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The Significance of Swagger

I am short on confidence. Too much. Forever wary of airing my own opinions, I often frown upon public self-expression (which is now mostly dominated by selfies) as inherently vain and latently narcissistic. It’s also the reason I scroll down through most of my Facebook feed with a poker face and why I think Instagram shouldn’t exist.
But there’s an ironic self that roots for Trump, appreciates Taher Shah’s lyrical genius and nods convincingly at every conspiracy-seeking, hypernationalist rant by your classmate — it’s not a genuine appreciation of the content but a celebration of their unflinching confidence to air it.

Though the actual realisation of its importance came when I gave a second read to Shoaib Akhtar’s probably-not-written-by-himself-but-aptly-named autobiography “Controversially Yours”. Two years and a move from downloaded pdf to home delivered paperback didn’t do much to change my opinion of the book as a bragging, whining, self-victimising and painfully repetitive rant thoughtlessly laying blame and full of needlessly added Roman Hindi transliterations, but it certainly made it more understandable to me where it was coming from.
Shaiby’s often unbearable arrogance is not an aberration; it’s precisely a character trait that is possessed by some of the greatest sportsmen of times. That becoming the greatest shall begin with the self-proclamation and belief that you are it. The motivation and hard work needed to back up the claim, to actually achieve the goal are hence triggered, and that is what actually elevates them to greatness. In Shaiby’s case, a quantifiable superlative — of being the fastest recorded bowler in history — is what seals the deal. His cockiness may annoy you, but the fact that he is what he claims to be is not up for debate — it’s a legend for the record books.
In some cases, however, the claim to being THE greatest may be harder, near impossible to achieve because it depends on subjective analysis.

"On a good day I can do almost anything. That was the high. I can hit people at will. I can get people out at will. I can fool around with them at will." -Shoaib Akhtar

“On a good day I can do almost anything. That was the high. I can hit people at will. I can get people out at will. I can fool around with them at will.” -Shoaib Akhtar

Muhammad Ali was perhaps the closest to it, arguably being the greatest sportsman to emerge in the previous century. For most people he was additionally a spiritual guide, an unimaginably inspirational, quotable personality radiating all admirable qualities. But one quality he didn’t inspire and instead was the antithesis to, unlike MS Dhoni or Sachin, was humility. Modern successful people tend to be very humble, or at least wear a garb of when on TV, but Ali was quite the opposite.

I fully realised the extent of it during my Muhammad Ali posthumous documentary/film binge-watching session — the typical netizens ode to dead celebrities.

The contrast between the documentary When We Were Kings (based on Ali’s Rumble in the Jungle fight against George Freeman) and the movie Ali (2002) where Muhammad Ali is played by Will Smith speaks volumes about the inimitable uniqueness of the man. Compared to the actual footage of Ali jumping and hopping around, shouting out “I’m gonna whup George!” with passionate air-boxing, Will Smith, after all the practised punchline and acting skills, looked like the conventional meek protagonist ready to be taken down in one blow by the real Ali.
Luckily, prior to watching When We Were Kings, I wasn’t aware of the actual outcome of the Ali vs Foreman fight, so the suspense built up like an action movie climax. Foreman was definitely younger and bulkier. Ali with his mouth-guard on looked merely a screaming tiger and for all his agility and resilience he was clearly being cornered and dominated mercilessly. Palpitations. Sweating the life out of myself in an air conditioner, I wondered if the guy actually showed up for all the showmanship. Then came the coup de grace. In less than half a minute and a couple of blows, Foreman was down and Ali clinched victory in a fashion heard of only in Indian sports movies (cue Chainkulli ki Mainkulli). The arrogance was truly deserved.
Fast forward 20 years. The summer of 2016 marks Pakistani skipper Misbah’s most challenging, and perhaps valedictory, assignment. Six years of quietly and solemnly building a fortress away from home, in the desert, showcasing record-breaking performances to empty stands. From Lord’s 2010 to Lord’s 2016, from the ignominy of spot fixing to the number 2 side in the world, from a five year sentence to personal redemption at last, Team Misbah had tread carefully. Yet, true validation from the pundits could only be achieved with a win at where it started. And that, they did.
More than the win, it was the uncharacteristic showmanship of Misbah and his teammates which attracted attention. But it was precisely this icing on the cake, this 90s-style Pakistani swagger that had been missing from the team, and which rekindled the ‘gora’ whining of yore.

 

Sure, Team Misbah’s hallmarks are the unsung champs, the Papa Shafiqs and Zulfi Cobras — not self(ie)-obsessed, 30-odd averaging opening batsmen boasting of fearing no bowler other than Wasim Akram — but a touch of swag was long due come the arrival on the world stage. Otherwise, they’d be as boring as South Africa if not as successful.