WHEN GODS FAIL

NIRMAL SHEKAR

THE eyes said it was him. And the mind reinforced the view. But the heart continued to be in a state of denial. This can't be him, this can't be the maestro, this can't be the little genius...so muttered the heart.

-N. SRIDHARAN

It was like listening to Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and being assailed by a series of jarring notes. You could have sworn that there was something wrong with the radio reception, something wrong with the CD or with the music system. You simply cannot bring yourself to so much as contemplate the possibility of the maestro erring.

And so it was on the third morning of the Lord's Test between England and India last fortnight. Watching Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar live through a nightmarish hour and a half for a few paltry runs against the sort of bowlers he might have despatched to all corners of Shivaji Park in Mumbai as a 15-year old, you wondered if a look-alike prankster had found his way into the Indian dressing room, gagged the little master and tied him to a chair and made his way to the middle in his place!

The agony, for Tendulkar as much as for the connoisseurs of the sport who have come to believe that the squat little fella from Mumbai is the finest batsman Indian cricket has ever produced, lasted a full 96 minutes, in which time the former India captain might have got out at least three times before he was eventually dismissed.

Even as I shook my head in disbelief on that day watching a virtuoso conductor of the orchestra struggle like a nervous, weak-willed beginner, my mind went back to another bizarre day of sports-watching.

Less than two weeks before Tendulkar's agonising experience at Lord's, at Muirfield in Scotland, playing in the third round of the British Open, the man who is, arguably, the greatest golfer of all time - or one that surely will be by the time he retires - hacked his way through the course for a disastrous 81.

In all his years at the top, it was Tiger Woods's worst single round in a major event. Never before had he crossed 80. But on that day, when you might have had an easier time trying to play in a wintry gale in Antarctica, Woods simply couldn't get anything right.

And that mediocre round of golf came exactly on a day when the great player was expected to decisively march ahead of the pack and place himself in a position of command as he sought to win his third straight major of the year in an attempt to complete the Grand Slam of golf.

Ditto Tendulkar. His unlikely struggle against Jones, Hoggard and Co. came on a day when several thousand people had crammed into the headquarters of the game hoping to watch the great man score his first ever Lord's hundred, delight the fans and carry India to a position of safety and respectability.

What is more, even as Tendulkar and Woods, Gods of cricket and golf, were reduced to the level of fumbling, fallible ordinary mortals on the big stage, a few Norman No-names of golf had their 15 minutes of fame and an Indian all-rounder - Ajit Agarkar - whose failures with the bat at the Test level became the subject of party jokes all over the country did exactly what you might have expected of Tendulkar himself!

Ah, the cruel ironies of sport! How capricious this business can be! How unforgiving sport can be even in the case of men who are deemed invincible, men to whom the ordinary laws of sport do not apply, men such as Woods and Tendulkar who time and again elevate their sport to what it is not with their genius!

-REUTERS

Never do sweat and toil and embarrassing failure appear quite as gloomily soul-shattering as they do when the victims are born winners rather than the average Joe who loses more often than he wins.

It would not have warranted a line in print if Agarkar had yet again failed to reach double figures in a Test. You would have hardly noticed if any other top golfer had come into the tent with a third round 81 at Muirfield.

But these are not men who are expected to struggle and suffer. Woods and Tendulkar are demi-Gods who are routinely expected to bat and stroke their way to the ranks of immortals, stretching the limits of the possible each time they enter a golf course or a cricket field.

"Bradman, I believe, would have been proud to play the modern game as well as Tendulkar does, just as Tendulkar, like all of us, stands in awe of Bradman," wrote John Woodcock, a former cricket correspondent of The Times (London), and one of few sportswriters who have had the privilege of watching both Bradman and Tendulkar play Test cricket.

This was on the eve of the Lord's Test in which Tendulkar made 16 and 12 even as India crashed to defeat by 170 runs.

But, then, not even Tendulkar's failures at the home of the game - coming a few months after his depressing run of low scores in the second half of the tour of West Indies - could have been quite as big a surprise as Woods's capitulation in the third round of the British Open.

Ladbrokes and William Hill, the two biggest bookmakers in England, had so many people backing Woods ahead of the championship that they brought down the odds to ridiculously prohibitive levels 24 hours before the tee-off. Never perhaps has any golfer been quoted at such odds in a major championship.

