India’s Rio tryst – Episode III: Numbers

This is the third part of a four part series I am writing on India at Rio. Part I is here and Part II is here

Now that the dust has settled on the Olympics and the heartbreak that they brought for Indian athletes and sports fans alike, perhaps it is time to take our Piers Morgan bashing glasses off and look at why every Games we are put through the wringer of the same optimism –> hope –> despair –> disappointment cycle. There was a lot of discussion during the Games about how Indian athletes missed out on medals or qualification for medal rounds because of cruelly tiny margins. Dipa Karmakar, the gymnast was just 0.150 points out of a medal place in the Vault apparatus final. Mairaj Khan the skeet shooter missed out on the semifinal in a shootout. Jitu Rai and Gagan Narang had similar fates in their shooting events, and so did the women archers, losing a real close battle to Russia in the team competition quarter finals. But perhaps the most heartbreaking of all was Abhinav Bindra in the 10m Air Rifle where he finished fourth by pretty much a literal whisker. He was a genuine medal hope [after all, he was the gold medallist in Beijing] and it was news that was hard to take for him and his fans alike.

But while many explanations will be bandied about, we have to wrap our heads around one crucial idea about most Olympic sports – luck plays a significant role in who wins medals [especially second and third places, the kinds that are realistic targets for now for Indian athletes].

Let me elaborate.

I made a visual representation of how closely some Indians over the years and at Rio have missed out on either medals or medal round qualifications using the data on the relative margin [in percentage] between the nearest competitor [or qualifying mark] and what the Indian achieved. The tinier the dot, the closer the margin. In almost all cases the margin was less than a fraction of a percent, a variation so small it could have been caused by anything – a small misalignment on PT Usha’s hurdles in 1984, a strong wind in Milkha Singh’s race at Rome in 1960, or the tiniest of imperfections in the groove of the muzzle of a shooter’s gun – that is really outside the control of the athlete.

Bindra  tweeted to a journalist when he mentioned that Gagan Narang had the qualification ‘in the bag’ with ten shots left that

The 5 time Olympian knew what he was talking about. In candid accounts in his superb book A Shot At History [co written with Rohit Brijnath] Bindra offers details of why shooting is so difficult – ‘Shooting is different from tennis and swimming, it is not structured towards repetition, it allows for few brilliant encores.’  There is some solid statistical reasoning behind that statement.

Later in the book, he opens up about his failure at London.

‘I was incredibly close in London but impossibly far. Of the three 9s I shot in my last 10 shots two were 9.9s. They were close to a 10 but counted only as 9. They were in fact 0.1mm away from a 10. You know how tiny .1mm is – it is less than the dot that precedes the 1.’ He compares how things unravelled in 2012 as compared to 2008, ‘In Beijing with the rifle put in a vice the grouping of 10 pellets was 5.4mm. Now it was 6mm. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a shooter’s everyday irritation.’

That everyday irritation he describes is what in stats lingo would be called regression to mean. Any ‘normal process’ [an archer shooting an arrow, a shooter at the range aiming at a target 10 meters away, a gymnast trying to stick a landing after a vault, a golfer shooting a round of golf] usually has variations which are grouped around its true average or mean.  The variation happens because of two reasons – factors under the control of who is in charge of the process [in this case, the athlete] and factors that are random, i.e. not under the athlete’s control. With practice, an elite athlete can try and eliminate the first cause but there’s really nothing they can do about the second.  Thus despite their best efforts, there will be times where they will fall agonizingly short.

Explaining how a ski jumper has two jumps and they tend to do well on their second jump if they had a poor jump and vice versa, Daniel Kahneman in his book ‘Thinking Fast And Slow’ writes – ‘The point to remember is that the change from the first to the second jump does not need a causal explanation’, like the ones sports commentators tend to give. He says it is ‘a mathematically inevitable consequence of the fact that luck played a role in the outcome of the first jump’.

