There is something about Anil Kumble’s face when he is bowling that reminds you of medical examiners and autopsies, something grim and precise. But now his face is creasing into a smile, and it doesn’t matter that he’s on the phone for even from long distance you can hear a grin. Really.
Last week, in the first one-dayer in Southampton, the Indians looked cold, not quite shambling around like the disconsolate penguins of some previous freezing tours, but plain, unhappy, bat-feels-like-a-plank, please-ball-don’t-come-to-me cold. So I call Kumble, a warm dude, to talk weather, which is when he begins his narration about an early English summer county match years ago. “Aravinda (de Silva) was fielding at mid-off and I don’t know how many layers he had on, but I know that his hands never came out of his pockets. Even when the ball came to him.”
Subcontinental boys pack their sambhar and hit the road, but it’s the sun really they want to convince to travel with them. Kumble remembers Northants captain Allan Lamb asking him in his first season there, “Where do you usually field?”, and the never-complaining spinner saying, “Gully.” Then, he added: “But I won’t field at gully. It’s too cold.” Lamb guffawed, Kumble shuffled off to some part of the field where the ball wasn’t coming at a clip towards him.
Dravid lingers on his knees at The Rose Bowl cricket ground in Southampton
Everyone who has played sport understands this last part. Guys like me, from hill boarding schools, can still recall the exquisite suffering that arrived when cork hockey ball met frozen thigh. Not even the awkward collapse of teenage love could bring as swiftly such winter tears.
Nature, that capricious beast, is one day an athlete’s ally, next day his foe. Either way, it’s always in the mix. Rain, sun, elevation, wind, something’s always lending a hand or getting in the way. Playing an opponent is hard enough, but then some days the conditions want to jostle their way into the party. Leave it to Kumble to dryly explain what it’s like bowling with a wet ball: “It’s like trying to spin a bar of soap”. Even that he did well.
All tournaments offer their own tiny examinations. In Wimbledon, rain turns the court greasier than Prem Chopra used to be. This week the US Open opened in New York and if the nights get sultrier than Sophia Loren, then listen for the occasional shout of “drip”. One year, Jimmy Connors does an interview on his feet, drip in tow, unable to sit else some body part would cramp.
Part of the excitement of watching the athlete is because he is constantly being tested. In a world of constant touring, one week you shiver, the next you sweat. Australia’s footballers, many of whom do their work in the well-paid cool of England’s Premier League, sauntered off to the Asian Cup last month pretty sure they’d physically bully their new Asian buddies. Till they dissolved into Bangkok sweat, sucked dry by an unfamiliar humidity. This dream died in a puddle.
In China once for a Davis Cup encounter, the Indians watched the hosts wash the court on the eve of the tie which led to it freezing over. In that cold, says Ramesh Krishnan, “you have no feel, you can’t grip the racket”. In the heat, the mind wanders and mirages beckon. In the rain, racing car teams flicker between intuition and science while deciding when to change tyres. In the dry, balls in most sports move faster through the air. In the wind, golfing brains are flooded with indecision over what club to use.
The best players, the finest teams, they’ll tell you, are those who adapt, adjust. Now, of course, science and technology lend a fair hand, uniquely-soled shoes for particular surfaces, sweat measured, ice-vests packed, tennis players sipping from bottles with different coloured liquids, cricketers wearing special thermals, race teams using radar to read the weather, golfers wearing fancy hand-warmers between shots at the British Open.
Last week, help me Jesus, Australian hockey players, in Beijing, were reportedly swallowing capsules, containing a micro-thermometer and radio transmitter, to check core body temperature and thus know what levels of rehydration they would need at the Olympics next year.
You wonder how old timers, who wore shoes with sad soles, tired sweaters, found warmth in brandy, and tested the wind by putting a licked finger in the air, react to all this. With envy? Or a sneer?
Write to Rohit at gametheory@ livemint.com