Thursday, July 26, 2007

Of myths and men

The Potterisation of a gifted sportsman — in popular perception — robs him of his essential humanity, writes Nirmal Shekar

May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung,

May you stay forever young,

Forever young, forever young,

May you stay forever young.

— Bob Dylan

Great athletes feed our illusions, fuel our fantasies. They unleash the romantic in us, liberating us from the mundane pragmatism of careworn adulthood and let us become dreamy-eyed, innocent children all over again.

Of course, this is not on their agenda. It is hardly their objective as they step into the cauldron to tackle monumental challenges head on. They may not even be aware of anything as seemingly far-fetched as this. Yet, they end up aiding us in our myt h-building mission because we want them to do it; it has more to do with us than with them.


Man is a myth-making animal; to keep existential anxieties at arm’s length, we have been hard-wired by nature to create fables, to seek out comforting myths, to revel in them, to celebrate them, to cherish them. It’s in our DNA. Great athletes are merely the instruments that set the process in motion.

In Indian sport, perhaps no other athlete has allowed us to feed off his genius to construct myth after myth after myth as has Sachin Tendulkar. In millions of cricket lovers’ minds, he is a James Dean figure drinking forever from the fountain of youth, an infallible superman whose consistent heroics connect to some deep emotional terrain, a lovable wizard who almost always makes sure that our dreams and reality are magically inter-changeable, that they are one and the same.

This sort of Potterisation of an athlete — in popular perception — robs him of his essential humanity. J.K. Rowling can conveniently key in the ending she wants to let handsome Harry remain the master of wizardry. But, at age 34, after 18 long summers in the most demanding era in cricket, no human being can re-connect to the magic of youth — not even Superman Sachin.

For sport — as indeed all of life — is subject to the laws of nature, something that best-selling fiction can conveniently bypass to take care of our primordial hunger for fantasies, to let us lose ourselves, however briefly, in a magical world of the supernatural.

Human quality

If sport accommodates a range of talents, from the average to the good, the great and lastly the few geniuses, then the laws apply uniformly to all of them. Genius is very much a part of nature; this is precisely why it is a human quality that is so highly rated.

This is also the reason why you don’t need a super-sleuth like Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars to solve the mystery of Tendulkar’s struggles of the recent past. It’s elementary, my dear Watson, the legendary detective might have said.

Age, of course, is more than just elementary in sport. It is the master’s master. It ruthlessly holds a mirror to the greatest of them all, at once exposing their human, all-too-human frailties.

Five years ago, after a shock second round loss to a Swiss journeyman ranked well outside the top 100, one of the greatest sportsmen of all time slumped into his chair on the No.2 court at Wimbledon. As Pete Sampras bit into his tongue idiosyncratically and stared blankly in disbelief, he suddenly looked twice his age. Wimbledon’s greatest champion would never play again at the All England Club.

Of course, the great man made me eat my own words three months later when he won the last of his 14 Grand Slam titles in New York, beating his friend and archrival Andre Agassi in the final. But most great sportsmen find such fairy tale endings out of their reach.

At Nottingham over the weekend, or maybe at The Oval in two weeks’ time, Tendulkar might very well come up with a gem that would silence his critics — a tribe whose numbers are increasing with every tentative prod of the Tendulkar bat in the Test arena — but it can only be a temporary respite, at best.

End game

For, the end game is the toughest game of all for every top athlete, however great he/she is. Eyesight, reflexes and confidence are not quite what they used to be as the 30-something athlete soldiers on on dodgy knees with patient, hungry vultures (read critics) hovering overhead under leaden skies.

It happens to the best of them. Kapil Dev, who recently took a swipe at Tendulkar on television, captured 33 wickets in his last 16 Tests with a best haul of three for 35. The Mumbai maestro’s sequence of runs in his own last 16 Tests might well compare favourably.

Yet, this is not quite the point. The truth is, most great sportsmen have struggled a bit towards the end of their careers. They would not have been human if they had not. But, when the toiler in question is the Harry Potter of Indian cricket, we are shocked, devastated.

We shouldn’t be, even if our cherished superman myth has been disturbed. For, it might be unwise to maintain the fiction anymore.


Masterfully Written By

Nirmal Sekar - The Hindu