They say that politics and sports should always be kept separate. This article goes against this saying, but in another way, follows the trend set by our country itself. Cricket and politics are twin obsessions of India and their relationship goes way back in time. A recent conversation with a friend of mine shifted me back in time to a childhood incident. That small incident bothered me to do a cross-era comparison (Lockdown has given a lot of us a whale lot of relaxing time unless some sections of people who have been horribly affected, for instance, migrant labourers) with references involving two personality cults from two different fields.
It is a real incident set in 2003, the same year Indian cricket team finished second-best in the cricket world cup. Sachin Tendulkar was the biggest star of the nation at that time and like million others, I was also a die-hard fan of him.
We are all aware of the fact that cricket has been a separate religion in India uniting people like no other religion. Although we were a strong batting side at that time during most of the 90s, our batting unit was considered a single-celled unit and that cell was Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar. Be it “Desert Storm” in Sharjah as well as an unbeaten 155 against Australia in the second innings at Chennai in 1998, “emotional” knock of unbeaten 140 against Kenya in WC 1999 after his father’s demise, Sachin had struck a chord with the entire nation.
Think about the possibility of social media at that time. I dare to say with enough confidence that it would have been impossible for anybody to have more followers than Sachin (A political leader?? Come on, we were not that wise then). This man had a messianic appeal. We Indians had a reverential love for him and youngsters especially were so ecstatic about him. Such was his aura that he was impervious to moral vulnerabilities like loss of form. Peter Roebuck, a former English cricketer and a renowned Australian newspaper columnist had once quoted “This genius can stop time in India.”
It is said that the growth of satellite telecasts transformed him into the game’s global icon and a symbol of new India, just the way the surge of internet and social media has crafted ‘Hugo Chavez’ of new India. In a nutshell, he could do no wrong. Tendulkar was a symbol of moral values of India. Remember the monkey gate Sydney 2008? The whole basis of the Indian case had come down to the fact that if Tendulkar had not heard it, then it had not happened.
It was Andrew Symonds who had interpreted a much worse “maa-ki” abuse from Harbhajan as “monkey” just like a news anchor overhearing “Bhartiya Court Zindabad” as “Pakistan Zindabad” recently. Sydney 2008 incident also tells us that at times a team may stoop very low for winning just like political parties. In that case, being a supporter of a team, one must not stop questioning the role of the captain, umpires and match referees just because their on-field decisions are going your way.
The spirit of the game must be kept alive (Spirit of democracy is too much to ask for, right?) When India’s elite institutions are facing a credibility crisis, this is how we feel pointing fingers at a judiciary which has added several new pages of ignominy in the last year. (I really don’t want to be harsh on Steve Bucknor by comparing him to our ex-chief justice who kept on gifting government with his judgements).
Let’s come back to talk about 2003 WC from where we started. Under the able leadership of Saurav Ganguly, we had become a formidable side. Just months before, we had won the NatWest trophy at Lord’s in England. Cricket pandits didn’t stop writing about that victory for years as it was such a defining moment for Indian cricket. How many of us have witnessed that historic win LIVE? Very few. Reason? Our top order along with the star batsman was back in pavilion even before we reached the halfway mark.
If not Sachin, then who?! (No need to go deeper in this line).
After initial jitters, we put up an improved performance gradually and reached the final of WC. Tendulkar was in sublime touch and needless to say that all hopes were pinned on him. One of the main reasons that he was considered one of the greatest was this burden of hopes and aspirations of millions of Indians. According to a famous Hindi news portal, we Indians had put ourselves in lockdown by ourselves that day. It indeed was a big day. The city had come to a halt, streets deserted and shops closed.
After all, we required so much preparation and arrangement to watch the big final. We didn’t have mobile phones well equipped with 4G internet. Frequent electricity cuts were a big pain in the ass thing. Renting of TV sets as well as batteries had to be done in advance. How will you justify a less than 4 hours’ notice before announcing 21 days of much-needed lockdown to halt the spread of COVID-19? Anyway, we lost the final badly.
Now is the time to discuss the incident that really pushed me to write this article.
