Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Cricket and the Emancipation of India

India is a fascinating place. The people, their thoughts, their actions and their activities in general are affected by many external factors which may or may not play any significant role in the lives of non-Indians. Symbolism is one such factor. Be it political, or socio-economic, or regional, or linguistic, they all define the general mind set of the masses at a given period of time. The game of Cricket is one such symbol which has been an important part of our lives for many years. It would be interesting to analyze how this symbol affected us from even before independence to all the way today when we are one of the fastest growing economy in the world.

The British introduced us to Cricket. We were under their rule at the time, and pretty much only the Indian elite and the royalty could afford to be associated with the game of Cricket. It was a matter of pride for the young Indian princes who got the chance to rub shoulders with the Englishmen and tried to match them in their own game. These princes would go to England for the higher studies and there they would learn the nuances of the game. But their stint in England would not necessarily be a pleasant one because of the prevailing racism. Even if they were royalty in their own country, they were not given an equal status outside. However, It was 1932 (15 years before we got independence), when India played its first Test match against England and lost horribly. It was expected, as we the ‘slaves’ would never have thought in our wildest of dreams to defeat our ‘masters’. Still, people like CK Nayudu, Lala Amarnath, and Vijay Merchant etc. left their indelible mark on the face of International Cricket even in that era.

Then came 1947 when India became independent but faced the brunt of partition and another country, Pakistan was born which grew on to become our arch-rivals in everything including Cricket. Such was the rivalry (border-line animosity) that if either team on tour were to lose a test match against the other team which were the host, the losing captain was sure to lose his job as soon as he landed in his country after the tour, sometimes even in between the tour. Thus, there was a time when Indian team played for a draw from ball 1. They knew they couldn’t risk a loss, as they were not confident enough that they could win. Hence it can be safely assumed that this period in Indian Cricket was much like India’s political and economic policies of that time i.e. making cautious decisions so as not to slip further rather than taking risks and plan ahead of time to reap the benefits in future. The whole idea of mediocrity was synthesized in this era.

In came Sunil Manohar Gavaskar or as later he was called ‘The Little Master’. In the times when the West Indies pace battery comprising of Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Andy Roberts, Malcolm Marshall and Colin Croft was wreaking havoc and forcing the mighty opposition teams like Australia and England to bite the dust, Gavaskar faced them without any protective gear or helmet. His game was built around a near-perfect technique and enormous powers of concentration. It is hard to visualize a more beautiful defense – virtually impenetrable and it made his wicket among the hardest to earn. His everyday grind and professionalism was an inspiration to everyone else in the team and together with them he orchestrated many memorable test match wins overseas. Much like the tough political and economic decisions taken during that time by the incumbent government of India to keep a check on the prying neighbors like Pakistan and China, and to successfully initiate the Green Revolution in order to satiate the hunger of the masses. The message was clear – we are here to stay and we are ready to work hard. We can no longer be ignored globally and it was just the beginning.

A young Kapil Dev’s team won the limited overs’ Cricket World Cup in the summer of 1983. It was considered an anomaly, a fluke, a mistake. But those who thought this way didn’t know better at that time. Beating the two-time champions – the mighty Clive Lloyd’s West Indies and that too in the mecca of Cricket at the Lord’s Cricket Ground was a like a fairytale for most of the Indians staying in or abroad. But the dream did come true. Kapil Dev’s team didn’t have big enough names to win a World Cup. It was just the right mix of talent, grit, youth, able leadership and a tinge of luck. Much like the hip/pop culture which had started to grip India during the 80s. Educated youth of the country was finally opening up. They were looking towards the west for inspiration. Some of them felt liberated, others felt frustrated. But at least they were not content with the status quo like the previous generation which came immediately after the independence. Cricket changed too – from all whites to colorful clothing. From day games to playing under the lights. More money came in, more media coverage, and glamor started to get mixed with the game and as India hosted the 1987 Cricket World Cup, it was clear that this fever was only going to increase with time to come.

