February 21, 2020
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Be A Sport, Da

Be it chess champs or athletes, the south has more. How come?

Be A Sport, Da
Be A Sport, Da
In chess, it's the cream. India's top three men and women—all hail from the south. Among them, world champ Vishwanathan Anand (Chennai) and world no. 2 Koneru Humpy (Vijayawada). But it's not just the cerebral stuff where the south rules—as the stereotyping might go. There's a persistent mythology about the sheer physicality of sport being more suited to the 'rugged' northern type. Now, look at the facts. (Take a deep breath, it's a huge list.) Bangalore's Mahesh Bhupathi and Hyderabad's Sania Mirza have flirted with the world's best in tennis. Last year, Kerala's Geethu Anna Jose became India's first woman basketball player to venture overseas as a professional, and Chennai squash player Joshna Chinnappa has risen to world no. 41. And a couple of years ago, Coimbatore's Narain Karthikeyan chased a seemingly impossible dream, becoming the first Indian to race Formula One.

Karnam Malleswari, in the protein-rich discipline of weightlifting, has etched herself a place in Indian sporting history by winning an Olympic bronze medal in 2000. The legends of P.T. Usha and Shiny Wilson's feats on the athletics track will be narrated with pride for some time. Shiny was the first Indian woman to make it to the semi-finals at an Olympic event—Usha went a step further and qualified for the final, missing the bronze medal by a whisker. Kerala's Anju Bobby George became the first Indian to win a medal at the World Athletics Championships.

The artistry of Ramanathan Krishnan on the lawn tennis court lingers in the minds of even those who haven't watched him play: by sheer word of mouth. Vijay Amritraj and Ramesh Krishnan inspired whole generations of Indians to take to tennis. Prakash Padukone bridged the gap between potential and performance to beat the world's best in badminton. P. Gopichand rallied from a career-threatening knee injury to emulate Padukone in winning the All-England crown.

Before that, Manuel Aaron of Madras was crowned India's first International Master in chess in 1961; Hyderabad's Nasiruddin Ghalib was the champion in the '70s. In cricket, the skills of M.L. Jaisimha, Gundappa Vishwanath, Mohammed Azharuddin, B.S. Chandrashekhar, Erapalli Prasanna, Syed Kirmani and Javagal Srinath ranged from the silken to the sinewy. Or, take the magic of hockey stars like M.P. Ganesh, B.P. Govinda, V.J. Philip, V. Bhaskaran, Mukesh Kumar, Ashish Ballal—and the illustrious expat Dhanraj Pillay. Under coach S.A. Rahim, Hyderabad City Police was a rage in soccer, challenging the famed football clubs from Calcutta. Ditto for Kerala Police for which men like C.V. Pappachan, I.M. Vijayan, V.P. Sathyan and Jo Paul Ancheri were heroes not too long ago. And, Thattuvachari village in Vellore in Tamil Nadu has given us a number of weightlifters.

Sania Mirza {Hyderabad} Tennis: World No. 44

Phew! So what is it about the south that helps it produce champions who have the hunger to shine at the international level? "I believe that quality comes from quantity," says badminton maestro Prakash Padukone. "The key difference could be that generally there are more children playing sports at the grassroots level in the south compared to other parts of India." He also cites their willingness to make sacrifices and a general capacity to remain level-headed when success comes. But sweeping generalisations may be risky. As Sports Authority of India's Dr P.S.M. Chandran points out: "It is easy to say the south produces sportspeople who excel in disciplines that need a greater level of intellect and the north produces achievers who bank on high energy levels to succeed in sport, but that would not be entirely right," he says. In the absence of any known study, we would have to heed Chandran's warning and look for other reasons.

Koneru Humpy {Vijayawada} Chess: World No. 2

What's a fact, though, is that south India does boast of healthy infrastructure. Everyone knows tennis ace Leander Paes and young badminton star Saina Nehwal honed their skills in the south—as did all those pacers who came out of the mrf academy. But it's an impulse that runs across the board, beginning junior level. Kerala started the sports school system over thirty years ago and gave India the likes of M.D. Valsamma, Usha and Shiny. Andhra Pradesh's municipalities have done well to maintain plenty of playgrounds. Last summer, as many as 729 centres were buzzing with sporting activity sparked by the Greater Hyderabad municipal corporation. These camps, in their 38th year now, have thrown up many stars, especially in volleyball, basketball and football. "In these camps, special attention is paid to the promotion of sports activities among girls. Once talent is spotted at a very young age, we offer encouragement and provide facilities to nurture it," says GHMC's Prem Raj. Padukone, for one, appreciates this approach. "Kerala and Andhra Pradesh are prime examples where the state sports council and the sports authority have played a major role in providing infrastructure, equipment, coaches, establishing sports hostels etc," he says. "These facilities have helped children from middle and lower middle classes to take up a sport of their choice. Only, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have lagged a bit in this respect."

