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Geniuses are those who hit targets others cannot even see

Blessed with originality, they whip out creative solutions under pressure and usually appear to be perform at a different level

Last week Erapalli Prasanna sent me a black-and-white picture of the Fabulous Four, the great spinners of his time, with a note saying, “Genius in the middle.” It set me thinking about both the person — it was Salim Durrani in the middle — and the concept.

Durrani played key roles in three significant Indian victories. At home in 1961-62, he claimed ten wickets in the final Test and had eighteen in the last two as India won their first series against England. Ten years later he dismissed Garry Sobers and Clive Lloyd in quick succession in Trinidad, to pave the way for India’s maiden win against the West Indies.

Durrani’s predicament

The world class left arm spinner who came close to equalling the record for the fastest 50 in Tests was a crowd favourite as much for his six-hitting (on request!) as for his easy-going nature and film star good looks. Yet he played only 29 of the 65 Tests India played during his career of 13 years; he was dubbed the “wayward genius” by the media and struggled to erase the former description while trying to live up to the latter.

I saw him as a young boy in Bengaluru where he masterminded Central Zone’s triumph in the Duleep Trophy. So certain were the authorities that West would beat Central in the semifinal that they prepared for a West v South final. But Durrani helped beat both West (seven for 111 and 83) and South (nine for 87 and 83 not out). And he did it with a smile. It was magical.

“Genius” is, admittedly, an overused word in sport, sneaking into profiles of beloved sportsmen as a shorthand for highly skilled or statistically significant performers. Strangely, or perhaps not, few women athletes have been identified as geniuses, although logic and common sense dictate that many would fit into the category.

In a celebrated essay, the late David Foster Wallace wrote of aspects of Roger Federer’s tennis when for the viewer, “the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K.”

The physical reaction taken care of, Foster then gets into the metaphysical: “Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws,” he wrote.

Abstract definition

Yes, but what is genius in sport? The abstract definition is incomplete if not downright confusing, while the concrete is limiting, and likely to either exclude most or include everybody. Your genius is thus different from my genius which is altogether different from his or hers. We find what we think are synonyms for the word : talented, masterful, brilliant, consummate, natural. No single word would suffice, there are more.

It is this ambiguity that allows geniuses to crop up everywhere and extend the definition of the term to include favourite players and merely successful ones.

In the early years of the 19th century, the ‘philosopher of pessimism’ Schopenhauer provided a description that has not been improved upon: “Talent is like the marksman who hits a target that others cannot reach,” he wrote, “genius is like the marksman who hits a target others cannot even see.”

We are still some way from a well-rounded description. Perhaps we need to look at some geniuses to find what’s common to them. In cricket, Sobers apart, there aren’t too many in my list: Shane Warne, Bhagwat Chandrasekhar, Brian Lara, and from among those we haven’t watched in action, Trumper and Ranji.

Others might take more wickets, score more runs or have better averages, but the players above seem to be hitting targets others cannot even see. They are blessed with originality, whip out creative solutions under pressure and usually appear to be performing at a level above the other 21 players in the game. They seem to have greater options too, either bowling or batting, options that don’t even arise in the minds of the rest.

In sport (and maybe in other fields too), you can be a genius for one performance. Or one series or one stroke or one delivery. The true genius has his moments closer together.

Lack of ‘consistency’

What the term “genius” does not include seems to be consistency, the ability to bore the spectators or an evenness in performance over a period (although the names mentioned finished with impressive career figures). When geniuses struggle on the field, they look like they have somehow forgotten the abracadabra.

“I don’t know about his being wayward,” Sunil Gavaskar once wrote about Durrani, “but he is certainly a genius. A genius whom the authorities have never bothered to understand.”

Perhaps that is the occupational hazard of being a genius – you tend to be misunderstood because by definition, you cannot be understood!

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Printable version | Jun 7, 2020 12:06:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/geniuses-are-those-who-hit-targets-others-cannot-even-see/article31509609.ece

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