NO BOUNDARIES Nirmal Shekar

Sport’s peak seekers

Greatness in sport, unlike in many other areas of human activity where subjectivity plays a huge part, ought to be easy to assess, dissect and agreed upon by the vast majority of sports fans.

Goals scored, penalties saved, runs scored, wickets taken are all things that even the cerebrally well-endowed among us — or even ones that are least impressed by numbers — can easily digest and interpret, although the best of sport is ineffable and cannot be easily quantified.

For Sir Don Bradman and Sir Garry Sobers, greatness was like their favourite party suit; and did these legends party during their playing years! Bradman fell four runs short of a career Test average of 100, which somehow seems to add to his virtuosity as his last dismissal is one of the most talked about events in cricket for the last 77 years. And Sobers, arguably the greatest all-rounder the game has seen, embraced greatness in typical cavalier style.

(Sir Don Bradman celebrates his 90th birthday at his Adelaide home on August 27, 1998; (right) Sir Garfield Sobers reacts as he watches the West Indies team during a training session ahead of their second test cricket match against Sri Lanka in Colombo on October 21, 2015. Photos: Reuters, AP)

If Bradman and Sobers were active players today, each would command the price of the rest of their team put together; and corporate bigwigs wouldn’t think twice about putting their last rupee on the table were they playing in the Indian Super League. It is another matter that both these legends would have dismissed T20 as some kind of meretricious tawdrily attractive flashy kitsch.

But as intriguing as the career-long business of domination is, there are times we choose to remember a particular year or two or three when great players prove that they are irrefutably great. There are times when balls and bats turn into magic wands in the hands of great players. Basketball players call this phenomenon ‘hot hands’.

By the end of 2015, tennis pros are instead talking about hot hands as Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams were denied calendar year Grand Slams only because two players happened to miraculously play the match of their lives in two Grand Slam finals.

Domination comes in many forms — as do murders and self-effacing compassion. But the key to domination is this: an athlete or a team truly believes that it is the best and it is unbeatable.

There are some great sportsmen who simply cannot accept mediocrity or even plain good form and results. They need to be the alpha male every single day of the week, every single week of the year.

Apt comment

Nothing captures the mindset of such men as does John McEnroe’s comment. “When I start to lose to players like him [Brad Gilbert], I have to reconsider what I am doing, even playing the game”, said the peerless McEnroe after losing to Gilbert in the year-end Masters event at the Madison Square Garden in New York in 1985.

McEnroe did come back but was never the player he was in his annus mirabilis, 1984. He lost three matches the whole year, the first to Ivan Lendl in the French Open final after holding a seemingly winning lead. Another came at the hands of Vijay Amritraj just before the U.S. Open in a match in which little was at stake and then the third in the Davis Cup final against Sweden.

It was also the year when the great Martina Navratilova ran up a 74-1 record, which she would go on to better with an 86-1 score, these apart from three seasons of 78-2, 90-3 and 89-3. Any questions about who the greatest player of all time in women’s tennis is?

Winning and losing streaks have a scientific basis most of the time. There are patterns that can be studied in labs with enough Big Data that is so easily available today and we may often even arrive at surprising findings.

Hot streak is a complex business though. We cannot dismiss it simply as someone or some team being in the zone. For getting into the zone and staying there for a considerable period of time is itself influenced by the most complex organ on earth — the human brain.

“Almost everyone’s instinct is to be overconfident and read too much into a hot or cold streak,” wrote Nate Silver, writer, statistician and Editor of ESPN’s FiveThirthyEight blog. This is what psychologists call ‘projection bias,’ and economists as well as sports stars are equally susceptible to this.

This is the flip side. For there are great sportsmen who knew how to turn hot streaks into cold ones. Said George Best — sickeningly young and forbiddingly gifted when he became a superstar — among the finest footballers of the 1960s and a Manchester United great. “I was born with a great gift and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak,” he said in the1970s.

Football, tennis and cricket, among the popular sports, provide several examples of players and teams looking invincibly hot, almost unstoppable.

Consider Bjorn Borg’s run at Wimbledon from 1976-1980, a time during which he overcame several obstacles en route to winning a record five in a row. The incomparable Roger Federer not only equalled and surpassed his record but registered an astonishing 65 wins in a row on grass from 2003 to 2008.

In the English Premier League, Arsenal won a fantastic 49 games from May 2003 to October 2004 while Bayern Munich, under the great Pep Guardiola, won 53 matches from 2012 to 2014.

Indian cricket had its own memorable winning runs in the1983 World Cup, the 1985 World Championship of Cricket in Australia and in the inaugural World Twenty20 in South Africa as well as in the 2011 World Cup at home.

If you look at one of Indian cricket’s great rivals of the day, you have to take note of the fact that the Australian Test team twice won 16 matches in row — the first time from December 2005 to January 2008 and then from October 1996 to March 2001, V.V.S. Laxman and Rahul Dravid famously ending Steve Waugh’s attempt at conquering the Last Frontier.

When you expand your horizon and look beyond sports that are popular in India, you cannot miss the Los Angles Lakers’s 33 wins in a row in just 65 days in the 1971-72 NBA season and the American hurdler Edwin Moses’s 122 wins in a row from 1972 to 1987.

Of course, golden streaks are easy to remember, but hard to emulate. And remember, chasing records in sports is a bit like chasing happiness in life. It can only be a by-product of some meaningful activity, however tough that is. Frustrating twists, unanticipated turns and nerve-shattering ending are all part of the journey.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2021 6:16:08 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/nirmal_shekar/Sport%E2%80%99s-peak-seekers/article10127489.ece

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