The burden of cricket


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TWO young brothers, friends of mine, perfectly nice teenagers. Bright, curious, cheerful, confident types. Obsessed with sports, particularly cricket. Idolize a certain Sachin. All of which makes them much like every other teenager, much as teenagers are meant to be.

But there’s one out-of-tune note. Every now and then, they ask me to join them in their small compound for some cricket, just the three of us with a bat and a rubber ball. I’m at the point that I dread saying yes. Because while I go out expecting a session of simply bowling and batting, running around a bit on my creaking legs, what happens is anything but.

We begin with endless arguments about the rules. Is this to be a Test match or a one-dayer? The playing conditions differ, depending. If it’s a one-dayer, how many overs to each side? And in either case, will it be a series or a one-off thing? Since there are three of us, do we play each for himself? Or two against one, in which case who partners with whom? This is a vital concern because I am perceived as either a very weak or a very strong player – I haven’t fathomed which, though I suspect the former – and thus one team will be seriously handicapped.

Then we have to decide what constitutes a catch, should we allow one-bounce catches? What about if it bounces off the wall? What about off the wall, then off the ground? And there’s the sticky question of runs. One run if it hits the wall on the bounce, two if directly; into the lawn behind the bowler gets no runs, but hitting directly into the lawn means you’re out. Then no one must bowl really fast, though just how fast that means is left vague. Also, you can’t hit the ball really hard, though just how hard that means is also left vague.

As you can tell, negotiating all this takes forever, even though it was done the previous time we played, and the time before that. And heaven help us all if the little tyke from next door comes out to play, as he usually does. The appearance of a fourth player means a complete revision of the rules, in this case to allow for the patronizing view of the tyke as a cricketing novice. (He isn’t).



So while all this gets hammered out, I’m standing there for upwards of 15 minutes, bouncing the ball in my hand, waiting to simply chuck it at a batsman. Any batsman will do. Heck, a bat by itself will do. I’m waiting to simply play. When we finally do, it’s with a sort of grim purpose, no quarter given and every ball, every shot, contentiously argued. ‘You bowled that one too fast.’ ‘You hit it too hard.’ ‘That shot didn’t hit the wall, it only hit this pipe on the wall, so you don’t get a run.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘Don’t stand on the pitch.’

For me, the last straw was the time we went to play at dusk. Fun to play in near darkness, or so I thought. Me and the tyke versus the brothers. When we batted, I was startled to hear them actually instructing each other to flight the ball high, so tyke and I would not see it against the inky sky. Thus we would not be able to score. Thus they’d win. (They had batted first, when there was still some light. When, more importantly, tyke and I hadn’t thought to float our deliveries dozens of feet into the air). It worked like a charm: I didn’t see a single ball as it descended from darkness on high. We didn’t score. They won.

They ‘won.’

With these two otherwise affectionate souls, it’s never just a game, never just simple playing. It’s always, something to be won.



What I’m getting at here, if somewhat long-windedly, is the way we have come to see cricket; and how these two approached our play sessions is a tiny, but just maybe instructive, example. It’s our view of the game that produced recent disruptions of more momentous matches than flailing in the compound. And just maybe too, there are connections between that crude crowd behaviour and our pained relationship with Pakistan, our very idea of ourselves as Indians. Tenuous connections, perhaps you think, but let’s see.

To a cricket fan who dropped into India for the first time in November 2002, the disruptions of three matches with the West Indies would have come as a mystery. What possessed the baboons in the stands who decided to throw bottles onto the ground, stones at the players? When I tried to answer that question, I wandered into a thicket of questions and thoughts, mulling over all kinds of issues. Now I’m usually wary, when I write, of embarking on hand-wringing about our Indian situation. But to me, these disruptions seemed to say such a lot about us, circa 2002. To me, they were a kind of marker of where we are today.

So really, what possessed the baboons?

It made no sense. True, in the first match, the disruption was triggered by one disastrous over near the end of the game that probably put the West Indians ahead. But even so, overall it had been an entertaining game filled with fine Indian performances. In all three matches, the Indians batted extremely well; in the third, they batted spectacularly. And even if the West Indies won the first two, they were close, exciting games all the way. The third saw a thrilling West Indies batting display, only for it to be overshadowed by an even more exhilarating show from Ganguly and Sehwag that was taking India inexorably to victory: at the time the match had to be called off, India was so far ahead of the equation as to make a win a mere formality.

So it wasn’t that India played badly. Nor were the games dull, oh no. Nor can I really swallow the explanation some papers front-paged after the third game – that betting syndicates, who stood to lose a great deal of money because of the looming Indian win, instigated the disruption.



