Suresh Menon

Two types of selfishness: creative and destructive

Great players tend to be, often have to be, selfish. This aspect of sport is not as widely discussed as talent or technique. Was Lionel Messi being selfish when he decided to quit his national team after failing once again to take it to victory in the Copa America tournament? Perhaps he was. Sachin Tendulkar once said that retiring when at the top was unpatriotic since you were still good enough to serve the nation.

But consider this: Over a period, as a top player consciously develops his selfish side in the team interest, it becomes increasingly difficult to shake the habit off. In the early years, such selfishness probably serves the team; in later years, the individual.

Sachin Tendulkar’s record is as much the result of this “positive” selfishness as his skill. Towards the end, however, he too began to blur the line between the personal and the team-driven. His much-touted one hundredth hundred came in a match that India lost to Bangladesh, thanks to the batsman making one of his slowest centuries.

We expect our players to score runs and take wickets in all conditions, yet fail to realise that these require a single-minded focus, the ability to do the job to the exclusion of everything else, and self-denial. This monk-like approach focuses on the self and on increasing the value of the self in the context of his sport. It is easier to understand this in individual sport — the great tennis player or golfer has to be selfish in order to succeed.

Cricket is unique in that it is an individual sport that happens to be played in a team environment. It is too, a game where statistics usually decide selection.

“I would rather score a century in a defeat than a zero in a victory,” a former India player once confessed to me with startling honesty. We could blame the system, of course, where a pointless century is rated above a match-turning 30 or a crucial half-century. There are attempts today — the Impact Index is a good example — to inject context into statistics, to place match influence above mere numbers; but essentially, centuries continue to trump everything else.

In his book on centuries, Steve James quotes former England captain Michael Vaughan as saying, “The first 75 runs are for you. After that, its all for the team.” The argument is that by then the batsman has already bought himself two or three more games.

If that is how even one of the most intelligent of modern captains sees the game, then is it any wonder that “destructive” selfishness is tolerated if not actually encouraged?

Intrinsic to greatness

Still, selfishness is intrinsic to greatness. When Don Bradman tried to avoid playing on wet tracks, it may have been a selfish decision, but it was in the larger interests of the team. The logic was sound. Bradman’s value to the team as its main batsman would be diminished, and there were better batsmen in such conditions. On one occasion, he even reversed his batting order and sent out the bowlers to open the innings on a dodgy track.

For Bradman, read Sunil Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Brian Lara or any of the modern greats. Each was aware of his value to the team, each carried the burden of expectations. That being the case, it would have been foolish, for instance, to sacrifice his wicket if there were a mix-up and a run-out became inevitable.

It is impossible to divide selfishness. Who is to decide whether selfishness was in the team or individual cause? And in the statistics-obsessed world of fandom, who even cares, so long as all the figures line up prettily?

Patterns become clear only in hindsight, which means occasionally the obsession to make hundreds (which is usually in the interests of the team) falls overboard into the sea of mere individual greed rather than team need. Such is the nature of sport.

Selfishness is an element in all sport — individual as well as team, although it is probably easier to understand it in the former. The only difference is between creative selfishness, which adds to the team effort and destructive selfishness that takes away from it. Think Rahul Dravid and Geoff Boycott respectively, and you get the picture.

In soccer, the final passes find their way to the leader of the attack. The Peles and Maradonas, the Messis stood out even in team sport, it was their vision that made the difference between victory and defeat. Ditto the Kohlis and de Villierses. They must necessarily treat their teammates as the supporting cast in this choreographed but selfish dance.

Selfishness is one of the reasons for their success; it is not something that can be switched on and off. And that is why the actions of players like Messi might seem difficult to understand. A great sportsman’s career is often the journey from creative to destructive selfishness.

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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 10:02:16 PM |

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