July 05, 2020
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Onfield Nationalism From A Box

A gullible nation, groomed for decades by television channels striving to maximise profit, has come to regard India vs Pakistan matches as proxy war

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Onfield Nationalism From A Box
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Onfield Nationalism From A Box

A Facebook post from an acquaintance, someone who knows his cricket well and the extreme unpredictable ways it can be played out, referred to the India-Pakistan Champions Trophy final match as a “gentlemen versus terrorists” clash. He was all set to watch the match, filling his refrigerator with cans of beer so that he would have enough stock to last him the eight-hour marathon show on TV.

Except for a muted protest from one of his friends, calling the term unfair as it was merely a cricket match, the rest were happy to let it be. An India-Pakistan match, even in the best of times, is like a war, where instead of guns being fired, it is a contest between a piece of broad wood, called the bat, and a leather-stitched round object called the ball. While the two sets of skills—bowling and batting—clash with each other, fans from the two sides, the majority sitting in their drawing rooms or bedrooms in front of television sets, go through a gamut of emotions, its ebb and tide largely dependent upon how well or badly their team is playing.

Since the number of those watching the match is phenomenal—an estimated 288 million watched their 2015 World Cup clash as compared to a mere 2.1 million that watched Australia play England; the Champions Trophy final at the Oval in London became the third highest watched match in the history of cricket—the stakes are bound to be high. Just like the live coverage of the Gulf War in the ’90s made CNN an international brand name, drawing an unprecedented global audience to the channel, an India-Pakistan match has, over the years, become the most lucrative cricket clash, where earnings of broadcasters shoot the roof. Millions of fans, and even those who care little for the sport, get drawn to the match, given the history of a bloody past--from Partition, that resulted in riots and the largest migration in humanity, followed by four wars over the decades.

To quote what has now become a cliche, it is, as George Orwell had put it, ‘War minus the shooting’. Orwell was referring to a Russian football club team’s visit to England in 1945, even though at that time television was not exploiting human emotions for making profit.

The rivalry between India and Pakistan on the sporting field, be it hockey or cricket, is as old as the birth of the two nations and has always been bitterly fought, on and off the field. One of my childhood memories of this rivalry is the story my aunt never tired of telling me about how devious Pakistani players are. The example cited was how, in one of the matches, the Pakistani captain had kept sharp pins between his fingers while shaking hands with his Indian counterpart. How the Indian captain escaped grievous injury to his hands. I was never told and nor have I been able to confirm this story so far. Suffice to say that the emotion and sentiment even in a time far gone by was never friendly.

So, what has changed now? Has it become worse than it was? What has changed over the years as the build-up to the Champions Trophy final shows, is that cricket on live television, be it those broadcasting the match live or the news channels, has become a grand vehicle to generate profits. The corporate world knows cricket sells and sells far more if it is mixed with a heavy dosage of nationalism. What a great recipe for commercial success when the national flag gets draped over the boys in blue! Slogans like Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata ki Jai, India, India are a heady cocktail; mix them well, shake them to perfection and then pour it chilled to those Indians who think a cricket match between India and Pakistan is a ‘Gentlemen versus Terrorists’ game. No wonder, a lot of Indians lap up this narrative.

The discussion in newsrooms, when not focusing on purely cricketing merits of the two teams, can get ludicrous, especially when it becomes an argument between players or anchors of television channels of the two countries. It becomes a screaming match, where all but cricket is discussed. I have been an amused spectator to these slanging matches many a time in television studios, wondering, what the hell am I doing here!

Cricket on live television is a vehicle to generate profit. It sells best with a heavy dosage of nationalism.

The first major television war between the two nations was fought during the 1996 World Cup that was played in the sub-continent. In post-liberalisation India, live television had gained its freedom from Doordarshan and private broadcasters had started filling the coffers of the Board by buying rights for showing the games live. Even today, the scuffle between Pakistan’s Aamer Sohail pointing a threatening finger towards Venkatesh Prasad in their quarter-final clash in Bangalore is one of the most iconic images that is often repeated while advertising the clash between the two as a fight to the finish.

The 1999 World Cup clash between the two took place in Manchester, dotted with a large Pakistani diaspora, in the backdrop of the Kargil war. Even though many spectators, mindful of the fact that the crowd was equally distributed between the two nations and could go out of control, were displaying banners of love and peace, at home, television had gone out of control, with war imagery never being far from the cricket contest, just because it could draw in more and more numbers!

Not for nothing does the International Cricket Council (ICC) always keep India and Pakistan in the same group of an international tournament, because it guarantees the two nations will play each other at least once. The reason is simple: commerce. When India soundly beat Pakistan in the opening match of this Champions Trophy, there was much disappointment, as a one-sided clash does not help the cause of profit-making, despite all the hype.

Photograph by Getty Images

I wonder what happens to people who believe in all the jingoism when their invincible team loses to the foe.

There was much glee when Pakistan qualified for the final. The moment for the final kill had come. An advertising slot, which was booked for Rs 10 lakh per 30 seconds, was now selling for Rs 1 crore. No wonder, there were many takers for former Pakistan captain Aamer Sohail’s outrageous allegations, that too without even an iota of proof, that “Pakistan had been brought to this situation”.

For two days before the final took place, some news channels were showing real war footage and talking to Army personnel at the borders about what they thought of the match. And there was a message for Kohli from the jawans: Do to Pakistan what we do to them from the trenches.

In 2004, when the Friendship Series was played in Pakistan on the then Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s initiative, I had travelled in the bus to Lahore to watch the Test. The bus was full of people whose parents had migrated from Lahore during Partition and were using the opportunity to locate the houses where their forefathers used to live. Once the bus crossed Wagah border, a loud chorus, “Bharat mata ki jai”, resounded in the bus.

It is an image that has stayed with me, and whenever I see news channels milking a cricket contest for reaping commercial benefits, that war-like cry keeps surfacing in my mind. Human emotion is vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation. I wonder whether anyone has cared to know what happens to those who actually start believing in these war symbols and the impregnability of their country, when their team finally loses. Like when India lost to Pakistan in the Champions Trophy final.  

(The author is consulting sports editor with The New Indian Expess)

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