Battle in Print: Pitch Report: Cricket and Identity in India

Debanjan Chakrabarti, 15 December 2008

Human nature changed in India on 25 June 1983. India won the Prudential World Cup in cricket that day at Lord’s. Kapil Dev’s team was the most unlikely and unfancied XI ever to claim cricket’s ultimate trophy, with only two players of world calibre in its side – the skipper himself and the opener Sunil Gavaskar, (who barely made a mark on limited-overs cricket and rarely got off the mark in the 1983 World Cup.(1)).

In the run-up to 25 June 2008, Indian media outlets whipped up a shrill frenzy around the silver jubilee of an event that many of them did not hesitate to compare with India winning independence from British colonial rule on 15 August 1947 (2).

I was ten when it all happened. In the small copper-mining town where I grew up, 200km from Calcutta, television was yet to arrive and radio signals were weak. Like others around me in Ghatsila, I heard the live commentary over a very scratchy broadcast, with the static merging with the roar of Indian supporters in Lord’s, making the whole experience a tad more dramatic than it perhaps was in reality. But much of the match details were lost.

So I eagerly waited for the next day’s copy of The Statesman. I still remember my shock at the size of the headline. The screaming header took up almost a quarter of the page in a paper renowned for its gravitas and sense of proportion. There was no other news on page one. The front page was the sports page, my ultimate fantasy back then.

Till that day, I was a football fan, as were my friends in school, my many cousins in Calcutta, and almost every other 10-year old boy I knew. From that day, the lives of sports fans in India changed, for better or for worse. All around me the bitter football rivalry between East Bengal and Mohun Bagan, rooted deep and woven tight into complex braids of family, community and sub-national histories of pre-independence Bengal, swiftly lost its primal edge, gathering in all divided the loyalties into one potent force of supporting one nation in one sport (3).

Why other Indian team sports – particularly football and hockey - lost out to cricket after that delirious summer of 1983 is the subject of a different enquiry. But the telling fact is that 25 June 1983 was a watershed in the history and sociology of sports fandom in India. Indian cricket, egged on by the full-throated, raucous chant of almost a billion fans, surged ahead, whose apt culmination (or nadir, depending on your perspective) was the Indian Premier League – IPL for short - an orgy of fast-forward cricket laced with Bollywood razzmatazz, draped with oomphy cheerleaders in skimpy outfits, making the show every marketing person’s wet dream.

Cut forward to the summer of 2008. For nearly two months, a cricket addict nation goes on a booze-addled, fast-food fuelled binge of cricket every evening where the ratings of all other television channels apart from the IPL broadcaster Sony Entertainment plummet to zilch. The inaugural edition of the IPL climaxes in a final so full of swinging fortunes that even the best of Bollywood scripts would not match up to it. (Ironically, a typical 20:20 match lasts a little over 3 hours, almost the same as the average Bollywood film.) The curtains come down on the greatest cricket spectacle on earth, leaving in its wake mountainous heaps of drama and controversies.

In one match, two of India’s most controversial cricketers clash – Harbhajan Singh slaps India team-mate but IPL rival Sreesanth in full view of the public and television cameras. The fast bowler, usually an all-teeth-and-nail personality on field, sobs like a little boy, a spectacle that once again summons a stock image from corny Bollywood films. Harbhajan apologises, but, perhaps unwittingly, falls back on the clichéd sentiment of popular Indian cinema saying his slapping was an act of admonition, and expression of an elder-brotherly concern of sorts for his junior!

In West Bengal, the Left Front, which has the enviable record of the longest-serving democratically elected Communist government anywhere in the world (31 years and running), suffers significant reverses in local elections. Though the results primarily indicate a backlash against the ruling combine’s well-intentioned but ill-timed acquisition of agricultural land for heavy industry, the Communist Party think-tank blames it partly on the IPL season! The party’s well-oiled election machinery of committed party cadres were stumped when faced with the choice of staying put at home and watching the cricket or stepping out of it to work the political cause.

The question of divided loyalties was, to my mind, one the most fascinating and intriguing aspect of Indian sports that the Indian Premier League in cricket threw up.

The media campaign in the lead up to IPL succeeded brilliantly in breeding a sense of city-based loyalty for the eight ‘franchisees’. Modelled loosely on the successful football leagues of Europe and elsewhere, the main inspiration was very much that of the English Premier League.

However, around the same time as these slick advertisements that massaged the instincts of city-based pride (and in final analysis, a sort of provincial identity) around cricket were being rolled out in the media, in Mumbai (erstwhile Bombay) a small-time right-wing politician Raj Thakeray unleashed his goons on the city streets to hit out indiscriminately at all ‘Bhaiyyas’.

