Watching Indian sport grow

ROHIT BRIJNATH

AS an Indian sportswriter living abroad, staying in touch with where I come from is not just natural, it is sustaining. Every morning I surf the net for Indian sites, and with a flick of my fingers I hurdle oceans and leap deserts, and for a while if not geographically, then at least spiritually, I am home. It is the best moment of my day.

Anju George at the felicitation function in New Delhi. — Pic. S. SUBRAMANIUM-

I begin with The Hindu and then move north, then east, devouring every newspaper, consuming every sporting story, in some desperate attempt to nourish the Indianness within me.

These days, Indian sport mostly makes for good reading, it seems to be moving faster, taking marvellous energising strides. There is, in a sense, an awakening. The world still trots out that exhausted clich� of one billion people and no Olympic champions. It is not wholly incorrect, but it is not the whole truth either. India, from where I stand, appears to be making progress, taking small steps towards a distant summit.

East Bengal's soccer coup in Asia; young volleyballers making a surprising dent; chess players with braces outthinking the world; Anju George's leap of faith; a squash player with burning ambition; shooters gunning for glory. And who knows what else.

What is most telling is that some of these sports are not where we thought our champions would arrive from, disciplines where we believed we lacked the necessary virtues for greatness. Anju George, for instance, may well be the most remarkable Indian sports story of the decade, for we are not a nation of pure athletic splendour. To see this slim South Indian keenly knock shoulders and bump egos with muscular Russians and lean Italians and not be intimidated is uplifting. There is no other word.

It is a divine moment when a nation begins to find its sporting feet. Everywhere new frontiers are being explored. South Korea is basking in the exquisite skills of its women golfers, Japan is all puffed up about its major league baseball players, a Chinese player is looking down on his peers in the NBA.

India, too desperately, needs new heroes, especially those not ensconced in white flannels, and we are discovering them. Heroes are important for they spur revolutions, and perhaps we are on the cusp of one. Across the Indian landscape there are athletes who are insisting that hope is not enough, only hard work is. They are not whining about the system, but circumventing it. Anju George is providing young Indians with the most powerful of messages: it can be done, even in India.

It is said that Sunil Gavaskar has had a hand in his son Rohan's progress. If this is true why has Rohan, who is 27, still not played for India? — Pic. SHAUN BOTTERILL /GETTY IMAGES-

But even within cricket, where change once occurred in direct proportion to the fury of opinion, and where our heroes often have been found to be no more than cardboard cutouts, new attitudes have flourished. Sourav Ganguly and John Wright are the oddest of couples, the brazen Bengali bhadralok and the intense Kiwi, and even here in Australia, while there is not yet a fulsome admiration for the Indian cricketer, there is a rough respect.

But as much as there is a fresh pleasure in what I read, and see, there remains an old dismay. In some ways, Indian sport is not yet fully grown up. Pettiness infects our debate, it holds us back from fulfilling our potential. For instance, for years it had been slyly suggested to me that Sunil Gavaskar had a hand in Rohan's progress (which father doesn't), though it was never that nicely put. As if the father somehow shoehorns his son into teams he doesn't deserve to be in. Once again it is in the news, and while I hold no brief for Sunil, nor do I know all the facts of the present controversy, it is all quite baffling.

Not everything is sunshine in Australian sport, but churlishness of this sort is rarely to be seen. Mostly they are tough and professional and go about their business. Talent succeeds, the rest get on with their life. The sons of numerous Australian stars, in all sport, sweat for success, but rarely is there a word of preference, or partiality, spoken of. In India, such talk is commonplace. We exist in a society where influence counts, and it is somehow extrapolated that any successful son has risen on his father's authority. It is unfair to both.

Sunny has this much right: being a great player's son is more disadvantage than advantage. Sons are inevitably aware of the shoes they must fill, and fathers feel the agony of that pressure as keenly. Whenever a son makes a team, there is in India an undercurrent of impropriety; there is a terrific irony to this, for truly successful fathers like Sunil know that eventually only talent opens all doors, nothing else. After all, it is how they made themselves.

Whatever Sunil may be, unintelligent he is not. If he got Rohan into a team, he knows he cannot play for him. Eventually either the son is good enough, or he is not. Rohan is 27, he has been playing first-class cricket since 1996-97. But he is yet to play for India. It tells us at least that either Sunil does not have the influence some think he has, or he has not used it as powerfully as they think he has.

Whatever, there is a small-mindedness here that imprisons us. It is the same small-mindedness of officials who don't care if there is running water for the women's hockey team, or manipulate selection to benefit their zones (I thought India was supposed to come first). It is the small-mindedness of former cricketers who find little generous to say about their successors, about officials jostling for foreign trips even though they possess no expertise. It is a small-mindedness that interrupts progress, that defeats purpose, that crushes young wills.

There is another thing India must be wary of, and that is overeagerness. And hockey is a useful example. A few recent wins, and some sporadic dazzling play, led to all manner of overstatement. It was somewhat understandable, it was in some ways a sweet reflection of our keenness to be a hockey power again, but it was also immature. After all, the Champions Trophy done, celebration soon turned to recrimination. We are too quick to praise, and even quicker to damn.

Established sporting nations know the difference between playing great matches and being a great team. They understand that spirit is tested not when a team wins but when it loses. They figure that excellence takes patience, and discipline, and most of all time. The Hockeyroos, Australia's women's hockey team, may have won the recent Four Nation Trophy, but a rebuilding side that had been struggling are not yet proclaiming wildly that they have returned to their glory days.

There is a process to finding greatness, from setting the building blocks in place, to ensuring that commitment equals desire, to accepting that most improvements are gradual. India must resign itself to that process; overnight success does not exist.

There is excellence lurking within the sub-continent; what matters is how we nurture it.