From being a game to perpetuate the English hegemonic order in the times of colonialism to a sport of anti-imperialistic symbolism in colonial societies, as in the Caribbean islands, and then to becoming a cultural phenomenon in South Asia, cricket has both reformed and reinvented itself. In India, earlier played only by the rajas and maharajas, it was imported gradually to the gullies. Not only was cricket a great democratic force, but it enjoyed a cult status. Until the 1970s, the ethics of the game—marked by gentlemanliness, subtlety and strategising—remained intact. The ever-changing formats of the game since then and stricter regulations accompanied by commercialisation have made a significant dent on the game.
The IPL spot-fixing scandal is symbolic of the structural malaises in cricket, which remained hidden in the commercial drive the game has been subjected to over the years. The eminent scholar of psychoanalysis and Indian society, Ashis Nandy, had predicted in his book The Tao of Cricket: On Games of Destiny and the Destiny of Games, first published in 1989,that “professionalisation” of cricket would lead to it being an entertainment industry more than a sport.
In this chat with Frontline he explained the uniqueness of the game, its history and why he does not see what is being played now as cricket and looks forward to the Indian Premier League matches for entertainment. Excerpts:
Why do you think cricket is unique unlike other sports? You have said in your book that cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English.
The uniqueness of cricket is that it is one game which depends very much on luck and how you handle luck or probability. It is a game of ambiguities. Cricket can never be predicted, can never be a clear-cut game, and however well you practise or train your team, a very important part of the game will always remain with your luck. You see, a batsman can get two chances but a fielder cannot. If you drop a catch, you just drop it. A bowler can go on toiling and experimenting with balls. A batsman cannot do that. Also, two teams are never fully on the ground at the same time unlike football or hockey or basketball. The two teams are not playing under the same conditions. Weather conditions matter. You can swing the ball only in a particular weather, putting one team at an advantage or a disadvantage. In cricket, as compared with other games, the role of probability is enormous. You fight not only your opponents but also against your own destiny.
And exactly for the same reason, to some extent, the ethics of cricket, unlike in other games, depends primarily on the players. This is also its uniqueness. Not on rules, not on umpires. All this is more recent. Even now there are no rules to stop the spinner from taking a run-up from the boundary. You can delay the match like that and deny the other team a win. You can delay the game by bowling at a slow over rate. People will boo you, your team will be fined, but no one can stop you from stretching the game until it is bad light. (In bad light, weather conditions change and can put one of the teams at a disadvantage.)
How has the increasing number of rules changed the game? Does it have any relation with the increased instances of cheating?
When Trevor Chappell bowled an underarm ball to deny New Zealand a victory, on the instructions of his elder brother and captain of the team, Greg Chappell, he was booed out of cricket. That was the last Test he played and Greg also lost his captaincy. In cricket, ethics depended primarily on individuals. It is expected that you will conform to that. The first ring of audience is not the people sitting in the stadium but the close-in fielders who constantly keep an eye on you. They know whether the batsman has nicked the ball or not. If he did not nick, and they still appealed against him, it was considered to be cheating. The umpire might declare the batsman out in this case but everyone would still know that one team had cheated. The same principle works for the batsmen also. He knows whether he nicked it or not. Many batsmen have walked out of the crease if they knew they were out.
There was self-regulation. But today it is changing. It is becoming a technology-oriented game, a different game. They are trying to make it like any other game. But in other games, if you put so much of time, money, and effort, they will give you better results.
In cricket, personality skills are very important. If you are the nervous kind, you will not do well in cricket. Cricket also allows you to overcome your physical weakness. Ranjit Singh [the Nawab of Jamnagar and a great cricketer after whom the Ranji Trophy is named] was very weak in physical constitution but he invented two shots—the leg glance and the late cut—which allowed him to play well without employing strength. Both these shots take advantage of the bowler’s strength. This is not possible in football where stamina, robustness and physical strength matter.
I have seen C.K. Nayudu playing when he was in his 50s. Believe me, nobody talked about his age. Everybody considered him a great cricketer. Cricket is a different kind of game. That is its uniqueness.
In my book I have given examples of two Pacific islands which have constant warfare. And then they signed a peace treaty on the condition that every year they would play one match of cricket. Every year, during the course of the game, some of the spectators would sing, dance and fight with each other to distract the opponents. But there was no war. Another rule was that the match must end in a draw. Only cricket could have served the purpose. It is an ambiguous game. You play for five days in a Test match and the match could still end in a draw. The sense of loss or victory is not as important in cricket as it is in some other sport. An American would never understand the game. I have said that it is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English. India always used to lose in the early 20th century, but we always came back home happily. It did not matter if we lost. Playing the game was important.
The most legendary captain of India remains the Nawab of Pataudi. But he hardly won like [M.S.] Dhoni or [Sourav] Ganguly. Still he was a hero. Cricket’s defeat is never fully a defeat. South Asians love the slow moving, all-day game. They have the energy to sit through a day. There is a lot of subtlety.
Hobbs, Jacobs, many times they were on the losing side. In contrast, Bradman, supposed to be the greatest, did not have much respect in his time. He was seen primarily as an accumulator, a professional cricketer, a businessman. He did not have the grace and the style of a ‘cricketer’.
Has the growing influence of nationalism killed the spirit of cricket?
Yes, the aim of cricket was always to transcend politics and boundaries. The person who took bodyline to Australia was [Douglas] Jardine. He was very partial to India. He was born in Bombay. Judged as arrogant in English circles, he was very courteous with Indian people. It was customary to first dance with the Governor’s wife in a ballroom after a match. But he chose an Indian woman to dance with. It was a real scandal. Many people do not know that when he was denied the captaincy after the bodyline series, the Indian cricket board thought of making him the captain of India. Cricket allows personalities to flourish. Your personality reveals itself. Your honesty, you integrity, your grace, and at the same time also how much you are not a gentleman, how you are not graceful.
How has the flow of money affected cricket?
Money in a poor country is always important. But the corruption in the game has more to do with the corporatisation of the game. The moment cricket became a professional industry such incidents were bound to happen. Now it has become a real business.
I have always said that in India in four sectors—films, real politics, spectator sports and crime—only skill matters, and not caste, creed or race. Look at Katrina Kaif. She did not know Hindi but she was taught Hindi to act in films. So many people have risen in politics. People who were sudras at one point have risen so much that people have forgotten that they were sudras ever. See the Jats of Haryana, the Patels of Gujarat, the Reddys of Andhra Pradesh, the Nairs of Kerala, the Marathas of Maharashtra—they were all sudras at one point. Cricket was a regal game played only by rajas and maharajas, but now everyone, across castes and creeds, plays cricket.
Cricket is like what psychologists call a projective test (personality judgment test). Cricket had become so nationalistic that it has trumped all other goals of cricket. From a democratising force, it has become a source of money laundering. Only profit matters in these four sectors. But in other forms of business, caste and creed matters as social relationships and linkages are different. You discriminate against people on the basis of caste and creed in all forms of business but not in these four sectors. That is why these sectors interest me.
Profit has become so important. If you are linked with bookies, and you are a good player, you won’t be thrown out of the system. [Mohammad] Azharuddin became an MP. The moral universe of players now and before is different. The clout of bureaucrats and businessmen in cricket administration has increased. But that clout does not want to improve the game, but energies are channelled only towards making the game more and more profitable. All sorts of rules and regulations in the past two decades have made it inflexible. Subtlety, the uniqueness of the game, has been lost in the process. People used to walk out of the crease if they thought they were out even when umpires had declared them not out. That spirit has been lost in the process of the hardening of rules and the introduction of more technology. A player does not feel ethically compelled not to cheat. Everything is being dictated by rules and they judge the game. And on top of it, the cricketing boards are full of politicians and businessmen.
How has the nature of cricket changed in present times?
The powerful clout of cricket is trying its best to make it like any other game at the cost of its uniqueness. It will lose its charm over time. Such scams, perhaps, are an outcome of such commercialisation of cricket. If it is commercialised, all sorts of black money will also come into play. Even when the game turned nationalistic in colonised societies as a natural instinct, nobody made a business out of it as much as we see now. Spot-fixing is a symptom of what competitions like the IPL stand for. It has cheerleaders, glamour. This is not cricket. You can lose a match for money. Greater commercialisation will lead to such things. It is a deliberate effort to corporatise the game as a part of the entertainment industry and not [see it] as a game. I do not look forward to a 20-20 match as a game but see it as entertainment. It is show business. A businessman’s perspective, commercial perspective, has grown, including in the attitude of the players.
In public life, there is a real decline in ethics. The English declared it their national game because of its ethics despite the fact that football was more popular. England had a different idea. Ethical stances helped it to project it as rulers of the world, but that does not take anything away from the ethical nature of cricket. Our cricketers for a long while were known for their gentlemanliness. There were always people who tried to cheat and it was thought of as degradation of cricket. But nobody believed that cricket should be managed by rules, fines and penalties. If the system of checks and balances are dictated by rules, then there will be no self-checks, which was the case earlier. The gentlemanliness of the game was important and people were discriminated against if they cheated. It changed in the 1970s and the 1980s. The aim of professional sports is to entertain. Cricket, I think, will grow not as a sport but as an entertainment industry. I had compared Bombay films and cricket in my book, which many people rejected. But it is being proven true now.