WRITING this in the midst of the English cricket team's tour of India, I am reminded yet again how often I have thought that cricket is really, in the sociologist Ashis Nandy's phrase, an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British.
This might seem a preposterous notion, in keeping with the characteristic acuminations of that mischievous scholar, whose wispy beard and twinkling eyes have revealed a capacity both to astonish and to provoke. And yet it is an entirely defensible idea: Nandy found the perfect words to express something I have been arguing since childhood. Everything about cricket seems to me ideally suited to the Indian national character: its rich complexity, the infinite possibilities and variations that could occur with each delivery, the dozen different ways of getting out, are all patterned for a society of infinite forms and varieties. Indeed, they are rather like Indian classical music, in which the basic laws are laid down but the performer then improvises gloriously, unshackled by anything so mundane as a written score.
If there is a cricket cliché drilled into fans' heads by generations of commentators, it must be that relating to "the glorious uncertainties of the game". But that too echoes ancient Indian thought: as I have pointed out in The Great Indian Novel, Indian fatalists instinctively understand that it is precisely when you are seeing the ball well and timing your fours off the sweet of the bat that the unplayable shooter can come along and bowl you. A country where a majority of the population still consults astrologers and believes in the capricious influence of the planets can well appreciate a sport in which an ill-timed cloudburst, a badly-prepared pitch, a lost toss or the sun in the eyes of a fielder can transform the outcome of a game. Even the possibility that five tense, exciting, hotly-contested and occasionally meandering days of cricketing contest could still end in a draw seems derived from ancient Indian philosophy, which accepts profoundly that in life the journey is as important as the destination.
No wonder cricket has seized the national imagination of India as no other sport has. Our cricketers occupy a place in the pantheon rivalled only by gods and Bollywood stars. The performances of our heroes are analysed with far more passion than any political crisis; selectoral sins of commission and omission, especially the latter, can bring teeming cities to a grinding halt. In no other country, I dare say, does a sport so often command the front pages of the leading newspapers. And why not? What could be more important than the thrilling endeavours of a gifted batsman or the magical wiles of a talented spinner, each performing his dharma, the individual doing his duty in a team game, just as in life each Indian fulfils his destiny within the fate of the collectivity?
Hooked for life
Cricket first came to India with decorous English gentlemen idly pursuing their leisure; it took nearly a century for the "natives" to learn the sport, and then they played it in most un-English ways. I remember being taken by my father to my first-ever Test match, in Bombay in late 1963, when a much weaker English side than the present one was touring. I shall never forget the exhilaration of watching India's opening batsman and wicket-keeper, Budhi Kunderan, smite a huge six over midwicket, follow it soon after with another blow that just failed to carry across the rope, and then sky a big shot in a gigantic loop over mid-on. As it spiralled upward, Kunderan began running; when the ball was caught by an English fielder, he hurled his bat in the air, continued running, caught it as it came down, and ran into the pavilion. I was hooked for life.
India has always had its Kunderans, but it has also had its meticulous grafters, its plodders, its anarchists and its stoics: a society which recognises that all sorts of people have their place recognises the value of variety in its cricket team as well. But in India variety comes within an established cosmic order. A society which invented the caste system instinctively allocates different roles to different players even within the same activity. So in batting, for instance, this means we must accommodate both a Dravid and a Dhoni: a "Wall" and a barrage.
One final clincher: cricket reflects and transcends India's diversity. It is entirely fitting that the Indian team has been led by captains from each of its major faiths — Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Christians and a colourful Sikh. A land divided by caste, creed, colour, culture, cuisine, custom and costume is united in consensus around a great conviction: cricket. There is no other contender for the distinction of being our national sport, not even the games India actually invented (chess, polo). As our sages used to say, it little matters where you were born; what is important is where you belong, where your soul has its allegiance. Cricket somehow emerged first in a foreign land, but its spiritual home is undoubtedly India.
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Very interesting article. Kinda funny in a way too. What do you guys think?