This is a problem in all our political parties. Akhilesh Yadav is a dynast. Stalin is a dynast... Even Abhishek Bachchan is a dynast... so are the Ambanis... Don’t go after me because the entire country is running like that. That’s what happens in India,” said Rahul Gandhi in Berkeley.
The Congress vice-president’s fierce defence of dynastic politics last month predictably sparked off a furore. Much of the commentary was hypocritical: can the ruling BJP, for example, truly claim that it is above encouraging the sons and daughters of its senior politicians from joining politics? Which is why we should turn to sport, and cricket in particular, if we really wish to discover an India that goes beyond family ties. There are no cricketing dynasties: nothing remotely like the Gandhi–Nehrus of the Congress or the Kapoors of Hindi cinema. The closest we have to a ‘House of Cricket’ are the Amarnaths: the father, Lala, was the first Indian Test centurion, his sons Mohinder and Surinder played for the country, while a third, Rajinder, played first-class cricket. A Sunil Gavaskar’s son, Rohan, played a handful of one-day internationals for India, not because he was his father’s son but because he averaged more than 50 in first class cricket.
I am often asked: why didn’t you play for India like your father Dilip Sardesai? My answer is simple: a politician’s son or daughter has a fair chance of getting elected and becoming a member of a legislative assembly or Parliament or even prime minister; a business house may actively promote hereditary succession; an actor may produce a film for a star-son but a Test cricketer’s son cannot wear the India cap without being one of the 11 most talented players in the country. As my father would routinely remind me, “I am not going to be there to score runs for you on the pitch, you have to do it!”
In a sense, 70 years after Independence, we could well argue that cricket truly mirrors the idealism of our founding fathers and the spirit of our Constitution that sought equal opportunity for all. The cosy family networks and elite privileges have been thwarted at the gates of a cricket ground: there is a democratic fervour that makes cricket the authentic Indian dream. It is this passion and aspiration that has driven Virat Kohli and Team India to become the number one side in the world, one that has been lifted to the summit by pure talent and hard work, not by any special entitlements; their stirring story a real-life Lagaan and not an escapist Bollywood drama.
Take Umesh Yadav, today’s fast bowling spearhead, whose father was a daily wage labourer in a coal mine in a village near Nagpur. His dream got wings when he was spotted in a local inter-district tournament. Or his fast bowling partner Mohammed Shami, who comes from a small village in UP’s Amroha district, and who stayed in a small rented room in Kolkata to nurture his dream.
The original small-town boy
Or rewind to India’s original fast bowling revolutionary Kapil Dev Nikhanj, whose father was a timber contractor in Chandigarh. In fact, Dev’s parents had never watched a cricket match till they finally saw their son play a Test match. There is a poignant story of how, when Kapil’s coach Desh Prem Azad first came home to inform the family of their son’s potential in the sport and suggested that the teenager needed to drink more milk to become stronger, an excited father procured two buffaloes the very next day.
Dev was a product of the pre-IPL era when the sport offered limited opportunities for those outside the big cities. It is no surprise that the first 50 years after Independence were dominated by cricketers from the metros, and Mumbai in particular.
When India defeated England in an away series in 1971 for the first time, there were as many as six Mumbai players in the 11. When 40 years later, India won the World Cup at Wankhede, there was just one Mumbai player, Sachin Tendulkar, while at least half a dozen players had learnt the game in small towns.
Leading this ‘small town’ revolution is Mahendra Singh Dhoni, perhaps the best symbol of the sport’s ‘democratising’ impulses. That the son of a humble pump operator in a public-sector firm in Ranchi could go on to become a World Cup winning captain and the richest Indian sportsperson of his generation is the kind of inspirational story that has had a dramatic impact beyond the boundary. A management consultancy report in 2008, titled ‘Dhoni Effect’, examined the transformative power of an expanding market economy on Indian aspirations beyond the metros.
Dhoni has become the brand ambassador of the chote shahar (small towns), the once sleepy, dusty hinterland that now represents the boundless energies of a ‘new’ India. When India defeated Australia earlier this year to become the number one Test side in the country, a majority of the players were from these chote shahar, often from low-income families, with no cricket pedigree to boast of. “I don’t know if there is something special about playing cricket in a small town, but I guess we have fewer distractions,” is how Dhoni explains the extraordinary geographical shift.
The first signs of change came in the 50s and 60s when a ‘wave’ of middle-class cricketers emerged to challenge the dominance of the princely elite. That these cricketers were captained by a Prince, the Nawab of Pataudi, is a curious twist, but even ‘Tiger’ Pataudi was, in the final analysis, a ‘Republican’ Prince who had to ‘earn’ his right to lead India on ‘merit’, not privilege.
Symbol of hope
As the sport got entwined with commerce after the liberalisation of the 90s and with the rapid spread of satellite television, it suddenly offered a lucrative career. “Watching Tendulkar play on TV, I wanted to be an India player,” says Ravindra Jadeja, poster boy for an aggressive brand of cricket and a man whose mother worked as a nurse in a Jamnagar hospital to make ends meet. He now owns a stable of horses, a fleet of cars, and his own branded restaurant.
But while IPL and T20 cricket may have brought unimaginable riches, cricket’s role in society goes well beyond money. Cricket has broken barriers of caste, religion and region to emerge as a symbol of hope.
I shall never forget a poster at a Mumbai Test match just after the post-Babri Masjid riots of 1992-93, that celebrated Mohammed Azharuddin’s batting and captaincy with the simple words: ‘Azharuddin: Made in India’.
I also remember getting teary-eyed when Tendulkar, just weeks after the 26/11 Mumbai terror attack, scored a match-winning century and dedicated it to the citizens of the scarred city.
Cricket, then, is Indian democracy’s alter ego, a metaphor for hope in a ‘new’ and better India. When institutions of public life falter, the citizen turns to the maidan to relive the innocence of his youth, and the idealism of the fledgling nation state born in 1947. On the cricket field, there is no space for vote banks and reservations; here, a Parvez Rasool can wear the India cap with the same sense of pride as a Kuldeep Yadav.
How fitting too that in the 70th year of Indian Independence, this parallel democracy is no longer just about men. Women’s cricket today is similarly a source of national reassurance. The remarkable run of the Indian women in reaching the World Cup cricket final in 2017 at Lord’s was truly inspirational. “I guess we needed a ‘dhamaka’ to be recognised as ‘equal’ to the men; the World Cup success was a mini-dhamaka,” says Jhulan Goswami, India’s leading wicket-taker in women’s cricket. Indeed, Indian cricket is a ‘dhamaka’, an unstoppable rocket that has enabled millions of Indians to reach for the stars. And live the great Indian dream.