‘Hard work is a talent’: Abhinav Bindra

TO me it is not just amazing — it is intimidating,” said Rahul Dravid, in a revealingly candid moment.

He was referring to Olympian athletes in general, and more particularly to Abhinav Bindra who, at age 26, became the first Indian to win an individual gold (10 m Air Rifle, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics), ending a gold drought that had lasted since 1980.

It was not the act of winning gold that had Dravid waxing superlative, but the scarcely credible circadian rhythms of an Olympian’s life. Here is how Abhinav explains it in his book:

The cricketer has Test matches through the year, the tennis player has four Grand Slam events in twelve months, the golfer has the same number of majors annually. Constantly, there is an opportunity for redemption, a chance to stake a claim for greatness. Not for me. My only chance comes every four years. My only chance is seventy shots in 125 minutes every four years (the first 60 shots have to be fired in 105 minutes, each of the final ten shots within 75 seconds.

We have to be a little insane to do this, a trifle obsessive, almost as single-minded as shaven monks who sit for years meditating under trees in search of distant nirvana… Let’s be clear: we are not you. We are not better than you, or other athletes, just caught in lives weirder than most.

‘Intimidating’ — a word well chosen by a sportsman, monkish in his own way, who could only marvel at the enormous discipline, the focus, the drive and desire that could impel a teenager to dedicate his life towards producing that one perfect shot at that one moment that only comes once in four years — knowing as he pulls the trigger on that day that even absolute perfection isn’t enough.

(No, seriously — a series of perfect tens merely puts you in the final — to win gold, you have to better perfection. In the 2004 Games in Athens, Abhinav set an Olympic record with a score of 597/600 across his first 60 shots — and ended up seventh!).

“It is awesome to think that he can invest four years of his life towards that one moment, towards producing that perfect shot when he needs it most – because that one moment is all he gets. Us cricketers, we can fail in a game or a series, and know that there is another game around the corner, another shot at redemption. But for Abhinav, that moment is it — nothing before that matters, nothing that comes after will matter. Investing an entire life for one hour, one shot — that is intimidating.”

Rahul was speaking at the launch, last evening in Bangalore, of A Shot At History, the autobiography Abhinav co-authored with arguably India’s best sportswriter, Rohit Brijnath.

BOOK launches can be incredibly boring affairs. Some random VIP, often bearing no connection to the theme of the book, “launches” a copy most members of the audience are already clutching in their hands; an author untrained in public performance reads a random passage that means nothing to the lone member of the audience who is actually listening to him/her; several members of the audience pose “questions” designed more to show off their own erudition than to showcase the author and his book; cue clumsy vote of thanks by the organizer and a general stampede for the bar.

This one, at the Mysore Hall of the ITC Gardenia, in Bangalore, was the exception proving the rule (obligatory idiot question notwithstanding). Two sportsmen, brilliant in their own right, discussed the mental mechanics of their respective arts with some gentle shepherding by Rohit — and what came through was a passion shared across sporting disciplines that could not be more dissimilar.

Abhinav and Rahul are the high priests of hard work, and it was the shooter who settled the work-versus-talent debate when he said:

“Practice is a talent. Perseverance is a talent. Hard work is a talent.”

Champions are made in those moments no one else sees — those moments when, insulated from the pressures of competition and the adulation of fans alike, they sweat the tiny details of their craft through relentless repetition, each iteration a baby step towards an ideal of perfection few others can even comprehend. Rahul and Abhinav were unanimous that it was those moments — and not the competition, the glory, the applause — they truly lived for.

“Practice,” said Rahul, “is all about the pursuit of excellence without the stress of competition — and it is those moments, when you are hitting a ball just because you can, that brings you back to the joy of sport and reminds you of why you took it up in the first place.”

Abhinav concurs. “It is when I am in my shooting range, just me, the rifle and the target, that I am truly myself. That is when I am shooting for the pure pleasure of producing the perfect shot, with nothing on the line, with no one watching you. Put 25 pence on the line, and everything changes.”

Abhinav calls it a “meditative experience,” and Rahul latches on to that descriptor. “That is where I see similarities with Abhinav,” he says. “That single minded pursuit of excellence that he talks about, it resonates with me. It is not about the gold medal, but about the quest for the perfect shot, the quest to be the best shooter he possibly can be — that for me is the essence of sport.”

The two spend some time discussing the nature of ‘The Zone’, that Holy Grail of all sportsmen everywhere, and they agree that they cannot put a finger on what it is. At best, says Rahul, what he can say is that there are times, days, when he feels so perfectly at ease with himself, so focused on the moment, that he just knows he will play well, that he will make runs.

“Is that the zone? I don’t know — I only know that it comes rarely, and it comes on its own, and there is no way I have yet found to switch it on and off at will.”

It is, says Abhinav, about “living in the moment” — a phrase so often used in sporting conversations as to have become cliche, but one that is clearly an article of faith for the Olympian. “You only have that one moment, that one brief window of time that comes along once every four years — and you try to put yourself entirely in that moment, oblivious to everything, to the past, the future, the competition lined up alongside, everything. That is why, when I win I feel exhausted, dazed, unable to even comprehend the fact of having won. But when I lose, I am not as tired — because when I lose is when I have not managed to invest everything of me into that one moment, that one perfect shot.”

