A letter to the Indian Cricket Media ..

Dear Media,

Greetings,

My name is Mihir. I am an Indian Cricket fan and I am not an Ugrawaadi.

I thought I’d write to you as one of those whose love for faith in our team and our captain is considered by some of you as providing unconditional, unquestioning support, as being one-eyed, as being a cheerleader. I’m just one of those at the party where you swing your bat at the Indian Cricket piñata. Not that I’m formally writing on behalf of my tribe, only as one of them.

Facts, Truth, Damned Truth

First, let’s get the basic stuff out of the way. India lost 1-4. They competed, but were outplayed by a better team. There is no hiding from that. The scoreboard, in all its indisputable and undeniable starkness, does not lie.

However, life teaches us that even a series of irrefutable facts do not necessarily add up to a complete truth.  Take, for instance, the mini-battle of the series : James Anderson vs Virat Kohli. The undisputed champion of 2014 vs the pretender. Anderson pretty much owned Virat the last time we visited England in 2014.

In the intervening series in India in 2016 (India 4 England 0), Virat scored 655 runs @ 109.16. At that time, Anderson had said that Home pitches hide Virat’s technical weaknesses.  The series in English conditions, with the Dukes ball was going to be the real test.

The record will show that Kohli (who top scored the series with 593 runs) was not dismissed once in 270 deliveries from Anderson (who in turn was in peak form as well, being the top wicket taker with 24 wickets).

From Cricviz :

Of course, a batsman as good as Kohli retains the right to claim autonomy. He has made changes to his game which have a right to be seen as reason for the Indian captain’s success. Kohli has tried to combat the issues of 2014 by batting around 40cm further out of his crease than he did in 2014, desperate to counter the lateral movement of the Lancastrian. Regardless of the crowing of Indian fans, Kohli was clearly willing to change his entire technique to combat the threat of Anderson. As a batsman, I’m not sure you can give a greater compliment.

Combining softer hands and stronger wills, Kohli has managed to make it though the series without falling to the hand of the swing king. Anderson is the only front-line bowler not to claim Kohli’s wicket, the kind of fateful flourish which one might expect from a hack scriptwriter or a cliched performer. To fall from dominance to complete ineffectiveness is a fall too extreme to be believable, but the tough truth of the numbers bears it out.

Coming on the back of Virat’s dismal 2014, and the fact that Anderson was, per his captain, bowling at his best in mostly conducive conditions, this was a victory by knockout.

But was it? Did luck play a part? Did the relentless pressure that Anderson exerted manifest itself in the rest of the innings? Does this prove that Anderson is not really up there? Does his #1 ranking tell a flattering truth? Or was it simply a competition where one rival was just not able to close the deal? Pertinently, does the one sided result make you think that if there was another battle in the same conditions tomorrow, it would have a similar result?

“When we see one (a domination), we will not have to be told what is what. We will know.”

Will we? Really? Always? What do we know?

Incisive questioning versus bombast, fabrication and braggadocio

That 27 second clip of a 15 odd minute press conference has really been circulated by you guys, hasn’t it? So I’ll leave it out here. It has been analysed threadbare. I think it has fuelled the kind of general trend in public debate which is so much the norm. (Maybe the trend owes its existence in part to the desire to slot, perhaps? But I digress.)

Best team in 15 years? It is a hard question for a captain whose team has been beaten after a long tour.

Maybe what he should have said is something like – “I don’t think I should get into those things. Perhaps it would be best if you answered that question. We haven’t changed our mindset in that we try and focus only on our cricket. I don’t want to get into these kind of comparisons. Our job is to play matches, do our best, work hard, perform and try and win every match we play. There will be enough analysis of our performance. Our motive, as a team, is singular – that we put in a 120% effort, that we practice hard, keep our mindset positive on every day of the tour, keep our preparation at the level where we can win every day. If we do that, that will give us the greatest happiness. Tags and headlines are not for us. Our job is to play cricket.

Well, as it turns out he did say that.  Fact. But in the trend of partial facts, he said that after the 5-1 win over South Africa. And the question was, “Was that the greatest overseas win?”

