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REACHING OUT: April 08, 2001
When sport connects
The writer is a sports columnist and commentator.
Something very interesting happened in Melbourne last August. Australia were playing South Africa in a series of three one-day matches at the new Colonial Stadium. The matches were being played under the roof, with the lights on, and given the novelty, ESPN was bringing the games live to Indian audiences. To the surprise of many Indian viewers, the logo on the shirts that the Australians were wearing bore an Indian name, Pentasoft. Indeed, they had even sponsored the series and the day before the event, there was this bunch of distinctly South Indian people posing for publicity pictures while two completely unrelated teams warmed up nearby.
Now, why on earth would Pentasoft spend well-earned money on a cricket series that did not involve India? It was quite simple really. They were making an entry into the Australian market and they wanted to connect with the right kind of people by presenting the right kind of image. Cricket was the door through which Pentasoft hoped to make a major entry into Australia because even though they were from a country that was culturally very different, Pentasoft realised that there was a common idiom; a shared love for cricket.
The Australians had discovered that in 1996 when they wanted to put together a major trade initiative with India. Their research showed that the most famous Australian name in India was "Bradman" and that kangaroos and cricket were the first images that came to mind when Indians were asked about Australia. And so, at a governmental level, a request went out for a test match to be staged between the two countries in Delhi (in spite of being a terrible cricket ground it was the preferred centre, being the political capital). It didn't quite reach the heights of the ping-pong diplomacy of the seventies but it ensured that in all future co-operation between the two countries, cricket would play a major role.
I do not know if the initiative produced the desired results but by the time I returned to Australia late in 1999, there was another huge bridge building up between the two countries. It was called "Tendulkar" and Australians rejoiced in his skill as much as the expatriate Indians there did. If India was the prevailing flavour, it was because Tendulkar was cooking the curry.
I discovered too that in the eight years that I had been there, a huge new interest in India and Indians had sprung up. At cricket matches, in universities, even in people's houses there was a great desire to know more about India and I ended up giving seven or eight talks on the shared love that we had for cricket. It was an interesting experience because on my first visit I had come away with the impression that Australia was a bit American in the sense that they didn't seem to worry too much about what happened in the rest of the world. Now, cricket had brought two communities closer.
Sport can do that because it doesn't require a language to translate culture. That is why cinema (unless it is American pulp) and art bring communities together in a rather more limited way. I remember going with my father to see French films at the Alliance Francaise in Hyderabad. With my limited knowledge, it was very difficult to pick the dialogues given that the French speak very quickly (as someone who has often been accused of doing the same, I suspect I shouldn't be complaining!). The sub-titles were critical but very often they were written in very strange sentences and I am sure I missed a lot of the flavour which can often be the meat of the communication.
I remember as well, when I was much younger, huddling together with a lot of other children inside the compound of the professor of German on the Osmania University Campus. They were showing us some films and I remember gaping at shots of some of the athletes as they sailed over the hurdles. Those films had no sub-titles but they didn't need any because the language of sport communicated itself so brilliantly.
I think the Olympic movement, even in its hyped up, grossly commercialised form, and soccer, do it the best. Today's children are learning names and cities from the Italian and Spanish soccer leagues and with their greater exposure to television, they are able to connect to another culture far better. It helps as well that increasingly, television brings you snippets of the cities where the games are staged as indeed they do of the lives of people who live in them. Today, it is television, and not books, that serves as a major source of information to young boys and girls, something I discovered while hosting the ESPN School Quiz Olympiad and maybe that is how it should be for television is a far more powerful medium.
I actually believe that sport plays a far greater role in bringing people together in these troubled political times. Religion, which was such a great glue, is increasingly separating communities rather than bringing them together and while I don't think sport can match religion as a social force, it needs to play its part. Twice, in recent times we have seen that with stunning effect. First the two Koreas marched under the same flag at the Sydney Olympics to almost as much applause as the home team generated. And then, a couple of weeks later, at the Paralympics, the Cambodian volleyball team did more to spread the message of the horrors of mines and war than any government could have.
But while I endorse sport heartily, not just because it earns me a living, I must sound a note of caution. In at least two cities that I have been to, sport, specifically cricket, has begun dividing communities that were quite happy living and working together. I first saw it in Sharjah and Dubai where Indians and Pakistanis worked and ate together till cricket arrived with its passionate and irrational appeal. Suddenly, people who knew each other were sitting in separate stands, carrying separate flags and worse still, occasionally heaping abuse on each other.
It was far more dramatic in Toronto which, because of its distance from either country, saw a greater degree of co-habitation than Sharjah. The first time the Sahara Cup was held there in 1996, there was friendly banter between the two communities. By 1998, I could see that it was becoming vicious. What cricket had effectively done was to remind them that they were different from each other; where shared cultural interests like food, music and cinema had acted as a glue, cricket was starting to remind them that at heart one was Indian and the other Pakistani.
Therein lies the inherent difference between sport and art. Since communities and nations do not compete with each other in art, it can actually bring them together. In sport, where the rivalry can be fierce, where there is open one-to-one competition, the spirit of nationality can sometimes override the spirit of brotherhood; more so in troubled parts like the sub-continent.
But even there, small groups can rise and show that they are different; that they can admire and applaud sporting skill irrespective of the flag its owner plays under. I saw a striking, and utterly unforgettable example of that in Chennai, when the entire crowd at the Chidambaram Stadium rose as one to applaud Pakistan after their narrow win over India in a great test match in 1999. That day, that afternoon, sport left an unforgettable imprint on my mind, much as the hurdlers in the film many years earlier.
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