This is a true sports story.
This clarification is required else it might be quickly passed off as fiction.
A journalist, best left anonymous, who opened the batting for the India Today cricket team in the 1990s walked to the pitch at the National Stadium one Sunday, took guard, then abruptly tucked his bat under his arm and returned to the pavilion.
Another bat? Forgot his box?
No, he said as he sat, he had strained a hamstring walking to the pitch. His day was done.
Forget Kohli, Osaka, Curry, my favourite athlete—and subject—is the amateur, whose ambition is often as wide as their talent is thin. They can play anywhere (roof, corridor, gully), are rarely filmed but can verbally offer multiple replays of a goal they scored in the park last week. The professional seeks a headline, the amateur just wants to tell someone.
When my brother took 6-18 in a Devon league, every over bowled to farmers and tree surgeons was recounted in swaggering detail. No high, not even witnessing a diabolical Shane Warne over, is as pure as the deed constructed by the self. The champion expects high skill and is relieved when it comes; the amateur is astonished and overcome with joy.
Amateurs know every rule, statistic and field placing the Indian captain erred on. They come with strong opinions and in disarming shapes. An overweight gent, who was my tennis partner till he moved to England, still moves in his mid-50s like Fred Astaire. He has the manners of a deacon and the crisply rude volleys of Pat Cash. I miss him because no one sees the other more clearly than familiar duellists.
Amateurs are not a single breed but might be ranked according to seriousness. Some may practise to ride on L’Étape du Tour, which follows the route of an actual Tour de France stage. Others may play badminton, with the same pals, for a kachori-eating lifetime, with no discernible improvement. Everyone has a story. One amateur might be a failed pro, who long ago dreamt of being Sunil Gavaskar. Then his mother summoned him to do homework. Who knows, he might tell you. Indeed.
The professional aches and the amateur hurts, often for differing reasons. One works too hard, one practises too little. Pros have travelling physios and secret drinks, amateurs have Volini and swearing. If you are over 40 especially, and playing sport, something is hurting. A rotator cuff? A lower back? Two running pals in their 50s begin conversations with “How’s your hip?” But the weekend game is still sacred.
Professionals carry their own pillows and hire chefs. Amateurs consume multiple Kingfishers the night before and wonder why they are not playing like Tiger Woods. But they are always ready. A Zoom meeting might stretch till midnight but they will be downstairs at 6am on Saturday. Then something profound happens.
The working week washes away, competitive instincts spark, camaraderie unfolds, bodies crank to life and the brain feels the glee of a timed forehand. What do we play for? Partly for that moment when the body offers proof there is still something left.
The great athlete is a factory of brilliant shots, amateurs can wait a year for theirs, for a sweet seven-iron two feet from the pin or a badminton drop that lands like a sigh on the line. It’s a moment chased and then tasted, one that is enough to lure you back for another day.
Amateurs aren’t holy and at every club there’s a chap with shifty eyesight. Godswear bhai, it was JUST out. Somehow, it’s always JUST out. There is sledging, too, but pleasure is the prize. That sweaty woman smiling in the morning, she has just finished a run and been told a triumphant tale by her watch. There is often no one to compare with except your own self from a month ago.
Amateurs travel and watch. They examine grips, flirt with golf aids and study shoes like a jeweller with a loupe. One runner invests in Nike’s latest, another pal prefers the thin-soled keds of another age. So much involves mimicry and some parts of Michael Jordan demand imitation: His rumoured pre-game ritual was a steak and sometimes a cigar.
At its best there is no money involved in this amateur world, maybe a wager to give it an edge, but playing for nothing, maybe a tin cup at a loud dinner at the end of a season, is sufficient. Here, surely, we are not defined by mere winning.
But, like all else good in sport, this has to be fought for. From a small town in Australia, I hear the plaintive voice of my friend Tommy. His beard is speckled with white and his heart is elegantly old-fashioned. He plays, with his sons, in a district cricket league which is over a century old and, in recent times, some clubs have started paying players and buying them and it has altered the character of the contest. Money, Tommy tells me, has brought a different hardness to some teams, a sledging, an unpleasantness. Community cricket has become an arms race.
He sighs. “They have f***ed the competition.”
The speed of the pro game is bewildering, its science out of reach, its skill sets outrageous. It is breathtaking and yet the amateur world is more real. This place we can belong to. I have written this before, but the people in it are the ones who give sport its oxygen. They will umpire through hot days, set the boundary flags, take down the goal-netting after play, be the scorer and tell their children on car rides to distant fields about the codes of a game.
Somewhere this weekend, tennis players will place a horizontal racket over a vertical one to check the height of the net. Overnight water will be swept away. A can will pop and new balls will speak of fresh starts. One fellow might bend a back and the other might burp.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.