Across the Aisle by P Chidambaram: Cricket is a game, not war

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November 14, 2021 6:30 AM

The game has changed beyond recognition. For decades, the only version was the 5-day Test — slow, often boring, and with no certainty of a result.

Pakistan's Shadab Khan, centre, celebrates Australia's Glenn Maxwell dismissal during Twenty20 World Cup semi-final match in Dubai (AP Photo)Pakistan's Shadab Khan, centre, celebrates Australia's Glenn Maxwell dismissal during Twenty20 World Cup semi-final match in Dubai (AP Photo)

Today, the T20 World Cup will come to an end and the winner will be known. It will not be India. Pakistan and New Zealand dealt two staggering blows in the first two matches that India played. In the first match, Pakistan defeated India by 10 wickets. In the next, New Zealand beat India by 8 wickets.

Pakistan, like any other cricket-playing country, is a worthy adversary. However, when Pakistan plays India, it is seen as a battle between sworn enemies. I suspect it is not mere cricket rivalry that pushes thousands of Indians and Pakistanis to take such a hostile attitude in what is, after all, a game.

The Game has Changed

There was a time when cricket in India was an urban, largely middle class, game. Players were admired; not idolised. In their private lives, the players held normal jobs; their wives did not become instant celebrities upon marriage. Players were paid small amounts; they did not earn substantial sums of money by playing cricket and many times more by endorsing products. (Bapu Nadkarni, a left arm slow bowler who could bowl maiden after maiden, revealed that he would take the suburban train to Brabourne Stadium in Bombay — now Mumbai — and be paid Rs 50 per day for playing for India in a Test match!)

The game has changed beyond recognition. For decades, the only version was the 5-day Test — slow, often boring, and with no certainty of a result. The change began with one-day, 50-overs a side, matches called ODI. There was no question of a ‘draw’ because the contest invariably produced a ‘winner’. A tie was rare, and the tie-breaker play threw up a winner. The game changed even more dramatically with the introduction of the 20-over version. No one knows what will be the next change, but it certainly will be with the intent to charge up the spectators. If I may speculate, it could be a 50-overs a side, two innings each, three-day Test match!

More countries are playing cricket and more are graduating from ‘minnow’ to ‘can-beat-any-side-on-a-good-day’ team. Afghanistan is an example (2 wins out of 5 matches in the World Cup). The strange coincidence is that all the 12 countries that took part in the T20I World Cup are English-speaking nations, although I suspect that, among themselves, team players speak Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Sinhala, Persian, Pashto, Afrikaans or Oshiwambo. If and when the game spreads to non-English speaking nations — especially of Europe and South America — it will become a truly international sport like football or tennis.

Base Emotions

It is deeply worrying that India and Pakistan should regard each other as enemies than as just adversaries on the cricket ground. No other game played between sportspersons of the two countries evokes such hostility. Mr Neeraj Chopra, Olympic javelin champion, beat Mr Arshad Nadeem of Pakistan without Pakistani fans erupting in anger and hate. I suppose if the result had been the opposite, the same calm atmosphere would have prevailed in India.

What is it about cricket that releases the base emotions of otherwise knowledgeable fans in India and Pakistan? Some think it has to do with the wars fought between the two countries, the cross-border terrorist activities, and the political rhetoric. Yet, players of the two countries contest each other in hockey or boxing or wrestling without their supporters turning into fierce soldiers.

What is more painful is that the mutual animosity takes a savage turn and targets individual players.

Mr Mohammed Shami was abused and trolled after India lost to Pakistan. The obvious and undeniable reason was that Mr Shami is a Muslim. The unstated charge was that he ‘did India in’. Nothing can be more ridiculous than such a charge. The abusers forgot the number of matches that Mr Shami’s bowling had won for the Indian team. He is a tireless workhorse who can produce spectacular spells of energy and guile. Equally pathetic was a Pakistan minister’s comment that Pakistan’s victory was the “victory of Islam”. Like Mr Shami, numerous Muslim players have made India proud. Names that come to mind immediately are Mr Mohd Azharuddin,

Mr Abbas Ali Baig, Mr Salim Durrani and the late Mansoor Ali Khan, the Nawab of Pataudi. Two of them captained the Indian team.

Stop the Spread of Poison

I suspect that the poison that is being spread in the polity of the country has seeped into cricket stadia and cricket-watching living rooms. Among India’s best writers, poets, musicians, painters, actors, scientists, professors and teachers, doctors, lawyers, architects, businesspersons and legislators are Muslims. Mr Shami’s Muslim faith is irrelevant to his cricketing skills and his achievements. It is good that Mr Virat Kohli, the captain, lost no time in condemning the abusers and trolls as “spineless people”. People from different walks of life did the same. It is unfortunate that the Sports Minister maintained a studied silence.

When any citizen of India (Mr Shami, in this case) is humiliated because of his or her religion, every other citizen should feel the humiliation. After 51 Muslims were killed by a white supremacist,

Ms Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand, united her citizens with three simple words: “We are one”. I want to hear such words in India.

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