Some of us are fortunate enough to continue playing amateur sport well into our 40s and can relate to this delectable piece of prose from one of the best sports writers of our times – not so much to bring out the nuances of professional sport as much as to make sport romantic as it can be. Rohit Brijnath, the co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold, writes a wonderful sports column for the Mint Lounge. In this piece, he paints a fairly accurate picture of an amateur’s sporting life.
“my favourite athlete—and subject—is the amateur, whose ambition is often as wide as their talent is thin. They can play anywhere (roof, corridor, gully), are rarely filmed but can verbally offer multiple replays of a goal they scored in the park last week. The professional seeks a headline, the amateur just wants to tell someone….The champion expects high skill and is relieved when it comes; the amateur is astonished and overcome with joy.
Amateurs are not a single breed but might be ranked according to seriousness. Some may practise to ride on L’Étape du Tour, which follows the route of an actual Tour de France stage. Others may play badminton, with the same pals, for a kachori-eating lifetime, with no discernible improvement. Everyone has a story. One amateur might be a failed pro, who long ago dreamt of being Sunil Gavaskar. Then his mother summoned him to do homework. Who knows, he might tell you. Indeed.
The professional aches and the amateur hurts, often for differing reasons. One works too hard, one practises too little. Pros have travelling physios and secret drinks, amateurs have Volini and swearing. If you are over 40 especially, and playing sport, something is hurting. A rotator cuff? A lower back? Two running pals in their 50s begin conversations with “How’s your hip?” But the weekend game is still sacred.
Professionals carry their own pillows and hire chefs. Amateurs consume multiple Kingfishers the night before and wonder why they are not playing like Tiger Woods. But they are always ready. A Zoom meeting might stretch till midnight but they will be downstairs at 6am on Saturday. Then something profound happens.
The working week washes away, competitive instincts spark, camaraderie unfolds, bodies crank to life and the brain feels the glee of a timed forehand. What do we play for? Partly for that moment when the body offers proof there is still something left.
…At its best there is no money involved in this amateur world, maybe a wager to give it an edge, but playing for nothing, maybe a tin cup at a loud dinner at the end of a season, is sufficient. Here, surely, we are not defined by mere winning.”
Brijnath ends with highlighting the importance of amateurs for sport in general:
“The speed of the pro game is bewildering, its science out of reach, its skill sets outrageous. It is breathtaking and yet the amateur world is more real. This place we can belong to. I have written this before, but the people in it are the ones who give sport its oxygen. They will umpire through hot days, set the boundary flags, take down the goal-netting after play, be the scorer and tell their children on car rides to distant fields about the codes of a game.
Somewhere this weekend, tennis players will place a horizontal racket over a vertical one to check the height of the net. Overnight water will be swept away. A can will pop and new balls will speak of fresh starts. One fellow might bend a back and the other might burp.