I am an outsider in a cricket-obsessed society. In fact, many of my friends and close relatives look at me with surprise and even disgust when I tell them that I am not particularly fond of cricket. Seldom do I watch the spectacle called cricket. I loathe the reduction of the sport to a hugely profitable and market-driven industry. The mythologies centred on our “star” cricketers — their glamorous lifestyles, their “affairs”, or their close affinity with the corporate-Bollywood nexus — do not attract me. Further, I have not yet become “nationalist” enough to see cricket as some sort of war, and equate a victory in the international match with a “surgical strike”.
On Sunday, I experienced the intensity of loneliness an outsider often confronts. Australia defeated India in the World Cup final. Yet, I was not broken. I was not sad. There was no “nationalist” ego that was at risk of being hurt. Instead, I took it lightly. I slept well. However, I know that at this moment of collective mourning, it would not be so easy for me to share my feelings with those who have reduced cricket into a totemic ritual for worshipping the new god called the “nation”. They might loathe my “coldness”, my “value-neutrality”; they might even suspect my nationalist credentials. After all, is not easy to be an outsider in a cricket-obsessed society.
Despite this loneliness, there is some advantage of being a detached outsider. As I do not allow our “star” cricketers (who are also brand ambassadors continually persuading the captive audience to buy and consume diverse products and brands) to hypnotise me, I can evolve a sharp critique of what is going on in the name of cricket. No, it is not their “patriotism”; instead, I can see the magic of “cash payment” in their gestures and practices. Even if you condemn me as a cynic, I should not forget that this sort of cricket, far from being an innocent game, is essentially a business.
Don’t forget that in an otherwise poverty-stricken country like ours, Virat Kohli, for instance, has already earned Rs 126 crore in his IPL career; and as far as the IPL 2023 auction is concerned, Rohit Sharma’s market value was Rs 16 crore! Moreover, as a report by India Change Forum suggests, despite regulatory restrictions, India’s cricket betting and gambling market has shown remarkable growth. It is projected to be worth over US$ 2 billion by the end of 2023. It is for us to decide whether it is a good thing that over 340 million Indians including teenagers and young students participate in cricket betting. Indeed, it would be foolish to imagine that these cricket stars are selfless patriots serving our nation unconditionally. Don’t forget that the Indian team as the runner-up in the World Cup will get a prize purse of approximately Rs 16 crore from the International Cricket Council. Compare it with the pay scale of an army jawan posted in Kargil whom you and I otherwise valorise as our “saviour”.
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Likewise, as an outsider, I can also see the politics of using cricket as a strategy for enhancing the ego of the hyper-masculine nation. See the way toxic television news channels reduce a cricket match — say, between India and Pakistan—into a war. Think of the ugliness involved in it. If the cacophony of “Jai Shri Ram” becomes our “weapon” in this cricket-war, it reveals our collective degeneration, our brute instincts, our despiritualised religion, and our inability to see a game as a game. Is it the reason why these days it is exceedingly difficult to appreciate, say, the creative skills of a Pakistani cricketer because you always fear the risk of being regarded as “anti-national”? Not surprisingly then, when India and Pakistan play cricket, the stimulant of hyper-nationalism tends to cause all sorts of psychic and cultural aggression.
Possibly my discomfort with this sort of cricket-nationalism has saved me. Yes, Australia defeated India. And this defeat, far from traumatising me, taught me the most important lesson of humility. The spectacular Narendra Modi Stadium, the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, the brigade of thousands of Indian fans, and all sorts of pujas and yajnas — yet, India could not make it. Are we ready to understand the meaning of the message this defeat seeks to convey? It teaches us that everything is impermanent. Neither your victory nor your defeat is permanent. Today you are the “hero”, tomorrow you can be reduced to zero! And hence, we must accept this defeat with grace — not with mass hysteria or collective shame. Likewise, our “ego” is a delusion, even if it is sanctified in the name of “nationalism”.
Possibly, this defeat conveys a message to all those “warriors” who seek to reduce cricket to a surgical strike. It is asking them to remain humble, see a game as a game, understand how the lens of militant nationalism distorts their ways of seeing, and celebrate the spirit of international solidarity and togetherness
Avijit Pathak writes on politics, culture and education