In sport, the narration of the story of every young prodigy usually adheres to a template: It is always about how they
traded their childhood for the sport, juggling school and practice, sleeping and waking up at odd hours to tune their
skills. What unfortunately doesn’t get as much of a focus in these stories is the sacrifice made by their parents, who
perhaps have it worse.
On Wednesday (April 5) night in Roorkee, Rajendra Pant, father of Rishabh, the 19-year-old Delhi batsman, breathed his last, succumbing to a heart attack. He was 53. (IPL 2017: Full coverage)
Pant, in actions that far exceeds expectations of a 19-year-old, joined up with the team on Friday evening, and could turn out for Delhi Daredevils’ Indian Premier League season opener against Royal Challengers Bangalore on Saturday, assuming the management decides he is in the right mental state.
There have been occasions in the past as well when players have found the mental fortitude to play shortly after losing a loved one. How Rishabh will cope remains to be seen, because nothing can really prepare you for life after the passing of one of your biggest backers. For a career in sport is as much a parent’s sacrifice as it is the player’s. There is the ferrying of the child across the country, from training sessions to competitions to schools. There are huge sums of money involved – glamorous sponsors only come at later stages when their brands can squeeze out maximum visibility – which can sometimes mean extra shifts in the work place to make ends meet. All this more or less confines their hopes of a social life to the bin.
This correspondent was once approached by a father whose 11-year-old son was a state champion in Table Tennis.
Unfortunately, he was at his wits end, his coffers drying up in the process of ensuring his son compete at competitions across the country. He saw a bit of himself in his son, but as a child, he never had the option of going pro. He wanted his son to have that chance. Driven to desperation, he asked if an article about his son’s achievements could be published so as to attract sponsors. Chances are it didn’t.
While the world at large isn’t always aware of the parents’ sacrifices, the players themselves know it all too well. It is
the reason why the death of a parent can unnerve a player significantly. It is more than the loss of a parent – you lose
your one constant, one who would have seen you at your best and your worst.
Sachin Tendulkar once returned home from the 1999 World Cup in England to attend his father’s funeral. He then flew straight back, and famously scored an emotional century against Kenya. A young Virat Kohli went through something similar, losing his father in the middle of a Ranji Trophy clash against Karnataka in 2006. Kohli, batting overnight on 40, went home to see his father passing away. After a distressing winter night, he remarkably returned to bat the next day, taking Delhi from 103 for 5 to safety, missing a century by ten runs.
There’s an anecdote in Vijay Lokapally’s book on the Indian captain, Driven, in which Mithun Manhas, the Delhi captain at the time, reflects on the fateful day. Manhas walked into the Delhi dressing room to find Kohli sitting alone with his head in his hands. When Manhas asked Kohli to go back home, he replied: “I want to play.”
“Why? Why do you want to play?”
“Sir, the atmosphere at home is heart-breaking. My family and coach also want me to continue with my innings. They have sent me to play.”
Manhas later said he was “stunned by the boy’s dedication”.
For some sportsmen, the field becomes a way to numb the pain. Frank Lampard, the former Chelsea and England midfielder, played the second leg of the Champions League semifinal against Liverpool in 2008, having lost his mother earlier in the week. A tense game had gone into extra time when Chelsea were handed a penalty. Lampard was by default Chelsea’s designated penalty taker, but when he stepped up this time, the crowd was visibly nervous. Was he in the right mental state to take the penalty? What if he missed? Lampard held back his emotions long enough to convert the penalty, before breaking down in an outpouring of emotion.
Nine months later, Lampard was still struggling to cope. He told Daily Mail in an interview: “It is still with me, it
doesn’t get any easier, just different. I played the final weeks of last season on auto-pilot. I know some people were
amazed that I just carried on, that I took the penalty against Liverpool, all those little moments, but I find it harder
acting as normal now.” Also Read: Rishabh Pant’s father dies, cricketer suffers burn injuries while performing last rites
Not everyone can cope by returning to the field. When Tiger Woods lost his father in 2006, he took nine weeks off the PGA tour to grieve. He looked to return for the US Open, but missed the cut, before eventually winning the British Open two months later. Usually not one for displays of sentiment, Woods sank into the arms of his caddy, Steve Williams, upon victory, and later said: “I’m kind of the one who bottles things up a little bit and moves on. But at that moment, it just came pouring out. And of all the things that my father has meant to me and the game of golf, I just wish he would have seen it one more time.”
For Pant, life will no longer be the same. The purpose of cricket and sport might seem negligible, and he will struggle to keep his emotions in check. “What do you tell a 20-year-old kid who has just lost his father?” said Paddy Upton, the Delhi coach, during the pre-match press conference. “It is very, very difficult particularly when a tragedy happens like this suddenly. (He is a) young man, so we are going to really need the whole team to rally around him to give him a lot of support, not only over the next couple of days but throughout the IPL. Something like this is obviously going to affect him in the medium and long term. We just have to be mindful and supportive of his personal situation and family situation.”
Pant will need all that support. Even in the greatest adversity, there is an opportunity. Pant will, in time, learn to
channelise the frustrations and direct the energy to restoring balance to his life, to his chosen profession. He will grow up, remaining a 19-year-old only in body and physique.
He must. It is a part of life.