NOTE: This article is about a personal anecdote which, vaguely, serves to also dissect Sachin Tendulkar's post-match speech at the Wankhede Stadium on November 16, 2013. DNA has published the full text, but I recommend you watch the video. For people who do not have access to television like myself, it made for a hearty 20-minute watch - one that perhaps was as delightful as Mr Tendulkar's desert storm innings in Sharjah in 1998.
In all my sporting experience, I have but one anecdote that has stuck. If it has, it has stuck for a reason. And even though it has been ten years and I was merely a child of eleven when it happened, it played a significant part in the development my rationale, if not turning out to be the driving force behind my every deed.
I do not remember the exact occasion, so pardon me for leaving out minor details. It was mid-season and Ashok sir (our coach) had us ‘state ranking’ folk gathered around him. I was eleven, and I played Table Tennis in the cadet category (under-12) then. I was ranked seven in a system where you’re not worth much unless you’re ranked within the top four, but I can tell you I was not bad. I did get the occasional clip on the ear for losing my nerve in matches because I was told I was talented but I didn’t have the temperament. I also lacked discipline. I could be meticulous, hard-working and persistent to the point of being nervous with all my efforts, but discipline was essentially all these things in a magic proportion which I never quite discovered. There was this other guy, though, who had it working like none of us could even dream of – boys, girls, seniors, juniors alike. And this discussion, as was the case with anything Ashok sir told us back then because he was quite taken by this guy, eventually became all about him.
The discussion was about goals and what each one of us aspired to do, in and out of the sport. The list rolled out. Some said they wanted to play in the Olympics. Some said they wanted to win the National Championships. Lesser mortals like us said we wanted to play in the state team. I remember saying that, at least. Incidentally, I never got around to do that. It has been fourteen years since I started playing Table Tennis, it has been nearly five since I stopped playing it competitively. I have never played for the state. Coming to think about it, with that having not happened and me never getting to ever be a Scientist, I think I’ve kissed all my childhood dreams goodbye. There still is the amorphous, fanciful notion of getting to be famous. I think I’d write that off as a delusion when I have lived to be forty and have repeatedly let ‘career’ get in the way of my fancies.
Anyway, it was Raja’s (the other guy I was talking about) turn to share his goals with us. Raja is this thin, wiry, bespectacled kid of thirteen who was the spearhead of the boys’ contingent. Our Academy is well-known for all the fantastic women players it has produced, and Raja was like a first-generation city dweller. The rest of us who were at least a couple of years younger went on to be the next. Sadly, none of us from either of these generations play the sport the way we thought we’d be playing it, right now. We are all, instead, engineering graduates, management graduates, employees in everyday jobs. I did my four years, a year of liberal arts after and, now, work, looking forward to a place where music, writing, films, love and happiness can go together. This ambition is uncharacteristic of a sportsman: a far cry from the dialectic of victory and defeat, where ‘acceptance’ is the golden mean. It, needless to say, is also uncharacteristic of a child. It hurts to think I might have gone and outgrown both phases.
Ashok sir asks Raja, so Raja, what do you want to do? There is no tension building – Raja has been ‘Captain Cool’ before the world knew MS Dhoni. He says, and quite determinedly, that he wants to win the next match. He does not say he wants to win the Nationals. He does not even say he wants to make the state team. He says he wants to win the next match. Now, anyone who has heard anything about NLP would know what this means, in terms of short-term and long-term goals. Short-term goals define your immediate actions. Long-term goals, like wanting to play in the Olympics, hosting the Oscars and the whole nine yards, put some romance in something that’s otherwise just a list of tasks.
We never got to know what Raja’s romantic vision for his own life was. In all likelihood, he didn’t have one. I never did. To us, it was about getting that stroke right, contacting the ball at the right point for best effect, keeping our head clear to be able to adopt the best strategy to take that point in that pressure-situation. Success, for all practical purposes, rested upon our ability to not let pressure get in the way of our development as smart, effective, clear-headed sportsmen. Raja was clear about that. Ashok sir was mighty impressed to see a pubescent kid get this aspect of sporting life right.
If there is one detail I saw being relived in Sachin Tendulkar’s farewell speech, it is this. Peel off the layers of ‘legend’, ‘icon’ and ‘superstar’ and you will find a simple guy who played the game the way it ought to be played. He never lost touch with that thirteen-year old sporting nerd inside him whose only ambition in life was to make sure he doesn’t lose his wicket like that last time. He might not have fully corrected that bat-pad gap, he never worked on that bottom-handed grip. But he got better, and that’s all that matters. The most satisfying experience for any performer, be it an artist or a sportsperson, is to cast aside the irrelevant detail that you are in the spotlight and to be able to single-mindedly pursue two things. One, the expectations you have for yourself. Two, the aspirations you have with respect to the game and the way you ought to play it. And it is for having successfully managed that in the limited span of their respective careers, and for setting the precedent that both Sachin Tendulkar and R.S. Raja deserve a mention, my words, your time.