We witnessed this with Aditi Ashok, the 18 year old golfer who shot two great rounds to be in medal contention but could not keep up – regressed to the her mean essentially – in the last two rounds and finished 41st, a commendable achievement still because she was up against the world’s best. But she did not ‘blow a chance to win a medal’ because she really punched above her weight. To truly contend she’ll be the first to tell you that she needs to get better. And given that she is barely 18, she certainly will. There is still a lot of work she needs to do on the ‘variability’ due to the factors under her control – her shot making, putting etc.

Looking at the heartbreak chart again you could say some of the misfortune that our athletes suffered [for which many an unkind word were said to them too] was that ‘mathematically inevitable consequence…of luck’ Another factor that exacerbates this is the fact that with time in short supply Olympics events tend to have very short and sharp formats [eliminations, knockouts etc are the norm].

Close but no cigar

CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR – Olympics heartbreak, mapped. 

This effectively means that while skill is important, luck becomes an important factor too. The athletes at the very top will always have enough of a margin above the rest to allow for such variations and maybe still win gold, but like I mentioned, it is a closer and more chance dependent scene lower down the table where athletes of similar calibre are bunched together in a format that does not allow for the full skill advantage to play out.

In his book Moneyball, Michael Lewis explains how in baseball playoff season where teams win or lose based on short 5 or 7 game series rather than a long 162 game season is a ‘giant crapshoot’. He cites Pete Palmer, a sabermetrician who wrote the book The Hidden Game Of Baseball, and his calculation of the role of chance. Palmer calculated that the average difference due to skill between teams is about one run per game, while the average difference due to luck is about four runs a game. The simple translation, as Lewis puts it, is that ‘Baseball science may still give a team a slight edge but that edge is overwhelmed by chance.’ He calls it the ‘sample size problem’.

In most Olympic sports too that is the case. Now the question you might logically have is why, then, do only we [India] seem to have this rotten luck? The short answer to that is that our athletes in general are not sharp or trained enough to have their average levels of performances higher than most elite ones competing in their discipline. A Bindra’s loss is truly heartbreaking because he is an exception but if we had more competing at the level he does, even in the crapshoot of short Olympic formats the dice would have rolled our way at times. Sadly, it does not.

This is something that we have to keep in mind as we watch these sports, which unlike team sports or sports whose formats are different [leagues etc] will keep throwing up such frustrations all the time. The fact that we really pay attention only once in four years or so makes the situation worse. So, how can we battle this demon of regression to the mean that seems hell bent on denying us Olympic glory and keeps feeding troll bait to the likes of Piers Morgan? A few ideas on the next, and last, post in this series – Revelations.

 

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The Olympics Pop Quiz

Been paying attention to the Rio Olympics? Good. Now it’s time to get your pencils sharpened and your quiz game on fleek, to tackle the Olympics pop quiz. 

Q1. 12 minutes is significant in context of the Rio Olympics because:

A. It was the time taken by muggers to go through swimmer Ryan Lochte’s pockets because he was wearing cargo pants

B. It was the length of a controversial bathroom break taken by Kei Nishikori in the bronze medal game v Rafael Nadal after he lost the second set

C. It is the average time taken from the beginning of each Games for unbridled optimism about India’s chances to turn into downright cynicism

D. It is the amount of time Usain Bolt would take to reach Kingston from Rio if he could run in a straight line.

Q2. “Whatever” was…

A. The response of Ryan Lochte when he was being mugged

B. Vijay Goel when he was trying to type Dipa Karmakar’s name

C. The summary of strategy discussions between points when Bopanna and Paes were playing

D. McKayla Maroney’s thought bubble in this picture

Mackyla

Q3. In this picture,

kATIE

US swimmer Katie Ledecky is waiting for

A. Receiving her gold medal

B. her competitiors to finish so that they can come to get their silver and bronze and then she can get her gold medal

C. Someone named Godot

Q4. When asked if he is really retiring after the Olympics, champion Indian shooter Abhinav Bindra responded by

A. Offering to check in with Shahid Afridi and Lionel Messi and get back

B. Offering to sell his rifle

Q5. Michael Phelps has more gold medals all time than

A. All but 32 of the 205 countries competing at Rio

B. The Conquistadors, Fort Knox and Goldfinger combined

C. Meh. Phelps Schelps. Leonidas of Rhodes RULES!

Q6. The average number of shoes worn by each runner at the finish line of the women’s 3000m steeplechase Heat 3 of Round 1 was

A. 2

B. 1.94

C. 0

Q7. On which of these railway ticket collectors turned athletes is a biopic NOT being released this year?

A. Mahendra Singh Dhoni

B. Lalita Shivaji Babar

Q8. Which of these is British long distance runner Mo Farah’s favourite Chumbawamba lyric?

A. “I get knocked down”

B. “But I get up again”

C. “You’re never gonna keep me down”

Q9. Which half of SanTina won a medal at this Olympics?

A. Sania Mirza

B. Martina Hingis

C. None of them

Q10. Rank in the order of least to most terrifying when any of these things turn green…

A. A traffic light

B. Dr. Bruce Banner

C. The water in the Rio Olympics diving pool

Q11. This is a picture from

Fencing

A. The Olympics fencing competition

B. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Q12. Brady Ellison is

Brady

A. An elite champion American archer

B. Leo DiCaprio auditioning in disguise for The Hunger Games reboot

BONUS QUESTION: This picture represents Usain Bolt reacting to

Bolt

A. South African Wayde Niekirk’s World Record shattering 400m run

B. The awesomeness of this quiz

ANSWERS

1 (B) Kei Nishikori did take a long-ish bathroom break after the second set. And his opponent Rafa was Al Pacino levels furious.Al-Pacino-Out-of-Order

2. (A) Evidently, Lochte had had enough of that s***!

3. (A) But with the margins she had, can’t rule out B either. Katie ledecky

4. (B) Not sure if it’ll be up on eBay though.

5. (A) But let’s just say if the Gold Standard were ever to return, the new central bank of the world would be called Phelps-deral Reserve.

6. (B) Out of the 17 runners, Etenesh Diro lost her shoe in a collision and left us with this iconic image. Diro(Diro eventually was allowed by the IAAF to compete in the finals despite finishing outside the qualifying places.Lost shoes do always lead to Cinderella stories, huh?)

7. (B) Babar was the first Indian after PT Usha to qualify for the finals of a track event at the Olympics. She finished tenth in the final of the 3000m steeplechase.

8. ALL OF THEM. Farah fell down during the finals of the 10,000 meters but recovered, got up and won gold. No sweat. Move over, Rocky theme, Tubthumping is the new inspiration.

9. (C) TRICK QUESTION! In the middle of the Olympics, we had news that SanTina had ceased to exist! (Hingis, of course, did win a silver in the women’s doubles)

10. I’d be terrified of B, but really, C was quite shocking.

11. (A) These are not sabers you are looking for.

12. (A) But then, with Leo, you never know. He ate raw bison liver for The Revenant, after all.

BONUS QUESTION: (A) Niekirk smashed a 17-year old mark set my Michael Johnson, but then again, admit it, this quiz was pretty awesome, right?

 

 

 

 

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India’s Rio tryst – Episode II: Exodus

This is part two of a four part series I am writing on India at the Rio Olympics. Part I is here.

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Dipa Karmakar may have finished fourth and got no medal but she blazed a trail for all of India. While individual cases are invariably inspiring, watching Indian athletes come back without medals, though, unfortunately, adds up soon

Crazy little thing called hope. A friend of mine paraphrased Queen very well in capturing the experience of watching sport in general and India at the Olympics in particular. Yesterday evening, the eve of India’s Independence Day, was a particularly surreal stretch of watching sport for me personally. And trust me, I have been through a few doozies in that department. I was following the India v Belgium quarterfinal in hockey, Saina Nehwal’s match in badminton and Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna battling it out against the Czech pair for the mixed doubles tennis bronze medal. To come later was the appearance in the finals of the vault at the gymnastics of Dipa Karmakar, who had become the first female gymnast to represent India at the Olympics against odds so insurmountable that they would make Rocky Balboa bow down in respect.

