Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Inspirations (2 of 25) - Sachin Tendulkar

If there is a person that makes you think that the impossible is possible and yet goes about accomplishing it with a humility that dwarfs his tall achievements and incredible talent, would that person have any difficulty in inspiring you? Well, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar clearly hasn’t had issues on that front! For a person that made his debut in Pakistan in 1989 at the age of 16 and is now on the brink of a hitherto unheard of 100 international centuries, Sachin has continued to inspire a generation of Indians that no matter what the situation is, as long as he is around, defeat is not an option.
Sachin came into the Indian team at a time when the BCCI was at loggerheads with senior members of the team and made Mohammad Azharuddin the captain in 1990. Never known for his tactical nous or tactfulness with people, Azhar was like a fish out of water as captain in his early days, especially on foreign waters. But what the world sat up and took notice of was that amidst the mess that the Indian team was in, there was a curly haired teenager who was tackling bounce, swing, pace and spin all with equal finesse and grace in spite of being groomed on flat and slow Indian pitches. Having missed out on becoming the young Test centurion (in Napier in his second Test series), Sachin had to wait six more months to notch up his maiden Test hundred in Old Trafford, an innings filled with sumptuous strokes played with such ease that it seemed unmindful of the pressure of saving the Test, which he and Manoj Prabhakar managed through a fine partnership on the final day. It was to be the first of umpteen knocks where he was to help India avoid the blushes.

Early Impressions
I started actively following cricket in the 1991-92 season and Sachin easily became my favorite cricketer. India lost the 5-Test series against Australia 0-4 but Sachin emerged as a batsman whose technique and temperament belied his age. One of my earliest happy memories – and they weren’t too many of those in his early days for he was invariably part of the losing side – was India winning the ’92 World Cup game against Pakistan. Sachin, with his measured 54*, guided the Indian innings and with a bit of help from Kapil Dev, India managed a decent total of 216. Sachin also contributed to the defense of the total with some contained bowling, picking up the key wicket of Aamer Sohail.

While India flourished at home, they floundered so badly overseas that they picked up the tag of poor travelers. Throughout the 90s, Sachin continued to be the silver lining amidst the darkness as far as overseas Tests were concerned. But in 1994, the combination of serendipity and open minds led to one of the seminal moments in ODI cricket history. Till then, Sachin had underperformed in the limited overs format mainly because he usually came down the order when there were few overs left and never had a chance to properly get his eye in. But in a series in New Zealand, Navjot Sidhu woke up with a stiff neck before the second ODI. Sachin, who was the vice-captain then, requested Azhar and coach Ajit Wadekar for a chance to open the innings. He quickly added that he would never come to them again if he failed. Well, he never had to!

With his breathtaking innings of 82 off just 49 balls, Sachin set the benchmark for opening batsmen in ODIs. He went from strength to strength as an opener, notching up some fine innings in the 1996 World Cup where India suffered the ignominy of a semi-final defeat against Sri Lanka amid scenes of chaos and fury where the match had to be awarded to the Lankans owing to crowd trouble. As a cricket fanatic, it was very hard to digest but what was harder to stomach was the fact that my hero’s heroics were in vain…yet again.

Born to show the way, not to lead
As a Sachin fan, I was obviously delighted when the Indian selectors made him captain in 1996. But what we were to soon realize was how he was just not cut out to be the captain. Javagal Srinath recounted years later in an interview that one of the reasons Sachin failed as a captain was that he could never understand why other, more mortal teammates could never reach the high standards that he had for himself. While Sachin was always the consummate professional and the quintessential team man, marshalling troops and calling the shots did not come naturally to him. While he had a streak of ruthlessness as a batsman – he could attack or defend at his will – the same did not extend to his approach to captaincy. While an encouraging word for teammates was never far away, the burdens of defeats weighed too heavily on him. The defeat in the West Indies in 1997 when India failed to chase a meager total of 120 was one of his darkest days as a captain and player.

But in 1998, freed of the reins of captaincy, Sachin came back into his own as a player. In addition to continuing to feature in the dreams of youngsters all over the world, he also made his way into the nightmares of Shane Warne, courtesy a mighty thrashing in the Test series in India. Harsha Bhogle once said of Ravi Shastri that the latter “maximized what God gave him!” This is something that applies to Sachin as well. The kind of preparation that he put in to this Test series – he practiced with leg spinner Sivaramakrishnan to counter the threat of balls that would be pitched in the rough- was demonstrative of how Sachin was acutely aware of the work ethic and hard work that was needed to maximize his God given talents.

