7/17/10

Happy marriages aren't the norm in world sport, but India's merry cricketers seem to buck the trend. Here, marriage complements career, with MS Dhoni being the latest to join the bandwagon, TOI-Crest asks leading Indian cricket personalities how they made it all work.

In October 2008, at Australia's training camp in Jaipur prior to the Test series, a night of revelry was rudely interrupted when a flamboyant, guitar-playing member of the squad suddenly gave in to his inner demons.

Brett Lee, coping with bad form, a bad marriage and merciless media scrutiny, was strumming the saccharine fave Nothing's Gonna Change My Love For You when tears welled up in his eyes. He stopped and flung the guitar away.

It was rare, this momentary, public disintegration of a modern cricket star. But it wasn't the first of its kind.

Sport and marriage have made uneasy bedfellows at the best of times. Cricket has more social connotations than some other games, but it is no exception. Sportsmen are known to stray, and long absence often takes its toll on close relationships. Graham Thorpe struggled to cope with a nervous breakdown and ruined his career.

Michael Slater was on anti-depressants and nearly became an alcoholic wreck after his marriage broke down. The inimitable CB Fry used to receive electric shock treatments for bouts of mental instability, apparently brought on by a dominatrix 10 years his senior who openly flaunted her relationship with another man.

Fry's case wasn't the norm. In an exploration of career-dominated sports marriages, Steven M Ortiz of the Oregon State University argues that "athlete husbands socially construct their masculinity and use power and control in their marriages as a result of their occupation" . John Terry and Tiger Woods spring immediately to mind.

Sportsmen dumping wives for girlfriends are as common as day, and Jonty Rhodes' latest escapade, in which he broke a 15-year marriage to be with a new girl in January, hardly even made news.

This ‘spoiled athlete' syndrome, though it exists, is not as highlighted in India. Here, flings are more a mutual exchange of glamour, while marriages are traditional, serious and long-lasting affairs, often having a positive effect on their game. This dichotomy has helped stabilise generations of Indian cricketers postmarriage and the newly-wed MS Dhoni is likely to reap the benefits as well.

Says social theorist Ashis Nandy: "There are no broad-based parameters, though the Indian cricket scene isn't like the English Premier League. It depends on the psychiatric profile of the individual if marriage will help calm him down. For some who get overawed by the newfound fame, it definitely helps. But would a driven athlete like Sachin Tendulkar be any less focused if he hadn't married early?"

Likelier than not, though, an Indian cricketer, no matter what his background, feels he finds stability, inner peace and contentment in a conventional marriage (see boxes). No wonder he is so fiercely guarded about his wife. Kapil Dev, asked to comment on whether marriage had helped stabilise his career, refused to say anything beyond: "Main Romi-ji ke baare kuch nahi bolunga (I will not say anything about wife Romi). I never talk about her."

Kapil's is a happy, high-profile marriage. Our elite cricketers seem adept at making it work, never mind past dalliances with social equals. There are exceptions, like a Vinod Kambli or a Maninder Singh or an Azharuddin, who divorced first wife Naureen for a Bollywood star in Sangeeta Bijlani. But even in the case of a power couple like a Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi-Sharmila Tagore alliance, break-ups are rare.

"If Christopher Columbus' wife was alive when he sailed, he would never have discovered America," feels former skipper Bishan Singh Bedi, "In sports, it's a knife edge as you have to balance and adjust every time. Early marriages in elite sport are career-dominated affairs.

They don't work in the West. They do here. Marriage is a social commitment, cricket is an international commitment. It's a highly subjective curve. Here it mostly works because it complements our cricket in most cases, bringing stability and broadening our perspective."