Was walking on the subway platform on my morning commute, when I stopped at this ad:
Do you see it? Cricket: As American as canoeing, digging dirt, and a hot dog. Happy July 4th!
There’s an interview-stream-of-consciousness thing from Rahul Dravid on Cricinfo, and every cricket fan should take five minutes and read it. There’s a lot of great insight in his comments about the game, but the main theme revolves around Dravid’s “intellectualism.” That is, Dravid claims he was not a natural player with loads of God-given talent; instead, he felt like he had to think and practice and reflect and think and train (and so on) to rise to the top. I particularly liked this passage about judging cricketing talent:
I think we judge talent wrong. What do we see as talent? I think I have made the same mistake myself. We judge talent by people’s ability to strike a cricket ball. The sweetness, the timing….We don’t actually look at the other side of talent. We say a talented player didn’t make it, but maybe he didn’t have the other talent. I hate to bring this example up: Vinod [Kambli] is one of the nicest guys I have met. When [Karnataka] played him in Rajkot, Vinod got 150 against Srinath, Anil. First ball Anil came on to bowl, he hit him straight into the concrete wall. At short leg, you said, “Man, amazing, how did he do that? I wish I could do that.” But maybe he didn’t have the talent in other areas. Of just understanding what it took to be an international cricketer, or dealing with the stress and pressure.
Earlier, I wrote that Dravid possesses a “nerdy chic,” which was a jokey sort way of saying that he comes across as an Everyman, a middle-class citizen worked his way to respectability. Growing up outside India as teenagers, my South Asian friends and I experienced moments of expat-disjuncture-post-colonial-angst-and-self-hatred when we realized our dads were not athletes or CEOs or “cool” (like our white friends’ dads seemed), but economists and engineers and mid-level business executives — the kind of folks who are mocked relentlessly in American sitcoms and movies (racist or otherwise). I don’t mean to knock any of these professions (God knows I wish I had the brains for any of those careers, or my own father’s), but Dravid was an Indian Dad Who Made It Big. He lacked the innate talent that oozes from Tendulkar and Sehwag, or the confidence of Yuvraj and Ganguly or the brashness of the latest lot, from Kohli to Rahane. And yet, for more than a decade, Dravid’s performances marked the backbone of Indian cricket.
Unfortunately, I have little doubt that, in the decades to come, few will remember Dravid as they do Tendulkar. That’s the way fame in sports works: it bends towards genius. I suppose if we do ever recall Dravid, it will be much the way we do our fathers: a deep, tender affection and recognition, always present but rarely expressed.
Via The Daily Dish, I see that Jason Alexander (known chiefly for Seinfeld, but for me, Dunston Checks In) apologized for calling cricket “gay” on Craig Ferguson’s late-night show. The apology is actually pretty deep and well-thought; I recommend all read it in full. But here’s the cricket part:
Years ago, I was hosting comics in a touring show in Australia and one of the bits I did was talking about their sports versus American sports. I joked about how their rugby football made our football pale by comparison because it is a brutal, no holds barred sport played virtually without any pads, helmets or protection. And then I followed that with a bit about how, by comparison, their other big sport of cricket seemed so delicate and I used the phrase, “ a bit gay”. Well, it was all a laugh in Australia where it was seen as a joke about how little I understood cricket, which in fact is a very, very athletic sport. The routine was received well but, seeing as their isn’t much talk of cricket here in America, it hasn’t come up in years.
Until last week. When Craig mentioned cricket I thought, “oh, goody – I have a comic bit about cricket I can do. Won’t that be entertaining?”. And so I did a chunk of this old routine and again referred to cricket as kind of “gay” – talking about the all white uniforms that never seem to get soiled; the break they take for tea time with a formal tea cart rolled onto the field, etc. I also did an exaggerated demonstration of the rather unusual way they pitch the cricket ball which is very dance-like with a rather unusual and exaggerated arm gesture. Again, the routine seemed to play very well and I thought it had been a good appearance.
