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Suresh Menon
Monday , March 19, 2012 at 13 : 57

In sport, selfishness is intrinsic to greatness


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Great players are, by nature, selfish (the reverse is not necessarily true). They have to be. Richard Dawkins did not extend his theory of the selfish gene to include sportsmen and their approach to sport, but greats, from WG Grace ("They have come to see me bat, not you bowl ...") to Don Bradman and from di Stefano to Roger Federer and Tiger Woods would have achieved far less without the impetus of selfishness.

Sachin Tendulkar is the flavour of the week - just as he has been for months and years now. The 100th century may have been inevitable, and enough has been said and written about that. Two connected events have been even more interesting, however.

The first was the issue that briefly raised its head - did Tendulkar's lack of urgency cost India the Bangladesh match? He made 114 off 147 deliveries, and the Impact Index, which measures such things, has told us on its website that Tendulkar "played the slowest innings of his career (lowest Strike Rate Impact, which measures strike rates relative to the match standard)." It concluded that Suresh Raina and MS Dhoni camouflaged how selfishly Tendulkar actually played.

The question of selfishness often pops up in sport, especially in relation to its greatest performers. We'll come to that in a moment. In an unrelated development, Tendulkar, not known for spontaneous quotable quotes, said after the match that it would be selfish to retire while one is still at the top.

That was a delightful counter view to the considered Indian position as articulated by Vijay Merchant more than half a century ago. "When you retire, people should ask 'why?', and not 'why not'?" It has become one of the abiding clichés of Indian sport, and Tendulkar's turning that dictum on its head is a welcome change from his usual platitudes that are lapped up by the media. You may or may not agree with it, but it is a point of view with as much to recommend it - perhaps more - as the Merchant maxim.

And of course, this being Tendulkar, he gave it a patriotic spin too, saying, "When you are at the top, you should serve the nation. It's a selfish statement that one should retire on top."

And so to the question of selfishness in sport. Great players get that way by their ability to focus on the job, by their self-denial, their ability to wear blinkers and shut out the rest of the world, their obsession - this monk-like approach focuses on the self and on increasing the value of the self in the context of their sport. It is easier to understand this in individual sport - the great tennis player or golfer has to be selfish in order to succeed. My work above all else might be a simplistic way of putting it, but that sums up the philosophy.

In team sport too, selfishness is intrinsic to greatness. A Bradman who knew he would struggle on wet tracks, for instance, played as little on such tracks as possible. His logic was irrefutable - his value to the team as its main batsman would be diminished, and there were better batsmen in such conditions; on one occasion, he even reversed his batting order and sent out the bowlers to open the innings on a dodgy track.

Trained from an early age to be selfish - Tendulkar knew that when he got out, something went out of the Indian challenge - the great sportsman finds it impossible to change the habits of a lifetime. It is impossible to divide selfishness. Who is to decide (except after the event) whether selfishness was in the team cause or the individual cause? Patterns become clear only in hindsight, which means occasionally the obsession to make hundreds (which is usually in the interests of the team) falls overboard into the sea of mere individual greed rather than team need.

Such is the nature of sport. The best players play in the best conditions - the defending Wimbledon champion never plays on an outside court, for example; the seedings are in his favour. In soccer, the final passes find their way to the leader of the attack. The Peles and Maradonas stood out even in team sport, it was their vision that made the difference between victory and defeat. They had to necessarily treat their teammates as the supporting cast in this choreographed but selfish dance.

The difference is between creative selfishness, which adds to the team effort and destructive selfishness that takes away from it. Think Rahul Dravid and Geoff Boycott respectively.


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More about Suresh Menon

Suresh Menon is Editor, Wisden India Almanack, and author, most recently, of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer.
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