Mahesh Bhupathi’s head is being messed with and he knows it. It’s Singapore, 1997, Challenger final, third set tie-breaker, he’s 22, the match is edgy, and a little trash talk slithers over the net. He and Leander Paes are getting high on adrenaline when—as he tells it—Scott Melville, who is partnering Michael Joyce, tries to shake him. “Dude, this is not college,” he tells Bhupathi. “You are never going to make it.” (Actually, he does.)
Concentration is such a beautiful thing that everyone wants to break it. Athletes want to beat each other and this means skill but also swearing, stalling, provoking, acting. Or simply staring. At the 1978 world title chess duel, Vladimir Zoukhar, a parapsychologist and a member of Anatoly Karpov’s entourage, spent his time staring fiercely at Karpov rival Viktor Korchnoi. Hypnotism or pure hounding?
Gamesmanship is head games taken up a sly notch. It’s tactic and tease, it’s cunning and desperation, it’s often cheap and mostly charmless, and it’s also part imagination. Sourav Ganguly isn’t late for Steve Waugh and the toss on purpose. Calm down. Ganguly is just late for everything. Some things are just habit, not gambit.
Gamesmanship is the odour of the month after Stefanos Tsitsipas takes a toilet break at the US Open which Andy Murray insists is long enough to read War And Peace in. Murray’s a terrific guy but maybe Tsitsipas is a sweaty guy who has to change every piece of clothing. And as Bhupathi says, it also depends on how far the toilet is.
Toilet breaks have no set time limit and soon there will be one. You don’t set a rule precisely and someone will bend it to their advantage. Athletes are brilliant interpreters of the vague and undergo astonishing physical alterations when losing. You start trailing and a bladder suddenly feels full. Your rival’s game turns hot and your ankle needs a doctor.
Sport has so many little parts, like the insides of a clock, and it’s fascinating to watch performers stretch the boundaries of skill, science, strength and good taste. Gamesmanship is always lurking in this theatre where almost everyone bends to a little sinning. Even Saint Roger once—Australian Open, 2010—takes a bathroom break when Nikolay Davydenko is spanking him on a court that’s half sunlight and shade. Then the sun sinks, the Russian falls.
But really it’s patterns we look for, those who persistently offend, who cross lines into cheating, who disrespect even as they distract, whose search for advantage becomes childish (jelly beans, Jesus) and whose psychological wind-up can turn sport into a Sopranos episode. If you must sledge, for *&^%’s sake be funny.
“Whatever it takes to win” is supposed to have a polite safety clause attached at the end which states “within the rules”. Not everyone reads the fine print. In a high-octane, free-spirited, big-stakes scrap, how far does one go under the skin? Epidermis, dermis, hypodermis? With brothers, is it permissible to draw blood?
There are layers of gamesmanship and we have all felt them. There’s the weekend jerk who wants to tie his laces when you are serving at 30-40. The fellow at your club who says “watch out for the water” as you pull out your driver. Once, as he writes in his book A Golfer’s Life, Arnold Palmer is so annoyed by a fellow pro that he grabs him by the collar and says: “If you ever pull a stunt like that again I’ll take my fists and beat the hell out of you, and if I can’t do it with my fists I’ll use a golf club.”
In 1947, Stephen Potter wrote The Theory And Practice Of Gamesmanship Or The Art Of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating, but any athlete on request could whip up a short list of stuff they have seen, dealt with, laughed at and disapproved of. Viren Rasquinha, former India captain, tells me rival hockey players shove each other when the referee isn’t looking, a little macho posturing that’s legitimate when you place it alongside football’s dainty diving. Squash star Saurav Ghosal tells me some of his breed talk between points, block, infrequently wet the ball so that it skids off walls and get illegally coached. None of it leaves him impressed.
Former tennis player Somdev Devvarman says players might chatter with umpires to break momentum, try to influence calls and can grunt with a distracting inconsistency. But it’s the phony medical time-outs which grate. “Sometimes,” he says, “they go inside to treat the lower back or groin and miraculously after 15 minutes they are fine and running.”
Gamesmanship is not without IQ, for athletes are always probing for vulnerability, making notes, and are aware of how far to go. It can be an awful fine art. “Bowlers can rush you,” says Rahul Dravid, “if they know you like to take your time. If you are experienced, you pull out, and it ends there. Some batsmen can make a bowler wait at the top of their run-up, especially on a critical ball, and it increases the stress levels.” Not given to dramatics himself, Dravid shrugged off most of it. But what he never liked was the ball thrown to the keeper just past the batter. Not because it was unsettling but because it was dangerous and occasionally led to batters being hit. Dravid knew bubbles long before covid-19 and this is where the greats live, mostly immune to distraction. And perhaps one fascinating part of gamesmanship is that it reveals the force of concentration. For all the attempts to dent focus, athletes can somehow remain absorbed in their craft. To a point, of course.
Devangshu Datta, former chess player and writer, told me a terrific story of an Indian chess player who kept wearing the same shirt if he won. Round after round. But, alas, without washing it. If this was only superstition, it was somewhat forgivable. But if this was also gamesmanship then, well, it stinks.
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.