World Cup Cricket: The pitch is political

Talking cricket: The game has far-reaching consequences beyond the playing field, with potential for a starring role in political and diplomatic spheres   -  ISTOCK.COM

Politics, nationalism and cricket are an old triumvirate, having intersected ever since the beginning of the game itself. The men’s cricket World Cup, which draws to a close on Sunday, threw up interludes when the proceedings became charged politically

The Indian team was rocked by two injuries in the middle of a stellar group stage in the ongoing men’s cricket World Cup in England. The injured Shikhar Dhawan and Vijay Shankar were replaced by Rishabh Pant and Mayank Agarwal, respectively. Ambati Rayudu, the 33-year-old batsman who was a surprise exclusion from the squad in the first place, did not take kindly to the double snub. He promptly retired from international cricket.

Shortly after, the fledgling Icelandic Cricket Association made a tongue-in-cheek offer to Rayudu on Twitter — the citizenship of Iceland. The association also helpfully listed the documents he would need for that. It then said, “Agarwal has three professional wickets at 72.33 so at least @RayuduAmbati can put away his 3D glasses now. He will only need normal glasses to read the document we have prepared for him. Come join us Ambati. We love the Rayudu things.”

While the nature of “Rayudu things” remains unclear, the rest of the tweet refers to the player’s sarcastic tweet about ordering 3D glasses to watch the World Cup. He was responding to MSK Prasad, the chief of selectors, who had said that Shankar was chosen over Rayudu as the former was a “three-dimensional player”, likely to contribute with bat, ball and in the field.

Now, Iceland has less than 40 active cricketers, led by Delhi-born Abhishek Sharma (currently working as a bartender). And yet, for a while last week, cricket lovers debated the pros and cons of Rayudu, a born-and-bred Hyderabad man, moving to a country with fewer people than South Delhi, eating whitefish for breakfast and, perhaps, lazing on the Black Beach (where Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol shot the famous Gerua song in the 2015 movie Dilwale).

Curtains will be down on the 12th edition of the World Cup with the grand finals on Sunday. Iceland’s cheeky citizenship offer aside, the tournament threw up other instances where issues of nationality and patriotism came to the fore. Politics, nationalism and cricket are an old triumvirate, having intersected ever since the beginning of the game itself. Cricket has proven to be a force that can mend bridges with acrimonious neighbours, as also the only sliver of hope in strife-torn countries. The game itself began as a way for the colonising British to “discipline the native”, to make them more British by proxy, via the “gentleman’s game”.

For the longest time, one of the common criticisms levelled at cricket was that it was too insular a sport, played in a handful of Commonwealth countries, but one with no real chance or indeed inclination to reach newer territories. The first men’s World Cup (held in 1975) featured just eight teams: The six Test-playing nations England, Australia, the West Indies, India, Pakistan, and New Zealand, plus then-associates Sri Lanka and East Africa. Change set in slowly from the 1990s, and the 2015 edition, for instance, saw as many as 14 teams, including Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Scotland, Ireland and the United Arab Emirates. The Netherlands has grown in stature in the recent past; the team secured a pair of memorable victories over England in the T20 World Cups in 2009 and 2014. Which is why the International Cricket Council’s (ICC) decision to feature just the top 10 teams for the ongoing World Cup was met with widespread criticism from smaller cricketing nations; they rightly felt that they had been denied the chance to make a mark on the biggest stage.

Afghanistan: A Bollywood love story

Force to reckon with: Afghanistan continued to impress during the World Cup, running India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka really close, although they eventually lost all the three games   -  REUTERS/Lee Smith

 

The exclusion of the newer teams is particularly jarring when one considers the remarkable story of the Afghanistan men’s cricket team, which was granted Test status as recently as 2017. This rapid rise through the ranks was nowhere on the radar in 2000, when the Taliban approved of cricket in Afghanistan — an exception no other sport was afforded. The following year, in 2001, the ICC included Afghanistan as an affiliate member. Some Afghan cricketers who feature in the ongoing World Cup still remember using abandoned military aircraft as dressing rooms. The US-and-allies invasion of Afghanistan, after all, happened in 2001, in the middle of the team’s tour of Pakistan, where they played five games against second division domestic teams.

