither of them has a leg to stand on.

    Sehwag Interview

    It has been 10 years since your first international game. How has experience changed your batting?
    To be fair, I count it only as eight years. I became a regular only in 2001. Till then I had only played few games after my debut, against Pakistan in 1999. As for my batting the best part about it is I have never changed it. I have never changed my thinking, I have never changed my batting style. I have batted the way I batted in local tournaments and then first-class cricket, and I have applied the same approach in international cricket. Because I knew I had got success at Ranji level, I was confident I would get some success in international cricket too. But I was never expecting to become the first Indian to hit two triple-centuries, and become only the third player to do that after [Don] Bradman and [Brian] Lara. But that's destiny.

    Would you suggest the same approach to a youngster who comes to international cricket: just play the way you have been playing?
    A youngster should know his game first. If he knows his game he can modify it at the top level, if required. But if he doesn't know his game then it is difficult to get success at international level. You will get success occasionally but not regularly. If you know your game you can handle pressure, you can handle any kind of situation, back yourself and play your own game and get success.

    But with so many coaches who pass through a player's career, is it not difficult for the youngster to maintain his own game?
    The most important thing for any athlete is to know his ability. If you know your ability and have even a little bit of a strong mindset, you can get success, because your ability takes you to success. Then things like technique, hard work and practice come automatically, because when you get success you want more. Then you will work hard on your fitness, on your batting, on your technique, and you will want to learn how to tackle various situations, and start talking to a lot of experienced players.

    Were there instances where coaches or senior players tried to change something in your batting?
    There were a lot of players who gave me suggestions when I was young. At times they were very good suggestions and I took them seriously, applied them to my batting and got success after that. I will give you a very good example. Mr [Sunil] Gavaskar asked me why I stood on the leg stump. Instead, why didn't I stand on the middle stump because if I did that I would cover more area. He said, in any case I did not move my feet, so if I'm on leg stump then I'm too far from deliveries outside the off stump, and risk nicking them. But if I stand on the middle, I'm in a better position to play the delivery. This was around 2006, when England came to play India.

    "If you know your ability and have even a little bit of a strong mindset, you can get success, because your ability takes you to success. Then things like technique, hard work and practice come automatically, because when you get success you want more"

    The same thing was pointed out by Mr [Kris] Srikkanth, who even suggested I stand on the off stump because I'm very good on the on side and I can pick the ball easily off the pads. According to him, if I'm standing on middle and off and my front leg goes across, the impact will be outside off and I will negate the lbw factor. Also, I have lots of time to play the shot.

    So now, depending on the wicket I change the guard: if the wicket is flat then I can manage to stand on the off stump, because nobody wants to bowl into my body as I will easily hit them for fours. So they will pitch it outside off. And if the wicket is doing a little bit, I stand on the middle stump. And I have tried these things straight in a game and never in the nets.

    Many former cricketers, especially, tend to believe your game is based solely on attack. Do you agree?
    I don't think so. Yes, my game is very aggressive and very positive. I love to play my shots and love to hit fours and sixes. I love to score runs rather than defending or leaving the ball. That is an important aspect of my batting: I don't want to waste balls in any form of the game. When I was growing up we would play a 10-over or 15-over game, and the asking-rate would always be high and I would end up scoring 30 or 40 runs in 15 balls, so I built that mindset right from the beginning and still continue to bat in the same manner.

    There is this story about you declining a nightwatchman, where you said you were not an able batsman if you couldn't last 25 balls at the end of the day. Is that true?
    It is true. What is the difference between batting at the end of the day or at the start? If you make a mistake you'll get out. So I don't think a batsman really needs a nightwatchman, but it is totally an individual decision. Whenever a captain or coach asked me for a nightwatchman I would say, "No, why? If I can't survive 10 or 20 balls now, then I don't think I'll survive tomorrow morning." I believe that's the best time when you have the opportunity to score runs, when everybody on the field is tired and you can score 20 runs off those 20 balls.

    "If somebody is constantly bowling outswingers or outside off, even if he is bowling on length, for me it is boring cricket" © Getty Images

    When you take guard, what goes through your mind?
    When I take guard I like to clear all the negative thoughts out of the mind first. That I do by singing a song or a bhajan [hymn]. Then, if there is a ball to be hit I will hit it. It doesn't matter if it is the first, fourth, 12th ball. But if it is a good ball I have to respect it, because you cannot hit every ball.