Each of these instances ignited that most dangerous thing of all – hope. In The Hunger Games, President Snow has a chilling assessment of the emotion that is humanity’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. “Hope”, he says, “It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.” His context was more nefarious but as a nation we are suckered silly into hoping when the quadrennial Olympics come along. This year, to Rio, we sent the largest ever contingent of athletes and after 6 medals at London, expectations were naturally amplified. But what unfolded was a sort of a perfect storm that took hopes and dreams and crushed them mercilessly in its wake, spreading enough disillusionment that the hardest of hardest die hards’ foundations of faith were shaken. Since the day the Games began, the bad news kept coming – eliminations in team archery to a World Champion and World No. 4 side Russia in the quarterfinals, a first round loss in the tennis men’s and women’s doubles, eliminations in shooting, eliminations in individual archery… I could go on, but you get the idea. Day after day with no medals and after a point, the steady stream of shattered dreams and decimated hope begins to gnaw at your optimism. For a majority, the patience runs out quickly and optimism’s dying bright flash ignites the deadly cinders of resentment. The conversation around Indian sport and sportspersons, as it does almost every Olympics, becomes toxic faster than the water at Rio’s diving pool turned green because of Hydrogen Peroxide.

Back to the Independence Day eve. India scored first against Belgium and led 1-0 at the half. 30 more minutes of holding on to that scoreline and India would be in an Olympics semi final for the first time in 36 years, for the first time ever in my lifetime. Sania Mirza and Rohan Bopanna lost the opening set but seemed to come roaring back in the second, Mirza exulting as they broke for 3-1, clearly sending the message how badly she wants that medal. Saina Nehwal with a heavily strapped right knee battled the Ukranian world no. 61 and tried to overcome her limited movement by trying for sheer power in a match she needed to win to enter the knockouts. But these were just flickers that would get cruelly extinguished. A clearly injured Saina would lose in straight sets, Mirza and Bopanna would blow their advantage and the Czechs would serve the match out winning the second set 7-5, and India would allow two goals with just one quarter left to lose to Belgium 3-1. It was devastating. It was cruel. I have followed both Sania Mirza and Saina Nehwal for practically their entire careers and was gutted at what unfolded. So were they surely. Sania Mirza’s tears at the press conference said it all. I had been a believer in Indian hockey’s resurgence since the nadir of not qualifying for Beijing in 2008 and was praying for just that one break. It was not to be at Rio.

Earlier in the Games, we had to endure watching Beijing gold medallist Abhinav Bindra finish fourth by the narrowest of margins in the finals of the 10m Air Rifle. Being the brave and absolute champion that he is, he made no excuses for the performance saying that he gave it his best and it wasn’t good enough and apologizing. Although he had a genuine handicap – his rifle sight (an important piece of equipment in a sophisticated sport where the margins are literally fractions of millimeters) had broken just before the final and he had to make do with it.

It is not just hard but impossible to criticize results when you take a closer look at the trajectory most Indian athletes take to be at the Games and the odds they battle once they get there. There is a well established string of research in psychology that says that we tend to respond to individual cases with more empathy than a group of similar cases. That is why charities, for example, send us donation requests with the picture of one orphaned child or a starving person – we are more likely to donate in that situation than if they sent us some statistics about orphaned children who need help or the issue of hunger. Paul Slovic of the University of Oregon published a paper in 2007, where he called this phenomenon our capacity to “experience affect”. A similar scene plays out when we watch sport, which fundamentally is an emotional activity, made doubly so by the fact that we are cheering our country on. Thus, while we relate to individual stories and want them to succeed and even invest heavily emotionally in them, when it comes to the macro number we seem to fall back to the “system sucks”” and “nothing can be done refrain” or simply become numb to, what Slovic calls “the plight of “the one” who is “one of many” in a much greater problem“.

