One game, one team, wields the power to bring Indians together– from the luxurious interiors of fancy bungalows to the streets outside them, cricket unites us all. A child may not know the president’s name, but ‘Kohli’ is something he can recite like a parrot.
Cricket has had a very interesting history in India and was introduced by the British colonizers either out of loneliness, or a sudden desire to increase engagement between themselves and Indians. Later, we adopted cricket in our own way, and it proved to be the battleground where Indians could show resistance to British rule. As advocated by Ramchandra Guha, cricket represented the microcosm of the tensions and fissures going on in the society: earlier, colonizers would not let Indians play in the gymkhanas or fields for the sahibs, but later, as resistance towards British rule grew, different communities took up the sport and separate gymkhanas like Bombay Gymkhana, Parsi gymkhana, Hindu Gymkhana, and Muslim Gymkhana were formed. Even the category of ‘other’ was added to accommodate minorities. Thus, the divisions that existed in society were reflected in the field when players came to pitch. The caste hierarchies that existed in society could be seen in the treatment meted out to Baloo Palvankar, an excellent cricketer from a lower caste, who, despite his skills was never made captain of the team.
But cricket was also the ground where the barriers of society were overcome, and the oppressed classes could challenge the unfairness of the Raj, and that of the caste system. However, it would often play a counterproductive role and increase tension. For instance, the Bombay Quadrangular tournament, which was played between teams based on communal divisions, continued in various forms till 1946, after receiving severe criticisms for solidifying divisions between the Hindu and Muslim communities. Even though Gandhi and several national were against it, and the Hindu gymkhana even withdrew from the series for some time, they continued to receive public support and the Hindu team even rejoined later. In part, this contributed to the Hindu-Muslim divide as here too, the Muslim Gymkhana saw the inherent division and recognition for their separate identity. Later, there was also an anti-Pentangular ( the later name of the Quadrangular) protest in the country because of the communal sentiment it bred.
Even today, cricket works as a mirror for what is happening in the society– after the Pulwama attack on Februaty 14, India resorted to sidelining Pakistan economically and diplomatically by revoking its ‘Most Favoured Nation’ status, hiking excise duty on imports by 200 per cent, diverting water from eastern rivers, and is now questioning whether it should play the ODI World Cup with Pakistan. While cricketers like Sachin Tendulkar and Sunil Gavaskar support the idea of playing the game, others like Saurav Ganguly advocate for boycotting the game entirely.
Since something similar happened between the two countries in 2012 as well, the Board of Cricket Control of India (BCCI) has written to the ICC requesting that the latter ask its members to “severe ties with countries from which terror emanates”. And though the letter doesn’t point fingers at any particular country, one can easily make out at whom the letter is targeted. India’s other option is to drop out of the World Cup, but unless the government directs the BCCI to do so, the latter is unlikely to bear the brunt of the blame. Whether India will boycott the match against Pakistan or the World Cup itself, the situation will be revealed closer to the day of the tournament. The two countries are scheduled to meet on 16 June at the World Cup in England.
The matter is still on the waiting table, but concerned authorities and citizens of India should realize that cricket is a part of our life, it has become part of our national identity, and whatever happens on the field reflects what happens in society and vice-versa. Not everything can be taken in a sportsman’s spirit, and things like the sacrifice of the soldiers, and the nation, need to be valued above anything.
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