The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, April 30, 2000
Lead Article

A tale of decline
Gentleman’s game, gentleman’s party
By L. H. Naqvi

I know of a girl, from a non-practising Muslim-Christian family, who as a teenager started wearing a Sai Baba necklace. When teased by friends and cousins for her strange decision, she retorted: "Damn it, you've got to have faith in something."

Hansie Cronje’s confession has devastated us more than it has our counterparts in other cricket-playing countriesIndeed, we are passionate believers. In the early years after Independence, we believed only in the Indian National Congress. In sport, hockey enjoyed the status of a second faith. It took two decades for us to lose faith in the Congress, and a little more to realise that Dhyan Chand was ours but the original game has been killed by those who used to take lessons from us in how to hold the hockey stick.

Today, we do not have a political faith of the same intensity which saw us stick to the Congress for over two decades. In sport, we thought we had found a worthy substitute, for sustaining our "second faith", in the game of cricket. That is why Hansie Cronje's confession has devastated us more than our counterparts in other cricket-playing countries. For the diehard Congress-believers, who are also avid cricket fans, it is a double blow. They neither have a crystallised political faith to help them finally abandon the Congress, nor a game to which they can transfer their bottled up passion for believing.

  However, if one were to ask Sonia Gandhi, she would most probably dismiss the news of the Congress decline as baseless. Never mind the embarrassment of her "command" being ignored by the party leadership in West Bengal where a "Mahajot" delegation of the Congress, Trinamool Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party representatives presented a joint charter of grievances against the Left Front government to the Governor.

Similarly, if one were to ask Jagmohan Dalmiya about the state of health of international cricket in the light of the post-Cronje developments, he, too, would try to hide the fact of the death of the game. He sees himself as cricket's Columbus who has discovered new lands for promoting the game once played exclusively by gentlemen. To them, one should read the line from the Bible which seeks forgiveness for those who are ignorant.

The Congress as an idea for fighting British tyranny was born out of the blood of sepoys in 1857. It manifested itself in the form of the Indian National Congress in 1885. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi moulded the movement into a powerful "non-violent weapon" ever fashioned by man for fighting ghulami. Jawaharlal Nehru, as the country's first Prime Minister, gave it a democratic soul.

However, the fight for political supremacy between the Syndicate and Indira Gandhi resulted in the first major vertical split in the grand old Congress in 1969. What was born was the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

In the early years after Independence, middle class families discouraged their children from playing any game and taking part in political activities. But the Congress as a political party and cricket as a game and a pastime were acceptable. The Jana Sangh was bad company. Such young men and women as were seen hobnobbing with the Socialists and the Communists were written off as gone cases.

For securing our professional future, we were taught the doggerel very early in life which said: Khelogay koodogay, hogay kharaab; parhogay likho gay, banogay nawab. Middle class dreams are usually only a shade realistic than fairy tales in which even one's own position in the social hierarchy stands condemned. That is why lower-middle class families had a stricter code of discipline. A child caught playing hockey or football was either made to become a murgha or spanked so hard that his behind needed to be treated with a paste of haldi. But listening to cricket commentary was usually common family entertainment. And if we imitated Vizzy, our pocket money was raised by one paisa. A cricket bat or a ball was the standard birthday gift for the male child. But seldom did the child get a hockey stick or a football.

One of the great untold love stories, from an eastern UP village of the early fifties, was about a talented young man who could not marry his childhood sweetheart. His fault lay in his being a Congressman who also played cricket. He was unacceptable husband material. The girl's father was convinced that young man would have no time for his daughter as he would be playing cricket for six days and doing Kangresspana on the seventh day of the week.

Of course, not all Congressmen who have had an affair with cricket resemble our failed hero from eastern UP. In fact, N. K. P. Salve and Madhavrao Scindia share the distinction of being Union Ministers, and of having held the post of President of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. On the flip side is the imaginary scenario of Sanjay Gandhi playing cricket. The bowler may have apologised, as one did to the legendary W. G. Grace, for getting his wicket.

