Did your heart swell with pride when, on Friday last week, Team India wore combat caps as a tribute to the Central Reserve Police Force personnel killed in the Pulwama suicide attack? Mine didn’t.
But first, an admission. One of my prized possessions is a boonie military hat given to my father by an American friend, who was once deployed in Vietnam. The first time I wore the hat, I was a teenager and there was a good amount of sentiment attached to it. Because my father had passed it on like an heirloom and I have always had a weakness for the uniform.
During the final of the inaugural edition of the World T20 cricket tournament in Johannesburg, 2007, in which MS Dhoni’s team beat Pakistan and made the whole country proud, I somehow managed to write the news report for the publication I was working for. I was anxious because the boonie hat had been misplaced. Luckily, I found it just after Sreesanth took the famous catch that sealed victory for India. After another near-misadventure during a track-and-field event, where I almost misplaced the hat again, I decided to use it sparingly lest I lose it for good.
Nowadays, I don’t wear it. The nauseating levels of war-mongering and ultra-nationalism beamed on television, shared via WhatsApp groups by seemingly level-headed people — some of whom are friends from school and college — and politicians, have made me think twice about strutting around in military attire at sports competitions.
For starters, I have not earned it. Moreover, I didn’t want to be seen as a civilian who never signed up for the army, but in some way was trying to attain a false sense of bravado by glorifying a symbol of war, while living far away from any conflict zone and enjoying a cushy middle-class life.
I didn’t even enroll for the territorial army like Mahendra Singh Dhoni — I did print out the form once, though. It was Lieutenant Colonel Dhoni’s idea, in fact, to wear combat caps during the third One-day International against Australia.
The usually reliable BCCI sources were happy to confirm that captain Virat Kohli and the rest of the team readily agreed to wearing the camouflage, with the BCCI crest and the Nike swoosh at the back. They also donated their entire match fees to the National Defence Fund, which is commendable.
In the commentary box, the great Sunil Gavaskar handed out combat caps to Sanjay Manjrekar and others: Gavaskar is a man who has, on air, berated Indian cricketers for not tucking in their team jersey or others for wearing the national cap backwards. He even pontificates on how players need to first earn the India team colours, and then wear it with respect.
Cricketers wearing combat caps comes across as a noble thought. Yet, one wonders if there was a more subtle way for the Kohli-led side to do their bit for those who lost their lives in the Pulwama attack. It is one thing to wear your feelings on your sleeve, like a pinned ribbon. And quite another to don combat attire to play a cricket match, pretending to be the battlers themselves. If the Americans, Chinese, British, Russian athletes, or even those from nations like Sri Lanka, Kuwait, Iran and Syria started wearing military symbols (it is normal for citizens to be proud of their own army), it would certainly be viewed as subtle intimidation on the sporting field.
Or, imagine if Pakistan and India both decide to fashion some kind of army fatigue for the World Cup game in June, will cricket any longer remain a sport? Camouflage, by definition, is meant to blend in and is used by fighters of all hues — armies, mercenaries, and even terrorists. This widely televised symbolism was crass at best. A minute of silence before the game, wearing black armbands or a quiet visit to the homes of the personnel killed would have been well-accepted as a tribute — by the jawans and officers across the three wings of the armed forces.
One must welcome the usually opinion-shy cricketers’ stand on a matter of national security, but there are other avenues for that already — press interviews and conferences, for instance, to express those views lucidly.
By wearing combat caps, the Indian cricketers are leaving their action open to interpretation. There is a real threat of them getting used by politicians who will try to piggyback on the bravery of India’s Air Force pilots in times of elections. How would Dhoni or Kohli feel if this happens over the next few weeks?
My boonie hat has been kept away in a cupboard. If anyone spots me wearing it again, especially at a sporting event, they have every right to knock it off my head.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 14, 2019, with the title ‘Cap doesn’t fit’. Write to the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org.