‘Bhaiyya’ is a disparaging blanket term for people of North Indian provenance, but more specifically applies to labourers from the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar whose multitudes provide much of industrial India’s unskilled workforce in construction, manufacturing, trade, and drive most of Mumbai’s iconic cabs and auto-rickshaws. The violence spread from Mumbai to other towns of Maharashtra, creating a panicky exodus of migrant labour, plunging the booming construction business in the state into a real crisis.

There was no neat cause-effect relationship between the television commercials and the provincial violence. After all, it’s symptomatic of India’s lopsided economic success that these commercials actually spoke to the highly mobile, educated, urban middle-class and not the unwashed masses that prop up Indian cricket and make it the bandwagon that every soap, shampoo and cereal-making company wants to clamber on to.

It is the latter sort that Raj Thackeray’s party had in mind as its target audience when it raised the bogey of Marathi Manus, or Maratha Pride. The target of Marathi Manus was, ironically, also those most like its own demographic, the ones dwindling at the lowest rung of the economic ladder.

But the timing of Raj Thakeray’s campaign was uncanny and showed up the jagged fault-lines of India’s complex and fragile polity through a magnifying glass. The anti-North Indian riots in Maharashtra offered a keyhole peep at a sleeping monster that could set the country on fire if ever the heady cocktail of cricket and deep-rooted provincial identity was spiked or stirred.

If by appealing to provincial identity it was stoking baser emotions, IPL also transcended national identity in other ways, much in the same way EPL clubs do. It was a strange and sublime sight, therefore, to witness the Pakistani paceman, Shoaib Akhtar, turning out for the Kolkata Knight Riders, steaming in on their home ground, Eden Gardens, against Delhi Daredevils, shattering the stumps of their captain Virendra Sehwag and the capacity crowd of 110,000 erupting in volcanic joy.

Who would have ever imagined Eden Gardens screaming its lungs out for a Pakistani fast bowler going for the jugular of some of India’s premier batsmen? Eden’s raucous cheering for one of its bêtes noires signalled an apt closure for one of its darkest chapters.

In February 1999, Akhtar was involved in a controversial run-out of Sachin Tendulkar that swung the game and a closely-fought Test series in Pakistan’s favour. Akhtar had claimed Tendulkar with a peach of a yorker in the first innings, the master batsman’s only ‘golden duck’ in Test cricket. In the second, Tendulkar was shaping up well till he ran into Shoaib and out of luck. The replays inconclusively suggested that Akhtar may have shoulder-butted Tendulkar out of the crease to effect the dismissal, but Eden’s famously passionate and volatile crowd erupted into riots and the match had to be concluded after the stands were emptied of all spectators.

The fortune of cricket in India, perhaps unlike anywhere else in the cricketing world, is closely allied with its identity as a nation. In his recent book India After Gandhi: A History of the World’s Largest Democracy author Ramachandra Guha mentions five mainstays of the idea of modern India – the bureaucracy, the railways, Bollywood, cricket and the English language.

Guha, incidentally, is also one of India’s foremost cricket writers and his A Corner of a Foreign Field (2002, Picador) is one the most erudite and elegant treatment of the complex subject of India’s fascination with and eventual mastery of a British sport (4). Guha’s history of Indian cricket charts the chequered rise of the game’s popularity along difficult matrices of caste, religion and class in India and showcases the significant success of the Palwankar brothers, primarily Baloo, who used their cricketing skills to rise above the caste prejudices their ‘Dalit’ (untouchable) birth would have in store for them in early 20th century India (5).

Guha’s narrative expertly weaves in the communal roots of the game in late 19th and early 20th century India, where Parsi, Hindu, Muslim and European teams competed for glory, and shows how the resulting ethos mapped on to the way the game developed in the subcontinent. Guha’s perceptive writing deals candidly with the treatment Muslim cricketers received in independent India, including that of one of India’s most successful captains, Mohammed Azharuddin, whose career ended in the ignominy of being branded a ‘matchfixer’.

Azhar was one of my childhood idols. When the skinny lad from Hyderabad carelessly caressed his way to three consecutive centuries on Test debut against England in 1984, my cricketing consciousness was taking a definite shape. That was the first series I watched live start to finish, our copper-mining town having just bloomed on the television map of India at long last. I later witnessed his electrifying 80-ball century against South Africa in December 1996 in a hopelessly lost cause from close quarters at Eden Gardens. He spanked 5 murderous fours in an over off the eventual man-of-the-match Lance Klusener, three of which crashed into the billboards nearest to me. Azhar was what I wanted to be at 15 – a silken bat and the stickiest fingers on the field (6).

