It was an autumn evening in Calcutta in 1987. Around twenty of us in the age group of 8 to 14 had gathered around a black and white television to watch the last stages of a World Cup match between Pakistan and West Indies. It was being played at the Gaddafi stadium, Lahore.
It was imperative for West Indies to defeat Pakistan to secure a berth in the semi-finals. Pakistan was chasing 217 to win and when the last over began they still needed 14 runs to win with just one wicket left.
On the last ball of the match, Pakistan needed two runs to win. Abdul Qadir was batting and Saleem Jaffer was at the non-striker’s end and the towering fast bowler Courtney Walsh who had already taken 4 wickets in the match was running down to bowl the last ball.
As Walsh was just about to deliver, an anxiety-filled, overzealous Jaffer had left the crease and started walking briskly towards the striker’s end for a run. The rules of the game permitted Walsh to run Jaffer out by “Mankading” him but Walsh refrained from doing so.
Instead, Walsh stopped before delivering the ball and politely asked Jaffer to get back to the crease. He went back and bowled the last ball. Qadir scored the required runs off the last ball cementing a seat for Pakistan in the semi-finals. West Indies lost its semi-final berth.
For many of us that day, it was a lesson that winning a game was secondary to doing the right thing. In fact, it was more: doing the right thing was winning.
Two decades later, a half Irish half Turkish writer called Joseph O’Neill wrote a novel called Netherland. The story is set in New York City and the plot primarily revolves around two characters. One of the protagonists is a Dutch banker, Hans van den Broek.
Hans’ life gets shattered after the collapse of the twin towers on 9/11. Engulfed by anxiety and fear, his wife and son leave New York and he had to start living out of a hotel room. He now had to battle an amorphous combination of loneliness and a need for a sense of belonging.
Having played cricket in his youth, Hans finds solace in playing cricket on the weekends with south Asian immigrants in the boroughs of the city. It’s here that Hans meets with Chuck Ramkisoon who becomes his window to the black and brown lives inhabiting the boundaries of the city.
Chuck is an American with West Indian roots and has tall ambitions of making cricket the biggest sport in America. Chuck is a picaresque character whose barefoot reverence for the sport oozes on many occasions such as when he says “cricket is a lesson in civility.”
Explaining the invisibility of those on the margins of the city, Chuck tells Hans “You want a taste of how it feels to be a black man in this country? Put on the white clothes of the cricketer. Put on white to feel black.”
The meditative prose advances the plot and cricket plays the twin roles of being both an anchor and a metaphor in the novel.
When O’Neill writes “I cannot be the first to wonder if what we see, when we see men in white take to a cricket field, is men imagining an environment of justice”, one feels a calm reassurance that cricket was in safe hands. Even more so given the multidimensional marginal identities occupied by cricket here; an Irish-Turkish author writing about a Dutchman playing cricket in the USA.
As if Walsh’s actions had morphed into Chuck’s thoughts, early on in the novel, an animated Chuck says “When we disapprove of something, we say ‘it’s not cricket.’ We do not say ‘it’s not baseball’ or ‘it’s not football.’ We say ‘it’s not cricket’.”
Walsh’s last over in the game with Pakistan in 1987 and the brief excursion into the novel are important refrains concerning the recent actions and inactions of Indian cricket’s superheroes.
The Ministry of External Affairs released an official statement based on a tweet by an American pop star who supported the farmers’ protest. The government’s over-reaction was soon followed by the who’s who of Indian cricket – and the sporting community at large – to tweet in a co-ordinated manner in support of the government’s insecure actions. It was almost as if these cricketers were given a “toolkit” of tweets.
As a corollary, the celebrities’ tweets were akin to sanctioning the government’s continuous deligitimisation of protests and muzzling of civil liberties.
This stood in sharp contrast to the eerie silence by the same cricketers when a fellow former Test cricketer and a stellar player for Mumbai in domestic cricket, Wasim Jaffer, resigned as coach of the Uttarakhand cricket team citing “interference and bias of selectors and CAU office bearers in team selection and promoting non-deserving players.”
After Jaffer’s resignation, Uttarakhand team manager Navneet Mishra alleged that Jaffer picked players based on their religion and created a communal atmosphere.
Barring a few cricketers like Dodda Ganesh, Manoj Tiwari and Mohammed Kaif, the cricketing fraternity has largely maintained a studied silence. In cricketing terms, Anil Kumble’s words in support for Jaffer might best be described as half cock.
Admittedly, some players might have shown solidarity in private to Jaffer but there is a crying need to express solidarity publicly. Kaif’s poignant article in the Indian Express brought to mind the following lines from O’Neill’s novel, voiced from the perspective of the atheist Hans: “Before the start of play, one of our team, Ramesh, drew us into a circle for prayer. We huddled with arms round one another’s shoulders — nominally, three Hindus, three Christians, a Sikh and four Muslims.”
Most recently, the cricket stadium in Ahmedabad has been renamed as the Narendra Modi stadium. Naming a stadium after a sitting Prime Minister places Narendra Modi in the unenviable pantheon of the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Kim Il Sung.
This act, sanctioned by the President of India, has again used cricket as a fig leaf to promote a brand of nationalism, arguably, at odds with nonviolence and democratic values. In fact, this sinks a step further as it is also an open display of cronyism since the ends of the stadium are named as Adani end and Ambani’s Reliance end.
Ramchandra Guha’s recent book The Commonwealth of Cricket begins with a quote by the Australian cricketer and writer Jack Fingleton “The longer I live, I am pleased to say, the less nationalistic I become. The outcome of a match is interesting but not, on the scales of time, of any great moment.”
Indeed, when pluralism and ethics are hollowed out by violent forms of bigotry and coercive forms of nationalism, it is not only an “it’s not cricket” moment for Indian cricket but an “it’s not cricket” moment for the entire country.
Rajendran Narayanan teaches at Azim Premji University, Bangalore and is associated with LibTech India.