“We hardly had 12 players. We used to knock on each other’s doors to come and play with us so that we’d have 11 players to field, so that we didn’t have to run that much,” Shafiq Stanikzai, former cricketer and the Afghanistan Cricket Board’s chief executive until 2018, recalled in a CNN interview earlier this year. “We smelt that pleasure. We finally had the feeling that ‘yes, this is my country, and this is something that I belong to. This is where I have to live my life’.”

They’ve come a long way since then. The Afghans have, in the last couple of years alone, defeated the West Indies and Bangladesh in international games, and also tied a last-ball thriller against India in a 50-over encounter during the Asia Cup in September last year. In February, they set a world record in the 20-over format, when they racked up a score of 278/3 against Ireland in a T20 international. Rashid Khan, their 20-year-old leg-spinner, is considered one of the leading cricketers in the world today and has played T20 franchise cricket in India, Australia, the West Indies and England. His spin bowling comrades Mohammad Nabi and the 18-year-old prodigy Mujeeb ur Rahman have also played the last edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL).

Afghanistan continued to impress during the World Cup, running India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka really close, although they eventually lost all the three games.

Both Pakistan and, to a greater degree, India have contributed to Afghanistan’s stunning ascent. Pakistan allowed the Afghan team to play in its domestic competition in 2001. India has gone several steps beyond since then. In 2016, former India batsman Lalchand Rajput became the coach of the Afghanistan team. The BCCI has provided training facilities, effectively a “home away from home”, for the Afghan players at Dharamshala, Himachal Pradesh. A similar arrangement is in place with the Rajiv Gandhi International Stadium in Noida, outside Delhi. In February, the 21-year-old opener Hazratullah Zazai smashed an unbeaten 162 off just 62 balls, including an eye-popping 16 sixes, against Ireland on this ground, setting the highest individual score ever recorded in a T20 international.

So commonplace is the sight of Rashid Khan and company around these parts that local businesses readily use images of Afghan cricketers for promotion. One of them, a juice vendor, visibly happy at the Rashid Khan blow-up beside him, told BLink, “He (Khan) is handsome, just like a Bollywood actor. And he’s a brilliant player, kids recognise him from TV.”

War minus the shooting

For all of the romance around Afghanistan, their World Cup wasn’t without incident. In-fighting in the Afghanistan Cricket Board led to the sacking of captain Asghar Afghan on the eve of the tournament. And during the match against Pakistan at Leeds, all hell broke loose as warring groups of fans from the two countries clashed outside the stadium. The clashes continued inside the ground as well, leading to dozens of spectators being removed from the stands by security forces.

Banner in the sky: Airplanes flying over the stadium carrying banners with political messages caused considerable commotion during the matches   -  REUTERS/Lee Smith

 

The fisticuffs were apparently provoked by the sudden appearance of an airplane above the stadium, carrying a banner message that read, “Justice for Balochistan”. Balochistan has been a red-button issue for the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and India for decades; the Pakistani government claims that both Afghanistan and India aid “terrorist camps” in the disputed Balochistan region. Afghanistan and India deny the claims, while affirming the Baloch people’s right to self-rule. The Indian government had its own issues with airplane messaging --- during the India-Sri Lanka game at Headingley, planes flew overhead bearing banner messages calling for justice and freedom in Kashmir, and against mob lynching in India.

These weren’t the only instances in this tournament where political and military affairs made a surprise appearance. Team India veteran MS Dhoni’s gloves were found to be in violation of the ICC’s regulations on commercial or political messaging as it featured the insignia of the Parachute Regiment of the Indian Army, where the wicket-keeper is an honorary lieutenant colonel. Minister of state for sportsKiren Rijiju tweeted in support of Dhoni, claiming national pride: “The issue is connected with the sentiments of the country, the interests of the nation has to be kept in mind. I urge the BCCI and the ICC to take a fair step in the Dhoni case.”

Nonetheless, Dhoni had to remove the insignia. It isn’t the first time the ICC has taken a tough stance on matters of political messaging. In 2014, the England all-rounder Moeen Ali was soundly chastised by the ICC for sporting wristbands with pro-Palestine slogans. Ali never sported them again. One wonders whether, soon, West Indian fast bowler Sheldon Cottrell’s “military celebration” (an army salute to the batsman after taking his wicket) will be under the scanner, even though the Jamaican national army, which Cottrell is a part of, is not nearly as controversial an issue as Balochistan or Palestine.

