India on the field | Independence Day Special

first_imgTogether, Indian cricket and its supporters tell us a lot about the journey our society has taken over the last hundred odd years. As Ramachandra Guha’s and Prashant Kidambi’s books on cricket history tell us, in the late 19th century, cricket was a scattered activity in different urban and mofussil,Together, Indian cricket and its supporters tell us a lot about the journey our society has taken over the last hundred odd years. As Ramachandra Guha’s and Prashant Kidambi’s books on cricket history tell us, in the late 19th century, cricket was a scattered activity in different urban and mofussil pockets of pre-Partition India.The first Indian clubs were formed in Bombay, Karachi, Madras and Calcutta and they played among themselves on inferior, bumpy maidans while the sahebs played in a parallel world, on the other side of the fence on their (somewhat) plush green grounds. Around the same time that various Indian political groups began to challenge the Empire’s unquestioned hegemony, Indian teams began to have the occasional game against the goras.At first the Indian teams usually lost, but gradually the outcomes began to be less predictable. These matches would have loud crowds of local janata supporting the native teams. A victory could mean riotous celebrations and the defeat of a desi team, due to what was perceived as biased umpiring, could lead to just plain rioting.It was clear that the game was able to excite passions, even among people who had no access to playing kits, cricketing skills or proper grounds. Or, perhaps, the game worked like a magnifying glass, focusing scattered passions into one flaming pinpoint.The idea of a national team formed at roughly the same time as the independence movement. The important difference was that while Gandhi and the Congress moved out of their middle-class enclosures to connect with the poorest sections of urban and rural India, organised cricket in India kept looking to the Maharajas and Nawabs for leadership.advertisementHowever, unsurprisingly, issues from the country’s politics kept seeping into the sport. Could Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis and Christians play in the same team? What would a team weighted towards upper castes and classes do when the talent of a player from (what one would now call) a Dalit background made it impossible to exclude him? Would the team travel together? Would they eat together? Would they come together only on the playing field?By the end of World War II, there was a large pool of seriously gifted players in the subcontinent, a pool from which a properly selected eleven could challenge any team in the world. A WAG once said that the chief reason the English made sure that India was partitioned was that “a team from a united India would have spelt the end of all meaningful competition in world cricket”.Wistful exaggerations aside, cricketing was among the many intricate networks that Partition sundered, especially in the north and the west of the subcontinent.If the jute factories stayed in West Bengal and the jute fields supplying to those factories went to East Pakistan, people still argue that a bulk of the batting talent stayed in India while almost the entire pace attack went to West Pakistan. While this may be a gross simplification, the fact was that Partition scattered things unevenly across India and the two Pakistans.Just as notions of patriotism had to be rejigged, being a supporter of the Indian team meant different things before and after August 1947. For our test team, the multiple humiliations and honourable draws we suffered in the first 20-odd years of Independence were accompanied by the spread of the radio network.The live cricket commentary coming in from grounds across the world where India were playing left slight scars across the addicted eardrums of Indian cricket fans who grew up in the 1950s and the 1960s, and yet the patriot-cum-cricket fan in us never gave up, never stopped hoping.Indian cricket went through two quantum jumps, one at the beginning of the 1970s and one just after the end of the decade. The unexpected series wins in the West Indies and then England in 1970-71 meant that expectations of the Indian fans went up-we could win Test series, we will keep winning; forget about counting staved off defeats as substitute victories.1983 meant something quite else-we could win even in this format that was, till now, challenging for our slow-scoring batsmen, Test-designed bowlers and sluggish fielders. Earlier, we had won the odd series here and there, most often at home, but this was a World Cup where, in theory, we had been proven superior to every other cricket-playing country in the world.In the years immediately following our World Cup triumph, this superiority waxed and waned, dimmed and brightened, but the screaming, shouting, blue shirt-ripping triumphalism did not waver over the next 30 years.advertisementOf late, though, things have changed. With the Indian team going from being underdogs to bullying overdogs, this triumphalism has transformed into something truly ugly. The final stage of this mutation took place between 2001 and 2011 and is related to, among other things, our improved game, the burgeoning of the Indian TV audience to mammoth proportions and the huge sports industry the IPL has become.Alongside this growth of economic clout is the increasing display of aggression onfield by players.Around 2001 (or possibly a little earlier) our players started becoming infected by what one could call “Aussie-itis” or “Oz-itis”-the extreme sledging and aggressive physical projections perfected into an art form by Steve Waugh’s famous Australians. “Tit-for-Tat”, “toe to toe”, “give as good as you get” and other such phrases became mantras in our press, with our players also spouting these clichés in interviews and such.Some of the Indian team’s retaliations worked, some didn’t. During the 2001 Test series, Ganguly got up Waugh’s nose by making him wait for the toss, Dravid told three hulking Australians surrounding him to “F*** off”, yielding desirable results. But then came the ridiculous sight of Zaheer Khan trying to sledge Matthew Hayden in the 2003 World Cup final in Johannesburg.Hayden was flaying Zaheer’s bowling. Hayden was the master of sledging and this sort of a thing pumped him up; Zaheer, an amateur, struggled for an invective in a language not his own, but eventually got carted across the ground, both verbally and cricket-wise.By the time the next batch of young Indian men put on the country’s colours, the sledging had become as indispensable as batting, bowling and fielding skills.When I bumped into one of these young turks (now a waning senior of fluctuating presence in the team) and suggested that he was being over-aggressive, he snarled into the distance, ‘No, no, nutthhing! Weeyyavtu givvidbag tudem!’The Aussies infected us, but then we added our own strain to the infection. The Aussies might be racist, macho and thuggish, they may also be cheats, but there is no trace of jingoism or militarism in their presentation.Off the field, these Australian men are seen looking after their small babies; even on-field, if there is an addition to their cricketing clothes, it’s to support some cause, such as the fight against breast cancer; their nationalism or political beliefs are kept well out of sight.We, on the other hand, go from the absurd to the ridiculous. Our team walks out wearing military caps in an international match to “show support for our soldiers”; Mahendra Singh Dhoni tags his regimental insignia on to his wicket-keeping gloves in a World Cup; insisting we need to differentiate ourselves from England’s blue, we add one particular colour from our flag to our altered kit and it just happens to be the colour preferred by the ruling political party.You understand what a really wealthy country is when you see extremely well-to-do people happily taking trams to the supermarket.advertisementSimilarly, I understood something about a country that’s really rich in sporting terms, when an Australian cricket fan once told me, “I’m bloody bored of us always winning like machines. I’d really like to see this Ponting side get stuffed, I just don’t like their style of cricket!”While sportsmen are notoriously stupid politically and usually tend to veer towards reactionary strongmen leaders (look at pictures of Recep Erdogan attending Mesut Özil’s wedding), there are also exceptions.Look at the major American football stars refusing to stand for the national anthem, choosing to kneel instead in protest of US president Donald Trump’s policies, or Megan Rapinoe showing Trump her middle digit after winning the World Cup.While we in India are very far from Australia’s wide-ranging sporting success, we are the cricketing world’s boorish nouveau riche and there was some odd satisfaction in seeing the obnoxiously cocky Indian team go down to New Zealand (which would not have been there had we lost to Pakistan, Australia or England) in the semi-finals.As for protests, true independence and true patriotism (and, yes, true sporting wealth) will be evident when some internationally successful Indian sportswoman or sportsman fearlessly stands up to an Indian government on a political issue.Ruchir Joshi is a film-maker and writerlast_img

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *