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THE HEROES AND VILLAINS OF THE WORLD CUP

Mathew John Mathew John
04 Dec 2023

The far-right is running away with the world, having most recently won elections in Argentina and The Netherlands. Even more ominous, Trump leads Biden in the polls and Netanyahu is on the loose. And at home, we can feel the chill in our bones. To cope with the miserable and dangerously unjust world that is our lot today, my poet friend laconically suggested levity as a salve for the troubled spirit. Otherwise, we would go crazy!

When all else fails, dark humour or its more descriptive equivalent – gallows humour, is seen as a force that can pierce through the fog of propaganda and censorship of authoritarian power structures. The Egyptian comedian, Bassem Youssef’s recent takedown of the smug British broadcaster, Piers Morgan, stands out for converting the popgun of satire into a bazooka that exposes the hypocrisy of Western governments in ratifying the genocidal conduct of Israel. To Morgan’s observation that civilians in Gaza have been providing cover for Hamas, Bassem’s riposte could not have been more lethal: “I keep trying to kill my wife, but she uses our kids as human shields.” 

But let’s not overstate the power of political comedy. Much in the way that Auden lamented the inconsequential impact of poetry on the material world – “For poetry makes nothing happen; it survives in the valley of its making where executives would never want to tamper…” - so also satire and comedy have a less than minimal influence on real life happenings.

Rather than humour, I have been trying to cope with the cold frost of fear around us in an even more quixotic manner – by drawing analogies from history in the naive hope that “this too shall pass”. For instance, I maintain that the UPA government was like the guileless Weimar Republic, that our current social milieu is akin to Germany in the 1930s, our middle class and corporates complicit with the autocracy much like in Germany of that time, and so on. The straw that one clutches on to is that Hitler was ultimately vanquished.

Which brings me to the purpose of this preamble. Like the rest of the country, I prayed that our wonderful cricketing heroes would be crowned world champions. This team – a delectable melange of castes and creeds - has demonstrated, to quote Madur Patherya, “the capacity to be good, to do good and be seen as good”, displaying consummate cricketing skills and an amazing bond of camaraderie and brotherhood, where all are equal and treated with affectionate regard.

When news came through that the PM would be present for the final at the erstwhile Sardar Patel Stadium, now unblushingly renamed Narendra Modi Stadium, I became even more desperate for an Indian victory. The reason? Reflexively, this conversion of a sporting contest into a narcissistic showpiece event evoked a historical parallel with the 1936 Berlin Olympics that Adolf Hitler hoped would irrefutably prove Aryan superiority. But then a black man, Jesse Owens, wrecked the Fuhrer’s racist hypothesis by winning four gold medals, the most dramatic of which was his winning leap in the long jump.

Owens had fouled his first two attempts in the long jump qualifier and waited dejectedly for his final jump, fearing the worst. At this pivotal moment, the German long jumper, Luz Long, went up and advised him to change his take-off mark to a few inches before the foul line which would ensure a clean last jump. Owens did just that and qualified for the finals where he beat Long who won silver. Far from being disappointed, Long was the first to congratulate Owens and then they walked around the stadium arm-in-arm, an iconic gesture of sportsmanship and universal brotherhood that thumbed a nose at racists across the world. As Owens stated later, “Hitler went crazy, watching us embrace.” Reportedly, the outraged Fuhrer stormed out of the stadium.

Likewise, in the lead-up to the final, I fantasized that our wonderful cricketers - who epitomise the pristine idea of a secular India that is currently under brutal assault – would win the World Cup on top of a fast-bowling blitz by Bumrah, Shami and Siraj and capped by a Kohli-Rohit batting masterclass. To win the biggest prize in cricket on the back of the heroics of a team typifying the country’s rich diversity and inclusiveness would have been the most resounding slap on the face of the Hindutva credo of “one nation, one leader, one language, one religion”.   

That fairytale ending did not happen and broke our hearts. But what transpired on the heart-wrenching night of 19th November was an utter disaster for the Hindutva brigade. From the start, India’s World Cup campaign was not panning out the way the minority baiting Bhakts would have wanted. The poor blighters had to willy-nilly deal with bipolar feelings as match after match was being won by three speedsters with “suspect” minority identities and a Virat Hindu who had come out in support of his beleaguered Muslim teammate and lashed out at the communal bigots in our midst.

But then this regime that has specialized in stealing others’ thunder (Aadhar, MNREGA, Food Security Act, Indira Awaas Yojana to name a few), would certainly not let go such a godsent opportunity to hog the spotlight on cricket’s biggest stage. That’s been the ordained script in recent years, as the real achievers are thrust aside, and every success appropriated by our Vishwaguru. 

