There is no scope for sports-based idealism in war-torn areas and conflict zones. Though many scholars have suggested that politics should be separate from sports, there are enough examples in sports history where national teams were seen as soldiers going to war, where the playing field was symbolically seen as a battlefield. In this particular rhetoric, often evoked by ultra-nationalists, the sport in itself gets devalued. The performances of the athletes are directly linked to political events. This ideology leads to a gross devaluation of sportsmanship.
Back in January 2016, when many Virat Kohli fans were engulfed by a brief period of catharsis and displayed their emotions with pride – as he had scored a clinical knock of 90 runs against Australia – a fan in Pakistan chose a different way to celebrate this accomplishment of Kohli. Umar Draz, a tailor by profession, scurried up to his rooftop and hoisted the Indian flag in love for the cricketer. What followed this action assaulted his entire being. Police registered a case under Section 123-A of the Pakistan Penal Code and 16 Maintenance of Public Order against him. Draz pleaded before the judge: “I had no idea that I committed a crime. The very act of hoisting a flag should be seen as my love for an Indian cricketer.”
My experience was quite similar to this situation. On June 4, I was glued to the TV and watched every reflex of Virat Kohli with earnest sobriety. Among twenty match viewers and the ghost of silence, only my teeth chattered, my fingers clenched into a fist, and a phrase, “Yes! Zabardast shot!” came reflexively out of my mouth, since Kohli had flayed a rare bad ball from Amir over the backward point, thereby scoring the second four of his innings. What ensued next, haunts me every time, even in a closed and fortified room, when I am watching Kohli thrashing a ball into the fences. Just after my act of emotional release, I was violated by a mean, obscene and coarse rant.
One of the match viewers harangued, “Oye Hindustani agent tu kyun itna khush ho raha hai, watch out! Amir will break his middle stump (O agent of Hindustan, why are you being so happy? Watch out, Amir…).” Though this sweeping statement cultivated some questions in my brain, I kept wondering for a while – what made him link my love for cricket with espionage? I left these questions unanswered and fixed my eyes back on the television screen.
An advertisement that followed with Kohli drawing a ‘V’ with his bat on the screen apparently irritated one of my close friends, and he said to me: “Mussalman hoke tu is Kohli ko support karta hai, saala gaddar (How can you support Kohli despite being a Mussalman? You renegade)!” Yet another baffling argument, and I was amazed at this absurd conflation of cricket with religion. The fear of losing my dear friend prevented me from reacting back. Also, they were twenty – any retort or analysis would have cost me fractured bones.
Nonetheless, when Yuvraj was sending every poor delivery to the fences, deep inside I wished for him to be on the non-striker end. Watching Kohli bat is like performing an important duty, the way he manoeuvres a ball into the boundary line busts the stress out of me. His skilful batting is essentially a treat. For a while, all of my colleagues embraced silence, as Kohli struggled with his bat and regularly gave strike to Yuvraj. As a few overs passed, it was the sight of Wahab Riyaz being punished for his poor bowling by Kohli that annoyed my colleagues and pushed their compass of anger towards an extreme direction. Although I was dead silent, an elder compatriot came near me, gripped my collar, and commanded me to leave the room. I followed the order and left the polarised and inflammable atmosphere, believing that everything would be back on track once the match was over.
The feeling of not being part of the majority gnawed at my soul. I abused the hormones controlling my emotions, asking them to stop cheering for Kohli, to stop being joyful over his phenomenal bat speed when hitting a boundary, to stop smiling when he aggressively chases opposition to loss, to stop being happy when looking at his formidable records. The decision I took, now, was to dump my love for Virat’s batting and force the hormones to start hailing Pakistani cricketer Babar. I tried, and tried hard to release emotions every time Babar hit a boundary while playing against Sri Lanka. I failed terribly in generating a single impulse, and turned off the TV. As Dale Carnegie has rightly said: “A person forced against his will is of the same opinion still.”
While narrating this entire incident to my friend, he reached the same conclusion, but with a cool temperament. He argued, “Kashmir has a geographical, psychological, religious, and cultural proximity with Pakistan, thereby you ought to be smiling when a Pakistani cricketer hits a boundary. And given the fact that India has occupied our state where deprivation and human rights abuse is choking the people to death, you ought not to cheer for Kohli.” He went on to describe an entire path to dissuade me. “Look, Kohli plays for India, India is run by a government, government patronises Indian army, army kills innocent Kashmiris. Hence you need to withdraw your support for Kohli.”
Being a sports idealist, I refused to concede to his theory. But given the polarising ambience in Kashmir, it is hard to relish the cricketing performance of Virat Kohli. Apart from watching Kohli batting in a locked room, it is hard to smile, feel enthusiastic and be amused. One cannot publicly give vent to his emotions, as fear of being labelled as a traitor surpasses every other sentiment. The spectacle of Virat whipping a ball towards the boundary, has to be seen in public with dead and emotionless eyes.