In what was his finest hour on the international stage, long jumper Murali Sreeshankar dealt only in fine margins. Including at the end of his celebratory lap when it was time to neatly fold back the tricolor he had draped around his shoulders. His fingers aligned the breadth-wise edges perfectly and the tilted chin locked the lengthwise midpoint as the flag was returned to its storage dimensions, waiting for the next time it would be brought out to signal yet another success.
Unlike the high jump, whose rhythm-searching process can be quite meditative, the long jump operates on a single rearview principle that the take-off foot plants itself behind the board’s bounds. Sreeshankar went big on his fourth attempt, after lying sixth in the field with a best of 7.84m after his first three jumps. He would foul his fourth by a miniscule 1 cm – caught on the latest technology of a laser beam pouncing on the invisible overstepping. Before he jumped to second place in the field, with 8.08 m.
Trouble was Laquan Nairn had the dibs on the 8.08m as well. The former basketball player from the Bahamas, had switched to long jump only when a track & field coach approached his grandmother, and she gave her word to him and decided his destiny as a jumper. “We don’t count our distances in training back home, we just jump. But I had come here for gold,” he would tell The Indian Express later. Sreeshankar would get the 8.08 m on his fifth attempt, but overrun the foul line on the 6th, having to take home the silver despite reaching the gold distance.
SOARING HIGH 🤩🤩
— SAI Media (@Media_SAI) August 4, 2022
Nairn’s second-best jump was 7.94m, and as such Sreeshankar needed only 7.95 on his final attempt for gold on countback, which he fouled. “It’s my first ever global medal so I’m happy,” the Indian said later, although adding celebrations would be small because there was much more to be won in the future.
That he could bounce back from that narrowest of fouls on his 4th – just 1 cm toe sticking out vertically – was where the Indian’s years of competitive experience came in handy. Nobody who knew Sreeshankar seemed to be unduly worried when he went into his penultimate and fifth jump that he was sitting on sixth, far adrift from the podium.
“I was trailing similarly in the inter-state tournament in Chennai. And my father asked me to remember that instance,” he said, never in doubt that he’d pull out the daddy big jump when needed. It was far short of his personal best too. But at this stage of the CWG final, only a medal mattered.
Sreeshankar would reel off names of tournaments where he had finished 4th, 6th or 7th – from the smallest to the World Championships last month, to highlight why he wasn’t going to be exactly sitting and moping about the lost gold. He’d suffered days when the medal just eluded him, tauntingly. He had also missed the last CWG at Gold Coast when he was wheeled in for an emergency appendicitis surgery, and the silver, with some helpful tailwinds was an altogether more satisfying experience, although it didn’t gleam gold.
“I knew it only takes one big jump so I wasn’t anxious about position,” he said later. The technique over this catchup challenge was learned over the myriad domestic and international meets Sreeshankar had compiled over the years despite struggling for rhythm over his first few attempts. He spoke of receiving a text from AFI president Adille Sumariwala saying ‘No pressure, no tension. Do your best jump.’ “I’ve been in this situation to know you can’t lose hope.”
The reigning Chinese World Champion Wang Jianan had clinched his title on his final jump of 8.36 giving Sreeshankar hope, and perpetuating that with the right process and step by step, anyone could step up. “He had been 4th at Rio, and had bronze at the 2015 World’s. Talent should be given time to groom,” he would reiterate. Sreeshankar has taken his time over two Worlds and an Olympics to arrive here, and reckoned he would back himself at the next Budapest Worlds.
SREESHANKAR WINS SILVER 🔥
🇮🇳’s National Record holder Sreeshankar Murali becomes the 1st ever Indian male to clinch a Silver medal in Long Jump at #CommonwealthGames
— SAI Media (@Media_SAI) August 4, 2022
South African Van Vuluren and Shawn-D Thompson remained in contention over their early 8.06 and 8.04 jumps. But it was to the Indian’s credit that he could summon. The biggie when needed in the end.
Cold, chilly, trouble
Murali Sreeshankar had topped qualification which happened in warm (even hot) daytime conditions, before Birmingham saw a sudden dip in temperature once more as the evening approached. The cold can wreak havoc with jumpers’ nerves. It is important to keep warm and keep moving between jumps.
While all jumpers played down the effect of conditions, it reflected in how further they leapt, besides the strides and their rhythm as crossing 8m wasn’t exactly at will. At Greece recently, Sreeshankar claimed he did 8.31m. Sreeshankar’s first at frigid Birmingham was from a good 15 cms behind the line. The second Indian in the fray, Anees Muhammad Yahya topped at 7.97m, but although the Indians had talked of a pact to win gold-silver for India, the Bahamian would saunter in with other plans.
While he reoriented his focus after the 1cm overstepping, after reacting with visible shock looking at the officials’ verdict, Sreeshankar’s own second best of 7.84 would eventually fall short of gold.
Murali Sreeshankar’s father Murali Sivashankar had gone on unpaid leave for 240 days that set him back by Rs 12 lakh, in order to focus on his son’s progress, after he was asked to wean himself away from the national camp. “Everyone told him to change your coach. But I know my boy since the first time I was handed over the baby at Kuttusamy Naidu hospital in Coimbatore where he was born!” the passionate father coach argued. “As a family we decided we wouldn’t stop trying until the medal was won.”
This involved taking into his loving strides the weak body as a result of taking two vaccine doses in 21 days after a Covid infection, which severely weakened him. “I knew it would take time, but he was impatient,” the father said.
This bidding for his time also included forsaking a medical seat within his grasp, and letting go an engineering first year, after topping admission entrances. The sports-mad family smitten by the jumps though aimed at only one target.
In the lead-up to the CWG and World’s last month, Sreeshankar had also ruptured two fingers on his hand – little finger and ring finger, which meant he came into the big meets with next to nothing of upper body work, given the hand could ‘t be risked. While the two fouls were in the realm of 8.15 and 8.30 which could have given him gold, they were not legitimate jumps, and the tied 8.08 m finally took him towards his dream of a big medal. Striving for gold at future meets – Monaco Diamond League and Budapest Worlds, plus Asian Games will continue, with Neeraj Chopra’s gold giving him hope it’s possible.
There’s no dearth of hope and the bloody-minded determination to go beyond earlier, here. Like the UB40 Games anthem cannily included: higher, faster, further, stronger, in an apparent reference to the long jump. For India, a dream vamoozing when Murali Sreeshankar sat on 6th place, stayed alive as he pushed further.