As famed psychology researcher Seymour Epstien had put it, “There is no dearth of evidence in everyday life that people apprehend reality in two fundamentally different ways, one variously labeled intuitive, automatic, natural, non-verbal, narrative, and experiential, and the other analytical, deliberative, verbal, and rational.” It is the equivalent of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. We affect reality by choosing which lens we view it through.

There was something incredibly poetic when a nation came together literally at midnight to watch a young gymnast perform one of the most difficult manouvers in the sport. Dipa Karmakar dazzled the world landing the Produnova Vault (and actually scoring more than the Russian gymnast who invented the move) and finished 4th in the final missing out on the podium by just a whisker. She finished ahead of a Chinese gymnast which is an incredible statistic by itself. Her achievement was a more than about medals and results, it was about inspiration. And we were right to be celebrating and lauding her and putting our “affect” lenses on to focus on what she had brought us (joy, a sense of belief, courage, pride and unity) and not on what she had not (an Olympic medal). There is a similar story of Dattu Bhokanal who finished 15th in the Sculls event at Rowing. Lalita Babar, who qualified for the 3000m steeplechase final with a national record time, has a similar story too. In each case, there might be no medals coming but individually these stories would move anyone but those who have a heart of stone.

Sadly, though, at the macro level these add up for dismal reading. Day 10 of the Olympics and a country of a billion plus people has no Olympic medals to show for all its efforts. As soon as the lens changes, so does reality. So, what is the rational explanation for the medals drought? Surely we cannot fault the size of Dipa’s heart, or Bindra’s courage, or Saina’s injured knee for that.

That’s what I’ll try to take a stab at in the next post – Numbers.

 

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India’s Rio tryst – Episode I: Genesis

Olympics_GettyImages-588149654-1024x682

Success at the Olympics can be inspiring and fascinating, but India’s relationship is more complicated. [Photo is of American cyclist Kristin Armstrong showing her gold medal off to her son, Lucas]

Watching India in the Olympics is like riding along in the Millennium Falcon. You keep finding yourself saying “I have a bad feeling about this” and whenever you get your hopes up about someone probably winning something or landing a medal, there are C3PO equivalents who keep reminding you how slim the chances actually are. And because we do not inhabit the Star Wars universe where Han Solo always manages to brush it all off with a “Never tell me the odds” rebuff, the C3PO types turn out to be annoyingly right.

Every four years, there is always a frenzy around the Indian squad going to the Olympics, carrying huge expectations, and every four years a depressingly familiar narrative plays out. I have written about this in 2012 and frankly, what has happened so far in Rio 2016 is no different to how it was going back then. That being the case, I could have just reproduced my post from four years ago, but there is something else that seems to be a trend at Rio about how we are reacting to our athletes’ performances. There have always been detractors in the Ramadhir Singh (or Piers Morgan, but I’d go with the ruthless killer from Gangs of Wasseypur here; he’s the nicer guy) mould (“Beta tumse na ho payega” Rough translation: Not your jam, son.) who come flocking out the moment the first medal prospect tanks and usually the rest of the narrative is about some soul searching about sporting administration, our sports “culture” (or lack thereof) and what needs to be done for the next Games.

Then there is a sensible minority, usually sports journalists or those in the know about the athletes and their struggles who spring to their defence and put things in larger context and perspective, which while being temporary succour to those stung by defeat, nonetheless provide a sobering assessment. There seems to be a feeling that this Olympics, this encouragement and mollycoddling of our athletes has gone a tad too far. That we are somehow being ‘apologists’ for the athletes out there. There’s this insidious thought process of a no-win situation creeping in which damns you if you criticize the athletes (“You have no idea what they have gone through. Swim a lap, run a mile, or shoot a round before you talk”) and damns you if you don’t (“They have gone there to win, participation is for pansies”).

