India’s Jingoism Lost at the Cricket World Cup
Nationalism is replacing sportsmanship in Modi’s India
The mention of cricket mostly elicits yawns in America now— although it used to be the most popular sport in the country, as per PBS, till baseball replaced it during the Civil War. But in my native country, India, and other former British colonies, it is the sport.
Nothing comes even close to its popularity in India; one would have to travel very deep into the hinterland to find anyone indifferent to cricket. To call it a national obsession would be an understatement.
This year was particularly exciting for India—indeed, Indians everywhere—given that the Indian team won all 10 one-day international matches to make it to the World Cup final to face Australia, a country that it had already defeated in the opening match for the trophy. Moreover, the final game was on home turf— in Ahmedabad in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, Gujarat, in a stadium named after him.
But India lost.
It is not Monday morning quarterbacking to examine the psychic factors that might have contributed to India’s defeat. One factor that veteran Wall Street Journal columnist, my dear friend, and a life-long lover of the sport, Tunku Varadarajan, explores in the piece reprinted below from The Wire, is how the BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India)—the private body that controls the game in India—has affected the spirit of the sport not only on its own shores but also beyond.
BCCI has been spectacularly successful in recent years, no doubt. It has become the wealthiest governing body of cricket in the world partly because of the sheer number of passionate fans the sport now commands among India’s 1.4 billion population. (The Indian Premier League, run by BCCI, is now one of the wealthiest sports leagues in the world.)
However, since Modi assumed office, this autonomous entity has been showing signs of capture by his ruling Hindu nationalist party. As one commentator pointed out, executive members are now often party wonks and sympathizers. Jay Shah, the son of Modi’s righthand man and Home Minister, has been appointed secretary.
The upshot is that the the BCCI has started channeling the politics of nationalism. To understand how this is desecrating the true spirit of a sport that had long been an elevating force, read Varadarajan’s despairing and scathing account.
The most remarkable thing about the recent cricket World Cup final was not that India lost. Many of us had seen the defeat coming for days, and some foresaw it as the inevitable fruit of hubris, of “ghamand.” For those inclined to Sanskrit, a couple of lines from the Bhagavad Gita define perfectly the nature of the BCCI (the Board of Control for Cricket in India), whose best-known face is Jay Shah, the semi-literate Gujarati Billy-bhai Bunter in whose unathletic body nepotism and administrative blight have attained their most perfect form.
The verses from the Gita:
Such self-conceited and stubborn men, full of pride and arrogant in their wealth, perform ostentatious sacrifices in name only, with no regard to the rules of the scriptures.
Blinded by egotism, strength, arrogance, desire and anger, the vile men abuse Me, who am present in their own body and in the bodies of others.
Let us assume here that “Me” in the last verse refers not to God, or the Supreme Being, but to Cricket, our most beloved game (and secular national religion).
To me, as a man in his seventh decade of life—who watched his first Test match, at age 7, in 1969—the most remarkable thing about the final was that so many neutrals everywhere (by which I mean cricket fans who weren’t Indian or Australian) were cheering not for India, but for Australia.
This is not because India weren’t the underdogs in the final, which is usually why neutrals don’t back a particular competitor. But being better doesn’t necessarily put neutrals off. Few non-Englishmen cheered for England in the 1979 final, preferring the West Indies, then favored so heavily to win that their losing would have been a cosmic shock (as it was in 1983, when they lost to India, back then a kinder country than it is now—more self-effacing, less triumphalist and ugly).
Neutrals cheered Australia on Sunday—a team that has historically been unloved outside its own shores—because most cricket fans worldwide are thoroughly sick—fed up, pissed off—about India’s bully-boy dominance of world cricket. I don’t mean sporting dominance, which neutral fans can live with (as was the case with the West Indians of the Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards era, or Brazilian football in the time of Pelé). It’s the wholesale takeover by the BCCI of [international] cricket’s financing, values and calendar, giving them a grip over the game that is stronger, more ruthless and vice-like, more absolute and remorseless, more self-serving and mercantilist, than that once exercised by the game’s original overlords in England (who might, at some level, have been forgiven their assertion of ownership over cricket because they did, in fact, give us the game).
The BCCI has warped cricket, distorted it, making it so India-centric that other proud nations—some with better pedigrees than India’s—have been reduced to bit-part players, mendicants, petitioners for match-time. Everything is now about India: the crowds, the songs, the scheduling, the pitches, the money. The one element the BCCI cannot control, mercifully, is the outcome of a match. Try as India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party might—for the BCCI is now the BJP in cricketing form—the result of a match cannot be influenced to suit its needs the way an election can. International umpires are not the Indian judiciary. The International Cricket Council is not (yet) the Indian Election Commission.
That India lost in the final was karmic payback for the BCCI’s sins against the game, and also for the Ahmedabad crowd’s unwillingness to be sporting and civilized, to appreciate cricket as something other than a jingoistic exercise in which India must win every game to the chanting of “Jai Shri Ram” [“Glory to Lord Rama”] and “Bharat Mata ki Jai” [“Hail Mother India”]. Let us never again hold the final of a World Cup in such a city, a place in which cricket is but the means to petty nationalist ends, where few stand up to applaud an opposing batsman who scores a magnificent, match-winning hundred. Stay with Chennai, with Mumbai, with Kolkata, where the crowds love cricket (and not just winning).
In the end, justice was done. Australia won. Narendra Modi did not get his heavily scripted opportunity to strut on stage at the stadium named after him. Instead, we saw the most graceless presentation of a cup to a winning captain, in which Modi—sulking like a spoiled child who hasn’t had the celebration he’d thought was his birthright—handed over the trophy to Pat Cummins and then turned his back on the Australian captain. The latter was left bemused and sheepish on the stage, alone with the cup that his team had won but feeling, nonetheless, like a gate-crasher at a party-gone-wrong. For India, it was a moment of national embarrassment. The prime minister had reduced an ancient land to a boorish place—ill-mannered, inhospitable, uncivilized, nouveau-riche.
Let us give thanks to the God of Cricket that the BCCI lost, even as we embrace our gallant boys in blue. Maybe some of them will be emboldened now to push back against the BCCI in private.
Repeat after me: “Cricket Mata ki Jai”—Victory to Mother Cricket.
This piece has been reprinted from the New Delhi-based, The Wire, where it was originally published.