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Last of my kind

(This post hasn't come out as well as I wanted. But I'm still pissed off, so.)
Why do we have heroes? What is it about someone that triggers a decision to nail our colours to their mast? I don't have a neat answer so what you read from here on is both an explanation and an exploration. In a post-modern world driven by counter-points, certainty is a luxury.

I missed the boat when it came to India's ODI cricket madness. We moved abroad in the late 80s. When I left, my friends and I wanted to be Kapil, Kris or Sunil. When I returned, god was getting comfortable on his heavenly couch and all was right with a world I did not recognise. I had missed Sachin's opening batsman debut against New Zealand, the hullabaloo of the Hero Cup and other notable moments. So, I was interested in cricket, not any particular sportsman. Not even during the '96 World Cup. When India muffed it against Sri Lanka, I hurt for the team, not for a player.

Then came Dravid. And, personally, with him came Kumble. I had found my idols. And the inkwell of my idolatry is endless.

Why them? Why not Tendulkar? Here's the thing. Realise that Sachin is in a rarefied pantheon that cannot be touched. Even if the sun did not shine, no wings would allow any man to touch him. At the most, Sachin triggers a sense of awe. Sachin is salvation. He gave us hope but it would be foolish to hope to be him.

The stories of Dravid and Kumble are human ones. They stand for something simple - work hard, be sincere and stay disciplined. And be ready for the chips to fall in one's favour. Of course this 'simple' is very difficult to emulate. You look at their lives, their examples and understand that two choices exist. Either be defeated by the sheer power of what they stand for OR aspire to what they stand for. Because any human can. You cannot be Dravid but work at your batting long enough and you can hone your technique to a point where you bat like him. You cannot be Kumble but you can forge your inner fire into a bowling technique that will get you wickets.

Dravid and Kumble have gifted people something far more valuable than their feats. Their gift is the QED that talent, fortified by relentless passion, focus, patience and performance can win you a moment in the sun. How long that moment lasts depends on external factors too. But you can become an irresistible force and wait for the immovable object to blink first.

That's what they became you know... Dravid the Immovable fucking Object and Kumble the Irresistible fucking Force.

Think I'm exaggerating? Watch old clips of them batting or bowling. Watch the waltz of physics which, if there were any magic in this world, would scorch the turf as the ball kissed and caressed its way to the ropes. Watch the ball spit, dart and venomously arrow in on middle-and-leg and either york the poor fool in the way or thud into his pads.

Wipe the drool off your face. It's not dignified.

Then look into their eyes. Trace the outline of their set jaws. And take comfort in the fact that Dravid and Kumble played for India in your lifetime. They were great sportsmen. But they were and are inherently Decent men. In India, in the world, you can't put a price on something like that. If controversy is currency, Dravid and Kumble would be paupers. When they retired, I took it personally. When Kumble was forced to give up his NCA post over some wishywashy bullshit, I took it personally. When that m*****f****r Guha cast sneaky aspersions on Dravid's character over a conflict of interest, I took it personally. When the conflict between Kumble and Captain prima donna came to light, I took it personally. So, yea, Kumble being made to quit... you bet it's personal.

Dravid and Kumble's decency angers me. Their stoic dignity and modesty angers me. Their unwillingness to play games as well as they played the game angers me. Sachin was a god on the cricket ground. Dravid and Kumble are gods off it. And it's too much to bear.   

Cricketers of my generation would say they'd do their best. And we believed them. Today, an Indian cricketer says he'll get things done and we believe him. But first, he'll take a selfie. Pah! 

Song for the moment: Cuts like a knife - Bryan Adams

Do read the Puneri's take on this shit-show.  


Anonymous said…
A disclaimer first up. What follows is a thought-vomit that has no particular flow. But since you've lived through the 90s, I trust you'll be able to sort it in your head.

Firstly (and I've had this conversation with several, several people), who you like out of that pack is really a reflection of your self image. If you like Kumble and Dravid, over the rest of them, it is likely because you see yourself or aspire to live your life and play your game as a Kumble or a Dravid. People who are overly aware of a skill or a a talent they have (most often it is a misgiving more than an awareness), usually lean more towards Sachin. People who have no major scruples in life, fancy Ganguly. But mostly, middle class educated types, who make a virtue out of humility, hard work, minimal expectations, etc. idolize Kumble and Dravid out of that lineup. So that's my cheap 15 rupee mirror for you right there. Not that you needed it, looking at the title of your post!

