Archive for February, 2003

Getafix On The Greatest Game In The World

Sunday, February 23rd, 2003

Feb 04, 2003

Cricket is the greatest game invented by man. And nothing else even comes close.

Let’s first set the record straight, once and for all. Cricket is the greatest game invented by man. And nothing else even comes close. Does any other game make so many demands from its players? It asks for as much athletic ability as soccer but can you ever imagine Diego Maradona being a great cricketer? (OK, now imagine what wonderful soccer Garfield Sobers could have played. Thank you, you can get the glaze out of your eye now.) Cricket requires the physical courage of a bullfighter: picture yourself standing at the crease as Malcolm Marshall comes charging in, and you could be wearing the body armour of American football plus Robocop for all he cares, and for all the difference it will make to your mental well-being when he’s only 22 yards away from you. Or standing at forward short leg when Sachin Tendulkar is batting. Wouldn’t you prefer the primal rage of the goaded bull?

Cricket is the only sport where a captain is essential. In all other field games, the captain is simply an acknowledgement of seniority, a tip of the hat at a player’s excellence. But apart from that band round his arm and the right to call when the referee tosses a coin, he is just another member of the team. As for the strategy part and the motivation part and the thinking bit, for all those things that are supposed to define leadership, there’s a coach howling himself hoarse on the sidelines. Not so in cricket. Out on the field, cricket requires a leader of men who, ideally, should combine the strategic mind of a Rommel with the ruthless innovative powers of a Gary Kasparov and the motivational skills of a Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. In which other game could a mediocre athlete but a brilliant psychoanalyst be one of its greatest captains, and the most valuable member of his team? I speak, of course, of Mike Brearley. (If you are doing an MBA, give it up now, for all you need to read is Brearley’s The Art of Captaincy.)

In September 1981, one S.A. Nicholas wrote the following letter to The Guardian : “On Friday I watched J.M. Brearley directing his fieldsmen very carefully. He then looked up at the sun and made a gesture which seemed to indicate that it should move a little squarer. Who is this man?” Could any other game have caused such awed metaphysical puzzlement?

To be sure, every cricketer does not have to possess the skills necessary to be a captain. But he does need a sailor’s deep knowledge of meteorology and wind conditions, a farmer’s understanding of soil types and an aircraft designer’s expertise in aerodynamics, especially the physics of a round object travelling at great speed through air. In Test matches, depending on the situation, he requires the raw energy of a cheetah on the hunt or the patience of a python. In one-day matches, you even need the mathematical ability to figure out how you are doing vis-a-vis the required run rate and how many overs your best bowlers have left to bowl compared with the number of overs left in the match. And nowadays, you could also do with a dash of Buddha-like serenity as you take stance and the slip fielders mutter about the questionable legality of your birth and your relationship with your sister.

In other words, it’s tougher—much, much tougher—to be a good cricketer than to be any other sort of sportsman.

And as for us lesser mortals who have been deprived of the brains of a Brearley and the nerves of a Steve Waugh and the grace of a David Gower and the integrity of a Frank Worrell and the athletic ability of a Jonty Rhodes, well, which other game allows its fans so much scope for analysis, so myriad a number of legitimate viewpoints to debate, so many statistics to crunch and interpret? There are too many damn variables and nuances to this game. As we all should know by now, life is a pale imitation of cricket.

Could the British have built the largest empire in history without having invented the game of cricket? I don’t need to answer that. It’s an extremely rhetorical question.

And every four years, all these generals and meteorologists and physicists and warriors come together for the greatest celebration and reaffirmation of their science and art and craft. They are all mad alchemists, except that in each of these four-yearly conclaves, some group of druids or the other actually manages to get their gloves on the philosopher’s stone.

Unlikely? Oh, so you are the genius who bet on India in 1983 and Pakistan in 1992 and Sri Lanka in 1996? And if you think Australia will just rampage their way to the Cup, remember the 1992 tournament, where the Aussies were dead certs, and on home ground? In fact, the dead-certness changed within a few days and till the near-death overs of the semifinal between New Zealand and Pakistan, when a fat, bloodshot-eyed youth called Inzamam-ul-Haq ambled out to bat, the handing over of the Cup seemed to be mere formality as far as New Zealand was concerned.

As for the next (supposedly) best bet for this World Cup, South Africa, remember that no host country has ever won the Cup. Unless you count Sri Lanka, which was the third host in 1996. I may be mad about cricket but I am not mad enough to suggest that the Host No. 3 of this World Cup, Kenya, has a chance, but consider the fact that in 1996 Australia refused to play in Sri Lanka, and it’s still a possibility that the same could happen in Zimbabwe, the second host country. Which true cricket-lover would mind Andy Flower winning the Cup?

As for the continent pretending to be a country in which we live, I suggest a simple exercise. In this book, we who work for Outlook and are bigger fans of cricket than anyone else on earth and the best analysers of the game and whatever conclusion we reach is after considerable argufying on any cricketing issue and are able to print after the blood has been washed off the floor and our jaws rewired so we can manage to haltingly dictate our pieces, and if you happen to dispute the fact that we understand cricket better than you, we will never publish your letters to the editor, who assured us that he understands the game even better than we do (in fact, that’s why we agreed to work for him)—yes, to cut a long story short, we have selected the 10 greatest Indian one-day victories.

Now get on the Net, or go through your files of yellowed clippings, whatever, and verify the following simple fact. A month before each of these splendid triumphs, the Indian team was in the doghouse. They were the worst no-hopers since those stupid alchemists who tried to make gold out of iron. And then, every time, something happens.

Life happens.

You thought the World Cup was about cricket.

I Am Not Daft, It’s The Game

Monday, February 10th, 2003

Feb 10, 2003

That’s because at the end of the day, it’s the one area we can lay claim to a little greatness to.

Some days ago, I happened to be standing on a Delhi railway platform at one in the morning. The cold wave was at its fiercest and the chill bit to the bone through all the many pieces of apparel I had swaddled myself in. But I didn’t have a choice; I was one among the many miserable people who had come to receive a train that should have arrived at one in the afternoon.

We had had some friends over that night at home and the conversation had turned to the question of emigration. Most of us felt no regret at not having left India like so many of our collegemates. The usual reasons were trotted out: we are Indians, this is our country, there we’ll be second-class citizens who would never be accepted unconditionally into the mainstream, and so on. Then someone turned to me and said: “Yeah, but even as a second-class citizen there, you wouldn’t have to go at one o’clock at night to the station to receive your aged aunt who’s suffering from uterine cancer and osteoporosis. She would have arrived at the scheduled time.”

I was brooding about this, waiting for the train, when from a small cluster of fellow-sufferers nearby, a sentence floated out: “Yaar, mujhe to lagta hai India ka is baar chance hai (I think India has a chance this time).”

Only the insane would ever think that the speaker was referring to anything other than cricket. And only the insane would cheerfully discuss cricket while freezing their butts off, through no fault of theirs, waiting for a train that should have been here 12 hours ago. I sidled over to listen to the discussion, maybe even to participate.

What is the reason for this strange thankless futile irrational time-wasting passion that we as Indians nurture in our hearts, wear on our sleeves, are casually willing to make enemies about? Why do we forget all our problems, all the indignities that we suffer every day, the moment the talk turns to cricket? Why do we invest so much of our time and energy on this game? Why is it that, more than the prime minister, more than our soldiers, more than anyone else, 11 young men in flannels have to carry the burden of national honour?

Is it because we have nothing else but this? This game?

Among all the countries in the world, India has the highest number of the impoverished and the penurious. Some 44 per cent of Indians spend less than Rs 50 a day. Over 80 per cent of our pregnant women suffer from anaemia. Over half of our children under five are stunted due to lack of nutrition. Seventy out of every thousand Indian children die before completing their first year on earth. Another 25 die before they can turn five. Over half of our girls are out of school.

Our roads rank among the worst on earth. Our electricity sector is a joke. Our law and order system is collapsing, with all those who can afford it barricading themselves behind high steel gates and private security guards. We are heading towards a water crisis of epic proportions. Our judicial system is too slow-moving for justice to trickle down to the less advantaged. The interface between people and government is an endless cycle of corruption, venality and inefficiency.

Only 36 per cent of our population has access to sanitary means of excreta disposal. There are lakhs of Indians who subsist on our streets without even the most basic rights to a human life or a dignified death. Thousands of our citizens live as refugees in their own country, having lost their homes and means of livelihood. Last week, in a poll conducted by The Hindustan Times on the attitudes of Indian youth, more than 50 per cent of the respondents said that given a chance, they would live in some other country.

But even when they do go away to some other country, they have the cricinfo live cricket scorecard open surreptitiously on their computer monitors throughout their working day.They stay up nights in the US to watch India play in England. They participate in detailed analyses of the Indian team’s strengths and weaknesses on rediff. And they turn out in daunting numbers at the stadium whenever India’s playing in their adopted country.

