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It's only a game, they say ... .

At first it was the dark hilarity of botched politics, compromise, rain and a failure to understand the Duckworth-Lewis method — which contributed in some part to the elimination of some fancied teams from this Cricket World Cup — that kept us occupied. Now, there seems to be another factor to reckon with. Vicious jingoism, says ANIL DHARKER.

.. to become a passion that has possessed almost every Indian.

"IT's only a game," said Sourav Ganguly before the big game against Pakistan. "It's only a game," said Rahul Dravid. "It's only a game," said Waqar Younis and Wasim Akram from the other side of the fence.

When so many people feel the need to say it's only a game, it means only one thing: it's not only a game.

A sea change from the day posters were burnt...

There were any number of other indicators to reiterate this point. One was the convergence of film stars to the Centurion Park ground in South Africa.

Cinema and cricket are the two most glamorous fields in the country so it is natural that they share common ground. But star-time is at a premium, so actors aren't likely to bunk work for the love of the game.

A "living god"... fans in Guwahati.

When they go, to an event, they go to be seen as much as to see: they are, in effect, making a statement, and that statement isn't just about cricket.

For example, Nana Patekar, Arjun Rampal and Sunil Shetty, three Bollywood actors of different vintages but common virility, were at the Indo-Pakistan match and let everyone know it ; they carried a patriotic banner and sang the Kingfisher calypso Ele ele ley lo, Kingfisher ley lo, but with "Pakistan" substituted for "Kingfisher" which immediately gave it a vulgar connotation, as you will recognise if you know your basic swear-word Hindi. This sentiment was echoed in an even more virulent form by a delegate at a seminar in Delhi. Asked by a news channel to give his reactions to the match, he screamed, "We have killed them! We have killed them!"

Has he finally silenced the critics?

But, then, India-Pakistan matches have always aroused strong feelings. Ironically, it wasn't so bad when the two countries exchanged tours and matches on a regular — and fairly frequent — basis. Politics made this impossible (the current embargo on matches isn't the first one; there was a long cessation of cricket ties for 17 long years between 1961 and 1978). When the games were switched to a neutral venue like Sharjah, the immigrants to the West Asia area came out in force to watch and cheer. Although cheer wasn't the word which would come readily to mind for the bitter divide in the stadium, with the rivalry between India-supporters and Pakistan-supporters being so strong that it often eclipsed the action in the middle. In fact I know of people who were regulars at the Sharjah matches but stopped going because the atmosphere, they said, got so ugly. "It wasn't just the jingoism," one friend told me, "It was also the religious element creeping into the spectators' reaction which was so very disturbing."

No one feels the heat more than the average Muslim in India. "When Pakistan wins, they fire crackers," is one common refrain from the majority community. "When India-Pakistan play, they put up Pakistani flags," is the other. That both are largely unsubstantiated means nothing; it's the nature of prejudice that no evidence is required. Just stating an infamy is proof enough.

The World Cup minnows sparked a cricket revolution... The Netherlands' Timotheus DeLeede (left) and Australia's Damien Martyn.

This year, the Muslims of Mumbai took no chances, their sense of security being understandably low after the mayhem in Gujarat. So activists of the Muslim Council of India, organised a high-profile public meeting in which they sent (presumably secular) prayers for an Indian victory, carried placards backing India, arranged for TV sets to be put on many underprivileged Muslim-area pavements so people could watch and, in turn, cheer the Indian team. Presumably they ensured there were no false flags (though this particular canard is easily explained by the similarities in the Pakistan flag and the colours of Islam). But to make sure there was no scope for any misunderstanding at all, most Muslim-dominated areas showed off the tricolour on their rooftops and even painted it on their cheeks, They, then, organised a special namaz for an Indian victory and pre-empted whoever had thought of a havan for the same purpose.

C.L.R. James was right when he said poetically, "What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?" Cricket, the "gentleman's game", has never really been only that.

"I've lost 12kg since September, I'm down from 104 to 92 kg. I feel very good." Pakistan's Inzamam-ul-Huq

We can go back to the times when cricket was the quintessential English game, played in the green, green fields of England amongst English gentlemen while English ladies watched and had tea and cucumber sandwiches. There was one little snag, though. Not all the English gentlemen out in the middle were Gentlemen. Some were merely Players, for that is the distinction that put down those who actually earned some money from the game. In fact, most British cricket grounds had two separate dressing rooms and even gates for Gentlemen and Players, so that when play began, each one came out on the ground through their separate little exits. Of what use are class distinctions unless they are visible?

When the British came into India, they used cricket as yet another tool of the empire. The most famous tournament of that time was The Pentangular, which, as the name implies, had five participating teams. It was no accident that the British formed these teams along community lines: the Europeans, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Parsis and the Christians. If you are going to divide and rule at work, why not also at play? Yes, what do they know of cricket who only cricket know? They wouldn't know of the bookies, the Top Ten of them, rounded up by the Mumbai police on the day of the India-Pakistan match and kept at police headquarters all day, so they couldn't run their gambling syndicates. They wouldn't know of match-fixing, of which the late, lamented (by South Africans) Hansie Cronje, corrupting his younger players into throwing their wickets. They wouldn't know of the One Day International played years ago at Srinagar. India played the West Indies, and the crowd cheered the West Indies! (And, by the way, booed and abused the Indians so badly that television coverage was switched off).

"The game has to spread across the whole country for us to start seeing a proper transformation and that will partly require transforming the Kenya Cricket Association ... ." Kenya's captain Steve Tikolo

They wouldn't know of the South African Radio Breakfast show host who was incensed with his team's exit from the tournament at the hands of Sri Lanka that he spewed the worst kind of racist venom at the visitors. "Get off our shores," he began, "you people with stupid, long names and whose mothers are all men." The bad taste doesn't hide the important fact that cricket, the game, can generate a vicious jingoism everywhere.

This jingoism obviously gets worse during the World Cup because of its unique character of bringing all cricket-playing nations together at one time.

"After all it's just a game of cricket and one should not attach so much emotional importance to the game. It's very sad and really unfair." Anjum Chopra, India's women's cricket captain

Politicians, ever quick to smell an opportunity, this time used the charged atmosphere of the Cup to make political statements. They would rather forfeit their matches than play the Zimbabwe of Robert Mugabe. And they would rather forfeit their matches than play in "unsafe" Kenya. These arguments would have been stronger if they hadn't been so very divided on racial lines: white cricket playing countries made the gesture against Zimbabwe and Kenya both black countries. Black cricket-playing countries didn't.

All this will only get more accentuated as the years go by simply because cricket is a rich game with a fanatical following. It also has the longest duration of all games and thus, the longest TV exposure of any sporting activity. Is there any way you can make cricket just a game? Yes: pay nothing to the players, stop television coverage and hold matches in village greens instead of stadia. Laughable? Yes. And so is the notion of cricket as a mere sporting activity between 22 honest men.

"Their participation did not devalue the integrity of this event at all. In fact they brought a real freshness to this World Cup." World Cup chief Ali Bacher defending the decision to allow Canada, Namibia and Holland to play.

In spite of that, it is possible to keep some sense of proportion. Some years ago, Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi and Hanif Mohamed were playing in an England versus Rest of the World match when an India-Pakistan war broke out. They sent a joint telegram to both governments. There's a common unity on the cricket field, they said, let's find the equivalent between our two countries as well.

The D-day

  • The ICC Cricket World Cup Trophy was designed and manufactured in London by Garrard, the Crown Jewellers. Crafted in silver and gilt, the 60-cm high trophy features a golden globe held aloft by three silver columns. The globe is presented in the form of a stylised cricket ball while the columns, styled as stumps and bails, represent the three essential pillars of the game — batting, bowling and fielding. Valued at over 40,000 and weighing in excess of 11 kilos, the trophy has been designed in platonic dimensions to ensure its uniqueness is instantly recognised no matter from which angle it is viewed. The International Cricket Council has adopted the 1999 Cricket World Cup Trophy as its perpetual prize and the six previous Champions have been acknowledged on inscription plates on its base.

  • Sir Garfield Sobers will present the man-of-the-tournament award at the conclusion of the World Cup final. Sobers was one of Wisden's five cricketers of the 20th Century. Another Barbadian, Everton Weekes, will present one of the man-of-the-match awards at the semi-finals. Weekes was one of the "three W's", including Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott, who were all born in the tiny West Indies island.

  • The Wanderers, Johannesburg, the stadium which will host the World Cup final, is known as "the Bullring" for its electric, sometimes intimidating atmosphere. Stadiums surround most of the field, although there is a small grassed area that is very popular with spectators. The Wanderers seats about 27,000 people and boasts 171 corporate suites.

    Anil Dharker is a noted journalist, media critic and writer.

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