One reason for scepticism about the betting explanation is that, under the Duckworth-Lewis rules for interruptions, India was awarded the match. It’s too much to expect that the syndicates were unaware of those rules, unaware that the game, if interrupted when it was, would be awarded to India. But more than that, I am terminally suspicious of theories that blame some amorphous, invisible villain for an event – like railway inquiries that pronounce that an accident happened because of ‘saboteurs’. Such explanations, it seems to me, only let the guilty – like stone-throwers, like lax railway inspectors, like policemen who should have been watching the crowd and acting swiftly at the first signs of trouble – escape punishment. Let’s blame some shadowy match-fixers instead!

No, it doesn’t swim. So again, why the stone-throwing?

In the end, there’s only one explanation I can come up with. It has to do with the sullen, prickly, hyper- but pseudo-nationalism we have been taught to believe in over the years in India. It has to do with the way we have drenched cricket, the only sport in which we have truly world-class players. And it has to do with the immense expectations from cricket that such a brand of nationalism breeds in us. You put it all together, and crowd disruption is something that was waiting to happen.



Take the feeling I noticed in my young cricketing friends: the desire to win outstripped any desire to have fun. Cricket has become like that for us Indians. It’s not enough to want to see a thrilling game filled with robust athleticism from both sides, for what if India loses? Tension and excitement are not the point, winning is.

When I was following the Kolkata Test against the West Indies with the brothers, I expressed disgust that Indian captain Ganguly chose to play out a draw on the last day instead of declaring and pressing for a result. Sure, the West Indies might have won. But so might India, and the series was already won anyway. In any case, it would have made for far more exciting cricket than the dull draw the players went through the motions to complete. But my anger about the meandering proceedings brought only bewilderment from the pair. Unable to comprehend that I might actually allow for the possibility, they asked in wonder: ‘Do you want India to lose?’

No, I didn’t want India to lose. But far less did I want to watch meaningless cricket. Whatever the result, even a West Indies victory – if it had come at the end of a swashbuckling day’s cricket, I would have applauded it.

After the disrupted Jamshedpur game, a dejected Viv Richards, that swaggering West Indian hero of the game, touched on this very theme in a Times of India column:

[D]uring my playing days, Indian crowds had the reputation of loving their cricket and applauding even visiting players. I have scored a few runs in these parts, and I remember crowds applauding me whenever I reached a personal milestone.

Sadly, the current spectators don’t seem to love cricket, only Indian cricketers. I am saddened to note that no one claps when a West Indian reaches a 50 or takes a wicket. One would not have guessed that Sarwan had reached a half-century at Jamshedpur because the crowd simply ignored it.



How did we turn to this graceless surliness, and what longing for victory demands it? What twisted patriotism demands it? Of course we all want to win. But not only must India win, somehow it has also become patriotic to want India to win above all else. Certainly above such things as applauding a player from the other team – how can a true Indian do that? Deep in your very marrow, you must feel a burning, fervent desire for an Indian cricket victory – or you are not fully Indian. Nor is this a mere opinion from an obscure writer: Indian leaders who style themselves ‘staunch’ nationalists regularly speak in just such terms about cricket.

Move on to something else about this particular flavour of nationalism. If it rests on anything, it’s on the idea that Indians have been ill-treated by the rest of the world, that India never gets its rightful due. Whether colonialism or the great American courtship of Pakistan, whether Mughal rule or our yearning to be on the Security Council: we have been uniquely victimized through history and nobody pays attention to all our righteous claims today.

I don’t know how many dreary articles I’ve read on these lines. Particularly since 9/11, they invariably nurse an injured annoyance that the US has allied with Pakistan in the famous war on terror. ‘Is it not ridiculous,’ asks an S.S. Bankeshwar in Freedom First, ‘that [Bush] should seek the help of Pakistan, the father of Islamic terrorism and the Taliban movement, and the sponsor of Islamic terrorism in Kashmir, to root out global terrorism in the world?’

The subtext here is that the US should have sought the help of India; that we are their natural ally. Our experience with terrorism over the years is just what the US felt after September 11, so why does the US turn away from us? There’s an increasing frustration, evident even in Bankeshwar’s words, with the behaviour of the US; more generally, with what we see as the world’s indifference to our victimhood. Is there any country that has suffered as much from terrorism as we have?



Besides irritation that the world takes no note of our suffering and aspirations, we routinely hold out-siders responsible for everything that’s wrong in India. One Rajeev Srinivasan once put it this way a few years ago on ‘The external factors in India’s case have been crucial: As a result of invasions, our cultural fabric has been damaged; the self-sufficient village economy of old has been utterly destroyed; and through outright theft of capital, we have been impoverished beyond measure. It is at best naive and at worst criminal to ignore these ground realities: foreigners have not been good for India.’

