From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.28 :: NO.35 :: Aug. 27 - Sep. 02, 2005
Adventurous all his life Evel Knievel stands besides a stone marker that he will use as his headstone on his grave.
PHIL MICKELSON looks like an amiable dentist, but has spent much of a career trying to play like Rocky. Once he even tells Tiger Woods he's hitting the ball further than him, which is a bit like blowing a kiss to Mike Tyson.
Phil Mickelson finds risk irresistible, it's sutured into his soul, he's a Las Vegas gambler with a golf club and a permanent sun tan. When Phil spied a green in the distance, even if surrounded by water, prudence was pushed aside; he got that look in his eye, and if his caddie said "No, Phil", a voice inside told him "Go, Phil". So what if the result was smack, splash, damn.
There's a macho athlete trapped within Phil Mickelson; only thing it's the grey-suited, conservative banker in him that he also requires to win majors. Funny thing is when he sacrifices length for accuracy, meshes skill with patience and risk with moderation, he wins the Masters. And then recently the PGA Championship. It makes him a different golfer. A better one.
Risk in sport is fun, it's breathtaking when you pull it off, idiocy if you don't. It's a line as thin as the edge of a flailing Sehwag bat. Risk is one of the greatest adventures in sport, it makes you stand up in your drawing room and wring your fingers and shout at your TV "Are you insane?" Yes, and thank God.
The critic in me likes men who play the percentages, the fan in me loves guys who throw calculators into a nearby pond. We write respectfully of athletes who play smart as we should, we adore guys surrounded by forwards who have the cheek to back-heel a no-look pass in front of their penalty area. Sometimes there is a genius in being willing to be called stupid.
Cricket has had its share of fine, upstanding openers, men of circumspection, married to prudence, as solid as the wood in their bat. But the fan in us, do we want to hang around all day in the sun with them, or follow that duke of hazard, Virender Sehwag? Some men stay longer in the record books, others in the memory.
Of course, if some guys never learn to be adventurous, then some never learn to be smart. Trying to be Evel Knievel all the time brings no guarantee of anything but a hefty hospital bill. Risk is a game within a sport and greatness is about getting the balance right. Winning demands conservatism but also adventure, a man must use his brain but not forget his heart, he must be scientist but also explorer. As an old African proverb has it, "Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors."
Risk is an everyday sporting business; it is about wise men allowing themselves to bend to instinct and emotion, and following hunches based on knowledge. A young Sachin Tendulkar, with more faith in his bowling arm than anyone did, grabbed the ball (or did Azhar's intuition tell him to trust the teenager?) in the last over of the 1993 Hero Cup semi-final against South Africa, and produced a succession of deliveries that incredibly won the day for India. It was a gamble that stopped a nation, then stirred it. Sometimes to win, you must dare. Theory works well in sport and the established way is a neat path to follow, but occasionally chance must be thrown into the mix. Cricket is alive with all manner of risk; occasionally the head must be overruled and the gut followed, and batting orders are abruptly altered and games suddenly turned on their heads. Last fortnight, a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Holly Colvin, turned up at the England practice session during the Women's Ashes to sweat as a net bowler, found herself selected in the team and took two wickets in her first Test in successive balls. Said England captain Clare Connor: "It was pure hunch".
Coaches are constantly forced to make judgement calls, many based on experience, some purely on instinct. Not all decisions can be interpreted as risk, but so many are dances with chance. Picking Pele at 17 for the World Cup in 1958 was a masterstroke, picking a disturbed Ronaldo in the 1988 World Cup final was sheer folly, Phil Jackson's hiring of Dennis Rodman at the Chicago Bulls could have disturbed the entire ethos at an ambitious team, yet turned out to be a brilliant move.
Virender Sehwag, the Duke of hazard, dances with chance.
Risk is about calculation, weighing the odds, deciding the time is right, like goalkeeper Peter Schmeicel suddenly appearing, as he often did, like some flying blonde angel in the opposing box for a corner, or Michael Schumacher willing to exchange paint to overtake. Sometimes he has spun off, sometimes he has squeezed through, but his record suggests he plays the high stakes well.
Risk is about tactics, like runners who usually stay back deciding to hit the front a lap early. Risk is about intuition, just knowing right now, like a lightning bolt in the brain, that this is the right thing to do, like Ali lying on the ropes against George Foreman in Zaire. The title of Edmund Hillary's autobiography said it all: Nothing venture, nothing gain.
Risk demands a kiss from luck, but also comes with a health warning: do not try if not sufficiently skilled. Mediocre players lying in a bunker, ball below their feet, tree in the way, crosswind blowing 50 kmph, should only think "advance down the fairway". Tiger can think "green here I come". The more accomplished the player, the more confident he is, the more likely he is to pull it off. Pete Sampras once aced Alex Corretja at match point in a US Open quarter-final. After vomiting. And so exhausted he could barely lift his arm. On a second serve.
Thoreau would have applauded, for as he wrote: "We must walk consciously only part way toward our goal, and then leap in the dark to our success."
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