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Cricket was once a gentleman’s game, but today, I am reminded of George Orwell’s formulation that cricket, like other sports, is “war minus the shooting”; that tethered to patriotism and national pride, it invokes not just sporting delight but paroxysms of rage against opponents and even, on occasions, against one’s own. Nationalistic frenzy has choked off the sheer human joy of witnessing a great contest or a brilliant performance by focusing obsessively on victory and viewing cricket as a potent auxiliary force in the politics of nations. Cricketers and their fans are duty bound to carry nationalism on their collective sleeves and are pawns in the powerful interplay between politics and this wonderful game.
Even in the distant past, cricket was bound up with nationalism, albeit of the more benign kind. Like most knowledgeable fans, Neville Cardus, the doyen of English cricket writers, suffered anguish because his national loyalty to the English team clashed with his hero worship of Victor Trumper, the great Australian batsman. He resolved his predicament by praying before every Ashes Test match that Trumper score a century in a meagre Australian total of 137.
Such niceties were not on display in the 1930s, during the infamous Bodyline series, when a virulent nationalism saw the English team, under Douglas Jardine, target the bodies and not the wickets of the Aussie batsmen. Their intimidatory tactics neutralised Don Bradman and ended in a thumping 4-1 triumph for England, a contest that, in fact, threatened diplomatic ties between the two nations. However, in India and Pakistan, we have taken sporting rivalry to its nadir by treating our contests as warfare without guns. There was one notable exception when our country showed the world that true sportsmanship transcends national boundaries. In 1999, when Pakistan beat India in a gripping Test in Chennai, the crowd gave the Pakistan team a standing ovation.
How different was the reaction of the English when India, against all odds, chased down the 326 runs scored by England in a one-day international at Lords in 2003, thanks to the heroics of Mohammed Kaif and Yuvraj Singh. Unable to stomach the defeat, Nasser Hussain, the then England captain, accused British Asian fans of national disloyalty as they unabashedly supported the Indian team. Although of Indian origin himself, Hussain seemed oblivious to the subterranean text of history and sub-nationalisms that provoked the British Asian response. Hussain was also unable to understand that in a multicultural society, it is not unusual to have conflicting identities and transnational loyalties especially in sports.
The most poignant example of “anti-nationalism” is that of Umar Draz, a 22 year-old tailor from Pakistan’s Okara district, and a die-hard fan of Virat Kohli. In January this year, when India beat Australia in a T20 international led by a masterful 90 by Kohli, Umar hoisted the Indian tricolour atop his house. For this, Draz was arrested for an act that “is against the ideology of Pakistan.” He faces 10 years in jail for an innocent act of sporting love. Clearly, nationalism in this case had trumped humanity.
Most recently, the students of NIT, Srinagar, went to war over cricket. The West Indies’ win over India in the semi-final of the T20 World Cup on March 31 was celebrated by a section of Kashmiri students, which incensed the non-local students, resulting in competitive anti-national and nationalist sloganeering and clashes that left a few injured. The next day, the non-local students went on a protest march and were brutally assaulted by the police. Cricket has polarised a hitherto peaceful NIT campus, turned fans into fanatics and friends into foes. It has exposed the socio-political contestations and gaping disjunction between Kashmir and the rest of the country. The brave experiment of a BJP-PDP government offers hope of a return to some form of social cohesion. On the other hand, hyper-nationalism and sloganeering with unmistakable religious overtones are a huge impediment which will only widen the rift.
Seeing the ugliness that nationalism has transfused into the once beautiful game, do you blame me for being anti-national in my aversion for the kind of corrosive national consciousness which divides people, destroys social solidarity, expects an uncritical, unquestioning love, is intolerant of a different viewpoint and demands cultural homogenisation in a multicultural society? My nationalist slogan is what our PM has proclaimed: “sabka saath sabka vikas”. My prayer is that we place humanity and fraternity over a nationalism that destroys unity and diversity.