Those scheming foreigners!

For all they have done to us, we are sure, the world owes us one. Or three. And since they show no signs of paying up, we’ll throw things at them. Or at least, ‘them’ as embodied in overseas cricket players. Let them suffer the slings and arrows and water-bottles of our outraged sensibilities.

Nor need it stop there. The West Indians have even been castigated for ‘overreacting’ to being hit. Naturally. Niranjan Shah, President of the Saurashtra Cricket Association and thus in charge of the abandoned match at Rajkot, expressed astonishment that ‘a stray bottle thrown at a player can lead to the game being aborted... [the West Indians] should have taken the stray incident in their stride.’ Even ex-cricketers – who surely should know better – jumped on the blame-the-West Indians bandwagon. ‘[Y]ou can’t get seriously injured by a glass bottle,’ said Navjyot Sidhu. As if we should explore what will indeed seriously injure a player. Yes, what’s a mere bottle chucked here and there?

Niranjan Shah managed to take this exercise in blaming the victim a step further still. The West Indian (over)reaction, he said, would ‘provoke more such incidents in the future because the crowds would know one bottle can sabotage a match.’



You see, not only must the West Indians have things thrown at them, not only must they be blamed for over-reacting, but they have been warned: even before it happens, any further violence is already their fault.

Again, Viv Richards put his finger on the truth. ‘As far as I am concerned,’ he wrote in the Times of India on November 15, ‘accusing us of over-reaction is merely an attempt by certain officials to defend their turf after failing to provide adequate security.’

But who will listen to Richards? After all, if we blame the foreigner for every Indian ill, there’s a smooth transition from there to blaming him for making us throw stuff at him. Really, what’s a mere bottle thrown at these people? Why should they complain if it hits them, these fellows who ‘have not been good for India?’

Richards made a point that I passed over above: that our spectators ‘don’t seem to love cricket, only Indian cricketers.’ Now that, I think he’s got wrong. When we weigh them down with our burden of hopes and expectations, when we can interest ourselves only in their victories, when we disrupt matches – I wonder, is this love for Indian cricketers? What brand of love calls for flinging things at opposing players?

No, this is just sullen thuggery wrapped in phony nationalism, garnished with the equally phony bow of ‘love’ for our cricketers and their game.



And the final ingredient in this tawdry cocktail of cricket and nationalism is, of course and always, Pakistan. Pakistan, the country we love to despise; whose presence to our west, we think, looms like a dismal nightmare over all our ideas about ourselves. Every facet of our cricketing emotion is magnified several-fold when we play Pakistan; is magnified precisely because it is Pakistan. Is there an Indian cricket fan who does not know, and quails as he remembers, that Javed Miandad once hit a six off the last ball to beat India, to plunge a country into doubt about its very soul?

Which is why Miandad’s last cricket match for Pakistan was another marker of sorts.

Bangalore, the 1996 World Cup quarterfinal between India and Pakistan. Not surprisingly – given the occasion, the stakes and the traditional tensions of a game between two deadly rivals – this was another match in which the crowd threw stuff at players. (Violence erupted at our next match as well, the semifinal in Kolkata that was abandoned and awarded to Sri Lanka). As India, batting first, neared the end of its innings, Ajay Jadeja began a spectacular assault on Waqar Younis. The raining fours and sixes sent the crowd into such delirium that they flung things at the Pakistanis fielding near the boundary. Of course.



But the telling moment came during the Pakistani innings, when Miandad, an aging shadow of his six-hitting self, was out. In ‘War Minus The Shooting’, his provocative account of that World Cup, Mike Marqusee writes of Miandad walking off:

The flags waved as never before. At last, the man who hit the six heard round the world had got his comeuppance, and [the crowd] offered no applause (some even booed) as one of the greats of modern batsmanship exited the international stage. [They] were consumed with vindictive glee at the fall of an ancient enemy. Nationalism had drowned out sentiment. In the clubhouse, Ram [Guha, the cricket historian] rose, alone, to cheer him. ‘What are you clapping for?’ the man in the seat next to him demanded. ‘You should applaud him too,’ Ram answered, ‘he is a truly great player and none of us shall ever see him again.’ The reply was terse and put an end to the conversation: ‘Thank God I shall never see the bastard again.’

How did we come to this graceless surliness? On at least one recent evening I found myself wondering, as I flailed blindly with my bat, if it has distant roots in balls that fall through the night air.

‘All cricket contests carry a burden of meanings imposed by events outside the field of play,’ muses Marqusee. ‘But [Miandad’s final match] carried more than its fair share.’

Like that Bangalore match, the Jamshedpur, Nagpur and Rajkot disruptions carried burdens too. How will we bear them?