FIRE IN THE BELLY
It gave all cricket loving Indians a feeling of a “high” when the
national Under-19 team won the ICC World Cup in the recently concluded
championship in New Zealand. It warmed one’s heart to see the young cricketers
in blue playing with passion and aggression and dominating the tournament in a
manner reminiscent of the West Indian sides of late 1970’s and early 80’s. The
team and, in particular, the coach Rahul Dravid, have received applause from
all quarters for their superlative performance.
A few days before that India had fought hard and won the third testin the series against South Africa. This win, coming after losses in the first two tests, buoyed up the spirits of the fans of the game in the country.
What made this victory different was the fact that this was won on a hard and fast-paced surface that was specially designed to help the South African fast bowlers intimidate the Indian batsmen. In the event, the tables were turned and the visitors had the last laugh, leaving the hostsred-faced in embarrassment.
Among the many things in common between the senior and the junior sides, one aspect that stood out was the positive aggression displayed by both. This was visible from the high energy levels on the field, the alacrity with which fielders dived at the balls or chased them, the very vocal encouragement for their mates while giving a bit of “the lip” to the opponents, and a body language that meant business.
None of the members of either side appeared shy about expressing their emotions and even while doing so they were in complete control of themselves. In addition to making cricket a better spectacle, these actions also raised hopes about the future of Indian cricket.
It would not be off the mark to state that these victories by the national sides, both the seniors and the juniors, have shown up two distinct forms of aggression — the one displayed by Virat Kohli and the other encouraged by Rahul Dravid. While old timers, like this writer, would vouch for the Dravid brand as one that still retains the contours of poise and grace, the youngsters of today are undoubtedly enamoured by Kohli’s attitude and approach, which is more “on the face”, bordering almost on the brattish!
However, what everyone would agree is that both these types have proved to be highly effective in motivating the players as well as in gaining the upper hand over the opponents. The reason behind the success of these two versions is that at the core both are positive in nature.
Cut back a little to the last century when Indian sportsmen of all genre were considered to be great individuals, but utterly lacking in the skills and temperament to win big matches. Despite having in our ranks, one of the greatest opening batsmen of all times and a spin bowling quartet the types of which world cricket has never produced since, India won very few test matches and even lesser limited overs’ games during the 1970’s.
At one point, Vijay Amritraj of India was rated, along with Bjorn Borg of Sweden and Jimmy Connors of USA, as the ABC of world tennis. But Amritraj could never even reach the semi-finals of a Grand Slam tournament, while Borg and Connors shared most of the titles between them during that decade. Prakash Padukone won the All England Championship in shuttle badminton in 1980 but could not repeat this triumph later on. The same was the case in athletics where Milkha Singh and PT Usha came close to winning the Olympic medal but lost out by the margin of milliseconds!
Both Amritraj and Padukone were hailed as perfect gentlemen on and off the courts and were extremely popular players but one got the feeling that they never did full justice to their talent. For the sports lovers it was an extremely frustrating experience to watch them go down repeatedly from winning positions and leave the courts after shaking hands with the victors.
Commentators and analysts invariably had a good laugh over the inability of stalwarts from India to elevate their game in tough situations and used to say patronisingly: “These guys just do not have the killer instinct”. It was made to sound as if Indians players did not wish to win as that would involve hurting the opponents!
The failure of Indian sportsmen to win honours in the international arena, both individually and as a team, used to cause great consternation amongst the public at large. There were numerous debates about this phenomenon and it was widely agreed that Indians did not have the single-minded focus to win, come what may. The blame was put on many traits, one among them being the halo bestowed on a “good loser” by society; so, a sure-shot winning chance would be squandered because there was something deeply inexplicable about stepping out of the comfort zone!
There was also an inclination to give up too easily, what former Australian cricket captain Steve Waugh described as “a tendency to roll over and expose the soft underbelly”. Naturally, the consensus was that Indian sportsmen could do with a much greater hunger to succeed consistently at the highest level.
THE GAME CHANGER
The first signs of change in attitude came when India emerged the shock winners in the 1983 cricket World Cup. For the first time ever, the national side were crowned world champions in the most popular game in the country. This ignited public hunger to an extent where nothing short of victory would be enough!
The influx of more money into the game also helped to change the attitudes on the field as it soon became apparent that the winner takes everything, leaving little for the vanquished.
The first signs of aggression that appeared on the cricket field were not positive ones. They took the form of boorish behaviour, questioning the decisions of umpires, indiscriminate and uncontrolled swearing, and heckling players of the opposite side, which in a couple of instances even degenerated into fisticuffs off the field.
It was only after the arrival of former New Zealand ace batsman John Wright as the coach of India’s national side that the focus shifted to strengthening of body and mind. The relevance of achieving peak levels of physical fitness, which also involved having the right diet and exercise regime, was driven home by the foreign coaches and the support staff they brought with them.
With this, the team started looking leaner and sharper, which improved the general energy levels on the field as well. The team learnt the virtue of not giving up and keeping the fight going till the very end. This soon had a remarkable effect on the results as the team started winning many matches which, in the past, the side would have given up as lost.
Challenging oneself continuously soon became the rule rather than the exception. The end result of all these efforts is the confident body language so evident these days on the field of play in the form of positive aggression.
It is not merely coincidental that the performance of Indian sportspersons in general also started looking up around the same time. The revolution in Shuttle Badminton, where Saina Nehwaland PV Sindhu have done the nation proud is the direct result of this change in attitude brought about by proper training as well as physical and mental conditioning.
Similar changes have swept over Boxing, Weight Lifting, Gymnastics, and Shooting, where Indian participants have been winning international medals with greater frequency.
Have Indian sportspersons finally conquered the mind block that had prevented them from reaching the pinnacle? It is too early to hazard a guess but increasingly individuals as well teams representing the country are no longer overawed or intimidated by the big stage.
Further, they have started showing the right attitude and this bodes well for the future of Indian sport. For aspiring sportspersons there are two readymade models to emulate — the Rahul Dravid approach and the Virat Kohli way — in their quest for attaining greatness.