Deconstructing the Champions

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Legend forever Sachin’s aura is intact even after retirement
Legend forever Sachin’s aura is intact even after retirement. Photo: AFP

The intriguing interplay between fear and insecurity, success and failure, permeates the spirit of Mike Coward’s peek into the minds of champion cricketers down the years. It prompts questions like what goes into the making of a champion in a team game, and takes us tantalisingly close to deciphering the mindsets of those wonderful athletes, who over time have scripted tales of individual heroism that will endure the vagaries of time. It has been said of cricket that it is a science, the study of a lifetime, in which you may exhaust yourself but never your subject. Cricket can be a brutal taskmaster, and not even Don Bradman and Garfield Sobers have escaped the prolonged strain and responsibility that it entails.

Each cricketing icon has been a product of a distinct social era which imparted its own impress on the person, his cricket and so on. From Sir Don down to the contemporary greats, leadership and cricketing skills have evolved in the prism of time and epochs, and it is thus impossible and foolhardy to generalise about a game where structurally, its governors have traditionally been a breed distinctly apart from cricketers. This dichotomy has been there right from the time of inception of the noble game, and Coward here joins a long list of excellent writers who have romanced cricket with gusto and aplomb, detailing the schisms and developing a perspective on them.

While in Coward’s own Australia, captaincy of the Test cricket team is popularly represented as the second most important office in the land: they have generally been feted by the citizens and have occupied a privileged position in Australian society. The situation, however, is not as hunky-dory for captains in the rest of the cricket-playing countries, who can be great heroes one day and vicious villains on another. After all, as Coward says, no team sport asks more of its leader on and off the field than cricket in its purest form. As he says, other games may make greater demands in a purely physical sense but five consecutive days of intense competition creates unparalleled and often unbearable levels of mental and emotional stress. From Bradman to the present era, the pressure has been an abiding factor right through.

Leadership in a game like cricket has always been a highly demanding proposition, and factors that go beyond strategic and tactical acumen often come into play. “As often as not the leader is expected to mentor or act as amateur psychologist, even surrogate parent,” says Coward as he adds that complex components of ethnicity, religion and language exist as in the case of the Indian sub-continent or the Caribbean archipelago that render the task of men like Worrell and Lloyd, and MAK Pataudi and Sunil Gavaskar that much more difficult. In his seminal work The Art of Captaincy, Mike Brearley writes that the role and limitations of charisma, the place of aggression and so on, have always impacted on how good and great a certain leader of men turns out to be in actual fact.

book20102014Brearley’s was a unique case. He was by no means a great batsman, but his captaincy record (18 victories and 4 losses from 31 matches) was certainly commendable. In spite of his own limitations as a player in a team that boasted of contrasting greats like Geoffrey Boycott and Ian Botham, he often had to read out the riot act and even be snobbish and cold to drive the message home. Brearley over time understood the fact that one needs the ability to say things straight from time to time. One has to be able to say things to people they don’t want to hear. At the same time, you cannot afford to be aloof from those who you lead at any time. Brearley’s greatest accomplishment thus was his masterful counselling and cajoling of Botham in 1981, when his careers as cricket captain and psychotherapist intersected. Botham was the lead performer, but it was Brearley who made him perform. “In essence, he was the architect of the only Ashes series which at every reference is preceded by a name — Botham’s Ashes. Intuitively, Brearley reached out to the warrior all-rounder who had been humiliated in front of a sad and silent mob at Lord’s in the last of his 12 Tests as captain. Botham was eternally grateful,” writes Coward.

Leading players do not necessarily become great captains. But those who lead should be men who are respected in spite of their limitations, and those who can trigger the instinct and attitude that make champions perform. Men like Bradman and Sobers, Viv Richards and Gavaskar, Brian Lara and Sachin Tendulkar, may have exemplified the era that they played in and excelled. But even they needed the abiding trust and confidence of ‘others’ to do their bit, and that is where individual brilliance gets merged with the interests of the team. Innate ability, self-belief and the desire to excel have to overcome periods of fear, insecurity and self-doubt in the long run. Richards said, “If you are confident about what you are doing, why not have a little strut about it?” Others may be selfeffacing in contrast, but at no point is a champion himself 100 percent satisfied with his achievements. Coward details the journey from oblivion to celebrity with understanding and aplomb.

Turning to D’Souza’s book on the god who batted at number four for India, Sachin’s retirement is still too recent an event to be internalised in its enormous perspective by any sane cricket lover. But what D’Souza does achieve is to successfully comprehend the Tendulkar phenomenon at one level and the craze for cricket in the country on the other.

He has created a riveting montage, both cricketing and sociological, and it does help in reliving some of the most memorable moments associated with the master-blaster. Legends live larger-than-life, and continue to be feted and honoured even when they walk into the sunset. Sachin got the highest civilian honour of the country. D’Souza may himself prefer to watch the Dravids at work, but that does not colour his perception about the Sachin phenomenon, the likes of which have been only sparingly seen in international cricket. This book could be ideal company on a lonely afternoon or a train journey.

D’Souza writes well on themes as diverse as Binayak Sen and Sachin. Sachin was truly the kind we may never get to see again, and in its own way, this little volume adds to the existing literature reserved for the little master. It also rekindles memories of the sheer value of the last time that Sachin played for his country, described by Harsha Bhogle as “the largest collective outpouring of emotion” he had ever seen.

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