August 02, 2020
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Only Sport Counts

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Only Sport Counts
I am neither black nor an American, yet the two dominant sporting heroes of my life have been Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan. Ali first came to me through word of mouth as Cassius Clay, and as a schoolboy I followed his fights obsessively, especially the brilliantly orchestrated raucous build-ups - often more riveting than the actual bouts -in the sports pages of the papers. Briefly it even led me to contemplate a career in boxing, but mercifully my missionary school offered only football and cricket and, best of all, the co-ed sport of throwball which we played with the girls, their skirts flying each time they swivelled to launch the ball.

Jordan came to me much later - only five years ago - but he arrived in our lives with the fervour of religion. In India many scoff at the adulation Jordan receives, blaming it on the general American hegemony. But to change their minds all the sceptics need to do is watch him play once. At his worst he is a picture of liquid grace, a gliding gazelle; at his best, a dancing panther, the epitome of intelligent athleticism, of speed, strength, skill, and sinuous savagery. To see him play I have over the last four years re-adjusted my entire life around game schedules: staying up way past midnight, cancelling holiday plans, travelling across the city pre-dawn to a friend's house because loadshedding has killed my TV. Like a teenage wastrel, I have watched re-runs of his games; like a devotee I have hung his pictures on my walls. Whatever the strange alchemy - of adrenalin, admiration, identification - that links great sportsmen to their fans, it has worked for me at turbo power. My stomach would begin to coil with the expectation of excitement days before a match.

With Ali a relic and Jordan just retired, there is one sportsman who can still fill me with extraordinary anticipation, to watch whom I can put everything else on hold. Sachin Tendulkar. In many ways January 31 answered the description of a perfect Sunday: Sachin in Chennai batting for his life against the world's best off-spinner and two of the finest fast bowlers of all time. It was impossible to take one's eyes off the screen. It was heady fare, and apart from a fleeting pang it didn't matter who won. In fact you could have changed all the coordinates of the day, including the team nationalities, and just kept the central contest between Sachin, Akram and Saqlain, and you'd still have had a great match. You don't need to be a black American to be dazzled by Jordan, you don't need to be Indian or Pakistani to enjoy a great contest between Sachin and Saqlain. At the heart of the brands, the endorsements, the hype, the hoopla is always the contest, of surpassing talents pitted against each other; it's the only thing of real consequence, the only reason people stop their lives to pay attention.

Sporting nationalism is good only as long as it makes for good things. China and the US made vapid ping-pong work for them; what diplomatic bounties and goodwill can India and Pakistan harvest from the passions of cricket. When he messes with sports, Bal Thackeray makes for bad diplomacy and worse entertainment.

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