He also said, “Honestly, I can’t sit here and feel good about the tags and take praise, because honestly, it doesn’t matter to me. Honestly, it doesn’t. It didn’t matter when we were 2-0 down, and it doesn’t matter when we are 5-1 up. All that matters is the respect in the change room. What matters is what the management thinks about me, what I think of the players and what the players think of me. That is all that matters to me. These things do not matter. I know that the headlines change day in, day out….. As I said, it is not my job to say anything about what I do. Yes, if I make a mistake I will come here and accept it. I have never been one to make excuses and I will remain like that, but I am not one to come here and praise myself. I can never do that, because as I said, this is a job for me. I am not doing anyone a favour. I am representing my country, it is an honor for me and I am just stepping out to do my job.

So, it turns out, he wasn’t quite indulging in braggadocio. Perhaps it was not bombast and it certainly was not fabrication aimed at diverting attention.

Maybe we can consider that perhaps the question was not quite incisive?

Selective perception

Ok. So if you will admit that the question was aimed at grabbing a quote, that it was basically a jibe in the garb of a rhetorical question, I will admit that the response was testy. The coach had said that the results that this team had got in the last three years overseas were better than previous teams. Maybe some of that is factual. But as you will doubtless tell me, it is not the complete truth. In sport, thankfully, it rarely is.

As an aside, watch this fine interview. This was Ravi Shastri taking questions that were not aimed at grabbing headlines. This was before the South Africa tour.  (Quick gist – This team has the potential. At long last we have a bowling line-up that will give us a chance. But for now, it is just potential. The next 12-18 months – the tours of South Africa, England and Australia will tell us how good they are. They have the desire and now they have an opportunity. It is exciting to believe)

Maybe looking at the big picture is what the doctor ordered.

An Opportunity Lost

Yes, none of this takes away from the fact that we lost. We could have, should have won, but we lost. It must hurt. Here is a considered perspective of the loss (and of that dodgy comparison). It taught me a lot about the kind of questions and questioning which could be incisive.

Yes, one can be hurt and optimistic at the same time

What must have hurt

Here is my perspective on what must hurt. Rewind to 2012. England visited India.

Everything about it is here.

We won the first Test in Ahmedabad. Comprehensively. By 9 wickets. In that first Tet though, Alastair Cook, then their captain, got 176 in the second innings following on. It was to have a remarkable bearing on the series, despite the huge loss.  Its exemplary nature, invigorated the team, made them believe that they could bat in these conditions. In the next Test at a Wankhede dustbowl, India went in with 3 spinners and just the one quick, won the toss and should have been good for a win. Cook got another century but was joined by Pietersen who got 186. England won the match by ten wickets.

The third Test at the Eden Gardens had India winning the toss for the third time, batted first for 105 overs, and still lost. By 7 wickets. Alastair Cook got 190.

The fourth Test was drawn but Cook’s 562 runs had contributed more than just the numbers. That first innings in Ahmedabad, you could say, had infused the confidence in the side’s batting unit that the ghosts could be fought.

England won the series 2-1. In our conditions, on pitches made for us.

Virat got that 149 in the first Test loss at Edgbaston. A more ready, perhaps better cooked team, would have got into that slipstream like England had. Lords happened next, and that seemed like it was that. It must hurt.

There were some other differences too. Before the series, England did a three day training camp at the Global Cricket Academy in Dubai. Then they did 3 more three day warm up matches before the Tests started. All red ball cricket, no white ball. India’s warm up by contrast though, was a few weeks in England, sure, but all white ball cricket.

That India will do a trip to the Academy before the Australia series is now a fact. That they are also angling for more warm up games ahead of the Australia series is also true. These they have spoken of. As lessons.

What I did not hear, and I am pretty sure you didn’t either, were any excuses. Nothing about conditions, not a word about the tosses. Not a word about the fact that a big factor for  our optimism (Jasprit Bumrah and Bhuvneshwar Kumar) were either partly or entirely not available. Nothing about the first choice wicket keeper being unavailable because of injury. That these factors would have led to a rework of the team balance was never proffered. Not once did we see dissent from the Indian team; no fingers were pointed at the weather conditions at Lords and the role it played (actually listen to the post Lords press conference here and see if it could have been any better).

