Nirmal Shekar

There is aggression…and then there is aggression

Sitting next to the genial, self-effacing Arthur Ashe in the old press box at Wimbledon more than two decades ago, and watching a match between a baseliner and a player who was not only relentlessly aggressive but seemed to believe that a single lost point would at once consign him to hell — although he was losing and losing badly — I turned to Ashe and said, “All the aggression doesn’t seem to have helped.”

Ashe paused, smiled and said: “There is aggression and aggression and aggression in sport, particularly in a sport than pits one man against another and does not involve body contact,”

I nodded in agreement and then said that I had seen Bjorn Borg put his opponents through a kind of Chinese torture with the expression of a Buddhist monk talking about nirvana. That kind of serenity can almost scare you to a point where you think you belong to some other — less cognitively endowed — species.

“Yeah, Bjorn had that aura around him,’’ said Ashe.

Inscrutable super-Swede

The man who won Wimbledon five times in a row was a silent assassin. Sometimes, the super-Swede, the greatest teen icon of his times in sport gave you the impression that he was letting the match slip away, and moved on to another court.

Then you went back to check what was going on in the great man’s drawing room — the centre court —only to find out that Borg was serving for the match.

“I have not seen too many like him,’’ said Ashe, the 1975 Wimbledon champion.

There were times when you walked into the centre court press box at Wimbledon, looked at the expression on Borg’s face, and thought that he was losing badly while in fact he was a few points away from victory.

The super-Swede’s face was so expressionless, and gave so little away, that you believed that he was a mobile Rodin masterpiece built by a silicon valley start-up rather than a predator hunting down opponents with an almost blood curdling brand of self-belief.

Two years later, I was sitting with an ecologist on the old No.2 court where the spectators believed that the favourite would certainly lose — it is called the graveyard of the seeds — when the lady I was in conversation with turned to me and said that sport has turned war-like…almost.

“You know what my attitude is,” said the woman from New York. “There is too much naked aggression and violence in sport. I stopped watching it. But tennis is an exception.”

It was a huge ‘U’ turn by her because we were until then talking about pre-historic societies and how violent they were — the violence being both intra-species and inter-species.

“But cricket is fine, I guess,” she said. “I don’t mind my husband sitting up in his bed and watching his favourites win or lose.’’

At once I was reminded of what Groucho Marx said about cricket. “I like cricket because it doesn’t seem to matter whether you win or lose.”

Say that today to Virat Kohli or Steve Smith at a party and they’d just turn the other way while questioning your sanity. Kohli’s aggression — a school-boy brat like quality, an in-your-face, wear-it-on-your-sleeve variety to start with — has now been transformed into a rather more civilised variety.

Mature and mellowed

While Kohli can never acquire a choirboyish innocence, he has mellowed and seems to know that an entire nation’s sporting image stands on the team’s sportsmanship. This is why he calmly applied himself to the task of saving matches as we saw the other day in the first Test against England.

But it — winning and losing — has certainly mattered a hell of a lot from the days of Dr. W.G. Grace; now it matters so much that tens of thousands of them (NRIs) do not mind losing sleep whenever and wherever the national team is playing.

But sport, and verbal and other kinds of violence, have a very complicated relationship going back centuries.

“Sport legitimises violence…the mugger in the parking lot is a villain. The mugger on the playing field a hero,” said the writer Don Atyeo.

You can sledge your heart’s content on the ground, then walk out with a wicked smile at your prey, score a century the next day, and all is forgotten.

“I enjoy hitting a batsman more than getting him out. It doesn’t worry me in the least to see a batsman hurt, rolling around screaming and blood on the pitch,” said the Australian fast bowler Jeff Thomson.

That Thomson’s view has changed a bit since then and now it is not germane to the question we are dealing with. Post-career, many players undergo a mellowing down process. But the point is about what a slightly more erudite human being had to say on the subject.

“Sport is war minus the shooting,” wrote George Orwell and those words have been quoted about as many times as Muhammad Ali’s “I am the greatest.”

Orwell said it when the world was a lot different than it is today.

But the question is this: Has naked no-holds-barred aggression gone up in this generation or has it slid down?

Changing times

Earlier this year, the Australian opener David Warner put things in perspective. Said Warner: “Back in the day when you see these battles with the fast bowlers, the batter would play and miss and the bowler would say something, These days it has taken the spark out of it a little bit — love getting into a contest with the bowler; If he gets you out he gets the last laugh, but if you get on top of him, you can.”

Of course, those who believed that Bodyline ain’t cricket and Douglas Jardine was killing the very soul of the sport — and thought that Australia should cut off diplomatic ties with Britain — had they been living today, would probably have hailed it as a tactical masterstroke.

And they will, up to a point, agree that how Kohli has behaved on the field is due to a kind of legitimate aggression and, so far, he has not bragged about or indulged in any abusive manner that was not integral to captaincy.

But the same cannot be said of Harbhajan Singh in Australia a few years ago when he got into a tussle with Andrew Symonds. Few believed he said what he said he did on the field truthfully after the match was over.

One of the most memorable displays of self-assertiveness, vigour and forcefulness that was so full of positive and laudatory aggression on the field of play, came from India’s greatest all-round cricketer when he made an unforgettable 175 against Zimbabwe in the 1983 World Cup. Kapil Dev. Like other greats in Indian cricket such as Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, Kapil internalised his aggressive instincts.

He expressed it only with the bat or ball, without any need to use words or deeds that were against the spirit of the great sport they played with such wonderful grace, passion and success.

Recently, the Association of Tennis Professionals banned the teenaged Greek Nick Kyrgios for six weeks because he had conducted himself “contrary to the integrity of the game.”

They set an example that others would do well to follow. But ultimately, it is a fact that strictly professional expression of aggression, one of the noble variety, works in sport — even though its despicable opposite too delivers sometimes.

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Printable version | Jan 25, 2022 11:47:51 PM |

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