It was one of the nastiest shocks of my adult life when Azhar was convicted of match-fixing and effectively banned for life in 2000. However, it unsettles and bothers me that Ajay Jadeja, convicted of the same ‘crime’ and handed out a similar sentence, was somehow rehabilitated by the ‘system’ and now regularly holds forth on matters cricketing on primetime television. Is it because of his upper-class Hindu background and political patronage that Ajay prospers (7), while Azhar remains the persona non grata of India’s cricket establishment because he is a Muslim?, I often ask myself and find no convincing answers.

Just as I had no answer for the strange sporting affiliation of the Patel brothers I met in later life. Like most Indian students arriving in the UK for higher studies, cricket was uppermost in my mind when I enrolled for my PhD at Reading in 2001. Without much ado I advertised my limited cricketing skills on the university ‘market’ and was soon cementing my place on the reserve bench of the first XVI of the Reading University Alumni and Research Students’ Cricket Club.

And there I met the Patel brothers, second generation British Asians whose parents of Gujarati ethnicity had arrived in the UK from Africa in the 1960s. The Patel brothers were like every other player in the team in most respects save two. Both were genuinely talented cricketers who could or should have done better than play with an assorted bunch of adults with adolescent hangovers, whose enthusiasm for cricket far outstripped any real ability in the sport. And both were deeply and disturbingly anti-British in their support in every sport. I could make some sense of their full-throated support of India in cricket, but none at all of why they cheered for Austria in football and New Zealand in rugby. Why two Englishmen, who were ‘Indians’ only at several removes, flashed their ‘anyone but England’ credo as a talismanic badge of identity, giving a finger up to the infamous Tebbitt Test remains a Howzzatt to which no two umpires of sociology or history can ever concur.

Author

Debanjan Chakrabarti, 35, works for the British Council in India, but mostly spends his working hours day-dreaming about playing cricket for India or any XI that would have him. The highlight of his long career is a brisk, run-a-ball 2 he scored at Eden Gardens in 2007, turning up for the British Council against the Calcutta Sports Journalists’ Club.

Footnotes

1) On Gavaskar’s one day batting, see Martin Williamson’s excellent piece on Cricinfo. http://content-usa.cricinfo.com/ci/content/story/281073.html It is a biased piece, but the point remains that Gavaskar’s one-day record does not complement his Test achievement.
2) From this inverted, cricket-tinged perspective of history, India’s Independence was the first and original Cricket Test Victory, a view endorsed by the Bollywood film Lagaan (2001),  a massive box office hit that blended the Indian nation’s twin fantasies of film and cricket and was nominated for the Oscars in the best foreign film category that year.
3) See also Soumya Bhattacharya’s animated account of the life-long effect of India’s World Cup triumph on the psyche of a young Calcutta boy in You Must Like Cricket?, listed below.
4) Sujit Mukherjee’s name crops up as the other leading writer on Indian cricket. However, I have not yet read any of his books, only had the good fortune of talking to him on the subject once in 1996. His full bibliography can be accessed at http://sujitmukherjee.net/common/cricket.html
5) Guha retraces the steps of the triumphant return of Baloo, fresh from his high exploits in England in 1911 for the All India team. The ‘Depressed Classes of Bombay’ had organised a felicitation for Baloo in which the welcome address was written and presented by Bhimrao Ambedkar, ‘the future draughtsman of the Indian Constitution’. (A Corner of a Foreign Field, p121)
6) Rohit Brijnath’s article for Cricinfo summarises my fascination for Azhar the cricketer and the man. http://content-usa.cricinfo.com/magazine/content/story/346898.html
7) Ajay Jadeja counts Prince Ranjit Sinhji as one of his ancestors and is married to Aditi Jaitley, the daughter of former Samata Party president Jaya Jaitley.

Recommended reading and viewing (in no particular order of preference)

Ranji, by Alan Ross, The Pavilion Library, 1988, London
You Must Like Cricket?, by Soumya Bhattacharya, Yellow Jersey Press, 2006, London. (A must-read for those who take their cricket more seriously than their lives, wives and other such distractions.)
A Corner of a Foreign Field, by Ramachandra Guha, Picador, 2002, London
A Season With Verona, by Tim Parks, Vintage, 2003, London. (Strictly speaking, this is not a cricket book. But this is by far the best book I have read on sports fandom and identity.)
Anyone But England: Cricket, Race and Class, by Mike Marquese, Two Heads Publishing, 1998, London
Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators, edited by Wann, Melnick, Russell and Pease, Routledge, 2001, New York.
Batting on the Bosphorus, by Angus Bell, Canongate, 2008, Edinburgh
Lagaan, directed by Ashutosh Gowarikar, 2001, India
Iqbal, directed by Nagesh Kukunoor, 2005, India

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