Why are Indians poor at team sports? We do not win at hockey or at football. We are good at cricket, but cricket isn’t really a team sport. We shall see why later. Indians have played club football for over 100 years, but our Fifa ranking is 132, one place below Fiji. Hockey has been inflicted on us as national game. We don’t enjoy it and do not watch it. We’re no good at playing it now, but we used to win at hockey once (eight Olympic golds). So what happened? Europeans worked out how their teams could defeat our great individuals, like Dhyan Chand.
Outsourced: Spaniard Jose Brasa (right) does the thinking for India’s hockey team. Manan Vatsyayana / AFP
We depend on genius—on a tour to New Zealand, Dhyan Chand scored 100 out of 192 goals—they depend on method and physical discipline. They quell their instinct towards heroism and accept a subsumed role, in favour of team efficiency and consistency. Why can’t Indians do the same thing? The answer is that we cannot understand harmony. That’s why we are poor at things that require selfless interaction, like team sports. Indians do not have the instinct of acting in concert. We find it difficult to put the other person ahead of ourselves even if both might benefit. This lack of harmony isn’t limited to sports, it is inherent: We see it every day in our mindless traffic.
Also Read Aakar’s previous Lounge columns
This is why India’s hockey team must be drawn from egalitarian communities, who are more open to harmony, and six players are Sikh. The only Indian for whom football or hockey is his primary sport is the Christian. Harmony comes to him from his faith, and it is infused through. You can see it also in his music. Of the Symphony Orchestra of India’s 11 Indian musicians, nine are Catholic. Why? The rest of us find symphonic music difficult because it stresses harmony, which means different melodies playing together. We don’t see the appeal of that, and the only Indian conductor of quality is Parsi. We prefer one clear melody and the heroic solo, like our great Hindustani music. In it one person holds forth, and all other musicians are in accompaniment.
But in a team sport, who will be that person? When Baichung Bhutia broke out as a player of quality, his complaint about his Indian teammates was that they did not pass the ball enough. Everyone wanted to be the star. On the other hand, being named to their cricket team as 12th man is a matter of great honour for Australians.
Let’s understand why cricket doesn’t have the characteristics of a team sport. Hockey and football are flowing sports. Cricket is a stop-start game. It doesn’t need harmony, and so we can be good at it. Each ball is an individual event, with a story and a conclusion. It’s why the cricket match can be reduced from five days to 3 hours without damage. Even the one-over match would be interesting, conclusive and satisfying, unlike the one-minute hockey match. A ball bowled is really a contest between two individuals, bowler and batsman. The fielders are in accompaniment. The batting side functions as a team even less. Interaction isn’t required because cricket isn’t played like football or hockey, where each movement emerges from the one before it.
The little space that is available for teamwork in cricket is not used by Indians. The South African and Australian cricketer punishes himself for the team by keeping in a high state of fitness. Our cricketers do not look like athletes, and they have little motivation to keep fit. Like Sehwag, like Tendulkar, they are artists and can help the team in greater ways than by good fielding and fast running. They contribute their genius, they do not link to the team through minor things.
In other cultures, the individual’s brilliance is only an aspect of the team. Ian Chappell observed that for Indian spectators it was okay that India lost as long as Sachin got his century. This would never happen in Australia. What he noted was actually our appreciation of genius over harmony.
Because he is focused on himself, the Indian is a good cricketer, but does not really understand the sport. His thinking is outsourced to the European.
IPL’s coaches are: Greg Shipperd (Daredevils), Dav Whatmore (Knight Riders), Ray Jennings (Royal Challengers), Shane Warne (Royals), Tom Moody (Kings XI), Stephen Fleming (Super Kings) and Darren Lehmann (Chargers). The one Indian coach, Robin Singh of Mumbai, is West Indian.
The Indian professional doesn’t study his sport though, like Tendulkar or Gavaskar, he might be a student of his own technique. That’s why our cricket team is coached by Gary Kirsten, our hockey team is coached by Jose Brasa, our football team is coached by Bob Houghton.
This disinterest shows elsewhere. The Indian’s commentary is poor and, stripped of his clichés, he has little to offer. Expert commentary is outsourced to thinkers like Benaud, Boycott and Barry Richards, because the Indian, no matter how many matches he has played, cannot provide it.
So internalized is this lack of harmony in us, that we do not notice such things. It is expected that Indians will need the coaching of Europeans.
Let us look at this question: Why is our culture marked by its lack of harmony?
The Hindi-medium Indian will be unable even to grasp the question because he can only view his culture, sanskriti, with reverence. The other thing is, India cannot be understood except in relief, after one has seen other nations, and experienced other cultures. For this, English is needed.
The English-medium Indian suspects something is wrong with his culture, but is unable to penetrate. He is liberal, and his liberalism trains him to reject answers based on race and culture. He wants to see the problem in secular terms, as a function of economics or of literacy. But he’s unable to explain the anarchy of India in this manner.
He is primed for an epiphany, which might in one moment illuminate the world around him.
What emerges when the dots connect is disturbing.
Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.
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