Then ‘The God’ entered the Cricketing arena and soon He enchanted the whole world with His brilliant stroke play, technique, work ethic and masterclass. It was clear from His very first test match that He was not going to get bogged down by the bouncers of the fiery Pakistani pace battery. He retaliated in the same language. Much like his idol Gavaskar, Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar took the Cricketing world by storm and challenged it head-on but His methods were far more attacking than Gavaskar. Now we had our own master blaster and the bowlers were terrified of him just like they used to dread Sir Vivian Richards. Soon, He became synonymous to everything which was good and perfect. Be it the game, or the multinational brands, or the sponsors, everyone was benefited by His arrival. Today, it is hard to believe that at one point of time the BCCI had to pay Doordarshan to telecast the Cricket matches Live. Now it was an altogether different ball game. The 1996 Cricket World Cup just completely transformed the way India was perceived in the Cricketing world. It was not just a mere coincidence that the economic reforms of the 1990s took place in the same time frame. It was an open market and now everyone wanted his share of this never-ending Cricket carnival in India. Foreign investments, multinational brands, cola-wars, advertising surrounding Cricket was recorded at its all-time high during this era.

But as they say, excess of everything is harmful. With more money, came in more greed, which brought in more corruption in the game. It was the same time when India was reeling under the pressure of policy paralysis due to the incompetency of the coalition governments. The match fixing scandal broke in the late 1990s and the then Indian captain Mohammed Azharuddin and many other players from the team were accused of sharing pitch and match conditions to the bookies, sharing dressing room strategy which affected the team selection, throwing away the matches and under-perform in order to make enormous amount of money – as if they already didn’t earn enough from legitimate means. It was the darkest phase of Indian Cricket which tainted everyone ranging from players to the administrators to the match officials and the opposition players. South African captain Hansie Cronje admitted to his guilt and was sacked immediately. BCCI, facing the pressure to take some action against the accused imposed a life ban on Mohammed Azharuddin and multiple other players from the team. The people of the country were disappointed and angry with their heroes. It seemed as if that this Cricket bubble was finally burst and the only thing left were the pieces of the souls of the fans and the game.

But just like the Phoenix rises from its own ashes, the Indian Cricket was resurrected under the leadership of one man – Sourav Ganguly. His leadership, along with the abilities of his lieutenants in the form of Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, and VVS Laxman and later on Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh, Zaheer Khan, and Harbhajan Singh gave a new life to Indian Cricket. Who can forget the 2001 Kolkata Test match win against Australia which roughly divided the whole of Indian Test Cricket in to two eras – before 2001 and after 2001. Ganguly had aggression, ruthlessness, a shrewd cricketing brain and most importantly the belief that his team can win. After the match fixing scandal, even the players who were not involved were having self-doubt. What would happen now? How can I be sure that the 10 players playing alongside me are in fact playing for my team, my country? Or are they playing for the opposition just for the sake of some money? Ganguly made them believe that there is no place for such thoughts in his team. Work hard, give your 100% on the field and forget about what has happened in the past was his mantra. And don’t take anyone’s bullshit on the field – be it the mighty Australians, Pakistanis or the English. Be the bully to the one who tries to bully you. Reply in the language they understand better. Basically, don’t let them dominate you in your mind. Steve Waugh, Nasser Hussain and Wasim Akram, all can testify to this fact that Ganguly was the toughest Indian captain they had played against. This kind of attitude was never ever heard of in Indian Cricket. These players were ready to die for their captain. And in the matter of months, the weak and meek have been transformed in to the mighty. Much like the Atal Bihari Vajpayee led NDA government of that time. Pokharan Nuclear tests happened under the nose of America and Pakistan. India didn’t care about the economic sanctions which were imposed by the West, because we knew that it was the need of the hour. Kargil war happened during the same time which was the reminder to our neighbors that it was not a good idea to poke the bear. Technology (primarily in the field of communication) boom, infrastructure boom, industrial boom and 24x7 media coverage started during that time. It was an exciting time to live in. India had changed at almost every front and it had much to do with the way we changed our thinking. Now we had stopped playing the ‘victim of circumstances’ card and finally took control of our future in our own hands.

