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April 13, 1999


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What's Leander doing in this lot?

Harsha Bhogle

 Leander Paes
I have often felt, and this is not imagination at work, that Leander Paes should be the 16th member of India's World Cup team.

Sadly, I haven't seen as much of him as I would have liked to, but every time he has played Davis Cup tennis, he has reminded me of my Indianness. He goes on the circuit and plays tennis around the world and he is a good player. He comes back home and plays for India and he is a different person. He wins matches he has no business winning, but even when he loses, we stand up to him. And nobody ever leaves his corner. To me, a fan and a lover of sport, Leander stands for pride. To me, an Indian, Leander stands for commitment.

But my cricket team, with individuals more gifted than Leander, with an audience more infatuated than Leander's, so often leaves me cold. To me, Leander is like my country -- hard-working, middle-class, striving for a better life. My cricket team is a bit like royalty -- privileged and slightly pampered.

I know this is not true, but they sometimes give me the feeling that in their world of affluence, they lose touch with the aspirations of their followers. They give me the impression that they cannot see that the hearts of millions beat in consonance with their own. And those millions think that the eleven hearts that matter don't bleed enough.

And it is time for every one of the fifteen now picked to ask themselves that question. Do we bleed enough?

The responsibility they have is enormous and unfair. Fifteen young men should never have to control the mood of a nation. But what can we do when everyone else fails us -- when the men who govern do not control destinies but scamper around themselves in search of opportunity; who do not stand up against the wind and send it back but allow themselves to get scattered like pieces of straw? Men who govern should have the power to move mountains -- they should not burrow into them in search of shelter.

But they do. And that is why, my young friends, the nation turns to you in its search for Indianness. And it is important, in spite of the relatively few summers you have seen, for you to understand that; to live with it every morning and every night. Very very few Indians have the privilege of bringing a smile and a tear to the rest of the nation. Very few. You are among them, and we want you to understand that.

We want the smile and we do not mind the occasional tear. We understand the fact that victory and defeat are part of sport and we are an understanding people. But we cannot understand indifference, and it hurts us to see that. We want to see commitment and we want to see passion. As people grow older, their fire gets spent; the passion lies buried under layers of cynicism. But youth is meant to be free and unfettered, and that is why we wonder where your passion has gone. It is not as if India doesn't have it. Leander does.

You know, better than anyone else, that passion and pride add spice to life. They are not the main dish because they can never overcome talent and ability. But without them, the best biryani goes bland. All over the world, people acknowledge your ability to play cricket and that is something to feel honoured about. They think Tendulkar is the best batsman in the world; that Azharuddin can play magical cricket; that Ganguly and Dravid are two of the best young players in the world; that Mongia is wonderful behind the stumps; that Srinath and Kumble are genuinely world class players. But they are surprised, amazed, that all these rich ingredients so often produce a bland dish.

And yet, the simplest ingredients can produce something memorable. Remember the chutney your grandmother made? The one that you had with the dosa? Made on the old grinding stone with old hands? Or the upma your mother made just before you played the inter-school final? That tasted special because it had a bit of love, a bit of pride and a lot of emotion? Small things, but they make a very big difference.

That is why we lose matches. Because we are bland, because we do not (some say we cannot) add the spice, we do not add the emotion. Look at the recent series against Pakistan. Was there a difference between the two teams? Man to man? Could you in all honesty say that you were beaten by a more gifted set of individuals? Or did you lose to a more passionate side? Didn't you?

A lot of people ask me if the Indian team needs a psychiatrist? If they need a professional motivator? That fills me with sadness, because there can be no greater motivator than playing for India. To wear the colours and to put on the cap, even if you do that every day of the year, is to experience the fact that you have something that very few people have and that many others aspire to have. Is that not reason enough to scramble for runs and to save them? Is not the glory of standing on a pedestal reason enough to fill one with pride? Isn't it?

Now ask yourself, why are people saying you need a motivator? Is there something they see that you don't? Is there something they want to see but don't? Is there something they see in others that they don't see in you? I know it hurts, but did they see that in Pakistan?

Every profession brings its share of fatigue. It brings days when you want to be somewhere else. Most people who have jobs know what that means. `Why do I have to knot this tie when I feel like a T-shirt? Why do I have to make a boring presentation when I can watch cricket? Why do I have to smile at my boss when I hate him?' And we all make mistakes, have embarassing episodes that return to haunt us and at some stage, we all want to run away from responsibility. And after a while, a very large number of us work for the monthly pay-check.

But the best and the most successful people don't work for that pay-check. They work for the sheer joy of doing what they love most. The cheque is a perk; an incidental, but lovely, after-taste. This is a small and privileged community and you belong to it. This community doesn't want to be anywhere else. It is allowed mistakes, for the mind that controls them is human, but it is not allowed boredom. It is not allowed merely another day at work.

That is part of the basket of privileges of being an India cricketer and nobody can take that for granted. If being an India cricketer bestows on you fame and a very decent fortune, it requires you to be able to live up to it. That is what India should demand from you and yet, we are merely asking. We are down on one knee and we are requesting.

We want centuries but we can live without them. We want lots of wickets but we can live without them. We want us to win but we can even live without that. But we cannot live without pride and we cannot live without the passion that must accompany all those that represent us. Is that too much to ask?

So go forth, my friends and go forth with vigour. Carry your kit with you and carry the energy to use it successfully. But remember to pack the little things that make the difference; like they do to your mother's upma.

Leander would never fail to pack some pride, and to and wear it on his chest.

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Harsha Bhogle

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