Shanaka Amarasinghe February 4, 2012

Should we love them more? Or less?

That really is the question, isn’t it

That really is the question, isn’t it? Serena Williams recently went on record saying that she dislikes tennis and would much rather shop. The irony is that tennis has made her close to $35 million in prize money, which in Sri Lanka would provide for a large portion of the national health budget.

Once you get over the fact that some professionals probably don’t enjoy the fame, the stardom, the money, the glamour, the paparazzi, and realise that with all that comes the pressure, the constant travelling, being away from loved ones, high-profile failure, media attention and disproportionate dislike from some segments of the population, you begin to realise you’re really better off at your desk. Serena also went on to say she “doesn’t like working out” and also doesn’t really fancy any sort of physical activity. That said, she doesn’t have such a bad record for a couch potato. She is also not alone in taking a large chomp at the digits that provide her sustenance. Andre Agassi, one of the few men to win all four grand slams (five, if you count Steffi Graf), said in his book: “I hate tennis, hate it with a dark and secret passion, and always have.” Imagine what he may have achieved if he actually liked what he did?

Trolling through ESPNcricinfo’s excellent Quote Unquote section, I stumbled across a contrary view from the irrepressible Brad Hogg. “There are people out there digging holes for a living and we're actually playing cricket. So stop whingeing,” he is reported to have told Melbourne Stars coach Greg Shipperd, who criticised the scheduling of the Big Bash League. Despite Williams' and Agassi’s admitted dislike of their sport, they are clearly the more celebrated superstars than the ever-smiling Bradley Hogg. Rightly so, one may argue, because they are both champions many times over, while Hogg is "merely" a good bowling allrounder. Isn’t that the problem, though? Some of those international sportspeople we don’t look at twice may just be the ones we should be looking at. We love the entertainers, the ostensibly successful, on a superficial level.

Hogg will always remain etched in my memory as the perennial competitor. Bowling, as he does, in chinaman style, with that unwavering wide grin on his face, he played the international game in the spirit in which all sport should be played. I remember the incident vividly from several years ago, when Hogg chased a ball to the boundary, slid in to scoop it back, and went into the boundary wall feet first. His technique was impeccable, except that his left foot didn’t land squarely on the wall. As he sliding into the wall, at full pelt, with the camera behind him, we saw replays of Hogg’s ankle turning 180 degrees and the sole of his foot pointing towards the back of his head. The replays confirmed that it was a pretty horrific injury. In real time however, despite suffering that break, Hogg saved the boundary, got up, limp-sprinted back to the ball, got it into his keeper before collapsing in pain. Even he couldn’t bowl that day though.

In an era where we see players who are paid hundreds of thousands of pounds a week, falling over in the European Football Leagues and writhing in pain when replays confirm that they were barely touched by opposing players, it is unfortunate that we don’t venerate the tenacity of players like Hogg. Of course, there are others like him – but they are in the minority.

Recently the Sri Lankan cricket team’s travails, both on and off the field, were well-documented. South African players said they were surprised the team was playing without being paid. In that regard the Sri Lankans deserve a pat on the back. On the flip side however, the delay was with respect to central contractual payments. Match fees and per diems were being paid on time. And a single match fee for, say, an ODI, is worth close to about five middle management executives' monthly wages in corporate Colombo. It’s hardly like the Lankan team were functioning amid the opprobrium of poverty.

So does anybody really like their job? And for us cheering from the sidelines, does cricket mean more than it actually should?

Hogg’s perspective certainly seems rational. You don’t get miners complaining of having to work an extra shift, because they generally could do with the pay. Cricketers complaining of “too much cricket” really need to take a long hard look at themselves lest they appear as distasteful as Serena and Andre.

Yes, there is a lot of cricket being played. But the last I heard, none of it was being played for free. Also, given that one half of the game – on average - is spent (unless you’re AB de Villiers) in the dressing room with your feet up, it hardly seems the most physically demanding of sports. In a relative sense, cricket has got to be one of the least physically demanding of sports. The recent South Africa v Sri Lanka series coverage sported the “Player Tracker”, which analyses how much sprinting, jogging or walking a player does. For the fast bowlers this would go occasionally up to nearly a kilometre of sprinting over a session. Compare that with a football midfielder, who runs close to 15 kilometres, almost non-stop, over 90 minutes.

Cricket’s superstars need to do more to enhance their status as role models. Proactively. Merely not getting caught with your pants down is not enough. Especially in South Asia, where it has far fewer sports to compete with, cricket can be a primary tool in shaping social attitudes. In Australia, England, South Africa and New Zealand, rugby, football and several other sports share the limelight with cricket. Asia’s sporting ambassadors have little or no competition, and like Spiderman before them, they must discharge their great power with great responsibility. Sachin Tendulkar, regardless of his place on batting’s Mt Olympus, has conducted himself exemplarily in this regard. But do we have enough Sachins?

Has Sachin too, apart from being the face of everything, from eggs to car batteries, done enough to promote the sporting values that we should seek to cultivate? Individually his work rate and dedication would suggest he has. It is not his sole responsibility, though. It is also time that we as fans ask ourselves what we expect from the objects of our adoration. Mindless entertainment as a result of their lovelessly honed skill, or role models that we can proudly valourise for our children.