When Cricket Is More Than Just Cricket

So India wins the world cup! When MS Dhoni hit the final shot for a 6, I was amongst those who were cheering and dancing because India has come perilously close to winning a once before but failed. And the way this match swung from Sri Lanka to India like a pendulum was enough to give me a good cardio without lifting a finger!

I had begun this post last week and being the lazy guy I am I could not finish it before the world cup final. Anyway, here is the actual post :

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From the comedic annals of Andy Zaltzman.

The most-watched cricket match in the history of the known universe prompted probably the biggest single celebration of a victory in terms of the total number of people shouting “yippee” (or variants thereof) that sport has ever generated.

The cricket did not match up to the pre-match hype. This was inevitable. The only way it could have done so was if Virender Sehwag had scored a 25-ball century, Sachin Tendulkar had posted his 100th India 100 before being carried away into the skies in a flaming chariot, Kamran Akmal had taken a series of sensational one- and no-handed catches, Asad Shafiq had run into a phone-box, whizzed round at high speed and emerged as an at-his-peak Garfield Sobers in a superman outfit with a Pakistan passport in hand, hammered his team to the brink of victory, before Virat Kohli came steaming in like Dennis Lillee’s pet wildebeest and obliterated the Pakistan tail with a blood-curdling barrage of 100mph yorkers, bouncers and googlies, before with four needed off the last ball Saeed Ajmal danced down the wicket to Zaheer Khan and reverse-cover-drove him off one knee in the air towards a diving Ashish Nehra on the boundary who caught the ball in the tips of his fingers to prevent it going for 6 before a passing kestrel pecked it out of his hands and dropped it on the ground in front of Manmohan Singh and Yousuf Raza Gilani who then ceremonially tied their feet together and jointly kicked it over the boundary rope for the tying runs, before saying “No-one deserves to lose this match,” then holding hands and launching into a rousing rendition of ‘Love Lift Us Up Where We Belong’ while the Mohali crowd harmoniously crooned backing vocals and all cuddled effigies of Inzamam-ul-Haq.

Hilarious stuff by Andy! And he is absolutely right. Indian players had much less to do with the win than Pakistan players. No, that sounds silly. Let’s put it this way, Indian players were disciplined in their approach to the game and Pakistani players were…….well, god knows. They had no reason to be as bad as they were. Anyway, as an Indian, it’s high time the team wins another world cup. Sri Lanka, you are going down!!!

This match got me thinking about the stature of cricket in India. As has been mentioned countless number of times, cricket in India is not a sport, but a religion. A religion that encompasses all other religions i.e. it does not matter what religion was forced on you by your parents, the religion of cricket will welcome you regardless!

So why is that? Why is a sport that only about 40% of world follows has such a grip on only a few of the nations? Why is it a religion?

As a fragmented and diverse society, it’s hard to find commonalities between 1.2 billion people. I mean India has  22 official languages!!, all the main religions of the world (including a proportionally high number of religious nut jobs), different political aspirations (communist party of India actually takes part in the democratic process) and an endemic corruption that eats away at the soul of the country.

However, there is one thing that brings out the boisterous patriotic versions of ourselves. Cricket!! Well, war against Pakistan AND Cricket which as you will discover are one and the same thing for Indians (and I suspect for Pakistanis).

So what is about this sport that at the utterance of the word “Cricket” all south Asians become passionate debaters regarding the genius of a Tendulkar square cover drive, a Shoaib Akhtar Yorker and ferociousness of Muralitharan’s spin?

In current context, it’s easy to see the why cricket is so loved by the youth. Cricket is a sport where true rags to riches stories can be played out. MS Dhoni, Virendra Shewag who were poor (although not by the abysmal poverty standards of India) went on to become super wealthy. It’s also a sport where individual performances can assure lifelong devotion by fans and which youth does not want that?

And over the years cricket has morphed into proxy battles. It has become a proxy for war in case of India-Pakistan matches. It’s become a proxy for pride in India-Australia matches and it’s become a proxy for traditionalism in case of Australia-England matches (Ashes trophy).

But to a casual observer it is obvious that cricket is a lot more than just cricket in South Asia. Why?

Let’s study this further.

