Indian cricket faces a moment of truth

Mar 09, 2023 07:58 PM IST

The row over doctored pitches suggests an attempt to subvert the true spirit of the game by playing fast and loose with the conditions. And be it in cricket or politics, a lesson to learn is not to sacrifice the means at the altar of the ends

As player, captain and commentator, there has arguably been no more authoritative voice in Indian cricket over the last 50 years than Sunil Gavaskar. So when the legendary cricketer speaks on the contentious state of Indian pitches that have seen three successive Test matches end inside three days, you listen: “For India to reach the World Test Championship final, they did not have any other options. If you would have had a strong attack, maybe you could have done something different, but your strength is your spinners, and, therefore, I think these pitches are being made.” In effect, Gavaskar was reciting a mantra that now echoes through cricket and life: The means no longer matter, only the ends do.

When a doctored pitch reduces a game of skill to a virtual lottery, then the essence of sport as an expression of finer human values is lost. (AP) PREMIUM
When a doctored pitch reduces a game of skill to a virtual lottery, then the essence of sport as an expression of finer human values is lost. (AP)

Indian cricket prides itself on being the superpower in the global game, its players are feted as world-beaters and genuine folk heroes. This is a team that has defeated the Australians in two consecutive series Down Under, a feat that was considered almost impossible until a few years ago. The team boasts of Virat Kohli, the most influential batsman of the last decade, a stellar batting line-up with proven champions and emerging talents, a bowling side with most bases covered and is coached by one of the all-time greats of the sport. Why should such a powerful team be so insecure that it needs to doctor pitches to win in home conditions?

Because, as Gavaskar candidly admits, there is a World Test Championship to be won this June and a series win against Australia is crucial to qualify for the final. Remember, this is a team which, for all the hype, hasn’t won a single ICC trophy since 2013 and has often failed to deliver at critical moments in international tournaments. With a cricket board and team management under intense public scrutiny, a substandard pitch is seen as a small price to pay to achieve the ultimate goal of a place in the finals.

This “ends over means” refrain is dangerous because it reveals an amoral mindset that has no place for creating a level playing field. All that matters is taking 20 opposition wickets in the quickest possible time to ensure a win for the home side. A similar unprincipled argument is often voiced at election time: “Jo jeeta woh sikandar (Whoever wins will be king)” is a familiar catchphrase on counting day. The means adopted by the winner don’t really matter, be it hate speech, money power or subversion of institutions: There is a tendency to glorify the victor, without any moral compunctions. Cricket, at least, doesn’t lend itself easily to the perfidies of politics, but when a doctored pitch reduces a game of skill to a virtual lottery, then the essence of sport as an expression of finer human values is lost in the “win at all costs” cacophony.

Another predictable response to the pitch controversy has been to engage in typical whataboutery: “What about the conditions that Indian teams face when they play on grassy tracks in England or on a bouncy wicket in Australia?” Yes, conditions abroad can often be alien to Indian teams, and there is a distinct home advantage that all teams exploit across the world. But does that justify the intentional preparation of a cricket pitch to gain a competitive advantage? And while this pitch doctoring may not strictly amount to cheating per se as per the rules of the sport, it does suggest an attempt to subvert the spirit of the game by playing fast and loose with the conditions.

In a sense, the whataboutery narrative of cricket is uncannily similar to the arguments made by our politicians to justify their excesses. Each time, for example, central agencies are used to hound Opposition leaders, the characteristic response of the government is to claim that a similar pattern was adopted by their predecessors when in power. When a government is toppled by actively encouraging defections through inducements, we are reminded of how this practice has existed in Indian politics for decades. How many times have we been reminded of Indira Gandhi’s 1975 Emergency when abuse of power is exposed today? Or of 1984, and even Partition, when communal hatred resurfaces in some corner of the country? Whataboutery is a defence of the weak and compromised, not of those who have little to hide.

Which is why those in leadership roles in cricket and in government must course-correct. There must be a greater appreciation that a sport’s true charm doesn’t lie in just winning a trophy but also in ensuring that the fans — the game’s ultimate stakeholders — aren’t shortchanged by preparing wickets unsuited to playing a highly competitive sport. Likewise, those who are tasked with preserving the country’s democratic ethos must be conscious of not misusing their powers to browbeat the Opposition but instead guarantee equal constitutional rights for all.

In the final analysis, that India lost the Test match in Indore to the Australians on an awful pitch, is perhaps only poetic justice. Because when you are so convinced of your own invincibility on home turf, you sometimes don’t account for an unexpected twist in fortunes. That again is a life lesson on the field and beyond the boundary: Never take anything for granted.

Post-script: When the Indore match was over inside two days and a session, there was a poignant interview of a street vendor selling India team jerseys. He had purchased shirts to sell over five days, now he had to shut shop in barely two days. Who will ever compensate him for the losses suffered? Compassion has no place when winning games at all costs is all that matters.

Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist and author

The views expressed are personal

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    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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