Getting rid of 'killer instinct' from India's sporting vocabulary

We were gentlemen losers, and well-behaved men and women who failed at the final hurdle or a couple of hurdles earlier. But we said “please” and “thank you” and applauded an opponent’s game. All that has changed now.

A-Star: During his playing days, Vijay Amritraj (‘A’) played with Hollywood stars and U.S. Presidents, and generally enjoyed himself while the two others clubbed with him, Bjorn Borg (‘B’) and Jimmy Connors (‘C’) seemed to have limited lives outside the court.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

A phrase connected with Indian sport we don’t hear any more is “killer instinct.” Indian sportsmen were supposed to lack this apparently vital quality, no matter what the sport. We were gentlemen losers, and well-behaved men and women who failed at the final hurdle or a couple of hurdles earlier. But we said “please” and “thank you” and applauded an opponent’s game.

The tennis star Vijay Amritraj embodied both the concept and the personality. When it came to the crunch in the Grand Slams, he missed that crucial smash or that chance to catch his rival on the wrong foot. He beat all the top players of his day, but fell just short. Vijay epitomised the Indian gentleman sportsman, polite, well-mannered, humorous, and playing as if it wasn’t the end of the world if he lost.

Fans consoled themselves saying that if Vijay was as badly behaved as Jimmy Connors, Illie Nastase or John McEnroe he might have been a better player but they didn’t want any of that! It was convenient, and gave them a ‘reason’ for Indians missing from the list of winners in sport — from the Olympics to football. It was as if we were telling ourselves there are more important things in life.

Again, Vijay Amritraj (‘A’) symbolised this, manifestly popular on the tennis circuit, playing with Hollywood stars and U.S. Presidents, and generally enjoying himself while the two others clubbed with him, Bjorn Borg (‘B’) and Jimmy Connors (‘C’) seemed to have limited lives outside the court.

In a New Yorker profile, John McFee told us, “A person’s tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play.” And we were happy with what Vijay’s game told us about him — and by extension, ourselves.

On the other side there was the French tennis hero Rene Lacoste. The quote varied, but in essence he had said that when you have a man down you don’t let him rise again. You sit on his head to make sure. This was the much-touted ‘killer instinct.’

There were Indian sportsmen whose killer instinct was never questioned. Sunil Gavaskar, while making centuries against some of the most fearsome bowling in the world, was one such. For another, there was Prakash Padukone, the world’s top badminton player. You could be tough and single-minded without having to rave and rant.

At some point, ‘killer instinct’ dropped out of our sporting vocabulary. Perhaps it happened after the 1983 World Cup win, or with the many world championships of Viswanathan Anand. It faded with the arrival of the Tendulkar generation in cricket, and with the increasing number of medals being won at the Olympics.

When an Indian sportsperson or team lost, it was no longer put down to a lack of killer instinct. It was assumed that sportsmen and women came pre-fitted with this element. After Olympic gold medals in shooting and athletics, that phrase seems to have been finally laid to rest.

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