Cricket, particularly the IPL, is at a crossroads where Imagined India meets Real India
TRY and answer the following questions as honestly as you can:
1. Name the Indian cricketer who made a brilliant second innings century in a losing cause in a Test match against Pakistan in Chennai in 1999, falling agonisingly short of the target?
2. In the same year, in a dangerously war-like situation in Kargil, quite a few Indian soldiers lost their lives as they beat back Pakistani infiltrators in mind-bogglingly hostile conditions. Name one of them.
3. In your house, how many photographs are in your possession showing you or your kin with: a) A celebrity cricketer; b) A politician of high stature; c) A Bollywood or Kollywood superstar and d) A prominent Indian scientist or a literary figure.
My gut feeling as a sports writer who has delved deep into the garbage heap of sport’s soul over four decades is this: nine out of ten readers might have got the answer to the first question (Sachin Tendulkar) right. As for the second, may be one out of 10 vaguely remembers the name of an officer or a soldier who laid down his life in the nation’s cause.
The third question, of course, is a no-brainer. If you pile up prints of the first three and they end up as tall as the Empire State Building in New York, then the fourth may not be much more than the height of a single brick.
This is who we are, as Indians. While we need not be ashamed about it, let us not pretend that our own brand of neo-liberalism, which has produced a socio-cultural climate that makes it possible for the aspiring Indian middle classes — I use the plural advisedly — to unabashedly revel in the celebrity cesspool and pretend that we are squeaky clean is, at best, hypocritical, at worst, suicidal.
It is against this backdrop that we ought to view the events — if you can simply call them that — that have unfolded in Indian cricket over the last fortnight.
For, cricket does not exist in a vacuum; it is not a cosy world safely tucked away from the dark, dirty, often cruel, and real, world in which we live, as Indians.
A lot of us wishfully think that this might turn out to be India’s century or, in the least, an India-China century. But if you chose to do away with those rose-tinted glasses — a gift from opportunistic politicians and an acquiescent media — and mentally prepared yourself to stare truth in its face, then you will get an idea about where we really are.
At a crossroads
And cricket, particularly the Indian Premier League version of it, is exactly at a crossroads where Imagined (Advertised) India (II) meets Real India (RI), the former giving a little and taking a lot from the latter. And this is understandable, too, given that any sport has to reflect the dominant values of the culture in which it flourishes (or decays).
Yes, India today is ambitious. And nothing showcases that ambition more than Indian cricket. But it does so in such an egregiously shameful fashion that even the anarchistic liberals among us might wince.
“Ambition’s debt is paid,” claimed Brutus (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act III) after taking part in the butchering of Caesar.
Pay ambition’s debt
After overseeing the steady decline in values in the Indian game over the last decade, especially since the advent of IPL, the movers and shakers in the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) may have reached the point where they have no choice but to pay ambition’s debt — although not quite as terminally as Caesar had to.
But in actual fact, they may not. This is because they live and function in the Real India, although they are deemed part of the Imagined India. This is where II scores over RI, for it can take advantage of all the conditions that prevail in Real India — callousness, greed, corruption, sleaze, pliability — and by cleverly putting money power to use, it can make sure that the muck doesn’t stick on it.
This is precisely what has happened in Indian cricket. Riding piggyback on an upwardly mobile, celebrity-crazed middle class willing to compromise on anything so long as they get a bang for their buck — a few Chris Gayle sixes in the IPL — the BCCI came up with a win-win formula to build an enviable empire.
But if history has taught us anything, it is this: like everything in life, empires too have a certain shelf-life. And if emperors aren’t aware of this, they might find themselves staring down the barrel sooner than later.
Then again, if we believe we are free men living responsible lives in a democratic society, the onus is on us too. The marketplace — what is sold and bought there — is value neutral. It is our responsibility to bestow value on what we seek.
In the event, the Indian Cricket Empire was actually created by the tens of millions of fans. Without them, a handful of cricketers would not have been the demi-gods that they are; nor would the BCCI be the behemoth that it is.
Maybe a lot of us have chosen the wrong sport at the wrong time in the wrong place — or maybe not.
Perhaps corruption and cricket are made for each other in India and they will go on living happily ever after. But our continued tolerance of this situation will only diminish us, as Indians, as cricket lovers.