Cricket to politics, a nation in awe of idols - Hindustan Times

Cricket to politics, a nation in awe of idols

Nov 30, 2023 10:34 PM IST

Unwillingness to accept defeat with poise is the direct consequence of an idolatry culture that celebrates heroes but doesn’t embrace the spirit of sport

Nearly two decades ago, a prominent Hindi news channel showcased a flagship cricket show provocatively titled, “Match Ka Mujrim” (Criminal of the Match). The aim in a rather perverse way was to identify the “villain” of the day, the player who had let the team down. A TV studio became a gladiatorial ring, a cricket-crazy crowd was transformed into a lynch mob, and lines between fandom and tamasha were blurred. Years later, the frenzied blame game continues as enraged reactions to India’s defeat in the World Cup final have proven. It would almost seem as if most Indian sports watchers don’t know how to handle defeat with grace.

India's Virat Kohli celebrates his 50th ODI century during the semi-final match against New Zealand in the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup 2023.(RCB Twitter) PREMIUM
India's Virat Kohli celebrates his 50th ODI century during the semi-final match against New Zealand in the ICC Men's Cricket World Cup 2023.(RCB Twitter)

From blaming the slow pitch to questioning the choice of Ahmedabad as the finals venue to targeting the all-powerful cricket board supremo Jay Shah to even bizarrely labelling Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi as a “panauti” (bad omen) for attending the match, it appears as if an entire row of “mujrims” (criminals) are being lined up to face trial in the court of public opinion. Few are willing to acknowledge the immutable reality: Australia played the perfect one-day match, but India simply did not.

The fickleness of fan behaviour in labelling a team as invincible one day and then dismissing them as chokers just days later is hardly recent. Recall how in 1971, the Indian cricket team received a ticker-tape welcome in Mumbai after defeating England for the first time in an overseas series. Just three years later, when we were whitewashed 3-0 by the same opponent, team captain Ajit Wadekar’s home was stoned. Then we were an adolescent cricket nation; now we are a front-ranking team and yet we still haven’t been able to deal with defeat with greater dignity.

There was no social media or instant messaging services to intrude into our somewhat gentler lives in the 1970s. Now, just type in a few words on X or post a meme on Instagram to trigger an avalanche of furious responses, almost as if the entire country is seeking vicarious pleasure in the public defaming of our cricket icons when we lose a game. Remember how Mohammed Shami was singled out for abusive trolling when we lost a T20 match to Pakistan in 2021? The same Shami is now feted as the best seam bowler in the world!

At one level, the emotional roller-coaster mirrors the hyper-nationalism that is integral to cricket’s role in contemporary Indian society. Cricket is no longer just a sport, it is an assertion of our national identity, of a burning desire to be seen as a genuine global superpower. We may never be a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council but in cricketing boardrooms, we do have veto power. This status as the unquestioned big boss of sport has bred hubris, an unshaken belief that India was almost preordained to win the World Cup. But while limitless financial resources allow you to bully others beyond the boundary, bank balances cannot determine on-field match outcomes.

At another level, the unwillingness to accept defeat with poise is the direct consequence of an idolatry culture that celebrates individual heroes but doesn’t embrace the spirit of sport. Anyone who watched Star Sports — the official World Cup broadcaster — during the tournament would have noticed the endless stream of programmes focused on Virat Kohli. While Kohli is an absolute superstar and arguably the greatest one-day batsman ever, the gushing adoration bordering on feudal devotion to a single player in a team sport is infuriating, even nauseating at times. Which partly explains the extreme responses: When Kohli scores his 50th record-breaking ton in Mumbai, he is elevated to God-like status but when he struggles in the final against Australia, he is suddenly accused of faltering under big match pressure.

This hero-worshipping cult stretches from cricket to politics. When even the historic Chandrayaan-3 moon landing becomes part of a relentless government propaganda machine wherein the PM shares credit with our space scientists, then it is almost inevitable that PM Modi’s presence at a cricket final will attract undue attention. Just as the Chandrayaan achievement primarily rests with the scientific community, cricket post-mortems too must avoid dragging in political figures. If today the Congress raises the “panauti” barb against Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party might remind people of how Indira Gandhi was in attendance when Pakistan defeated India 7-1 in the 1982 Asian hockey finals in New Delhi. Arguments based on superstition can rapidly descend into inanities cutting across the political divide.

This is why it is time for course correction, be it in sports or politics. Babasaheb Ambedkar warned against a creeping personality cult in politics while stating that “bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”. Sadly, that warning has gone unheeded and larger-than-life autocratic figures dominate our political landscape. In cricket too, we need to strike a cautionary note. Our men in blue are a group of hugely talented individuals who have earned their place in the Indian team through sheer merit. Lines between victory and defeat in sports at the elite level are notoriously wafer-thin. The intrinsic value of sport lies in appreciating the uncommon skill sets of champion athletes, not in treating the game as a “do or die” war without weapons or the players as soldiers in uniform. A war leaves you with painful images of death and destruction; a sporting contest must overwhelm you with joyous memories.

Post-script: In the aftermath of the final, there was much chatter about the PM visiting the defeated Indian team in the dressing room. Frankly, the PM’s interaction could be seen as a morale booster. The one quibble: Did the intrusive camera have to capture what is surely a private space for the players?

Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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