Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Individual and team

It was heart-warming to see the little-known Zimbabwean E Chigumbara take the man of the match award for his fine all-round showing against Sri Lanka in the ICC cricket championship, despite the fact that his team lost. For me, it was an affirmation of something I’ve long believed in but which is sadly undermined time and again (especially in the heat of nationalistic fervour): that a good individual performance must be shown respect and given importance, regardless of the result of a match.

I’ve never understood this talk about a fine innings or a good spell of bowling “counting for nothing if it doesn’t result in a win for your team”. Fine, cricket (and football, and whatever else…but cricket is what I know about) is a team game, we all know that; it’s parroted faithfully by everyone each time there’s a match on; it’s coming out of all our ears -- and to be honest, each time I hear the phrase I feel like bludgeoning the speaker to death with one of Clive Lloyd’s 3.5-pound bats.

For teams are, after all, made up of human beings – a pageant of individuals with varied strengths and flaws, all of whom bring degrees of richness to the sport. Saying that an individual performance means nothing if it doesn’t help the team win is tantamount to dismissing outright the entire careers of such players as the West Indian George Headley and the New Zealander Bert Sutcliffe – greats of the game who rarely knew what it felt like to be part of a winning team, because their achievements were rarely supplemented by their teammates’. There are many others -- others who may not have been part of weak teams throughout their careers but who at various times found themselves playing a great symphony for a team where everyone else was croaking out of tune.

The intensity of my feelings on this subject will forever be linked to the gross injustice repeatedly done to Sachin Tendulkar – an INDIVIDUAL in whose absence this TEAM sport would have been immeasurably poorer in the past 15 years. An individual who, at the peak of his career, playing for an inconsistent and underperforming side, would often be the sole performer in an 11-member team – and would then be the sole culprit when that team lost despite his efforts.

Many observers of the game have noted an interesting phenomenon involving Tendulkar and the Indian spectator. It went something like this: When Tendulkar played well, there was a general sense of well-being, even if India lost the match. (This was especially true back in those days when the Indian team seemed to revolve completely around him.) But few have dared take this observation to what I feel is its logical conclusion: that maybe, if people do feel that way, there’s nothing especially wrong with it. Maybe it’s just a natural human response manifesting itself: the recognition that admiring individual achievement is every bit as important as proving a point to Pakistan, or Australia, or whoever, as a team.

But time and time again, this natural human response is beaten out of us by those who would have us conform, fall in with the straight and narrow path; it's drummed into us by finger-wagging commentators and scribes that team victory is ALL that matters, and that it’s wrong, and unpatriotic to believe otherwise. To me, there’s something almost Orwellian in the insidiousness of this brainwashing. (This is all I have time for right now, but I’m going to continue this line of thought in another blog on patriotism -- that most overrated of virtues.)

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