What we did hear were lessons and admissions: That England played better; that there were multiple times in the series where the pressure was on them but that mistakes were made by India that led to England capitalising; that the team understood that it was a failing and would need improvement; that individual players had been spoken to; that the effort had been to try and understand what made them wary or weaker in those moments when the pressure was let go; that it was important to recognize that those concerns not be an assigning of blame or responsibility, but to learn about what the team and the captain needed to do to make sure it didn’t happen again; that starts to the series were important and you needed to be more confident going in and setting the tempo rather than chasing it. That without that learning and those questions, there would be no improvement.

If you listen to the rest of the post series press conference (minus those 27 seconds), you will hear the lessons.

This was Virat Kohli saying we need to understand and learn from our mistakes, and move on.

As grace and modesty go, I will take that. This isn’t about pretending to epoch-making perfection. This is about recognising that there is progress, and there are failings. And trying to get further.

Onward

Comparisons are odious. You have taught us that.

For my part, I keep my faith on a somewhat grey-er canvas. I don’t hold it against those wonderful teams that we lost overseas to Zimbabwe in 2001, or that my memories of 2007 are somewhat tainted by the World Cup. Yes, we have never really dominated and steamrolled everything in our path.

My faith is built over time. It is based on Gavaskar, who taught us that we could stand up to overseas opposition in overseas conditions. On Tendulkar’s generation which built on that confidence to understand that we could take them on. On Dhoni’s teams that could often (but not always) be good enough to be the best of their time and when we weren’t, it did not lead to rampant burnt effigies and stone pelting (though some of you guys tried to stoke that with match ka mujrim type of stories). Yes, I think we owe him that.

And now, on whether Virat’s efforts could channel his “perpetual state of smolder” into a team that is similarly ambitious and driven to overcome failures and improve enough to excel.

None of this will make any one of these teams better than the ones before. They are just proof of evolution. I get that.

Sincerely,

Just another fan.

 

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My Role Model …

Great photographs tell stories and capture the enormity not just of moments, but of the sentiment around them.

This is my favorite photograph of all.

It is of Rhea holding my hand for the first time. Just born, barely awake, her entire hand smaller than that part of my finger (Distal Phalanx, says Google). Tiny, but overwhelmingly engulfing. This was infinity and eternity all at once. I will never forget it.

Rhea

She arrived in the world earlier than most kids do. And somewhere in those early days, needed to fight just that bit harder than most kids do. She did.

Now, next month, she’ll be 13. Thirteen! If you haven’t been there, or even if you have, the prospect of a teenage daughter is, let’s face it, daunting. This is when all the scary stuff about vanity and rebellion is supposed to kick in, when the conditions implicit in unconditional love become that much more stark, when you’re acutely aware of the importance of every step you take as a parent and thereby unduly nervous about it. This is when you balance independence with control. This is when you hold hands but also when you let a bit go.

My daughter is now no longer at an age where knowledge is what is presented to her and absorbed effortlessly. Now, her curiosity shapes what she learns. She has the means at her disposal just like everyone now does (did you know that there is a Wikihow page on How to be a Good Daughter? Yes, there are 14 easy steps apparently). It is a bottomless, horizon-less world out there.

This is how she’s shaping up : Her room is the color of her favorite team – the LA Lakers (no, not Team India), on the wall there is a Justin Bieber poster (no, not Eric Clapton), and for mood, One Direction sing the Story of My Life over and Over Again. It is beautifully infuriating.

On the odd day, we sit down with her and talk of the value of friendship and choices. How far you go, baby, depends on who goes with you. Choose wisely. Beware the alluring sounds of alarm bells, for that is how they sound at that age. Be careful of the examples you follow and even more cognizant of the ones you set. Read. Write. Always read and write. Express yourself. Follow the news. Compete. Be kind.  It is our own little Wikihow.

And then, on a day to day basis, we keep a watchful eye. But some of the biggest examples of character come when you hardly expect them. About a year or so ago, Rhea told us of this initiative in schools here to volunteer in various ways for Cancer cure and research. She told us of her desire to shave her head , donate her hair, show solidarity, raise money, contribute to finding a cure and help those who waited for one. It was a decision with amazing clarity.

She had read about it, spoken with friends, understood what it meant and chosen to do it. Over the past year, her resolve has been unstinting, her excitement only increasing. It is probably what she has looked forward to the most. This wasn’t a parent’s idea of virtue carefully planted or spoon-fed. It was in every way her own initiative born out of her own sense of value.

