Vantage point

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Your Own Biggest Supporter

Every sportsperson has fans, supporters, folks who believe in them. Folks who would fight for them in a coffee-break argument. Folks who will root for them even when the odds are completely stacked against them. Folks who will believe they can fight back even when the situation looks almost impossible.

There are some sportsmen who support themselves, believe in themselves, and back themselves, more than even their most ardent supporters. It is these sportspersons who often script history way beyond what a simple scoreline can narrate.

Andre Agassi is one such player. Today as I left home, the score read 6-3, 6-3 in flavour of Blake. I had watched the second set and Agassi seemed hopelessly outclassed. All indicators pointed towards a 3-set rout. At that point, not even Agassi's biggest supporters would have predicted a turn-around. Not even Steffi, not even Jaden would have realistically thought that Agassi could pull it off. But that did not matter. The only person whose belief mattered was Agassi himself. And he possessed it in full measure. It was this self-belief which floored James Blake as he crashed out of the US Open after a heart-wrenching five-set defeat.

Sania Mirza, who is being criticised by every Tom, Dick and Haribhai for her unforced errors, weak backhand and patchy serve, also possesses this very self-belief. That is the reason she has defied all expectations this year and reached where no one expected her to reach.

This self-belief is not necessarily a conscious though process. It does not mean that Agassi consciously kept saying to himself "I can still win this". It just becomes a part of their sporting DNA, and their game. Their game shows no symptoms of being bogged down or influenced by the situation.

The Australian team also typifies this self-belief. Even when they lose as we saw in this Ashes series, or in Chennai in 2001, they do so believeing they can win till the last ball.

Another person who possesses a similar self-belief is this blog's favourite sportsperson - Virender Sehwag. Some folks call it his foolhardiness. They say he is too impetuous, too rash, too impulsive. Yet they don't realise that all this comes out of a tremendous self-belief.

Last month, everyone criticised Sehwag for getting out to Vaas in the finals of the Indian Oil Cup in Sri Lanka. Everyone said, giving Sehwag an unsolicited lesson in cricketing wisdom, you had already scored 24 runs off Lokuhettige in the previous over. What was the need to attack Vaas? While Sehwag's dismissal deserves criticism, this is the wrong thing to say. the right criticism, spoken in Sehwag's language would have been - the ball was pitched at an uncomfortable length, and you had no width at all. Why did you play that particular shot?

What is the difference in the two criticisms? The second one is entirely independent of who was bowling. So what if it was Vaas? Sehwag does not look at the name of the bowler. He looks at the ball and then he plays it. Tell him "Give respect to a Vaas delivery because Vaas deserves respect" and Sehwag will snort at the suggestion. Tell him to respect the delivery because of its merits and he will do it.

This self-belief, which does not recognise extraneous factors like your opponent's reputation, the low probability of you succeeding, etc, is what makes several sportsmen perform exceeding all expectations. Remember the last over of the fourth day of the 2004 Chennai test against Australia. Last over of the day. Glenn McGrath running in to bowl. India needed 200-odd to win with a whole day remaining.

Conventional wisdom would have advised Sehwag - this is the situation, and this is the reputation of Mcgrath. Play out the over. What happened instead was Sehwag played each ball according to its merits, and ended up hitting Mcgrath for three boundaries in the last over.

As the two teams walked off the field, it was Mcgrath who looked distraught, and it was India who had their tails up.

Be it Agassi, Sehwag, Mirza, Australia, Ivanisevic, Dravid, Schumacher.... what makes all these people so special is this very self belief, which makes them their own biggest supporter.