Sunday, October 2, 2022

India's Cricketing Identity

Best Blog Tips

Sport, often, has a way of elevating itself beyond the imagination of the most ardent fans. Sport can inspire people to great feats and define teams and nations by the actions of the sportspeople.

Jessie Owens discredited Hitler’s theory of white supremacy in his backyard by winning four Olympic medals. This despite Owens himself not having the freedom to exercise his own rights at home in the USA. We also remember Lutz Long his vanquished German opponent who graciously accepted defeat and much to the Chancellor’s discomfiture boldly congratulated Owens.

We know of Smith and Carlos of the 1968 Mexico Olympics who raised their fists in salute to the civil rights movement in the United States. The courage of the Australian athlete, Peter Norman, who stood in solidarity is etched in sport lore. He dealt with the ostracism at home by his racist administration with great dignity and achieved great honor across the world rising above the pettiness of his countrymen. In time, the rest of Australia came to his point of view.  

Many more such stories abound of courage by Indian cricketers such as Lala Amarnath, CK Nayudu, Vengsarkar and others. These players defied authorities and inspired both their teams and the people of their country. There is no greater honor than representing one’s country at the global stage to most sportspeople. And such honor to represent means that the conduct of the sportspeople reflects on the country and its people. The way a sports team or a sports person plays his sport representing his nation says a lot about the country itself to outsiders even in this day and age of the internet. In our recent memory, we’ve seen many a downfall from Ben Johnson (Canada) to the recent Russian doping scandal that led to shame for the country.

India has been emerging recently as a strong sporting nation with medals in Olympics and Commonwealth games. India’s athletes are moving up the sporting ladder with creditable displays in sports ranging from track and field events to badminton, boxing and the like. It’s no longer an anomaly to see an athlete from India contend for gold.  As an emerging sporting nation, the world’s eyes are on India. The world watches because India is a giant, raucous democracy and its growth inspires many other fledgling nations who are also on the same path. Across the border from India is China. A country with its authoritarian government has already made its mark in world athletics. Where India goes next and how it gets there is of enormous interest to others.

It is in this context that one must evaluate the recent events on the cricket field where Deepti Sharma ran out Charlotte Dean at the non-striker’s end in an inconsequential game to win it. The series was already won. This game could have gone either way, and India had the upper hand. England had to get another 15 or so runs with only a wicket in hand, though they had plenty of overs to get them in. As such, Indian bowlers had plenty of opportunity to win the game. The game was thus tantalizingly poised. In such a situation, India chose to run out the non-striker denying the public what I consider a proper cricket outcome.

A lot of ink has been spilled, name calling, accusations of deceit and cheating have been traded between former and current cricketers, journalists, twitteratti and trolls. Most have staked out their positions and taken sides. What’s striking is that almost all the Indian elite – cricketers and commentators – have defended this action as an appropriate tit for the runner’s tat of frequently leaving the crease early. Many have cited rules and breaking of rules and bowlers being put in uncomfortable positions. Some have gone to the extent of citing culture and colonialism and suggesting this as a form of defiance and rebellion.

However, the context of the game is important and India’s reputation as a sporting nation is at stake. Deepti Sharma didn’t run out a non-striker in the middle of a game. It wasn’t just any other run-out. It was done to end the game. It was done to deny Charlotte Dean, a tailender, the opportunity to script a story book finish and perhaps begin another legend. Sports thrives on these types of heroic stories. Its great for the growth of sports and would have inspired many more women perhaps to take up cricket. On the other hand, had Deepti or another Indian bowler got the last wicket, Indian girls would have been equally proud of the sporting accomplishment of their team and would have been equally inspired. By choosing not to fight the good fight against an England player bending the rules by leaving the crease, Deepti chose the easy way out. She signaled to others that she didn’t have the stomach for a good fight. That she and her team-mates didn't have one more heroic effort in them to pry out the last wicket. That they were simply content to win a game with minimal effort. And that winning at all costs was very important because that's what they deserved.

Imagine if Greg Matthews had run Maninder Singh or Ravi Shastri out in the amazing Madras (now Chennai) test that ended in a tie. Imagine if he had done it the very last over before Shastri scored the single to secure the tie. How sad would it have been to the public to have been denied that story book ending? Does it really matter who does this? India or someone else? Imagine if Abey Kuruvilla was done in by the great Kapil Dev in that epic Ranji Trophy final between Bombay (now Mumbai) and Haryana. And more recently if Rishab Pant was cut down at Gabba in this manner. Now imagine if this sort of running out non-strikers becomes a regular feature. How many great finishes would the sport lose?

By staking out the position, Indian cricket and many supporters have on this issue, they are being extremely short-sighted. They want to show a middle finger to the rest of the world that talks about spirit of the game and fairness. They also point to everyone else's past mistakes to justify this. The reality though is that it suggests a nation bitter at its place in the cricketing world. Its perhaps a larger reflection of a disappointed and angry nation that’s upset that China and others are leaving it behind while its potential is being wasted away. It’s the act of a bitter team that feels entitled to win but is unable to. India wasn’t losing because Dean was sneaking a few inches. India hadn’t lost the game yet, but it was clear it had lost the will to fight.  

The larger picture though is the brand of sport India wants to play. This isn’t an enjoyable brand of any sport, let alone cricket. Taking the fun out of a sporting context simply to win at all costs is going to reduce cricket to a farce. India has to reckon with its cricketing identity. It sits on the largest talent pool in the world. This is not how its going to gain the world’s respect. There’s still time to put the genie back in the bottle. India needs to stop resorting to these tactics. Captains, commentators and others need to come out and ask difficult questions. This isn’t a question of whether a player was following rules. This isn't Deepti Sharma or Ashwin's cross to bear, but that of a culture of cricket being developed in India for the foreseeable future. 

Bodyline, underarm and other larger events have occurred that changed cricket forever. These were all well within the rules. The purveyors of those tactics didn’t come away with their reputations enhanced but with notoriety. India is deciding to choose Jardine over Bradman and Chappell over dignity of sport. India must think hard and long before choosing to follow such false heroes.