Geet Sethi is going to a place you will never see but wish you could. Inside his head where hand-eye genius used to live. He’s doing me a favour because he’s trying to explain one of the most profound things in sport.
What it’s like being in form.
“It’s like being on auto-mode,” Sethi starts. “You have got 7-10 years of heavy riyaz behind you. Muscle memory has been built. You have talent and intuition and flow and you don’t even think of technique. There are no voices in the head.”
“Call it bliss.”
This clutch of seconds when a great athlete takes you to another planet is a trip. “If you are really in it,” says Sethi, an eight-time world billiards champion, “you get an out-of-body experience. I got one or two. The auto-mode is so good that you helicopter and see yourself play. It’s surreal.”
We are talking about form because it underpins sport; because we are always calculating streaks and comparing slumps; because it’s mysterious and has no known recipe; because it can’t be kept and is described on the phone by Greg Chappell as “a state of mind”; because Virat Kohli is hunting for it, Mikaela Shiffrin lost it and Rafael Nadal never thinks he has it.
Perfect doesn’t exist but it remains the chase, in the construction of a paragraph or the execution of a violin solo or the arc of a cover drive. Words, notes and runs have a refined connection. Violinist Lynnette Seah, who played with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra for 41 years, says that “even the top soloists, when I thought they had given a brilliant performance, they would say it wasn’t perfect”.
At certain points a performer’s skill is so highly polished that the complex appears easy. There is no clutter in the head, just a surrender to instinct. But mastery is only borrowed and it falls away. And what is astonishing isn’t that form eventually eludes great players but that in the midst of the insane pressure of modern times they can hold it for so long.
Form doesn’t suddenly disappear one morning, it leaks like a school tap. It’s a hairline crack that starts to widen and leads to others. “Form,” says Sethi, “is a synchronisation of so many things and the tiniest variation in grip or the pressure of the grip will make auto-mode go away. It just requires a fraction of change. In any precision activity it is this infinitesimal variation in just one part of 10 things which will make auto-mode go.
“Then you are not in form and you think about it, and think a little more, and then it’s like a keeda (insect) in the brain.” Doubt, that fiend, is on a visit.
One day long ago in Chennai, says Chappell, Sachin Tendulkar rang his room. “He asked me, ‘Why does batting get more difficult, shouldn’t it get easier?’. I replied that you would think so, but the problem is the more experienced you become the more you understand how difficult it is to score at the highest level.
“When you are young, all you think of is batting. But then as a senior player you have responsibilities, the opposition knows you more, a certain bowler causes you problems and you know more about the difficulties of batting at that level. The situation is more stressful and thought processes change. What happens in life as you become older is that you become conservative. And if you become more conservative as a batsman, it doesn’t work. It doesn’t flow.”
And still Tendulkar, for years streaming into decades, held on to form.
The loss of form might be inevitable and yet it is somehow always surprising. What happened, we ask. The player mostly looks the same to us but the line between maestro and modest is as slim as the faint spike on the snickometer. “It’s a thin line,” says Chappell. “Very, very thin,” says Sethi.
Disruption is at work. Heart rates race, inner voices argue obsessively about backlift and over-thinking turns into a curse. Somdev Devvarman got to his highest world tennis ranking of No.62 in May 2011 and his next 11 matches were L, W, L, L, L, L, W, L, L, L, L. “We go through phases,” he texts, “where we can’t beat our way out of a paper bag. Can’t find water if we fall out of a boat.”
People question the out-of-form athlete, they advise, they list low scores, but the athlete needs no reminder, for they can feel the loss of control.
When you are in form, explains Aakash Chopra elegantly, you are “at the other end mentally. At the bowler’s end. You are thinking about him and reacting. When you are out of form you are at the batting end, thinking about yourself and not focusing as much on the ball.” Then, havoc by fractions begins.
We see the star in headlines, on TV, in ads, but never alone. Beaten, tired, empty, human. In a recent Royal Challengers Bangalore (RCB) podcast, the interviewer asks Kohli what audiences don’t see and he replies: “It’s the moment when you are sitting in your room with absolutely zero confidence, with absolutely zero conviction that you can perform the next day, and what it takes to overcome that.”
He wasn’t talking about form but offering a faint peek into the lonely struggles of the great athlete. But on their worst days they get up and they commit and they do the same with form. They watch film, tighten technique and see psychologists and this journey by the inconsistent athlete in search of his lost invincibility is fascinating.
“The only thing that doesn’t happen,” says Sethi, who once lost form for three years, “is that you don’t lose trust in yourself.” He had once achieved flow and he knew he was capable of it. His record was his reassurance and his world titles were documented proof. There was, he knew and he found, a way back over the thin line to greatness again.
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.