Between Wickets | Columns

Sport and Shelley, an eternal golden braid

As a schoolboy, Suresh Menon sat high in the stands and had to strain his neck to see some of the action in Bengaluru in 1974-75. Skipper Clive Lloyd made a brutal century, Alvin Kallicharan a gentle, pleasing one.

As a schoolboy, Suresh Menon sat high in the stands and had to strain his neck to see some of the action in Bengaluru in 1974-75. Skipper Clive Lloyd made a brutal century, Alvin Kallicharan a gentle, pleasing one.  

Thanks to the coronavirus, many of us are thinking of what we do, why we do it, and what it all means.

It must have come as a shock to many that the most powerful entity in sport is not television, not the sponsor, not the player or official but a virus too small to be seen under an ordinary microscope. The first virus in biology was discovered well after the death of the poet Shelley, or Ozymandias — his poem about hubris — might have turned out differently.

Thanks to the coronavirus, many of us are thinking of what we do, why we do it, and what it all means. It is an alternative to thinking of death and pandemics and what-might-have beens.

Most profound activity

Sport is a pointless activity and in that lies its allure. It is also one of the most profound activities we can engage in. Is scoring a goal at Wembley more important than discovering a mathematical formula? That is the wrong way to put it.

Sport is not utilitarian — it does not lead to something else, it does not stand for something else. It is not a distraction from life, but life itself — lived at a different angle. Sports are their own means and ends, the goals artificial, the need real.

In a wonderful essay titled Why cricket?, Mike Marqusee said, “We watch sports precisely for all those things that lie beyond the functional.”

Sportsmen, unaware, live by the credo of the mathematician G.H. Hardy who said: “I have never done anything ‘useful’. No discovery of mine has made, or is likely to make, directly or indirectly, for good or ill, the least difference to the world…” Replace “discovery of mine” with “century of mine” or “outswinger of mine” and that would still be right.

Yet, there is about the perfect cover drive something that makes us feel good about ourselves, just as there is in mathematics a beauty beyond mere efficiency.

We need cricket not because it tells us about life or holds up a mirror to society, (it might, but that’s incidental), but for its own sake. As sports events around the world are cancelled, we realise afresh how necessary sport is.

A couple of days ago, someone tweeted a tiny bit of the action from India’s Test against West Indies in 1974-75, Bengaluru’s first-ever. It was the first Test I saw every ball of. As a schoolboy, I sat high in the stands and had to strain my neck to see some of the action. Two greats made their debut along with me — Gordon Greenidge and Viv Richards. The great fielder Eknath Solkar took what he considered his finest catch.

Skipper Clive Lloyd made a brutal century, Alvin Kallicharan a gentle, pleasing one. While Lloyd dropped the medium-pacers into the stands, Kallicharan dropped dead at his feet the spinners Prasanna and Chandrasekhar. On a turning track this was skill of the highest order.

What I also remembered when I saw the tweet was what I was thinking at that age, what I felt about school, the books I was reading, the friends I had in the neighbourhood. It was like Proust’s madeleine, unlocking memories one hadn’t visited in years. It was comforting to know they were still there, nearly half a century later.

Not all of us need sport to remind us of ourselves. Whatever is a passion will have the same effect — music, movies, books, theatre, politics. Sport is not a distraction but intricately woven into the tapestry of our lives. When the soccer manager Bill Shankly said, “Football is not a matter of life and death, it’s more important than that,” he was exaggerating, but also making a point.

At the other end of the scale is Noam Chomsky who dismissed sport as “an area which has no meaning and probably thrives because it has no meaning, as a displacement from the serious problems one cannot influence.”

There is near-religious fervour

The search for meaning in sport is a doomed exercise because sport, as played, is meaningless. But that does not make it insignificant or without value. In fact, what coats cricket (or soccer or tennis or basketball) with significance is the shared experience, the near-religious fervour with which fans approach it. Marx might just as easily have said that sport is the opium of the people and given opium a positive spin.

But that’s the demand side of sport, so to say. On the supply side is the unfolding narrative that is unpredictable, aesthetic, contains short-lived successes and failures, and in its range and scope allows both performer and spectator to discover aspects of herself that lead to greater self-knowledge.

Sport, unlike art or music or literature, can take the shape of whatever emotion we pour into it — and this makes the competition special and different from other, more consequential endeavours, like wars or oil pricing.

And that is why we love it so much. The cancellations are a reminder, like the spread of the coronavirus itself, that we are insufficiently grateful for what we have and that our egos don’t amount to much — something Shelley told us two centuries ago.

Why you should pay for quality journalism - Click to know more

Related Topics
Recommended for you
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 2:20:52 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/suresh-menon-column-sport-and-shelley-an-eternal-golden-braid/article31092955.ece

Next Story