So tomorrow, she will do what she set out to do. And I will be there to hold her hand

My daughter is older than that girl who first held my hand and I am proud that as she enters her teenage years, my daughter’s biggest strength is implicit in this choice that she has made. That for her, the real cancer is apathy and the only cure is empathy.

To walk in my father’s shoes, to make a journey home…

Rohit Brijnath, in The Straits Times this morning.

The grandest treasures of my childish universe lay in my father’s cupboard. It was unlocked and yet forbidden, full of manly secrets not to be shared with a boy. So, of course, when he went to work, I turned burglar. In a small tray, lay a huddle of riches. A half-eaten packet of peppermints. Two quickly swallowed. A one-rupee coin. Purloined. A hankie with “R”. Pocketed. A hotel comb from his travels. Tried. Cuff-links? Now what were these?

I ran my fingers over his shirts, I felt the weight of his faded, corduroy jacket. Touching my father’s world. Discovering him through the hint of cigarette smoke that infused his things. I opened a scarf and wore it across my face like a bandit. I envied his socks – why, I do not know, for my father remains among the planet’s most unfashionably dressed men. Except on Christmas Day when waistcoat, cravat and jacket appear. For an atheist he seems to make an effort on a holy day. But don’t tell him that.

Across from my father’s cupboard in his bedroom, as I moved like a soundless boyish thief across the carpet, was his walk-in closet. In the front rested an old spool tape recorder of more promise than performance, which was taken religiously to a repairman, an angular chap who clucked and squinted and probed with a screwdriver. It wasn’t a careless era where you simply discarded a hiccuping machine and bought another. Anyway, how could these men let it go: the technician because repair was his craft; my father because this machine had once delivered to him an unforgettable music.

In the closet, hanging above the recorder were my mother’s saris, a neat row of cascading colour, but it was below that lay the real prize.

Shoes.

My father is a middle-class man, who arrived from no money and built his life with sweat and intelligence. A man not covetous, not a cheapskate, just cautious. He will proudly claim he has had four shirts stitched for the price of a single, branded ready-made one. We will not discuss the fit and cut. When he visits me in Singapore, and inspects shoes in the shops, he is more calculator than connoisseur. He will convert dollars into rupees ($1 is Rs48) and then rapidly have a series of minor coronaries. He thinks those Use-By dates on sauces are a collective conspiracy by manufacturers to seduce us into throwing away perfectly fine products. I wouldn’t use his tomato sauce if I were you.

And so, for this prudent man, his shoes were few when I was a boy. One pair of sandals. An office pair or two. And two other pairs. The first was old, brown and suede; the second was black, leather with laces. Even boys have Cinderella complexes: I wanted to try them on. Of course, they were too big, in ways I didn’t yet understand.

I asked my father if I could wear them, but he, a man big yet gentle, did not want me to. Not yet. Those shoes were too precious to him, those shoes – the suede and the black leather – were his own father’s. When he looked at them, did he see his father, long gone, standing in them?

We tidy up after the dead but never fully, as if that would erase them completely. Maybe possessions are part of memory. My father cannot explain why he kept my grandfather’s shoes then and he cannot tell me why, at 79, he still has them.

But if I could not wear those shoes, my father offered me something else in return: I could learn how to polish them with him.

No one polishes shoes like men of that age. Love bestowed on leather. It is an affection for old things, it is respect for property, it is meditation with brush. It is craft: a newspaper is laid out, a hand inserted into the shoe, the shoe held at an angle. One brush to apply black Cherry Blossom paste, worked in like a dutiful painter, another brush to shine.

Hurry is banished here. Then, from an old box, a rag, whose smears are reminders of previous labours, appears. It is held taut in two hands and pulled across the shoe in a sawing motion. It is the search for sparkle. When the shoe glimmers, it is in fact being revived. Is more than leather being given life?

The years went by, I grew up into a gangly teenager and one day I must have stutteringly asked again to wear those shoes to a party and my father, lying on his bed, stroking his beard like Gandalf in glasses, agreed.

On came my grandfather’s shoes. Later, for fun, I’d even borrow my father’s shoes.