Joshna Chinappa {Chennai} Squash: World No. 41

Another important factor is that a number of distinguished former internationals are ploughing back their expertise to train youngsters. You could train with Padukone at his badminton academy in Bangalore, or with Ramanathan and Ramesh Krishnan at their tennis academy in Chennai, or with the famed Payyoli Express at the Usha School of Athletics—which has a verdant site coming up fast in Kilanoor. These can become centres for excellence like the present forerunner, the bat Academy established by Vijay Amritraj.

Educational institutions also attach considerable importance to sport. The Kalleda Rural School in Ravoor in Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh is a good example. Realising that archers in the area had the potential to aim high, it hired former national champion Prabir Das from Calcutta as a coach. Andhra Pradesh is emerging as a hub for archers with V. Pranitha and M. Rishita making a mark at the junior level. "The south seems to attach a greater importance to education and that helps the young sportsperson understand the dynamics of sport a lot better than their counterparts," said Manisha Malhotra, former national tennis player. "Most dream of using the sports route to employment but I have known many sports people from the south who have the hunger to go out and do well at the international level. There are grace marks for young achievers in the field of sports. And the really deserving are also allowed to appear for their examinations at a later date." Elsewhere, the predominant trend is to take up sport so that quota seats can be secured in professional courses. "Even in the south, a number of sportspersons aim to get a seat in a professional college or employment," says Padukone. "But there are quite a few athletes who are eager to do well at the world level as well."

Rahul Dravid {Bangalore} Cricket: Team India Captain

Perhaps, that is because they grow up in an environment that supports sport. "To have a family tradition in sport allows us a headstart over the others, but that is only one aspect," says former Davis Cup captain Ramesh Krishnan. "The competitive atmosphere that envelops clubs where tennis is played naturally facilitates the development of a cutting edge. Players get inputs from a number of sources."

Mahesh Bhupathi {Bangalore} Tennis: World No. 20 (doubles)

Talking of clubs, historian Ramachandra Guha believes the club culture, an inheritance from the British, contributed to the evolution of sport in the south. "The club culture found deeper roots in the south than elsewhere. It led to a number of inter-club tournaments in the cities that make the environment very competitive. Madras, Hyderabad and Bangalore have perhaps the best cricket league structures apart from Bombay," he says. Padukone, however, feels that while the club culture may have been a reason for the development of some sports in the past, it is not so today. "Of late, the club culture has changed and the emphasis is more on social activities than on sports. It also varies from state to state," he says.

Now, parents play a greater role. Many attempt to emulate Sania Mirza's folks Imran and Naseema by initiating their children into a sport very early. You can see enthusiastic, if sometimes pushy, parents drive their children to coaching academies and travel to tournaments. And this cuts across tennis, squash, badminton, athletics, swimming.

Vishwanathan Anand {Chennai} Chess: World No. 1

Besides, the quality of officials in the south has helped evolve an overall sense of professionalism. "I reckon one of the key factors in the south is a selflessness among the officials who administered sport," says Guha. "S. Sriraman (Chennai), M.A. Chinnaswamy (Bangalore) and Ghulam Ahmed (Hyderabad) are some names that come to mind when one looks at cricket." Of course, erstwhile Indian Hockey Federation president M.A.M. Ramaswamy, Hyderabad football officials S.M. Hussain and Shivkumar Lal, Ahmed Moinuddin, Tamil Nadu's Sivanthi Adityan and K. Murugan all earned themselves a great reputation. Padukone also agrees that politics in state associations is comparatively less in the south than other parts of the country.

"It is always a pleasure to play before the knowledgeable crowds in the south," says Malhotra. "It ensures that the spectators are deeply involved in the game." This was something the late Abdul Basith would never tire of narrating. The Arjuna Award-winning volleyball player would return to Hyderabad with stories of how thousands of fans in Kerala would collect a very generous purse to be given to the man of the final of all-India tournaments. This was more precious than any trophy. Such popular patronage is part of the ethos in the south that encourages sports achievers to pursue excellence and conquer new frontiers.

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