Cricket today is closing the spaces for new ways of imagining our better selves.
The charge of “sedition” against a bunch of students in Meerut, with its stark overtones of identity and stereotype, may have been withdrawn within days, but the incident must leave sport with a lingering question. What does it say about cricket in India today that even in routine fixtures, with the rather indifferent standard of the Asia Cup (barring the spunky show by the Afghans), there are such reflexive expectations of fans’ loyalty to the Indian team?
Sport, they say, is best appreciated by those who have no team to naturally call their own — something kindly disposed fellow spectators at the Olympics will tell the Indian visitor. Without athletes turned out in your national colours, or winnable ones at any rate, it makes it so much easier to be a “patriot for the nation of excellence”, as Simon Barnes puts it in his manifesto, The Meaning of Sport.
Uninhibited by exacting partisanship, you are free to truly gauge the contest, to cheer on the team of your choice — indeed, to make an allegiance as you choose and for as long as you choose, to have the option to keep changing allegiance, to lose your heart to the drama of the sport as no person with the obvious allegiance can, and in the process work out the essence of the athlete’s quest.
Not so while watching cricket. Cricket, of course, has a rich history of allowing the spectator to have multiple allegiances (as a truly rewarding spectator sport should allow), to her team, to particular players, to the demands of a particular context. Its longest thread, of course, is the political challenge the field permitted to the imperial project. Even back when Ranjitsinhji claimed he “tried his best to play with a straight bat for the empire”, his exploits demolished racial stereotypes attached particularly to the cricket field.
The island nations of the West Indies found self-confidence on the field. In fact, less than a decade ago, when South Africa got its first non-white captain, Ashwell Prince, he told me that when he played for his country, friends would say, we want you to do well, but couldn’t care about the team. His mate Makhaya Ntini would gush about how he loved to tour the Caribbean for the ethnic diversity visible in the stands, in contrast to the overwhelmingly white attendance at South African grounds.