The extremes are fuelled by a sense of shame and guilt. The second one stems from the shame of watching our nation sidelined on a global stage, reduced to a mere footnote as we watch hours upon hours of live footage of how a tiny Fiji or a “Infosys like” Singapore win medals. The first one stems from a sense of guilt that we have not followed these sports or these sportspersons for four years and now suddenly we expect them to win everything. And that is how it begins, the endless spiral that repeats in four year cycles, the genesis of assessing sports ad hoc. I am here to try and balance the two points and put together a few thoughts to give you a broader context and possibly a middle path. I have no special knowledge (I am not an insider, or a journalist, or even a sportsperson) but I am passionate about sports in general and a fan. My heart also aches when I watch an Indian athlete lose, I also let criticism (fair and unfair) loose in the heat of the moment. But the Olympics are a great unifying spectacle that bring the world together and they should bring us together as a sporting nation. In some senses the Games do but then the labels start creeping in the moment the exodus of our athletes begins.

So, in the next part, I’ll start by considering exactly that – the road to checking into heartbreak hotel, and how to deal with it.

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Sister Act

With Serena Williams capturing her record equaling 22nd Grand Slam title, and teaming up with her sister, Venus, to capture the doubles Wimbledon title as well, the Williams sisters’ dominance of tennis continues. 

But which of the duo of sisters is responsible for which bit of the dominance? And how much do you recall about them? The handy quiz below will help you find out.

  
There are only two possible answers to all questions in this quiz – Serena Williams, and/or Venus Williams. Here we go.

1. Which of the sisters won a Grand Slam title first? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

2. Which of the sisters has also won the mixed doubles title at Wimbledon? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

3. Who once took the ‘Which Williams Are You?’ Quiz on ESPN and got “Very much Venus”?

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

4. Who was once defended against online trolls by JK Rowling? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

5. Who was battling an illness for most of the 2011 season? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

6. Who has never appeared in a Hollywood movie? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

7. Among the sisters, who appeared in Beyoncé’s Lemonade?

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

8. Who holds the edge in their head to head record at Grand Slam finals? (They have played eight.)

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

9. Whose quote was “I’m really exciting. I smile a lot, I win a lot, and I’m really sexy.”

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

10. A documentary aired this June on Epix, an American TV channel about which of the sisters? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

11. A Maiken Baird & Michelle Major co-directed documentary released in 2013 in the US about which of the sisters? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

12. Which of the sisters has played in India at a WTA tour event? 

A. Serena B. Venus C. Both

ANSWERS

1. Serena. She won the US Open in 1999 as the first of her 22, so far. Venus opened her account at Wimbledon 2000. 

2. Serena. In 1998.

3. Venus. The quiz, evidently is quite accurate. You can try it out. 

4. Serena. After a troll said she’s “built like a man”. Rowling had this to say

5. Both. Venus was battling an autoimmune disease & Serena a pulmonary disorder all through 2011.

6. Venus. Serena, most recently, played herself in Pixels. 

7. Serena. Bey was in attendance at the Wimbledon 2016 final where Serena equaled Steffi Graf. 

8. Serena. 6-2.

9. Serena.

10. Serena. It was titled ‘Serena’.

11. Both. It was called Venus & Serena and tracked their difficult 2011 season when both were battling tough illnesses. 

12. Both. They played in the Sony Ericsson Bangalore open where they met in the final. 

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Dhoni and the art of delay

It would seem a bit ironic that while talking about one of the world’s foremost wicketkeepers when it comes to reaction time behind the stumps, I want to emphasize on how he is a master at delaying things. But Mahendra Singh Dhoni is paradoxical like that. 

His entire career in cricket has been built on this art of the delay, often manifest in how he takes matches down to the last over or last ball (a notorious or a heroic ability depending on who you ask). A gambler who always knows the odds of the bet he is getting into, Dhoni has earned the moniker Captain Cool by being someone who never shows his hand. He is ridiculously calm and collected in the cauldron of a frenzy that India’s cricket games can be. For Exhibit A, look at the photograph below. 

  
There are many theories about how Dhoni does it. There are an equal number of detractors out to theorize why he is wrong. But that’s hardly the point. What, in my opinion, Dhoni has mastered is the art of delay in decision making. 

