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Not Just a Game: Why Sport Pulls on Heartstrings

Like cinema, sport allows us to live out our fantasies and sub-conscious drives, makes imagined communities seem tangible and offers a chance of catharsis.
Not Just a Game: Why Sport Pulls on Heartstrings

Image Courtesy: istock

Sport is the drama of life, played out on a field. That is precisely why sport generates such hysteria and outpouring of emotions. We realize who we are as a collective from how we relate to sporting events on TV or in a stadium. Since sport offers a sense of tangibility to an “imagined community”, it is always closely tied to nationalism.

Consider the unfortunate collapse last Sunday of Danish footballer Christian Eriksen while he was on the field, playing against Finland. Disaster can strike anybody, but what followed was a picture-perfect display of emotions: his teammates broke down when they saw their compatriot carried away on a stretcher. Stunned spectators watched the team form a circle in an attempt to shield Eriksen from the public eye as the medics did their job. The players of Finland, too, were in a state of shock. It was difficult for the Danish players to return to play even after a couple of hours. Then, when he regained consciousness, Eriksen sent a message expressing worry and concern for his teammates.

Life as we live it cannot be divorced from social complexities that interrupt our flow of emotions. So, in life, we rarely achieve the emotional crescendo we fantasize about, but in sports, we can. Sport is a performance of our subconscious, of the aspirational emotions that get waylaid or repressed in everyday life. Cinema and art come a distant second to the kind of emotions that map onto a field-bound “reality”. It is like the emotions stirred by a painting, except we know that sport involves real people, and an actual contest and emotions.

Recollect any test match in play. Its life and ethical dilemmas unfold just the way they do in the narratives of great epics. Should a player make a false appeal if his or her team is going down? Or, consider mankading. Though legal by the rules, it is frowned upon. This is because it is seen as something that lowers the stature of cricket as a sport. In a “friendship series” match in 1992, which marked the return of the Proteas to international cricket after 23 long post-Apartheid years, Indian cricketer Kapil Dev—despite two warnings—mankaded South African batsmen Peter Kirsten. At the time, world cricket hotly debated whether his actions suited the occasion and his stature: Did Kapil leave a bitter taste in a series meant to welcome South Africa back to the international game? Yet, is it also not true that India was playing to win, not to mention that it was defending a paltry 147 runs?

We can wonder if we will ever have a consensus on this—just like the uncertainties of life that have no easy answers. However, what sport affords that life does not is a leisurely discussion about what could have been the right action. We get involved emotionally, but there are no concrete costs to pay based on what side we pick. Whether we think Kapil did the right thing or not matters only in the simulated, close-to-magic-realism world of sport. Even if a sport involves our emotions in real-time and we identify and live with those feelings, it has no actual costs beyond the field.

Contrast the above incident with the 1987 Cricket World Cup. In one match, the Pakistan team needed two runs off the last ball, and Courtney Walsh of the West Indies refused to mankade Saleem Jaffar, who was on the non-striker end for the rival team. So, Pakistan won the match and qualified for the semi-finals, but it is Walsh whom people still remember for one of the greatest acts of sportsmanship in the history of cricket. He was deservedly honoured by the International Cricket Council. Walsh later said, “I just couldn’t do it without a warning and as a youngster the spirit of the game meant a lot to me. And because of the gesture and the way it was appreciated, that’ll be a memory that will always be with me.”

Walsh reminds us that winning cannot be the only value worth pursuit. It cannot offer us the meaning we need to make sense of life. West Indies lost the match but it won the hearts, as exemplified by a local fan who gifted Walsh a hand-woven carpet.

Most people who follow cricket vividly remember the decision of Adam Gilchrist, former international player and captain of the Australian team, to always walk away if he had nicked the ball, even if the umpire declares he is not out. During a semi-final of the 2003 World Cup, Gilchrist nicked a ball into Kumar Sangakkara’s gloves but was declared not out. Gilchrist, to the utter dismay of his colleagues and the pleasantly shocked Sri Lankan team, started walking back to the pavilion. In an interview, he later revealed he acted the way he did because of an experience during a league match long ago, when he was still struggling to find his place in cricket.

He was declared not out in a match even though he had heavily edged a ball into the wicket keeper’s hands. He apologized to the bowler after the match, but the bowler, reportedly told Gilchrist, “Oh, don’t worry about it. It obviously means more to you at the moment than it does to me.” To Gilchrist, that was “like a dagger in the heart”. He obviously decided to pay back, nobody in particular but the spirit of the game and other players who need to perform to stay afloat, perhaps more than he did as a now-established cricketer.

In life outside of sport, our intangible acts of goodness—so we feel—always come back to us in other forms of good that we cannot directly experience or relate to those actions. However, in sport, we see it connect the dots and feel like we are living what we believed in all along but never got to experience it firsthand. A sporting experience runs against the idea of a quid pro quo but lets us do what we all value at some level, even though we cannot necessarily afford to act along those lines because of the exigencies of life.

Political psychologist Ashis Nandy once remarked that test cricket is the only pre-modern game left, as it is played for five days without a clear result in the end. It has us experience time differently and look out for skill instead of winners or losers. It tests our patience. Patience is another virtue we would all love to have, but modern life robs us of that privilege and compels us to play the catch-up game instead. Sport allows us to connect to our deeper recesses.

(The writer is Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. Views expressed are personal.)

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