Gary Player, the great South African golfer, once remarked, "The harder I practice, the luckier I seem to get." It is a wonderful throwaway, a self-deprecating, simplistic sentence designed to play to the galleries, you would think.
After all, what is the correlation between practice and luck? Isn't practice the bedrock of success? Aren't long hours on the putting green or the driving range the way to go as you seek perfection in the 18-hole game, battling your inner demons, the tricky lies, the vagaries of nature? Isn't practice designed primarily to take the element of luck out of the equation?
For, after all, what is luck? A chance occurrence an event that somehow transpires on its own as the stars align themselves or destiny chooses to smile, benevolently or otherwise. Player seemed to suggest, if only obliquely, that you can control your own destiny on the golf course. How bizarre?
But is it, indeed? It's no chance – or luck, if you will – that Tiger Woods has rolled one monster putt after another under extreme pressure, with a title at a Major on the line. Or that Rafael Nadal has perfected the art of whipping a wicked forehard top-spin just over the net and at an impossible angle on the run, again and again. Or that Lionel Messi curled the football magically over the wall with his wonderful left foot, getting it to dip and swerve devilishly at the last instant to leave the most accomplished of goalkeepers clutching at straws.
The glamour of competition always tends to mask the loneliness of practice, be it in individual sport or team. The adoring masses, the teeming thousands at the grounds and millions on television, only get to see the end product. What goes into the making of the finished product often goes unsung and unheralded, even if it is what happens behind the scenes that actually impacts what is visible to the public eye.
This Pepsi IPL has been remarkable in many respects – the dominance of some teams at home that even experienced hands such as Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid have found impossible to explain, the series of umpiring gaffes that have ranged from the ordinary to the ridiculous, innovative stroke-making of the highest order as exemplified by AB de Villiers, the one-man demolition force that answers to the name of Chris Gayle, the felicity with which spinners have held their own. In many ways, midway through the tournament, this is already the best IPL in terms of quality and excitement. And more so because it hasn't been only about batting and bowing.
The much-maligned 50-over game, caught between the hustle-and-bustle of Twenty20 cricket and the more stately but also more demanding five-day game, was the one that opened up the possibilities for fielding to make a decisive impact on a game of cricket, but the Twenty20 version has lent an entirely new dimension to fielding, raising standards to stratospheric levels and leaving the audiences flabbergasted as the purveyors of the art defy physics, gravity and convention. Just in one night, Delhi Daredevils put on an exhibition that was completely out of sync with their standing as one of the also-rans in the competition. Irfan Pathan, Umesh Yadav and Ben Rohrer all pulled off spectacular catches in a tournament full of spectacular catches. None more so than Kieron Pollard's extraordinary effort at long-on to dismiss Shaun Marsh even as everyone at the Wankhede Stadium, including Pragyan Ojha, the bowler, was resigned to watching the ball sail over the boundary rope.
It helped that Pollard comfortably tops six feet, has buckets for hands and is naturally athletic for a man as big-built as he is. As Marsh launched Ojha into orbit and admired his handiwork, Pollard launched himself vertically, the long right hand and the massive palm outstretched. The ball nestled into his paw and Pollard then gave in to gravity, but as he landed back on terra firma, he had both the balance and the presence of mind to ensure that he steered clear of the rope, so tantalisingly close to his right foot.
It was a catch Jonty Rhodes, Mumbai Indians' fielding coach, would have been proud of. Not far from the Wankhede, at the Brabourne Stadium, Rhodes had taken five catches in an innings to win the man of the match award in a Hero Cup game against the West Indies in 1993. Twenty years on, he watched with as much awe as anyone else as Pollard left an indelible mark – and not for the first time either.
Pollard's effort will be hard to match, let alone beat, but it has by no means been the exception in IPL VI. There have been at least a dozen stunning, standout catches, each one a gem and contender for catch of the tournament if you take Pollard's stunner out of the equation. So, has the benevolent smile of good fortune decided to shower its blessings all the way through? Or does the more unglamorous exercise of ‘practice' have something to do with it?
If you are fortunate enough to watch training sessions these days, as us cricket journalists are, you will realise that luck has only a bit part to play in the series of jaw-dropping catches that have liberally dotted the IPL landscape. Players actually practice boundary-line catches, trying to maintain their balance as they run around and take skiers, or run backwards to hold on to the ball, then throw it back into play as they realise they are in danger of stepping over the rope before nimble-footedly stepping back in to catch the ball again. A practice session can be chaotic to the uniniated, with balls flying horizontally or vertically in different quadrants of the ground, but it is organised chaos. The fielding coaches know what they want out of the players, the players know what they need to do to ensure that by the time they are confronted with a similar scenario in a crunch match-situation, under pressure, they are not caught unawares.