Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the much-feted captain of the victorious T20 World Cup team brought India's commercial capital to a standstill on September 26. The entire city was in a massive gridlock. Not because of the annual ganpati visarjan, not because a political party called a bandh, not because of rains, but because a cricket team came home victorious. And we are told, that no one really minded.
Nobody denies this young Indian team that won the T20 World Cub at Johannesburg their right to enjoy the adulation of cricket lovers in India. But was such a hysterical welcome and the media overkill justified? Is it really necessary for us to raise our sportsmen to demi-god status and then to trash them if they fail to live up to our unreal expectations?
What was disturbing was not just the blanket coverage given by the media but also some of the commentary. One English news channel, that gave the most extensive coverage compared to other English language channels, could not find enough adjectives to describe what it was telecasting. It called it a day that made history and then went on to compare September 26, 2007 to Independence Day, August 15, 1947! It was day that marked 'independence from loss', the anchor exclaimed. God help us if we lose any of the forthcoming matches. Will it mean we are enslaved again?
The exaggerated comparisons apart, what was even more disturbing was the attempt of one of the anchors to suggest that the victory was sweeter because India had beaten its 'arch-rival' Pakistan. Despite the co-anchor's attempts to divert this particular anchor from pursuing this angle, she persisted. She kept asking reporters on the spot to ask people whether they felt even happier that this victory was over Pakistan. Fortunately, technical hitches, deliberate or otherwise, stopped her from getting responses and finally the subject was dropped.
Of course, India and Pakistan are rivals on the cricket field. Of course, an India Pakistan match is always the most exciting. But what stood out at both the earlier match between the two sides and the final was the absence of hostility. There was no sledging of the kind one witnessed in the matches between India and England or India and Australia. Both sides played well and played in a positive frame of mind. Why then should a mainstream media channel insist on harping on the rivalry between two countries that are making tentative attempts at peace?
Illustrating the mindset that still prevails, in the general public but also in some members of the media, is this text message that was sent from a very senior journalist in a Mumbai English language newspaper to a well-known Muslim woman activist who works with Muslim women in Mumbai:
Hind ki takat dikha denge,
Ae Pak, humse punga na lena
Varna, JOHANNESBURG main kya,
LAHORE main TIRANGAA lehra denge.
(We will teach Pakistan humility,
We will show India's strength,
Hey Pakistan, don't mess with us,
Otherwise, not just in Johannesburg, but also in
Lahore we will fly the Indian flag.
Long live India)
On receiving it she was not just shocked but dismayed and deeply hurt. Why should Indian Muslims still have to explain that they are Indian when it comes to cricket? Why are they put through the 'cricket test' repeatedly, she asked? And how can responsible media persons perpetuate this kind of negative and regressive attitude? There are many text messages doing the rounds since India's victory in Johannesburg but this is perhaps the most regressive. It reminds us again that the jingoism that is attached to sport, all sport but most particularly cricket, keeps Indians rooted to a past even as the world, and in fact sportsmen, have moved on.
In the long term, this kind of attitude can do no good for it does not encourage what is most important about sport-the sporting spirit, where winning or losing doesn't count as much as playing the game and playing it well. The Indian team demonstrated above all their ability to enjoy the game and play it with a positive attitude.
Chak de India, the film whose theme song has virtually become a sport anthem, was primarily about teamwork and about hockey. Patriotism was a secondary theme. Yet it is the latter that has been adopted while the former has been overshadowed. Team India can only continue to play well and win if it plays as a team, not as a collection of stars. That's the real lesson from Johannesburg.