    What are the thoughts you look to drive away?
    When I take guard, thoughts like "hit the first ball for a four or six" or "try to defend" enter my mind time sometimes. That is a time when my mind is preoccupied with various thoughts. But if my mind is blank, then I will play according to the merit of the ball. So if I'm singing a song, I concentrate hard on getting the right lines and finding a rhythm. And when I'm concentrating on something I'm automatically concentrating on the ball.

    So that's your way of switching on. How do you switch off?
    Once again by singing a song or talking to the umpires or the batting partner and sharing jokes or something else. But I avoiding speaking about cricket. Yes, you can check about what your partner felt about a particular ball, but not too often. And when I'm in the dressing room and I'm going back to the middle to bat, I just like to chat. If I stay quiet I'm in trouble.

    Do you like the bowlers bowling at you?
    I'm very happy if the bowler makes me play because then I get opportunities to hit boundaries. If somebody is constantly bowling outswingers or outside off, even if he is bowling on length, for me it is boring cricket. But if somebody is bowling to me, it is a very, very good opportunity for me to play a lot of options.

    [Glenn] McGrath, [Muttiah] Muralitharan, [Chaminda] Vaas and [Jacques] Kallis are bowlers who always knew how to frustrate me and play on my patience. But it all depends on how I'm batting: if I'm in the groove then I can stay happy without playing a ball.

    Let me give an example. In Multan, where I hit my first triple-century, in 2004, the last half hour the Pakistanis were bowling to an 8-1 field and they were bowling wide outside off stump and I was just leaving every single ball. I played nearly two to three maiden overs. I was batting on 220-odd, so it didn't matter.

    Another instance was in Melbourne, when I made 195. In that first session we were just 50 without loss. I had to leave alone balls, defend at times and pay respect to good bowling. But after lunch I opened up. So it is not that Virender Sehwag only tries to score runs, but sometimes I play according to the situation or conditions.

    How much in advance do you plan for a Test?
    The night before the game I do watch videos to make my plans. Then, if both teams are practising I like to watch the opposition bowlers. A good example I can provide is when I came back during the 2007-08 Australia series. During the first two Tests I was watching all their bowlers closely, how they used their fingers, and I would share my insights with Robin Singh [India's fielding coach] while I was sitting on the bench. The moment I got the opportunity to play in Perth Test, I was ready. So it helps a lot to study the opposition.

    "In Adelaide I told Tendulkar that I was absolutely tired. The reason was I was concentrating from both ends: not only when I was taking strike, but I was also thinking how I would face the ball when I was the non-striker. That was the first time something like that happened. Even during my two triple-centuries I was physically tired but not mentally"

    There would have been pressure to perform in that series, considering you were not even in the original pool from which the squad was picked?
    No, because I was confident despite having flopped for the whole of 2007. Then I even had a bad domestic season, scoring hardly 30-40 runs in the six Ranji innings I played. But I knew if they picked me a big one would come soon. You cannot flop the whole time. I went to Australia with a lot of self-belief and confidence, and I scored 30 and 40 in Perth, then 60-odd in the first innings in Adelaide, and got a big century in the second innings.

    There was a first that happened in the first innings in Adelaide. I told [Sachin] Tendulkar that I was absolutely tired. He was curious. The reason was, I was concentrating from both ends: not only when I was taking strike, but I was also thinking how I would face the ball when I was the non-striker. I was putting pressure on myself because I wanted to score runs. I knew the wicket was good, the attack was not great, so I could, if I worked hard, get a hundred. That was the first time something like that happened. Even during my two triple-centuries I was physically tired but not mentally. But in Adelaide I was totally exhausted during those 60 runs. I hope that was the last time, and now I enjoy myself when I'm at the other end.