Next, most people (and I am not saying you), actually like Dravid and Kumble not because of everything you have said. But because of something else that very few people are able to admit to themselves. There is an undeniable romance associated with a virtuous-in-defeat theater. Our people would much rather lose like a Dravid than win like a Ganguly or a Ponting. And that is where things are fucked up for us a culture. Ours is basically a masochistic culture that fetishizes pain. The way we sell it to ourselves is by saying we value means over ends. But particularly in sport, winning basically IS everything. You may tell yourself different all day, but at the end of the day, a defeat hurts and lingers like nothing else. So in the heart of your heart you kinda know that winning is the most important thing. And when you suck at that, as we did in the 90s, you tend to look for something comforting in defeat. Nothing too insightful there at all. But scale it up on a societal or a cultural level and what you have is a classic Loser culture. That is really what governs our society. We have a classic Loser culture, and I am saying that not with any sense of accusation or resentment. This is objectively the case. Sachin was a classic Loser in a lot of ways too. And it kills me to say this, btw. I am as big a fan as you'd ever find. Of Sachin, and Dravid, and Kumble. And the rest of them too. But with 20-odd years of hindsight, you end up calling a spade a spade.

I guess what I am really saying is that most people like Dravid and Kumble not because of their impeccable character, dignity, honorable disposition, hard work, or even because of what solid performers they were. But secretly, we celebrate them because we have seen how they largely failed to win despite being all that. They almost acquit us as a people for all our shortcomings. "If someone as disciplined, hardworking, humble, educated, well-spoken, as a Dravid or Kumble gets beaten that often at something they are so good at, do I really have a chance at being me and doing well in trigonometry?" That kinda thing.

The 90s was an unbelievable time. But the things that made it special would also be things that would hold us back for a long, long time to come. I suspect if we had actually won the 96 world cup or those tests in the West Indies or all those triangulars in Sharjah, even if scrapingly, and maybe even dubiously, we'd have achieved a lot more as a culture over the 20 years that followed. At least within sport, we should have valued a Ponting or a Steve Waugh over a Dravid, and a McGrath or a Warne over a Kumble, for our own good. It hurts me to say this, but the Dravid/Kumble archetype has actually held us back, on a much larger level.

And that's where captain prima donna is actually doing a lot more service to the culture than a Dravid or a Kumble ever did. Because you can't fault him for one thing; he needs to win badly. This way or that. And honestly, we could do with a guy who doesn't care too much about playing nice.
G said…
I'm going to disagree with your second-last para. I'm glad we did not value a Ponting or Waugh. And this has nothing to do with the "gentlemen's game" bs. To know how to lose with dignity is as important as knowing how to win. Victory is the aim of playing but losing is an equal reality. Ponting or Waugh did not win because they snarled, sledged or played tougher. They played their best in a well-oiled team of people equally or a tad lesser skilful; one in which some guys could have off-days knowing the slack would be picked up by others. That team was so good, I suspect they won ugly simply because they too got caught up in a stereotype - the ugly Aussie. Which is the difference between them and India. Our guys couldn't afford off days because too much hinged on too many of the batters doing decently at least. And, our guys hated to lose. To suggest otherwise is to, well, banish their entire generation as one which knew people expected them to lose and treated every win as an unexpected bonus. It is as much a gross pop-psychology generalisation as it is a disservice. As for the incumbent, I don't see him doing any favours to whatever culture. If people enjoy this kind of victory, much good it may do them.
Anonymous said…
"Show me a gracious loser, and I will show you a loser." That actually says exactly what I am trying to say, but it will be intellectually lazy to just utter it without a supporting argument.

This concept is something that our middle class, Indian ethos-powered sensibilities have always missed! It is not a mere coincidence that Ponting, Waugh, McGrath, and Warne who were rank assholes also constituted the core of an unbeatable team. They were unbeatable because they were such assholes. If you want to win really badly, every single time, at all costs, no matter what, you will find yourself becoming more and more of an asshole each passing day. Not a great way to live life generally, but I can't think of anything more valuable on a sports field. Losing is a reality, yes. But a champion will push that reality into a blind spot, lock it there, and live in denial of its existence. Our guys on the other hand, recognized it as an inseparable truth, all too willingly. Surprise surprise, we kept seeing more and more of it!

It all comes down to a very deep-rooted cultural force of which I have a considerable amount of study. It really is all about our ethos. The "karm karo, phall ki chinta mat karo" way of life. A Ponting and a McGrath were guys who totally obsessed about getting their phall, at all costs, and therefore got to see more of it. Our guys on the other hand, as you have so nicely put in your post, only waited for the chips to fall in their favor.

As a branch out, for whatever its worth, we have it down pat in the larger game. That's why you have westerners turn up in our ashrams trying in vain, to understand how we process the lows of life so effortlessly and manage to carve out a relatively more satisfying existence despite everything we lack. But the downside of that calm, existential processing is on full display in sport.

Very few, very very few people manage to fuel a raging desire to win every single time, while staying balanced, gracious, and affable. Sachin, Messi, Usain Bolt, are all therefore in a league of their own. For the vast majority, it is a trade off between being nice and winning. A deal with the devil.

