What would the harvest have been if India had produced Fred Perry, gloried in his Wimbledon glory and then found itself obliged to wait for 77 years before Andy Murray happened? On the face of it, the question might not seem the – ace – sort that would have had the All-India Tennis Association racing away from the baseline and into safe distance as soon as its first clause was served up to it.
Truth to tell, it would have been quite right in volleying its answer, which could have been along the lines of, well, "We’ve produced neither and Wimbledon is a place where the overwhelming majority of Indians will never roll up for very easily imaginable reasons but none of it stops us from keeping playing tennis." Before empty galleries, though, mostly, and that little fact could be a general pointer to the way we compose our reactions, subliminally or otherwise, such as they are, to sport, and the entire spectrum of it.
Football is said to have become moribund because we hardly win anything worthwhile, and even though there are lots of people who grumble, at least before the media’s camera, about its marketing inadequacies, it is no state secret that we play it so badly that people have simply turned their backs on it.
Some geese, of course, are projected periodically as swans – you can see how Sunil Chhetri has effortlessly stepped into the shoes of Bhaichung Bhutia – but neither back-page interviews nor sport-page froth persuade the paying public to make a beeline for the stadium so the gambolling fauna can be seen closer up.
Mediocrity thrives in this milieu, especially when people put off by serialised exhibitions of ineptitude, simply shuffle away, leaving no-hopers to carry merrily on.
There is another side to it, to be sure. When really big things turn out to be perpetually elusive, minor triumphs become a major obsession, which, very often defines India. We have never even begun to get into the world’s sporting mainstream. There are other ways of doing things, though. And England, again, can be looked contextually at. In 1953, when they were secure in the knowledge that they were football’s pre-eminent global force, so ahead of the rest that a comparative study would be an exercise in futility, the Magyars walloped them 6-3 at, of all places, Wembley and they were knocked boots and brains. Having taken that nasty toss, however, they decided that, moving on, placing themselves the right side up was the best option.
Avenues were explored and stones were turned and, 13 years later, England won the World Cup where they had slumped to that inglorious defeat. To repeat a question already asked with reference to tennis: would we have been capable of being there with the return wallop? The answer, if our sundry football reverses over the years are thought of, is not very difficult to imagine: we might not have even contemplated reprisals because avenue-exploring and stone-turning are exertions quite foreign to our mental constitution. The patriotic teenager, or septuagenarian, will, of course, cite cricket to pick holes in the argument, but the bat-and-ball game is on the fringes of the worldwide sport show. Something of India’s characteristic indolence may have seeped into it too, given that, once again, it has resolved to keep the Olympics at arm’s length. It takes all sorts to make a world.