Jeev and the lack of audience


AS a phenomena, it is curious. India remains besotted with a game it is distinctly mediocre at. An absurd reality, where the merits of Dravid's suitability as a Test opener no doubt dominate and decide job interviews.

It is an obsession fascinating and unhealthy. After all, there are sporting names in India beyond cricket, imagine that.

Sporting names even beyond Paes-Bhupathi, Anand, Pillai and recently (though far too late) Gopi Chand, who themselves only exist on the fringes of our benevolent consciousness. Sporting names that refuse to kick the memory, faces that draw no flicker of recognition. Not every hero must be a champion, and there are many out there.

Of all the aching stories told last year, most despairing was Gopi Chand's admission, prior to his All England triumph, that he was better known in some other countries than in India. To argue that he had forged no significant triumph to deserve it is laughable: by that measure, Anand should be Prime Minister and the cricketers exiled to the second division Patna Pan-Parag league or whatever.

Yet, however irrelevant the discipline, diminutive their feats, Australia mostly (certainly in comparison to India) follows its sportspersons, savouring every unlikely success, charting each recurring failure, embracing always their Australian-ness. It is one brick in a stunning sporting edifice. Lawn bowls tournaments here that couldn't make a needle flicker on any scale that measures athletic flair draw a fair crowd; in India, there is time found for cricket, none for a stroll down to watch Gopi Chand weave a web of deceit so painstakingly delicate and dangerous that spiders might blush if they could.

From interest is drawn inspiration, from support is derived motivation.

Still, unseen and relatively uncherished, an entire army of Indians continue to circumnavigate the sporting globe. Many are coach-less, sponsor-less, not part of a structured programme, yet they ride bareback on their dreams, knocking heads with the world, in a defiance that is largely quixotic. They have befriended failure, eat solitary meals within the blurring walls of changing hotel rooms, attempting merely to master themselves forget the moment. It is all quite enchanting.

Recently, I spied an Indian girl at the Australian Open, barely taller than the net but slugging the ball with some ferocity, very much the bonsai warrior. You probably don't know Sasha Abraham, Sania Mirza, Megha Vakharia, but there they were, their girlish shoulders turned hunchback by hefty racket bags, playing to an audience of solemn empty seats, but their appetite for struggle undiminished. By their mere presence they are important, a reminder to the world that Indians can play, compete, dream. It's a revolution that needs a stoking.

Last fortnight, on this island, another Indian washed ashore. Jeev Singh, the golfer, his smile prettier than his swing, his smooth charm disguising a rawer ambition.

The golfer has worn anonymity. Mostly, he was Milkha's son. Then, he laughs, things took a turn for the better. "At least they knew my name. Well, after a fashion."

On a plane, somewhere around the globe, he would occasionally find a fellow Indian beside him, who invariably asked, what he did for a living.

"I'm a golfer", Jeev would say.

And the strangers would reply, Oh, good. Tell me, on tour do you play with Jeev Singh.

That he recounts this story with relish tells its own tale. There are no chips on these shoulders. These days, even in non-golfing surroundings, he says he is sometimes prompted for autographs. An unlikely triumph, belated too. He is some player. The best we've ever had.

Last year was his fourth year on the European tour (comprising an elite 150-or-so man field from varying continents), the first Indian to reach so far, an accomplishment possibly we do not comprehend fully. He came sixth at the Dubai Open and set a European putting record and it is pertinent to note a Tiger was patrolling those fairways; he finished 2nd at the Players Championships in Japan, sixth in the Madrid Open, qualified to play some tournaments on the tour (the second US PGA Tour), and earned close to $450,000. It was one long wrestle with adversity.

Timing is a golfer's oxygen: his was off. In late 1999, after accelerating into the Top 50 in the European tour, he was visited by the mother-in-law of all injuries, a nagging pain that wouldn't leave. He eventually succumbing in 2000 to encasing his wrist in a cast for 12 weeks, the accumulated momentum of a lifetime of shots surrendered.

It is a context that gives his 2001 a different glow.

It has not gone either the injury. It means the routine two hour practice after a round to sandpaper any ugliness from his shots is curtailed. Worse, as in Australia, by compensating for his weak right and demanding more from his left wrist, he has strained the muscles below his left shoulder blade.

Nevertheless, on day one of the Heineken Classic in Melbourne, in a field laced with John Daly, Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, he was 8th on the leaderboard. Thereafter he faded, returning to lonely dinners, aware that the $4500 odd he earned was insufficient to meet his bills; next week, he tells himself, must be better.

He has but one Indian sponsor, Hero Honda, whose continued support of golf he warmly credits, and that is all. It would be sweeter, you think, if one of the hundred screaming boards that circle cricket grounds translated into a patch on his shirt. Not merely for the money, but for the message it delivers.

Jeev is probably never going to win the Masters, but already, by treading impressively a path never travelled by an Indian, he has opened a door to all sorts of possibilities. Once, he says, "golf was viewed in India as a rich man's game, a trivial pursuit." Now, he says, "Every youngster on the course wants to be a pro golfer, the psychology has changed."

Historians will be derelict in their duty if he is not accorded fair credit for that. In a sense, in Indian golfing terms, he has walked on the moon. It follows that all succeeding journeys are less intimidating.

He doesn't want much, this Jeev Singh the golfer. Mostly, he is consumed with winning, fencing daily with sly tricks golf plays with mind. It's an endless battle, but a joyous one. Once he couldn't putt, now he lives by them. "I trusted it under pressure, I just told myself I'm a damn good putter."

And there's another thing: he just wishes Indians would warm to all sport, not merely the one he advertises.

He's doing his bit; now do yours. Next time he comes to town, put on your shoes, and walk down to the golf course. You don't have to shake Jeev's hand, or call his name, or thrust a paper and pen under his nose; his wide-eyed grin when he sees the swollen fairways will be the signal he knows you're there.

It's a gift of audience we extend only to cricket. There are some others out there who deserve it too.