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Divided by politics, united by cricket

World Cup begins on May 30. It will help the nation get over the hangover of vitriolic electioneering and cheer for Team India as ‘One People’26 May 2019 | 12:20 AM

The cricket World Cup couldn’t have come at a better time for India.

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Subhash Rajta 

The cricket World Cup couldn’t have come at a better time for India. The timing, though, has nothing to do with India’s chances or preparedness for winning what would be their third Cup. In fact, given that the exhausting IPL finished two weeks back, the players might have been in better shape, both mentally and physically, if the World Cup came a little later. So, you must be wondering, what makes the timing so apt then? Coming as it does close on the heels of what has arguably been the most acrimonious and polarising elections the country has ever witnessed, the much-awaited quadrennial event is timed to perfection from the perspective of the country’s billion-plus population. A more than a month-long vitriolic electioneering has left multitude of people bitterly divided and resentful of the individuals and groups opposed to their choice of parties, leaders, ideas and concerns. To get over this hangover, to again see a friend or a well-wisher in the person who suddenly turned into a foe in the last couple of months, to bridge the divide the elections drove between them, to get this toxic negativity out of their collective system and get back to their normal lives, they needed a big and positive distraction of the magnitude of the World Cup.  

For, we all know, nothing unites and cheers up this country as cricket does! Once the Men in Blue start their campaign in England, against South Africa on June 5, all Indians will be united by the common desire of seeing the team doing well and, hopefully, bringing the Cup home. “I can’t wait for the World Cup to begin,” says Manuj Kaushal, a bank employee. “I am dead tired of arguing and debating politics with family and friends in the last two months. Now, we can sit down together and be on the same side.”

It could be argued that cricket was happening during the elections as well. It certainly was, but the IPL is an altogether different ball game. It tends to divide more than unite. Thankfully, the fans of the IPL team are yet not viciously divided. The MS Dhoni fans have a healthy respect for Virat Kohli and vice-versa; they don’t yet see the opposing players and their fans as their enemies, but just as adversaries. Not too long back, it was perhaps the same in politics as well, as was confirmed by LK Advani when he said: “In the past, we never regarded those who disagreed politically with us as enemies but only as our adversaries.” That time, though, seems to have slipped by long ago!

Communal beginning

Ironically, the uniter in chief that cricket has been in this country for so long had a communal and divisive beginning. It worked as a supplementary tool of the divide and rule policy of our colonial masters. Towards the beginning of the last century, the British and the Parsees started playing cricket annually with each other. Soon, the Hindus, too, began fielding their team, followed by the Muslims a little later, giving birth to the famous Bombay Quadrangular Cricket Tournament. From 1937 onwards, the tournament was rechristened as Bombay Pentangular with the ‘Rest’, comprising Jews, Buddhists and the Indian Christians, also entering the fray. With the teams built on communal and racial lines, results of these matches had larger implications, what with the passionate followers treating victories as an evidence of their religious/racial superiority. As if the teams raised on communal lines wasn’t bad enough, the Hindus had the additional scourge of caste and untouchability to deal with. The story of left-arm spinner Palwankar Baloo, a lower-caste Hindu, illustrates the point. Baloo — noted historian Ramachandra Guha calls him the first great Indian cricketer in his noted book, A Corner of a Foreign Field — was included in the team only because he was the best Hindu player around at that time, and his presence would greatly enhance their chances. But despite being the most valuable member of the team, his treatment (at least initially) left a lot to be desired — he would not be allowed inside the pavilion with rest of the team and would be served tea and food in separate cups and plates.

Even in such divisive settings, cricket’s inherent trait of inclusivity wasn’t stifled completely. Thanks to his stupendous performances over the years, Baloo kept growing in stature, and became the face of Dalit pride. So much so that even the legendary BR Ambedkar looked up to him. Baloo was denied captaincy because of his caste but his younger brother, Vithal Palwankar, a stylish batsman, was bestowed the honour of leading the side. According to one account, he was carried by his upper-caste teammates on their shoulders when he led them to victory over the Muslims in 1923. It was indeed a great blow for untouchability. There are also reports of the Hindus joining the celebration when Muslims won and vice-versa. In 1946, a year before the Independence, the tournament was called off for good.

Fresh start

In independent India, the countrymen rallied behind the national team, regardless of the religion, caste, region and language of the players. Our society continued to remain divided on several counts but cricket transcended all boundaries. "Mushtaq Ali was as big a hero for everyone as Vijay Hazare and Vijay Merchant... In my over 50 years of association with the sport, I’ve never seen, heard or read about any discrimination in cricket on the basis of religion or caste," says cricket enthusiast Sushil Kapoor, explaining why cricket continues to bind the country like nothing else. Cricketers were always popular but the 1983 World Cup victory in England gave them a larger than life persona. In the 1980s when the country reeled under riots, an anti-communal organisation in Mumbai brought out the posters carrying the pictures of Kapil Dev, Mohammad Azharuddin, Maninder Singh and Roger Binny, captioned ‘We can play together, we can live together’, to placate communal tensions. It’s difficult to gauge the impact the initiative had, but it clearly showed the influence cricket and cricketers wield in our country.

Building bridges 

This IPL, a 17-year-old Rasikh Islam from Jammu and Kashmir made it to the IPL. The fast bowler was picked by Mumbai Indians. Another J&K cricketer, Jasia Akhtar, made it to the women’s three-team league played alongside the IPL. The hard-hitting Jasia was included in the Smriti Mandhana-led Trailblazers. Incidentally, both the cricketers come from South Kashmir, the most turbulent area in the Valley. Given that the sense of alienation has been relatively high in the Valley over the last couple of years — so much so that an IAS officer, Shah Faesal, quit to “protest against the unabated killing in Kashmir”— the presence and participation of these two cricketers, nurturing the dream of playing for India one day, is very significant. Cricket continues to connect when pretty much everything else seems to be failing.

It’s tough to even imagine the odds these two must have overcome to make the cut in this ultra-competitive sport. Here’s an example: Militants stormed Jasia’s home more than a decade back and ordered her family to stop her from playing cricket. She was scared and stopped playing for a few years before resuming again. She’s now among the top players in the country and, hopefully, not too far away from playing for India. “Honestly speaking, many back home still feel they are discriminated against, and that they don’t get as many opportunities as people in other parts of the country,” Jasia said when she started playing for Punjab a few seaosns back. “If I manage to play for India, it will assuage those feelings to some extent; it will tell them that opportunities are there for everyone, one just needs to pursue them wholeheartedly.”

Having come thus far, considering the odds she had to overcome, she must be an idol for many youngsters in Kashmir. Her dogged pursuance of her dream must have inspired many others to follow in her footsteps, and join their compatriots in cheering Men in Blue as they attempt to win the Cup of joy for the third time.

Divided by politics, united by cricketIllustration: Sandeep Joshi
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