The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Is cricket a mind game beyond the reach of skills'

This is not directly a tribute to Brian Lara, though he richly deserves one for his three stupendous comebacks to form. His youthful protégé, Dwayne Bravo, born in Santa Cruz, Trinidad, like his captain, is also worth not just the pun. He is being carefully groomed by Lara himself. He sees in him a future captain of West Indies. The pun in the title I thought might give some hope to Lara’s Indian counterparts — both seniors and juniors — who may desperately be in need of a few live role models on the field. Even the amazingly sudden return of the Prince of Calcutta to the centrestage (though not captaincy) may have only been a passing phenomenon, prompted by panic rather than contrite re-appraisal. Ganguly, I fear, had been more realistic, summing up the probabilities in an earlier, candid interview: “Cricket is not fairytale”!

I had written some months back on what I considered a clear divide between two ways one could look at athletics and sports — the Athenian and the Roman. Perhaps, I oversimplify history in holding that the Athenian way was to look at such disciplines as human development, the same way one looked at mathematics or similar other branches of human knowledge. The way of the Romans, or rather the more depraved Romans, by contrast, was to look at athletics and sports mainly as entertainment and excitement provided for the people. These often blood-curdling performances were to be given by highly-trained but wholly-expendable gladiators, acrobats and the like, who could be discarded or just left (or even made to die in the amphitheatre) after the violently spectacular acts were over.

Following a “basic” value judgment, I feel I can tell which way I will go. I will not go the way of Guru Greg and treat Plato’s Akademeia as a marketplace, and its young practitioners as commodities, like some gadgets made to go on performing in swift bursts of activity until they go bust and are replaced by other gadgets. I will rather want the young hopefuls in the academy to learn and to perform to their best, then rest and recuperate, and always come back in full glory — as Lara is showing one can do, again and again and again.

I wrote on some of this a few months ago. This was when I was looking at the literature in game-theoretic economics and psychology, two disciplines in which the phenomenon of performer burnout has been extensively studied. I found that I was in complete agreement with Sunil Gavaskar’s verdict that there was no burnout in the usually accepted sense in cricket. What we had here was a different phenomenon that affected only the best performers, and not those who break down because they do not find their work “meaningful” or sufficiently appreciated by the onlookers. Now that discomfiture in Durban has shaken everybody’s confidence again, I am tempted to remind you of what I had wondered about. I had written then only of the giants for I had not known the syndrome would reach down to the youngest, too, so soon!

“India had a band of four batsmen — possibly the most formidable batting quartet in world cricket. … The quartet now stands dismantled, by abuse and misuse by the system. The most famous…was Sachin Tendulkar, perhaps still the world’s best batsman… But everybody is aware of his huge fall in form. The second, V.V.S. Laxman, had hidden reserves of power that come out to awesome effect against champion teams in times of danger. He was omitted in the last World Cup and is now neglected… The third, Sourav Ganguly, was the dazzling knight errant in the quartet, India’s best-ever captain… His form dropped. The coach, Greg Chappell, former Australian captain, reported against him… Ganguly was summarily dismissed from captaincy and the team. He was the only Indian captain ever to be so openly humiliated. The fourth of the quartet, Rahul Dravid, India’s new captain, is the youngest of the four. Probably the world’s best defensive batsman — he is the Indian Wall. Cracks appeared lately….

“Why have we let the quartet go' Why are we helpless against the Caesars who want gladiators to die for the general merriment in the amphitheatre' Chappell said players were to be treated as commodities. Are you saying the same thing'”

There may be a general perception in India that all of the four are nearing the end of the road if only because of sheer passage of time! Cricket is seen to have become so much more hectic and physically demanding than it ever was! Many of us may be sorry that two of the greats have to go so unceremoniously. But we are also probably telling ourselves that this was coming in any case. Who can beat time' If this is the perception, then I suggest it better be re-examined.

To put ourselves in perspective, Ganguly is 1972-born, both Dravid and Tendulkar are 1973-born. I was not able to check Laxman’s year of birth but he is in the same age-group too, that is about 33-34. On the South African side, the devastating all-rounder, Shaun Pollock, is also 1973-born and often hurts himself but you would not see him showing the slightest sign of discomfort because of it as he goes through his batting or bowling actions.

Compared to these “ageing” people, Brian Lara is almost elderly, being born in May, 1969. He is, in fact, nearly 38 and at the peak of his form. In contrast, Anil Kumble, 1970-born, is also at the peak, but as far as I know, is about to be reverently but firmly put back on the shelf by the admiring selection committee members and Mr Chappell.

Oblivious to all this, and in striking contrast, at least some of the seniors in the great Australian side — some of them Guru Chappell’s direct sishyas — recently announced that they were actually planning to call it a day only about a decade from now, when they safely got past their mid-forties! They say they are helped by modern methods of recuperation that they were practising.

Why are we not asking whether modern physios and psychologists could not help, or the coach did not have a part to play not only in locating talent but also in protecting it' More importantly, did the national selection committee have no role in all this'

These questions have parallels that successful teachers in schools and colleges soon learn to ask for themselves. Any one who has seen some of their more brilliant students becoming world class will remember how some had continued to be world class for a long time, while others equally brilliant either did not arrive or stopped being world class sooner than perhaps nature intended. In academics, such questions, as these teachers knew very well, could be important and helpful even at the highest levels.

The same would be true for cricket (or any branch of athletics) too if above a level it really became a mind game beyond the reach of skills alone. The tasks then would be those of not only building and enriching human capital but also of knowing how to “maintain capital intact”. Even the great ones will expect expert help here from the coach, other specialists, the national selectors themselves — to watch their performances, feed them with test data, specialist advice and implicit encouragement. Our selectors succeeded in choosing a great, almost legendary cricketer for coach, and then chose to rest. Unfortunately, they have found they had chosen a sergeant-major in terms of temperament when a general was needed. So they do not know which way to look. Alas, from their reactions, it is clear they had not read their Aristotle : “The diner alone can tell how good the cook was”!

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