Just Not Cricket
So there we are, all tangled up together, the old barriers breaking, the new ones not yet established, a time of transition, always and inescapably turbulent. In the inevitable integration into a national community, one of the most urgent needs, sport, and particularly cricket, has played and will play a great role. There is no one in the West Indies who will not subscribe to the aphorism: what do they know of cricket who only cricket know? -- CLR James
One of the abiding moments of the recently concluded Cricket World Cup in South Africa occurred on the 15th of March, when Zimbabwe played its last match against Sri Lanka. Zimbabwe's 'twelfth man' was 26 year-old Henry Olonga, one of four black men in a fifteen-man side representing an overwhelmingly black nation. Olonga's presence in the team had been shadowed by controversy because shortly after his arrival in South Africa for the tournament, he had issued a joint statement with his (white) teammate Andy Flower announcing their decision to wear black armbands throughout the tournament to protest the "death of democracy" and "abuse of human rights" in "our beloved Zimbabwe". The decision had outraged the Mugabe government, but while Flower was let off with a reprimand, the reaction against Olonga was far more severe. His house in Zimbabwe was attacked by mobs, and the rumors were strong that upon return to Zimbabwe, he would be tried for treason, a capital offense.
In India, the cricket fever was cooking up a dangerously potent stew as well. When the Indian team lost to the vastly favored Australian side in a preliminary round, an angry crowd stoned the house of Mohammed Kaif, one of the Indian players. In Kolkata, the house of Saurav Ganguly, the Indian captain was similarly damaged, and in a display of deranged anger, a group of 'fans' organized an elaborate shraadh (funeral ceremony) for the entire Indian team. Of course, the same crowd organized frenzied pujas for good fortunes for the Indian team when it qualified for the final against the same Australian side, only to be similarly demolished. This time, sanity prevailed, and the Indian fans, mollified by the overall honorable showing of their team, welcomed the side back home.
Such a reception was not in store for the Pakistani side, which was reviled by a despondent fan-base after a less-than-stellar showing. Nine members of the Pakistani side were sacked immediately. However, the team could take small comfort in the fact that the reaction this time was less severe than in 1997, when, after a loss to India, a maulvi had explained their poor showing as God's punishment for electing a woman as their Prime Minister!
However, in all fairness, the World Cup was much more than a crass display of conservative nationalism. While it registered barely as a blimp on the news radar of the inwardly focused US media, it was a huge event, especially among the people of the subcontinent, with a viewership estimated at over a billion. And when lowly regarded Kenya reached the semifinal this year instead of England, or when the Pakistani captain Waqar Younis shook hands with his Indian counterpart Ganguly, it was hard not to imagine glorious possibilities of a future where cricket contributed to an incipient equality among nations, or a peaceful coexistence between the nuclear-lunatics.
Indeed as the quote by CLR James (from his 1963 masterpiece Beyond a Boundary) illustrates, there is much more to cricket than meets the decontextualized eye. While it is not a breathtakingly counter-intuitive realization that sport and nationalism form a particularly potent mixture, the situation of cricket is arguably unique. Introduced into the colonies by Britain, cricket has been appropriated and rendered indigenous by the black and brown hordes, reducing England to a minor player on the stage. It is the quintessential example of the deployment of mimicry as resistance. Moreover, it is the weapon of the weak within the national context as well. In the subcontinent, the commoners have snatched the game away from the Maharajas and the Nawabs. Just as it was stolen from the genteel British nobility of WG Grace by the black elegance of Frank Worrell, it was equally emphatically yanked from the feudal artistry of Ranjitsinghji by the working-class brilliance of CK Nayudu. The current President of the once British-dominated International Cricket Council is Jagmohan Dalmiya, an Indian who won the seat in an election where voting followed the color line. Sunil Gavaskar, the Indian cricketing legend, who was once barred from entering the Lord's cricket grounds in England by a steward, responded by rejecting a subsequent offer of life-membership of the prestigious Marlyebone Cricket Club, touted as a 'great honor'. The cricket field has often mirrored the resurgent emergence of people of color in a remarkable display of assertiveness following the inequities of the colonial encounter.
Among the erstwhile colonies too, cricket has been the ground for a variety of liberating encounters. When Bangladesh defeated Pakistan in the first ever match between the two nations in the World Cup of 1999, one recalled Faiz's poignant call to Bangladesh, Khoon ke dhabbe dhulenge kitni barsaaton ke baad (How many rainfalls will it take before the bloodstains are washed away), and wondered if yet another powerful rainstorm had not taken place. One of the first pleasures the children of Afghanistan indulged in after the Taliban departed was to recommence playing street cricket, which the mullahs had banned. And indeed, watching players like Alok Kapali (Hindu from Bangladesh), Yousuf Youhanna (Christian from Pakistan), Muttiah Muralitharan (Tamilian from Sri Lanka), Zaheer Khan (Muslim from India) or Ravindu Shah (Kenyan of Indian origin) offers us a fleeting hope of the survival of inter-ethnic coexistence on an equal footing in nations where anti-minority sentiment ominously acquires an institutional and mainstream flavor.
Yet, as the World Cup concluded with an Australian victory on the 23rd of March, my satisfaction at having vicariously experienced another round of good contests between the bat and the ball were tempered with thoughts of Henry Olonga. At the conclusion of the match against Sri Lanka, the Zimbabwe team found Olonga missing. It was only a day later that they found out that he had flown the coop. From a safe house, he issued a statement retiring from international cricket. In a flight that one of my friends found reminiscent of that of the Von Trapp family in The Sound of Music, he had escaped in climactic fashion. In his final message, Olonga declared, "I was never under the illusion that my stand would have no consequences, but I believe that one should have the courage of one's convictions in life and do all one can to uphold them. I believe that if I were to continue to play for Zimbabwe in the midst of the prevailing crisis, I would only be neglecting the voice of my conscience. I would be condoning the grotesque human rights violations that have been perpetrated against my fellow countrymen. To my fellow Zimbabweans: The Zimbabwe we dream of must merely remain in our hearts. We must be strong, stand united and strive to give our children the brighter day in which they belong."
Cricket will continue to enthrall those nations where it stands appropriated from the colonial project. In cities ranging from Kabul to Kandy, from Mumbai to Mombasa, from Dhaka to Durban, and from Peshawar to Port-of-Spain, it will remain a national pastime. But like the project of nationalism before it, cricket is not immune to appropriation by ultra-conservative and often violent elements, as this World Cup has confirmed again. Just as the victory of India over Pakistan this March was used as an excuse by Hindutva groups to wreak fresh violence on the terrorized Muslims of Gujarat, cricket matches will unfortunately function as valves to unleash the repressed energies of fascism from the pressure-cooker of the national project. To quote the "Black Plato" again:
The values of cricket, like much that is now in eclipse, will go into the foundations of new moral and educational structures. But that they can be legislated to what they used to be is a vain hope which can only sour on the tongue and blear the eye. The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk. And it cannot get much darker without becoming night impenetrable.