June 06, 2020
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The Mohalla, The World

The World Cup win is as much the story of small-town India’s rise as it is of Dhoni’s XI

The Mohalla, The World

Mahendra Singh Dhoni is serene, and yet filled with zeal. He is an athlete, and also a thinker. He’s man and he’s god. An entity energised by contradictions. Much like India itself. Modern and traditional. Hot and cool. On April 2, batting in the World Cup final, only once did Dhoni’s eyes flash in anger. He’d hesitated while starting off for a run and was lucky the direct throw didn’t hit the stumps. He raised his bat and brought it down with a shout and a smack on his padded leg. A rare show of emotion.

But the moment was short-lived, he became his usual self again, Captain Cool, playing an innings of great nous (with its habitual ugly swipe) and won a beautiful victory for India. Gautam Gambhir made more runs, but in everyone’s mind the captain was the Man of the Match of the World Cup final. It was a fair call, Dhoni was the man who put legs to India’s chase, he’s the man who put steel into this Indian team’s spine.

Party tonite Mumbaikars lit up the streets after the Cup win. (Photograph by Dinesh Parab)

The day after, having completed the defining victory of his career, Dhoni is again coolness personified. At the residence of the governor of Maharashtra, with the Arabian Sea washing the shingles below the manicured gardens, Dhoni is the man everyone wants to bow to. Billionaires have come in their Versaces, the catering boys with their crinkly polythene shopping bags. More than anyone else, they have their eyes peeled for one man—it helps that Dhoni has shaved his head, making an eye-popping entry into the gathering.

Everyone wants to pose with him, even the band that played the national anthem and assorted celebratory tunes. And he gladly obliges. I manage to buttonhole Dhoni to ask him about that brief moment of anger the previous night, and he says, “It wasn’t anger, it was intensity. I didn’t want to get out.” But we’re interrupted. A billionaire with wife and daughter wants to meet him. They assure him that he’s the coolest man on the face of the earth—as if he didn’t know that already. Chief minister Prithviraj Chavan tells him he’s simply amazing. Supriya Sule, daughter of NCP boss Sharad Pawar, says, “You’re a most amazing leader, and I think all leaders should be like you, cool and under control and confident. If that were so, I think they’d never lose elections!”

Confidence—that’s what it boils down to. Dhoni had the confidence and the self-awareness to know that when Virat Kohli fell and Indian fans felt the cold hand of doubt on their spine, it was his turn to take up the challenge. With the team needing 161 runs, the situation demanded a clear mind and quick legs. Dhoni didn’t have many runs against his name before that innings, but he knew he could do the job—he knew he would do the job. The man has the coolest head in Indian cricket for he’s not afraid of failure, of having to return to play Ranji cricket for Jharkhand.

Dhoni exemplifies the self-belief of the small-town Indian, an absence of a history of failure in the psyche—there never was much opportunity before the 1990s, and there was, consequently, no great failure. Dhoni’s life would have been successful enough if he’d only played cricket for the Railways and worked as a ticket collector. He’s gone beyond the fear of failure, as have many others in this Indian team. In Dhoni’s team there are players born in Kothamangalam, Shrirampur, Ghaziabad, Jalandhar, Najafgarh, Aligarh, Ikhar, Baroda and Ranchi. There are players from Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai too, but the core isn’t made, unlike in the past, exclusively of metro boys.

“It’s always fun to see larger metaphors in sporting events...it certainly enhances our ‘soft power’ to beat the world in any sport.” Shashi Tharoor, MP and author “I haven’t seen such spontaneous outpouring, people coming out together on the streets, since 1977...the time of the JP movement.” Sudhir Mishra, Filmmaker

“Something sensational like cricket had to come to make us aware of this reality, that small-town India is confident and surging ahead.” Kumar Ketkar, Senior journalist “It seemed as though it was straight out of a romantic novel. There was this feeling that we are together, however temporary it might be.” Shyam Benegal, Filmmaker

“The BCCI isn’t sensitive about the game. They throw money at the players and think that’s enough. They don’t know what a cricketer goes through.” Abbas Ali Baig, Ex-Test cricketer “This ‘small town hunger’ myth should be done away with. For every small-town winner, there are nine small-town losers staring at the ceilings of their homes.”
Rahul Bose, Actor

“In small towns, people from the lower classes still have influence. Their kids have a ground to go to, coaching is cheap. It doesn’t happen in a city.” Dipankar Gupta Sociologist

Senior journalist Kumar Ketkar isn’t surprised at the emergence of the confident, small-town superstar. He believes it’s a linear growth that occurred due to two important developments of the last 40-odd years—banking and communications spreading their networks into the hinterland. “When Indira Gandhi nationalised banks in 1969, the network spread and in some 15 years, many more Indians had the benefit of banking and the advantages it brings—savings, loans etc,” Ketkar says. And with it, prosperity, confidence and mobility.

