| The inevitable downward slope
Returning to London for the summer has its strange pleasures. First there is the cold rain, which, for the first two weeks after escaping from the vast tandoor called Delhi, can feel very welcome. Then there is what I call the “least worst media in the world”, British radio, TV and newspapers, all tenaciously terriering after the hapless Blair and his cohorts over Iraq and the euro: the morning news on the wireless invariably provides serious entertainment, where the interviewer can ask any high-up in the government, in the sharpest of tones, dropping even the “Mr” in his address: “So, Jack Jones, aren’t you being a bit frugal with the truth'”, or “Isn’t that a bit disingenuous' You’re fudging here. Do you mind answering my question'” and a brilliant writer like A.L. Kennedy can bluntly say of her prime minister, “They (the Americans) are why we haven’t drowned Tony Blair in a bucket of his own conniving sweat.” And none of this written or said with the craven, grandstanding, bluster of our own so-called TV interviewers who make aggressive noises but almost always chicken out from asking the hard question any time they come close to the opportunity.
Can you imagine someone (pick any one anchor-person or talk-show host on mainstream Indian TV today) asking L.K. Advani: “So, deputy prime minister, haven’t you been lying to the Indian people about your state government’s direct involvement in the organized murder of Muslims in Gujarat'” or, on a slightly lower scale, “Buddhadeb-babu, when is the Left Front going to tackle the constant use of violence by its cadre'” No chance — not yet anyway.
Despite their insufferable Emperor-without-clothes arrogance, English cricket-writers too deserve a pat on their blazered backs for not taking their team’s decimation of the wretched Zimbabweans too seriously. On the other hand, blind pride in their second-rate team or no, I am sure that if any England captain, on the eve of an Ashes tour, were to say “We have to bring back Angus Fraser in order to make sure Australia doesn’t cross 600” he would be pilloried by all corners of the press. Stand-up comics would be merciless, coming up with a whole host of jokes about him. But we Indians' No chance, not yet anyway, so here’s hoping that under the scintillating leadership of Baron de Behala, Srinath & Co can contain Waugh-babu’s gang to under 700 per innings. At least in terms of the series average, anyway.
Not that I would ever admit it to my pal, Mark P, the ex-pat Australian who coaches my older son’s under-11 team at the local cricket club, but the Prince of Eden’s World Cup final still haunts me when I go to re-join my summer duties as father/sub-coach.
“‘G’ day strainger, back for the nice weather are we'” says Mark, as I walk up to the fielding practice. I nod a hello back, hoping to talk of things other than the Jo’burg humiliation, but Mark is not an Aussie for nothing. A kid takes a low catch, almost dropping it, but managing to hang on. “That’s a catch!” says Mark, praising the boy, “A proper slip catch and not a Gaingooly catch!”
“And that’s a proper captain putting in a gully from the first ball, in which case Gilchrist goes in Zaheer’s first over.” I mutter under my breath, making sure Mark P doesn’t hear.
All water under the bridge, as Mark assures me. India coming in the Down Under summer. That should be fun, mate. Reckon Ganguly’s still going to be captain' Afraid so, but I don’t say it. I turn away and look at this quintessentially English scene. One long club ground with three games on, semi-stationary dots of white around the wickets, one or two spurting across the grass like maverick sperm, or quietly exploding supernovae, contrapunt cloud shadows rugbying over the lush green; several fathers sitting there, copies of Saturday’s Daily Telegraph spread across their laps, the newsprint bouncing under the new bats they are knocking in for their boys, the ensemble of mallets sounding like some odd, Brit, multi-culty, Gamelan orchestra; brisk mothers keeping score briskly, while other parents cheer their wards — the sound of a thick edge followed by a wail, and then — “Oh well done, Henry! Never mind, you did get a hand to that! Keep it up now!”; from overhead, the deep complain of a grey Jumbo climbing away from Heathrow, contested on earth by the phlegmatic club groundsman-cum- barman patrolling the boundary in his puttering little steam-roller, watching with the hard eyes of an Israeli bulldozerman in the Occupied Territories as the smaller kids kick up clumps of precious earth, playing mildly illegal football. All of it quite lovely, and none of it having anything to do with cricket as I knew it.
Neither, mind you, does football in this country resemble anything I’ve ever known or imagined. Over the last few weeks, the Beckham saga has taken over every newspaper in the UK, equally elbowing aside naked women from the News of The World’s front page and dislodging Iraq from the Guardian’s. The only journal not to have shown the effect is The Sainsbury’s Magazine, a monthly devoted to helping you spend money in branches of the eponymous food supermarket. This too, though, is only a matter of time: “July Issue Special! Delia shows how Posh and Becks can recreate Manchester cuisine in Madrid!”
I mean, why blame the Indian media for making the best of (mostly) second-rate sporting raw material' Here is a man, a footballer, married to a failed former pop-star; his own undeniable talent also now on the verge of the inevitable downward slope — at the age of 29, when we can reasonably expect someone like Tendulkar to start peaking, Beckham, who earns in one month what Tendu gets in a year, is by many accounts past his best; but still, witness the whole mega-drama about whether and where he would go from Manchester United, ending in a £25 million transfer to Real Madrid.
The actual reason' Not the unearthly passing or “magical” free-kick (he will be playing alongside Zidane and he will be very lucky to get a free-kick with the true master Roberto Carlos around, it’s a bit like Michael Vaughan being purchased by a club to shore up a batting card that includes Sachin and Adam Gilchrist) but the pulling power of the youth markets of Japan, Korea and other Pacific countries where Beckham is an icon. Whether the Pride of Manchester ever wins them a match or not, the projection is that Real Madrid will make back their little investment in two years — on Beckham football shirts alone.
If one transposes this matrix of sport and profit to politics, the combinations can be mouth-watering. Imagine the headlines: “Supremo Dubya and assistant Blair snap up old arch-rivals El- Kay Dvaani and Al-Musharraf for Team Anglos!”, “Berlusconi fighting to keep striker ‘Angel of Death’ Sharon, while nosing around to acquire a fresh pair of killer legs in Modi!”, “ Joshi in his last season trying to decide between Club Milosevic and offers from Ras Putin — ‘I’m not too fussed about the hype, mate. My job ‘ere is simply to score as many Muslims as I can, right' Just like it was the day I first started, right' So, I’ll go wherever they really let me put me boot in, right'’”