Category Archives: Racial Boundaries

Jason Alexander’s Gay Cricket Joke

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?

Dealing With Ian Chappell’s Culture Argument

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.

Dealing With Greg Chappell’s Culture Argument

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?

Calling Usman Khawaja an ‘Asian’ Batsman

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?

What Does the BCCI and Cricket Mean to the Indian Middle Class?

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.

Watching Cricket In The USA

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.

A History Of Cricket’s “Twirlymen”

The Economist reviews a new book on the history of spin bowling. An interesting point to note:

Spin bowlers are the game’s revolutionaries. Even their mysterious lexicon—googlies, Chinamen, flippers, doosras—suggests constant innovation. When the googly was first unleashed at the end of the 19th century, batsmen huffed that it wasn’t in the spirit of the game because they couldn’t tell which way the ball was about to spin.

You see these protests about bowling methods from time to time. In recent history, we have seen controversies over the doosra and reverse-swing fast bowling, debates made all the more intractable and difficult by racial/post-colonial issues (i.e., West v. South Asia). That’s not to say opposition to these deliveries is prima facie racial or motivated by less-than-honorable motives. It just helps explain why we get so touchy when these issues arise.

The Harbhajan-Symonds Relationship

From Times of India, a couple of interesting quotes on the Harbhajan-Symonds relationship in the Mumbai Indians:

[Symonds]‘ manager Matt Fearon confirmed the truce. “That’s definitely the case. They’ve left everything in the past. The auction for the IPL was in January. I remember calling him and saying, well, you’re going to Mumbai – with Harbhajan. He said two words: ‘Aw, true?’

“That said it all. He was a bit speechless. It would be fair to say there was a bit of uncertainty about how it would play out. There was an unknown there but yes, they are getting on great. They are both competitive animals. When two people like that are on different teams, there can be some very real tension. But put them in the same team and it’s a different story,” Fearon said.

‘Aw, true?’ has to be the most understated expression of disappointment I’ve read yet. I can’t imagine Symonds has totally forgiven Harbhajan, given his tone when asked about the affair last year by Harsha Bhogle. At the same time, there are enough other factors — namely, the need for both sides to perform and make money — that they could agree to bury the hatchet for 3 weeks.

But I wonder if Symonds insisted on an apology, or at the very least, an admittance of guilt, or if he asked Tendulkar about it once more…

Fire In Babylon

Waited in line Thursday night to catch Fire In Babylon, a hugely compelling documentary of the West Indies cricket team (1975-1985). My quick review: this is an unbelievable piece of cricket folklore. Get the DVD now. My long review:

1. I’m young, so I missed this whole era. To be re-introduced to legends like Viv Richards was hugely gratifying. It’s not just that Richards was a good batsman; he also had, as he says, a certain amount of swagger — chewing gum while batting; staring at upstart bowlers; not wincing when hit by a fast ball. Few batsmen have that same presence now, even though batsmen rule the game now. (The best part of this movie is seeing batsmen squirm; few in the audience will realize just how far the scales have tipped in their favor since the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse ruled.)

2. The film itself does a good job of moving quickly (though the Kerry Packer episode could have been edited out, in my opinion). First, it sets up the political/cultural moment in the Caribbean circa 1960s/1970s, so as to explain just why the West Indies cricket team mattered so much. Then, it follows the team’s initial failure in Australia, to its never-ending victories. A good amount of political commentary as well.

2A. It could have been better with more cricket though. There’s a moment when the film slows to show Michael Holding bowling an angry over in England, and it’s electrifying. (It’s this over, against B. Close.) The producers/editors should have done more of this — though I understand why they felt wary, given that they were trying to get as big an audience as possible. (Seeing Malcom Marshall catch and bat with a broken arm — simply incredible.)

3. How brutal is cricket? I complain now about injuries to cricketers, and they are serious, but to watch what batsmen faced in those days…the audience in the cinema gasped several times, and with each one, you got the sense they had discovered a Big Lie — this cricket, it hasn’t and never has been for gentlemen! What separates this from rugby?

4. The movie’s central premise, though, is a difficult one for me. Basically, Clive Lloyd and the West Indians swear never again to fare as badly as they did while touring Australia in 1975, when Lilee/Thompson scared the form out of them. Lloyd’s answer — we can bowl just as fast as they can – is satisfying on one level (political equality; beating the masters at their own game), but also disappointing (imitation isn’t the best political protest). Now, there’s a place for this logic initially in the post-colonial moment — I just don’t think it’s useful 60/70 years on. In other words: India, please, please, don’t try to become Australia. Imagine a different trajectory! (See Gandhi/Tagore’s views on nationalism for more on this line of thought.)

5. The filmmakers made a smart, but risky, decision to feature only West Indians talking about West Indian cricket. You see almost no one else — no Ian Botham, no Tony Grieg — in the present day reflecting on that period. I like it. This is as much about history and the power of a region’s narrative as it is about what the world thinks.

6. I feel really, really sorry for Colin Croft.

7. Sunil Gavaskar comes off very badly. The next time you hear him commentating in his trademark condescending tone — oh, these batsmen, they don’t know how bad we had it! — remind him about India’s disastrous tour of the West Indies.

8. The central mystery remains, though: how did one region — mere dots on the globe, as one team member said — produce so many greats over such an extended period?

8A. It’s hard, by the end of the movie, to see these old West Indian men talk about their team. You see footage of them bowling, batting, protesting, training, and drinking beer in their dressing rooms…The best part about Fire in Babylon isn’t just that it’s a great historical tribute to these athletes; it’s also a two-hour exercise in nostalgia and lives and days gone by.

Fire In Babylon, New York City Screening

Via Peter Della Penna of DreamCricket (and a fellow N.J. resident), comes exciting news about Fire in Babylon, the documentary of West Indies cricket (long anticipated by Samir Chopra):

“Fire in Babylon” premiered at the London Film Festival in October. It also appeared at the Glasgow Film Festival in February and the Adelaide Film Festival in March. The first of four screenings at Tribeca will take place on Saturday April 23 at 8:30 p.m. Riley hopes that sports fans and non-sports fans in New York will view the film with equal satisfaction.

Timings and logistics available here. “It was like slaves whipping the asses of the masters.” Before India, before Pakistan and before Sri Lanka, there was the West Indies. See you all there! Trailer:

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