Two things stood out in that response. The first, most obvious, was the unshakeable conviction; the second, more important, was ‘voice’.

When reading a particularly fine passage in a co-authored autobiography, the almost inevitable question in the mind is, how much of this is the voice of the subject, and how much the voice and skill of his amanuensis. I was at the time a little less than halfway through a book studded with passages of stunning eloquence, and already that question had occurred to me multiple times.

Now, after an evening of listening to the ace shooter speak, at ease extempore, I know: the skill, the craft, is Rohit’s, but the voice is indisputably Abhinav’s.

It is a certain, sure voice; the voice of a man confident in his chosen sphere and comfortable in the knowledge that he has chosen a life of hardship and pain that may — or may not — bring him fleeting glory once in four years (“I know that when I win, it is not going to last too long. So I have no choice but to be humble,” was Abhinav’s matter of fact response when asked about the perils and pleasures of fame).

And that voice comes laced with a top-note of delightfully wry humor (“Like Gordon’s gin,” Rohit said later when I commented on it). Sample these exchanges:

Rohit talks about how fame can affect the balance of even the most level-headed sportsman. “Oh, I am very lucky,” chips in Abhinav. “People read about me only once in four years.”

When asked the inevitable ‘If not shooting, what sport would you have chosen’, Abhinav’s dry response: ‘I would love to captain an IPL team.’ (Rahul, predictably, picks golf. It is, he says, a golf where your quest for excellence is private and personal; you practice on your own; you are focused on finding the perfect balance to play the perfect shot..’)

When a member of the audience talks of the wealth of technical detail in the book and asks Abhinav if he is not worried about revealing the secrets of his craft, just ahead of next year’s London Olympics where he will defend his gold: ‘The only secret I know is that there are no secrets in shooting. But yes, I hope my opponents might get confused.’

There are few purer pleasures than to be able to eavesdrop on two sportsmen of the highest calibre delve into their own minds, almost oblivious to the surrounding public as they seek validation for the monkish existence they have willingly assumed in the pursuit of excellence. That pleasure was ours last night — and it was just the appetizer to the book that was the reason for the evening (Review follows, in a day or two).

Cricket clips

# The admin interface on this blog shows you the latest comments right on top — and as it happens, the first comment I saw this morning was tagged to a Chris Broad post, from a certain John who apparently gets his jollies reading all the “crazies” who ramble on in the wake of controversies. I hate disappointing the public, so here’s more “ranting”:

The Australians always seem to get away. Whatever their transgressions on the field, invariably it is their opponents who end up paying a price. Somehow or the other, teams playing against the Aussies seem to invite the match referee’s wrath.

That is why I am not looking at the most recent incident in the Australia-West Indies series in isolation. In the Delhi Test against us, my last, the one that earned Gautam Gambhir a ban for having a go at Watson, the same umpire and the match referee were officiating.

At that time, the umpire Billy Bowden didn’t see it fit to report Simon Katich who had later obstructed Gautam and the match referee Chris Broad too didn’t bother to act on his own or follow it up with the onfield umpires even though it was very much evident on TV. And as on that occasion, the provocateurs got away in Perth too, with Haddin and Johnson receiving minor reprimands.

There doesn’t seem to be any punishment forthcoming for someone who provokes and that to me is against the principles of natural justice.

Dear John, the “crazy” who wrote that is former India captain Anil Kumble (who, most famously, also said this). Getting to be a fairly crowded asylum, innit? Here’s more “lunacy” — from Chris Gayle. And strangely, Ricky Ponting seems to think us crazies may actually be on to something.

#The weekend’s action at the Centurion and the WACA provided the perfect coda to a couple of months of fascinating cricket. Make that Test cricket. For all the tons of runs that were scored in the “thrash the bowlers” versions of the game, the final quarter of the year has been memorable for Test cricket action between Sri Lanka and India; between a New Zealand and a Pakistan intent on examining the limits of their own frailities; between an Australia that prematurely wrote the opposition off and a West Indies unit that re-discovered talent, spark, and the will to fight; and between a conservative South Africa hoping for a win and a tentative England hoping not to lose. Ian Chappell’s summation of the field comes apropos.

# Test cricket has been compelling, but the crowds haven’t felt compelled to come out in their numbers. That’s the sort of thing that triggers laments on the ‘Test cricket is dying’ lines — but perhaps there is another explanation? Here’s Gideon Haigh:

Frankly, for what English cricket fans pay to watch Test matches, the security indignities they undergo, the general dilapidation of grounds and the killjoy prohibitions of administrators, they should be allowed to parade in the nude if they so wish. But there’s the rub. Crowds, in general, are simply assumed, like sightscreens and drinks breaks, and reported with a similar degree of understanding by journalists high above them in air-conditioned comfort, who haven’t had to pay to get in.