Then came the focus on tech and communications in the 1980s, which resulted, again 15 years later, in the media boom and telecommunications. “Now we’re seeing the first or second generation of people who have been exposed to these developments,” Ketkar says. He feels the concept of India vs Bharat is sickening and patronising. “Something sensational like cricket had to come to make us aware of this reality, that small-town India is confident and surging ahead,” he adds.

Communal watch Streetside viewing in Calcutta. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook, April 18, 2011)

Big change has been afoot in India for 20 years, but the transformation in the hinterland is radical. Social commentator Santosh Desai calls the degree of change in big and small cities “asymmetrical”, because they had different starting positions. Historically, small-town India didn’t have much exposure. “But now, because of TV and the internet, all of India, metropolitan, small-town or rural, has the same benchmarks,” he says. More people are now living their lives with respect to a common text that runs through most of India. “That creates and unleashes energies of a different type, and from little possibilities you find you have many and you measure yourself against them,” he argues.

The emergence of small-town players has been aided by the space crunch and the marginalisation of the weak in the big urban centres. In big cities, there are fewer grounds, and a sports career is a luxury because of the high expenses in coaching and travelling—which is ironical, for most successful sportspersons come from the relatively disadvantaged sections of society. Small towns have greater possibilities for an aspiring cricketer, says sociologist Dipankar Gupta, explaining, “It’s so because there people from the lower classes still have some influence. If you’re a schoolteacher or a bank clerk, your children will have a ground to go to, and coaching is cheap. In a city, you’d need a fair amount of money to do the same.”

It’s not like there have never been players from humble backgrounds, Ketkar notes. It’s just that they were all from big cities. “There were working-class players, but they were big-city people with a cricketing connection—the sons of groundsmen, for instance,” says Shashi Tharoor, writer and MP. “Today cricket has spread far more into the hinterland, a reflection of an India that is both urbanising rapidly and becoming more cosmopolitan at all levels. It may well explain both the strength of the team—we have a much broader talent pool to draw from now than we ever did—and its hunger to succeed.”

BJP MP and cricket official Anurag Thakur says the small-town Indian was bound to dominate cricket because 70 per cent of the country’s population still lives in the villages and mofussil towns. “And it’s not just in cricket...just look at boxer Vijender Kumar, wrestler Sushil Kumar or athlete Ashwini Akkunji,” Thakur says, stressing on the need to provide infrastructure in smaller places. “There would be a boom then,” he predicts. “The BCCI has done that, and the results are becoming visible.” This was also helped by the emergence of Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid when cable TV came into the country. “The BCCI marketed the game well,” Thakur adds.

Even in the absence of infrastructure or coaching, Dipankar Gupta observes, it’s possible to develop players. “Gavaskar or Wadekar became good not because of coaching, but because they had the talent and the discipline,” he says. So it’s not the quality of coaching that is decisive—talent by itself is decisive. And if a player has the talent and access to even limited infrastructure, he can develop if given opportunities. In other words, access to infrastructure, however ramshackle, is key—and small towns provide precisely that.

The small-town player has developed, and he’s confident and comfortable in his own skin. He’s not bothered by idle chatter. Kapil Dev, 28 years ago, at Lord’s, wore a formal jacket when he received the Prudential trophy. Dhoni is ‘chilled’ enough to receive the World Cup—as he did for the T20 World Cup trophy—in a sleeveless tee. Even metro boy Sachin Tendulkar believes there’s this hunger among players from smaller places (see interview).

Actor Rahul Bose, though, disagrees. “This ‘small town hunger’ myth should be done away with,” he told Outlook. “For every small-town winner, there are nine small-town losers staring at the ceilings of their homes. The hungriest sportspersons in this country have been Tendulkar, Dravid, Vishy Anand, Kumble, Saina Nehwal, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi. All ‘big town’ products.” He says hunger has more to do with nature, talent, family, immediate influences and socio-politico-cultural factors, than a simplistic solution like geography.

Far corners Even in Siliguri, Bengal, they woke up the night. (Photograph by AFP, From Outlook, April 18, 2011)

What’s certain is that the small-town cricketer possesses certain markers. He may be cool, but he’s also traditional. Dhoni shaved his head the morning after for religious reasons; Raina rushed to Shirdi for thanksgiving. Munaf Patel is a religious man who’s reputed to be free with his money when it comes to the needy. Yusuf Pathan is a serious-minded environmentalist who avoids parties. Yet, like the young generation of a new India, they love to spend, partake of the luxury. Dhoni loves his 23 bikes and fleet of cars, which includes a Hummer. And they are, taking a leaf from the new entrepreneurial India, forging business partnerships and investing their money well—in real estate, restaurants, coaching academies. Says Tharoor, “Dhoni is the small-town boy made good, the son of a Class IV karamchari who now enjoys multi-crore endorsements,” Tharoor says. “He brings the confidence and joy of a self-made man to the cricket field, and the team he leads embodies the same faith in itself.”

