Entertainment ultimately matters

IN this era of instant gratification, sport needs its entertainers as much as match-winners.

IN this era of instant gratification, sport needs its entertainers as much as match-winners. The magnificently brash Shahid Afridi, with his billowy hair and refreshingly vulgar approach to batting, was quite simply made for television. Modern cricket is undeniably a batsman's game, and there is nothing quite as exciting as watching Afridi blow away the opposition bowlers with his trademark withering contempt. Afridi's clean and calculated strikes have, upon several occasions, completely ruined opposition strategies.

Unlike most pinch-hitters, the Pakistani does not rely primarily on luck. Afridi might not move his feet in the manner of a classical batsman, especially against fast bowling, but his remarkable hand-eye co-ordination ensures that the ball is dispatched to the vicinity of the message hoardings often enough. Not surprisingly, he holds the record for the fastest century in one-day cricket, and also for the second-fastest (jointly with Brian Lara). The absurd manner of Afridi's dismissal at the end of that whirlwind 45-ball hundred against India — his first attempt at stout defence got him bowled — merely underlines the irony (and peculiar demands) of one-day cricket.

Larger-than-life cricketing personalities like Afridi and Virender Sehwag are thrilling to watch for their amazing pyrotechnics — the result ceases to matter for the period they spend at the crease. Even the most partisan audience will put its parochial interest aside for the sake of sheer entertainment. And yet, an Andrew Flintoff or Adam Gilchrist could, by launching a flat-out assault, single-handedly put a match beyond the reach of the opposition in a matter of a few overs.

Entertainers are of three kinds: one type shines on the field, another off it, while the third (which is, admittedly, the rarest sort) celebrates life both in and out of the sporting arena.

There are those like Sachin Tendulkar, Ronaldinho and Roger Federer, who are mindblowingly entertaining in the arena and relatively colourless elsewhere. Tendulkar the cricketer can be aggressive — who doesn't remember him carting Michael Kasprowicz to all parts of the field in Sharjah? — but he is known to be mild-mannered and perfectly polite, and avoids controversies at all costs. Ronaldinho, the Barcelona playmaker, will dribble skillfully often to the point of self-indulgence, and sometimes even lose possession of the ball; Federer appears incapable of playing an ugly shot, and often attempts impossibly outrageous ones in his quest for perfection. But they rarely make a splash for promoting their own brand of perfume. Supremely gifted athletes like these entertain as a second thought — in reality, their sole ambition is to defy the laws of physics.

Then there is David Beckham: once known for his curling free-kicks, the Real Madrid player is today known more on the strength of a movie named after his peculiar skill. Beckham is certainly talented, but his case is promoted more on account of the hype surrounding his persona.

Brian Lara, one of the most effervescent batsmen in history, has sobered down with age; but there was a time when he could make for equally `entertaining' copy in gossip columns. Diego Maradona's life nearly took a tragic turn late last year, and one hopes the all-time great footballer will be best remembered for that magical second goal against England in the 1986 World Cup semi-final.

Match-winning heroes are unabashedly celebrated; but in sport, as in life, public sentiment often veers towards the tragic hero, at times even the anti-hero. Federer commands awe; Pete Sampras demands instant respect. But neither name is capable of stirring the fierce, conflicting emotions one experiences while watching the inimitable Marat Safin in action: the raging Russian can alternately infuriate and dazzle with an unpredictability formerly associated with quantum mechanics. Safin, racquet-wielder extraordinaire, remains a perennial favourite not because he is a gifted two-time Grand Slam champion, but because tennis is raised to the exalted level of theatre when he performs. It's like enjoying two performances for the price of one ticket.

The most poignant sporting story of recent times, however, was scripted by the whimsical — and vastly entertaining — Goran Ivanisevic. The glorious Wimbledon final in 2001 that pitted the big-serving left-hander against Pat Rafter held all the appeal of the protracted battle that took place in the Illiad between Hector, Prince of Troy, and the champion warrior, Achilles.

Drama is what really sells because, in the end, entertainment is what counts as the biggest attraction.