Something happens when you walk in them, as if you’re abruptly encased in adulthood, as if you’re part of some rite of polished passage. Only later you understand that these shoes cannot quite have the same meaning for you.

These shoes belonged to men born in tougher times, when the framework of a nation was being arranged, who built a life for you from nothing, who cared for their shoes because they couldn’t afford too many. The shoes of these men may have fitted you perfectly, but you, who can buy shoes now without a second thought, can never really fill them.

My father, till two years ago, polished his own shoes. I am not my father for my shoes are grimy and unpolished, but on rare days when I spread open a newspaper and prise open a polish tin and struggle to find that old shine, I smile. There are things fathers leave you which never fade.

This week I fly to India where he waits. To live far from your parents, as many do in this city, has one blessing: the journey home. It is like riding a song; it is as if no plane can fly fast enough; it is the anticipation of the moment when you swing open a bent, clanking metal gate and feel a familiar gravel beneath your shoes; it is the knowledge, not grim but real, that as your parents age you are running out of visits and that one day this journey will end.

I will find my father probably in front of his television. He loves this box of pictures and for 55 years he’s loved my mother: the first whom he yells unprintable stuff at when politicians appear, the second in whose direction he slyly mutters when she complains the volume is too high.

He has five grandchildren, one great-granddaughter, is irritatingly deaf but mostly has his health. He has almost everything and swears he needs nothing. No Christmas present, he bellows. But perhaps from a man I took so much from, and still do, I can at least take him shopping in his cold, noisy town.

You know what for: a pair of shoes, of course

On the loss of a Sporting Life

Rohit Brijnath in The Straits Times this morning on how no sporting loss more profound than loss of a life..

Grizzled writers weep over their laptops. Strangers in Australia place cricket bats outside their homes, leaning there like a salute, as homage to a fallen boy of theirs. The Indian hockey team, from a different geography, in a different sport, lay out their sticks in an act of athletic brotherhood. A tweet of grief comes my way, written by an Australian: “Driving home. On a cricket oval to my left an old man, with a fierce moustache, crying. His son dragging a bat through the grass.”

Phil Hughes, 25, the cricketer, who most of the sporting world had never met, has gone and it has staggered us. I never knew him, yet I mourn.

Loss is not a competition. There is no measuring tool to rate tragedy. For every family, every loss, of any person, of any age, is exquisitely aching. But the death of the young athlete seems different.

Partly because he is famous. We know him as a face on a screen and a voice in interviews. He tells us of his boyish ambition, he scrambles to realise his promise, we ride on his pimpled dreams. Connected by TV and Twitter, we grow up alongside them and with few others do we forge such intimate relationships. No journey is quite like this.

For many of us, irrespective of age, the young athlete represents the defiance of our own failures. Talent and circumstance tripped our greatness, but not with him. Not yet. In a way, he plays for us. Man’s youthful ambassador to some distant, untouchable horizon.

And so he lives among us, hope in sneakers. He is the poster on our walls, the scribble in our autograph book. Of course, we overdo the veneration, ego can blossom, riches can turn a man, but in the beginning, and Hughes was only 25, this much remains true – the young athlete chasing a ball, greatness swirling within his reach, is among mankind’s most innocent images. It speaks of possibility, of the pursuit of perfection, of youth unfettered. Now it has been stolen, like a page abruptly ripped from a book. A story incomplete.

Our heroes should be scientists, teachers, firefighters, social workers. But athletes liberate us in a different way, they let us travel in our own imaginations, they supersede even the Hollywood star. The actor’s flight over buildings is fake, a clever creation of computer graphics; the athlete, soaring past gravity and rivals and history to dunk, is real. He gets no second takes at match point. For that moment, our life stops. As he leaps, we will him further.

But one part of sport is never supposed to be real. It is never real war. It is never real life and death. As Tom Fordyce, who covered this same subject eloquently on the BBC website, noted, these are just exaggerated metaphors. From these sporting conflicts, in stadiums and arenas, he wrote, “everyone walks away to fight another day”. Or are supposed to. These heroes are not supposed to die. They are bruised, then they carry on. Their cars are mangled, then they limp out. They fall, then they stand back up.

But Hughes didn’t rise. Get up, you wanted to shout at the video. Please, get up.