Money helps, but former Indian player Abbas Ali Baig thought it was insensitive and crass of the BCCI to announce Rs 1 crore to each player within minutes of India becoming the world champions. “They are not sensitive about the game,” Baig says. “They throw money at the players and think that’s enough. They don’t know what a cricketer goes through, what his problems are. I’d like cricketers to run the game in the country.”

As would most commoners, who were out on the roads to celebrate the win over Sri Lanka. They choked Marine Drive, Connaught Place, Sector 35, Bankarai and Guindy in different cities—and the same was reflected in small-town India too. Filmmaker Shyam Benegal was reminded of the 2005 rugby World Cup in South Africa, which saw Nelson Mandela uniting the black and white populace through this white man’s sport. “You have the whole of Maharashtra cheering for a team with players from all corners of India and headed by a boy from Ranchi,” notes filmmaker Sudhir Mishra. “It was all about bringing cheer in what are pretty gloomy times. It was about a nation’s pride and an affirmation of itself. I haven’t seen such spontaneous outpouring, people coming out together on the streets, since 1977 the time of the JP movement.”

In the aftermath of the win and the street celebrations, that led up to Anna Hazare’s fast-to-death over a bill against corruption, a wave of hope swept the country. It seems the country feels it could do with a new, strong leader.

But that’s a task that Dhoni can’t handle, at least for now. He’s handling people’s expectations over cricket, and he’s doing alright. “I don’t think it’s pressure—I take pressure and hand it to my players,” he told Outlook. “The expectations of the people isn’t pressure for me. I treat that as support.” Unlike our other leaders, Dhoni has lived up to India’s expectations, and that too in his first World Cup as captain.

Manor And Manner

The Men in Blue and some of their favourite things

Grade A (Rs 1 crore)

Sachin Tendulkar

  • Hometown: Mumbai
  • Likes: Watches, perfumes, cars, loves his bats.
  • Top car: Ferrari 360 Modena

M.S. Dhoni

  • Hometown: Ranchi
  • Likes: Dogs, guns, war books
  • Top car: Hummer, Pajero. But he also loves bikes, he's got 23 of them.

Gautam Gambhir

  • Hometown: Delhi
  • Likes: Loves his Playstation, likes Bollywood songs
  • Top car: Toyota Corolla, Maruti Suzuki SX4

Virender Sehwag

  • Hometown: Najafgarh village, Delhi
  • Likes: Homemade food, old Bollywood songs
  • Top car: BMW 5 Series

Suresh Raina

  • Hometown: Muradnagar (Ghaziabad, UP)
  • Likes: Home food, can cook, loves music
  • Top car: BMW 5 series

Harbhajan Singh

  • Hometown: Jalandhar
  • Likes: Punjabi food
  • Top car: Hummer

Zaheer Khan

  • Hometown: Shrirampur (Maharashtra)
  • Likes: Mom's food, F1 racing, has a restaurant, ZK's, in Pune,
  • Top car: Honda Accord

Grade B (Rs 50 lakh)

Yuvraj Singh

  • Hometown: Chandigarh
  • Likes: Backstreet Boys, playing pool
  • Top car: BMW M5 and M3 sports cars

Virat Kohli

  • Hometown: Delhi
  • Likes: Sushi, tattoos
  • Top car: Skoda Superb

Ashish Nehra

  • Hometown: Delhi
  • Likes: Italian apparel

Grade C (Rs 25 lakh)

S. Sreesanth

  • Hometown: Kothamangalam, Kerala
  • Likes: Music, dancing, co-owns a restaurant in Bangalore with Robin Uthappa
  • Top car: Honda Civic

R. Ashwin

  • Hometown: Chennai
  • Likes: Home food, Tamil movies
  • Top car: Honda City

Not contracted

Piyush Chawla

  • Hometown: Aligarh
  • Likes: Sunglasses. Often travels with 15 pairs.

Munaf Patel

  • Village: Ikhar, Gujarat
  • Likes: Chilling with his village pals, home food
  • Top car: Indica

Yusuf Pathan

  • Hometown: Baroda, Gujarat
  • Likes: Wildlife, biriyani, mutton korma
  • Top car: Toyota Fortuner

By Rohit Mahajan in Mumbai and Delhi with inputs from Namrata Joshi

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