Unlike the heroes of cinema but like those of politics, the cricketer is doomed to betray the hopes and ambitions of his fans.
Untrained in political theory and unversed in the discipline of cultural studies, I had thought that the story of cricket in India told in The Tao of Cricket (first published in 1989) could be a handy trope for having my say on the tragicomic spectacle of an ancient society running breathlessly to become a modern nation-state. I felt the story worth telling since India’s intellectual and media elite seemed to love that panting, perspiring race and eager to pay the price of the deculturation and homelessness that often went with it. The diseases of the rich and the powerful have a charm of their own.
Precisely because its political analysis was unacceptable and painful, The Tao of Cricket has been read more as a cultural history of cricket than as a deviant political psychology of popular culture. As a result, many have been unhappy. Cricket lovers have felt betrayed because the book is not adequately sensitive to the nuances of the game; the serious scholars have been unhappy because of the levity of my tone and cursory treatment of weighty issues like state, nationalism, popular religion, development and progress. To a lot of Indians though, my story of cricket might have been a disappointment, but not its politics.
Cricket has a way of taking over its South Asian fans, even when they self-consciously resist being taken over. Cultural anthropologist Arjun Appadurai claims cricket to be a “hard cultural form” with values, meanings and practices that are hard to break; it changes those socialised into it more than it itself changes. No wonder even some of the hard-eyed cricket nationalists in South Asia seem to have secret selves. They want India to win all their matches, but they also enjoy the game’s laid-back, languid style, representing the rhythm of a lost lifestyle and invoking an imaginary, idyllic homeland in the past that paradoxically serves, as in some Chinese traditions, as the blueprint of an alternative future.
This inner tension of cricket has sharpened in South Asia in the recent past. This is surprising, for cricket itself has been changing globally. A.s it has become a billion-dollar enterprise, it has softened as a cultural form. Spectator demands have begun to push it further away from its original cultural role as a typically 19th-century game, enshrining pre-industrial values in an industrial society and serving as a critique of the latter.
In the popular culture of South Asian cities, cricket today is less a tacit defence of traditional bushido; it is becoming an open celebration of productivity and professionalism. Even the fact that the Indian team is the world’s best-educated cricket team —only three of the national players, presently, are not graduates — has come under scrutiny. Some believe that while cricket is their life, their education socialises them not to make it a life-and-death issue. That is why they so frequently do not win.
Some may argue that cricket has always been a spectator sport and, hence, a part of the entertainment industry. They may give examples to show that international cricket, when shorn of its hypocrisy, has always been partly driven by nationalism. Others may say that, despite its 19th-century flavour and dependence on traditions, cricket’s ability to supply a tacit criticism of the urban-industrial vision, too, has worn off with the introduction of the slap-bang dramatics of its one-day version.
The dominant model of heroics in cricket today depends much more on the values of the global market and nation-state system and is designed to alleviate the routine and tedium of everyday life through a nationalist project drummed up, paradoxically, by transnational capital. Yet, while cricket is changing to adapt to the dominant culture, the game has also shown that it can defy its new well-wishers, keen to integrate it into the global entertainment industry as a new item of mass consumption. Unlike the heroes of cinema but like those of politics, the cricketer is doomed to betray the hopes and ambitions of his fans. He is always a flawed hero who, even after giving a superhuman performance, can exit on a note that reveals his human frailty. The hero in cricket is permanently at a limbo, simultaneously more human and more superhuman. Odds or the laws of statistics always catch up with him, even when declining skills due to age or injury do not.
As an open-ended game, cricket offers one an enormous number of excuses for failure —captaincy thrust on immature shoulders, technical flaws unattended in early life or victimisation by umpires. In India, there is, additionally, insufficient nationalism and professionalism, the absence of killer instinct, innate submissiveness (as a former Indian world champion in badminton, Prakash Padukone describes it) or a ‘nice guy’ syndrome (as former Pakistani cricket captain Imran Khan calls it). However, at some point one comes to recognise that the cricketer’s form may dip once in a while naturally. Cricket involves playing dice with destiny and, in reaction, the game invites more desperate efforts to produce a perfect theory of individual achievement and agency that would explain all fluctuations in fortune as a matter of only skill, strategy, commitment and leadership. That is why when riding the crest of success, the cricket hero seems more superhuman than most other sportspersons; he takes on and defeats fate itself.
South Asians love their cricket hero because he represents an odd mix of achievement and failure. Only after retirement does he become a figure that does not arouse anxieties in the spectator about the spectator’s own limitations and failures. That, too, if he primarily remains a retired cricketer like S. Mustaq Ali or Sunil Gavaskar and does not become a politician or cricket administrator, like Chetan Chauhan or Gundappa Vishwanath. The retired cricketer is the only player who in retrospect seems to have been reasonably perfect. It is not the fickleness of the fan or the quick changes in fashion, and has to do with the distinctive ideals of the hero and heroism that cricket endorses and which resist and subvert the conventional ideal of the hero.
This partly explains the voluminous literature on cricket. Most writings on cricket can be read as a psychological defence against the encroachments of probability upon a collapsing world of certitudes. They are either a celebration of probability, an attempt to explain it away as a mere artefact, or a story of someone’s defiance of it. In this respect, cricket is a great but anachronistic 19th-century game that threatens to become a signpost to the future, too. With the collapsing edifice of certitudes that we have inherited from the last century, the 21st century may well turn out to be a charter of new experiments with cultures that have not been brainwashed by this century’s public passions.
