The strange death of cricket

Childhood is eventually a composite of dreams, values, fables, norms that one fashions for oneself. It is full of stories of heroism, of exemplars who create a normative world because it is as a child that one learns the difference between good and bad, right and wrong. These traces are so powerful that they create the mindsets of a future adult.

My childhood was created by ideals of Nehru, the dreams of science and the fables of cricket. Between the three, they created my sense of fairness, justice and democracy. My sense of Nehru, got a battering in the Emergency years but survived. Nehru is still someone I wear like an epaulette. Science is no longer the playful world my father told me about.
It is no longer replete with stories of Raman, Rutherford, Einstein and Newton with their genius for life and loving. Despite Bhopal, Hiroshima, despite the atomic threat, my sense of science as semiutopia; a world of magic possibilities survives. Sadly what died or diminished considerably in me is my love for cricket. I loved the game, recited its statistics with passion as if they were Shakespearean sonnets. Cricket tests were my daily epics and the sports page gave me my daily dose of ideals and adventure.

I collected autographs of Garfield Sobers and Rohan Kanhai and framed them like precious miniatures and when I sat close to Sir Garfield Sobers one winter’s day at Jamshedpur, I felt I had reached paradise. The fact that Sobers was oblivious of me did not matter. I had sighted God. In my wonderfully pagan childhood, I had two religions — cinema and cricket, and I followed every ritual; content to play the spectator, the fan as believer.

I did not mind that the Indians of my childhood played badly. I was content that there was a Lala Amarnath and Salim Durrani. I know Polly Umrigar got a princely sum of `25 for a match but knew that he and I were both content with it.

Of course, I doted and gloated on the later years when India won matches. But despite the Tendulkars and the Dhonis, I knew my worldview was formed more by the C.K. Nayudus, the Pataudis, the Ranjit Singhs. They made cricket a gentleman’s game, gave it elegance, ethics, aesthetics and vision. I must add that newspapers contributed immensely to it.

The writings of S.K. Gurunathan, Norman Yardley, Jack Fingleton, the issues of sport and pastime provided not only my weekly dose of sport, but my sense of fairplay, ethics and the rituals of justice that we called or labelled sportsmanship. Sportsmanship was the art form without which cricket could not never survive. We were not blind. We knew that the great W.G. Grace would cheat at cricket, but between doses of P.G. Wodehouse and Neville Cardus, we discovered the world of English and cricket as languages which added to the pleasure of living.

One must add that a book like C.L.R. James’ Beyond a Boundary with its stories of Constantine and the “Black Bradman” George Headley was my Gita of cricket. Cricket was clean, a way of life, an ideal nourished in the heart of every child wielding a bat in the alley. It was a beautiful myth, which a whole generation elaborated, practised and believed.

As one grew, cricket became professionalised, more narcissistic, more self-centered about money. One talked of professionals like Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar.
They brought a different sense of competence and entitlements to cricket. One talked frequently of prize money and cheques often made cricket more aspirational. Cricket was now not a vocation, but a profession.

Despite the frenzy of nationalism, one realised the smell of the mercenary, of commence in cricket. Initially, one felt that cricketers deserved it in the days of Gavaskar, Tendulkar, Shastri, Dravid and Ganguly. They deserved the incentives for their achievements. They gave India a pride in its records. There is a sucker for the Guinness Book of Records in all cricket fans. We cited records as if they were more than scientific achievements. For many younger people, even the middle class, cricket now promised to be an exciting career. Names like Sachin popped up with frequency at christening time.

Yet, cricket was changing. It was becoming corporate. Many a politician from Modi, Jaitley, Pawar saw in cricket a parallel politics, with cricket coffers surfeit with currency. Money and power were temptations and when cricket became an extension of matka and the betting industry, I realised the tail was controlling the dog. Sadly media betrayed it. True there were the Tehelka investigations and yet one realised that the Shastris, the Boria Majumdars, the Harsha Bhogles were adding smartness without reflexivity.

Instead of projecting bodies, they were modelled voices and potted narratives, which allowed cricket as a narrative to become an amoral enterprise. One just had to read Sachin Tendulkar’s autobiography, to comprehend the inanity of the new cricketing mind. One also discovered that greats like Kumble, Dravid, Dhoni, were merely overpaid vassals of cricket-hungry corporations. When confronted with the ugly backstage, a Gavaskar or a Shastri mumbled clericalism. Only a Bishan Singh Bedi stood strong calling a spade a shrovel.

Cricket was being undermined by its heroes, its backstage entrepreneurs. Also, I realised that Bhajji, Sreesanth, were hardly paradigms of exemplary behaviour. The heroes of every schoolboy turned out to be sawdust moralists. What the Indian Premier League, N. Srinivasan, Dhoni and Gurunath Meiyappan destroyed was a dream, a myth, a fable, a network of folklore we all believed in. It was not their bets, or the style of life, their conspicuous arrogance one objected to, but this betrayal of a faith of a generation. Let me add that cricket was betrayed thrice.

First by the Jaitleys, Pawars and the Srinivasans, who saw in cricket an extension of their hunger for power. Secondly, it was let down by the cricketers, who while being giants on the field were ethical dwarfs, who could not pass in elementary lesson in ethics. Finally, cricket always survived on its storytellers and here I think the commentators as reporters, evaluators are to blame because they failed to speak up for the game. Blaming it on a few deviants is not convincing when the fan knows that the rot is deeper. Why do we blame “godmen” like Rampal and Asaram, when our real “godmen”, our cricketers, failed us? It is they who destroyed belief and the sadness of cricket begins there.

 

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