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Cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni.  (Photo: Reuters)
Cricketer Mahendra Singh Dhoni. (Photo: Reuters)

Endurance may be nature’s reward for being ordinary

It appears to be a virtue that merges the limits of mind and body but is really a refuge for the middling

Indians may have celebrated Mahendra Singh Dhoni as Mr Happy Ending if the compliment were not so disgraced. Instead, cricket fans have to settle for an honour that sounds far less Indian: “The Finisher".

“The Finisher" denotes the fact that when some runs were left for a team victory, he would arrive at the crease, jab, poke, sprint and score them. When he was thus “finishing", the sporting icon who announced his retirement from international cricket last week would regale fans with facial calmness, a type of acting in sports that is achieved by something as simple as chewing gum, or even smiling.

The people who celebrate Dhoni as “the finisher" are often the same who deliver this dim analysis: “Sachin never won matches." Is it so hard to see why a guy who opens the innings, and scores fast enough not to endure, is not around in the last overs? Yet, they are generous to another man who came towards the end to make the final runs.

Dhoni’s fable is in reality about endurance. And endurance is a fascinating quality because it has the appearance of a spectacular virtue that merges the limits of the body with those of the mind. But endurance is chiefly a refuge of mediocrity. Endurance is a reward for being limited, just as longevity is so often a reward for playing safe.

Dhoni is of no interest to me. I am here to propose a theory of endurance; stay with me the full course.

In the novel Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a character observes, “The human body is not made to endure all the years that one may live."

There is the joy of living, the whole point of living, and there is the persistence of life. This persistence in a creaking body is endurance, a form of death.

There is endurance all around us. The safe clerk who has been in the same job for half a century; the ancient marriage of our parents, which is a private treaty of two equal handicaps with no better prospects; Rahul Dravid, enduring bowlers for dreary hours, cheered on by other Dravids in other professions; and cricketers who extend their playing years in that refuge for the mediocre where limitations are couched in triumphant terms of leadership—cricket captaincy.

Endurance is greatness for ordinary people, it is compensation for ordinariness. In any profession, a guy who endures is a sign that there might be something wrong with the system.

Let us get language out of the way. What is often called “endurance" is usually not. The 42-km discipline of the marathon, for instance. Elite marathon runners cover the distance at a speed of 100 metres in less than 18 seconds. This is faster than the 100-metre sprint of most healthy people in the world. Elite long-distance runners do use a lot of fast-twitch muscles, fibres that aid sprinting. The professional marathon thus is not an endurance sport; it is a long sprint.

What is in reality endurance running is the amateur long-distance scene, which includes marathons and “ultra-marathons", a slow valiant slog, and is unsurprisingly filled with the middle-aged. Endurance running is a rare sport where people who are not very athletic can survive and even appear to perform well.

A remarkable quality of Dhoni as a batsman was that he did not lose his wicket easily. Like the other master-endurers, Dravid and Steve Waugh, he did not have curses that interfered with endurance—a wide range of strokes or suicidal artistic flamboyance. Not surprisingly, he had a high survival rate, a high number of ‘not-outs’, which is a statistically useful element because batting averages are calculated by dividing total runs scored by the number of times a batsman got out. This makes his otherwise ordinary batting career look good.

It may appear that Roger Federer and Tendulkar are exceptions, but their longevity is like the long sprint of elite marathon. They did not last as mere survivors; they were so good that after their initial greatness diminished, they were still great.

Dhoni, on the other hand, endured not only innings by innings, but also prevailed long after his best years were over, perhaps through a combination of unmeasurable qualities, wisdom, swag, patriotism and small-town tenacity. But mostly in captaincy. Like many other batsmen with limits, such as Steve Waugh and Sourav Ganguly. It is not a coincidence that it is never a Tendulkar or a Brian Lara who comes to be known for a multitude of ambiguous traits, including leadership. They are simply known as genius batsmen.

You may want to quarrel with me over the matter of cricket captaincy. You might tell me Waugh led Australia to many wins, and I will tell you that with the same Aussie team, even I could have won many matches, with my mom as vice-captain. You could say that Ganguly “nurtured" the young; and I will say this promotion of new talent might have been to counter his more gifted peers. You may say Dhoni “rotated the field" well and that he yelled wise things from behind the stumps. And I will ask you if those things made him deserving of a place in the Indian side long after he was past his peak.

The fable of Dhoni helped him endure even after he could not sustain the apparent farce of captaincy anymore. And it cost us the last World Cup. Each time we have lost cricket’s biggest trophy, it has been because of one endurer stealing a place, and we did not realize that endurance is just persistence of the ordinary.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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