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of “sedition” against a bunch of students in Meerut, with its stark overtones of identity and stereotype, may have been withdrawn within days, but the incident must leave sport with a lingering question.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.
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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.
Too much pop sociology can be read from the crafting of a new work ethic by the Indian team on Sourav Ganguly’s watch, the unique brilliance of Sachin Tendulkar, the back story of tape-ball cricket in Pakistani fast bowlers’ flair, Muttiah Muralitharan’s dazzling record at a time of great civil strife in Sri Lanka, even Usain Bolt’s choice to run instead of becoming a fast bowler as he’d earlier planned, the Afghans’ adoption of the game of an empire they had never been part of — but a tapestry of national aspirations can be seen.
Now look at how cricket today is closing the spaces for new ways of imagining our better selves. What do you say when cricket’s most lucrative event, the annual Indian Premier League, run by the most powerful national board, the BCCI, suddenly finds no place for Pakistani cricketers at the hint of rough relations between the two countries? What do you say when a decision is taken not to field Sri Lankan cricketers in matches in Chennai in deference to Tamil Nadu politics?
Really, what do you say when plans are afloat to keep India, Australia and England beyond relegation, no matter what, in a proposed two-tier league? And for all the counsel that a game is a game is just a game, even if it be India and Pakistan, can’t they see that each time normal tours are suspended and bilateral matches completely offshored — to Sharjah, Toronto, Singapore, to various ICC events — all sense of proportion is lost?
There are too many straws in the wind, but cricket needs to see it is no longer straining to be a normal sport that is normally played. Or could it be that the IPL is the apt new normal for Indian cricket? The world’s best at the beck and call of participating teams, to be inducted or fielded depending on the whims of the hosts or the board, never mind their individual claims to being chosen on merit. Each time an Indian team the victor, no matter what the multiple identities of the performer of the day, with the “nation of excellence” neatly shrunk into our national boundaries.
But hopefully not. Fact is that, in the short term, it is the IPL in which cricket’s dominant ethos will be set, given how the energies of the game’s best are packed into its structure. As another season of the league approaches, let’s give it enough attention, aimed at making it the capacious entity it could be.
The writer is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’