There is something almost clinically bipolar about India’s—and by
extension, Pakistan’s —response to cricket. When the teams win a series, the players are extolled as world beaters. And, as it has turned out in this World Cup, if the team gets knocked out, hell has known no fury like a subcontinental fan scorned.
This reaction is not only pathetic and absurd, it is also distastefully bizarre. Bob Woolmer’s ghastly murder is sinister enough—this World Cup will not be able to erase it, nor will the game be able to recover for quite some time—but the attacks on Zaheer Khan’s restaurant, demonstrations in front of Sachin Tendulkar’s home, the vandalization of the half-built house of Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and the beefing up of security around the homes of other cricketers, rank as callous and cowardly acts by people who wouldn’t be able to survive one over in gali cricket, playing against the weakest mohalla or chawl in town. As if that wasn’t bad enough, politicians, ranging from Ajay Maken and Lalu Prasad to Lal Krishna Advani, have shed crocodile tears over the Indian defeat, some even calling for a parliamentary probe.
Let us get this straight. India is a country where a quarter of the population earns less than a dollar a day. Miles of roads in its big cities remain potholed. About 37 inches of rainfall collapses a city’s infrastructure. Bridges crumble, and trains and buses crash. State-run hospitals run out of medicines, primary schools have neither equipment nor teachers. In a country as lacking in accountability as this, the parliamentarians want a team of talented youngsters who were outperformed by better teams to be held answerable before a bunch of politicians? Indian cricketers were simply outplayed by teams that played better. That’s cause for major disappointment, soul-searching, possible anger, endless what-if scenarios, and water-cooler conversations. But this is not a national crisis. It is just a game. Stuff happens.
Equally outrageous are calls from some fans who want the players to be held accountable because they earn so much money. These fans don’t directly pay for the multimillion-rupee endorsement the cricketers earn. It is the ad agencies and consumer product companies that are left with a disaster on their hands, because it is those firms that outbid others and paid large sums of money for the cricketers’ endorsements. Clearly, there should be a connection between effort and reward, but that is a matter between the players, their agents, and their corporate sponsors. If my team loses, I can’t demand a refund from the stadium’s authorities; if my political party loses, I can’t stop paying taxes. I can choose not to see a cricket match, and I can choose not to buy products endorsed by a particularly incompetent cricketer. But cricketers are earning what the market thinks they are worth.
The fans’ investment is emotional, and that’s understandable. Nobody likes being a jilted lover. But fans don’t have the right that India must win. This ‘right’ has emerged because of the hype surrounding the ‘shining’ India ‘poised’ to take over the world; that Team India could do no wrong. On its day, indeed, the Indian team is the best in the world, and has an excellent track record. The pressure on cricketers is also compounded by the fact that India wins so little elsewhere, and when it does, it is so rare. With the exception of the streak of victories at the Olympic Games in hockey from 1928 to 1956, and then again in 1964 (we should not consider the 1980 Moscow victory as a major one), and the World Cup in 1975, there is no team sport in which India has dominated global attention.
With cricket, it is different, with the Indian board itself accounting for some four out of five dollars the game earns worldwide, and, in effect, is able to subsidize the game around the world. For political reasons (dominating the International Cricket Council) India lobbied for Bangladesh’s inclusion in the major league; as ye sow, so shall ye reap.
Cricketers have given India much to cheer, and now the fan feels cheated and robbed. He can’t strut around, claiming he is a champion; so, as Ramachandra Guha argues in his marvellous sociological survey of Indian cricket, A Corner Of A Foreign Field, Indian cricketers are the only ones who convince the fans that India matters somewhere; they give Indians something to root for. So the team must win, placing a disproportionately large amount of burden on 11 men —because the rest of India can’t.
That wasn’t valid in 1974, when Ajit Wadekar’s team returned after losing three consecutive tests in England, and yet the cricket bat erected in 1971 in their honour in Indore was defaced. And it is certainly not the case today, when Team India boasts of world-class companies, authors, artists, and other achievers.
India’s loss at the World Cup is a disaster for businesses that made huge promotional investments, and for fans, who had invested much emotion. But it is not the end of the world. However beautiful, however charming, and however pulsating, in the end, it is only a game.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org