The World Cup Cricket 1996 is already receding in memory, but to scholars it will provide grist for sociological analysis long into the future. The discussion will centre on several subjects, including nationalism, regionalism and chauvinism. A long-playing show which had the entire Subcontinent in thrall for more than a month, the World Cup should be studied for what it revealed about us Subcontinentals.
Asians and Caribbeans alike have always been pleased to beat the former colonial masters. However, if the English team is unavailable, any white team will do. In this World Cup, that team happened to be Australia. Already unpopular because of earlier altercations with Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the Aussies´ refusal to play Sri Lanka after the 31 January Colombo blast invited South Asia´s collective wrath. That the anger was specifically directed at the Australians´ white skin was obvious from the fact that the West Indies were not targeted at all, even though they too refused to travel to Colombo.
The Australian team is actually to be thanked for the regional solidarity that resulted from their action, for they have done more for South Asia comradeship than a handful of SAARC summits put together. Their boycott was what it took for India and Pakistan to field a joint team to play the goodwill match against Sri Lanka. The feeling engendered was, however, very much us-vs-them, or brown-vs-white. Not very healthy.
It was downhill all the way after Colombo, as nationalist sentiments and preference pushed regionalism to a corner. The fight was for flag, god and glory. Those who did not have national teams rooted for those that were geopolitically most correct. Bangladeshis rooted for Sri Lanka, for example, because Dhaka has no problems with Colombo. With Pakistan, it is 1971; and with India, it is Farakka; but with Sri Lanka, it is only garment buyers. Nepalis cheered Sri Lanka” or Pakistan when they fought India, but backed India when they played the Australians.
The blanket coverage provided by satellite television, and the coming of age of sponsored advertising in South Asia, seems to have reinforced nationalist fervour. With all the hype being beamed down, the public was carried along in the jingoistic wave. Commercials exhorted the teams to give no quarter. In Pakistan, the song “Hum Jeetengye” was played to distraction. Even multinationals got into the act. Coca Cola, which sells in both India and Pakistan, chose to back only India, through ads in the Indian press.
A cricket match between India and Pakistan is a substitute for war-“orgies of vicarious nationalism”, according to one commentator. This time around the war dead were both the Indian and Pakistani players, who were taken to the pinnacle only to be violently dropped from the top by a disenchanted public. It was actually somewhat worse for the Pakistani players, for they had to face the ignominy of defeat to India.
But it is India, as the largest Test-playing nation, that takes cricket more strongly than any other country. It has the largest fan following, the biggest TV viewership, and an increasingly prosperous, and huge, middle-class, groping for mass icons. Every time India lose, fans go through a range of emotional upheavals: they are angry, hurt, mystified, disenchanted. Taking a detached view of cricket is just not the Indian approach.
Time was when boys doing well at sport in the elite public schools aspired for executive positions in once British owned companies. Those who played the game were not expected to fiddle the books. These were the men who looked upon cricket as just a game. Losing did not mean the end of the world or the end of anything, by which token winning the World Cup did not mean that Sri Lankans were suddenly the most superior South Asians.
The sad truth is that the downslide in the sporting spirit both on and off the field has been directly proportional to the ascending monetary rewards and idolisation by the media and fans. When the Lankans started off this time, they were one of the few teams who did not expect to receive fabulous prizes if they won. But things turned out quite differently, and the old values have evaporated in the face of the cash deluge.
It is not only blazers and cream flannels that have gone out of fashion in cricket. Sportsmanship and respect for the umpire´s word have been eroded as the tournaments are converted into war games. Most of us who read and speak English and watch cricket are familiar with the lines “Play up! play up! and play the game!” But not everybody would remember the full verse of “Vitai Lampada”, in which Sir Henry Newbolt (1862-1938) so eloquently captured what cricket is all about:
There´s a breathless hush in the Close tonight–
Ten to make and the match to win–
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man.
And it´s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season´s fame,
But his Captain´s hand on his shoulder smote-
Play up! play up! and play the game.