Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Cricket, Sports, Life, and the Country

"Be what you would like to change in the world" - Mahatma Gandhi.

To a great extent, our response to crisis, to disappointments, to unfavourable turns in life, define our characters and characteristics. In the face of adversity, some get more determined, some lose courage, some suffer medically, and some behave lumpen. As for me, I over-think, try to work harder, and now in the last year, write profusely. Any surprises, that my most vehement articles sound most confused.

On a world-stage, sporting prowess at the multi-discipline Olympic Games has usually been the final indicator of a country's global pecking order. And to prove that in spite of being the flavour of Davos, India still has a long way to go, is our single-medal performances across all the Games since Atlanta in 1996 (when China is pushing the United States in medal tallies).

In per capita terms, Australia is the best sporting nation in the world. Any why not? When they lost the Ashes in 2005 after a gap of eighteen years, there was a crisis in Cricket Australia. (I visited Down Under that year, and can tell you the folks are not the best losers). Yet, their cricket-aficionado PM John Howard called the result 'good for cricket', Ricky Ponting (not such a great captain for me, but a wonderful bat, possibly the best I have ever seen) decided to make himself and his boys the best cricketers they could be, and in a nation of 200 million (about Delhi-&-NCR), cricket experienced the fastest growth in participation for any mainstream sport, to have more than half a million registered players. Any wonder, within fifteen months, they reclaimed the trophy, with the first whitewash in eighty-five years.

The typical response in India is slightly different. Why? I will let Mukul Kesavan explain with key excerpts from a brilliant article he wrote in the October 2006 issue of the Cricinfo magazine.

Indians leave sport behind on the road to grown-up-ness. As a result their devotion to cricket is a form of vicariousness. This is true to some degrees of all kinds of spectatorship, but in countries where sport is participatory, this vicariousness is moderated by a practical understanding of the game and its challenges, by the empathy created by the experience, even if that experience was gained at a much lower level of skill.

Not having played in years (or ever), the fan has no understanding of the contingencies that can turn a match, no first-hand experience of defeat. He has a happy ending in mind, and when that doesn't come to pass.......

This sense of entitlement is nursed and fed and watered by television reruns which either show matches that India won
(a relatively frequent occurence in the new century only, under Sourav Ganguly), or excerpt great Indian innings from matches that India unaccountably lost. The most satisfactory cricket match ever played is not listed by Wisden because it was played in a country that ICC doesn't recognise: the colonial India confected by Aamir Khan in Lagaan.

I remember having a very similar, though much less eloquent, debate with my college room-mates. If India was a country teeming with achievers in their respective fields, it would have been fine to be entitled to a happy ending. Please do check out Amit Varma's apt rebuke at http://indiauncut.com/iublog/article/indias-loss-to-sri-lanka/.

In today's Hindustan Times, Kadambari Murali says that top cricketers (who are the best paid sportspersons by a distance) earn less than their other relatively-equal glamorous counterparts, from India Inc. or Bollywood. And this when you possibly sacrifice your childhood, a normal family life, all for a possible working career where being active ten years can be considered successful. For a comparison, nature-&-destiny willing, I plan to professionally work for a longer time than my stay on Mother Earth so far.

Sports is said to build character, teach you about life, give you strength. The big marketers associate themselves with sports to associate with the right values, and connect with the right audience. It is unacceptable that Shining India remains acceptably competent in just one sport, where the hype is more for individual performances than team victories (ever wondered about Golf and Shooting?). Yet, I am not sure as to how many of the 300 mn. strong middle-class, who crib about the cricket team and the Olympic standings, will want their kids to play sports professionally. Maybe, it helps if the kid is good, and will get admission in a decent educational institute. But no-one will remember that before Nike advertised otherwise, the spirit of Olympics was all about participating.

I was never naturally blessed, except in chess and tennis to some extent. However, in a way somewhat similar to Mr. Kesavan, am trying to eke out some sort of living of professional sports. And I would be satisfied if in my lifetime, we actually manage to re-create the American sports scenario in the country. I am somehow sure the Chinese medals will follow!


Homer said...

It is interesting you mention the American sports scenario.

I was talking to someone who has been closely associated with American sports and he told me that unlike India, where we cater to the individual in a team sport, the very nature of playing sports in the States focuses on Team.

The emphasis on Team is important because the self is lost in the cause of the greater good.

Whereas we pander to the individual at the expense of the Team

svety said...

I agree with Homer on this. Unfortunately, we are a country that has a strong lineage of belief in individual heroes. Victory tastes sweeter when you can revel in stories around the One and not the Many.
U're right Abhi, India has a long way to go at the Olympics. I see it so much more nowadays as adidas plans for the Olympics across the world. In India, the marketing effort will just not induce results. All these small south-east asian countries today have developed a sporting culture that is so immediate and a way of life and we are still trying to explain to them how India is different as a sports market.
Dammit India is nowhere near being a Sports Market.We're interested only in the Worship.

Satyabrat Sinha said...

ha, the middle class maybe 300-400 million strong, give an idea of the open spaces that our cities have and in the event of presence of open space in non-metro India, give me check list for good facilities or coaches and I will show you where your medals are getting lost.

Get real, the middle class cannot produce winners. Compare Indian and Pakistani cricketers and you will know what I mean. There are only two classes who give rise to winners the lower class and the upper class. The lower class with their sheer rawness and the upper classes, their facilities and training in the event of talent.

The upper class in India are doing well in Shooting, Tennis and such.

The lower classes are ekeing a living out of poverty and never mind they do not go to schools or even if they go to schools, you know how good most schools in India are. Please do not think your and my school are in any way representative of Indian schools.

The Chinese success story is another world altogether.

Abhigyan said...

Satya - we don't have a reading culture in the country (and don't count your fraternity)..Yet we are globally competitive, producing Booker & Pulitzer winners by the dozen..
As a mankind species, we are not physical by nature (except in copulating maybe). we don't play sport naturally, so to that extent we are on the other side of the scale to Aussies, who play too much. We will never be a world-beating nation, but only to improve our standing, we either need a genuinely free market (US) or a regulated system (Communist countries). My guess is the free market suits our palate more..

Homer - it is good you make the point of the TEAM. One of my colleagues has a brilliant insight, that Indians (who tend to me organised always on community lines, mainly family, but also caste, state etc.) are so individualistic that will excel only in inidividual sports. Apart from religion, we do not except any order from others. And is it any wonder that the only respected institution we have is the Army, which attacks this shortcoming.

On the other hand, Yankees are highly individualistic, yet allow a larger cause to subvert themselves. There are no rights or wrongs, but understandings just help.

Abhigyan said...

And please do check-out Mr. Kesavan's rejoinder, to Chappell, and some extents my thoughts on first-class cricket in the following link: