When the fifth wicket fell on Monday at Trent Bridge, India had a dismal total of 55 runs on the board, and captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni got out first ball. For a man leading a tired, wounded squad of cricketers struggling to find their rhythm, things could not have possibly turned worse. In the cybersphere, some were already demanding his head.
For fans reared on T20 cricket, a cricketer is as good as his last six—and even if that last six won India the World Cup only a few months ago, in the half-life of such fans’ memories, it is already forgotten. Since the fans can’t attack faceless officials of the cricket board, whose poor planning, management and arrogance have contributed to the chaos of Indian cricket, then the visible mascots would do—and who better than the captain?
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Not only has Dhoni lost two Tests in a row—a feat India hasn’t experienced since 2008—his decision to allow Ian Bell to return to the crease the previous afternoon has reinforced that image of Indians being the nice guys who don’t mind losing. For a generation that believes in “India Shining” and Chak de! India, such a gesture almost feels unpatriotic, even if, in the end, that graceful act did India little harm—Bell scored only a few more runs; India’s loss by 319 runs after having England reeling at 124 for eight on the first day has more to do with other reasons, some of them structural.
Nothing lasts forever; stuff happens. Nobody can be No. 1 all the time, as even the one-time invincible Australians have learnt in recent years. The cricket defeat isn’t a train crash, nor a stock market collapse. And no, Indian fans don’t have a God-given fundamental right in the Constitution that their team will always win.
Defeat is never pleasant, and a humiliating defeat less so, but the visceral jingoism that often accompanies cricket has a clinically bipolar quality. Idolization of cricketers is bad enough, for fans will be fans; the bizarre hatred that has often erupted against the team following a major defeat is inexplicable and reveals a national malaise. It shows a societal failing, a lack of maturity.
The Indian team’s pathetic performance in England this summer threatens to resemble the forgettable 1974 tour, when India not only lost the series 0-3, but over a few hours, an entire innings folded up for 42 runs, against the non-threatening bowling of Geoff Arnold and Chris Old. When the team had defeated England in England in 1971, there were special celebrations for the players at that time, and then prime minister Indira Gandhi attended the reception; after the 1974 tour, the large cricket bat, erected in Indore to commemorate the victories in England and the West Indies in 1971, was defaced with tar, as though those glorious victories suddenly amounted to nothing. After India was knocked out early in the 2007 World Cup, a restaurant Zaheer Khan owned and the half-built home of Dhoni were attacked. Don’t get surprised if the czar the middle class yearns for—the Lokpal—will now be asked to fix the problems affecting Indian cricket as well.
Indeed, Indian cricketers have given the nation many hours of joy. And as Ramachandra Guha pointed out in his sociological history of Indian cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field, more is demanded of the cricketers because they are the only ones who make Indians feel that their country matters in the pecking order, where it is at the top. They give Indians something to root for. So they have no choice but to win, which places a superhuman burden on 11 men—because the rest of the Indians can’t. And make no mistake, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, V.V.S. Laxman and their teammates, are more upset about the loss than any of the fans are. They can bounce back; it won’t be easy. But if they don’t, it is because they are facing a superior team. There is no shame in losing to the better team.
These defeats aren’t a national catastrophe. If Indians want to get angry about something, here’s a little list to get them started, and it is by no means complete. Trains that crash or get derailed, killing passengers. Politicians who take bribes. Leaders unrepentant about hundreds of deaths in riots under their watch. Rural schools that lack blackboards, chalks and teachers who fail to turn up at schools, but give private tuitions to the children of those who can afford to pay them. Public hospitals that fail to provide healthcare to the poor. Food thatrots in central warehouses. Police officers who think nothing of custodial deaths and cannot provide a coherent explanation about what happened. And the enduring shame of women not being able to walk freely on Indian streets, without fear, without being leered at, harassed or molested.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org