Allan Donald comes in to bowl. The new ball released by his supple wrist, the fierce look in his eyes and strong follow-through — all reveal his strength of mind. The ball pitches on the seam, outside the off stump, just short of a good length and changes trajectory towards the batsman. The batsman, a little man, absorbed in every moving moment of the cricket ball since it snuggled into Donald’s palm, senses that the ball is rising almost up to his chest. His back foot moves further back, the front foot slides back with a minimal lift of the leg and the weight of the body is transferred effortlessly on to the back foot. Rising on his toes with the speed and grace of a ballet dancer, he brings the bat down. The ball hits the sweet spot and the bat’s swing ends within a split second of the ball leaving the bat — sheer economy. The ball races to the cover boundary. No one moves, the batsman’s eyes follow the ball, the body remains in statuesque motion The batsman’s name: Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar.
Is sport also an art? Scholars and aesthetes have debated this question for long. The moment man perceives something beautiful; he brings art into its universe. Who can deny that sport gives us those moments of beauty that we normally associate with an alaap by Amir Khan, a neraval rendered by M.S. Subbulakshmi or the sculptures in Khajuraho? Beauty can be drawn from any activity including sport; yet the undeniable beauty in sport cannot be taken to mean that sport is art.
Art and sport exist for different reasons. Art itself is not one single entity; each art form has its own reason to exist. But all art is man’s abstraction of life, which he can sense only through emotions. Art abstracts the experience of emotion into various forms through movement, colours, shapes and sound. Sport, on the other hand, is a battle. Winning is the primary focus of any sport, the end-all of its existence. The joy derived comes from all the shifts and turns within the sport, which lead to victory or loss and provide the viewer an exhilarating display of physical and mental skill. The viewer is as much part of the win or loss as the sportsman.
There is, I grant, one thing that is common between sport and art: applause. The spectator’s or listener’s spontaneous appreciation through applause comes close to providing both art and sport with an identical conclusion — often, climacteric. But the difference is one that any artist and art connoisseur will stress: art may rejoice in the applause it creates but it does not come into being for a triumphant performance.
I must now change my guard. As much as I maintain that sport and art, by their intent, occupy different theatres, I believe that great sportsmen and artists share a transformational quality. Irrespective of the different worlds they inhabit, they are at times in communion with the essence of their own being. This is not a result of skill, ability, concentration or determination, but stumbled upon in moments or periods of what may be termed ‘experience of life’. I have watched the phenomenal Sachin Tendulkar almost right through his career, especially in his Test innings. Like any cricketer, he has had his great days and bad days. Days on which everything worked and days on which he made things work. Sometimes he had to fight it out, accept the dominance of the bowler and wait for his moment. Between all this, he played some beautiful straight drives, pulls, back-foot jabs, paddle sweeps, and the sublime front-foot defence.
Beyond all this, there have been phases in his great innings when he seemed to dissolve into cricket itself. His eyes and body remained magnificently quiet. His shuffling routine continued, but in continuity with the batting. In this state, not just cricket or sport but life itself seemed to be one uninterrupted flow. He did not seem to think or even notice the side-screen. I am not sure if even the bowler quite registered with him. The man and his bat became one; the ball was not an object that needed to be negotiated, caressed or decimated; the bowler, not an enemy; and his wicket, no point of reference.
What actually happened was that everything merged. Sachin became one with that existence and, as a beholder, I saw life’s beauty in its most natural self, without any burden of names, identities, action or result. Every stroke was an extension of the previous one. The eyes saw the ball revealing its different shades of red to the bat, only to touch it and continue its own motion before coming to a halt. The bat felt the wind as much as it felt the ball and the ground. The body, hands, feet, ball, bat, breeze, light, colour and all the connected movements seemed like one creative outburst of life. These were moments when I could feel a pleasurable twist within me; one that at times, let me admit, left me with a tear rolling down my cheeks. When asked why I cried, all I could say is “This is it, isn’t it?” Whether Sachin realised this at the moment of my experience, I do not know, but that he has lived in those spaces is for me beyond doubt.
This is very similar to an artist engulfed in the world of art. The painter, painting and the painted become one; the musician and the music are borderless. Only art exists and, in this realm, the individual is the art that is being created and is as much in wonder of art as art itself. These are not planned actions; they just happen. But for them to happen, there needs to be a certain attitude. Whether it is cricket or art, the person must have ability, learning, skill, determination and endurance. Cricket is everything to Sachin but that is true of any person passionate about what he does. There has to be something more.
For musicians, there are times when the musical flow seems boundless, the voice is at its best, when they think that they control music and can command it to do whatever they want. Are these the ‘times’ when music can be said to not just take place but actually happen? I think not. These are days when artists might be successful and feted by people but, within, they know that the music has, at an essential level, stopped. Sometimes it does not matter how great the voice is or whether the artists are at their fluent best. By letting music sing through them, they come in contact with an essence that is beyond music itself. But for this the musician must remain in the deep acceptance that music exists and he only participates in its life.
It seems to me that something similar happens to sportsmen like Sachin Tendulkar. Once he lived in that space of a certain surrender to the sport, he was able to transcend himself and actually at times become the game — life. Sachin has a certain marvelling look in his eyes, almost like an innocent boy. A sense of wonderment about the sport, its mysteries and its magnificence, a child-like honesty towards himself and an inherent acceptance that he is only a carrier of the energy that embodies cricket. This is rare.
Some may wonder whether this ‘Sachin experience’ that I have tried to describe is about those moments when the footwork was perfect, balance exquisite, the head right above the ball, the angle of the back lift just right and the follow-through complete. These were the phases when it did not matter whether all these ‘perfections’ existed or not. These were moments beyond analysis. The head may not have been exactly above the ball, the follow-through may not have been perfect, yet the whole motion of movement seemed boundless, utterly limitless. As he took guard and played a back-foot defence or a little flick for two, everything was in unison. To me, at that instant, even the fact that it was Sachin batting was immaterial. This was an artist lost in his moment of life, living it to its fullest.
Originally written for The Hindu