    Tendulkar has said that when a player goes through a bad patch his technique remains the same, but every time you enter the ground it is your mind that keeps changing. Can you relate to that?
    It is true. Referring to my batting in 2007, I don't think there was anything wrong with my batting or that I was making any mistakes. But in such a scenario the mind likes to deal with the situation in two ways: score quickly, or play with extra caution. But what remains the same is the technique; what does change is the mindset. You are asking too many questions and you are not concentrating on the ball and that's what was happening to me in 2007, which was the worst phase of my life.

    I worked hard to come back and did some breathing exercises, used the [Rudi] Webster [psychologist who worked on and off with the team] method of backing myself and it worked out well. I didn't change anything in my batting. The only thing that changed was the mindset, the biggest change.

    Did anyone, a selector, former player call up and lend a helping hand?
    Srikkanth was the first to call me and tell me not to get disheartened. He motivated me, saying I'm a bloody talented player, and that when I came out of the bad patch I would score a double- or triple-hundred. He just asked me to spend quality time with my family, and when my time came I would score big runs.

    "Ganguly was a good reader of the mind, and that's why he was such a great captain" © Cricinfo Ltd

    His words came true on my comeback, after I scored a double-century in Sri Lanka, triple-ton against South Africa and more than 1000 runs in Test cricket. So if a youngster is not scoring runs and is out of the team, even an SMS to him will give him a lot of confidence. He might think, "At least Viru bhai has belief in me". Apart from Srikkanth, Anil bhai [Kumble], [Rahul] Dravid, Tendulkar, [Sourav] Ganguly, [VVS] Laxman said the same to me. I felt good.

    Do you think that since you enjoy your batting it helps you build those big innings?
    You can say that. I love to hit fours and sixes. When you are doing that you are enjoying yourself and people will enjoy your batting and you are not tired mentally. You are not concentrating very hard - you just see the ball, hit the ball, and if you see the gap hit it there. If you hit those fours and sixes, you have the comfort to relax every few balls.

    Sourav Ganguly once said this about you: "The best way to know how Virender Sehwag's mind works is to sit next to him in the players' balcony when India are batting. Every few minutes he will clutch his head and yell, "Chauka gaya" or "Chhakka gaya". That's his way of expressing disappointment at somebody's failure to take advantage of a ball that he thought deserved to be hit for four or six. That's how he thinks, in fours and sixes."
    He was a good reader of the mind, and that's why he was such a great captain. He knew what the player was thinking and he would back him and give him the confidence by saying, "You can play the way you want to play, nobody will touch you, nobody will drop you."

    It is absolutely true. Even now, if you ask anyone in the dressing room, I still say the same things. But that is for me, not for the player in the middle because if I was there I could easily hit the ball for a four or six, but I'm not blaming anyone else.

    What do you focus on in the nets?
    I try to hit the ball along the ground, especially against fast bowlers. I also like the bat to come down in the right position and check if my body position is correct. If I'm really watching the ball carefully then automatically I'm in a good position to hit it down the ground. The last two to three minutes I like to hit fours and sixes, but if I'm batting for, say, 15 minutes, the first 10 I concentrate and in the last five I experiment with the shots.

    John Wright had a simple way with you. In his book he writes, "All I say is, 'How's your mom, hope she is well? And what are you going to do today?'" He [Sehwag] would say, 'Watch the ball, play straight.'
    Because we never discussed cricket it was good. He would come to me and ask how I was feeling. I would say "good". Then he would ask how my mom's back was. I would say, "Little bit of a problem, but she is managing really well." He would then ask, "So what are we going to do tomorrow?" I would say, "Watch the ball and play the ball." I would tell him, if there is a ball to be hit, I will hit it, and as a coach I know you will back me, and you have to back me. We had a lot of laughs. That helped me a lot as there was no pressure on me from either Wright or [Sourav] Ganguly. That is their job, to give confidence to the player and let him do what he wants because everybody wants to perform at international level. That is the key.

    Did Greg Chappell give you any sort of valuable tips?

    What about Gary Kirsten?
    Kirsten was himself an experienced player with more than 100 Tests and 150-plus ODIs. He knows what players want to do at international level, and the best way is to give the player his space and talk to him and give him confidence. The best thing after Kirsten has come in as a coach is optional practice. He says, "If you think you want to practise, you come, but if you think you are happy staying back in the hotel, that's fine, but do your fitness." That's his way of coaching. He is not like some captains and coaches who force the player to come to practice. And if he thinks something is wrong in your batting he comes and tells you that he has noticed over a couple of months that you've changed something in your batting. And he makes the player aware of what his thoughts are on the changes and leaves it to the player to implement his suggestions.

