shooting at dinner; and get your kid a billiard table for his birthday. It’s all good news: In these sports, a paunch is not necessarily an impediment to stardom.
Whatever, just keep us away from any pursuit that’s strenuously athletic. Contemplation we do well. Speed we don’t. Dexterity is just fine with us. Power and muscles are not.
Sania Mirza, bless her feisty heart, hits the ball like it owes her money, but still she’s the odd kg too much and a few kph too slow. Local footballers would barely last a Premier League half at full pace. In badminton, former all-England champion Pullela Gopichand explains: “Where we miss out is that when we pick talent, we look only at the skills aspect. We should be looking at build, the potential to be taller and stronger and athletic.”
Hockey’s boys tend to tire when matches conclude. Former India coach Cedric D’Souza says the Dutch, with the aid of sports science, figured that substituting their strikers every seven minutes ensured they performed at their physical optimum. Indian hockey and sports science are relative strangers.
Cricket doesn’t survive on speed and strength, but as the fast-running, hard-throwing Australians demonstrate, it hands you an edge. Our team, for instance, has mostly done for fielding what Hannibal did for dinner parties. And its hiccuping production line of fast bowling is not some karmic curse, but a lack of an adequate pool of strong, athletic bodies.
Understand this: History’s not on our side, neither is culture. Running’s not in our genes. Subtlety and cleverness is. In the old days, hockey players did embroidery with a hockey stick, Ramanathan Krishnan played tennis with a feather, and Prakash Padukone could make a shuttlecock sigh.
Our sporting style was delicacy and cunning. Spinners teased and batsmen played swooning glances. Except sport, with improved equipment and altered surfaces (astro-turf in hockey), got muscular, faster, more powerful. And we got left behind. Gopichand says in the late 1970s, badminton players smashed at 170kmph; now he says it’s 340kmph. In men’s tennis, it’s hard to find a grand slam champion who isn’t in the vicinity of six feet. God help us.
Every weekend, Australians of every age spread out on cricket pitches, soccer fields, tennis courts. In India, too many weekends are spent strapped to the TV in the company of foods that carry only the future promise of a clogged artery. But this lethargy is also because sometimes there simply isn’t a sports field to play on. In Australia, there is a plethora of public courts, parks, golf courses. In India, to play tennis as a pastime requires a club and a wide-open wallet.
Indians, undeniably, have advanced as athletes. Cricket teams are not allergic to gyms, fitness trainers trail teams and nutritionists make guest appearances. Women like Mirza and Anju George are pushing the envelope of possibility, but it’s only a trickle. If we’re stronger, we’re not yet strong enough.
Till that day comes, maybe we should encourage young people to hook their thumbs in their belts, take a deep breath and fire. We had two world champions in shooting last year, we’ve had them at many levels in chess, we’ve had them in billiards and our golfers had their finest year in 2006. Ratchet up the funding, raise coaching levels, ensure subsidized equipment, and our national anthem may become a familiar tune worldwide.
Shooting courts stillness and hand-to-eye coordination, billiards requires dexterity and ideas, chess demands patience and an analytical mind, and golf asks for suppleness, timing and finesse. In every one of them, athletes must plot their way carefully and hug concentration, in a way, almost meditative pursuits. These virtues we understand.
Not that chess players are strangers to treadmills, or golfers unfamiliar with dumbbells, it’s just that pure athletic ability is not compulsory. And the training’s a trifle more bearable. Sure, the courteous Jeev Milkha Singh may find his hands aching after hammering 500 golf balls at the range. But it sounds a lot more appealing than what his father, the legendary runner, did.
In search of speed and power, some days Milkha trained so hard, he vomited. Blood. And then some days he peed it.
Melbourne-based Rohit Brijnath will write a fortnightly sports column that will (hopefully) encourage you to relinquish the remote on weekends. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org