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Remember the opposition

By Siddhartha Deb
February 17, 2003 15:42 IST
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There isn't a whisper of cricket in suburban Massachusetts, where I have been living for the past year. Nothing of India's defeat or Shane Warne's expulsion or England's refusal to play in Zimbabwe among the piles of old snow and empty roads and the lonely lights outside the big suburban houses. Here people watch games that seem strangely sanitized of the excitement that comes from being part of the greater world.

There's something called the Superbowl, where people wait with anticipation for a special advertisement they will get to watch before the game, the advertisement more the point of the Superbowl than the game itself. And then they watch the World Series, the climax of an endless series of encounters between different American teams that even change home cities when they are sold to a different owner, passing from the hands of one rich businessman to another like a relay-race baton, or like a fat, expensive cigar.

I don't really understand American sport. I consciously resist it, and if I am at a bar or a restaurant I will turn my back to the television set rather than face the helmeted behemoths playing American football and the intermittent Budweiser ads. But even from the corner of my eye and ear, I can make out one thing. Sport here has a lot to do with money.

The public protests when the baseball players go on strike for bigger salaries, and I find it interesting that the most powerful trade union in the US is composed of rich baseball players. "They have too much money," people say, but then they also talk about the house bought by a celebrity sportsman in a neighbouring town, reciting the features of the house with as much reverence as if they were mentioning the statistics of a star batsman: the number of rooms the house has, the personal gym, the heated swimming pool, and the price the house had on the market, before the superstar moved in, just like that.

I could scoff at all this, except that the stories I often read about Indian cricket seem to have much to do with money as well. More than a spectacular performance, the BBC and 'Guardian' pieces on India seem to be about the Indian team's problems with sponsorships and with Jagmohan Dalmiya's demands that England be fined for not playing in Zimbabwe. Before that, there was the stuff about betting, from Manoj Prabhakar's allegations to Hansie Cronje's guilt as discovered by the CBI. When I came home to India last year, during the series with West Indies, it annoyed me that Dalmiya the businessman and administrator seemed to be the most prominent figure in Indian cricket and that you saw Ganguly and Tendulkar on advertising billboards far more often than on the cricket field. By the time the Test match in Calcutta had begun, it was hard to find the cricketers from among the products and services they were endorsing.

I don't expect money not to be a significant part of present-day sport. Without the commercial interest sparked by cricket, it would have probably gone the way of football or hockey. But what bothers me about the commercialization of Indian cricket is that the game itself comes to be seen as a form of business, with cricketing abilities determined solely by a star system of individual sponsorships, the efficiency of cricket administrators measured only by the amount of money they raise for matches. Or as a form of populist politics, with stick figures to represent the masses and their hopes until they fail and the time comes to replace them with another set of stick figures. Or, when we're playing Pakistan, as war -- minus the shooting.

None of these substitutions -- cricket as business, politics, or war -- help when you have the kind of performance we saw in the games against Holland or Australia, when the huge gap between the expectations and the disappointment, between the supposed potential and the actual performance, is cruelly revealed right in front of our eyes. What can explain such a mismatch between dreams and reality?

Jean-Paul Sartre, the French existentalist philosopher, is credited with having said that "In football, everything is complicated by the presence of the opposite team." If we change that to cricket and think of the Indian team, we'll see how much sense the comment makes. India has the finest batting line-up in the world, it's always been an unpredictable team, in one-dayers anything can happen, and besides a billion people deserve the 'Cup. Excuse me, but where did the opposite team go -- those people our side actually have to play in order to win?

Our board does its best to make sure that there isn't an opposition when we play at home, with slow pitches that start turning on the second or third day. These are easy victories that let us make fun of the opposition, or better still forget about them, since we aren't very gracious winners. Then the tide turns and we can start complaining about the Indian team. I came home to India when we were still winning against the West Indies. They were floundering, without Lara, without good bowlers, but floundering gamely. Most of the reports I read had written the Windies off as an opposition in that mood of uncomplicated victory. I heard a lot of "we're much too good for them," but wait, the opposite team tends to complicate things, and they did.

It's not hard to figure out why we're such paper tigers, and why the batting line-up is one of the finest when shown on the screen at the beginning of a match. After the match, of course, the story changes, as in an e-mail a friend sent me: "Sachin's a dick. Sourav's a dick. The whole team's a dick." No doubt, but that's still solipsistic, still not taking into account that there was an opposite team to complicate things for us.

The best teams understand that the opposition matters. That's why they have strategies, and soften up suspect Indian batsmen with short balls and restrict Ganguly from playing freely on the off. One doesn't even have to be a terribly talented player when figuring out the opposition and acting on that knowledge, as Mike Gatting showed us in that World Cup semi-final when he swept Maninder Singh and our hopes out of the tournament. That is also why our insistence in talking of the talent -- sorry, genius -- of our players in self-contained terms is ultimately self-defeating, because the only way of measuring their ability is in conditions not in their control, and against teams that don't act in accordance with the script we would like to give them.

Once we understand that, there's cause for comfort. This early in a series is as good a time as any to be reminded of such existential dilemmas. If we let go of unreal expectations, we'll know that either the Indian team will get through to the Super Six -- and that's the best we can hope for -- or it will be flying home with the Bangladesh team. We're neighbours, after all, though we may not like to acknowledge the fact.

And while we're talking about hard existential truths, let's please realize that it's time to stop getting carried away by the batsmen who make big scores only on the pitches where the ball doesn't come above the knee-roll. Remember Vinod Kambli? In the days before the Metro was completed and one had to fight for an empty seat on a Calcutta bus, sarcastic conductors occasionally reminded passengers that they couldn't take their hard-earned seats with them when it was time to get off.

It's the same way with pitches, as Ganguly and Sehwag and the selectors and their advocates in the media need to figure out. And it's that way with teams, too. You can't always choose the opposition, or the conditions, and it's time to start playing in accordance with that reality. Of course, we could always do what the Americans do, and watch endless variations of different combinations of Indian players, and call that the World Series. That way we'll always be winners, and if we buy enough Pepsi and promise to watch all the ads, the multinationals will still sponsor it.

Siddhartha Deb is the author of the novel 'The Point of Return', published by Picador. He currently lives in the United States.

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Siddhartha Deb