Twenty years ago, Julian Linden, the fine Reuters writer, covered the tragic 1994 San Marino Grand Prix. In a recollection of the day, which he wrote about this April, he described journeying back to Bologna to his hotel at the end of a long day. When he got there, the receptionist was weeping.

“I asked her,” he wrote, “what was wrong but she didn’t speak English and I didn’t speak Italian so she pointed to the first edition newspaper that had arrived. The front page simply read: ‘Senna è morto’.”

How can it be, we asked then, as we do today. Invincible, we write in the newspapers about athletes. Immortal, we say. Indestructible, we chant. Of course, we know, this is not true, but the young athlete represents man at his physical zenith. He glistens with health, he can barely walk without wanting to run, he is built of ropes of muscle. In any meeting of inhabitants of this galaxy, he would be our specimen from Earth. To then see Hughes fall is to confirm what we never want to do with athletes. Dear god, he is human. No, they all are.

The athlete, as he grows, is our endless conversation. We criticise, we lament their silliness, we question their ambition. We can be cruel and they too slothful. We can over-praise and they can cheat. Later the athlete might write a book and wander with slower step among us at airports in his retirement. We never know a man fully till he has lived his life fully. And it is why the amputated story of Hughes haunts us.

Eventually, cricket will resume and writers will wipe their laptops clean. Man has to play on. New heroes will arrive, armed with new dreams. Most never make it to greatness, but it is not about gaining glory, it is about just being given a chance.

To chase potential. To make a career. To be better. To lose form, to find it again. To manage kids and captaincy. To be grey and slower. To live the athletic life.

To just play.

It’s all we wanted for Phillip Hughes. For all of them.

On the Phil Hughes moments

The eeriness of that moment somehow was that it seemed bigger than itself as soon as it happened. A moment which seemed momentous.

As a trader, sitting in office, staring at multiple screens of flashing numbers, scrolling headlines and contorting graphs, you somehow train yourself to be alert for something which could be defining – but mostly it doesn’t happen. Not for days, and even if, only for a few defining submoments before life slips back into exciting ennui.

That day, there was no headline, no sudden change in prices and no graph danced. It was a seemingly innocuous tweet by a cricket writer who was covering some state game. Phil Hughes had been hit by a short ball he said. “Real bad” he said. Or maybe it was “Doesn’t look good”.

Three days later, I’d discuss it with a colleague. We agreed that there was something distressingly, abnormally ominous about every moment since then.

These kind of things aren’t exactly rare.  Sportsmen get injured, accidents happen, injuries pause promising lives and cripple careers. Why then did I message a few people and mail a few others within moments of that happening? Why did this one cloud seem more than just tremulous? Why, at the root of my spreading the word, was this feeling of reaching out for selfish “say it isn’t so” help?

Two days later, in Phil Hughes’ death, that moment assumed an ironical life of its own. Those two days had been spent monitoring markets, stretching time with friends and family, building and meeting expectations, thinking of Thanksgiving, finding meaning in routine – but mostly in waiting for good news. Or wishing for no bad news. Those two days had been spent in hopeful prayer.

For all the two faced monster that Social Media is,  it provided in those two days  (and certainly, though differently, in the moments after), a conduit of expectations. I’d keep searching for news,  grimace at updates, cringe at obits disguised as career recap pieces and marvel at hope.

For the sportsfan, Phil Hughes’ death is bigger than just that. For a few shaping moments, it questions the value of Sports as solace.

Now, as one reads about a promise shattered, watches a captain broken, a sports’ community orphaned of brightness, one tries the most difficult thing of all – to distance oneself from that deluge of grimness.
For a few moments….

On The Inherent Courage of the Athelete

The day after the Phil Hughes tragedy, Rohit Brijnath writes in The Straits Times.

SINGAPORE’S Lim Heem Wei, barefoot, hurtles down the runway of the gymnastic vault. This is a few years ago and she is practising a routine called the Yurchenko. At the end of her sprint, she must first do a hurdle – a sort of hop – to gather speed and power required to execute her move. It is followed by a round-off (a cousin of the cartwheel) wherein she twists and lands backwards on the springboard from where she will arch and explode into her vault.

But Heem Wei can’t do it, she brakes like an over-speeding car at the edge of the springboard, crashes into the vault, hurts her arm. Like a striker pulling out of a tackle, she’s possibly lost her nerve for a second. It’s human. What is inhuman almost is that Heem Wei goes on. Digests fear. Finds composure. Starts again.