It mattered little to our Janus-faced cult leader that he was seeking to capitalise on the success of even those whom he and his groupies have socially stigmatised as “the other”, though on the cricket field, he would be at pains to identify them by their clothes! (A contextual reference to the PM’s communal dog whistle insinuating that those violently protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act could be recognised by their clothes). The grapevine was awash with reports of elaborate arrangements for an over-the-top celebration of a forgone Indian victory. The 9-hawk acrobatic display in sync with “music paying tribute to the New India” was but a prelude to the jamboree post the inevitable triumph. There were reports that in poll-bound Rajasthan lakhs of posters of PM in the blue Team India jersey holding aloft the World Cup were kept in readiness to bombard the electorate. But Travis Head and Marnus Labuschagne put the kibosh on such flights of hubristic fancy!

A nation caught with its pants down cannot ignore the baleful influence of our native cricket experts in misleading a billion frenzied but uneducated cricket fans into believing that the World Cup was ours even before the final. The Sunil Gavaskars and Ravi Shastris who have milked the cash-rich BCCI by acting as its choir boys-cum-hatchet men for over two decades played to the gallery and forecast a certain victory for India despite knowing better. Former test cricketers snuck out of obscurity to pontificate on TV about how unbeatable our team was.

If nothing else, I know my cricket, and felt that our first match against Australia should have set the alarm bells ringing. A rusty Australia was bundled out for a meagre score of 199 but came back hard and captured 3 wickets for 2 runs. Then at 20 for 3 wickets, Marsh dropped a sitter from Kohli. From there on, a marvellous display of batsmanship by Kohli and Rahul ensured an emphatic victory for India. But if Marsh had taken that catch, the World Cup could well have taken an altogether different trajectory. And yet, every know-all TV anchor and cricket pundit predicted a convincing World Cup triumph for India. Our moment had come! Even the knowledgeable international commentators, perhaps with an eye on IPL and BCCI contracts, hopped on to the triumphalist bandwagon and forecast an Indian win. 

It has been rightly said that a man’s true character is revealed in a crisis. Bowed down by the weight of intemperate hype and expectation, our heroic team came a cropper in the final. But in defeat, they showed grace and dignity. In the post-match presentation, Rohit took it on the chin, offering no excuses and conceding the all-round superiority of the Aussies on the day. That made us even more proud of our team! 

But what does one make of the conduct of the Vishwaguru and the Ahmedabad crowd in defeat? No man is more despicable than he who lacks common courtesy and that’s a crime they committed on that fateful day. By that dereliction, they have left a stain of boorishness on the collective consciousness of a nation. While barely maintaining decorum during the post-match presentation, abruptly turning his back on a bemused Cummins after presenting the trophy, the Vishwaguru came into his own in the Indian dressing room. At a time when our devastated heroes were agonizing over the defeat, this man strides into their private space with TV crew in tow, to offer commiseration under strobe lights. Good Lord! By reducing it to a public spectacle, he was capitalising on their sorrow. Can there be anything more execrable?

Regarding the repugnant behaviour of the crowd who booed the umpires at the presentation ceremony, I leave the last word to my dear friend – a Hindu – who has been weaned on Lakhnavi adab and nafasat. He ruefully commented that it is too much to expect people who were complicit in the genocide of 2002 and have lionised its perpetrators, to behave in a civilised manner.

We were once a nicer people but have lost that sense of civility. In our sick world, kindliness and decency are viewed as weakness. The nation’s predicament is that Godse has elbowed out the Mahatma, whose precious legacy lies in ruins in the terraces of the Narendra Modi stadium. Not just in Ahmedabad where we informed the world that we are ugly losers, but everywhere boorishness reigns. Leaders are adored for their disrespectful conduct when dealing with political opponents. Our governing class has forgotten ordinary humanity. Our ubiquitous TV debates are a slugfest of vituperative insults, slander and falsification, where reason and refined sensibility don’t have a ghost of a chance. In the last few years, we have set up new records in brutishness, corruption and disregard of our fellow beings.  

We need changes all around, starting with the stinking rich but soul dead BCCI and its fossilized panel of commentator experts. Billy Bhai Bunter (thanks, Tunku Varadarajan) whose only contribution to the sport has been to change the colour of the Indian team’s practice T-shirt to saffron, must be booted out. The tired old guard and their cliché-ridden expertise must be retired. But hold on! Nothing good in any institution can happen without a change of guard in 2024. Will deliverance happen? To end on a hopeful note, I invoke the words of the greatest Indian, the Mahatma: “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they seem invincible. But in the end, they always fall. Always.”

(The writer is a former civil servant. The views are personal)

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