It was in Sharjah where he transcended mortality as a batsman. Fighting an uphill battle with very little support, Sachin masterminded two magnificent chases that remain etched in the memories of all Indian fans. To me, those were two days when he made us believe, as I wrote earlier, that anything was possible. With these two incredible innings under tremendous pressure, he showed youngsters of impressionable age that with talent and single minded determination you could set the bar where you wanted it to be. He couldn’t blaze a trail as a leader but he had now carved the way to improbable victories.

The late 90s also marked the emergence of players who, along with Sachin, formed the famed Indian batting quartet – Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly. Their consistency and solidity meant that Sachin no longer had to shoulder the burden of batting alone. But time and again, he would remind people that he was still a step above the rest and would be the deciding factor at key moments. Never was this in more evidence than a sultry day in Chennai in 1999 when he scored 136 against Pakistan, an innings of great skill, temperament and fortitude. The kind of affection that Sachin enjoyed amongst his fans was also seen in the way thousands of people shed a tear – like he did – more at his effort going in vain than India losing to arch rival, Pakistan. I say this because the Chennai crowd gave the Pakistanis a standing ovation after the 12-run defeat.

The Indian team of the 2000s, under the captaincy of Ganguly, showed a marked improvement in their overseas performances. And, for Sachin fans, this meant that we could see him in victorious sides more often. The 2003 World Cup final was a case of so-near-yet-so-far as Sachin’s efforts (with 673 runs, he was the highest run getter and the Man of the Series) were crushed by the Australian juggernaut. That day, India was a distant second and we only had fond memories of the group game against Pakistan (where he scored a brilliant 98) to savor from that World Cup.

So, what sets Sachin apart?
So, what is it that makes him an inspirational figure in addition to being a cricket hero who’s given me great viewing pleasure? To me, it’s his personality – the humility and the unassuming nature in the face of all his achievements – that makes me admire him even more. Respectful of his teammates to a fault (much to the joy of mimicry artistes like Vikram Sathaye!), he is also known to treat the cricket loving public in a warm, welcoming manner. Once in Sharjah, a fan invaded the field after he had scored a century. Even though it may have broken his concentration, he still had the generosity to gesture to a security guard to let the rabid fan go without any censure. Acutely aware of the joy that Indians derive from cricket, he dedicated his innings of 103* against England in 2008 when India successfully chased 387, to the victims of the Mumbai tragedy.

Sachin’s ability to reshape his game in the 2007-08 season following an extended slump has resulted in an awe-inspiring “second innings” of sort. His ability to pace his innings around attacking marauders like Virender Sehwag has given him an extra dose of solidity that has taken away a bit of his old aggressive instincts but has served the team well. Of course, it has not slowed him down too much for he managed the seemingly impossible task of scoring 200 in a 50-over game! His successes in the past four years have been just rewards to his willingness to analyze himself and change his approach by stepping out of his comfort zone. I always look at this transformation of his as a feedback loop at my workplace whenever I feel stuck in a rut or hesitate to step outside tried-and-tested territories.

The recent World Cup win where we could finally see Sachin in what he desired the most – to be a part of a World Cup winning squad – was an example of how we placed him above the team, literally and figuratively! Because the thought that Sachin, now 38, might not figure in another World Cup made us root for the Indian team stronger than ever. Being lifted by his team mates in the victory lap was a fitting tribute to the man who, as Virat Kohli so eloquently put it, “shouldered the burden of the nation for 21 years.” It was also the moment that made Sachin’s career complete for fans like me. When Sachin retires, he will leave a huge void but we can comfort ourselves with the thought that the memories of his years of toil in an underperforming team that marked the first half of his career were erased by some stunning team victories in the latter half. And in the process, he showed us that dedication towards what you do will get its due rewards in time. Thank you, Sachin, for allowing us to cherish the splendor of the tall peaks that you’ve scaled.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Inspirations (1 of 25) - Dr. Sheena Iyengar

In the early 1980s, Sunil Gavaskar came out with a book titled, "Idols" in which he wrote about his favorite cricketers. In addition to doing a fantastic job of writing about the cricketing skills of his idols, Gavaskar brought a personal touch to his writing wherein he dedicated significant amount of space to the difference that they made to him either through personal interaction or just pure inspiration. This led me to thinking about the people that have "inspired" me. I use this term loosely because the way a cricketer would inspire is wholly different from how a writer would. So, in this series that I've titled "Inspirations," I have chosen to write about 25 people - in no particular order - that have inspired me in different ways. I have also chosen to not write about family and friends because the source of inspiration might not be known or accessible to the reader. It is my hope that the list will go beyond 25 people but for starters, 25 is my goal. Without further ado, here's the first in the series - Dr. Sheena Iyengar.

