Pushing themselves to the extremities

Some days watching sport goes beyond pleasure and becomes a privilege.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

Mike Tindall of England breaks the tackle of Wendell Sailor of Australia during the Rugby World Cup. The final was a riveting show till the end. -- Pic. NICK LAHAM/GETTY IMAGES-

Some days watching sport goes beyond pleasure and becomes a privilege. When men assume an almost supernatural dimension and to not watch is unthinkable. When the action grips you by the throat like a mongrel who has found a lost doll. When you've been watching so long that the bladder cries `run,' but the mind commands `stay.' When the senses are so heightened by what is in front of you that you find yourself taking deep breaths, as if you yourself are involved in, and thus exhausted, by the competition.

Last fortnight delivered a rare such feast, when England collided with Australia in the rugby World Cup final, and America and Internationals fenced with glittering blades at the Presidents Cup.

As Robert Allenby and Davis Love walked down the 18th hole in South Africa on Sunday, it was way past 3 a.m. on Monday in Australia. There were columns to write next morning, places to go, people to meet, but life had been put on hold. These men, these teams, this staggering play, had taken choice away from me. To not watch was to turn ones back on a competition whose script was beyond the imagination of any scriptwriter. Reality had defeated fiction. It was sport beyond our wildest dreams.

The weekend over I ran into an Indian cricketer, just arrived in Melbourne for the tour of Australia, and even he, who has known the dry, blood-like taste of hard competition, who knows through India-Pakistan games what it means for two teams to go at each other like battling cocks, was stunned by what he saw at the rugby final.

He searched for a word and eventually found it: `intensity,' he said.

Intensity was a good word. These were four teams pushing themselves to the extremities, finding that last drop of courage, reaching way deep to the very end of their strength, finding skill when it seemed there was nothing more left, lifting to meet the moment when it appeared their feet were shackled with pressure. It was beautiful to behold.

The rugby players were bleeding, they were bruised, lips were cut and eyes half swollen shut; they had given their everything for 80 minutes, then, in extra-time, they were asked to give more and whether it was for God, or country, or just the man in the same shirt sweating next to them, they, improbably, found more.

They could barely stand yet they ran; they could barely think, exhaustion interrupting every message from the brain, yet they strung together coherent passes; they could have told themselves, no one will think less of us if we let this final slip by, yet they refused to.

Amidst the braying of a hysterical crowd, the cacophony of the crazed, they still could hear the call of greatness.

Who to cheer for? Who, indeed. Was it possible to be English and not find pleasure in the Wallabies' refusal to quit, was it possible to be Australian and not salute England's commitment? Hours later the English team bus driving through Sydney was given an impromptu cheer at a red light by Wallabies supporters going home. That answers it, that tells what a final it was, that reminds us that sport can hurdle silly parochialism and base jingoism, that there is more to sport than geography and shirt colour and the song you sing.

The golfers, in a way, produced an even more powerful image. For a non-physical sport, a so-called genteel pastime, by the very end of it these men too looked bruised, physically and emotionally spent, forced through a test of nerve and sinew usually found in Las Vegan arenas that are bounded by ropes.

Sachin Tendulkar was amazed by the intensity of the contest in the rugby World Cup. -- Pic. HAMISH BLAIR/GETTY IMAGES-

Nick Price, a gentle man, snapped a putter on his knee, Ernie Els' legs shook like a boy up for his first poetry recital at a school function, Tiger Woods' face carried the look of man who had seen things he wished he hadn't. The International team is hardly bound together by geography, they share no real commonality, they own no dislike of the U.S. where most of them earn their livelihood, yet where did they find this cause to play for?

It is a good lesson for the Indians as they embark on a Test series in Australia that appears beyond their collective grasp. It is too easy to succumb to history, to the truth no Indian team has won here before, and thus know an excuse already exists; it is harder still to push on, to demand the best of each other and themselves, to know in the end, even if defeated, that it was not for want of trying.

Days after they landed, during a long interview with Sachin Tendulkar, one memory persists. In the midst of conversation, this quiet, dignified man says he respects Pete Sampras and this is expected, for both men, cool and calculating, oblivious to distraction, have become definitions of pure, consistent excellence.

Yet Tendulkar also says he enjoys John McEnroe, too, and this is a surprise. It is almost a shock when he adds that he liked it when "McEnroe lost his temper." But he is not condoning the American's behaviour, what he is saying is that the temper is a reflection of McEnroe's desperate need to win and he identifies with that desire.

Maybe the word he was looking for was intensity.

McEnroe allowed his intensity to boil over. Tendulkar does not. Neither did the rugby players or golfers, their teams were a study in constant grace. The blood roiled, the sweat rolled, the spit ran dry, but not one man embraced disgrace. We would have possibly understood harsh words, an occasional flying fist in the rugby, a long sulk, even complaints, for eventually we understand something must give under such scrutiny, under such pressure, but no, it didn't. In winning, and defeat, dignity was never lost.

India's level of intensity, their ability to retain concentration and focus, to raise their game when circumstance demands and keep the pressure on the Australians is pivotal to their success. And their reputation. If they slacken, they will not merely be hammered, they will be shown up, for few sporting teams are as forceful as Waugh's men. Teams that cannot withstand the ferocity of their charge are made to appear feeble and feckless. It is never a pretty sight.

Sustaining intensity for long periods is impossible, but be sure when Tendulkar walks in to bat the Australians will undergo a sort of chemical reaction. Australia will lift for him, they will lift when India is reeling they will lift to implement a plan. When Justin Langer and Matthew Langer walk in, and settle down, and find a rhythm, says coach John Buchanan, "they will lift the intensity, whether that arrives in the form of shot-making or running between wickets or just resolving to stay there." All this India must meet head-first, all this India must match.

Indian teams have often lacked this ingredient, letting the game ebb and flow, sub-consciously perhaps allowing themselves to be dictated to. Sourav Ganguly insists his team is a different one. We shall see. They had arrived in Australia in time to see the World Cup final. Presumably they saw it. Hopefully, they learnt from it, too.