March 20, 2001

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In faith lies hope

Rohit Brijnath

One night in Chennai. Anil Kumble is having a party to commemorate the release of a limited edition set of photographs of his 10-wickets-in-an-innings against Pakistan.

There is a buzz in the room. Then Tendulkar walks in. Silence. The buzz sharpens. He is here, he walks amongst us. Other players troop in, hands are shaken, autographs are taken, idle conversation is made, just so that Mr. Bhatnagar, or whoever, can tell his neighbour tomorrow, "Arre I told Sachin about his backlift yesterday."

VVS Laxman But I've come to see only one man. Not to talk to him but watch him. He is tall, in a T-shirt, hair loosely combed, and if once he was invisible now he appears to dominate the room. Suddenly he looks larger, his shoulders wider, his stride more purposeful, his manner more regal. He has gone from Mr. Nobody to Mr. Somebody and it has been an overnight journey.

His name is VVS Laxman and the musk that he is wearing, this magical powder that has elevated him to looking 9 ft tall, is called confidence.

Funny isn't it. Next morning, I meet the wonderfully articulate Arun Lal, and I ask him about confidence, and he says, "Isn't it strange that you can tell at a party, by the way a player walks and behaves, whether he has scored a 100 or a duck."

I laugh, for it has been exactly what I have been thinking about Laxman.

Five days ago or so Laxman may have been a hesitant man, unsure of his skill, his place in history, his value as a cricketer. One innings has altered that: now he must feel like Shahrukh Khan, able to leap tall buildings and hang upside down from a helicopter and sing a song. Or whatever.

Pulella Gopichand Ask him why and he will say confidence. Ask Gopichand, the All England champion, now what current flows through him when he walks onto court now, and he will say confidence. Ask any player what it is, that they gain from a great match, or what allows them to walk boldly into the next one, and they will say confidence.

I used to hate that word. Everywhere I went as a sportswriter the word came up, in conversations, press conferences, commentary, discussions; what happened, I wondered, to the longer, more elaborate answer. There is none, because it's hard to define confidence.

Perhaps it is many things. A celebration of success that elevates the mood; the moment when vulnerability is replaced by surety (though such a thing does not exist for long in sport); the sudden arrival of knowledge that a player belongs, he is good enough to play in exalted company; the belief that I have beaten Agassi in a tournament, so it can be done, possibly again, and that being so, perhaps I can beat Sampras too; the awareness that all is working well, that the mind is switched on, the body alive, the strokes correct; the simple lesson that I am good enough.

All things abruptly become a trifle easier. The boundary line does not look so far, the opponent at the other end of the net does not look invincible, the heat does not matter, the mood is high.

But as Laxman will discover, if he does not already know, that confidence is fragile, it cannot be bottled and stored, or locked in a safe, it comes and goes, such is the nature of sport. Four innings of 5, 9, 13, and 19 and he will wonder, begin to question, break down his technique, stand at the crease less sure than two weeks ago. Men like Tendulkar are different, they are tougher, somehow they hold on to confidence longer, for part of genius is to find a way, to believe more strongly than the next man, but even they are vulnerable.

Sampras is an apt example: he has not won a tournament since Wimbledon last year. He has won 13 Grand Slam titles and that will help, for he has journeyed through troubled times before but managed them, he understands the idea of struggle and victory, and what it takes. But that is also the past, this is the present, and his cloak of immortality turns more ragged with every defeat, and as his body begins to fail him slowly, his confidence gently dissipates. Around him the men in the locker room find that their confidence grows.

Dhanraj Pillai In India, this confidence business is not easy. As a nation we carry much emotional baggage, so many athletes arrive from disadvantaged homes and are thus burdened with insecurity, we are handicapped by inadequate systems and other sporting hurdles, everywhere there is something to dent our confidence.

My favourite story, often told, and a tragic one, is of Dhanraj Pillai, saying, that when he stood next to the German team during the pre-match national anthem, he would look at them, tall, muscular, gleaming, in silk adidas shorts and shining white shirts, and he would already feel a goal down.

As a sporting nation we also have not had much to lift us, there are too many stories of failure, too many reasons for apprehension. I always wonder, say, if Usha was confident, that she could win, it could be done, she was no less from the other girls in that 400m hurdles race in Los Angeles 1984, would she have won a medal. I think, yes.

But perhaps we, me, need to look again at India. There is much to cheer, to be confident about, to tell us it can be done.

Gurcharan Singh reached the semi-finals at the Olympics In the last five years, we have won two Olympic medals (Paes and Malleswari), produced world class billiards players, had a world chess champion and numerous junior champions, a No.1 doubles pair in tennis, the best batsman in the world, an All England badminton champion, won the Asian Games hockey gold after 32 years, qualified for the Thomas Cup, had an Indian go to the English soccer league for the first time (whatever division it might be), had a boxer in the Olympic semi-finals, another with an Asian Games gold. And I'm sure I've forgotten a few names.

As a roll of honour it's not that bad. We should not just admire it; we should feed off it.

Rohit Brijnath

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