Three quick observations: 1) When American media personalities talk about cricket, they usually portray it as a hopelessly complicated upper-class English pursuit. It’s easy to see how ‘effeminate’ and ‘upper-class’ are linked in Alexander’s mind, because gay culture in America is often portrayed that way (think Queer Eye for a Straight Guy, or Tim Gunn on Project Runway). A while back, Esquire magazine did a fashion spread on cricket that highlighted the sweaters and caps and whites. Alas, it’s rare to see cricket the way it is — an extraordinarily diverse game that is increasingly centered among the Indian (rich-middle-class-poor) masses.
2) It’s funny that Alexander mentions the all-whites and the tea-cart on the pitch (which doesn’t actually happen) because he’s referring here to traditions that mostly come from the Victorian era of the game. As this article argues, the Victorians didn’t view cricket as an exercise in joy and self-expression (as “Georgian laxity” allowed); they saw cricket as a way to assert order, morality and a particular notion of masculinity. In other words, the modern game of cricket, which takes many cues from the Victorian era, descends from a period that viewed homosexuality as deeply aberrant; indeed, in India, to say someone “chucks” — that is, to say someone does not bowl with the ‘exaggerated gesture’ Alexander finds so funny — is equivalent to calling him gay. (When I grew up in Bombay in the 1990s, a “chuck” was a deeply offensive word.)
3) I should note that I’ve heard more than a few Indian fans call bad bowlers “gay,” and it’s never been clear to me if they’re using the term the way schoolboys do (i.e., anything pejorative is gay), or if it’s something deeper. In India, there is an almost universal belief that Pakistani bowlers are better because they eat meat and are Muslim and are warriors and are masculine (etc. etc.); my grandmother once told me Javagal Srinath would improve his strike-rate if he dropped his veg diet. And I think we all spent most of the past two decades comparing India’s “masculinity” versus Australia’s: Why can’t we curse and sledge the way they do? Why can’t we bat against the short ball the way they do? Why do we lack the KILLER INSTINCT? It’s not a line of inquiry I’d spend much time on.
Final question: does anyone know any openly gay cricketers?
From one brother to the next. Following his younger sibling, Ian Chappell offers a more nuanced diagnosis of India’s recent failings:
There’s also the suspicion that honest appraisal is an accepted part of life in the Sri Lankan team, while the senior Indian players are untouchable and some of the younger brigade have succumbed to sloppy habits. There could be another underlying cause: the Sri Lankans are still owed some back pay, while in many cases the Indian players have become extraordinarily rich overnight via hefty IPL contracts. There has long been a theory that hungry sportsmen are the most competitive.
Whatever the reasons for the differences between the two sides, there’s no doubt Sri Lanka have an egalitarian team culture, while India’s is more conducive to developing bad habits.
I don’t know about the ‘hungry sportsmen’ hypothesis. On the one hand, if you strike it rich early in your career, you have an easier time disregarding advice and ‘good habits.’ On the other, money is a powerful incentive and draws greater (and more) talent to cricket. [And perhaps this is naive to say, but inclusion in any national cricket squad is about more than money -- it's a stamp that validates hours and days and years of practice, risk-taking and ambition. It's proof of quality.]
But Chappell’s other argument — about India’s lack of an “egalitarian” culture — is now a firm part of the consensus. The idea is that India’s team doesn’t include 11 members striving towards a unified goal, but a collection of superstars who do what they want and have a supporting crew. To some extent, it’s unfair to say this is an Indian failing — any team with established stars will have a hard time accommodating them. But India is famous for its obsession with rank and status; recall Louis Dumont’s homo hierarchicus hypothesis. And think about the fraught politics: if Sachin Tendulkar isn’t performing or playing according to your strategy, do you want to be the person to tell him to shove off? How much room do you have for ‘honest appraisal’ when the slightest criticism could unleash riots?
Other than an aggressive selection policy that consistently rewards success and punishes failure, I don’t know how to change this. There’s some hope that after such a great generation of batsmen, those to follow will not enjoy as loyal and fervent a following as Tendulkar and Co. But I suppose this is the price we pay for superstars — they are great, awesome and talented, and at the end of the day, they get what they want for their wares.
I’m generally not a fan of cultural determinism, which is why I don’t think much of Greg Chappell’s latest evaluation of the Indian team. Remember the days when economists dismissed the economic potential of Asia because of Confucian and Buddhist asceticism? Remember the ‘Hindu’ rate of growth? Or the many claims that Arabs, because of their tribal and ‘primitive’ ways, could not yearn for democracy?
