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Pushing the boundaries

Getty images/istockphoto

Getty images/istockphoto

Most of us in South Asia, even the occasional cricket watchers, set a calendar alert for the next India-Pakistan match. And today’s match between the two teams in Birmingham is bound to be particularly charged — expectedly so, given how cricketing ties between the two countries are so dismal that an India-Pakistan encounter is a rare thing. This lazy Sunday is bound to be given over to the match, the English weather permitting.

Yet, such meetings of the two teams only in multilateral tournaments, such as the rather pointless ICC Champions Trophy currently in progress, cannot be good for the sport. To amount to something more than wholly partisan account-keeping of the final result, fixtures between the keenest rivals in team sport need to be embedded in a larger narrative — such that cricket in its normal calendar allows, with bilateral Test tours, the odd tri-series, the rare friendship match setting up individual sub-plots (such as the Sachin Tendulkar-Shoaib Akhtar competitiveness), imbuing nuance (a record of relative strengths in different formats and conditions putting each victory/loss in perspective) and reminding the viewer of context. Else, for the hysterically loyal fan as well as the may-the-best-team-win purist, these sporadic fixtures would amount to just point-scoring between teams (or rather, their fans), nothing more.

On whose side?

What a cricket match between India and Pakistan means in the time of suspended bilateral tours is a complex question, but it’s useful to be guided along in some aspects, obliquely, by a new book, Knowing the Score: How Sport Teaches Us About Philosophy (And Philosophy About Sport) by David Papineau, a professor of, no prize for guessing, philosophy. He inquires into questions such as “what makes someone a fan, beyond appreciating the objective merits of a team?” Every thoughtful, long-term cricket fan tries to work out an answer to that, and there’s no set progression.

One way of doing so, suggests the book, is to take notice of the presence of teams in the fray in different sports that inspire a following that is not confined to their geographical/national boundaries. They pull us out of partisan selves, so that we become partisans of the sport, not its teams.

For long, that team has been the West Indies for cricket. For the longest time — especially from the seventies to the mid-nineties — to beat the team was to announce one’s claim to a place in the sun. But the West Indies, before that dominance and now even after its decline, pulled spectators out of their corners, it forced them to appreciate cricket’s social history, its anti-colonial subtext and its capacity to be enriched by newer influences on and off the field.

To truly enjoy a game of cricket, you needed to be aware also of how it was watched in the stands in Kingston, Port of Spain, Bridgetown, and other iconic venues in the Caribbean. You needed to know the game, and equally you needed to be awash in the spirit of the game.

It is, of course, the case, as Papineau points out, that the “sporting country” of the West Indies isn’t “a real country”. And even as the islands (as well as Guyana) increasingly turn to other sports such as football and basketball, and lose aspiring cricketers such as Usain Bolt to track and field, and even as the West Indies struggles to keep up with other teams (it’s not even in the fray in the Champions Trophy this year), Papineau says it matters little: “…the future will not undo cricket’s role in creating a post-colonial identity for Anglophone West Indians.” It’s part of a vivid chapter in the book about “national teams that demand loyalty to countries that don’t appear on the official map of nations”. Hong Kong sends a separate team to the Olympics; in most sports Ireland teams include the north and south of the island (that is, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland); it’s England and Wales Cricket Board, but “the team itself is ‘England’”; and Scotland has its own cricket and football teams. (Interesting fact: “The annual Scotland-England [football] match was one of the great sporting fixtures, until it was discontinued in 1989 because of the fans’ excesses.”)

In this context, Papineau points to the American exception: “When it comes to international sporting competition, it is almost invisible.” This relative lack of enthusiasm for team sports on the international stage, compared to national leagues, requires its own sociological study, but in a week when the U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate pact, Papineau’s words have particular resonance: “Exceptionalism on the sports field encourages exceptionalism off it. A country that shies away from international sport can be tempted to stop thinking of itself as one nation among other.”

Food for thought as we wonder, this weekend, why exactly India and Pakistan don’t play each other more often, and as we work out how bilateral cricket has over the decades enriched more than just the game.

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Printable version | May 29, 2022 9:52:42 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/pushing-the-boundaries/article18714893.ece