Effort is a voice in the athlete’s head. Effort to wake up at 4.17am, which is what Ian Thorpe did every day, effort when confidence is dying and the body hurts. Effort which gives sport a certain nobility. It is Rafael Nadal saying: “I fight, I fight, I fight”, and you can literally see his willingness to pursue his best self.
The grit: Michael Jordan, Rahul Dravid and Rafel Nadal — (below in the story) — all of them are sportsmen known for their rigour and tenacity.Michael Jordan. John Gichigi/Getty Images
This cliché which suggests a talent fully exhausted—“I gave 100 per cent”—is not easily lived. But it becomes the separation point between athletes. Not just skill, not fast-twitch fibre, not planning, not schedules, but first this voice of desire.
“Who do I want to be?”
Peel back the great player. Look. See Michael Jordan, not just a competitor but the polished competitor. Before official practice with the Chicago Bulls, he’d lift weights first at home, till some teammates joined in and it became known as the Breakfast Club. Jordan heard this voice which was echoed by that masochist Lance Armstrong, who said: “Pain is temporary. It may last...an hour, or a day...but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”
For me this is what India—not every player but some—lacked somewhat in England, the response to this urgent, disciplined voice within. Effort in concentration when the ball was doing some swinging dance; in pushing the body Anil Kumble-like into one more hard over bowled, then another, then 40; in keeping the right body language in the 89th over.
Yes, it’s bloody hard. It’s supposed to be.
Failure in England wasn’t simply lack of effort for that diminishes England and reduces sport to the simplistic. India unravelled, like a seam in a faded dress, because its cricket is confused. It’s as if No. 1 in Test cricket—a grand achievement—had been earned and there it ends, instead of resetting the bar. It’s as if a system is infected by the wrong type of greed because the right one is about being unsatisfied. Wherein you say, screw luck, damn conditions, forget injuries—they’re sporting staples—every series just has to be won, till this greed infects the system, till suddenly one day you’ve won 16 Tests in a row and still ask, what about 17?
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To say this great team has morphed into a poor one is to be glib, the issue really is of understanding how fickle greatness can be.
Rahul Dravid. Philip Brown/Reuters
Of course, India’s players hear the voice, else they could not have journeyed so far, but you cannot hear the voice selectively—you need to hear it every day. It’s why Kobe Bryant used to make, not take, 500 shots in practice. When Jerry Rice, the legendary wide receiver for the San Francisco 49ers, wasn’t at his precise weight, well, then, he’d just get on the Stairmaster and work out to get to that weight. Before a match!
I remember an Adelaide night in 2003, sitting in Rahul Dravid’s hotel room, listening to a “thud, thud, thud” from next door and asking, what’s that, and he smiled: “It’s Tendulkar.” His form hadn’t arrived on that tour, but there he was, in front of a mirror, practising his bat-work, hitting the ground with every desperate, practice stroke. This was the voice and Sachin Tendulkar always hears it and in an Indian world, replete with distractions, it is the voice young players have to listen to.
India’s team can draw up a persuasive litany of reasons for defeat, from scheduling, to bench strength, to overplaying. But what folks like to see, even in the inevitability of defeat—or especially in the inevitability of defeat—is effort, effort to be better, to learn. Wherein sport becomes not about money (and I’m not saying it is here), or trophies, or even Rice saying “Whenever I stepped into that stadium, I felt like I owed the people something”, but something more essential. An answering to the voice when really you’re too tired to goddam listen.
A voice that keeps you cautious about diet, so when India calls you up suddenly, you’re ready; which makes you practise against short bowling till weaving becomes an instinct; which makes tail-enders tell a batting coach at the nets, no, not done, 40 more balls; which makes bowlers remember every ball requires their complete, undistracted, thoughtful selves. Effort is Amit Mishra trying with the bat, it isn’t S. Sreesanth, on the Oval’s last day, just capitulating with it.
Rafel Nadal. Al Behrman/AP
I return to great players like an addict because of the promise they give themselves and therefore us: to train, to try, to endure, whatever the weather, the rival, the fever in their body, anything. They might fail, form might abandon them, but it’s all we can ask for. It’s why the moment of this series for me—and I didn’t even see it but was told about it by my friend Sharda Ugra—came at a moment, ironically, of Dravid failure. He’d been catching like an arthritic old man and when he dropped one again at Edgbaston, he was embarrassed, furious, he tore off his cap, hurled it to the ground, a quiet man not given to theatre suddenly animated. Because he demands from himself a high standard, because he practises for it.
It was lovely picture. A picture of a man in pain who clearly hears the voice.
Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.
Write to Rohit at email@example.com