Indian cricketers can learn from Sorenstam

No one perhaps exemplifies the driven athlete more than Annika Sorenstam, the best player in golf of any sex, for her life is testimony to the champion's unending struggle for greatness. Sorenstam was not born a great player; she learnt to be one, her destiny was not written but constructed.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

WHEN a silent Bangalore stadium greeted Pakistan's Test match win over India, it was perhaps a result of a crowd digesting the awful reality that their team was not as accomplished as they had assumed.

In truth, the Indian side was undone less by their opponents and more by themselves and it is a sobering reality. Being outplayed is always acceptable, under-achieving is not. If you imply India's players are not sufficiently skilled, they will take umbrage. If you suggest they have mentally relaxed, they will scowl. If you maintain they lack a work ethic, they will bristle. But eventually some responsibility must be taken.

No doubt India's players dutifully put in hours at the nets, but working hard is more than that. It is a philosophy of excellence that must be lived, a pursuit of perfection that should drive them as individual and team, a continuing desire to do everything within their powers to improve.

Of course, we might say they drew the series so what's the fuss, but surely that is not the goal they set for themselves. The disquieting fact is that too few of India's players raised (or at least maintained) their standards through the series, as if in totality they were unconvinced by their mission, as if they were unprepared to go that extra yard to greatness. It seemed a team somewhat satisfied with itself, and if that is true, they have not failed the crowds but, worse, themselves.

It's why Australia is the scariest team in cricket and Roger Federer the most dominant of tennis players: not simply because they might be finely gifted, and they are, but because they are rarely satisfied with their level of play.

After the Bangalore Test, with his batting abysmal, India's Sourav Ganguly was questioned on his captaincy, to which he replied: "I have been around (as captain) for quite a long time. I have nothing to prove to anybody."

Admittedly, no man bares his soul to a room full of microphones and it is safer to hide behind cliches, but if it is the answer Ganguly honestly believes in, then you have to wonder. After all, great players/teams always have something to prove, it's what drives and sustains them. There is no comfort zone in sport. Ask Manchester United?

No one perhaps exemplifies the driven athlete more than Annika Sorenstam, the best player in golf of any sex, for her life is testimony to the champion's unending struggle for greatness.

Sorenstam was not born a great player; she learnt to be one, her destiny was not written but constructed. In 1995, she won one major championship (the barometer of excellence in golf, and for that matter tennis), in 1996 another, but for four years between 1997-2000 she came home empty. Sorenstam was still a world-class performer, but perhaps one day she peered at the mirror and did not see a champion reflected back at her. It left her, as it does most athletes, with a choice: whether to coast or to challenge herself. In the mid-to-late 1990s, Indian batsman Rahul Dravid, considered slow and irrelevant and ejected from the one-day team, had to make a similar decision. He asked himself, do I whine that everyone's against me and find excuses, or do I go to the nets and bring myself to a level where I cannot be ignored. He chose the latter and became one of the world's acclaimed batsmen.

Ian Thorpe once explained that people's expectations of him, however extravagant, did not match his own expectations of himself. It is true of all champions, it is why they wear that label. At the end of 2004, despite his pre-eminence through the year, Federer arrived in America a week before the Masters Cup to ready himself. He might have won anyway; he might have lost even though he did it. But greatness is about leaving nothing to chance.

It's why an unsatisfied Sorenstam, some years ago, began kick-boxing, crunched her stomach, lifted weights (300 pounds squats), honed her weak putting day after day, hour after hour, for two months without respite. Her driving was sound but she found a way to add 10 yards without sacrificing her accuracy. She dissected the machine she was and began to work on every bolt, nut, rivet and cog. Then she oiled it with sweat.

Sorenstam never left the tour but it was like she was returning as someone else. If between 1997-2000 she didn't win a major, then in the past four years she has won six. If in 2000 she won five tournaments, since then she has annually won 8, 11, 6, 8 and all three she has played in this year. In 1999 she had 12 of 22 top 10 finishes; since 2001 it has been 20 of 26, 20 of 23, 15 of 17 and 16 of 18. As a masterpiece of consistency she is untouchable.

Sorenstam's refusal to rest is not because her opponents may be closing the gap, but because despite her dominance she knows there are incremental improvements she can make to her game. She is chasing an ideal, which she may never catch, but her desire to find it has not extinguished.

In contrast, there well may be players in the Indian cricket team who are comfortable with their averages, who say I took 10 wickets in the last Test and what more can I do? Except it's never enough. Dravid, not one of those players, may have scored two centuries in Kolkata but that scarcely absolves him of two unimpressive performances in Bangalore, and part of his growth as a great batsman is an awareness of that.

In a recent conversation with Rajyavardhan Rathore, India's Olympic silver-medallist in shooting at Athens, he mentioned: "I want to push my average performance beyond what other people's peak is." This is a man chasing his own private perfection.

So is Sorenstam. Part of the Swede's philosophy is something called Vision54. It means eighteen birdies in 18 holes, the perfect round. It may never happen, but it's worth the chase. As Sorenstam has said: "The 54 vision is always in the back of my mind."

It's why when Sorenstam looks in the mirror she now sees a champion. If she asks her reflection, am I doing everything I possibly can to be the best player I can be, she knows she can honestly answer "yes". It's a question India's cricketers now need to ask themselves.