The culture argument is also politically charged. A white Australian accusing the Indian team of lacking leadership because of the country’s culture — well, it’s designed for an incident at the United Nations. The problem is that Chappell can’t explain variances or anomalies — he says Indians can’t handle leadership because the country shoots down anyone willing to take responsibility; he then turns around and says he has nothing but respect for M. S. Dhoni. Ergo, Dhoni isn’t Indian? He also can’t explain the relatively good run that India had until the England tour. Why did this deficient ‘culture’ kick in then, and not before?
Still, it’s important not to completely dimiss culture as a source for inquiry and analysis. Poverty researchers in America now kick themselves for ignoring the ‘culture of poverty‘ thesis after the 1960s, as they then ceded ground to conservative critiques of minority culture that lacked nuance and rigor. But I’m not even sure how to begin to analyze a team like India’s, with its motley collection of religion, regions, and languages. I suppose there’s also a larger question of organizational culture — a particular set of rules and customs inherent to a team structure independent of any external cultural origins.
But I wonder what it was like to be coached by Chappell. Did he secretly nurse every Orientalist stereotype of Indians — these effeminate, lazy, cheating, cunning boys who need strong discipline and education to become adults?
I discussed this problem on Twitter already, but I wanted to flesh out my thoughts a bit more. Yesterday, during the first day of the Test between Aus. and N.Z., Mark Nicholas said a shot by Usman Khawaja was almost “Asian looking.” Cricinfo immediately ridiculed the comment as insensitive, as did some of my Twitter friends — but the issue is a little more delicate.
Here’s why it makes us cringe: 1) Any mention of racial essentialism is not cool. Saying a practice is inherent to a race/culture takes you to tricky areas (“You are Indian, therefore you must like X.”). 2) Khawaja is Asian (of Pakistani descent, specifically), but he plays for Australia. To say he is an ‘Asian’ batsman implies he’s not fully Australian; he’s a foreigner in our midst. (I’ve addressed Khawaja’s heritage in another post.)
A related example: A few years ago, I went with my family on vacation to South Africa. At one stop, my father met a South African shopkeeper of Indian descent; naturally (because all Indians rejoice inside when they see a member of the diaspora), my father asked him where he was from. My brother later berated him for doing so; it’s probable that this particular South African had lived in the country for generations; to ask where he was from implies he wasn’t from South Africa. (Similarly, I have friends of Indian descent here in America who absolutely hate answering the “where are you really from” question because white people never have to answer it, and it sort of emphasizes their difference and exclusion. “Oh, you’re not really American; you’re a foreigner.”)
OK. But here’s why it’s a difficult issue: 1) To call a batsman ‘Asian’ in cricket means they have deft wrists. It’s as style of play that apparently was once associated with Asian players (Ranji, I’m told, in particular). It’s sort of why we call left-handed leg-spinners Chinamen. In other words, it’s nothing about a person’s culture or heritage; it’s simply cricketing shorthand. (Dissent: But when was the last time you heard a white batsman called ‘Asian’? Surely there are wristy players outside the subcontinent, right? And isn’t ‘cricket shorthand’ derivative of colonial/racist discourse? I mean, come on — Chinaman?)
2) Then again, we know that the diversity of cricket (and how it is played) is its chief attraction. Pitches are different around the world, as are sporting cultures; this leads to different types of players and techniques. How can we talk about this diversity without referring to different cultures? (Dissent: But is it true that Asians are now more “wristy” than other batsmen? And what exactly is the “West Indian style” of cricket? If you find yourself using words like exuberant and Calypso — well, that’s taking us back to colonialist discourse, right?)
Perhaps Nicholas should have just named famous players who did in fact play with their wrists. “Khawaja almost looked like X there.” I don’t know — am I just indulging the worst kind of political correctness here?
Zaheer Khan doesn’t think Indians can bowl fast ‘naturally’:
“It’s not a natural thing,” Zaheer told Times of India. “Indian bodies are not designed to bowl fast but that said, it’s not very different from bowling outside India. Basically you have to spend a lot of time understanding yourself, your art, and then find out what works for you and what doesn’t. It also involves a lot of hard work.”