“You can’t lose focus (in gymnastics) because it has very serious consequences,” she says. To slip, to err slightly, is damaging. Canada’s Taylor Lindsay-Noel broke her neck attempting a dismount from the uneven bars. World champion Elena Mukhina lived as a quadriplegic because of a training accident. Says Heem Wei: “When I was younger and the difficulty of my moves was increasing, I had sleepless nights. Now I am more aware of the dangers. But if you want to remain in the sport you have to cope.”

Beneath the elegance of gymnastics, lingers risk. Behind the effortless skill of cricket, rests danger. Sport is inherently deceitful. What we see is never the entire truth. Even in the most gentle arenas, athletes fight and conquer the invisible tendrils of fear.

It requires guts. Heem Wei has it. So did a young cricketer, only 25, whose death yesterday morning has shaken sport. Phil Hughes, the Australian batsman, fatally struck by a ball on Tuesday, is our latest reminder of the perils confronting athletes. And of how they meet them every day with a courage that is quietly concealed.

Some athletes appear obviously brave. The boxer, his life pledged to trafficking in pain, often uses conceit to hide fear. As Chuck Wepner once said: “If I survived the Marines, I can survive Ali.” Racing, in every form, is a pushing of the human envelope till it tears. In October, three jockeys died in a single week and Julies Bianchi crashed his F1 car and now fights to live. It is tragic and yet it is their chosen life.

In cricket, courage is more unspoken. But it is there. For even as bodies don’t collide, the ball has forever been aimed at bodies. A leather ball, five-and-a-half ounces, flying across 22 yards sometimes at 150kmh; a ball that has extracted teeth, fractured skulls, broken jaws. Only those who haven’t confronted such skill at speed will laugh at tailenders who flinch.

Courage rests in sport where we don’t always acknowledge it. Everywhere you might look, fear is being confronted, worn, swallowed. Divers, those talented topplers into water from three-storeys high, are cloaked in conviction. They must attempt more complex dives, of extreme difficulty, whose failure leads to pain and often lesions on the retina.

Whether an aerial skier or surfer, the pursuit of dazzle is dangerous. High art comes at a cost. A Discovery Science programme on the ice skaters’ triple axel routine reveals that they rise roughly 23 inches – almost as high as a dunking NBA player – rotate thrice but land only on the tiny “edge of one blade”. Hard ice awaits the fallen in practice. Under glittering sequins lies solid backbone.

No one traps the athlete into performing. He is daring by choice, carrying grit in his kit bag. In an ancient time, hockey goalkeepers wore no mask, batsmen wore no helmets and boxers, absent of mouthguards, fought bare-knuckle till a man fell.

Now, wise to sports’ perils, boxing gloves are bigger and cricketers have guards for chest, arm, abdomen. It is prudent and professional but never faultless. As an athlete once noted: “To have total safety I think is absolutely impossible to call, in any part of life.” His name is Michael Schumacher.

Schumacher, like all great athletes, was a cold calculator of percentages. Skill was his protection. He managed risk with practice and chance with preparation. So did Hughes. He, helmet on, was probably not even thinking of getting hurt that day, only of pulling the ball for four which he had done so often. But there is no protection against the freakish.

In July, a ball squeezed past Craig Kieswetter’s helmet grille and bloodily rearranged his nose and eye socket. Here, the ball hit Hughes on the side of the neck, compressing an artery, in an area almost impossible to protect. To watch video of his collapse is to sink within.

Tragedy visits sport more often than we think. This year, Australian rugby league player Alex McKinnon, 22, was left in a wheelchair. Reports speak of three high school footballers in the US who recently died. So did Singapore boxer Shahril Salim yesterday, only 23. Each time we are stunned, for sport, more than anything else, celebrates the vitality of life, not a threatening of it.

Now a young cricketer has gone and only the familiar words of A.E. Housman’s poem, To An Athlete Dying Young, resonate:

The time you won your town the race

We chaired you through the market-place;

Man and boy stood cheering by,

And home we brought you shoulder-high.

Today, the road all runners come,

Shoulder-high we bring you home,

And set you at your threshold down,

Townsman of a stiller town.

