I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sports creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet in the battlefield.... International sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred.
Fourteen hours after the incendiary fires were put out at Eden Gardens, this magazine's office in south Delhi received an agitated telephone call from Lahore. Was it true that Mohammad Azharuddin had been murdered? The 'news', it seems, was buzzing in Pakistan and, given the previous day's happenings in Calcutta, had acquired a degree of credibility. Happily, Mr Azharuddin is still with us but, considering the vicious partisanship the match aroused, it was not such an outrageous rumour. "Outside my hotel, groups of youths carrying sticks and other missiles commandeered cars to take them in search of the Indian players whose hotel was already ringed by riot police and soldiers in full battle gear," wrote a British journalist from Calcutta.
Like millions I sat glued to my TV set last Wednesday; and as happy evening progressed into ugly night, one watched with stunned disbelief the concluding scenes. Tony Greig's periodic reminder, "this telecast is being watched by 600 million people all over the world," took on an urgent menace: we were making a spectacle of ourselves on a global scale.
And suddenly, the awful irony of our patronising condescension at the threats hurled at Wasim Akram's brave men seeking safety and shelter in Karachi from irate 'Pakis' was put into distressing perspective. The Pakistanis, we said, were an unreal entity struggling to forge an identity. They couldn't handle defeat, we said, because they couldn't handle nationhood. Meanwhile, we were a mature democracy, at once confident and self-assured. We would show them....
Currently in Calcutta there is serial self-flagellation. The solitary placard of remorse in Eden Gardens which read, "We are sorry," needs constant reiteration from sober voices in the City of Joy if the damage done has to be partially repaired. However, I believe to view the events of Black Wednesday as exclusively Bengal's shame is a misreading of the savage passions unfurled in Eden Gardens. Calcutta's shame was indubitably India's shame, a point successfully made by a sagacious Sri Lankan commentator who noted: "The disgusting behaviour of the Calcutta spectators gave a poor reflection of sportsmanship. In over six decades of cricket, Indians have not learnt to accept defeat gracefully." "It (the riot) confirmed the worst fears of many that India know not how to lose," wrote the correspondent of the London Times . Why this should be so, considering that defeat for this country is the norm in international sporting contests, is astonishing. Except in hockey, we have never even won a silver medal at the Olympics! Losing, thus, should come to us naturally.
Go no further and examine India's status in the World Cup. One does not have to be a cricketing wizard to accept that at least four teams—Australia, South Africa, Pakistan and Sri Lanka—were superior to us. The victory in Bangalore was a freak victory and Indian fans should have been grateful for small mercies and savoured the win over the 'arch rivals' along with the distinction of making it to the last four. Instead, we expected the impossible.
I am not qualified to illuminate the psychology of a nation which is a habitual loser in international sport yet countenances defeat with so much bad grace—bad grace that is never far away from organised hooliganism. However, I do suggest to some diligent scholar that this is an area where research and investigation could throw up some fascinating insights. For a start, it might explain a perplexing Indian paradox: a refusal to acknowledge what stares us in the face. Is it some remote Aryan gene which persuades Indians that the ugly and distasteful will simply go away if ignored?
Meanwhile, a dissident view is gaining ground. All this dignity nonsense, bad sportsmanship, the Marquess of Queensbury Rules are relics of a bygone age. Today, sport is about winning. In other words, it is 'war minus the shooting'. Therefore, a couple of fires, some empty glass bottles, even a small riot are part and parcel of modern sport. There is, consequently, no requirement to apologise or beat one's breasts or cry 'shame' because a match was abandoned in a city where such things are routine. I do not subscribe to this dissident view and merely offer it as part of democratic debate.
What I do subscribe to is the widespread revulsion at the carefully manufactured hysteria—"come join the cricket hysteria," beckon banners on Archie's shops—that has gripped the subcontinent these past few weeks. Megabucks are being invested to heighten the hysteria and our 'stars' unfortunately are paying the price for being accomplices. Whether it is shirts or soft drinks or shock absorbers or suspenders, there is a cricketer ready and willing to lend his face. This blitzkrieg, particularly on TV, has created the impression that Messrs Tendulkar, Kambli and Azharuddin are in the game just for the money. Now, while the team is winning no one minds, but when disaster strikes the hostility surfaces.
Then you hear: " Are bhai , Azhar is more interested in Pepsi Cola than cricket." The charge is certainly unfair, but the 'idols' have only themselves to blame for the backlash. While there can be no justification for lighting fires in a cricket ground, those of our 'boys' who received fat cheques for commercial sponsorship are well advised to ration their endorsements in future.
Finally, spare a thought for Sri Lanka. Here is a country nearly torn apart by LTTE assassins, here is a country crying out for peace, here is a country which a week before the World Cup was devastated by a bomb blast, here is a country which sought and got India's help once the Aussies and Windies chickened out. Surely, losing to such a country in the semi-final should be a matter for quiet celebration rather than copious tears. Add to that the brand of cricket these magnificent Sri Lankans play. Neville Cardus once wrote about a batsman: "He uses the bat as a lady might use her fan." He could be writing about Aravinda de Silva.
If Sri Lanka win the World Cup (this is being written on Saturday) I will open a bottle of Chowgule champagne and toast not only the best side in the tournament but the most wondrous.