On the night before India’s World Cup semi-finals with Australia, I innocently tweeted: ‘Heart with India, head with Australia.’ Within minutes, followers on my twitter account were enraged: Not for the first time was I branded ‘anti-national’ for even suggesting that Australia had the edge over India. I should have known better than to challenge cricket hyper-nationalism. When the slogan of the TV rights broadcaster was ‘We won’t give it back’, and news channels were predicting ‘Champions Phir se’ with great relish, a mood had been created that the Men in Blue were almost certain to be crowned winners once again. My tweet was, therefore, seen to be against the prevailing national sentiment. Or so I was told.
When the next day, MS Dhoni and team were well and truly beaten by a much superior Australian team, the pseudo-nationalistic fervour was carried to absurd levels by a section of fans and mediapersons on social media and news channels. The fact that we had won seven games in a row and gone much further in the tournament than had been previously predicted was quickly forgotten. Instead, the players were accused of having ‘shamed’ us on a foreign field. The skills, stardom and wealth of our cricketers make them our national heroes, but it also just as quickly makes them figures of envy and anger when things go badly. Remember how Yuvraj Singh’s house was attacked after the T20 World Cup defeat last year?
And since our desh bhakts on twitter need a constant enemy, they found one in the feisty actress Anuskha Sharma. Her ‘crime’? She had travelled to Sydney to watch her boyfriend Virat Kohli play. Kohli was dismissed for just one run to a bad shot, enough reason for permanently outraged prime time news anchors to suggest that Sharma had distracted the star batsman. That the same Kohli had scored a bagful of runs in the Test series when Sharma was watching made no difference. From lucky charm, she was now the villain of the piece.
Frankly, the absurdity shouldn’t have surprised anyone. For nearly two months during the World Cup, the nation was swept away on a fantasy ride of seemingly never-ending cricket frenzy. From the time Team India took the field against Pakistan, it was as if the hopes and aspirations of an entire nation were resting on 11 cricketers. From the prime minister to a pop singer, everyone was cheering team India in the conviction that the side was capable of lifting the trophy. For NRIs in the Asia-Pacific region, going to the matches and cheering Team India with loud screams of ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’ was an expression of long-distance nationalism: The Bharat army with their tricolour tattoos were reflecting the optimistic mood.
Sporting nationalism is not always undesirable. The Chinese, for example, used their Olympic success to emerge from years of isolation and challenge western hegemony. The countries of the erstwhile communist bloc in the Cold War era also saw sporting achievement as a mark of the triumph of their ideology. And even the United States saw sports as a way to build their soft power status. Since we are a one-sport nation, cricket has become our arena to play out our dreams of achieving superpower status. The fact that we now control the financial purse-strings of cricket has strengthened our standing as the pre-eminent cricket nation, at least off the field.
And yet, it is one thing to justifiably claim to be the home of cricket, it is quite another to make the World Cup a battle between India versus the rest of the world. The catchy and successful ‘mauka, mauka’ advertising campaign was initially an imaginative clutter-breaker. By the time we had reached the semi-finals, its creative energies had dissipated: This was no longer about a ‘World’ Cup but the ‘world versus India’ and the men in blue were billed to conquer all challengers. In the ‘won’t give it back’ ad campaign, the players wore the look of gladiators, steely and ferocious: They were no longer just cricketers but warriors going out to the battlefield.
When cricket becomes ‘war’ without weapons, then one is treading dangerous terrain. Every victory provides an opportunity for raucous celebration, any defeat become a national ‘shame’. It is unfair to expect players to live up to the hype created by the 24×7 media machine and its allied forces. The pressure maybe part of high-stakes competitive sport, but when players are asked to virtually become soldiers in a national ‘cause’, then it places the burden of unrealistic expectations on them. And for all of Dhoni’s Zen-like calmness, it does affect the performance of less experienced cricketers if they are constantly expected to deliver victory.
Which is why we need to slowly delink cricket from unbridled nationalism. Yes, we must cheer Team India, value its successes and take pride in the tricolour being waved in stadia across the world, but we need to also get a sense of perspective which might help us treat victory and defeat with greater equanimity. To lose a cricket match to a rival team is not a national ‘shame’ but a challenge and an opportunity to play better next time. What is a national ‘shame’, frankly, is that farmers in this country still commit suicide when they suffer crop loss because of failed agrarian policies. That is what should legitimately outrage us rather than a defeat in a World Cup semi-final.
Post-script: Barely has the World Cup got over that the cricket caravan will now zoom into IPL territory. If cricket nationalism can at times descend into ugly jingoism, then the crass commerce of city-based franchise cricket will reveal another dark side where money literally makes the world spin. Just think of this: A Vijay Mallya can’t pay his Kingfisher pilots and staff for years but he will be placing his big bucks on cricketers and their 20 overs merry go round!