Always sport will have its dangers. Athletes accept them, for it is who they are. Today another bouncer will be bowled somewhere in cricket and cyclists will dash down slick slopes on thin tyres. We cannot stop them or, alas, sometimes save them. But we can at least respect the bravery and acknowledge the gallantry of those like Hughes who strive in arenas for our pleasure.

On the Ice Bucket Challenge and Lou Gehrig…

Last week, Rohit Brijnath responded to my Ice Bucket Challenge. This, was his piece on Sunday in The Straits Times on ALS, the challenge and Lou Gehrig.

“There is,” said the film-maker Alfred Hitchcock, whose generous figure suggested a man unfamiliar with anything athletic, “no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” And so the idea of being doused with cold water is far grimmer than its reality and the only way I can steel myself for the Ice Bucket Challenge is to utter the perceptive words of the Canadian comic, Russell Peters:

Be A Man.

A friend nominated me. He posted a video where he spoke of a motorcyle accident he had as a foolhardy young man which left him with facial paralysis and hearing issues. The accident was a cure for his silliness, but there is none for ALS, the disease which has sparked the Ice Bucket Challenge.

I am not overly keen on challenges. Partly because I am instinctively a coward. Mostly because challenges can be gimmicky and self-righteous all at once, rocketing across social media like a dazzling yet rapidly burning out firework. Once celebrities finish posting self-congratulatory videos of their drenched selves, we move swiftly on. To another Kardashian episode.

But this is idle cynicism. In truth, if people just figure out what ALS stands for – amyotrophic lateral sclerosis – it’s a start. It might make them read on disease or contemplate charity or travel to YouTube for new videos.

The Challenge provokes journeys. And mine has taken me to 1939, to a baseball stadium and to a moment which always reminds me why I love sport: A speech by a dying man named Lou Gehrig.

All sports fulfil a need and fill a cultural space. As a boy I always had cricket, so I never needed baseball. But the writer’s inquisitiveness is his constant ally and in my assorted reading years ago, I somehow stumbled upon Gehrig, the legendary New York Yankee.

I discovered his evocative nickname, the Iron Horse; I found out he had ALS and that he made it famous, which is why it’s also called Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

And I read about the speech.

By 37, you see, Gehrig had gone; but at 36, ailing, he came to Yankee Stadium to speak to fans through an echoing microphone.

In a world whose ideas are often condensed to 140 characters, the speech has become old-fashioned. No one remembers them any more. In sport, we only hear them in movies, where Denzel Washington barks the scriptwriter’s words in Remember The Titans. But that is dazzling fiction; Gehrig was heartbreaking reality.

In front of over 62,000 people, who had only recently discovered he had ALS, he started by saying:

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth. I have been in ballparks for 17 years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“Look at these grand men. Which of you wouldn’t consider it the highlight of his career just to associate with them for even one day? Sure, I’m lucky.”

Gehrig spoke, gratefully, of his team manager and of his parents. He said of his rivals, “When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift, that’s something.” He said of the Yankees, “When everybody down to the groundskeepers… remember you with trophies, that’s something.”

No, actually, Gehrig was something.

He was doing what athletes, especially now, rarely do. Not moaning, but counting his blessings in public. Not whining, but reminding us of how he felt privileged. Not telling us what he wanted from life, but what he had got and was grateful for. The old-fashioned hero is not a myth: There were indeed men like this.

I’m not always enamoured of modern sport and its obsession with money and triviality (“Wawrinka tells fan to shut up” becomes a headline these days). It’s why I like to return to Gehrig’s speech now and then. Just to reassure myself that sport is not merely an athletic enterprise but also a noble exercise. Just to remember that courage is not the player facing the 100mph fastball, but a young man confronting a finish line that had abruptly come to find him.

Last month, on the 75th anniversary of Gehrig’s address, a video was made which involved players from every Major League Baseball team reading out a line from the speech. It was appropriate, for in a time of biters and match-fixers, sport needs to preserve and honour the better parts of itself.

And so, as we douse ourselves, maybe the real Challenge is not the cold of the ice or the emptying of a wallet, but something far more profound. To reflect on a young man we never knew. Who was dying that day at 36, yet in fact was telling us a little about how to live.

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My Own ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and its plea