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Star power from Patiala, Palampur
Ashwini Akkunji, Preeja Sreedharan, Vikas Krishan, Joseph Abraham. If there's a common thread in their stories of success, it is that they are from towns which many can't place on India's map. What is it that makes them such winners?
Two years ago, most people would have been nonplussed if they were asked to locate Bhiwani on a map of India. Though they might still find it difficult to do so, there is hardly any sports fan who isn't aware of what Bhiwani, a dusty town in Haryana some 100 km away from Delhi, represents - the nursery of Indian boxing. The heroics of Vijender Singh in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and now at the Guangzhou Asian Games have ensured that the Bhiwani Boxing Club is part of sporting lore. The latest star from Bhiwani, nowadays referred to as Little Cuba, is Vikas Krishan who at Guangzhou became the youngest boxer ever to win gold at the Asiad.
Bhiwani is not alone. The roll call of India's medal winners in this year's Asiad and Commonwealth Games is packed with athletes from towns and villages tucked away in India's vast hinterland. For instance, Sudha Singh, who won the 3, 000 metre steeplechase at the Asian Games, comes from Rae Bareli, more famous for the Nehru-Gandhi connection than anything else. Other medal winners such as Ashwini Akkunji and Preeja Sreedharan come from even smaller places.
The imprint of small-town India on sport is not entirely new. It has already refashioned Indian cricket. Beginning with Indian skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who as we all know hails from Ranchi, there are a host of cricketers in the Indian squad from towns that are mere dots on the map. If Zaheer Khan is from Shrirampur in Maharashtra, Suresh Raina is from Muradnagar in Uttar Pradesh.
Why this disproportionate impact of smalltown India on sports? There is the time-tested explanation that sport is a ticket to success for the less privileged, whether they are in Brazil or in Botswana. Deprived of quality education and other opportunities available to their big city counterparts, small-town India sees sport a vehicle for upward mobility. Add to that a mental and physical toughness that comes from fighting against odds, and it's not surprising that they have an edge over urban kids who spend much of their time staring at a computer screen or television. Political psychologist Ashis Nandy has another take on this. He believes that in sports, as also in entertainment, politics and crime, social prejudices are less of a hindrance. If you are really good, you are more likely to makes it irrespective of status or caste.
There is another more prosaic reason for small-town athletes flocking to sport - sporting excellence can very often land them a stable government job. In this Asian Games seven of India's 14 gold-medal winners were employees of Indian Railways, which had an astonishing 113 representatives in the national contingent. The Indian armed forces, too, had their fair share of athletes and medal winners. The railways and the armed forces are, however, very low on the priority list of most big city kids.
Of course, it often happened that the search for stability would kill the hunger for excellence in sportspersons. This seems to have changed. This is partly due to rapid urbanistion and the even more dizzying growth in communications which has blurred boundaries between city and town, and town and village, giving athletes from India's hinterland a glimpse of other worlds and the confidence to excel on the big stage.
Because many of the new breed of sportspersons come from marginal communities or locations, there is also a fearlessness in them, a willingness to break conventions and rules. Virender Sehwag, who is from Najafgarh - part of Delhi's urban sprawl and another world altogether - exemplifies this trend. He plays a brand of cricket that is anathema to purists, but is still regarded as the most destructive batsman in world cricket today. Even a Sunil Gavaskar, schooled in the workmanlike Bombay school of cricket, now considers Sehwag one of his favourite bastmen.
Sehwag's attitude was typified in 2006 when he paired with Rahul Dravid to come within sniffing distance of the world record for the highest opening partnership set 50 years earlier. But Sehwag wasn't even aware of it and true to form got out four runs short of breaking the record. It's this uncluttered approach that is one of the key elements of Sehwag's success.
The tendency to keep things simple is present in other small-town sportspersons too. It is probably no coincidence that Sushil Kumar, Olympic bronze medalist and world champion, is from Baprola, not too far from Najafgarh. He combines commitment with a simplicity that is difficult to find these days. In a recent interview, Sushil, who has been wrestling since he was 12, said he had never ever watched a movie in a theatre.
It's this single-minded zeal to compete and succeed which separates small-town India from the metro mindset.
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