Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
ADDICTIONS: February 25,2001
T. G. Vaidyanathan
Everyone has heard of Kipling's jibe of cricket being played by "flannelled fools." But everyone also knows that Kipling was an arch imperialist, an apologist of Empire who prattled of "lesser breeds without the Law." Shaw derided it in even more humiliating terms. Still, sneering at popular games by eggheads goes back nearly 2000 years to the Greek satirist Lucian - "the Bernard Shaw of his day" as cricket historian C.L.R. James wittily observes - who "sneered at the games but could not keep away." On his deathbed, the Cambridge mathematician G.H. Hardy who "discovered" our very own Ramanujan is reported to have asked visitors about Test scores in far-off Australia. You see, cricket for him was a passion, a religion, which virtually kept him alive. Had he been living today, he would no doubt have been glued to the television screen.
This afternoon, the boy who supplies our milk asked me about the scores in the India-Bangladesh one-off Test in Dhaka. I don't think he has ever been inside the Chinnaswami stadium - just a couple of miles away - let alone witness a Test match. What could Kipling's remark possibly mean to him? Nothing at all! The irony is that the more "popular" - or democratic, if you will - a game becomes, the more the "intellectual" feels obliged to take up cudgels against it. The latest arrival in these ranks is a JNU don, Dr. Dipankar Gupta, who has returned to the hoary tradition of cricket-baiting in his just published Mistaken Modernity (HarperCollins, 2000) where he devotes a whole section - "The Elevation of Cricket" - to the demolition of cricket by the demonstration of its elite bias. Committed to an unrelenting monolithic notion of modernity (he will have absolutely no truck with new fangled notions of "multiple modernities" put forward by scholars like Eisenstadt [see the special issue of Daedalus , Winter, 2000, on "Multiple Modernities"] - "It is wounded pride that makes the conception of multiple modernities so attractive to some of us in India" he thunders in a recent article in one of our national dailies), Gupta finds India woefully lacking in the hallmarks of true modernity. He finds our pathetic "devotion to cricket" as a sign of the "inherent non-modern character" of our society. For him "cricket stars in India are players like Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri, Sachin Tendulkar, Ajay Jadeja and the Nawab of Pataudi. They are all fluent in English and some would probably hold elocution classes in that language." Perhaps Dr. Gupta is being unduly elitist in singling out batsmen over bowlers to show cricket's elitist bias, batsmen always the darlings of our cricket scribes. For cricket's hierarchical structure merely mirrors India's even more hierarchical structure and I can give a matching list of great Indian bowlers from 1932 onwards when India first acquired Test status. Most of our great bowlers, like Amar Singh, Ramakant Desai, Jasu Patel and Salim Durrani were matriculates or even less who couldn't speak a word of English let alone "hold elocution classes in that language." C.G. Borde, the present Chairman of the Selection Committee, for instance, is a non-matriculate. I'm afraid Dr. Gupta will have to dig up other facts about our cricketers to show how elite cricket has been. He tries to rest his case even on cricket's "elite tastes." Aren't "flannels and coloured shirts... a much better sight than sweaty jerseys and ugly shorts?" he now asks in his best vein of JNU mockery. This won't do either for flannels went out a long time ago with the advent of one-day cricket and coloured team uniforms. And it's no use falling back on women to show cricket's elitism because of the milling and noisy crowds at today's day-night tamashas.
No, the devotion to cricket - never, never rising to "mania" (this being reserved exclusively for political elections), only occasionally to feverish proportions - is not simply because we are an unmodern society mired inextricably in the past as Dr. Gupta seems to think. Great Britain is a modern society alright but we have football hooliganism there which makes cricket mania look like kindergarten stuff. Cricket, actually, is a great leveller. It makes no distinction between the runs cross-batted by a Sreekanth or a Srinath and those elegantly made by a Tendulkar or a Ganguly: both are displayed dispassionately on the scoreboard. A Bradman can remain not out on 299 (as he did against South Africa at Adelaide in the 1931-1932 home series) while a Chippendale is tragically run out for 99 at Nottingham in the '34 series against England. Such is cricket.
Cricket fever - so glibly reviled by our latter-day rationalists or modernists (ultimately they come to the same thing) is only a brief respite from the intolerable monotony of our all too sane lives. But it is by no means to be written off as mania, "a tale/Told by an idiot full of sound and fury/Signifying nothing." The game of cricket may have, of late, lost something of its prelapsarian innocence especially after the recent betting scandals. But not for nothing has cricket been the Queen of Games. Not for nothing has the phrase "It's not cricket" acquired canonical status as a virtual synonym for fair play. Bodyline was a nightmare, an aberration from which cricket recovered quickly. The other, rather more contemporary Foucauldian view of cricket likens it to all-out war without the artillery. This is best expressed in Mike Marqusee's somewhat sensational account of the 1996 World Cup, War Minus the Shooting (Mandarin, 1996) - a title clearly inspired by the Pakistani newspaper ad advertising the Bangalore India-Pak match as "War Minus the Shooting". Here Mr. Marqusee seems to have poached liberally on the views of his numerous hosts in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - most of whom are well-known cricket writers like my friend Ramachandra Guha - to lend substance to his somewhat melodramatic views about cricket reflected in the rather lurid title of his book with its even more lurid cover showing Aravinda De Silva flanked by armed security personnel. But let us rest assured that when all the dust has settled and stumps are drawn for the day, cricket, blest cricket, will once again reign supreme. Long live cricket!
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