Saturday, May 20, 2006

Return of the prodigals

That Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen have had a large part to play in England's resurgence as a cricket force is stating the obvious. They have brought not only their array of skills, especially the supremely gifted Flintoff, to the cricket field, but also enlivened proceedings with their energy, enthusiasm and a seeming love of life. Other contemporary cricketers of whom the same could be said, apart from the incorrigible Shane Warne, are probably Andrew Symonds, Brett Lee, Yuvraj Singh and perhaps Mahendra Singh Dhoni. One might have been tempted to add Andre Nel to that list only if he weren't so infuriatingly irritating with his childish antics. The Flintoff-Pietersen/Warne-Lee confrontations in the Ashes were some of the best contests cricket fans have seen for a while - intense and skillful with no quarter conceded to the other. To top it all, the battles were fought in the best of spirits, something that cannot be taken for granted, to be savoured while they last. To be sure, apart from Warne - and Pietersen to a lesser extent - none of those gentlemen are larger than life in the Richards/Botham mould. Legend has it that the great all-rounder once broke a bed while making love to a mistress on a tour of the Caribbean. King Richards admitted fathering a child with an Indian actress, apparently another of his dalliances. Those stories seem somewhat jarring in today's context of professional cricketers and cricket boards that would love to have their cricketers be well behaved dogs. Not that uncouth on-field sledging is ever desirable - despite many protestations from the Aussies, one fails to see how it does not sully the game. As Sunny Gavaskar has pointed out repeatedly, banter is okay, sledging not. A typical example would be that legendary banter between Rod Marsh and Ian Botham, who was queried by the Aussie keeper "How's your wife and my kids?". I am yet to find anyone who has taken offence at that joke. Of course, diverse cultural contexts mean that the manner of banter has to stay within acceptable boundaries - not those of the larger society, but of the sporting subculture. That brings up the question of what should be considered acceptable. Do we like our sporting icons to be Zen Masters a la Sachin Tendulkar or Pete Sampras or Michael Schumacher? Apart from Tendulkar, none of the other two have touched the hearts of the public in the same way that say an Agassi, McEnroe, Botham, Becker or Maradona has. We need the full milieu of characters - the good mama's boy in the Rahul David mould, uttering all the right things into the microphone even when it sounds somewhat like a corporate press release and the seemingly arrogant Shane Warne when he says John Bracewell "has no idea". History is witness to the fact that much like matinee idols, we like our sporting icons the most when they display even a trace of vulnerability, basically showing their humane side. Which is probably why towards the end of his illustrious career, people did warm up to Sampras and offered him the respect that he so justly deserved. Ivan Lendl, on the other hand, was never taken to heart. It is, of course, a personal choice for athletes - who in the end are entertainers if nothing else - as to whether they should wear their hearts on their sleeves or retreat into a zone that enables them to solely concentrate on 'the job'. But Lendl never did try. In the current context of intense media scrutiny and seemingly puritanical (needless to say hypocritical) attitudes as to how athletes should conduct their life, is there any room for maneouvre for larger than life characters? The way Shane Warne has been hounded and called sundry derogatory things is a pointer to such attitudes. What business is it of ours to find out who he indulged in debauchery with, or even if he did indulge? The easy thing to do is to dismiss it all and say there is a price to be paid in public life, in fact I have held that view myself. But it looks as if the rest of the world is the one that is the voyeur. Another example was when people went so far as to say Andrew Symonds did not have any national pride when he had a night out and broke the team curfew. He transgressed, he was punished in cricketing terms. Should have been the end of the story. Closer home, there have been the odd slanderous stories about Azharuddin (pre match fixing) and Ganguly involving their love life, but thankfully the media did not go too far. But who needs a hounding media when an omnipotent cricket board lays down rules that dictate every single aspect of a cricketer's career? Thankfully, they have desisted from moral preaching thus far. One can only hope they stay that way, or else we may as well have a game with androids. - NK

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