06 December 2018

Predecessors are great teachers

Dr Suranjith Senaratne is an Anthropologist. He’s a meticulous and dogged researcher. He once opened batting for Royal College and earned himself a reputation as a man who had an almost impregnable defense. It was almost impossible to get him out, apparently, although he didn’t score quickly or much. He recalls all this with a laugh. 

Many years ago, Dr Senaratne advised a young man interested in postgraduate studies in Sociology. Dr Senaratne was skeptical about Euro-Centric theories of development and indeed the approach to the social sciences themselves. He suggested that the young man think about studying in India. Nevertheless, he insisted that the boy study and comprehend fully what were known then as ‘The Classics’; that’s Karl Mark, Max Weber and Emil Durkheim in the main. 

‘You have to engage with them and know them well before you can take issue with them,’ he said. 

The young man didn’t quite understand then, but realization came to him years later. That’s not because he was a good student of sociology. One day, he heard a senior and world renowned chess trainer talk about ‘classics’ to would-be coaches. The following is the gist of what was said.

‘Teach the kids the classics, show them the great games played by the greats. They inspire. They are helpful when you get stuck in a position. Suddenly you’ll remember a particular idea and you’ll know how to deal with the situation.’

He went on to talk about a series of books written by one of the strongest players ever, Gary Kasparov. The title of the series is ‘My Great Predecessors’.  In the five volumes, he annotates the games of those who were World Champion before him. 

The logic is simple. There’s a reason why a player becomes a World Champion. Simply, he brings something new to the game of chess, he has in fact added to the sum total of knowledge on the intricacies of chess theory in one way or another.  So we learn, in this way, the secrets of becoming better players. 

Of course this is very different from having a role model. That does help. Kusal Janith Perera was naturally right-handed, but since his cricketing hero Sanath Jayasuriya was left-handed, Kusal shifted and has benefitted from the shift. He’s not (yet) a Sanath Jayasuriya, but still! Learning is different from mimicking. It’s less about borrowing techniques than about obtaining insights; less about a particular tactic than about formulating strategy.  

It requires study and of course practice. The true test of learning is in practice, obviously, i.e. in real match situations. You can learn all the theories of breaking down things to manageable targets so you don’t lose focus, but until such time that it becomes second-nature the chances are you are yet to obtain full understandings.  

Now imagine if Kasparov had never studied deeply the games of Alekhine, Capablanca, Botvinik, Tal, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov and others? Supposing he had, instead, gone through thousands of games so that no one could surprise him with an obscure opening line or a novelty? The chances are that he would have had to work it all out by himself. It would have taken much longer for him to master the game’s most elusive secrets.  

Think of a batsman who had never watched footage of Muralitharan and was ready to rely on on-the-job learning, i.e. only by facing Murali. What are his chances against the Wizard of Spin Bowling? Slim, one would think.

Now suppose that batsman had diligently watched lots and lots of footage of Murali, frame by frame. What if he had studied what kind of techniques were used by those batsman who were most successful against Murali? The chances are he would have better success. 

Isaac Newton remarked in 1675, ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.’  

The question is simple then: how far do you think you could see if you chose not to climb up to the shoulders of the greats who have come before you? Pierre Bourdieu could have been a commentator on Marx, Weber and Durkheim — he went further, according to some. Einstein was smart enough to have built a considerable career teaching Newtonian Physics; he clearly went further. Kasparov could have been as good as Karpov; he became better. Murali could have been another Lance Gibbs who at one time held the record for the most number of Test wickets (309); he more than doubled that number (800). 

It is never by talent alone that one achieves greatness. It is by first learning all that has already been learned and then by improving on it through practice and execution. 

There are ‘great predecessors’ in every sport. That’s a treasury of knowledge that someone aspiring to greatness can ignore at great cost.