The impatient wait to canonise Arjun Tendulkar

Sadly, sporting greatness has no genetic basis nor is there any surety of divine intervention

Arjun Tendulkar, IPL 2023
The national expectation about Arjun Tendulkar’s about-to-explode greatness comes from the widely accepted notion that sporting greatness has genetic roots. Photo: BCCI/IPL

When the strapping and handsome Arjun Tendulkar was belted for 31 runs in the 16th over in the Mumbai Indians’ IPL 2023 match vs Punjab Kings at Wankhede Stadium, a sense of national mourning descended. For, the arrival of another cricketing great on the national scene had just got delayed. Arjun got a chance to play in the IPL this year only after sitting it out in the Mumbai Indians’ dug-out for three years and so the expectations were not high, but here he was being hit all over the park.

There is no doubt an aura of national expectation about Arjun for his father Sachin’s achievements are still being sung about 10 years after he retired. Sachin’s 50 birthday was celebrated as an occasion of national triumph, with almost every major newspaper carrying full-page interviews with him and many such articles carrying the world ‘god’ in the heading. Seeing all that Arjun would have felt left out. For, he is the one who is looking for a leg-up as in his debut year in the IPL as a left-arm medium pacer of not much lethal power.

Also read: Sachin Tendulkar turns 50: The man who translated a million dreams into tangible reality

The rose-tinted view

The national expectation about Arjun’s about-to-explode greatness comes from the widely accepted notion that sporting greatness has genetic roots, and so it is only a matter of time and some more overs before Sachin Tendulkar’s son takes his appointed place in the pantheon of Indian cricketing gods. But a look at the history of sport clearly shows that though there are sporting families where two generations have made it big, it is more an aberration rather than a rule. Also, in such cases it has nothing to do with an imagined ‘sporting gene’ that is supposed to exist in sporting families.

Two generations of a family have made it to the Olympics or played Test cricket. But the question here is, what role has any sporting gene played in this. Or, whether some trade secrets transferred to the son over the years of growing up have helped. The answer is no. The only advantage that the child of a sporting great gets is the physical nature of the body in terms of height and built, sometimes keen eyesight. The only way a child, boy or girl, can achieve sporting greatness is by practising from a young age just like any other sporting great.

Arjun has the additional burden of keeping up with a legacy left behind by his father who is celebrated at every possible occasion. This, of course, weighs heavily on him. A parallel story is that of Rohan Gavaskar, who could not make it big, unable to free himself from weighted national expectations.

But what role do genes play in the creation of a champion in any sport? Is it right for sports reporters to talk frequently about the sporting stock that a player comes from and hence capable of various heroics? No, because it has been proven beyond doubt that there is no gene for greatness in any field. “Genetic wellness and genetic illness were not discrete neighbouring countries. Rather wellness and illness were contiguous kingdoms bounded by their often transparent borders,” says Siddharth Mukherjee, author of The Gene: An Intimate History, suggesting that a great man whether a sporting hero or an intellectual, has many weaknesses hidden in his genetic composition. Greatness has to be achieved by overcoming the inbuilt weaknesses.

Also read: Sydney Cricket Ground: Gate named after Tendulkar unveiled to mark his 50th birthday

Search for the sporting gene

Among those scientists who have taken the effort to search for the sporting gene is Greek geneticist and sports scientist Yannis Pitsiladis, who tried to find out why Jamaicans are over-represented in the Olympic sprints or why the Kenyan Kalenjin tribes are over-represented in the long-distance races and the marathon, Euclid Kpichoge being the most famous among them. The popular notion was that Jamaicans had inherited some genetic gift from the ancient warrior tribes of Jamaica. Pitsiladis analysed the DNA of warrior tribes, the Maroons, and found no evidence. He did a similar job among the Kalenjin and came to the same conclusion that there is nothing genetic about sporting achievement.

“Clearly, there are intricacies yet to be discovered regarding the genetic heritage of Jamaicans and the island’s premier sprinters. But, at the least, the work of Pitsiladis and others has shown that neither the Maroons nor Jamaicans overall constitute any sort of isolated, monolithic genetic unit. Rather, as we should expect from a mixed group of West Africans, Jamaicans are highly genetically diverse,” writes David Epstein in The Sport Gene. Not just Jamaica, but the entire region, including the Bahamas, are hotspots for sprinting due to reasons other than genetic pooling, basically because as kids most of them spend highly physical lives, running or walking more than 10km daily.

When Pitsiladis compared two dozen gene variants that have been associated with sprint performance—albeit extremely tenuously in some cases—in Jamaican sprinters and control subjects, the results “went in the right direction”, he says, “but it was not dramatic”. That is, sprinters did tend to have more of the “right” versions than non-sprinters, but it was by no means always the case. One of Pitsiladis’s grad students, who was used as a control subject, had more of the sprint variants than “the likes of a Usain Bolt.” This does not mean that genes are unimportant for sprinting, but rather that scientists have located only a very small number of the relevant genes,” Epstein writes.

Scientific training matters

In 100 years, the marathon timing has improved by an amazing 55 minutes, proving again that it is the evolution of scientific training methods that have helped raise levels in all sport and not the evolution of a sporting gene which could not have happened in 100 years.

Also read: IPL 2023 | We will work on increasing Arjun Tendulkar’s pace: Shane Bond

So far, Arjun’s bowling is nowhere near world class despite his six-ft-plus height which is a major advantage. One of the tallest fast bowlers in India, yet he cannot find a place in the Mumbai Ranji team and hence shifted to Goa. Arjun has to be taken to a better coach and a better and more focused practice regimen and definitely out of the comfort zone of the swanky Bandra Tendulkar household. Used to larger comforts, the urge to sweat it out all day in the ground will be absent unlike those among the many poor who have made it to the IPL after spending all their childhood in dusty maidans trying to be another Sachin.

(Binoo John is the author, among other books, of Top Game: Winning, Losing and a New Understanding of Sport)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Federal)