Call me lazy but I am a sucker for effortless play. Give me VVS Laxman any day and I wouldn’t ask for Mathew Hayden. There might not be a consensus about the greatest Indian batsman from Gavaskar to Tendulkar to Kohli but everyone agrees that Laxman was special, very, very special. His appeal was global. All over the cricketing world, his wrists were worshiped, the timing of his strokes drew awe and his runs were never regretted.
Now for a minute, imagine Laxman with a footballer’s legs and a marathoner’s stamina. What if he could have run 20 laps after his two-day long 281 at Eden Gardens?
2021 showed that academies around the country are constructing such modern marvels. Indian sports is seeing an image change. Artistry is wedding industrial rigour and the alliance is showing great promise.
Kidambi Srikanth’s World Championship silver showed that you needed sturdy legs to climb the podium. Sublime racquet skills and sly court craft can get you applause but peak fitness brings you medals. Such has been the energy levels of top shuttlers that it is no longer enough to wrong-foot your opponent just once in the rally. You need to do that several times. That deceptive drop shot in the middle of a long rally of high tosses works only if your lungs have that extra capacity to leap to the net and kill the weak return. In modern badminton, to win a point, one needs to hit several winners.
In the final, Srikanth was made to realise that he needs to do more to be consistent on the international circuit. His rival in the final, Loh Kean Yew, was the perfect specimen of a complete badminton player. The quickness he showed, as Shivani Naik wrote in her World Championship final analysis, has not been seen on badminton courts since Lee Chong Wei.
The one attribute of this game that mostly went unnoticed but would help him replicate Lee Chong Wei’s feats was his ability to stay in a rally while in uncomfortable positions. Cue to the final stage of the tight second set against Srikanth. As a last throw of dice, the Indian star switched to turbo mode, sending down a series of smashes. Loh Kean Yew, with his legs stretched like Djokovic at full stretch, stood like a rock braving high tide. His unflinching gaze never snapped even when Srikanth kept leaping high and sending down shuttles. If not for his defense, the Singapore star’s march to the gold would have been hampered. It was clear, there was no place for unidimensional players. Srikanth’s stamina and Loh Kaen Yew’s defense have helped them to break stereotypes. Pure artists or plain power hitters wouldn’t last for too long the ruthless circuit.
Similar winds of change are howling on the hockey astro turf too. Just after the Olympics, I got a chance to catch India’s forward Simranjeet Singh on Zoom. He wasn’t the star of the team, nor the top-scorer but he caught the eye because of his jaw-dropping dribbling skills. For those following hockey since the 80s, this was a throwback to the day when you had your heart in the mouth when Mohammad Shahid drove between defenders like a car with failed breaks negotiating rush hour traffic.
At first glance, Simranjeet seemed like a classic Indian player, an audacious dribbler continuing the legacy of Dhyan Chand and Shahid. Earlier in the conversation, he had expressed his love for Messi and marveled at the skills and fitness of the football icon. He didn’t distance himself from my flattering comparison to past greats but very politely begged to differ. “People tell me I have a typical Indian game, I love to listen to such praise and I am proud of it but I am not a typical Indian hockey player. I have to adapt to the modern game,” he says. Was he a mix of Messi and Indian hockey player? “Yes,” he replied.
The Indian hockey teams, both men and women, had been confined at Bangalore during the lockdown and sweated it out there. The results were there to see. The bunch were easily India’s fittest Olympians ever.
With Jadeja out, India will be in the Test with a lone spinner and three pacers. Sriram Veera profiled the man who best symbolised this change. Mohammed Siraj’s springy run-up and his tireless energy to keep running-in all day best highlights this mindset shift.
As for Laxman, he has just been drafted as the director of the state-of-the-art National Cricket Academy at Bangalore. At Indian cricket’s premier finishing school, kids on cross trainers would be taught the nuance of flicking the ball from outside off to mid-wicket by the master. If wiry wrists move around the field on untiring legs, Indian sports can go places.
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National Sports Editor