Column | The rare ability to withstand and conquer pain

Epic stand
V V S Laxman, left, and Rahul Dravid batted through the fourth day of the 2001 Kolkata Test against Australia. File photo: AFP
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As coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world has brought sporting activities to a complete halt, the publications and websites are mostly filling the relevant pages and space recalling sporting events of the past. This forced vacation also brought home the message how tightly packed the international sporting calendar has become, of late. This is particularly so in the case of cricket, which used to be played during summer in England and Australia/New Zealand, and in winter in the Indian sub continent, but has evolved into an all-season sport during the last two decades.

The sudden surge in matches played had the unforeseen effect of focusing solely on the present, without leaving time to remember and savour the successes of the past. The cessation of all activities has brought a welcome break to this cycle and given time to the fans of the game to relive some of the memories associated with their favourite sporting events.
It can said without doubt that the greatest Test match played in India till date took place at Kolkata from March 11 to 15, 2001. This was the second Test of the three-match series against Australia and was played in the backdrop of the visitors winning the first match at Mumbai by 10 wickets and more importantly, in less than three days.

Further, the Steve Waugh-led Australians arrived in the city looking for a world record-extending 17th straight victory in Test. The morale of the Indian squad, under Sourav Ganguly, which was already low after the loss in first Test dropped further, when Australia ran up a lead of 274 runs in the first innings and enforced follow-on on their hapless hosts.

India started on a better note in the second innings with the openers Sadagopan Ramesh and Shiv Sundar Das putting on 52 runs for the first wicket. However, this was followed by the fall of two quick wickets including that of Sachin Tendulkar, which set the side back. Skipper Ganguly, who was going through a bad patch, looked like getting back into his groove but was snared by Glen McGrath.

It was at this juncture, when a defeat appeared to be a near certainty, that Rahul Dravid strode out to join V V S Laxman, who was batting beautifully. Dravid was moved out from the No. 3 slot on account of poor form and Laxman had taken this crucial spot in the batting order. The duo saw the day through without any further damage and India finished the third day at 254/4. India had lost four crucial wickets without even wiping off the first innings lead, and another defeat appeared to be on the cards.

Amazing turnaround

The next day witnessed the most amazing turnaround that the game has seen as Laxman and Dravid added 335 runs without being separated. While doing so, they batted through the entire day and ground the famed Aussie attack, led by McGrath and Shane Warne and also comprising Jason Gillespie and Michael Kasparowicz, to virtual dust.

It was only on the last day that they got separated when Laxman was caught by Ponting off the bowling of McGrath for 281. Though Dravid followed soon afterwards being run out for 180, the pair had succeeded in ensuring that India would not only not lose the Test but were also in a position to attempt a win. A resurgent Indian side bowled out the Aussies for 212 to win the match by 171 runs.
It was a coincidence that both Laxman and Dravid, who shared a  mammoth 376 run stand for the fifth wicket, were doubtful starters for this match. Dravid was recovering from a bout of severe infection which required treatment with a full course of antibiotics and saw the stadium only on the morning of the match. This left him tired and weak and added to the levels of dehydration which cricketers usually face when playing in packed stadia in India. Laxman, on the other hand, was “listing”, a condition where the shoulders lean to one side, on account of muscle spasm, thus losing the alignment with hip and spine.

It was only due to the skills of Andrew Leipus, the physio, that he could play the match. Both of them made it through the day riding on the splendid support provided by Leipus and his team; incidentally, they  both had to be administered intravenous fluids at the close of play on day four.
While talking about their performances during this Test with Sambit Bal, the editor of espncricinfo.com, both Laxman and Dravid made special mention about the severe pain they had to endure while batting through the entire day. They said that there were times when the pain was so unbearable that they felt they could not carry on any longer but they survived through sheer determination and will power. Both of them felt that the pain helped them to focus solely on the task at hand, to the exclusion of everything else, and took their levels of concentration to a new high.

Gavaskar's heroics

Reading about this brought memories of a similar struggle waged by an opening batsman from India in his debut series against the West Indies in 1971. Sunil Gavaskar had scored back to back centuries in the third and fourth Test of the series after making his debut in the second game. On the eve of the final Test at Port of Spain, Trinidad, during a practice session, he drank from a jug of water that had pieces of ice floating in it. Unfortunately, a piece of ice got wedged in a cavity in one of his teeth and this led to the tooth getting inflamed, causing severe pain.

Keki Tarapore, who was the manager of the Indian side for the tour, gave instructions that Gavaskar should not take any painkillers as he feared that this would lead to a slip in the batsman's concentration. Gavaskar batted in severe pain and scored a century in the first innings. By the time India started their second knock, the pain had turned worse, but Gavaskar carried on braving the agony, which had the effect of increasing his immense powers of concentration even further. He kept going and scored a brilliant 220, which was also the first ever double hundred by an Indian batsman in the West Indies.

Gavaskar has recollected his autobiography “Sunny Days” that the best gift he received from the team manager for his match-saving innings was permission to visit the dentist and have his tooth, which had by then suffered irreparable damage, extracted.
There are numerous instances of bowlers taking the field despite suffering injuries and winning matches like Kapil Dev and Dilip Doshi did at Sydney in 1981 or Anil Kumble attempted at Antigua in 2002, when he took the field after suffering a jaw fracture. However, actions by bowlers in such situations are limited to short bursts of activity limited to a small period of time, whereas batsmen are required to spend long hours at the crease, not only facing the bowlers but also running between the wickets and tackling mind games indulged in by the opponents, all of which require peak mental and physical fitness.

What is the relationship between severe pain and heightened power of concentration in batsmen?

Batting is, at best of times, a lonely task, where one player is required to thwart the attempts by 11 players of the opposite side to dismiss him. Intense and unwavering concentration and immense mental fortitude are the two weapons that very successful batsmen are required to possess besides a good technique.

Pain, on the other hand, is a sensation felt by the body in response to a stimulus that causes some injury or damage to it. Human body is unique in that different people have varying threshold for pain; further, it can also get used to varying grades and severity of pain.

Since pain is, in medical terminology, a sensory perception, one method for handling it is to focus on other matters so completely that this sensation fades into the background. This is easier said than done and only persons with tremendous powers of concentration and drive can aspire to achieve this. Thus, while most of those exposed to pain take the easier route of allowing the sensation to determine one’s actions, only a few attempt to conquer it and succeed in doing so.

Cricketers like Gavaskar, Dravid and Laxman attained the pedestal of legends by battling and vanquishing the spectre of pain and using it to boost their even other wise monumental powers to concentrate on the cricket ball, to the absolute exclusion of everything else.

 It is said that the difference between being very good and attaining greatness is a lot of work. The experience of these three maestros indicate that this phrase should be expanded to include in its realm a capacity for withstanding and conquering pain.

(The author is a former international umpire and a senior bureaucrat)

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