Who is the greatest Indian sportsperson of all time? Before that drawing room debate begins let's set a few parameters. There are many definitions of greatness it’s a gift that comes in all sorts of different packages.
Muhammad Ali's greatness was something that he was always aware of, he spoke about it in a manner that left most people shaking their heads initially, and nodding vigorously in agreement a decade later, when they realised that it wasn't a joke. What made Ali great wasn't merely a pair of hands that played cruel games with the faces of his opponents, and feet that danced so that his own pretty face remained unscarred. The impact of Ali's personality on his time, and beyond, is what made him great.
Shane Warne was a fat boy from the ‘burbs who could spin the ball a bit. But what really made him great was that he changed the game of cricket entirely to suit himself: he made batsmen play him, rather than the ball.
Indians have a skew towards cricket, a game played at a good level only by about eight countries in decent times (in periods of drought, this is sometimes reduced to four!). Does this make us forget other sports where the competition is truly global? Like shooting, or chess or tennis? It does, and it shouldn't.
Indians like the proverbial 'plucky loser' in the sporting arena, we seldom believe that it is our fate to win. So Milkha Singh continues to give Indians goosebumps after several decades for his fourth place at the Olympics. Prakash Padukone's All England title, however, has less recall than his daughter's films even though the cabinet of world level trophies Indians have collected over the years is lamentably bare.
The significant additions to it have actually come quite recently.
Over the last 20 years, in chess and tennis.
No discussion on Indian sporting greatness can take place without the names Sachin Tendulkar and Dhyan Chand, so in they go right away. Vishwanathan Anand, five-time world champion, master of every format chess played, can't be left out. Leander Paes has been there or thereabouts in the greatness stakes for some time, but last week, as he became US Open doubles champion at 40, he forced me to reconsider the question: who is the greatest Indian sportsperson of all time?
Paes is a 14 time grand slam winner and an Olympic bronze medallist. He has put in unreal performances for India in the Davis Cup. All of this over 20 years in a sport that is as physically taxing as any. Why is it that he isn't rated higher?
Doubles is seen as the lesser discipline in tennis. The undeniable seduction of the gladiatorial contest that makes singles such a draw often making the spectator wonder how the two men facing each other are still standing after four hours of battle — is one factor. The other is the rather simplistic notion that since two people play together, each deserves half the credit for a win.
When you watch a grand slam doubles final, you are looking at four people who are at the very top of their discipline in the world.
They practice in intense bursts — the kind of thing Olympic sprinters must do. Their reflexes are usually superior to singles players: Paes probably has the best 'hands' in tennis, most certainly across the generations of the game that his career straddles, if not more.
But do we dare to call him the greatest Indian sportsman? I would.
For three reasons: In an intensely physical sport, he's been a world beater for two decades. He plays a game that is truly global.
And last, but not the least, when he plays for India, he hoists his game to such a level that he stops being just an athlete. He becomes our flag.