The Wall Street Journal’s tennis writer, Tom Perrotta, had written an article earlier in the year explaining how Djokovic succeeds by hitting the tennis ball deep into his opponents’ court giving them less time to react. But there is another fascinating side to this. In a Financial Times article back in 2012, Frank Partnoy, author of the book ‘Wait’ described how super athletes can ‘procrastinate at the speed of light’. 

Watch Novak Djokovic. His advantage over the other professionals at Wimbledon won’t be his agility or stamina or even his sense of humour. Instead, as scientists who study superfast athletes have found, the key to Djokovic’s success will be his ability to wait just a few milliseconds longer than his opponents before hitting the ball. That tiny delay is why most players won’t have a chance against him. Djokovic wins because he can procrastinate – at the speed of light. 

When Dhoni takes the game down to that last ball, or makes a fielding change seemingly after the chicken’s flown the coop, he is subconsciously doing exactly what the likes of Djokovic do. Reduce everything down to a moment where his faster reaction time helps him outthink the bowler and delay and adjust his shot at the last moment. The reflexes may be slowing but his mind remains as sharp as ever on that note. 

Dhoni has often expressed the desire to be in the army. He probably could have been easily a fighter pilot – one who can act lightning fast but within that split second consider all scenarios. Gary Kirsten is right. You’d want to go to war with Dhoni by your side. Delay is half the story because there is one last crucial aspect if you want to understand the psyche of Dhoni. We are fond of quoting Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’, specifically the lines that tell us that about the ability to meet success and failure and treat both imposters the same. Most of us fail ridiculously at doing that. Dhoni doesn’t. 

As Rahul Dravid once memorably put it:

 “Win, lose, he can walk away. I don’t know many, if any, who can retain their perspective like he can.” 

He weighs risks, takes decisions, delaying them to the last possible moment to increase his advantage and chances of success, but also knows that it is a gamble. Sometimes it doesn’t come off and he remains nonplussed. That indifference (which I have written about here not once, but twice before) is often misinterpreted as him not caring. 

In a game that ignites unbelievable levels of passions among Indian players and fans alike, cricket is unlikely to see a textbook decision maker of this level ever again. 

Cherish Captain Cool while you can. Happy Birthday, Hefe! 

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Hero, interrupted

In sport, we the viewing public are suckers for narratives. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Thus, we are moved when the prodigal son who left his hometown to take his talents to south beach comes back to win, almost single-handedly, a title for his hometown franchise, their first in 52 years. We are riveted by the story of the ballboy at a World Cup semifinal who wanted to play for his country and win the World Cup and how he had to persevere 22 years into his career before finally triumphing, fittingly, perhaps at the very same venue. And we are overjoyed when a 5000-1 outsider shocks and upends the existing world order to win a hard fought title. They are all wonderful narratives – uplifting, redemptive and life affirming. They also have one other template in common – The Hero’s Journey.

messi

Sometimes, the hero’s journey has unexpected detours. We, as fans, are often not ready to accept them. 

In history, popular culture, and of course, sports, the monomyth of this hero’s journey or quest is a timeless storytelling trope, where a hero conquers odds and ends his journey with a definitive reward. Think of Lord Of The Rings, where Frodo had to take on immense challenges to fulfill his destiny  of destroying the One Ring. Destiny – that’s another popular narrative trope we use in the hero’s journey. And primed by this, we consider anything less a betrayal. Take the case of Lionel Messi and his decision to call it quits from international football after a heartbreaking loss to Chile in the Copa America final. I have been an Argentina fan for longer than Messi has been alive, and I am sure it hurts him acutely that not only have Argentina not been able to win a major title since 1993, but also that Messi himself has been projected as the talisman in at least four such tournaments where they have fallen short. So, his call, taken, one imagines, under extreme pain, has been ridiculed and criticised in equal measure and the commonest adjective used to sum it up has been “quitter”.

