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Any which way but lose!

By Sandipan Deb
February 20, 2003 20:30 IST
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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 isbaar 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 exist by spending 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 month, 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 rediff 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 in countless Internet chat rooms. And they turn out in daunting numbers at the stadium whenever India's playing in their adopted country.

Indian fansThe 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 with 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 hell for leather on cricket's popularity. 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 cricket system 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, burn their effigies, 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, why playing cricket day in and day out throughout the year can tire out the greatest athlete and blunt the most extraordinary batsman's edge. 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? On the day India played Australia, I was taking a flight from Delhi to Bangalore. Four wickets fell while I was watching the match at home, Kaif departed when I was in the cab on the way to the airport. In the airport security lounge, I saw Tendulkar and Mongia go. We boarded the plane, but the usual Indian Airlines "technical hitch" kept us sitting on the tarmac for half an hour. I called up from my cellphone and found that India was all out. By the time I reached Bangalore, the match was over and long dead.

 That night, for dinner, I met an old friend of mine, now an extremely senior banker. After the ritual half-hour India-bashing (during which my colleague in South Africa called up to depressedly inform me that as the Indian spectators were leaving the stadium, the gloom was so heavy that the South African guards and policemen were moved to pity, and consoled them: It happens, don't get so upset, everyone has bad days, keep your chin up, etc), we confessed guiltily to each other that both of us were the typical Indian suckers who still believed that this team would suddenly rise like phoenix and do something extraordinary. As far as cricket went, we, hard-nosed banker and cynical journalist, both believed -- admittedly in a sheepish sort of way -- in miracles.

 In other words, Yaar, mujhe to lagta hai India ka isbaar chance hai. Definitely. I mean, what the hell else do we have in this country but hope?

(The author is Managing Editor of Outlook. A slightly different version of this article appeared in Outlook.)

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Sandipan Deb