Sunday, February 25, 2024

Charms and Loves of Cricket that is Indian

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India has just won the Asia Cup, in a stunningly one-sided final. Now the Australians are arriving on our shores and the World Cups. Cricket fever has again seized the land.

I have often thought that cricket is really, in the sociologist Ashis Nandy’s phrase, an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British. Everything about the sport seems suited to the Indian national character: its rich complexity, the infinite possibilities and variations possible with each delivery, the dozen different ways of getting out, are all rather like Indian classical music, in which the basic laws are laid down but the performer then improvises gloriously, unshackled by anything so mundane as a written score. The glorious uncertainties of the game echo ancient Indian thought: Indian fatalists instinctively understand that it is precisely when you are seeing the ball well and timing your fours off the sweet of the bat that the unplayable shooter can come along and bowl you. It is almost, as has also been observed, a pastime in which the Bhagavad Gita is performed in the guise of a Victorian English morality play.

A country where a majority of the population still consults astrologers and believes in the capricious influence of the planets can well appreciate a sport in which an ill-timed cloudburst, a badly-prepared pitch, a lost toss of a coin or the sun in the eyes of a fielder can transform the outcome of a game. Even the possibility that five tense, exciting, hotly-contested and occasionally meandering days of cricket can still end in a draw seems derived from Indian philosophy, which accepts profoundly that in life the journey is as important as the destination.

No wonder cricket has seized the national imagination of India as no other sport has. Our cricketers occupy a place in the pantheon rivalled only by gods and Bollywood stars. The performances of our heroes are analysed with far more passion than any political crisis; selectoral sins of commission and omission, especially the latter, can bring teeming cities to a grinding halt. In no other country, I dare say, does a sport so often command the front pages of the leading newspapers.

And why not? What could be more important than the thrilling endeavours of a gifted batsman or the magical wiles of a talented spinner, each performing his dharma, the individual doing his duty in a team game, just as in life each Indian fulfils his destiny within the fate of the collectivity?

The Oval stadium in London | Reuters

Cricket first came to India with decorous English gentlemen idly pursuing their leisure; it took nearly a century for the ‘natives’ to learn the sport, and then they played it in most un-English ways. I remember being taken by my father to my first-ever Test match, in Bombay in late 1963, when an English side (much weaker than the present one) was touring. I shall never forget the exhilaration of watching India’s opening batsman and wicketkeeper, Budhi Kunderan, smite a huge six over midwicket, follow it soon after with another blow that just failed to carry across the rope, and then sky a big shot in a gigantic loop over mid-on. As it spiralled upwards Kunderan began running; when the ball was caught by an English fielder, he hurled his bat in the air, continued running, caught it as it came down, and ran into the pavilion. I was hooked for life.

India has always had its Kunderans, but it has also had its meticulous grafters, its plodders, its anarchists and its stoics: a society which recognizes that all sorts of people have their place recognizes the value of variety in its cricket team as well. Cricket reflects and transcends India’s diversity: the Indian team has been led by captains from each of our major faiths, Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Christians and a colourful Sikh. A land divided by caste, creed, colour, culture, cuisine, custom and costume is united by a great conviction: cricket.

Yes, the British brought it to us. But they did not do so in the expectation that we would defeat them one day at their own game, or that our film-makers would win an Oscar nomination for an improbable tale about a motley bunch of illiterate villagers besting their colonial overlords at a fictional nineteenth century match (Lagaan, 2003). Sport played an important role in British imperialism, since it combined Victorian ideas of muscular Christianity, a cult of youthful vigour and derring-do in far-off lands, and the implicit mission of bringing order and civilization to the unruly East through the imposition of rules learned on the playing fields of Eton. If Empire was a field of play, then to the colonized, learning the rules and trying to defeat the masters at their own game became an inevitable expression of national feeling.

Scholars have demonstrated that one of the reasons why cricket acquired such a hold in Bengal society between 1880 and 1947 was as a way to discharge the allegation of effeminacy against the Bengali male by beating the English at their own game. The educated middle class of Bengal, the bhadralok, joined the maharajas of Natore, Cooch Behar, Mymensingh and other native states to make cricket a part of Bengali social life as a means of attaining recognition from their colonial masters. At the same time, the British, who saw cricket as a useful tool of the Raj’s civilizing mission, promoted the sport in educational institutions of the province.

In a somewhat different way, Parsi cricketers in Bombay undertook the sport for the purpose of social mobility within the colonial framework. The maharajas, the affluent classes and Anglicized Indians, Ashis Nandy points out, ‘saw cricket as an identifier of social status and as a means of access to the power elite of the Raj. Even the fact that cricket was an expensive game by Indian standards strengthened these connections.

Mohammed Siraj poses with the Asia Cup trophy | AP

Curiously, this pattern was replicated across the country, not just in the British presidencies but also in the princely states, many of which produced not inconsiderable teams, well financed by the native rulers. Some of these gentlemen played the sport themselves at a significant level of accomplishment; one, K. S. Ranjitsinhji (universally known as ‘Ranji’, and enviously as ‘Run-get-sin-ji’), was selected to play for England against Australia in 1895, and scored a century on debut, which made him the hero of the Indian public. A dapper figure in a silk shirt, all flashing eyes and flashing bat, Ranji (1872-1933) was one of the game’s all-time greats and the first non-white to play for England. It is fascinating how Ranji, like Oscar Wilde and Benjamin Disraeli, became an English hero without being quite English enough himself. (‘He never played a Christian stroke in his life,’ as one English admirer disbelievingly put it.) Ranji described himself as ‘an English cricketer and an Indian prince,’ but as the Anglo-Dutch writer Ian Buruma observes: ‘As an English cricketer he behaved like an Indian prince, and as an Indian prince like an English cricketer.’

Cricket, of course, flourishes in democratic India far more than it ever did in the days of the Raj. It is played not by the princes to whom the British taught it, but by the sons of India’s middle and lower-middle-classes, the products of a nationalism Ranji despised. The hero of the Asia Cup final was the son of a Muslim auto-rickshaw driver; the last Indian captain to win a World Cup began life as a ticket-collector on the Railways. Cricket is now a truly Indian game, far removed from its colonial origins. While one must concede that the British imparted it to us, today we can more than hold our own with them, and anyone else playing the sport. Bring on the World!

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