Sweet revenge: The racist quip by then English captain Tony Greig (far right) during the West Indies tour of England in 1976 fired up Viv Richards (above) and his teammates. They thrashed England 3-0 in both the Tests and ODIs. Richards scored two double centuries, leaving the opposition with little choice but applaud his genius

 

However, a sense of political purpose has marked the game of cricket since early days, particularly when former colonies played against England. The much-lauded 2010 British documentary Fire in Babylon (now available on Hotstar India) covered, among other things, the determination that West Indian cricketers such as Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd felt while playing against England; especially when taunted by racist comments like England captain Tony Greig’s infamous “We’ll make them grovel” quip on the eve of the 1976 Test series. The racist overtones were amplified by the fact that they came from a white South African man during the Apartheid era, a time when the South African team was excluded from international cricket (they would rejoin the fold shortly before the 1992 World Cup). Richards and his fired-up teammates — including the fearsome fast-bowler Michael Holding — then made short work of England, thrashing them 3-0 in the Tests and 3-0 in the ODIs, as well. Greig had a miserable series with bat and ball, and every time he was dismissed, the West Indian fans in the crowd let him have a piece of their minds.

In Fire in Babylon, Richards is seen telling the interviewer, “Everyone was stunned. This was the greatest motivating speech the England captain could have given to any West Indian team.” Richards exacted his own personal brand of punishment as well, smashing the English bowlers (Greig included) out of sight — he had scores of 232, 135 and 291 in three of the Test matches, as well as 119 not out and 97 in two of the ODIs. He returned home having settled the question of who the world’s best batsman really was.

Loud and clear: English captain Eoin Morgan said several times during the tournament held in England and Wales that the matches often felt like away games for him and his men reuters/paul childs   -  REUTERS/Paul Childs

 

The UK was also where the infamous “Tebbit test” for minorities grabbed headlines three decades ago. In April 1990, conservative politician Norman Tebbit proposed the so-called “cricket test”, intended especially for immigrants from Asia. According to Tebbit, immigrants who did not support England during cricket matches had failed to assimilate satisfactorily within British culture. He famously said, “A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?” As anybody who has watched England playing India, Pakistan or Bangladesh on TV during this World Cup can testify, the Tebbit test was happily tossed into the dustbin of history. In fact, English captain Eoin Morgan commented several times that these matches felt like away games for him and his men.

Cricket: The diplomat’s secret weapon?

Taking cricket to the world — and the ICC’s attempts in that direction — was one of the focal points of Indian-American comedian Hasan Minhaj’s recent episode on his Netflix show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj. Crucially, Minhaj said that the BCCI was, in a way, soft-blocking the ICC’s bid to make the game global in order to ensure its near-monopoly over cricket, financially. The theory has some merit: The BCCI has been known to be corrupt in the recent past, forcing the Supreme Court of India to step in. And there’s little doubt that the BCCI accounts for the lion’s share of international cricketing revenue, thanks to the game’s popularity in India. However, Minhaj’s theory doesn’t quite account for the BCCI’s equation with Afghanistan; for example, they have very little financial motive to extend the help that they currently do.

As Abhishek Mukherjee, former editor of Cricket Country, told BLink, “BCCI also supported Nepal. And I can’t see how their dominance will be hurt (by the game going global). It’s not as if cricket is going to be mainstream in the US and China.”

Even so, the episode highlighted one key area of intersection between cricket and politics — the game’s diplomatic potential. Minhaj shares this statement made by Hillary Clinton in 2010: “If we are searching for a model for how to meet tough international challenges with skill, we need only look to the Afghan national cricket team. Afghanistan didn’t even have a cricket team a decade ago, and last year they made it to the World T20 championship” .

The writer and journalist Rahul Bhattacharya’s 2005 book Pundits from Pakistan chronicled the Indian team’s historic 2004 tour of the country — it was the first time in over a decade that the Indian team had visited Pakistan. Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had played his part in facilitating the tour, and Bhattacharya’s book is an excellent treatise on cricket’s inimitable role in the social fabric of both India and Pakistan.

Love it or hate it, there’s no doubt that the game of cricket often has far-reaching consequences beyond the field of play. It is contingent upon administrators — and players, both current and retired — to realise the game’s largely untapped potential in the political and diplomatic spheres. As Minhaj said, the game can be used to either inflame or diffuse tensions. It’s up to the people to make what they will of this curious, baseball-on-valium (as the late, great Robin Williams once called it) sport.

Published on July 12, 2019
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