Nobody speaks for them: they have no association, no lobbyists, no agents, no spin doctors, no ghost writers. Who has protested the scurvy treatment of fans in Kolkata and Johannesburg, deprived of international cricket by ludicrous administrative turf wars? Where were the thundering denunciations in England when the ECB cancelled a Twenty20 Cup quarter-final 10 minutes before the start because of a dispute about a player’s registration, thereby wasting the journeys of 4000 hapless fans? When wronged, fans have no recourse but the withdrawal of their interest – a self-penalisation.

The main reason for this indifference to the spectator’s lot, in administrative circles at least, is television. For 20 years and more, cricket has been obsessed with its telegenia – how to improve the experience for viewers, and so to maximise the value of the game as a media property. And as viewers have grown in financial importance, so live spectators have diminished.

Crowds flowing through the turnstiles — or not — have become irrelevant to the game’s financial health. But to therefore dismiss diminishing live audiences is, Haigh suggests, short-sighted.

In this unspoken shared belief among administrators that somehow it is immaterial if crowds no longer gather, and that only the vast, diffuse, invisible audience of viewers counts, lies the seeds of a grave crisis for cricket. In the most straightforward sense, crowds matter aesthetically, in a way ratings never can. They ratify by their presence an occasion’s importance; they dramatise by their passion a game’s excitement; they negate by their absence an event’s significance. Tendulkar’s 12,000th Test run should have been one of the great moments of Indian cricket; it will be remembered instead, as even ICC chief executive Haroon Lorgat noted, with dismay and disillusionment.

Those who trouble to attend cricket are also its core constituency; to set aside a day for a Test or a one-day international involves a huge investment of time and money, which deserves proportional return. Yet the members of this core are being treated as political parties sometimes treat their most loyal voters, and listed corporations their most steadfast small shareholders: marginalising and alienating them as they take them for granted – and no party or company has done this long and prospered. On the contrary, commercial organisations dependent on public patronage lavish extraordinary efforts on keeping their most loyal customers, encouraging them to return by loyalty cards, bonus programmes and other incentive systems. Why does cricket, so purportedly savvy in the ways of commerce, care so little? Australian golf might have looked a little ludicrous at the Masters last month with its serpentine queues, star-struck melees and striving for church-like quiet – but at least it was trying.

#Headline writers have been having a field day with the outing of Tiger Woods’ latest mistress, bringing the tally thus far to 18 — the puerile golf course analogy apparently proves too hard to resist. Meanwhile, in Cuttack and in their homes across the country, Indian cricketers must be laughing their heads off — the newest among them has notched up far more ‘conquests’ than Woods with his stature, his charismatic looks  and all his billions can only dream of.

I’ve never been able to figure this out. We expect a Gandhi, a Mother Teresa, to provide us a moral compass to chart our lives by, but we do not simultaneously expect them to entertain us. Why then is that not the case in reverse? Why is it not enough for our athletes, our sports stars, to entertain us? Why must they also set “moral examples” for the young?

The two most common answers I get are, oh, but they are in the public eye and, two, our children idolize them. As far as the first goes, so too are politicians — but we accept their affairs, their involvements in crimes ranging from mega corruption to murder with equanimity and even pick potential jailbirds to lead our states, our country. Apparently it is okay for those who would chart our futures to be morally flawed, but not our sportsmen. And as far as our children’s idolatry goes, what then are parents for if they cannot steer their children towards heroes more worthy of moral emulation?

My friend — and favorite sports writer — Rohit Brijnath nails it in this lovely piece in the weekend edition of Mint. An extended clip:

But I rarely go to stadiums expecting lessons in morality. These aren’t arenas of real bravery for this isn’t real life. These weren’t my guides, not my North Stars. My heroes are different, they are ordinary people taking on life, they are my parents, teachers, friends who grapple patiently with troubled kids, they are families who take care of the ill with a selfless love, they are preachers of tolerance.

I have expectations of the athlete, especially the great ones, for with fame arrives responsibility. Certainly he must obey the rules, stay away from gunfights in nightclubs, respect the law, conduct himself appropriately when representing his country. It is not a difficult list. Roger Federer meets it nicely. But not everyone.

But then it gets tricky. What moral standard do we hold the athlete to, a higher one than we have for ourselves? Marriage is beautiful and we are unimpressed by the adulterer, but do we hound them from our groups of friends and from our offices? Is Tiger Woods different, worth such public scorn, because he portrayed himself as a virtuous family man? It would appear so. And as much as the tawdriness of it all, the sheer number of infidelities, what seems to upset people is also the deception. He fooled us, this billionaire hero. He made us buy his shirts while he was taking his off.

What we tend to forget is that the great athlete presents to us an image. On that basis we claim to know him, but we really don’t. Andre Agassi’s revealing autobiography, Open, suggested our view of him was almost entirely inaccurate. Woods is similarly a mystery. We know him as outrageous golfer, bland interviewee, smiling salesman. Beyond that he is hidden. It suited him. His golf was perfect, his trousers creased, his shoes shined, and so he let us assume the rest of his life was as polished. The point is this: He should have known better than to do what he did, but so should we have to have swallowed his myth.

# There’s a one-day game due to be played this afternoon, but all that, and more, tomorrow. Have people to meet, and a packer coming home for a preliminary ‘recce’. Later, peoples…