IT AIN’T JUST A GAME

IT AIN’T JUST A GAME

Recently, an Indian cricketer and a movie about American baseball managed to give me a completely new perspective about sports. It is a little ironic that I chose to write an article with an Indian cricket connection at a time when it has reached a new low after disgraceful test series whitewashes in England and Australia, especially given that it would have been so much more a pleasure doing so after the euphoric World Cup victory. But you know what they say about life handing you lemons when melons are what you are looking for or something to that effect. However, it does give me an incredibly warm fuzzy feeling that at least I managed to time this around an event that in my view is as significant as winning the World Cup – the retirement of Rahul ‘The Wall’ Dravid. In a country of cricket fanatics, where idols become gods and where flamboyance and flashiness, however fleeting, are feted, Dravid exemplified good old fashioned words like hard work, determination, unflappable will and most importantly, hope. Dravid might have been prodigiously talented, but he always gave the impression that he achieved far more than what befitted that talent, by constantly challenging his limits, pushing his boundaries and working on his inadequacies.

I have always thought that the role of a fan or a viewer is less pronounced in sport as opposed to the film industry. In the latter, the work of a film crew achieves fruition only when it is seen by its audience, and they feel a sense of completeness when that happens. In sport, on the other hand, two teams playing each other even in the absence of any spectators can still play with almost the same intensity.

Need for an audience
One of the lone bright spots in the Indian cricket team’s tour down under was Dravid being the first non-Australian cricketer to be invited to address the Bradman oration, a little before the series started. Dravid’s speech covered a host of topics that included the feeling of playing for the country, the future of the three different formats of cricket, and most fascinatingly, the dwindling spectatorship at recent matches. There were two things that Dravid spoke about in this regard that took me by surprise. He has always seemed the kind of sportsman, who does what he does because of a complete love for the sport. To hear him talk about how cricketers are performers/entertainers and how they love an audience, and revel in and draw energy from the atmosphere of the stadium was a revelation.

I have always thought that the role of a fan or a viewer is less pronounced in sport as opposed to the film industry. In the latter, the work of a film crew achieves fruition only when it is seen by its audience, and they feel a sense of completeness when that happens. In sport, on the other hand, two teams playing each other even in the absence of any spectators can still play with almost the same intensity, and derive almost the same personal satisfaction and enjoyment. I agree that spectator appreciation is significant and can elevate sport to an entirely different level but to see Dravid, who has always shied away from attention, maintained a low profile and just enjoyed playing his game, attach so much importance to being watched was surprising.

Sports as a business
Dravid also talked about the effect of falling viewership on television ratings and consequently, the fall in advertising and inflow of money into the sport. It was interesting to note that he was viewing his sport from a completely financial perspective, abstracting it out to a business that needs consumers and investors to survive. Those thoughts were further reinforced when I watched the movie Moneyball. Brad Pitt stars as the general manager of a financially strapped baseball team who recruits a Yale economics graduate played by Jonah Hill, with some new-fangled ideas on assessing player value and team selection, as the assistant general manager. The film explores how in the absence of a level playing field due to financial inequalities between the teams, the new method helps the Oakland Athletics squeeze out a high bang for the buck from their budget and go on to a record breaking 20 consecutive wins. Jonah Hill, being cast against type in a serious role, is quite impressive in conveying the eagerness of seeing his unorthodox methods put to test but it is hard to tell exactly what his character’s feelings for the game are – whether he is a real sports fan or if he just sees the game as a testing ground for his ideas.

The ever dependable Philip Seymour Hoffman plays the role of the coach struggling to come to grips with the unconventional approach adopted by the general manager.

It is easy to draw parallels to an old experienced hand at a corporate set up reacting to a drastic reorganisation, where he is forced to work under a young yuppie MBA, and all systems and processes have been computerised and nothing works the way it used to. The new system calls for throwing away conventional ways of relying on a scout’s experience and intuition in picking players and moving to a more quantitative way of evaluating a player’s worth. This very idea calls for abandoning all romantic notions of sport – where gut and instinct can count more than numbers, ratings and statistics; where a player, weak on paper, but when backed can throw up a performance that defies logic, and instead, viewing sport as a business and the team as a company that needs cold, clinical calculations to survive, to do well.

Often times such as when Sachin Tendulkar walked with the childlike grin, which has remained unchanged over the years, after the World Cup win or when Dravid, drenched in sweat, pumped his scrawny arms after scripting yet another test victory, it is easy to forget it ain’t just a game. And it probably never was.