Saturday, August 13, 2011

No longer happy to be second best

By Swapan Dasgupta
During my childhood, a game of improvised cricket on a terrace or back alley was invariably a collective endeavour. Someone contributed the bat and the rubber or tennis ball belonged to someone else. Occasionally, someone was deputed to be the umpire but on most occasions the decision involving a run out or a bowled was by collective acclaim and often resulted in a furious argument between a batsman who’d insist he was not out and everyone else who screamed he was.
In these bouts of collective umpiring, there was one constant danger: the aggrieved batsman would often be the owner of either the bat or the ball. If arguments and persuasion proved futile, the boy would often pick up his bat or ball and depart muttering “I’m not playing”.
Watching the merciless massacre of India’s bowling at Edgbaston made me recall this brattishness. Maybe, Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s dispirited and hobbled Indian side shouldn’t have been playing at all in Birmingham. Mabe the BCCI should have cited the orgy of lawlessness in England, including Birmingham, to say that it couldn’t afford to expose India’s national assets to mob violence. After all, the incident involving three Asian boys killed by a speeding car while “defending the community” happened barely five miles from the cricket ground. In a similar situation in India, the English would have panicked and caught the first flight back home. We too should have used the riots as an excuse to avert a cricketing humiliation.
The problem with India is that it starts blindly believing all the hype about itself. There was a time when defeat was a reality we were born with. The expected outcome of most Test matches involving India was often eerily predictable. In 1959, D.K. Gaekwad’s team lost all the five Tests; in 1967, ‘Tiger’ Pataudi’s team was likewise routed 3-0; and this was repeated by Ajit Wadekar’s team in 1974. The 1974 tour also saw India being bowled out for 42 in the second innings of the Lord’s Test and I vividly recall the mirth of the BBC’s cricket commentary on the radio.
We used to joke that Indian cricketers couldn’t adjust to the ‘cold’ of an English summer. Fielding was said to be particularly difficult because catching a hard hit ball left the hands very sore. There was a psychological barrier that Indians had to encounter in playing against beefy Englishmen in England. It was a fear akin to the dread many batsmen felt at the sight of Wes Hall and Roy Gilchrist charging up to the bowl one of their viciously quick deliveries. The photograph of the scoreboard at Manchester,1952, when India lost its first 5 wickets, without a run being scored must have haunted many generations of Indian cricketers. Fred Trueman dined out on India’s effete fear of fast bowling for the rest of his life.
Winning in cricket was an idea ‘socialist’ India was just not accustomed to. The odd times we did win against England—at Calcutta and Madras in 1962 against Ted Dexter’s side and that famous win at the Oval in 1971when B.S. Chandrashekhar cast his spell—were celebratory exceptions the country mythologised. In 1959, Jessu Patel spun India to a great victory against Richie Benaud’s Australian side at Kanpur. For this feat he was awarded a Padma Sri—a huge honour in those days of innocence.
Indeed, the cricket tales of my childhood were of heroic individual triumphs that never translated into team victories: how Amar Singh and Mohammed Nissar stunned the English batsmen in India’s first Test at Lord’s in 1932; how Vinoo Mankad scored a century in each innings of the Lord’s Test in 1952; and how Abbas Ali Baig was hurriedly requisitioned into the Test side from his college Cambridge and ended up scoring a century on debut in Manchester 1959—not to mention becoming the heartthrob of a generation.
In last Friday’s Daily Telegraph, a writer celebrating Alastair Cook’s grand knock of 296 admitted to a sense of English disorientation at the idea of winning once again in cricket “after 30 years of sustained pummelling, when our natural instinct is for pessimism…” He could well have been describing the mood in India prior to the turning point—the completely unexpected World Cup victory in 1983. A nation overwhelmed by slow growth, shortages, a resource crunch and poverty didn’t have the mental make-up to savour victory.
That’s the real difference the past 25 years or so has made to the Indian mentality. Today, as India comes to terms with a conclusive English series victory, the mood isn’t one of passive acceptance of defeat; it is one of both disappointment and anger. The fans who have made India the hub of the world’s cricket economy can stomach the odd defeat but they no longer have the mentality to reconcile to English (or, for that matter, Australian) supremacy. India has taken its Number One ranking as a proprietorial right; it can’t tolerate being upstaged.
Does this reveal a complete disinclination to appreciate the spirit of a gentleman’s game? Maybe it does. To me, however, it suggests an India that is intent on registering its mark in the world, an India that isn’t content to be second-best. That’s the positive message from the gloom of Edgbaston. On Independence Day, someone should be noticing that anger is often built on unrequited ambition.

Sunday Pioneer, August 14, 2011

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