The truth is that, even though we are loath to admit it, as Indians, we have very little to be proud of. That is why, for example, we are not satisfied with all that we can legitimately point to as our glorious heritage: our ancient texts, our arts and architecture, our accomplishments in theoretical science and mathematics. No, we have to overcompensate by pretending that we had invented the aeroplane in the Ramayana Age and that nuclear weapons—brahmastras—were used in the Battle of Kurukshetra. (To invent the aeroplane and nuclear weapons, our ancient scientists would have had to develop, among many other things, certain advanced metallurgical processes which would have had a far-reaching impact on the rest of society too, in the way the ancient Indians built their homes, the appliances they used, the vehicles they rode. It would have been a very different world from the one that we have a fair idea about from our archaeological findings.) We go into a national frenzy when an Indian film is nominated for the Oscars and are left stunned by the sheer nonchalance with which John Travolta quenches our billion hopes by opening a sealed envelope, casually reading out the name of some other film and that’s it, folks, it’s over, it’s like your dreams never breathed.

This hunger for recognition from the world leads us to trumpet our supposed superiority to everyone else at the drop of a hat, yet give the game away with our penchant for affixing the term “internationally acclaimed” before some achiever’s name, also at the drop of a hat.

But we’re no fools. We have figured out, I think unconsciously, that among all forms of human activity, cricket is the one area where we actually can be the best in the world. There are only nine major contenders for that crown, so we have more than a fighting chance. And this is one game where our sheer numbers give us a crucial advantage.

No, the fact that India has the highest population among all cricket-playing countries has no bearing on our ability to bat, bowl and field better. But we do have more cricket fans than any other nation, a much more intense passion for the game than any other country and by multiplying these two factors, we end up spending far more money on the game than anyone else. We pack the stadia, send television ratings shooting through the ceiling, buy more motorcycles and soft drinks and widgets than any other population on the planet just because our cricketers tell us to. And we have these mammoth companies planning to ride on cricket’s popularity by their bolsheviks. So we flex our muscles and leave the white men whose forefathers thought up this grand game gnashing their teeth.

In cricket, we are in a position to do what the United States of America does in geopolitics. Just as the US prefers to measure its distances in inches and its weights in ounces (because we are the US of A and the devil take the hindmost), India can, theoretically, say that we believe an over should have seven deliveries and all matches played on our soil will be played according to this doctrine. (Of course, we are more subtle than that. We just sign contracts (without bothering to consult the players, whose interests are jeopardised in the contracts) and then turn around and say: Sorry, we aren’t going to abide by those contracts and if you have a problem with that, go ahead, make my day.)

As a direct—though paradoxical—corollary of cricket being our only chance to have a crack at world domination (I’m getting this vision of Jagmohan Dalmiya with a foot up on a chair, tapping a baton on the knee, and surveying a large plastic globe as he plans his next blitzkrieg that will subjugate vast populations who will be ordered by law to wear batting pads to office and eat lunch with wicket-keeping gloves on), we Indians are not the least bit interested in domestic cricket. No one except rookie sports reporters goes to watch a Ranji Trophy match. We spend no quality time discussing the extraordinary number of things that are wrong with our domestic cricket and which directly impinge on our ability to produce players of international class: the dead pitches, the pathetic money, the wastefulness of our officials, the politics of the game’s bureaucracy. We don’t care, we aren’t interested.

All we want is 11 young men to appear by some magic, some process that we can’t bother ourselves with right now, thank you, we are still arguing about who was a greater batsman, Gavaskar or Vishwanath. We want these 11 immaculately-conceived players to go out and beat the opposition, whatever opposition, every damned time. When they win, we prostrate ourselves before them, tattoo their faces on our breasts, name our children after them and beat our wives up if they ask us to change the channel. Every time they lose, we vilify them, condemn them and, given a chance, would stone them to death. We do not want to know what their problems are, why some teams could actually be much better than ours (and this can hardly be our players’ fault), why even the best team in the world can lose a match once in a while. We don’t give a damn; we sent you out to come back with the world in your pocket so we can all feel more virile and bask in the glow of our pathetic, vicarious thrills. And we don’t want no excuses.

In the grimness of our everyday lives, in the general disenchantment with our ruling class and our polity, in the creeping realisation—in spite of our averted eyes—that we don’t count for much in the world, this is one area—this one game—which is not a short-seller’s dream market. Can we win the World Cup? Yaar, mujhe to lagta hai India ka is baar chance hai. Definitely.