The common acceptance of the Congress and cricket by the "visible" India was based on the logic that the game was played by gentlemen and most Congressmen of the early years were highly educated and, therefore, qualified to be placed in the category of gentlemen. How could a child go stray if he or she had dreams about becoming a Nehru, a Maulana Azad, a Sardar Patel, a Sarojini Naidu or a Vijay Laxmi Pandit? [The deeds of some of the current Congress and even non-Congress leaders cannot even be discussed in the presence of children of impressionable age.] As for cricket, parents themselves went out of their way to get the autographs of international players for their children. There are many families in which autographs of famous cricketers enjoy the status of family heirloom.

Nehru as Prime Minister started the tradition of an annual exhibition cricket match between the Lok Sabha XI and the Rajya Sabha XI. Why was it not hockey — although at that point of time India had not surrendered its numero uno position to Pakistan or the European countries? Football could not even be mentioned because in spite of the Congress' commitment to socialism it was game of the riff-raff. Bureaucrats too preferred to play cricket for fun but not a game played by members of the under-class. One can find a few exceptions, but they would only help prove the rule.

A primary reason for the game's popularity in the subcontinent can be traced to the fact that cricket in its formative years was played by the British aristocracy for achieving the objective of killing time, which like their ill-gotten wealth, they had in abundance. Out of the need to kill the time from meal to meal was born the game which became popular among the natives of the British colonies and is now in the eye of the worst-ever storm since the Bodyline series came close to disrupting diplomatic ties between England and Australia.

The Australians took up the game not because they had blue blood but because as condemned residents of the British empire they too needed to do something which took care of the six days between two Sundays. In India, too, the gentlemen players of the early era came from royal families. Even out-of-job commoners found more pleasure in secretly imitating their lords and masters than in making an honest effort to rustle up the day's meal for the family. If they happened to catch the eye of "his highness", they were allowed to do the running around for retrieving the ball from the boundary. They were even encouraged to bowl because their lordships thought that batting was an aristocratic pastime while bowling was a menial chore. Harold Larwood was a coal miner's son who was forced to bowl bodyline by the "superior being" and captain Douglas Jardine.

Whatever may have been the origin of the game, there is no doubt that there is no game like cricket. Rather, there was no game like cricket. It was meant to be played in slow motion so that the majestic beauty of a square cut or a cover drive lingered in the memory of spectators for the few minutes before the next ball was bowled. A shot played in the air was like adding a false note to a beautiful symphony.

Cricketers were perfect role models for children and grown-ups alike. Their conduct on and off the field was usually impeccable. A maiden darting across the field, that too in India, to kiss Abbas Ali Baig for scoring 50 runs added to the pleasure of the game.

The slow motion game of cricket, which had all the elements of good poetry, music, dance and painting, was killed in 1979 --- exactly a decade after the demise of the Congress. A television tycoon called Kerry Packer initiated the process of killing cricket. He introduced the concept of one-day cricket and of playing under floodlights. He offered sums of money which made respected cricketers forget the humbug about the pride in playing for the country.

All dark clouds have a silver lining. The silver lining of the dark clouds of Packer-led rebellion against cricketdom was provided by India. G. Vishwanath and Sunil Gavaskar turned down lucrative offers to participate in the Packer circus. When Gavaskar did play one-day cricket it was for India. It is a different matter that in a World Cup game in England, he batted through the 60 overs for 36 runs! But that is the way he was taught to play cricket — protect your wicket as you would your life and runs would come in due course.

Where there is money, there is bound to be corruption. Ironically, Dalmiya, who wanted to take the game to all parts of the globe, is having to witness as President of the ICC, the unofficial announcement of the death of the game. He may find bits and pieces of what ever remains of cricket in Singapore, Sharjah, Toronto and other venues that may have been recommended to him by the sponsors for promoting the game.

All that we, who once loved the Congress and the game of cricket in equal measure, can do is to make a request to Sonia Gandhi and Dalmiya. Madam, let the Congress be remembered as the party which helped India win freedom from foreign rule and which taught the values of secularism and democracy to the average Indian.

To you, Dalmiya, we make the same request. Let an epitaph be erected to commemorate the killing of the noble game of cricket by Packer [to which cricket administrators too made a substantial contribution] in 1979. What was born out of the ashes of the original game was anything but cricket. You may give the fancy and modern-sounding name of karkat to the game you wish to promote. To that we promise to add the prefix koora to bring out both the class and the character of the new game and its practitioners.