It should, therefore, come as no surprise that I have not read Rajdeep Sardesai's much-celebrated book on cricket. Yet, I am making his thoughts the centre-piece of my Opinion-column this week because I had the opportunity of listening to him on the subject matter of the book at the Khushwant Singh Literary Festival in Kasauli about a month ago and have been reflecting since then on the issues beyond cricket that he raised in the course of an absorbing conversation on stage with someone far more familiar with the game than I will ever be.
Rajdeep's running theme was that the world of Indian cricket both reflected and influenced the larger national ethos as we evolved from colonial feudalism to Nehruvian/Indravian socialism and finally to Liberalization, Privatization and Globalization (LPG). He is unabashed in his celebration of the present and his denigration of the "bad, old days".
Back in the 1930s, he said, when Indian cricket came to be recognized in its own right, it was assumed as normal that the team should be led - indeed, could only be led - by a suitably titled captain, say, the Jamsaheb of Nawanagar or the Maharajah of Patiala, but certainly not by a commoner. It was only because chieftains of blue blood dropped out for various reasons at the last moment that a scion of the street, CK Nayudu, became the captain of India's first test team to tour that holiest of the holies, England (then, and till very recently, always known as England until in post-Beatles Britain it became politically correct to switch to "Great Britain" or the "UK"). He added that if in independent India, perhaps the most celebrated of our cricket captains was indeed a Nawab - the Nawab of Pataudi - it was really only because of his genius at the game, not the colour of his bloodline, that "Tiger" became the most famous name till then in Indian cricket. Otherwise, said he, it was not until and after Independence, the dissolution of the princely states (as they were known) and the abolition (at least on paper) of zamindari that the rights of birth stopped being the necessary passport to the right to captaincy.
I was with him all the way till that point, except that, had I had the time, I would have asked him why he saw pre-war feudalism in cricket as peculiarly Indian. For, although I am no expert, I seem to remember from my childhood that in England a sharp distinction was maintained between "Gentlemen" and "Players", the former being cricketers with money of their own who would not deign to stain their talent with dross, while Players were those who indulged in so vulgar a practice as actually wanting to be paid for defending their wicket against wicked foreigners. Moreover, only a "Gentleman" could be captain. If my childhood memory does not deceive me, it was not till Len Hutton was made the English captain at just about the time I was entering secondary school in the very early '50s that a "Player" secured social and sporting entitlement to become the English captain.
Egalitarianism in English cricket came to Britain with the Labour government of Clement Attlee (1945-51) even as egalitarianism came to Indian cricket as an off-shoot of Nehru's "socialistic pattern of society". Else, we would still be lumbering along with dispossessed princelings as our cricket stars, even as the UK test teams would have remained burdened at the top with discredited peers of the realm.
Cricket, in fact, was the ultimate expression of the Empire's mission. It was the Gentlemen of the metropolis who "came out" to civilize the Players of the colonies. They brought with them cricket and its strict protocol and etiquette, so that "Not quite cricket, old boy" became the most devastating reproof on English gentleman could deliver to anyone who did not conform to the rituals of his class, languidly delivered through that haze of gin and tonic required by the reddening Englishman to keep tropical malaria at bay.
That India took to all this mumbo-jumbo with practised ease is hardly surprising since the Codes of Empire could be readily and smoothly introduced to a nation that had institutionalized caste as effectively as the "Mother Country" had institutionalized class.
So, aristocracy and cricket went together in both India and England - for who else could afford to take five days off without pay to play a game? Rajdeep is also impressed with the egalitarianism of contemporary Indian cricket that at least since Chandu Borde has thrown open the game at summit level to those not high born. But that happened in England too, when the Yorkshire bumpkin, Freddy Trueman, made it to the top in England despite his rough-hewn country manners. It was not cricket that made us more egalitarian. It was our nations growing more egalitarian that made our cricket more egalitarian.
And now, as Thomas Piketty has so convincingly shown, we are moving back to gross inequality that makes feudalism seem a picnic as economic growth takes precedence over social justice. Top-class cricketers treat their earnings from actually playing cricket as peanuts as LPG ensures they make humongously more money advertising products that, I strongly suspect, they rarely actually consume. I do not begrudge them their takings, but certainly decry the sheer inhumanity of a value-system that encourages 300 million middle-class Indians to celebrate their staggering success even as a billion of their fellow nationals eke it out at the bottom of the pit. That is the point at which I part ways from Rajdeep.
So also with cricket and religion. At Kasauli, Rajdeep drew attention to the communal distinctions maintained in pre-partition India between the Hindu Gymkhana and the Parsi Gymkhana and Muslim sporting clubs. But even a cursory glance at the community composition of Nayudu's and subsequent test teams shows that India's unity in diversity reasserted itself over divide and rule, as much in cricket as in national politics. I have two tales to tell in this regard. I don't know whether Rajdeep has pointed to the telling coincidence in the 80s when the Pakistan wicket-keeper was a Hindu, Anil Dalpat, while his counterpart Indian wicket-keeper was a Muslim, Syed Kirmani! My other and favourite story is of a cricket match in Sharjah where India was giving Pakistan a drubbing. The downhearted Pakistani stands were suddenly injected with new life when a Pakistani fan cried out:
"Allah ki badi shaan hai,
Azhar Mussalman hai!"
Rajdeep pointed out that well into Independence, cricket was dominated by the old composite Bombay state. Now, small towns are being given opportunity, as witness MS Dhoni's rise to international eminence from tiny Ranchi or, earlier, Kapil Dev's from some obscure hamlet of Haryana. But that is true of all walks of life: it is hardly breaking news that we have an outstanding captain from the mofussil when we have a PM from even lesser known Vadnagar (a one-horse town that, incidentally, did not have a railway platform from which to vend tea till the Prime Minister was twenty-three years of age!)
What does make for breaking news, however, is that contemporary Indian cricket has scaled such heights despite the shenanigans at the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and the Delhi District Cricket Association (DDCA). Rajdeep was not quite able to explain the nexus between dodgy, dreadful sports administration and excellence in cricket. That would have been the most rewarding unwritten chapter of his book.
At an early encounter with Rajdeep more than a quarter century ago, I asked whether he knew a Sardesai who had come along with someone called Wadekar from Bombay University to give the Delhi University team a whacking in my last year at college. He modestly replied that that was Dileep Sardesai, his father. This came to mind in Kasuali when Rajdeep dwelt at some length and much anguish at how meager was the monetary recompense in those ghastly socialist days for those who were giving the nation so much through their cricket, a pittance of just Rs 50 a day. I regret I did not reel in shock, as much of the audience did at this revelation. This was perhaps because, being not of Rajdeep's generation but his father's, I had started my career in the Indian Foreign Service at Rs 440 a month. Had someone in the early '60s offered me Rs 50 a day, I would have swooned with disbelief. A rupee then was not a rupee now. Rs 250 was equal to five months' pocket money for me through all my 3 years of college. And unfiltered information about cricketers' remuneration befogs rather than clarifies the economist's distinction between "nominal" and "real" prices.
If I go by the prices of my two favourite items on the menu in my college café, namely, mince cutlets and scrambled eggs, then priced at 30 naye paise per plate, when I went back recently to the college café, I found the menu unchanged but the prices up by nearly 100 times. I don't know if that spot survey applies to cricket but, if it does, Rs 50 in my late adolescence would be about Rs 5,000 a day today. Not bad, would be my comment.
(Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha.)
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