By: Arpita Mukherjee
The first cricket match I remember watching was a televised test match at the Eden Gardens. My grandfather explained the differences between a cover drive, an off drive and a square drive. Every time the English batsman hit a boundary, my grandfather applauded. It was the first time I heard the word “shot,” and even now an impeccable cover drive prompts in me the word, as if it were a reflex. India lost that match. I read the disappointment on his face, but my grandfather applauded England on a game well-played.
Cricket has never been just a sport to any of the ex-colonies. An answer to the questions raised by Orientalism, paternalism, and imperialism, the stories of the South Asian nations have unfolded much like fairy tales. India took the World Cup in 1983, a mere 36 years after gaining independence. Pakistan soon followed, defeating England to win the Cup in 1992. Then, it was Sri Lanka’s turn in 1996. For all practical purposes, South Asia had established itself as the golden sub-continent of cricket. The colonies had shown the finger to the empire and that finger looked a lot like a cricket bat. Everywhere on the field, there was beauty – Sachin Tendulkar’s glorious 114 against Australia in Perth in 1992, Sanath Jayasuriya’s 213 against England in 1998, and Wasim Akram’s magical delivery in the 1992 World Cup final.
But if you looked to the stands, you could sense a rage brewing. It exploded when things went wrong. In 1996, fans at Eden Gardens littered the historic cricket grounds with water bottles. A man in Pakistan shot his television. In 2007, the Indian team was welcomed home by news of effigies in their likeness being set to fire on the streets.
The masses, those that huddled into stadiums and gathered around TV screens – they were living through the failed promises of an independent state. Every day, they battled with a stagnating economy and a broken bureaucracy and every day they were defeated. The nations of the sub-continent grew wary and jaded, using each other as a repository of their discontent. And so the war metaphor emerged in cricket; desperation cloaked as national pride. Slogans like jaan de denge (will die for victory) and mita denge (will erase the enemy) roused passions – to inspire some and to anger others. Whether it be through rejoicing or rioting, the machinery of cricket fandom kept the hope of post-independence triumph alive.
Fast forward to 2015, to the mauka ads and #wewontgiveitback, The World Cup trophy transforms from something to be won into something that can be grabbed, snatched and taken. India defeats Bangladesh in the quarter-final and rhetoric turns to liquid hate, spewing into all corners of the media. On Facebook and Twitter, Bangladeshis, Indians and Pakistanis rage against each other, friends acting as foes. What of the exquisite batting by Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina. What of Rubel Hossain’s magnificent spell. The cricketers remain quiet as images of students in Bangladesh protesting become front page news. ICC President Mustafa Kamal claims the umpiring decisions appear “pre-arranged.” This wins him political points in his home country. The ads, the controversies, the rhetoric, they turn cricket into a zero-sum game.
The cricket fans have all but forgotten that since 1992, a South Asian team has reached every final of the World Cup. An astounding statistic, and one each Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi (whose national team for the first time made it to the quarter-final of the cup) should be proud of. Our teams, the cricketers, they owe us nothing. Instead, we owe them a great debt of gratitude, each and every one of them, regardless of nationality.
I rooted for India whenever it played, but I also rooted for Bangladesh against England, and for Sri Lanka against South Africa and yes, even Pakistan against Australia. I marveled at Mahmdullah Riyad’s maiden ODI century and was despondent over the uneventful exit of the greats Mahela Jayawardene and Kumar Sangakkara. A wave of nostalgia came over me as I watched Shahid Afridi rush onto the crease for the last time.
Today I will be rooting for India against Australia and I know that many of my fellow South Asians will not. It will hurt, make me want to lash out, and create enemies out of a few phrases spoken in moments of blind passion. But then I will think of those great cricketers, who have done so much for their countries. I will think of their victories and their defeats, which are so closely attached to entire populations’ sense of security. I will think about the great burden we put on the sport and those who dare to play it. I will try to understand that where there is so much beauty, there must also be war, that this is the eternal juxtaposition of the world of sports. But ultimately, I will choose beauty, and remember that no matter who we are, where we come from, and how badly we need our cricketers to win, a good shot, is simply that.