There was a time, not very long ago, when following an Indian innings in a Test match on a foreign tour came with highly pleasurable rituals: you made time, poured yourself a drink or a cup of tea, gathered plates of snacks together, and put your feet up. You knew you were watching a brittle line-up and that the chances of victory were slender, but you also expected a measure of brilliance and four or five sessions of batting. Sometimes what you got was epic: Tendulkar in Perth in 1992, Azharuddin and Tendulkar in Cape Town in 1997, Ganguly, Tendulkar and Dravid in Headingley in 2002, Sehwag in Melbourne in 2003 and in Multan in 2004. No more. Those rituals are no longer viable. Half the team is back in the pavilion by the time the first drink is finished, which forces you to either forego or hurry the second drink. If there is any drama, it is farce, not tragedy. A combination of disbelief and disgust sets in. Surely it can’t, won’t, happen again, the fan thinks, pouring his whisky faithfully for the next match. But it can and does.
When the Indian cricket team returns from Australia in a few weeks, the Customs and Immigration officers at Delhi or Bombay or wherever their plane lands should give the players, along with Duncan Fletcher, a good public beating. Then Srikkanth should be summoned to the airport to receive his own thrashing, for screwing up the bowling attack. What is the source of his bizarre attachment to Vinay Kumar, who was selected for the tour ahead of Irfan Pathan (who had an excellent domestic season, can bat, and is familiar with Australian conditions to boot)? Why did Srikkanth, Fletcher and Dhoni pick Vinay for the Perth Test ahead of Ashok Dinda (who is close at hand, reasonably fast, and also coming off a very successful domestic season)? Did Vinay’s father make a phone call to the PMO? Why were Rohit Sharma and Dinda taken on the tour if they were going to be held back even as the others fail repeatedly? Why does Vinay wear zinc cream? Does he not understand that zinc cream is Antipodean war-paint, not make-up for posturing tourists? Not that playing Irfan or Dinda would have made a difference in a situation where the wheels have come off so abjectly. I am picking on poor Vinay Kumar only because he is a symptom of something bigger: a sign that the money-addled people who run Indian cricket have now, incredibly, begun to see the T20 arena as a recruiting base for Test cricket.
This is not an essay about what ails Indian cricket
. The Internet is awash with those at the moment, and rightly so. It is a brief rumination about sport, fandom, expectations and anger. Cricketers at the highest level of the game are, after all, entertainers, engaged in exhibiting extraordinary skills to a paying public. In that sense, they are not unlike circus performers, musicians and actors. We might appreciate a Laxman-and-Dravid special or an Imran Khan spell much as we appreciate seeing Mallika Sarabhai dance, hearing Bismillah Khan play the shehnai, or watching Nasiruddin Shah act. In fact, that is the ideal of cricket: the ‘true fan’ is a fan of the sport as much as he is a fan of a particular team, and he is expected to enjoy the display of skill regardless of which player or team it comes from
. The failure of a great player on either team is ideally to be met with disappointment even when it brings satisfaction. This is not an empty ideal: I know Australians who are sorry when Tendulkar gets out cheaply, and fans in Bangalore and Chennai still applaud the opposition, even Pakistan.
Anger has no place in circus performances. Nobody would have become angry if Amitabh Bachchan had put in a sub-par performance in a particular movie. If there was a succession of poor performances (like there was towards the end), fans might have stopped buying tickets, but it would not have occured to anybody to become furious with AB. Yet here I am, wanting to see M.S. Dhoni and company lathi-charged on the tarmac by the CISF. It’s all very irrational and boorish. But it is, of course, an inescapable part of the experience of modern sport.
We get angry at athletes because unlike with actors and trapeze artists, we cannot not buy tickets. By virtue of being members of modern communities – nationalities, student bodies, city dwellers, immigrants – we have already bought our tickets. We live in atomized social fragments, yet are compelled to wander constantly in ever wider worlds of strangers and impersonal agencies of humiliation: bureaucracies, police forces, transit lounges, international finance. In our loneliness and insecurity, we clutch at proxies who will represent us with greater power and glory than we can muster. As entertainers who are also our representatives, athletes are our entertaining, fantastic selves. And they reveal to us that we are not alone. Even an angry community is a community of solidarity. So in spite of its spectacular collapse over the past year, the Indian team has been doing its job.
But those other expectations – excellence, artistry – cannot be banished. Even the banal expectation of entertainment cannot be dismissed. And with representation comes the expectation of dignity, which is after all the source of the anger: the otherwise absurd feeling that we have been ‘betrayed’ by a bunch of traveling performers. When all of these expectations come to nothing more or less simultaneously, it is a sign of something quite rare. It signals the imminent collapse of a cultural institution.
Tickets, even season tickets, can be returned, and for the past year we have been approaching the point when Indian fans will return the ticket they have collectively bought over many years. The case of Indian hockey – internationally triumphant between the 1930s and the 1960s, and endowed with players of near-magical ability and reputation – comes readily to mind. India still has a hockey team, they still play international matches, but they mostly lose, and nobody cares or even notices. Give or take a Dhanraj Pillay, the players are anonymous. Indian cricket is a bigger cultural phenomenon than hockey ever was in the days of Dhyand Chand and Roop Singh: followed by a much larger demographic, infused with incomparable wealth, and carried on an enormously powerful and pervasive media structure. Within Indian sport, it has a hegemonic status that has no counterpart in Britain, the US or Australia. As such, the edifice of Indian cricket is less vulnerable to collapse than hockey was when the Astroturf revolution hit and the Olympic medals dried up. But it is not invulnerable. It will merely die more painfully and slowly. And because the edifice is financial and political as well as emotional, the death will reverberate, affecting not only ordinary fans with their poignant/pathetic need for artistry and dignity, but the BCCI bosses, the corporate advertisers, and even the regional aspirants and foreign stars who feed at the IPL trough. (What drives the IPL is the presence of Indian stars, not foreign players, and without Test cricket there will no Indian stars.)
It is difficult to imagine anybody pouring a drink and putting their feet up, grinning with anticipation, when Virat Kohli or Rohit Sharma walk out to bat in a Test match five years from now. Even I will stop, or become sporadic in my stubborn attachment to such atavistic rituals, when Tendulkar, Dravid and Laxman are gone. Elvis has left the building, and I am about to throw away my season ticket.
January 13, 2012