What's in a book?


IN 1996, on a Taj Hotel balcony in Bombay, amidst the fluttering of interrupting pigeons, I interviewed Rahul Dravid for the first time. He appeared suitably ambitious and impressively articulate, but it was a curious non-cricketing piece of information that struck me most. He read. Books. Imagine that!

It almost seemed to make him a non-conformist. Simply because in a stereotypical sporting world, where athletes in their entirety are viewed as barely being able to spell jock-strap, Dravid sitting in the company of Abdul Kalam's autobiography (which he recently read) seems as improbable as Shane Warne relaxing to Beethoven.

Typecasting athletes as dumb jocks has become a cliche. Unfair, simplistic, but easily supported. Basketball player Shaquille O'Neal, when asked if he visited the Parthenon on his visit to Greece, replied, "I can't remember the name of all the clubs I went to."

Michael Tyson once professed a fascination for philosophy during his stint in jail, and even if it was true, Albert Camus as his bedtime reading appears bizarre. Tyson, by the very virtue of his craft, and of course his thuggish behaviour, had become an echo of the stereotype, and is constantly reminded of it. When, having split with promoter Don King, he rejoined him after his incarceration, rival promoter Dan Duva witheringly opined, "Why would anyone expect him to come out smarter? He went to prison for 3 years, not Princeton."

Yet athletes do not exist to charm us with their erudition as much as lift us with their feats; their reputations are based on the physical and less on the intellectual. Intelligence has its value, but some might suggest it is a sport specific intelligence, wherein an athlete has a keen understanding of his craft, an analytical flair for tactics, a gift of vision, the aptitude to sense weakness. But it ends there, or as American football player, Joe Theisman, put it with some inadvertent humour: "Nobody in football should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein." In that sense, what good is a book?

But cricket, specifically captaincy, is a more interesting proposition. Leadership in most sports, like soccer where captains wear armbands, is mostly ceremonial. Piloting a cricket team is an altogether more demanding business, where all manner of virtues are required.

Recently, Steve Waugh, in the midst of a searching interview by Peter Roebuck, himself a literate man, made an interesting confession.

Asked about his endless reading, and if it was a conscious decision, Waugh said he was inquisitive by nature, that he was spurred on by true stories of heroism. He went on to say he had read a book called I Have Life, about a South African woman, who, in the course of car-jacking, had her throat and belly slit open, yet kept her intestines in with her coat, and crawled to help.

He then added, he was hoping this woman would come and address his team (continuing a pattern of finding unusual people to share their experiences with his players).

Some might dismiss this as hogwash, posturing, gimmicky. So I called a man not easily given to overstatement or quick to dismiss an idea. Sunil Gavaskar.

Gavaskar, who immediately recollected Waugh having asked Pat Farmer, who ran across Australia and helped raise funds for charity, to talk to his team, saw a powerful value in such a move. They were reminders, he suggested, and examples of, the will to survive, of overcoming the pain barrier, of determination.

Cricket players are faced with unending obstacles while in pursuit of their goals, be it, as Gavaskar says, a hot sun, facing the Indian bowling on a turning wicket, getting your knuckles rapped by fast bowlers, and someone else's triumph over adversity can be a valuable spur.

If Gavaskar sees a virtue in this aspect of Waugh's style, he, who at least when I knew him post-retirement was rarely to be found without a book, advocates reading as well. It could be anything, even if merely to keep abreast of what's happening. But Gavaskar believes strongly too in players being aware of cricket's history (Bradman, it is said, saw Neville Cardus as his Shakespeare), for as he explains simply, "You learn from the past, don't you?"

But, inexplicably, few players read, ignorant of history and the tradition they are but one part of, and disinterested in the world that surrounds them. Living in a cocoon is limiting. Waugh, as we all are, is a product of his experiences, and by his personal choice to extend his boundaries (writing books, walking the streets where he travels, curious about the local culture) improves himself, and possibly by extension his team.

Leaders are expected to own a vision, to choose a direction and find a way to carry disparate individuals with them. Insularity becomes an impediment to this. As Roebuck told me, from South Africa, when we discussed his Waugh interview, Steve has educated himself and it has given him a view, a wider view, of the world and his job.

It is impossible to persuasively equate a general inquisitiveness, a propensity towards learning and browsing at book shops with astute captaincy. Circumstances (leading a gifted team), tactical flair, skill and presence play their own considerable roles. As much as Mike Brearley's career option as a psychoanalyst might be linked to his ability to manage men like Botham (Rodney Hogg did say Brearely has a degree in people), there have been numerous winning captains who have never looked beyond a record book. Camus, as a cynic might add, is hardly helpful on the matter of bowling changes.

Indeed, diverse cultures themselves demand varied approaches. Asking Deep Dasgupta to write a poem, which perhaps he well could, and recite it to his team, another intriguing Waugh innovation, seems altogether ridiculous on the face of it.

Yet that said, there is enough about Waugh to suggest that were he to lead India he would know that difference, and perhaps tread an alternative path. He would find a way. As a captain, his ideas are provocative, his instincts impressive, his methods unusual, and they are hardly innate but accumulated through learning and by his willingness and need to collate diverse experiences.

As he said about his reading, I think it's just the way you develop as a person. That his leadership has been inspiring, and his team is one of the most successful ever to play cricket, is beyond a mere coincidence.