Again a slump! 2007 brought Indian Cricket to a new low when they were crashed out of the World Cup in the very first round. A new coach in the form of Greg Chappell had joined the ranks in 2005 but that change had created problems within the team. Sourav Ganguly was not performing well personally and he was soon losing the respect amongst the younger teammates. Chappell tried to took advantage of the situation by trying to oust Ganguly and other seniors thereby creating chaos within the team. Apparently, he had ‘plans’ for the team but those plans didn’t involve the seniors. Also, he was supposed to be the ‘boss’ in all his plans. Clearly, he didn’t understand Indian Cricket well. However, his tenure was short-lived as he was sacked soon after the 50-Overs World Cup debacle.
And like it happens all the time, with every adversity, a new opportunity comes along. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who had been in the mix for around 2 years now was given a young team to lead to the inaugural edition of the T20 World Cup. T20 – a newer, younger, faster format of the game which would completely revolutionize the face of Indian Cricket as well as project BCCI as the new superpower of World Cricket in terms of money, power, influence, everything – even bigger than the ICC! The young Indian Cricket team won the T20 World Cup under the captaincy of Dhoni and he became the new poster boy of Indian Cricket. Humble beginnings, hard work, a dash of luck and a lot of support from people who matter. His story had everything. But it was something else which changed that day. It was as if a switch went off somewhere and a billion-dollar idea was born. Untapped resource of endless fortune. An idea which will take Indian Cricket miles ahead of everyone else in the days to come. The ‘White’ Supremacy in World Cricket was finally over. For the past 150 years, the English and the Australians were running World Cricket and although the Indians had the potential to be the part of it, they were never truly given any importance before. They were never considered the supreme ‘boss’ before. But now, Indians had Indian Premier League – IPL.

The effect of IPL and the dominance of BCCI can be assessed by the fact that the ICC had to clear its itinerary to make space for the IPL. 8 weeks of power-packed league cricket scheduled each year during the month of April-May, every year for the past 9 years. There are cricketing leagues in other countries as well. But not many care about them. Moreover, players from all countries are welcome to participate in the IPL (barring Pakistan), but Indian players are not allowed to be the part of any other cricketing league. To retaliate, England barred their players to play in the IPL for some time. But later on they had to give in too. Also, IPL has provided a great platform for young Indian un-capped players to showcase their talent and earn a lot more than they would have if they were just playing domestic Cricket. The condition of Cricket stadiums have improved drastically in the past few years and new venues have popped up because now the BCCI have enough cash surplus to provide for these venues. The cash-rich IPL has generated better revenues with each passing year and everyone involved has benefited with it. In the year 2015 alone, IPL contributed $11.5 Billion to the Indian GDP!

But then again, when everyone is getting blinded by all that money, some people are bound to get greedy and start doing things which they ought not to do. Allegations of illegal betting and spot-fixing were made resulting in the suspension of franchise owners as well as players. Much like Congress-led UPA government of that time during which the idea of IPL was floated and became popular. It is fascinating to see that during the period when the corruption in the government of India has increased, the corruption in the game of Cricket has increased as well. So much so that this time, even one of the sitting MPs from the government was involved in the wrongful auction and procurement of the new IPL franchise. Later on, the honorable Supreme Court ordered to set the things straight.

Everything said and done, we should accept that Cricket is not just a game in India. It has become our identity. There may be many bad things happening inside or around it, but the bottom line is that it is the need of the hour. When there is a possibility to make money, one should make it – provided it should not be made through illegal means. It’s a cycle – the game brings in money, then that money helps build the game in a better way, which in turn brings more money, and then it helps us to be emancipated from the shackles of our ‘colonial masters’ who introduced us to the game at the first place.