On June 6, Suresh Raina joined other blue-ticked cricketers to hashtag his respect to the departed boxing great Muhammad Ali. Like his teammates, Raina called Ali a teacher. Another time, @iamraina had saluted Kanhaiya Kumar’s “azadi” speech at JNU. Finally, you thought, a cricketer had taken a stand against the dominant consensus. A day of trolling, during which the IPL legend was repeatedly called anti-national, would see his PR blame it on some phantom hackers.
Raina’s tribute said Ali “taught so many lessons to all of us”. That Ali certainly did, but have our modern-day sportspersons imbibed them? The Ali path isn’t easy to tread. In India, no athlete has ventured anywhere near that road, forget walking in the footsteps of a man who was as sure about the strength of his voice as he was about the power of his punch.
Take any prickly issue — religious, social or political — the heavyweight boxer never pulled his punches. In contrast, the pantheon of our sporting demi-gods — who called the late Ali their role model — is blind to the world outside the stadium. They have been hailed as innovators, glorified as visionaries, compared to gods, but they haven’t lent their wisdom to unravelling India’s complexities nor have they joined the knotty debates this diverse land throws up every day. Typing #MyHeroAli takes little time. But to be his real follower needs a lifetime of climbing up mountains and walking on fire.
Raina merely followed the omerta, like his more-famous seniors. Being guarded and correct is what he learnt from the dressing room he shared with Indian cricket’s Beatles. One of them, incidentally the Lennon of the pack, Bharat’s Ratna, Sachin Tendulkar, too had extended his heft to the trend #RIP “The Greatest”. He wrote: “My hero since childhood. I always had a wish to meet you some day but now it will never happen”. That’s unfortunate. Had they met, and had Tendulkar asked, Ali would have shared the secret of staying popular even after saying things that are unpopular.
What Ali was to the world, Tendulkar is to India. Their body of work, the precious heirloom that their respective nations flaunt, gave them the unconditional love of millions. Ali understood the power and responsibility that accompanied this love. He knew he could push the envelope and get away with it. His fans appreciated that Ali’s courage wasn’t confined to the ring — even without gloves he could take on the non-boxing heavyweights. They were so indebted to Ali for being “anti-national” and talking peace during those frenzied days of war, that they didn’t mind his occasional misjudgements.
Tendulkar too has that license, but either he isn’t aware of it or is too conservative to use it. He has told friends in private that he avoids taking stands since he doesn’t want to get dragged into controversies or offend people. But not speaking out and wasting a mandate that he has so diligently earned like Ali, is a bigger breach of trust. It’s high time Tendulkar realises that even if he goes wrong, those episodes will be forgotten like those many rush-of-blood dismissals or the lean periods of run-making.
History remembers Ali for breaking a stereotype. He didn’t want to be the black man who the whites indulged only when he wore an Olympic medal around his neck. He demanded the pursuit of equality that today sees a black man with a Muslim name inhabit the White House. Our greats are less ambitious; they don’t have the audacity to overreach and change the course of a nation.
Except for that one statement where he said that “Bombay belongs to all Indians” — an undeniable fact, but a stand Bal Thackeray didn’t want a Maharashtrian to take — Tendulkar has been a silent spectator during every emotive or divisive controversy India has grappled with. His media interactions are about inane cricketing issues and his regular public appearances are confined to the Mumbai Indians dugout, that overstaffed, overqualified bench that squeaks under the weight of non-playing Galacticos.
A few years ago, there was hope when Tendulkar walked into the Rajya Sabha. After his stunningly articulate extempore farewell speech reduced Wankhede to tears, you saw potential. The House of Elders, you thought, would get to listen to the voice that commanded pin-drop attention at team meetings, solved dressing room differences and drew awe in the cricketing world. That didn’t happen. Heck, can’t Parliament sessions be scheduled with the IPL in mind? Maybe then we will know what that sharp analytical brain thinks about job reservations, intolerance, land reforms and the GST. Trust me, there are enough cricket pundits in television studios to answer India’s favourite cricketing question: Is Rohit Sharma a Test player?
We as a nation lap up trivia about our sportspersons but we will never know them like we do Ali. We know there are some who wear their left pad first, and there are ones who step onto the field with their right foot forward, but we have no clue which way they lean politically.
Most times, our heroes tell us things that we know already. Drugs are bad, women need to be respected, polio drops are mandatory, the girl child is a treasure to cherish and Bharat needs to be swachh.
Dig deeper and the agent/sponsor throws himself/herself between the questioning reporter and the irritated star. Unfortunately for India, our smartest never aspired to be the greatest. His fearlessness while fielding at covers saw M.A.K. Pataudi get the nickname Tiger. But did he ever take a courageous stand for the minority community? The world vouches for Rahul Dravid’s integrity but when will we hear from him the full story about leading a team of three suspected match-fixers?
It’s said that sportspersons are the product of times. Ali lived in an era of war, experienced brutal racial bias and suffered due to civil unrest. All this made him an outspoken rebel. Today’s sports stars can lose a million dollar contract for a politically wrong utterance. There will be those who will find fault with comparing the sensibilities of an upper class Brahmin who grew up in times of peace and the optimism of post-liberalisation India to an underprivileged black from a period of social unrest who had to deal with the chaos within and around him. It’s a lame defence of the present day stars. If Ali was the outspoken outlier, Tendulkar is, almost, the establishment man. Ali spoke his mind and faced the consequences. His heart-felt anti-war sentiment proved too costly – he was out of ring for three and half years, narrowly escaped a jail term and lost millions. Still he returned to be the loudest, fiercest and the greatest.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Sachin, unlike Ali’)