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Getting ready for Sport 3.0? (Hindu.)

Technique and technology have combined to turn sport into a spectacle that was never accessible to our forefathers.

Two events that occurred recently in the world of sport not only challenged our imagination but also offered us a peek into the future of sports. But think deeply about them and they may not surprise us.

For, both sportsmen and sports equipment, the latter more so, have been evolving at a mind-boggling pace and we are left playing catch-up, jaws dropped, mind reeling.

The incremental leaps in technology that sports have made make us wonder whether our grandfathers or great grandfathers would have recognised them for what they are.

In fact, some of the changes that sport has undergone can be compared to artificial intelligence or unimaginable robots.

This might be the conclusion of those who watched Virat Kohli in the India-England ODI series in Pune hit Chris Woakes’s slower short ball soaring over mid-on a few days before Ivo Karlovic hit 75 aces and a huge number of free points on serve to outlast Horacio Zebellos in the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne.

Technique and technology have combined to turn sport into a spectacle that was never accessible to our forefathers.

But then, now that everybody who has anything to do with conventional sports journalism, and a lot more who have nothing to do with it, have analysed Kohli’s wonder-stroke and Karlovic’s drone strikes, perhaps we can gain some perspective on those events that have been celebrated as never-before occurrences.

To come to the point straight, would the man who is widely regarded as the greatest batsman of all time — Don Bradman — have pulled off a Kohli-like magic moment? Could Rod Laver have hit 75 aces in five sets on a relatively slow surface?

Most probably not; and it has nothing to do with the genius of Bradman or Laver and a lot to do with technology and physique.

Compared to modern bats and tennis racquets, the ones used by players such as Bradman and Laver were as different from the airplane that the Wright brothers flew to the fly-by-wire modern jet planes.

“The racquets are bigger and lighter today and the flaps turn on both sides making for additional space,” says Ramanathan Krishnan, a two-time Wimbledon semifinalist. What this means is that there is a larger sweet spot for the big hitters to make use of.

With wooden racquets and grass courts in three of the four Grand Slams — except the French Open on clay — players in Krishnan’s peak years in the first half of the 1960s advanced to the net more often.

Back then, Jack Kramer was the first to use a bigger racquet (17 inches). Today pre-teen school kids use post-modern ones and can hit the ball faster than anyone might have imagined in Krishnan’s days.

The last great champion to use a loosely strung (42 to 43) racquet was that great touch artist and loveable rascal John McEnroe who beat Bjorn Borg in two of three Grand Slams playing with high-strung (60 to 62) racquets.

Krishnan’s son Ramesh, too, agrees. And he points to the fact that when someone like Karlovic, who is 6ft 9in tall, the ball comes down as if from a low flying airplane. Well, maybe from 10 feet plus.

Max Longbow, manufactured by Dunlop, was the choice of many professionals in the 1990s. Going by the results of the tests carried out by the manufacturer at that time, Longbow had a sweet-spot of almost 50 inches compared to the 28 that the conventional racquets did.

All changes in technology may not represent progress, in the sense that things are getting better. But what happens does happen and there is little point railing against change which is the only constant in life.

This does not mean that this is the age of sporting prosthetics. Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal would have done as well during the 1960s as they have done in the new millennium. And the same is true of a Rod Laver were he playing today.

Said the National Football League punter Kris Kluwe to the Business Insider: “Every generation, we feel like we have reached that pinnacle where we have run the fastest we are going to run (100 metres), or we have gone fastest through the downhill we are ever going to go, or this technology is perfect, or technology can’t get any better. But then we always go past it.”

As for cricket, one of the all-time greats of Indian cricket, Kapil Dev says: “I thought it was incredible. He was in a position to play that shot and it was good he went ahead with it. The ball was slow but not the movement of his bat.”

Mohinder Amarnath agrees with Kapil and says the shot emanated from Kohli’s forearms. “Basically shot-making is a process that comes with confidence as well as a combination of technique and confidence. The execution came with his confidence to go ahead with the shot. But I believe that players such as Bradman, (Garry) Sobers and quite a few others could have played similar shots.”

“And what about V.V.S. Laxman on-driving Shane Warne on the rise in the famous India-Australia Test in Kolkata?” asks Vijay Lokapally, who covered that match for this newspaper, and adds that Kohli’s back-lift and his bat-swing played a major part in his success.

But the truth is, nothing may be forever — except perhaps Bradman’s Test batting average of 99.94 — immune to evolution. And, sport is no exception.


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