Dear God: Let India lose a few more matches…

KRISHNA PRASAD writes: Call me what you want—a traitor, an anti-national, or a naive idiot—but I have no problems with India’s defeat to Bangladesh on Saturday.

You chose ‘naive idiot’? No problem.

In fact, now that I have your attention, let me also say this: I have no problems whatsoever with India losing not just this match but any of the other matches they may lose in this World Cup.

Or any match in any tournament, anywhere, any time.

Before I tell you why, you might like to hear a nice story. It involves Lance Klusener, not from this World Cup, or from the previous one, but the one before that in England.

After a ridiculous run-out with Allan Donald spelt finis to South Africa’s World Cup campaign in the second semi-final in Edgbaston against Australia, everybody—media, players, fans—went for Klusener with a relish that has now become familiar.

What did you do, ‘Zulu’? Didn’t you talk to Alan? We needed only one run to win. There were still three balls to go. Where was the hurry? How does it feel to drown an entire nation’s hopes and dreams like this?

Et cetera.

Klusener, later adjudged the tournament’s Most Valued Player (MVP), was a farmer from Natal. His deadpan reply is something which only a farmer could have uttered: “So what? No one died.”

“So what? No one died.”

That is the “crawler” I wish the TV channels would run at the bottom of our TV screens after two teenaged boys guided Banglaesh home. And that is the sentiment I wish newspapers had expressed on Sunday morning.

Instead, to see an entire nation beating its breasts (Call back the team-Sona on CNN-IBN), to see the faux ferocity of ex-players on TV (Zimmedaar kaun?—Aaj Tak), to see headlines like “Disaster Strikes India” (Deccan Herald), to see “heartbroken cricket fans” in Kanpur burning Mahendra Singh Dhoni‘s effigy, you wonder, who are these idiots?

I am not suggesting, even for a moment, that it is the taking part which matters, not the winning. Hell, no. We should win, no question about that. But is it unreasonable or unpatriotic to say that we should also deserve to win to start with?

Unfortunately, in all the din of the manufactured excitement and fabricated expectations, amid all the yagnas and poojas for the team’s victory, we seem to have ignored one very important aspect. Which is that two teams play cricket. Usually only one team wins, and usually it is the better one.

Yesterday we were not.

But the corporates, with no greater aim than to sell more motorcycles, more mobile phones, more tyres, more televisions, more ‘chyawanprash’, more biscuits, and more cola have hammered a very subversive idea into our gullible skulls.

That only India is there to win, and that the other 17 teams are there only to help them do that.

When that doesn’t happen, as it didn’t on Saturday and as it doubtless won’t again in the future, the neo-literates of cricket, who don’t know which side of a bat to hold, act as if the end of the world is nigh.

Relax, guys. This is cricket. And this is the essence of sport. If you haven’t caught it, you should be watching WWF.

You’ve probably heard all the cliches. But it doesn’t hurt to hear them again. This is a game of glorious uncertainties. It isn’t over till the last ball has been bowled. And, yes, cricket is a funny game, but it is such a funny game that only one team is left laughing in the end.

# Simply because the newspapers and magazines, tell us through the mouths of our ex-players—who will say anything for a few thousand rupees—that we have best batting line-up in the world, it doesn’t make our batting line-up the best batting line-up in the world, no matter how many times they say it.

# Simply because Pepsi dresses up the players as tigers on a railway platform and lets them loose on a bunch of boys who have deprived them—good heavens!—of a bottle of cola, it doesn’t mean the real tigers (Bangladesh in this case) are going to tuck their tails between their legs and run away.

# Simply because our corporate giants, who have perfected the art of stabbing the nation by not paying their taxes, suddenly develop a conscience about the country and exhort the team with corny crap like ‘Come on India dikha do’ or ‘Ladega tho jeethega‘, it is not going to make India win.

# Simply because Priyanka Chopra pirouttes on stage as the West Indies team watches, or Shah Rukh Khan or Amitabh Bachchan wish the team good luck, it doesn’t mean everybody will make way for our boys in blue.

# Simply because our players ride motorcycles which are titled victor and pride and passion and ambition, it does not mean they will be automatically imbued with those qualities.

# Simply because we sent goodluck messages on the web sites of television channels or signed a giant bat or ball, simply because we send some silly SMS messages to TV channels to “Cheer for India”, it is not going to greatly improve the team’s performance.

Victory requires all this, certainly, but the only victory this will achieve is on the balance sheet of the corporates and the BCCI—not of the Indian team. The only team which has won so far is the one that comprises our TV channels who pumped in millions of dollars, the companies which spent crores in advertising their products, the media, and the players who signed up endorsements.

But victory on the field, now, that is a totally different thing. It requires the 3Ds — discipline, determination and dedication — and it requires the 3Ts — tactics, technique and temperament. Did you see it in the ‘Boys in Blue’ on Saturday night? Your answer will tell you how foolish we have been about this World Cup thing.

Hype is a very funny commodity; in fact it is funnier than cricket. In cricket, you can actually come back from behind, as the Indian team will one of these days, maybe as early as Monday when it takes on Bermuda. But hype is different. It is like toothpaste. Once you have pulled it out of the tube, you cannot put it back in.

Indeed, as you look at the expectations and the manner in which they have come crashing down, the one product you wish the Indian team was really endorsing are antacids. There has been such hype about this team that anybody who seriously loves this game and possibly even loves some members of this team should be suffering from severe indigestion by now.

But we shouldn’t hold the corporates responsible for this state of affairs. They are here in the business of selling and they will use any method that will enable them to sell more of what they make. The fault lies with us, in that we can so easily be sold so many lemons so often by the BCCI, the corporates, the media, and every other broker in between.