The first thing that comes to mind is the simplicity of the rules of cricket. Despite the fact that I have to bang my head against the desk after trying to explain to my north American friends the rules of cricket, they are astonishingly simple. There is a bat and there is a ball. The objective of the game is to make runs (run between the two wickets (bases)) while making sure you do not let the ball strike the wicket or that you do not balloon the ball to the opposing player. Of course, there are numerous sub-rules but these are the main ones.

The second thing about cricket is that you really do not require any special equipment to play the game. All you need is a bat (which would and has been substituted by an instrument that every single Indian house hold called Thapi. Thapi is small cricket bat like piece that is commonly used to beat the clothes when washing them), a ball (a simple cheap tennis ball would do) and some eager participants. The game can be played in streets, school playground, your living room, etc. The location does not really
matter as long as you are willing to play the game. However, in case of tennis, you need a racquet and hockey requires hockey sticks without which the game is unplayable.

The next thing about cricket is that along with hockey, was imported to India by the British in the 18th century (football was introduced to India quite late). If you look at all the cricket playing nations, all those countries that were ruled by the British play cricket. The anomaly being USA which I think rejected cricket because the expats did not want to ape anything British (edit : my theory. Moreover, USA managed to kick the Britishers out long before any of the cricket playing countries and that might be a factor).

Note too the fact that Hockey and cricket were amongst the first sport activities that were introduced to the subcontinent that had rules and regulations which could not be broken under any circumstances (hence the term ”The Gentleman’s Game”). This must have held some appeal to the educated South Asians who took to the game as there was no concept of organized sports in South Asia before the British came.

Another reason South Asians took to the game (edit : I am sure will upset a lot of my fellow desis) is that our ancestors (especially the educated ones) wanted to ape the rulers of India, at everything they did. Mannerisms, education facilities, sports, style of governance, the English language etc. All these features were eagerly adopted by the upper class before the nationalist movement began which then began to filter to the lower class who wanted to ape their masters and so on and so forth.

(Edit: The next point is pure conjecture and circumstantial so please take it with a grain of salt).

The sport of cricket and field hockey started to gain popularity amongst the masses sometime earlier in the 20th century and when the British allowed Hindu and Muslim teams to play in Bombay against their teams and that’s when,  I am sure, that an element of nationalism began to creep into the game. If that’s true, then each game post 1920s would be us-against-them games. And this not only drives the passions of the cricketeers but also the spectators.

The game continued to grow leaps and bounds in South Asia as we unshackled ourselves from the colonial past. And the wars and animosity between countries of South Asia began to rear their heads in each game and that streak of political gamesmanship is a a high pitch and shows no signs of slowing down.

Which is why the game between Pakistan and India was hyped to the point of absurdity. If you read the Facebook messages between Pakistan and Indian supporters I swear it was almost like the supporters were going to play the match instead of the actual teams!! This kind of passion is dangerous as well because it can easily boil over to mob violence which is so common in South Asia. I mean, if India had lost the match to Pakistan, the notion that the cricketeers would be harmed is not to be put aside.

The best way to diffuse that kind of tension would be to hold more matches between the “warring” countries. That way the next match would be a ho-hum affair and the passions would not flair up like they do now.

So what’s next?

My main concern is the utter lack of support by the public for other sports. India is a country with 1.2 billion people yet the sporting prowess of this country is : pathetic! There are flashes here or there like recently Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupati have just become the number 1 again in the double tennis (yet the news cycle was swamped by cricket); Vijendra Singh in boxing continues to win titles (but not the avid following he craves for and so richly deserves).

Why?

The reason I think it is so because cricket is heavily subsidized by the government and privatized (i.e. it is flush with corporate money) whereas the other sports are heavily bureaucratized (i.e. laden with government indifference, ineptitude and corruption). However, if the corporations are to fund other sports there has to be a paradigm shift in public’s attitude towards every non-cricket sport. At the moment in the eyes of the public every non-cricket sport comes forth every 4 years when the Olympics are on. That is when the public bemoans on the utter lack of performance of the athletes of the second largest nation in the world (vis-à-vis population).
Of course, the public forgets to keep the pressure on after the games are over and the athletes and the authorities involved have no reason to continue the sport. Which is why so many athletes who show promise are waylaid to the side after a few years of stellar performance.

A lot of re-think is required in a country’s upper echelons of power but unfortunately, because of other more pressing problems, sports in India (at least) will always start and stop with Cricket.

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