Cricket is a play of chance, involving the mechanics of a piece of wood meeting a leather orb, to no verifiable effect on the world economy. Whatever this sport means to us, can it be valued in a utilitarian way, like a software app, a pizza, or someone fixing a puncture? Is it a special form of skilled—sometimes semi-skilled—labour? Or is it theatre, a giant proscenium where the psychological energies and desires of competing humans—and those of the spectator-participant—create live, unscripted drama? Poised between our renewed acquaintance with a stranger called victory and the familiar din of the marketplace, the IPL, it’s eerie to reflect on how easily one segues into the other. There’s a clue here to how we, as a people, are answering these questions: the fadeout from one frame to the next was unified by the background audio of money clattering down.
It’s a purist’s folly to think of ODIs as the real McCoy and T20 as simulated tamasha, cricket’s version of the WWF. Both are expressions, at different levels, of the same monstrously endowed commercial empire that uses sport as its engine fuel. For us, the joy of sport is undefinable, intangible. India was delirious in 1983 too, and it was for free. Now that joy is monetised. For some time, we’ve accorded a sort of parity to a Tendulkar inning and a Picasso original: both deemed priceless, both hitting the circuit-breaker. But the game-changer, to use the modish phrase, was the IPL auction: an inspired, all-out mercantile method to put a monetary value on an intangible good. Now that we’ve been numbed by the idea of having a commodity exchange for cricketers, we’ve no other way to express our gratitude to a bunch of boys who won us the World Cup except by throwing more money at them.
The BCCI dished out fistfuls, auto companies spied a chance for PR. Using taxpayers’ money, a modern state donned the air of a pleased feudal lord, dispensing baksheesh after a good cockfight. What made these acts singularly bereft of meaning is that these are already super-rich youngsters in a poor country; their stables overflow with Harleys, 2-kmpl Humvees and what not. It rained crores, but these boys count in ‘millions’ now. (For Yediyurappa, since land is the currency he understands, the gifts came in the shape of plots. And Gujarat reserved for Yusuf and Munaf an award named after the perennial outsider of the epics, no irony intended.)
No one grudges modern cricketers having a good life. There is even a touching innocence in their playing out boyhood fantasies—metal steeds, fast cars, air sorties, firearms (remember Dhoni’s machine-gun salute?). They are finally only overdrawn boys, and the time will come when they realise the value of using money and clout meaningfully, when, say, Dhoni will steer a network of schools in Uttarakhand. But you can’t hope to see them learn by example: the language of their bosses and that of the state itself is one of an unabashed pursuit of power. There was a touch of crassness in what followed the World Cup win, and it flowed from the top.
Observe the symmetry: India craves superpower status, and has no time to waste on Third World solidarity or the memory of Bandung; the BCCI is muscling out cricket’s ancien regime, but with an arrogance that pales even the famed hauteur of our former colonial masters. Our cricket commentariat, spokesmen for the empire, shut the door on the minnows at the next Cup. Spare a moment, in this hour of self-congratulation, for the less heralded feats of last month. Ryan ten Doeschate, Kevin O’Brien, anyone? Yes, India beat Australia to reach the semis. But Pakistan first showed they weren’t infallible, they broke the Aussie golden run. And before that, the fragility of the feared Brett Lee-Shaun Tait duo was shown up by—hold your breath—Kenya and Canada! An unlikely firm, Mishra-Obuya (72 run out/98 n.o.), cracked the riddle of Oz first. Days later, an unknown 19-year-old, Hiral Patel, launched such an audacious attack on Lee-Tait that Ponting said he was reminded of Sehwag. They paved the way. Who’s voting for Goliath? Not me.
Don’t forget, our cricket landscape too is graded between superpower regions and the minnow-like Rest of India. And both times we won the Cup, the captains came not from the cricket-rich colonial cities on the coast, but from the insufficiently colonised hinterland, speaking a rougher English. They were the ones who ‘defeated defeatism’ itself. It’s the spunk of young mofussil India. But the exemplars will inevitably get cityfied and claimed for urban iconhood, and that fact will be obliterated. A last word, on the Afridi affair. Everyone saw he was gracious in defeat, and spoke in spontaneous appreciation of India. (So much so, he’s been forced into a tactless overcorrection.) Our estimation of Tendulkar would not have been harmed one bit had he reciprocated in his own speech. We have won the World Cup, we’ll win the world when we show grace in victory and modesty in power.