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Leaving sport culturally impoverished

A sport that is polluted by cheap entertainment values cannot achieve true greatness, writes Nirmal Shekar

Compression kills sport; it gnaws away at sport’s artistic aspirations, its claim to aesthetic élan. Art, and sport, cannot aspire for the high ground when they are condensed to the perpetual climax of the present.

The best of sport allows for the pause. It lets us sit back and savour the has-been and dream of the still-to-come. Nothing that is breathless — and therefore leaves no room for a complex cognitive process leading to emotional fulfillment — can lay claims to sporting greatness.

When you reduce a football match to a penalty shoot-out, a Diego Maradona becomes irrelevant; it is like a 10-minute rendering of Don Giovanni, at once a sham and an insult to artistic genius.

The sine qua non of sport is not the end result of a match but the process used by the performers to get there. And when that process is condensed into bullet points, it leaves sport culturally impoverished.

Trivialising values

The degradation of sporting values becomes even more alarming when attempts are made to turn sport into a form of pedestrian entertainment, borrowing from the worst of the American sports culture.

No matter what anyone with an eye on his bank account might say, a sportsman is not obliged to entertain, in the commonly understood sense of that word.

You might say that a Brendon McCullum on the opening day of the Indian Premier League, or a Virender Sehwag the other night, were irresistible entertainers; well, of course, they were.

But to those who know that the best of sport is more than just seat-edge excitement, the finest moments of this much-hyped Twenty20 league came when a pair of ageing retired Australian bowlers rolled up their sleeves and went to work.

Against Yuvraj Singh’s Mohali side, Shane Warne bowled a spell that was pure magic. The lovable old rascal was at his mesmerising best. And, believe me, he was not attempting to keep you amused. He was merely trying to win the match for his Jaipur team.

And, on Tuesday night, as well as a few days earlier, Glenn McGrath bowled as if he was operating with the new ball at The Oval with the Ashes at stake.

Glimpse of greatness

More than all the big hitters, more than all those muscular marauders who sought to clear shortened boundaries time after time to give the lay fan value for money, it was Warne and McGrath who helped provide a glimpse of true greatness — something that Twenty20 cricket might rarely get to showcase.

Several years ago, when he was politely told by a tennis writer that he did not have the capacity to pull in the crowds because he was not an entertainer, Ivan Lendl glared at the journalist and shot back: “I am a tennis professional. If you looking for entertainment, you should hire a pair of clowns and put them on the court.”

What Mr. Stoneface meant, of course, was that his biggest priority was to play the best tennis he could and beat the guy across the net from him. Fair enough.

We need to pause here and go back some way and see how sport has evolved. The good Dr. W.G.Grace, perhaps the first superstar that cricket knew, was as good an entertainer as any modern cricket ‘icon.’

Yet, in the days of Grace, and for much longer, sport was seldom looked upon primarily as entertainment; nor were sportsmen deemed to be entertainers first and last. If sport has a few things in common with theatre and cinema, then a Don Bradman was no Charlie Chaplin.

A Bradman or a Garry Sobers had no obligation to thrill cricket lovers in quite the same way as Chaplin captivated his audience. If the lovers of the willow game were, nevertheless, awe-struck when they watched Bradman or Sobers, it was simply because the two greatest cricketers of all time did what they did to the best of their abilities each time they stepped on a cricket ground.

Bradman, Sobers, Maradona, Pete Sampras, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer….these are great athletes who have constantly sought to stretch the limits of athletic possibilities. If they have managed to ‘entertain’ us while doing this, then that is a bonus.

But no sportsman ever achieved surpassing greatness when his primary goal was to ‘entertain’ fans; nor can any sport, polluted by cheap entertainment values and replete with contrived seat-edge drama, achieve true greatness.

But then, we must consider ourselves fortunate that fleeting moments of greatness are offered even in this unabashedly commercial and brutally abbreviated form of cricket…thanks to a Warne or a McGrath.

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