If I were charitable, I would interpret Khan as saying that fast bowling itself isn’t natural; it’s a fine art that can only be perfected through practice. Anyone who has seen a slow-mo replay of a fast bowler’s action understands the enormous strains involved. See, also, “Broken backs, fast bowlers.”
But if I were simply reading the text, I’d conclude Khan thinks there’s something wrong with the Indian gene pool. The problem with this argument is that it’s based — or related to — a post-colonial pathology: many South Asians (particularly right-wing Hindus) believe that Indian men aren’t masculine enough, and the British took advantage of their femininity.
On the other hand, there may be reasonable nature-nurture arguments to explain India’s lack of fast bowling talent. For example, experts looking at Kenyan runners — a group that routinely dominates international competitions — have argued that high elevation, a culture that relies on running and walking, and possible genetic advantages all conspired to produce lethal running machines. Is there any reason to believe Indians are susceptible to cultural/genetic factors, or maybe other incentives, that drives talent away from bowling fast? Ideas anyone?
I want to sum up the debate on the regulation of cricket in India (as my last post, apparently controversial, provoked all sorts of opinions). There are, largely, two broad themes at work here: first, the legal and technical problem of controlling the BCCI, and second, the cultural and moral and political importance of cricket and Indian nationalism.
For more on the first problem, see my previous post. There’s a question about whether or not the BCCI is a private entity — and therefore exempt from public transparency laws — or a public entity that controls a major public interest with state patronage. Personally, I’m of the latter view. Even here in small-government America, the state does periodically involve itself in the workings of its sports leagues; most notably in recent years over the brouhaha about steroid use in baseball.
But let’s talk more about the second problem: it’s clear that cricket is modernizing, and one of the major drivers behind this trend has been the Indian middle class. The world is waiting for two markets — India and China — to take over the role of the American consumer and keep the global capitalist machine humming. And we, as cricket fans, are getting our first glimpse of the power of the Indian side (rise of T20 format; the IPL; the maddening schedule; the fights over UDRS).
But there are also some tough questions here, both for the game and Indian society at large: will the Indian middle class act the same way as the European/American ones did during the Industrial Revolution? Rana Faroohar of The Daily Beast doesn’t think so, observing an odd mix of “pride and insecurity” in the newcomers:
The emerging bourgeoisie is a patchwork of contradictions: clamorous but rarely confrontational politically, supporters of globalization yet highly nationalistic, proud of their nations’ upward mobility yet insecure and fearful they will fall back, fiercely individualistic but reliant on government subsidies, and often socially conservative. Many of the aspiring elite seem willing to let the powers that be—whether authoritarian governments or elected ones—call the shots as long as they deliver the spoils of growth.
Political observers more astute (and expert) than me are needed to explore the full range of pathologies (and abilities) of the Indian middle class. But I have noticed a worrying trend wherein on-field disputes — think Harbhajan-Symonds — are conflated with some conception of “national honor.” It was even said once that India’s not being able to host IPL-II was a cause for national shame.
Andrew Miller of Cricinfo has recently suggested that ridicule is the best way to prod Indians to act and change. Indeed, I think a major force driving the recent anit-corruption protests in the country has been the feeling that the Indian babu is not just breaking a moral code — that much can be forgiven — but also humiliating and embarrassing the country. But in international contexts, some Indians are too quick to defend their institutions and ways, so much so that it leads them to a blind defense of the BCCI and its overlords. (Related e.g., Sunil Gavaskar’s recent tantrum about Stuart Broad wearing a sponsor’s cap at a presentation ceremony and what it said about supposed English ‘double standards.’)
I worry that the “bad” features of the Indian middle class — the Hindu nationalism; the post-colonial inferiority/superiority complex; the insecurity; the brash consumerism — will win over the “good” features — the ingenuity; the drive; the audacity. And I fear this battle will spill over into cricket faster than we all realize.
I just listened to Kumar Sangakarra’s Lord’s Lecture, an hour-long address every cricket-loving fan should download. It’s a truly ambitious speech that seeks to cover the history of Sri Lanka’s cricket, especially from 1996 to present. While most of the reaction has focused on Sangakarra’s criticism of Sri Lanka Cricket, the governing board, he devotes (by my count) about 10 minutes to the current administration’s foibles.