So, the scene was that India had lost the final and the nine-year-old me hadn’t come to terms with this loss. Next morning, I come out of my house and had a conversation with one of my neighbour uncles. I had bonded with this uncle only over cricket as we often encountered each other while watching cricket in the neighbourhood. He was probably in awe of my obsession with cricket at such a tender age and more than that my love for Sachin. The day before the final, I had eulogised enough of Sachin. Enjoy the conversation.
Uncle: “How are you, Salman babu? How did your team lose so badly?”
Me: “Bowling was really not up to the mark, otherwise we could have chased even 300-320.”
Uncle: “I really felt bad, especially for you. Tendulkar scored a boundary, people came out to burst crackers and just when it burst, he got out” (with wicked laughter in the end).
Me: “So what? Who won the man of the series? Who won the Golden bat? That world cup thing is anyway going to be put in some display of Australian Government” (Don’t know who told me this).
If you are thinking what a devout fan of Sachin I was as a kid, please wait. There is more and to keep the flavour alive, have written it as it is.
Uncle: “Sachin lagta kaun hai tumhara?”
Me: “Mama lagta hai mera, aapse matlab? Jaaiye, apna kam kijiye.”
After this incident, whenever uncle met me, he used to call me: ‘Sachin ka bhaanja’.
Moving on from this loss was so tough. To make it easier for Indian supporters, a rumour spread (yes, without WhatsApp).
The hyper-nationalist kid in me easily believed that Ricky Ponting played with a spring bat in the final and hence was able to hit such big sixes. If this was not enough, there will be a rematch soon. (This was our “Nano-GPS Chip” version of WhatsApp forward).
Such was the level of fear and insecurity from the Australian team back then. We had grown up believing them to be cheaters. The new generation is growing up in India believing that all secular parties did only Muslim appeasement politics bolstering this rhetoric of “Development of all, appeasement of none”. However, the Sachar report of 2006 tells a different story.
Come November 2016 and we got to know that the new 2000 rupees note is so well equipped that it can send a signal even if was kept buried 120 metres below the ground along with many more features. Ohhh! However, the only thing the new currency is good at is looking like cheap knock-off Monopoly money. (Legacy of demonetization is at par with failure of Sachin as Indian captain).
Talking about Sachin without talking about his centuries will be an injustice. During his final years of play, he had to face criticism for that as well. (I never criticised at that time, simply because mindless devotees never criticize). His personal milestones mattered so much for us. His slowing innings when he neared his century was a fact. We have lost matches because to it. One needs to grow up and evolve a rational attitude to accept facts.
As a kid, I used to defend such acts with usual whatabouteries. “So what he batted slow, if he would not have scored this much we would have lost by a larger margin.” “It was important to build a partnership at that moment as he was the set batsmen.”
I will tell you the best example of the whole nation’s obsession with his personal milestone. Rewind that knock against Bangladesh in Asia cup 2012 that fetched him his 100th century. It took him a total of 34 innings to score that decorative hundred. We lost the match. But next morning, we were not mourning over the loss. That milestone mattered so much.
Why did that hyper-enthusiastic kid behave that way for Sachin and the Indian cricket team? Aren’t you observing grown-ups around you behave in a similar fashion for our ‘supreme leader’? Why have so many resources been spent to mock and delegitimise opposition leaders and parties? Why does the supreme leader not want someone equally accomplished in his vicinity? Doesn’t your sense draw a comparison between the ouster of Anil Kumble as a coach in 2017 with the transfer of Delhi High Court judge who heard the petitions on Delhi violence?
The common factor in the answer of all the questions raised above is ‘insecurity’. That kid was actually very insecure, so are the grown-up devotees today. Shekhar Gupta very well made this point in his article about how the hyper-nationalist government is making the whole country an insecure one. Our country with half of its population below the age of 25 is being pushed into narratives that will keep us trapped in old fears and insecurities.
Instead, this most valuable asset of the young population (a secret weapon of India according to Ansuya Harjani) must be channelised to develop rational thoughts and scientific temper. It is not necessary to leave your rationality at the doorstep, the moment you decide to align with a political party. The most urgent task of the state must be to drive economic growth before time runs out for us amidst the continuous slowdown. I strongly believe that a flourishing democracy has strong and significant effects on economic growth, directly or indirectly.