For more than two years now, we have been told that everything the team was doing was being done with the World Cup in mind. Teams were chosen with the World Cup in mind. The experimentation was done with the World Cup in mind. And dozens of one-dayers were played against West Indies, South Africa and Sri Lanka with the World Cup in mind.

And this is what we have to show for it?

Before the team left for the Caribbean, everybody was agreed that this was the best team that could have been chosen. Everybody was agreed that the infirmities of the recent past were behind us and that we were on a winning streak with a good chance of bringing home the Cup.

The hype-meisters—and that includes the astrologists, tarot cart readers and assorted cads television is so good at rustling up—are so adept at the art of spin, that before the Bermuda match tomorrow, we will be told that the horrors of the Bangladesh match are behind us.

And you know what? They are right. That’s the only place reverses and ghosts and defeats and horrors can be. If he could put it ahead of him, Rahul Dravid would be Nostradamus—and even the TV wallahs will concede he isn’t after he opted to bat first.

It is unkind to kick a team that is so down and out. But imagine the plight of the perplexed cricket fan to get a fix on the current fury. He, the perplexed Indian cricket fan, buys a credit card and a colour television hoping it will fetch him a “pass”. He applies for ‘sick leave’ to skip work. His son buys biscuits. He bunks school and college. He goes to a fancy restaurant to catch the action. He SMSes breathlessly…

He, the perplexed Indian cricket fan, spends so much time, money, and energy for this?

Make no mistake. The Indian fan is no fool. He is well equipped to stomach defeat because he has faced greater defeats in life. It is the manner of the defeat that rankles him. He wonders, who are these dudes who mess up so often and so badly and still end up getting paid millions for it.

He sees Virender Sehwag‘s feet stuck in cement as he faces club-class bowlers. He sees our young turks like Robin Uthhappa and Dhoni not even putting up the semblance of a fight like say Saurav Ganguly. He sees our “fast” bowlers who can’t strike fear in an ant hurtling across the turf. He sees our famed batting order perishing on grounds where records are being set by the dozen.

He, the Indian fan, is flummoxed. That’s why he utters all that he utters.

Pathetic, spineless, shocking, overpaid, overrated.

It is easy to get all those feelings, of course—sport evokes very primal feelings. But now imagine this from the point of view of the only people who matter in this whole debate: the players.

Here are a bunch of young guys, most of whom have never gone to college properly, most of whom cannot speak cogently, and most of whom have no other skill other than the ability to smack a ball or make a cell phone call, being asked to shoulder the expectations of a whole nation.

Is it fair to place such a huge burden on their generally slender shoulders?

Let’s not even get into the semantic swamp of whether sport really is an expression of national identity. (If it does, Saturday’s defeat should have convincingly showed what we are made of.) No, I am talking of a different kind of burden that we have placed here on our players.

We are a nation of coasters, the type who cruise along. We show so little bravery when a girl is getting raped in our train compartment. We take so few risks that people spend their entire careers at one table in the same office. We show very little nerve when our neighbour of many decades is being burnt and killed. We show very little spine to stand up to corruption, skullduggery and injustice and all those things for which we have justly become so notorious. That doesn’t bother us.

Out on the green, though, we want our cricketers to show the bravery, spine and nerve we lack, to take the risks we ourselves wouldn’t in our dreams.

If you think that is bad, what is worse is our expectations of victory at all costs and at all times. We don’t expect our Prime Minister and his team to deliver 8 per cent growth each year without fail. We don’t expect our bureaucrats and police to end ineptitude, inefficiency and corruption at close of working hours this year. We don’t expect our courts to clear their backlogs next year. We don’t expect our government to provide food, clothing, medicine and housing to all by the time its tenure ends.

Somehow, we are willing to pardon them that. But, somehow, we aren’t that accommodating about our cricket team. Why?

It has been said that the reason our impossible movies are so popular is because they offer relief, howsoever fleeting, for three hours from the poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, corrupt, communal, casteist lives so many of us lead.

In investing so much hope and so many expectations in cricket, we are obviously using cricket as a release from the misery and horror of daily life. But there is a key difference between cricket and cinema.

Movies are planned and made to script. Cricket is not, cannot, and should not be made to script (although some tried and a few are still trying). Expectations are good, but they should be reasonable. Anger, disgust, disappointment are good, but again in reasonable limits.

Let’s do everything in moderation, including moderation.

By just expecting one country (ours) to win all the time, just because Mandira Bedi‘s minders can’t see any other, we are missing the woods for the trees, and beating about our tiny little bush.

The greatest, most talented, cricketing talent is on display in this World Cup showcase. If you cannot cheer for a Gibbs or Boucher, a Hussey or Gayle, a Styris or McCullum and always expect Sachin, Sehwag and Ganguly to score all the time, every time, you have missed a vital ingredient of sport.

If you cannot cheer for a West Indies, Sri Lanka, New Zealand, or South Africa, and always expect India, India and India to win, you have missed an even more vital ingredient.

To paraphrase C.L.R. James, “What do they know of cricket who only India and Sachin know?”

K.S. Ranjitsinhji, the very same man after whom the Ranji Trophy is named, wrote a small prayer. It is a prayer that should find place on the tables of everybody who loves and watches this game, the day after India was felled by the better team of the day.

‘O Powers that be, make me to observe and keep the rules of the game. Help me not to cry for the moon. Help me neither to offer nor to welcome cheap praise. Give me always to be a good comrade. Help me to win if I may win, but—and this O, Powers, especially—if I may not win, make me a good loser.”

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(Adapted from a piece by the author on rediff.com. The original version of this piece was written after a similar defeat in the first match of the 2003 World Cup. But there it was mighty Australia, yesterday it was tiny Bangladesh. In 2003, India bounced back to the finals. Will it in 2007?)

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