Can South Asia, after panting through the last two centuries to emulate and equal the West in so many spheres, learn to identify not with the West’s dominant self, but with the West’s dissenting, underground, contraband self, straying from the official line on sane, rational, constructive dissent? I hope against hope that the answer turns out to be ‘yes’. I am encouraged by the observations of cricket writer Suresh Menon, ventured nearly a decade ago, on the basis of confessions made by some Indian and Pakistani test cricketers. Menon says that senior players in India and Pakistan are no longer taken in by the hype. They have realised that the much-trumpeted rivalry between the two teams is actually built up by officials, usually hardboiled politicians moonlighting as cricket administrators and mainly concerned with gates, and the media, perpetually looking for a good story.
Nothing has endorsed the thesis that cricket is becoming a mirror rather than a critique of life more flamboyantly than the experience with the 1996 World Cup. The co-hosts for the competition were India and Pakistan, two countries divided by the same passions. In their reactions to victory and defeat in cricket, one is sometimes only a comic version of the other. One of the saddest consequences of Partition, a letter to the editor of The Times of India once complained, is that neither India nor Pakistan can enjoy even a cricket match as sports; they have to “build it up as a grim test of national superiority”.
Social and environmental historian and cricket writer Ramachandra Guha recently narrated his observation of an India-Pakistan one-day cricket match in a stadium. He described the way overworked, overpaid, half-drunk yuppies among the spectators find in nationalism an excellent disguise for their communal sentiments.
Reading between lines of Guha’s story, one gets a chance to gauge the passions — the free-floating violence and the sectarian venom looking for targets —that constitute the underbelly of India’s public life today. What prompts societies to behave like adolescent fan clubs? Why do nations vest their self-esteem in the performance of 11 young players, mostly in their 20s? I fear that the answer is painful. What the politicians, bureaucrats and business persons cannot or will not do, the cricketers are expected to. They are expected to be the ideal citizens who, while conforming to the conventional tenets of citizenship, would bring the success that eludes others in more crucial spheres of life. Cricket heroes have become, for the increasingly uprooted, humiliated, decultured Indian, the ultimate remedy for all the failures — moral, economic and political —of the country.
While India, according to its middle classes, is constantly losing out to its erstwhile imperial rulers and is unable to bend its recalcitrant neighbours into docility despite its newly acquired nuclear teeth, the cricketers are expected to correct their feelings of inefficacy and emasculation. That is why the Indians believe that their team never loses because the other teams are better; it loses only because the selectors are faction-ridden, the captain is incompetent, the players do not have the killer instinct or the umpiring is bad!
Ultra-nationalism is not unknown to the rich and the powerful, though its logic may be different. American sports is great not because American government tends it, but because the American market does. The American nationalists only take for granted that their team would do well. The games in which they are not good, they do not consider worth patronising. The Europeans have their football nationalism, the most notorious of the genre; it is often associated with the hooliganism of unemployed youth.
The oddity in South Asia is that it is an unpredictable, uncertain game like cricket that has to cope with the feelings of inadequacy and grandiose ambitions of their citizens. Despite the widespread belief that the ideal cricketer is the ideal citizen and, therefore, should ‘naturally’ win his matches for his country, cricket still remains notoriously insensitive to training, preparation and talent. Despite the efforts going on for more than a century, it continues to be in South Asia, as the historian of cricket Mihir Bose puts it, a tamasha —a mix of “fun, fiesta, magic and glamour”.
The game does not yield results commensurate with a team’s skills either. For, it is a game of luck that has to be played as if it were only a game of skill. I have argued that you win in cricket when you negotiate your fate better than the other team does. Actually, you never win against the other team; you win or lose against yourself and your own fate. Nationalism in such a game is a liability, not an asset. Individual players know and acknowledge this, but do not dare to say so.
In South Asia, ultra-nationalism could well take over the game and destroy it, mindlessly and perhaps even purposelessly. For cricket can never, in response to national investments, guarantee adequate returns in national glory. Just when one thinks one has sewn up the future by producing the world’s best team, some humbler team forces one to repeat the trite adage about the uncertainties of the game. Cricket is a game of destiny that does not recognise men and nations of destiny.
Cricket is not a good cure for emasculation either, though it has been built up as such since Victorian times. There has always been a difference between the masculinity in the cultures of cricket in former colonies and the masculinity associated with 19th-century English cricket. When the Victorians said that cricket was masculine, they had, strangely, a rather classical Brahminic concept of it in mind. The good cricketer was masculine because he had control over his impulsive self and symbolised the superiority of form over substance, mind over body, and culture over nature.
Above all, cricket was masculine because it symbolised serenity in the face of the vagaries of fate and incorporated the feminine within the game’s version of the masculine. The new masculinity of cricket is built on raw performance and the superiority of substance over style and of the physical over the mental. It only further integrates cricket in the nationalist frame and in the entertainment business. In any case, to be on the safe side, I was not rooting for India in the World Cup of 1999. Given the growing communal and ethnic chauvinism in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, the victory of any of these South Asian countries could have stoked hatred and jealousy.
(This article is adapted from the preface to the forthcoming new edition of The Tao of Cricket. Printed with permission from the publisher, Oxford University Press, New Delhi.)