It was almost as if the British Open this year was an open and shut case....open the vault door, pull out the claret jug, give it to Woods, and shut it again!

If nothing else, Tendulkar's experience at Lord's and Woods' shocking display in the third round of the British Open, are yet another reminder that in sport there is no such thing as a sure thing.

As much as the layman, even a hardened professional observer of the sporting scene, one who might have learnt to expect the unexpected through long years of experience of the caprices of sport, needs such a reminder.

For, quite often, riding on the wings of a performing genius such as a Tendulkar or a Woods, we tend to get carried away and confuse the uncertain for the certain, the ephemeral for the immortal, the temporary for the permanent.

And we can't be blamed, really. For, in an area of human activity celebrated for its glorious uncertainties, what we see most of the time are things that are at once predictable and pristine - a Tendulkar century, a Woods surge at a major.

And with every new Tendulkar century, with every new Woods victory at a major, the myth-building process gains further momentum. These not only contribute to fortify the myth of these great champions's invincibility but also carry us to a sporting fantasy land where failure is a stranger.

Then again, when we sit down and think about it deeply, it will strike us that there is no such phenomenon as an invicible champion. Sport has no room for such an immortal creature. It never did, it never will.

But if we carried this rare moment's realisation to the surface and applied the knowledge to everyday events, the fantasy, the glorious fantasy - unbeatable Tiger Woods, invincible Sachin Tendulkar - will be lost, perhaps lost forever. We wouldn't want that, would we?

No matter that, what we want is nowhere as relevant as what is. For, reality is not going to move an inch, so to say, to accommodate our fantasises.

And the harsh reality of sport is this: Every champion that has ever drawn breath, every champion as yet unborn, can be sure of just one thing - some day, he will lose, as did Woods at Muirfield, as did Tendulkar at Lord's.

For all that, a Tiger Woods or a Sachin Tendulkar enjoys legendary status simply because these men lose less often than others. From Don Bradman down to Tendulkar, from Joe Louis down to Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, from Pele down to Ronaldo, every sportsman who's ever lived, every champion who has achieved legendary status, has indeed lost now and again.

But, the gifted ones like Woods and Tendulkar, driven by a rare combination of virtues - natural talent, discipline, resourcefulness, fortitude - very rarely accept failure. These are such extraordinary champions that they only have to look failure in the eye for it to turn into glorious success.

And, now, what of that 81 at Muirfield that destroyed a great Grand Slam dream - at least for the year? What of that excruciatingly painful hour and half in the middle at Lord's that saw Tendulkar plod his way to 16 runs?

Frankly, Woods might have less cause for concern than does Tendulkar. It was the appalling weather that did the great man in at Muirfield and he is young enough to want to keep the dream alive and hope to realise it some day soon.

On the other hand, Tendulkar, celebrated as the greatest batsman on the planet from the moment the late Don Bradman called his wife Jessie, pointed to the television screen, and asked if she saw any similarity between the batting styles of her husband and that of the little Indian who was batting, may have arrived at a critical juncture in his career.

While he is still young enough to go on playing for another five to eight years and raise the bar so high that champion batsmen of future generations may collapse in hopelessness merely contemplating the heights, Tendulkar must regain the freedom with which he played not long ago. Somehow, for the first time in his career since he relinquished the captaincy, the little master from Mumbai seems too preoccupied, too uneasy with the burden of expectations that the genius in him appears to be under temporary house arrest, so to say.

"It is almost as if he goes in there each time wanting to do something extra special and extraordinary. He simply has to go out and play his natural game, thinking it is just another game of cricket," said a former Ranji Trophy player and astute observer of the game.

The point is, I believe all the hype about what Bradman said of Tendulkar has done the Indian champion more harm than good. While it is never a wise thing to compare great players across generations, it is ridiculous to compare any cricketer with Don Bradman, any footballer with Pele or any boxer with Muhammad Ali, not the least when the players's careers are still active. This is precisely why Tendulkar now has to shake off the Bradman aura that has settled on him - not through choice but by force - and get on with his business. He has nothing to lose but his chains - the chains that seek to tie him to Bradman.

P. S: By the time you read this, may be the great master has already done just this, at Trent Bridge, in the second innings. At the time of writing, up until the first innings of the second Test, Tendulkar's scores in nine successive Test innings read: 0, 0, 8, 0, 41, 86, 16, 12 and 34 for an average of 21.88.