Art of Science and Fitness | Why going beyond wins and losses matters in sports - Hindustan Times
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The Art of Science and Fitness | Why going beyond wins and losses matters in sports

Dec 06, 2023 08:00 AM IST

Losing or winning one match doesn’t make a team pathetic or great. It's rather about the long-term cultural change it makes in society

“Aussies two decades ahead of India”- That’s what the heading of an article read, in which I was quoted when India was prematurely ejected from the 2007 Men’s ODI Cricket World Cup. Someone shared this article with me a couple of days back and asked me whether this was still the case. As luck would have it, I had a meeting with the legendary Venkatesh Prasad on the same day this article came out and he wasn’t amused, to say the least.

India's Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma look dejected after losing the ICC Cricket World Cup final(REUTERS) PREMIUM
India's Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma look dejected after losing the ICC Cricket World Cup final(REUTERS)

Before answering this, it's important to give some context as to why I was interviewed for this. I had just come back from the Caribbean where I had gone to the 3rd World Congress on Science and Medicine in Cricket (WCSMC) in 2007. I was the only Indian presenting a keynote lecture titled ‘Dysfunctional backs in cricketers’.

At the conference, I also managed to get India the right to host the next conference in 2011 when the subcontinent was to host the World Cup. I looked forward to the conference because I wanted it to be not just about cricket but a lot more. But I quit cricket a year before that, after realising that my calling was to address overall fitness at the grassroots level and not to be bothered with egos and politics.

Contrary to what society makes us believe, losing or winning one match doesn’t make a team pathetic or great. Whether it be India losing to Australia in 2003 or 2023, that isn’t the point. This is despite that in both matches the Indian team shifted from playing to their strength to trying to play to the opponent’s strength.

I must accept that hindsight is 20-20, so all of us will come up with our own logic and pretend as if we know the game better than folks who have dedicated their lives to cricket. It’s easy to criticise, even more so when we sit in front of our televisions in our drawing rooms. This article is about the legacy international sporting events should strive to leave behind and make a bigger difference on a societal level.

So, was I right in 2007 to make that statement and does it hold true today? And if the gap has narrowed, what is it like today?

Professor Tim Noakes, a leading sports scientist, who is controversial for his stand on low carbohydrate-high-fat diet and Covid-19 vaccination, is someone whom I regard highly. Noakes said on X (formerly Twitter): “I think it's more than sports science. Aussies expect to win at cricket, not in an arrogant way but because they've been doing it since the Bradman era. In the final, they played the conditions better than India and were peaking at the right time. India on the other hand had done rather too well in the build-up. Cricket is a game of inches. Those inches went the Aussies' way in the final. Indian cricket is in pretty good shape at the moment. Look at what's happening in the T20 series. India is already leading 2-0!”

These are profound thoughts by Prof Noakes. But when I made that statement about Aussies and Indians, it wasn't limited to physical, or psychological fitness or the cricket system, but rather about the whole ecosystem of getting physically active at every level, and even the research that goes into the science and medicine of sports. It's not about losing or winning a match, but the long-term cultural change it makes in society.

Anish Kamboj, an Indian expat in Australia for the last two years, agreed with me. “I have watched a few district-level matches and other sports. I believe in constantly nurturing the whole ecosystem of a sport. Still, compared to India, I was taken aback after seeing the sportsmanship of every sportsperson in Australia. Yes, revenue is important, but even more important is the sport itself and the people who make it great. I believe the sporting mindset in India is still behind Australia but not too far to catch up. It has improved but the way the Indian captain skipped the post-match presentation interview reflects how he perceives the game," he said.

Murali Ramakrishnan, an avid cyclist added, “The fitness gap has definitely narrowed at the professional level, for sports including cricket, but for the general population, society and women, there is a long way to go”.

Lessons from my alma mater

Before I go on further, it’s important to mention that the best player or team doesn’t always win on every occasion. I remember 100-metre hurdles in 1987 at inter-school athletics at Wynberg-Allen School, my alma mater. Peter Carlyle, my schoolmate and my dorm in-charge at the Wynberg-Allen School, was in 12th when I was in 7th class. All of us in our batch believed back then that he was destined to win the Inter-School Athletics Meet. Everyone who had lined up at the starting line knew that. But that's not what happened. He had a false start and was disqualified.

At a whole different level, during the 2011 World Championships, Usain Bolt false started and was disqualified too. He was the best in the world but didn’t even get to run the race. India had a dream run till the final of the World Cup, including thrashing Australia earlier on, but it just wasn’t to be their trophy to win, definitely not this year.

When Peter was disqualified the whole school had gone quiet, but as the race started again, we soon started cheering for whoever was left behind. This is in stark contrast to the pin-drop silence at Narendra Modi Stadium in spite of 1.3 lakh plus spectators gathered there, as Australia charted its victory.

But we must acknowledge that it was an improvement over the semi-final when India played against Sri Lanka at the 1996 Cricket World Cup when some areas of the stands were set on fire and fruits and water bottles were thrown onto the field.

It’s an odd situation when school children know how to behave and adults don’t.

Usain Bolt was gracious in defeat and congratulated the winner, Yohan Blake in 2011, but Rohit Sharma didn’t stop for the post-match interview. To me, the behaviour of the audience and the captain is a lot more disturbing than losing the finals. What’s the point of playing sports and being active if we don’t respect ourselves and our opponents?

Even if it may be an unpopular opinion, winning and losing are part and parcel of playing sports. “To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” That’s what Marcus Aurelius, who wasn’t a born emperor but whom the position was thrust upon, had to say about success and loss. When I was in the Caribbean for the 2007 Cricket World Cup, the locals saw it as a festival for celebrating life and didn’t focus on winning. They were phenomenal hosts. Sadly, that feeling was missing here in India.

On that fateful day in 2007, Ventakesh Prasad was offended by that article and seemingly shot down the messenger but didn’t bother to understand the problem and take corrective actions. I don’t blame him because that is generally the problem in society. It takes a lot to stand up and be in the minority, as compared to sitting down and merging with the crowd. Being a great player doesn’t mean that they understand what a sport can do or how it can change the culture. We often find that the ‘sporting greats’ don’t speak up when we expect them to.

Whether it was in 2007 or now, there is a massive imbalance between skills in sports as compared to fitness, both physical and psychological. Players' skills in sports are far better than their fitness. In the long run, this imbalance leads to injury and poorer performance. That gap is narrowing, but just about, whether at the elite level or the grassroots. As much as I crib about Wynberg-Allen School, we have had the potential to produce better sportspeople despite being complacent after beating a handful of schools from Mussoorie and Dehradun, I admire how the intention is on creating well-rounded good citizens of the world.

Whether it be overall fitness, team spirit or the spirit of sports, they do instil those qualities for life. The need for that formula to be replicated all over the country is vital, as school is an important institution that shapes people. We can’t expect people to be a certain way if their foundation isn’t solid.

The first time I attended the 2003 Cricket World Cup in South Africa, I got a chance to attend the inaugural match, which was between the hosts and West Indies, inaugurated by the great Nelson Mandela.

This reminded me of a quote of his that I often reflect upon. “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell and got back up again.”

Keep miling and smiling.

Dr Rajat Chauhan (drrajatchauhan.com) is the author of The Pain Handbook: A non-surgical way to managing back, neck and knee pain; MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days

He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.

The views expressed are personal

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