He is one of India’s most reputed journalists, having worked in journalism for more than two decades, but deep down, Rajdeep Sardesai is a self-confessed cricket aficionado. And his new book, “Democracy’s XI: The Great Indian Cricket Story”, is a testament to that love: a book that looks at examining the journey of Indian cricket in the socio-political landscape of a nation that has undergone a rapid transformation in the last two decades.
Through 11 elegantly written portraits of cricketers, Sardesai’s book draws comparisons between cricket and constitutional democracy, highlighting how the sport has turned into Indian democracy’s alter ego, mirroring the best ideals the nation was found on.
In this interview with YKA, Sardesai speaks about his enduring love for cricket, the issues facing contemporary journalism today, and why he is proud to be called an anti-national.
Q: Your last book was about the election that changed Indian politics. This one is about the players who changed Indian cricket. What made you write this book? Any particular reason for writing it now?
Rajdeep Sardesai (RS): If tracking politics as a journalist has been my profession, then cricket has been an abiding passion. I loved writing on elections but guess there has always been a bug to write about cricket too inside me. The fact that my father was a test cricketer meant that I was nursed in a cricket ambience right from childhood. A lot of my father’s generation of the 1960s and 70s is slowly ageing, I felt I should tell their stories and connect it to present day cricket, to look at the rise of a ‘new’ India through the prism of cricket by using the sport as a metaphor for a changing India. At a time when India is the number one team in the world, this was a good time to write on the journey of cricket.
Q: The book talks about the 11 players whom you believe represent the era of democratic republicanism in Indian cricket. Are these, in your opinion, then also the best 11 players India has produced? Why/Why not?
RS: No, no, this book is not about an all-time eleven at all. This book is a personal choice of cricketers, starting with my father Dilip Sardesai, who is a sentimental choice I guess. My father is till date the only Goa-born cricketer to play for India so he is one of the original small town cricket heroes in a sense. I chose cricketers who symbolised generations and the changing face of cricket: a Sardesai and Pataudi in the 60s, a Gavaskar and a Bedi from the 70s, Kapil Dev and Azhar in the 80s, Sachin, Sourav and Rahul Dravid from the 90s and the millennium masters like Kohli and Dhoni. Maybe I should have included a few more but don’t think this is a bad list either.
Q: Cricket, you write, has become Indian democracy’s alter ego, “…one of the few largely meritocratic activities in the country”. While talent may still be the determinant on the field, the darker aspects ailing Indian democracy (nepotism, political clout, corruption) still continue to impact the sport, at least, off the field. Do you feel this can be really changed? How?
RS: Look, there will be an element of nepotism that exists at junior level, in the districts where local politics influences cricket selection, there will also be corruption when the stakes are so high… and yet, truth is, cricket is now increasingly driven by merit and merit alone: you cannot play for India unless you are one of the eleven most talented players in the country. The sport has cut across all class, caste, regional, religious barriers. That’s why cricket is so attractive and represents the democratic spirit of a changing India. To my mind, cricket symbolises an aspirational India driven by merit, not privilege or lineage. That is the central thesis of the book: this is a real-life Lagaan, driven by the energies of an upwardly mobile society.
Q: Indian cricket had its Oliver Twist moment in 1975, you write, when Kapil Dev stormed the scene and triggered India’s biggest cricketing revolution. Since then, the game has witnessed a radical transformation, yet the big cricket dream still remains elusive for some. What in your opinion, for example, will it take for adivasi players to become more visible in the cricketing scene?
RS: I think the big challenge of cricket is to always provide equal opportunity and take quality infrastructure to every corner of India. It’s already happening but the revolution is still incomplete. To complete the revolution, you need to take cricket to every mofussil town, have a sports facility even in rural India. That’s when we will see the next big take off. Don’t forget, we already have six to seven players from small towns in the Indian team. One day, we will have tribal heroes too on the cricket field.
Q: Do you think the book could have been made more inclusive (and reflected Democracy XI more truly) had a female cricketer, like a Shanta Rangaswamy, or Diana Edulji, or even Mithali Raj been included in the book? What made you decide against this inclusion?
RS: Very good question, and it’s an omission I do somewhat regret. The fact is, Indian women’s cricket is still work in progress. And the World Cup ride came in July when my book was more or less done. Maybe, the women deserved a separate chapter (I have referred to their success in my introduction), especially as their journey has been even tougher than the men. But I didn’t want to write a token chapter either. But maybe someone will one day write a book on women’s cricket too!
Q: A lot has changed in India from the time when Kapil Dev’s team won the world cup in 1983 to when Dhoni’s team did the same. Cricket, in a sense, reflects that journey – of a nation moving from its socialist roots towards a more globalizing future. How has this journey impacted the sport in your view?
RS: I think the engine of commerce has transformed this game forever. Indian cricket is now more professional, more driven by the market than ever before, a part of the infotainment industry. The wealth creation of cricket has been an important factor in making cricket an aspirational dream. No Indian cricketer will ever have to struggle to make ends meet. Maybe, some of the innocence of an earlier semi-amateur era is gone and there is a crassness at times to the commercial engine, but let’s also accept that the competition has become more intense, and the talent quotient even higher.
Q: A lot has changed in the country in the last 3 years too, since the NDA government came to power. How has the Indian media space changed during this time? Has journalism become a more dangerous profession than it was, say, a decade ago?
RS: I don’t know about journalism becoming more dangerous in the country in last three years. Let’s not exaggerate the threat: I often say this: journalists in Pakistan are braver than us, we face only criticism and abuse on social media, they have to face guns from terror outfits. Yes, the tragic killing of senior journalist Gauri Lankesh should lead us to introspect as to what lies ahead. I do believe that there are forces of intolerance who simply will not accept dissent. These forces, some of them now in power, want the media to be a cheerleader, a foot soldier of those in power. Sadly, some journalists have, like in the emergency years, chosen to prostrate when asked to bend. The government uses its power over media owners, in particular, to get news organisations to fall in line: this is troubling and reduces the space in mainstream media for an alternate opinion.
Q: In February last year, you wrote a piece in the Hindustan Times about being an anti-national and why you were proud to be one. Do you still consider yourself an anti-national? Why/why not?
RS: If telling truth to power is an anti-national act, then I am anti-national and proud to be called one. My job as a journalist is to question those in power, to shed sunlight on that which the ruling class would like to hide in darkness. How does that make me or anyone else an anti-national? We must end this poisonous narrative of ‘nationalism’ versus ‘anti-national’ because it will end in dividing and polarising India.
Q: Social media has changed the way news is done, and the profession of journalism as we know it. What do you make of this development? And what advice would you give to aspiring students diving into the profession?
RS: Social media is the new beast in the hyperactive media jungle. It is news and opinion on steroids in a capsular form. It breeds a culture of noise and sensationalism that one needs to be wary of. Yes, we are in an age of instant communication, but can complex issues be reduced to 140 characters on twitter? Can abuse and fake news become the staple of the news universe? I appreciate the interactive element of social media but we need to call out the darker side of social media too instead of trying to ape it on tv by allowing sense to be overtaken by sensation. Young journalists who are attuned to technology must take the lead in re-defining news journalism: enter areas where mainstream media has failed to take the lead like environment, science and technology, health and education, the core issues of the future. It’s the young who must do what maybe my generation failed to do: create a healthy media ecosystem where credibility matters more than any ratings game. It won’t be easy but we must give it a shot.