Introduction - "What, a 20-min presentation on choice?!"

A Professor at the prestigious Columbia Business School in New York, Dr. Iyengar is a preeminent expert on choice. Last year, I happened to check out her presentation on the importance of choices. Before I clicked on the link, my instinctive reaction was, "Does choice really merit a 20-min presentation?" but I was curious nevertheless. Am I glad that I made the choice to view the presentation! As she talked about choices from varied perspectives such as culture and commerce, I got so much into it that I wanted more. A google search and 30 seconds later, I realized that not only did choice merit a presentation but also it did a book called "The Art of Choosing" written by Dr. Iyengar!

Introspection - "Sugar=good. Root canal=bad. Too much of sugar?"

The book is a terrific read with a plethora of research analyses, amusing anecdotes and a multitude of ways to view ourselves in terms of the choices that we make and how we perceive the choices as well as the process of choice making.

If we consider the two interconnected systems that are involved in our decision making, we get some surprising insights. Dr. Iyengar calls these “automatic system,” the one that works on a sensorial and subconscious level, and the “reflective system” that works on a rational and conscious level. She writes about how the former makes associations such as “Sugar=good” and “Root canal=bad” but it’s the latter that makes the reasoning, “Too much of Sugar can lead to a Root Canal!” It is startling to read that 95% of our behavior happens to be subconscious and “automatic.” She describes a study involving 30 NYU students who were divided into two groups and were asked to make sentences out of five words that they were given. One set of students were given words that were descriptors or stereotypes of the elderly and the other group were given words sans any references to the elderly. All of the participants were then directed to the hallway to get to the elevator. The experimenters set this up and monitored them. It is revealing to note that the first group took 15% longer to get to the elevator, showing how “automatic” associations regarding elderly people and speed of walking influenced their walking style without them truly realizing it.

In contrast to the automatic system, the reflective one is something that we need to consciously tune into and to do so, she notes, “…requires motivation and significant effort.” One kind of effort that could prove “significant” is introspection. We often act and choose in ways that are driven by our needs to feel consistent with our identity since we see “choices as realizations of the attributes of the chooser.” But it makes sense for us to identify – through introspection – the core values that we hold close to our heart and achieve consistency between identity and choices at a high level. This sharper focus would free up a lot of energy that we can channel into our reflective system which is something that we have to, true to its name, reflect on! When introspecting, we must also realize that others’ perceptions of us are filtered through the “lens of their own experience” and that accounts for how people react to the choices we make. After all, rarely do we make our choices in a vacuum.

Inspiration - "Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well."

After I finished reading the book, I wanted to get an opportunity to meet Dr. Iyengar in person to tell her how much this book has meant to me. And, I had the fortune to do so in a recent business trip to New York. I got a 30-minute appointment with her where I got the chance to share my thoughts on the book and ask her about her speaking engagements on the topic, Leading by Choice (http://sheenaiyengar.com/talks/). At the end of our conversation, she gave me the updated soft cover version of the book. On the first page, she wrote, “Be choosy about choosing and you will choose well” – an incredibly succinct and eloquent choice of words!

One of the biggest ways in which Dr. Iyengar has inspired me is to make an effort to reflect on my core values and put things into perspective. Her section on the reflective system has made me think of the several petty things over which I have lost sleep, argued with people and angered myself and others. I see how the beauty of my life and the joy of living can be derived from everyday minutiae – be it a moment to drink in the tranquil of the sky or an instant to surprise my wife with a spontaneous hug. But I have tried to repeatedly tell myself that it is the satisfaction of sticking to certain core values and the resultant choices that lend a certain sense of purpose, which in turn, lets me fully relish the rapture of the little moments. Anything outside of this core should only bring me unexpected gains in terms of happiness and not an ounce of grief, dissatisfaction or rancor. It is an area of personal and professional development where I know that I have a fair distance to go to reach the immense inner peace that this line of thinking can bring but at least I get happiness from my pursuit. After all, the journey, more than the destination, is what matters!