Btw, I absolutely wager that our guys back then did not feel too bad about losing. Not nearly as much as the Aussies or some other teams did. There is no way to ascertain that of course, so it is your word against mine. But I can point to any number of those classic signs: drooping shoulders, frowns of resignation, grinning shamelessly in humiliating defeats, near zero lessons learned from one loss to the next, never digging deep, all that. Why do you think we always lacked that fighting spirit that makes a champion a champion? It is because we always saw 'gracious-in-defeat' as a valid alternative role, in case victory didn't work out.

At the end of the day, it comes down to chemicals. The amount of testosterone running in our bodies! That is an objective, scientific truth. The more of it you have, the better you do in sports, and the more you win. And the bigger asshole you are. Chemicals shape our world more than is popularly understood. If India is going to be a sustained force in sport, its going to be because we have assholes like Kohli and Yuvraj who happily play that part. The Kumbles and the Dravids will be consigned to history with any number of superlatives. "Downright winners" will probably not be one of them.

It adulterates the whole fantasy, of course. What we'd really like to see is a team full of Kumbles and Dravids and Sachins notch up results that the McGraths and the Warnes and the Waughs did. Can't have it both ways though.
G said…
I can't and won't dispute the fact about testosterone. And sure, gracious or graceless, a loser is a loser. But that isn't where I'm coming from. My takeaway from my sporting heroes is to do your best to win. But don't let your worst side come out to push you over the line when your best isn't enough. I vaguely recollect an anecdote about RD not being impressed with Donald's on-field behaviour; and rebuffing Donald's friendly overtures later.

It's a personal choice and 'may' lead to more losses than wins (being a team game, I argue that even RD or AK snarling away wouldn't have been enough). I don't want to win at all costs. Maybe they didn't either. Maybe Kohli and Yuvraj do. I respect that position but I'm not obliged to like it or celebrate that style of victory.

At the end of the day, I choose not to win at all costs. Because I don't think the ends always justify the means.
Anonymous said…
That's a very valid perspective. Everyone has different expectations from their heroes. And that's how the game and the team gains and loses followers. That's just life. I know we would have given and arm and a leg to watch an Indian team that did well in the 90s. And even while they lost game after game from unbelievable positions, we cussed and hollered at them, but continued to root for them each time they showed up. Today, we finally have the squad that delivers results the way we once dreamed they would, but we just don't care as much. You probably don't care because of the ends vs. means reason. I don't care because I think the game is just less nuanced and more uni-dimensional now, dominated by skill and strength rather than tact and thought.

Either way, staying on point, in the Kumble vs. Kohli spat, the only way it could and should have gone, is Kohli's. If there is a disagreement between a coach and a player, and the player (and team) is performing beyond criticism, the argument should always be settled in the player's favor. Because he is the one on the field, he's the one actually doing the playing, and that's what its all about. It is an ends business, not a means one, whether we like it or not. There is really no place for an any righteousness there. Kumble recognized that and bowed out with extreme dignity, as I'd expect Kumble to do. And that's what we need to acknowledge and appreciate, instead of calling out Kohli. You really don't want this kind of a dispute to be settled against the captain, do you?
G said…
The charm of the game has faded for me. If there are any 'characters' at all, they seem stereotypical. Tropes and cookie-cutter BS, overall. On AK vs. VK, I reluctantly agree. VK is the only common thread across all 3 formats; he's a sporting pro; his numbers cannot be argued with. I'd love for the issue to have been settled amicably or in AK's favour, but that's an idiotic, irrational idea. C'est la vie.
Anonymous said…
C'est la vie indeed. But cookie-cutter is how we have decided to devolve as a culture, and sport only reflects that. The stereotypes in the sport that you mentioned are more easily spotted in and around us each day. I am tired of meeting predictable, mass (media) produced, faux-personalities devoid of any meaningful individuality. As a rule, most interactions play out on a highly infertile canvas, which further feeds the need for people to develop even more abrasive personalities. The best case scenario is a Virat Kohli who manages to harness that abrasive personality with a touch of life-perspective and a shitload of talent and skill.

What nobody talks about is how this is an awful role model to follow. If you looked up to a Sachin or an RD, but had capabilities that were nowhere close to what those guys had, you would still end up a decent human being, in whichever walk of life you ended up in. On the other hand, if you look up to a Kohli, but are of average intelligence, capability, and moral makeup, you will likely end up a toxic human being who goes about his day contaminating the atmosphere in any room he inhabits. Because this cookie-cutter path only allows you to differentiate yourself through objective vectors. If you don't have those in sufficient measure, you will end up looking at life as an adversary, with VK-like values, that quickly default to "any means necessary" when Plan A is not going right. Look around you. Does that not explain a lot of what's going on?
G said…
I suspect life in India is already an adversary for many, many people. From their perspective, a saintly, RD-ian attitude may not make sense. Maybe being VK-like is cathartic. Maybe people can tell themselves that at least they weren't doormats. At least they never turned the other cheek. Anyway, not sure this blog or comment box is the right forum to wax further on it.

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