    Can you cite an example?
    There were a couple of occasions when my front foot was not going across. He pointed that out, and said my front foot was going in front of the wicket and if it went across towards the off stump, I would cover more area. So if the ball is pitched outside off and comes in and my front foot is straight, there is a lot of gap between bat and pad. These are small adjustments that are vital.

    I checked with him once about how whenever I played towards midwicket or square leg the ball usually went in the air. He said, "It doesn't matter if your feet move or not, but your head needs to be in front of your body. When that happens the ball will go along the ground." I practised and noticed it worked. The same thing was told to me by [Sachin] Tendulkar and [Rahul] Dravid. I knew it myself, but you still need people to point it out from time to time.

    "I have asked Tendulkar many times what the zone is. He tells me that's when 'I see nothing except the ball'. I have asked Rahul Dravid the same thing. He says sometimes when he is in really good form, he sees the ball and not even the sightscreen, the non-striker, the umpire or who is bowling. I ask how that is possible. I have never entered that zone"

    Would you agree batting is not always about technique, it is about adjustments?
    In my view, if you have good or bad technique it doesn't matter. But you will survive if you can adjust your game at international level, you are mentally strong, you know your strengths and how to score runs. When you start the game coaches will tell you to do stuff in a particular way and kids do that. But the moment you start first-class cricket the coach needs to tell you "try this, try that" instead of "do this, do that". If you feel comfortable you can take it, otherwise leave it.

    Sunil Gavaskar and Ian Chappell have always stressed that you are not just about hand-eye coordination. That you can play all those shots because of one important factor: balance.
    They are right. It doesn't matter whether you move your feet or not, if your head is still and body is in balance, you can score lots of runs. This I learned from Tendulkar. He pointed out that if your head is still you can see the ball clearly and pick the length quickly. If the head is not still, you will make mistakes. That's why I don't have trigger movements and my body is still and I'm balanced and I have lots of time to play the ball. Why do you want to go towards the ball? Let it come to you, then you can play it. Tendulkar, in one of my first conversations with him about handling quick bowlers, said, "If you're confident about playing a shot, just go ahead and play. Don't hesitate, because then you will make a mistake."

    What about being in the zone? Tendulkar said that what people call the zone, he calls the subconscious mind. "… All you need to do is look at the ball and play and the body is going to react. The concentration is such that you don't think of anything else." What's your definition of being in the zone?
    I have asked him many times what the zone is. He tells me that's when "I see nothing except the ball". I ask how that is possible. I have never felt something like that. I have asked Rahul Dravid the same thing. He says sometimes when he is in really good form, he sees only the ball - and not the sightscreen, the non-striker, the umpire or who is bowling, he just sees only the ball. But I have never entered that zone even if I've scored triple-centuries twice. Maybe I will enter that zone they talk about in future.

    Perhaps you are always in the zone?
    You can say that, maybe. Perhaps the definition of zone is different for me. They have both experienced what I have never experienced. Right from the time I was growing up there would be people moving along the sightscreen, but I would never get distracted. But if somebody shouts and says there is someone near the sightscreen then I will stop and move the guy.

    When does the bowler get the upper hand against you?
    I can handle swing movement, but when there is seam movement I cannot handle it properly. In New Zealand in 2002 the wickets were really not good for batting and I struggled and scored something like 40 runs in four innings. Nobody did well except for Tendulkar and Dravid. So later I started to spend a lot of time at the wicket. I would cut if it was outside off and flick if it was on my legs. I found out that works on a bad wicket: to stay at the wicket.

    "If Kirsten thinks something is wrong in your batting he comes and tells you that he has noticed over a couple of months you've changed something in your batting" © AFP

    Are you hampered by doubts or insecurities?
    When I faced the likes of Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee for the first time I had a little bit of fear in my mind. My thoughts were, "Would I be able to face them? Would I be able to play them? Would I be able to hit boundaries?" There were so many questions, and fear also that if the ball didn't hit my bat it might hit me on the body. Those doubts come when you are sitting in the dressing room or walking towards the wicket, and that is when I sing a song and drive away those thoughts. Once you play that first ball then you relax and say, "They are good bowlers, but I can hit them for fours and sixes also."

