A simple matter of desire


The want and the hunger is as important, perhaps more important than the ability and the scores and performances in friendly conditions against weaker oppositions. - John Wright.

HOW many examples do you want about desire? From which sport? About which champion?

Hassiba Boulmerka, running past Algerian fundamentalists who saw a woman showing her legs as an affront, past men who spit at her on the road, her hunger for Olympic gold (she won the 1500m at Barcelona) more powerful than any silly disrespect.

Slamming Sam Snead, the legendary golfer, who practiced at night in front of his car's headlights till his "hands bled."

Lance Armstrong, deciding on a more draining method to treat his cancer because the less caustic treatment would hurt his lung capacity, and even when close to death he's still thinking of cycling and winning.

How many examples of desperation is it going to take till the point gets driven home?

John Bachar, the free soloist (purist rock climbers who don't use ropes, carabiners, pitons, just their hands) doing finger-tip pull-ups with a 50-pound weight hanging between his legs, simply because, as he drawled, "I'm awfully competitive."

An Australian footy player, hurt in a tackle but playing on, later discovering he had broken ribs and one had punctured his lung.

We're talking, of course, about desire, and the Indian cricket team. We're asking, how so many athletes have it and how come mostly we don't?

Winning demands technique and skill, but the somewhat primeval force that propels teams to glory, that affords them an edge, that is what Wright calls 'want'.

Twenty years from now they're going to meet, this Indian team, for some reunion and, what will they talk about? Sachin's brilliance, Laxman's Kolkata innings, Rahul and Sourav here and there, Kumble's spitting spin? and then? It will be a short celebration, the evening as dull as the memories.

Most of them, even if their accountants have had a lobotomy, will never have to line up for a pension check. Some will turn into commentators, some will coach, others will write, or turn to business, or just quietly sink into comfortable anonymity. But there will be days when their kids will ask, "What did your team do, Dad," and "Go do your homework," will not be a good enough answer.

Eventually they might tell their kids that they were players of reasonable character and impressive resolve, considerably loyal and moderately courageous, diligent at nets and obedient to coach, and more or less it will be hard to argue.

But they will also wonder, or at least they should: did we do enough? Practice running-between-wickets enough, think enough (shot selection), train enough, stop boundaries enough, sacrifice enough (for their teammates and a cause)? Care enough, want enough, win enough? For everyone, even Jordan, the answer is no. But India's cricketers will find no solace in that.

For a land almost umbilically attached to the game, we have so little to show: our cupboard of glory is unstocked, our legends of heroism in foreign fields barely enough to fill a pamphlet. We are told cricket is cyclic. Yet the wheel has turned and our time has not come. Even, Sri Lanka, once sneered at as a sub-continental impostor, beat England at home (albeit in a one Test face-off) more recently than us.

Why some men and teams are more driven than others is an impossible question. For some men, unique by themselves, like Michael Schumacher, or Tendulkar, this drive is innate. They need no spurs to perform. Riches, for them, are the result of the success not the reason. But sport, for others, is a means of escape, the simple pursuit of survival. Impoverished African runners from families of 10 children are often driven to succeed by the lure of a TV, a car, a home for their siblings. In America, basketball has been, on occasion, a passport out of the ghetto. In a poor land, we understand that.

But the question is: does ambition level out in direct relation to the heft of the bank account? I am not imputing cricketers play for money, for that would be unfair and incorrect. But it is worth asking, once the ladder is climbed and a player is set in the team, and status and respectability assured, does this comfort mute their hunger? Are we too easily satisfied? If yes, it makes no sense.

African runners and American basketball players do not find their desire diluted by having 'made it'.

Perhaps it is a cultural flaw, or some environmental impediment. Australians seem culturally predisposed to battling it out. Lleyton Hewitt plays as if he's made some secret written commitment in blood to reach every ball. Even when a series is won, and criticism will be muted for drawing or losing a dead Test, Australian cricketers are unyielding.

In contrast, we appear softer, and the more we lose the easier it becomes to swallow the hurt. It is called habit. But is kismet already written or can we write it ourselves? As Tendulkar pointedly said to me after returning from the Australian tour in 1999-2000, "Sometimes the desperation was missing."

It is hard to draw parallels with Australia, yet I called John Buchanan, the Australian coach, for his take on desire, or as he says "dedication, determination or whatever else you want to call it."

Buchanan sees players like Ponting and Steve Waugh driven not just by an "inner pride" but by the "baggy green cap they wear." He explains they are aware of the tradition they are part of, yet also of the "legacy" they will leave.

"There's no doubt," he says, "that teams do not flourish on the desire of one player, or two or three, but it must reside within the group as a whole. In most good teams," he says, "desire/ determination/ hunger will be present in most of the players, most of the time."

An Indian player blames the system, and who would argue that. As Buchanan says, a "blueprint" is vital to get somewhere. That rather than lurch from one series to another, and hope to win it, a bigger picture is required, a look at what needs to be done for success to be achieved.

Except that the system does not absolve players of personal responsibility. The BCCI's ineffectiveness does not stop a player from working hard, an official's myopia does not stand in the way of diving for a ball.

The Indian team is a decent one, teetering on the cusp of finer deeds. The system will not push them towards greatness. So then they must drive themselves and each other.

Maybe more than liking winning they have to learn to hate losing.