When I was a boy, I used to be envious of societies that had football. I could not imagine any game transcending the beauty, complexity and excitement of cricket, the Emperor of All Sport, but I did feel more than faintly jealous of countries that could, every four years, strive to call themselves ‘World Champions’. When I read about people being able to look back at their lives by the plot points of the excitements and disappointments of each Copa de Mundo I felt a sense of watching a completely different species dancing out their existence on another planet. The only liminal jaat were the English who, by dint of having invented them, had both cricket and football to call their own. When the 1970 football World Cup took place in Mexico, I paid some little attention before burying this alien jamboree in the back of my consciousness. By the time the first cricketing world cup came around I was sulking with the game as a whole. I’d realized quite early on that, regardless of real or imaginary talent, I had no chance of fighting through the thickets of ‘influence’ and byzantine regional machinations to make it as India’s wicketkeeper and No. 3 batsman. I thus gave up cricket and all its attendant obsessions. The loss to the World of Sport became a load upon the World of Art that it carries to this day.
From the mid-1970s to the early 1980s I ignored most sport and sporting news. But in both fetid College Street and snow-bound Vermont, I managed to scare innocent people whenever my vicious square-cut or delicate leg glance of the back-foot rose up inside me. These movement-Draculas, these red-cherry Strangelove-spasms would ambush me in the middle of quotidian activity and convince anyone ignorant of cricket that I suffered from a combination of some acute form of cerebral palsy and dangerously psychopathic tendencies. The lone positive reaction I got was when I was once practising my faster googly (I came from that classic gharana of wicketkeeping, the one that believed that a keeper needs to teach his bowlers how to bowl, much like a lead singer in a rock band needs to tell his guitarists what to play). I was doing my variation on Chandrashekhar’s 360-degree wrist-swivel on a path through Robert Frostian woods, when I was observed by a fellow student majoring in Experimental Modern Dance. “Heyyy!” she exclaimed, “That is one nifty Indian dance move! Wanna teach it to me, maybe?” It was the only time that my cricket got me talking to a beautiful girl and for that, if nothing else, I will remain forever grateful to the game.
Cricket came back into focus for me when the boys with the genuinely cool dance moves got rolled over by a bunch of un-coordinated Bhangra-failures. Even in that remote corner of cricket-free America I’d heard of this substance called ‘kapildev’ that Haryana had injected into the Indian team. By the time I came back to India and the so-called ‘World Cup’ started in England in 1983, the KD substance, the Thing, had risen to becoming captain of India. I read about the Thing’s innings against Zimbabwe and something perked up inside. Then I watched Thing on TV and it was disconcerting: there was this pair of legs, long, endless, on top of which was set this comparatively smaller cube of white bricks, on top of which were these staring eyes and a black wire-tangle of hair. Somehow this bowling contraption released balls that matched any proper, foreign paceman’s deliveries. The Thing wasn’t going to win us the Cup of course, surrounded as it was by what looked like a bunch of disgruntled canteen contractors. Nevertheless, Thing and his Unlikelies had somehow got us to the final at Lord’s. I refused to watch the first half of what was clearly going to be a predictable humiliation, choosing to deploy my America- returned charms on some girls in Alipur while their brothers were glued to the TV in the next room. I stayed unmoved when Greenidge went quickly, a flash in the pan before the Windies settled and brought down the axe. Haynes went at 50, well they were bound to lose a couple of wickets — nature of the game, but never mind — want to come and see that movie tomorrow? Then the Thing produced a catch that got rid of Vivian Richards, the girls and all the movie plans.
The next year, Goutam Ghose made a film called Paar in which there was a scene with the night of our Lord’s triumph in the background. As the poor peasants played by Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah trudge through dark Calcutta streets, rich, Westernized youth start to drive by, leaning out of car windows, exploding fireworks and shouting ‘Indiiiaaaah!’ Clearly the idea was to show how irrelevant this bourgeois cricket nonsense was to the larger Indian reality. There hasn’t been a scene in Indian cinema that so badly misses the significance of an event or its impact on the future.
It’s too much to say that the one victory in 1983 transformed our society for ever. However, it’s only accurate to say that the win was a building block on which rest several different cross-beams of subsequent Indian behaviour. In a trice, urban, TV-connected India became addicted to the tube (we were already hooked to Hindi/Southy films and watching them on the box was only an extension of that earlier addiction). Businesses realized the potential of having an audience of millions captive across a whole day, and industries, led by their sniffer-dogs of advertising, expanded exponentially on the back of this discovery. Shortly after that World Cup, in 1985, a new colour was added to the tri-colour — the light blue allotted to the Indian ODI team. With this addition came a jingoism that quickly spread far beyond the major metros and that bled profusely into other areas of life.
I think it may be only slightly far-fetched to say that 1980s cricket-consumerism put the final pressure on the dying licence raj and helped pry India open to the markets. With the increase in the number of international matches, several things happened: the old bastion of cricket as a small, cream-coloured private club was blown to smithereens; suddenly cricket mania spread, the academies spread, and couldn’t be ignored; everybody, including remote villagers were hooked onto cricket as never before; all this opened our team selection to far many more classes and regions, with its attendant knock-on effects on notions of identity and pride; the removal of one kind of reservation in the cricket team perhaps helped create another kind of reservation-logic in the country. The rise of India as a cricketing power changed the dynamics of how people of Indian extraction saw themselves vis-à-vis their ‘host’ countries, not only in the United Kingdom but also in North America; the epic expansions of the NRI business empires happened with the live wallpaper of the team in light blue playing, and often winning, in the background.
During the final of the 1992 World Cup (the need to add the differentiating ‘Cricket’ before it having long gone) I flew from Calcutta to Delhi. When I walked in to the house where I was staying, Imran Khan’s Pakistan was closing its grip around the Cup. Watching the game in the living-room were two people: K, a well-known labour-leader from Karachi, and T, the young man who was the cook. Despite his affection for his other guest, T was in a state: “Bhaiya!” he whined to me, “Pakistan is winning!” K smiled and patted T on the shoulder “Never mind, T, you Indians have won it before us. Let us also win it once.”
While many Pak-haters in India mourned that ’92 Cup as the worst possible result — India going out and the old enemy triumphing — for me the most humiliating was the defeat handed out to the Indian team by the nasty Eden Gardens crowd in the next World Cup. But it didn’t matter. Neither did the subsequent three World Cups, all of which were won by Australia. What many Indians didn’t realize in ’92 was that it no longer mattered who won the world cup; India as a country was even by then well on its way to winning another, much larger game, albeit again a limited one.
If you were a fan of cinematic simplification, you could happily transpose the scene from Paar to Karachi in ’92, Colombo in ’96 or even Dhaka in ’11 or some time in the near future. There’s not that much to choose between the poorest of the poor in all our countries, and cricket played at the highest level does remain the preserve of boys who have enough to eat, who have access to health and sanitation and some education. There’s also perhaps not a great difference in the stereophonic jingoisms that fever all our societies: the hatred of the immediate neighbour and the resentment of the foreigner, especially the gora teams. But I suspect there is an important difference between India and its neighbours in one aspect: I’m sure winning the Cup matters far less to us now than it did in 1983 and I’m sure it matters far less to us as a society than it does to our neighbours. And in this I feel the rising of a whole new, nifty Indian dance move.