Movement and momentum

Virender Sehwag going through a training session with Ajit Agarkar.-V.V. KRISHNAN

DRENCHED in sweat, and sounding like a steam engine straining to negotiate a steep climb in the mountains, Virender Sehwag stepped off the treadmill. Drained from the effort of clocking and maintaining 13 kmph on the machine he looked as if he could do with some rest.

"Yeh karna padta hai," he said, towelling himself vigorously but it wasn't long before his breathing became normal and he regained his smile and his composure. Looking around the gym of St. James Hotel, London, he saw several team-mates going through a strenuous training session. This was a typically grey day in England when overcast skies released spitting rain, forcing play to be abandoned. The physio/trainer sensed this as an opportunity to drag everyone into the gym which meant some players lifted weights, others draped themselves round a blue swiss ball and a few pulled elastic rubber ropes to strengthen their muscles. Explaining this activity Sehwag said "cricket was getting faster and fitter by the day, the standards kept going up. You have to keep racing faster and faster. There is no place in the game for a slow mover or an ordinary fielder".

This non-stop movement is the essence, the fundamental truth of modern sport. Cricket is about bat and ball but, as teams compete, the underlying reality is movement, about staying ahead of competition and keeping one's nose in front. For this, yesterday's performance is not good enough because the bar keeps rising, the challenges keep becoming tougher by the day. This truth holds for all sports — in athletics, Asafa Powell clocks 9.77; Tiger Woods slams his driver longer than players of the past; Roddick releases more rockets, that too at previously unheard of speeds; even Sania Mirza whacks the ball with surprising power.

Cricket too has moved with the times, shaken, if not swamped, by new methods, unable to resist changes. Through this process it has pushed forward, reinvented and redefined itself and adjusted to the developments swirling around it. Modern batsmen, liberated both in spirit and style, smash the ball harder and further, fielders hold catches and chase balls as though they were athletes sprinting in a stadium.

Most times this movement, the urge to push the limits, is created by forces from outside. Competition is a healthy motivator and a powerful trigger but also a deadly disease that devours those that are defeated — it recognises winners, salutes champions but harshly discards the unfortunates who get left behind.

Rahul Dravid, who is very conscious that he does justice to his talent, at a fitness camp.-K. BHAGYA PRAKASH

Often the challenge emerges from within, the movement fuelled by ambitious individuals who refuse to submit and are determined to leave their imprint on the game. Sachin says he is motivated by his own expectations, he sets his own goals and then works to satisfy his pride and ego. For him it matters little what others expect, nor is it an issue of letting others down. What counts is he wants to do the best for himself, be true to himself and answer his conscience. Dravid says the same thing — cricket is about playing to potential and doing justice to one's talent. In this scheme, it is the duty of a player not to waste the skills bestowed by nature, he must therefore wage a relentless struggle against opponents/conditions/bowlers/advancing age/declining motivation/pressure/fatigue or whatever else that could be an inconvenient hurdle.

While players strive to create movement, teams concentrate on maintaining momentum, an elusive and somewhat indescribable quality. When momentum arrives, the group works smoothly to achieve common goals and the team appears nicely adjusted and coordinated. In this state strange things happen: No. 6 scores a fighting 80 when the top order has collapsed, part bowlers chip in with valuable wickets after an inspired bowling change, short cover latches on to a blinder 20 yards from the bat and an obdurate tailender survives a full session against the new ball to annoy the opposition no end.

But this mysterious momentum also disappears suddenly, evaporating in air as if someone rudely switched off the supply and disconnected the mains. In such situations, good starts by openers are wasted by crippling mid-innings collapses, bowlers suddenly don't look threatening enough, balls slide down leg and batsmen receive more hittable balls than they did in the past. Fast bowlers bang the ball in but nothing hits the splice of the bat, there are no edges, shoulders drop and there is an air of lethargy and helplessness in the movement of fielders.

Perhaps Australia is currently experiencing this absence of momentum. Unquestioned kings of cricket, the Aussies strode on to the ground with a swagger, arrogant and triumphant, their authority acclaimed by the ICC which manufactured the October Super Series to test them against the best of the rest. But Bangladesh brought them down a few notches by stunning them and now England senses a chance to dislodge the Aussies.

Players have learnt that they must keep performing, keep running faster and faster to stay in the same place. This because cricket is a deadly treadmill which does not decelerate, and never stops moving. Golfers and tennis players know they can't take a break, rest and return because sports does not permit these luxuries even to the most gifted. Step aside for a breather and someone else, fit and fresh, occupies the spot to permanently slam the door on you. Teams have also understood they need to keep doing the right things, and innovate so that others don't catch up. Cricket, in a crude way, is a circus — it has to keep offering new tricks to catch the attention of patrons.