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Wednesday, January 26, 2022

How the constitutions of India and South Africa shaped their cricket

🔴 Menaka Guruswamy writes: The ongoing test series between the two nations reflects the vision of two constitutional jurisdictions — to sweat for each other, to celebrate each other’s successes across religious and racial identities

Written by Menaka Guruswamy |
Updated: January 8, 2022 7:56:49 am
The politics of hate do not exempt cricket. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released after being imprisoned for 27 years. As a recognition of India’s unwavering support of the African National Congress and its staunch opposition to apartheid, Mandela visited the country shortly after his release. My father took me to a packed Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in Delhi to hear Mandela speak. The stadium was packed to the gills and thousands roared in delight when he rose to address us.

Middle-aged Indians like myself will remember a time when our passports had the words “not valid for travel to South Africa” stamped on our passports. It was our opposition to the racist apartheid regime. So it was no wonder that, after the fall of apartheid, the South African cricket team, banned from international cricket since 1971, played their first international match post the ban against India in 1991. India’s cricket team was led by the stylish Hyderabadi batsman Mohammad Azharuddin while South Africa’s team was led by Clive Rice. The visitors’ team looked very different from the current cricket team. Rice led an all-white team. After all, the cricket team reflected years of apartheid that excluded non-white players from enjoying the sporting infrastructure.

Now, I don’t simply follow cricket for its history. I love the game and I especially adore Test cricket. As far as I am concerned, it is the five-day format that is the real game. I am particularly partial to the India-South Africa cricket matches, for I have a special bond with our host country for the 2021-2022 tour that is underway. As a lawyer, my interest in constitutionalism was inspired by reading Ambedkar and our own Constituent Assembly debates.

But, my imagination of the potential of constitutional litigation and constitutionalism was first inspired when, as a Masters student in Law at Oxford University in 1999, I got a fellowship to go to South Africa and spend time at the University of Witwatersrand located in Johannesburg. Here, I assisted with research to support the South African Law Commission reform apartheid-era laws and make them conform to the new constitution.

Imagine my joy at seeing the returns of two progressive constitutions when both countries met for a cricket match near the town that I grew to love — Johannesburg — at the legendary Super Sport Park in Centurion. India had never won a game in South Africa at this venue. The present South African cricket team looked so different from the all-white team that toured India in 1991.

The current team has fast bowlers such as Kagiso Rabada and Lungi Ngidi and the gifted Keegan Petersen batting at the all-important number three slot. Temba Bavuma would score a marvellous half-century in the first innings at Centurion, while Keshav Maharaj of Indian origin bowled left arm spin. All of these players of colour would have never had the opportunity to represent their country 20 years ago. Jonty Rhodes, the legendary South African cricketer, is quoted in The Independent about the apartheid selection policy: “I certainly benefited from the fact that I wasn’t really competing with 50 per cent of the population. I literally was competing only with white players. You talk about white privilege and it raises a lot of heat and debate on social media but it is the case. I’m very aware of that. My cricketing statistics as a player were very average when I was selected.”

When South Africa’s new constitution was adopted in 1996 it brought with it not only freedom and equality of opportunity, but also a commitment to redressing the legacies of disadvantage created by apartheid. In 2016, a policy was introduced to have at least six non-white players, including two Black South Africans, in the national cricket team. You see the returns of that vision today in South African cricket, in a team that reflects the diversity of the country, while emerging as a cricket powerhouse.

India’s Constitution, much like South Africa’s, mandates equality before the law and equal opportunity under the law, while prohibiting discrimination on grounds like religion, race, caste and sex. That spirit of non-discrimination has yielded a cricketing culture that inspires and reflects the country; with young women and men from small towns and large cities, across religions, across class, playing for the women and men’s cricket teams. Though much remains to be done to encourage players from disadvantaged castes.

Yet, the politics of hate do not exempt cricket. In the T20 World Cup held in October 2021, when India lost its qualifying game to Pakistan, predictably some hateful trolls harangued our gem of a pacer, Mohammad Shami, on account of being Muslim. Now, India’s pace attack has been one of the remarkable success stories of the cricket coaching programmes and administration in the country. For a country that has traditionally heralded spinners, and for long prepared tracks to suit them, to have systematically cultivated pacers is a story that warrants a separate column. But, it is this pace attack that symbolises what is possible in a system that seeks out talent, supports it, and selects without discrimination — returns on a vision of non-discrimination.

In South Africa, our pace quartet led by Shami, hailing from a village in Uttar Pradesh, in tandem with our “death bowler” Jasprit Bumrah from Ahmedabad, aided by Mohammed Siraj from Hyderabad, whose late father drove an auto to support his family, and Shardul Thakur, who travelled seven hours every day as a young man to practice cricket, symbolise what is dazzling, inspiring and constitutionally promised by our country: To sweat for each other, take joy in each other’s successes and, importantly, be able to work together across regional and religious identities. Pacers have the toughest jobs due to the extraordinary demands of the five-day format.

Shami’s elegant answer to hateful trolls is best captured by his astonishing figures of five wickets for 44 runs in
the first innings at Centurion. For me, one of the highlights of the game was Shami running in, sweat dripping down his forehead, bowling a beauty to remove Bavuma. Bavuma, the vice-captain, had just scored a half century and stood between India and a significant first innings lead. As Shami raised his hand in celebration he was quickly surrounded by his delighted teammates. A great bowler has just removed a batsman of great promise. Both their stories reflect the best of two constitutional jurisdictions who made their vision clear across religious and racial identities. One avenue of expression of such a vision — a cricket team. In constitutional language we call this sentiment fraternity. “We the people” would do well to learn from pacers.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 8, 2022 under the title ‘We, the cricketers’. The writer is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India

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