    Tendulkar recently told me that he still gets butterflies in the stomach when he goes in to bat. I was surprised, since he has played for 20 years. He said, "True, but the game is like that. If you think you are on top of the game then you will start going down."

    You possess one of the most uncomplicated games, free of clutter, yet you have been influenced by mind specialists like Rudi Webster and Paddy Upton. How come?
    Basically there are a lot of frustrations inside and you are telling the person who is listening to you all the rubbish. I'm just trying to clear my mind and heart. Once I've taken all that out of me I'm relaxed and happy. Nowadays I do that with my wife and she is a good listener. Webster and Upton have been good, and they have pointed out examples of good and great players and how their minds would work. Webster told me how Viv Richards, regardless of his form, would always walk like a tiger. Richards knew that everybody was scared of him so he would never change that. So the message to me was, "No matter what the situation is, you need to behave like a champion. And at some point you will deliver." So I think, I've scored two triple-centuries, I have scored [one of the] fastest hundreds, and such thoughts give me confidence and I walk out with belief.

    Tendulkar has been an integral part of your career. What's you favourite Tendulkar innings?
    When he was there in Multan during my first triple-century. Because I batted the full day with him. He always likes to chat and can get serious and caution you not to hit unnecessary shots. During that innings he told me, "If you try to hit a six I will hit you on the bum." He gave me a simple example - about my Melbourne innings in 2003, when I tried to hit a six on 195 and got out. Till then India were in a good position, but after that we couldn't make a big score and we lost the Test. So he made me realise my mistake. That is why I didn't hit sixes in Multan, but when I was near 300 I told him that I was going to hit Saqlain [Mushtaq] and he could hit me on my bum!

    Is there one shot of Tendulkar you would like to have?
    His cover-drive, but I don't think I can do that probably because of the lack of feet movement.

    "In my view if you have good or bad technique it doesn't matter. But you will survive if you can adjust your game at international level, you are mentally strong, you know your strengths and how to score runs"

    What's the best compliment you have got from a bowler?
    I don't think any bowler has given me good feedback. Shoaib Akhtar was telling me in Multan that I was only hitting him to third man, so the next ball I hit a straight-drive. "Now you have to accept it was a better shot," I told him. He accepted it.

    What is it about spinners? You seem to just get turned on by them?
    I was a middle-order batsman who was too good against spin and hit sixes consistently in Under-19 and Ranji cricket, and I still have the same confidence. Once Gary Kirsten asked me, "What would you do if there is a long-off, long-on and deep midwicket?" I asked, "Gary sir, do fielders matter to me?" He burst out laughing.

    Any big hitter, like Yuvraj Singh, Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Tendulkar, all can hit a six but they don't want to get out. There is a 1% risk.

    Let me give an example: I was batting on 291 at Chepauk, against South Africa. I told Paul Harris, "Come round the wicket and first ball I'll hit you for a six." He accepted my challenge and the very first ball I hit him for a straight six, and there was a long-off, long-on, deep midwicket and a deep point. I was so tired and he was bowling on the pads and I was getting bored. So rather than spending 10-15 minutes to get to the triple-century I gave him good advice.

    Obviously that confidence comes with experience. On the topic of clearing the field, Andrew Strauss made an interesting comment after your match-turning two-hour mayhem in the Chennai Test. "He plays a game most people are unfamiliar with. He almost manipulates the field. You change it, and it's like he says: 'Right, I'm going to hit it somewhere else now'." Do you really do that?
    I don't think so. Because I just said fielders don't matter to me wherever they are standing. If there are two slips and two gullies I will still hit them there. But yes, if they change the field and then bowl according to the field and they are getting success then I'll try and change my shots. I did that against Australia a couple of times when they were bowling into my body and had placed two midwickets, a square leg, a deep square-leg - there were five to six fielders on the leg side. So I went outside leg stump and tried to hit to point or cover and get fours but they didn't change their line or the field. But that happens once in a while.