March 12, 2001

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The unIndian Indian

Rohit Brijnath

There is an immeasurable pleasure, a strange sense of proportion, in this being Monday, second day of a Test match, and I am typing the name Gopichand. As opposed to Ganguly.

There is something wonderful, sweetly ironic, in sitting in an empty Press Box at Eden Gardens at 8 am, surrounded by cold air and rusted old fans breaking the quiet with their squeaky whirring, the stands in my vision speckled by people, all thoughts possibly tuned to cricket, but mine to badminton.

Pulella GopichandI'm not a praying man, usually only when I'm in trouble. Yesterday though I said a few words for Gopi in the morning. Yesterday, I also packed my computer at Eden, hailed a taxi and rumbled home in anticipation. There was something insane in motion in Birmingham as a young Indian did something we are not accustomed to: men with big games and larger reputations stood opposite him, and he did not flinch, he ... imagine that... brushed them aside. There was something uplifting and, yes, moving, as a young Indian chased his own private perfection.

You had to be gripped, to be excited, for we are not a nation known for defying the odds. Who was this fellow to do so, and could we please journey with him.

It's funny, I thought. The last time I was so nervous was in the autumn of 1996, when another Indian made his tilt at history. Leander Paes's bronze medal match at Atlanta was so nerve-wracking to watch, that I spent half the match outside the court, smoking furiously and listening to the score on loudspeakers.

Now, I am sitting in his home, with his father Dr.Vece Paes, an old friend, watching Gopi. And I cannot sit, I stand, I mutter, swear oaths, applaud, leap.

That day in Atlanta, Leander, who had been all consistent concentration, free from error, began awfully, and I wrote, "He started the biggest, the biggest match of his life playing the worst tennis of the week." So too Gopi.

He was 3-7, then 6-11, and suddenly commentators were talking about nerves and pressure and big occasions, as if the moment had conquered the player, the powerful smell of history that he was on the cusp of making was clogging the brain. We are Indian, we are used to this.

My mind wandered. To Premjit Lall, who let off Rod Laver at Wimbledon, and the Aussie, gently alluding to the Indians stiffness when he needed to be loose, by saying that perhaps the cement salesman's product had got lodged in his elbow at the right time. I thought of Vijay Amritraj letting Borg and Connors off the hook; V.Anand slipping against Anatoly Karpov when he was touching glory; the Indian hockey team a minute away from the semi-finals at Sydney 2000 then crumbling; the Indian cricket team having Australia at 99 for 5 in Bombay.

There is enough evidence of advantages not taken, form being extinguished when it matters, nerves snapping like fraying violin strings, to fill a 3-volume encyclopaedia.

But there is, though it is lost beside these dark, hefty volumes, a slimmer book, just a mere clutch of pages, on which is inscribed the names of men and women whose courage did not fail them, who recognised the moment and embraced it. We have some of those too.

Which book to be in, is the athlete's choice. He can whimper and whine, about not sleeping that night, poor coaching, inadequate facilities, lack of sponsors, it is a familiar routine. Or he can acknowledge that in his hands lie amazing possibilities, that sporting men make their own destiny not see their lives as decided by some uncontrollable karma; that he alone is responsible, for it is his name and no others that are inscribed on the winner's trophy or if not, as some forgotten footnote of history.

Gopichand chose well. And by doing so he showed us he had the heart to stay the distance.

Getting to the final is admirable. To beat the reigning Olympic champion, and then the world No.1, is worth astonishment and applause. But to leave it at that would mean a journey incomplete, and years later they would have spoken of it as two good days, and strange upsets. To win the tournament was different, for it suggested a man of grand ambitions, a finisher of business at hand, it told us of his large appetite, of his courage in not just been satisfied by arriving at the gates of badminton's heaven but walking through it.

So much we understood of Gopi yesterday; so much of it impressive. They say a test of a champion is to win when not at your best, to soldier on through poor form resolute in the belief that it will return, to fall into error yet find the shots when things are slipping away. All that Gopi did.

Much of what Gopi was, to be honest, was not Indian, in his ambition, his nerve, his belief, and eventually his ability to win.

But one thing was: elegance.

Sport is about strength and fitness and speed, sport is somehow more brutish, it has forsaken art for the steel of the weight room. It made it hard for Indians, for we are a nation of wrist, of flair, not moved by athletic endeavour. But Prakash Padukone never gave up. He believed that even now, in the leaping, lunging, darting, smashing, speedy world of badminton, the man with touch could flourish. He said it was a style that would work, but that the player would need to be fit and strong and run all day, that there is no margin in finesse badminton for a player to get tired.

Gopi was all that. Strong yet creative, athletic yet deft, fast yet delicate. It is more important to win, but it is nice when it is done in style.

Weeks ago, remember, Gopi said he was dismayed he was better known elsewhere than in his own country.

Now he's challenged us not to embrace him.

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A feather in the cap

Rohit Brijnath

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