The general feeling was that Messi, rather than persevering like, say, a Sachin Tendulkar (for the World Cup), or a Roger Federer (for an Olympic gold) chose the easy way out and just gave up. The assessment is coloured by our expectations of the so called Hero’s Journey – that there has to be an achievement at the end of it, otherwise the hero is, well, not really a hero. Or, in the case of a sportsman, there is immediately a question mark on their potential status as an all time great. The same narrative played out for the Golden State Warriors (who created an NBA record in finishing the regular season 73-9, the best W-L ever) but then lost a 7-game NBA Finals series to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The hate spewed at Steph Curry, the MVP of the NBA season by unanimous vote (the first time ever the award had a unanimous winner) is symptomatic of how easily we are ready to dump a hero the moment his or her trajectory starts going off the narrative we are used to.

Sport, first and foremost for me, is about joy. Watching once in a generation talent like a Messi, Tendulkar, Federer and Curry is not about counting what they win along the way (that is actually incidental) but about getting swept up in the joy of watching something close to perfection manifest itself on teh court or the playing field. On that front, Messi needs no advocation. And as far as Argentina’s story of losing three straight finals (World Cup 2014, Copa America 2015, Copa America 2016) in almost exactly the same way with Messi in the team goes, perhaps the fact that they were goalless in each of those matches (which, by the way, all went to extra time) needs closer scrutiny. Messi seems to have had a deep set resentment of how he has been used in the national team for a long while now, the Copa Centenario final and that penalty miss in the shootout were just the straw that broke that camel’s back. Messi has always been seen as an outsider in the Argentine team given his history of moving to Spain as a boy to get hormone treatment and growing up playing football at the Barca academy and then for Barcelona.

Argentina likes its heroes homegrown, like Diego Maradona was. He did go to Europe but not before dazzling in the Argentinian league where he got noticed with Boca Juniors, a club where he returned to play his last match in 1997. Maradona has been among those calling for Messi to rescind his decision to retire but there is one key aspect to consider here. In the lead up to the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, the tournament that would make me an Argentina fan, Diego Maradona was facing a bevy of personal problems as well as issues within the team (Daniel Passarella, who he replaced as captain was particularly miffed at his attitude).  As Jimmy Burns writes in “Maradona: The Hand Of God” that Argentina’s success in that tournament was down to “the ability of Maradona to persevere through his own personal crisis for the duration of the tournament.” When left alone with the game he loved, Paulo Pauletti, an Italian journalist observed that Maradona seemed “full of strength, resolution and youthful energy.” That’s probably because Maradona, as far as the game went, had immense support from adoring hordes back home in Argentina.

Maybe the joy has just been snuffed out for Messi. Tendulkar kept on playing as long as he did because he loved playing the game and it was evident in his performances and his demeanor on the pitch. The same goes for Roger Federer. The constant scrutiny and criticism of Messi and casual accusations of him not really being Argentinian and thus not giving his 100% for the Albicelestes must have got to him at some point. He seemed a pained figure in the latest Copa Final, his shoulders drooping under that invisible burden of the double edged sword of unreasonably high expectations. To be sure he has created those in the first place by being ridiculously good, or as the website FiveThirtyEight called him “impossible“, but what good is a great if he or she isn’t allowed to revel in the joy that they help bring? Steven Gerrard, a footballer far too aware of the burden of a hero’s journey, recently wrote about the English football team that they seemed paralysed by a “culture of fear” which is why they often fail in major tournaments. The same applies to Messi. And while we as the spectators want the hero’s journey to fit our format because as fans we are wedded to a narrative, maybe Messi is content with giving up. The lack of a supportive atmosphere in a national team and association beset by corruption and leadership issues and rabid fans certainly doesn’t help. In Lord Of The Rings, Frodo almost gave up quite a few times, only to be egged on by his good friend Sam. But in Messi’s case he seemed doomed to bear the burden alone.

Maybe it is time for us to jettison the hero’s journey template we so readily bring out, and accept that often in life, there are a lot of detours, and the one who takes the path less travelled is not necessarily any less of a hero.

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