Say what you want about Sangakarra, but he is a smart man. He spends most of his address couching his criticism in strongly nationalist terms, offering ode after ode to Sri Lanka’s special “identity” and the greatness of players like Sanath Jayasuriya (now a political bigwig indulging the very tactics Sangakarra deplores in his speech). He was careful enough to cover all his bases, and now that he’s likely to be recalled by the Sports Minister, he can point to other moments in his text for his defense.
But what a history! Listening to the speech, you get a sense of the difficulty of being an international player from a South Asian country, especially due to the enlarged role of politics in almost everything you do, from the petty to the fundamental. Imagine a player like Murali: an Indian Tamil in a war-torn country; a much-hated figure in the West, constantly challenged abroad, but also scrutinized at every level at home. Consider this team’s recent past as well — a tsunami; a terrorist attack (described in vivid detail by Sangakarra); and the brutal end of the civil war.
I do have some quick notes and questions: 1) Sangakarra speaks often of a Sri Lankan ‘way’ of playing cricket. It’s true that part of cricket’s charm is its diversity, and people in the West Indies used to play differently from those in, say, India. It’s an open question, however, if that diversity will survive the game’s modernization, driven by coaches with video data and disciplined physiotherapists. What are we losing here?
1A) A related, but more difficult, question is whether or not such talk — like all nationalisms — stems from a crude and essentialist description of self-image. Is there really a Sri Lankan way of playing cricket? Is there an Indian style? If I were to describe it, would I risk setting up particular categories that seek to exclude as much as include? I understand the impulse — we want to set up our identity after centuries of colonization, whose chief discourse involved an unrelenting attack on local cultures. But need we construct false identities in response?
2) Part of the attraction of Sangakarra’s speech is his discussion of the Sri Lankan dressing room. In the early 2000s, he suggests that the team was driven by hierarchies and a collection of individuals, some of who “crossed the line” by interfering with the board and selectors. He then goes on to discuss Sri Lanka’s failing club structure, and the huge discretion afforded to its Sports Minister, who can dismiss whole teams on a whim. I wish more players would say what he did. It’s a huge risk, but imagine someone of Dravid or Tendulkar or Laxman’s stature making similar noises in India. Or is that a risk too big to take, even for them?
Over at Clear Cricket, Raza Naqvi has posted a wonderful (if somewhat florid) piece on the solitude of watching cricket in the USA:
Watching cricket with others is an equally agonizing process involving S-video and HDMI cables, compatibility issues and TV resolutions—the seventeen inches of a laptop are not conducive to communal viewing[...]And so cricket, here in America, is not only watched in poor quality, it is watched alone.
Great stuff, and it has rightly received praise from many other bloggers. I particularly like the piece because it neatly falls into a genre of blogging I’ll call meta-cricket — these are posts that deal more with the experience of watching cricket, rather than the game itself. The difference lies between reading another match preview or game analysis (or even selection policy), and reading about commenatators, annoying cricket ads, and new technologies (or old — see Deep Backward Point’s post on Tape Delay Cricket).
One last thing about Naqvi’s piece: he presents watching cricket alone as an immigrant’s attempt to stand against all-encroaching modern America, with its ubiquitous media culture. That’s true, but I’ll go further and argue what I have in a previous post: watching cricket (and especially Test cricket) is also a protest against modernity, a stance against Kim Kardashian, VH1 shows, hyper-politics and corporate ladders (to use Naqvi’s examples). As I said before in a review of cricket in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse:
Cricket here comes across as a noisy invasion (“the sudden bark”), whereas I enjoy Test cricket most precisely because the long periods of time and frequent intervals of nothing-is-happening mean I can let the game fade into the background, so it becomes a soothing set of sounds (to use Woolf’s words).
Which raises a more difficult question: do you other immigrant-bloggers find now that it is sometimes easier and better and more enjoyable to watch cricket in the USA, or back home in South Asia? Because while I initially thrill to seeing cricket everywhere when I return to Bombay, I quickly sour when I read all the ink wasted on the sport in the papers and the time reserved on television and all the endorsements and the…that little protected space for cricket, so isolated in the USA, gets taken over by everyone else in India. And it’s not always fun.