To watch Test cricketers being conscripted into a Twitter chorus aimed at foreign critics of the Indian government, in the name of the Nation, is embarrassing and strange. But nationalism isn’t something that has been injected into cricket by politically connected administrators or drum-beating media men; it is native to modern sport, a part of its historical evolution.
It isn’t a coincidence that the period between 1870 and 1914, when the balance of power between empires and nations began to shift, when Germany, Italy and Japan began to reorganize themselves as nations, was the era when modern sports formalized their rules, set up regulatory associations and established international competitions, which cast athletes and sportsmen primarily as representatives of their nations.
The first international Test match was played in 1877. This wasn’t a match played between two nations as much as an intra-Imperial competition between the Mother Country and a Dominion, but being represented at cricket in a match ‘against’ England helped Australians imagine Australia as a nation. Prashant Kidambi has shown us that in exactly this way did the ‘All-India’ cricket team that toured England in 1911 prefigure and embody the idea of an Indian nation in the making.
FIFA, football’s governing association, was founded in 1904 to oversee international competition among the national associations of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and Switzerland. The governing bodies for football, cricket and tennis were set up in the decade between 1904 and the outbreak of WWI. Even a sport as individualistic as tennis was nudged into national competition in 1900 with the Davis Cup, which started life as a transatlantic tournament between Great Britain and the United States of America.
Even more central to the developing relationship between nationalism and sport than these tournaments organized by brand new sporting bodies was the nationalization of the Olympic Games. The revived games were imagined by Pierre de Coubertin as a festival of fraternal brotherhood where the best athletes in the world would compete against each other in a sporting lull, rather like the ancient games at Olympia where warring kingdoms observed a truce for the duration of the Olympics. The way the Olympics evolved was rather different.
Till the 1908 Games, entry was not restricted to teams nominated by National Olympic Committees. Mixed teams participated in some team events. But from 1908 onwards, the IOC consisted entirely of representatives of sovereign nation states. The Olympics always begin with a march past of nations, each under its own placard. Alan Bairner wrote that “sport, arguably more than any other form of social activity in the modern world, facilitates flag waving and the playing of national anthems...” The Olympics, more than any other sporting event, pioneered this non-stop identification of sport and the nation.
Despite this identification, there was a contradiction at the heart of the Olympian vision of sporting competition that complicated the relationship between sport and politics. This complication shaped all sport because all modern sport took its cue from Coubertin’s ideals. On the one hand, the Olympics hardwired the nation state into modern competition. On the other, the IOC insisted that it would brook no interference from national politicians in the autonomy of National Olympic Committees.
“Members of the IOC will not accept from governments... any mandate or instructions liable to interfere with the freedom of their action and vote.” The IOC’s position on this issue was copied by sports federations like FIFA and the FIH. The BCCI fought a rearguard action for nearly a decade to stay out of the purview of the Right to Information Act on the ground that it was a private body. The Indian State periodically tried to regulate it as a public body precisely because it selected teams that represented India.
This Olympian ideal of autonomy grew out of the liberal idea that the nation state had a demarcated sphere that didn’t extend to the freedom of action of civil society organizations. The regulatory bodies for sport were implicitly saying that they wanted to harness the cachet of the nation state to magnify the significance of sport, but they wouldn’t allow the functionaries of the nation state to intervene in their affairs.
When anti-apartheid protesters mobilized against the South African cricket team’s 1970 tour of England, Harold Wilson’s government hesitated to ban the tour precisely because of this principle of autonomy, this polite fiction that the nation state should not formally interfere in sport. Sport was the domain of civil society organizations like the Test and County Cricket Board. The Marylebone Cricket Club and the TCCB were adamant that the South African tour should go ahead on the principle that sport and politics ought to be kept apart.
The protesters won a famous victory when this principle was breached. The TCCB cancelled the tour after a strong ‘request’ from the home secretary, James Callaghan, asking it to do so. This was the right thing to do because South Africa’s Whites-only cricket team was constituted by the politics of apartheid, so the argument that a sporting tour of England ought not to be disrupted by politics was self-serving and incoherent.
If the cancellation of the South African tour taught the lesson that the principle of autonomy could not insulate sporting bodies from huge shifts in political opinion, the on-demand nationalism of India’s best cricketers shows us the consequences of abandoning the principle of sporting autonomy altogether. When sports organizations are captured by politicians, the players regulated by them run the risk of becoming clients of the netas who happen to run the nation state at the time.
The principle of sporting autonomy, the idea of a necessary distance between the State and its sportsmen, might have been a liberal conceit but it was an enabling fiction. In its absence, we had Dhoni and Kohli wooing the nation in military fatigue caps, performing patriotism.
Once cricketers cross that line, once they go from playing for the country to role-playing for the Nation, there is no going back. They will be asked to reprise those roles. Having played at being soldiers, they will, for instance, be conscripted by their political patrons to defend the nation against Rihanna, to man Twitter’s trenches against the Barbadians at our gates. The next time politicians decide to use India’s cricketers as extras in some nationalist drama, the Nation won’t ask which of them tweeted; It will ask which of them didn’t.