"but as soon as the question of prestige arises, as soon as you feel that you and some larger unit will be disgraced if you lose, the most savage combative instincts are aroused"More significantly for those of us who follow sport, Orwell observed :
"But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe — at any rate for short periods — that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue."In the debate about whether or not the 2003-04 tour of Pakistan was a good idea, Bhattacharya found himself siding with those who were in favor of tour. At the time, i had argued against the tour, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it was one of the very few tours scheduled April in Pakistan when it is extremely hot; the tour itinerary also included no first class games, three Tests in three weeks, and no off days - a most irregular and unduly taxing schedule. Rahul Dravid, in his recollection of the tour is supposed to have said that he stopped being aware of what day of the week it was - it was either a match day, a travel day, or a pre-match prep day. Secondly, because Cricket was being used by the Vajpayee Government as a pawn in international diplomacy, placing unfair burdens on the players, far above and beyond their calling, and much worse than that, as many suspected, as a pawn in national politics (the General Election was scheduled for April 20 that year (two days after the end of the tour). This speculation was fuelled by the fact that there were misgivings within the Government of the day about the adverse impact of an Indian defeat on their election prospects. At the time, this debate was cast in terms of the question - "should sport and politics be mixed". Of course, given Orwell's observation about nationalism, it is self-evident that they are mixed whether we like it or not.
As it happened, India won, and the BJP lost the election.
Simon Barnes, in this article about the concept of the "talisman" explains that the task of a talisman
"is to take the stuff of sport and turn it into fantasy. He must take the base metal of real life and alchemise it into a thing of beauty and wonder. He must rise from the mud of the playing surface, take wing and become the stuff of dreams."Barnes observes that Jonny Wilkinson, Wayne Rooney and Andrew Flintoff, have all suffered from this curse - of being placed on this pedestal, only to find that they cannot live up to it - due to injury, loss of form, and occasionally other more human failings.
If you think about it, we create these pedestals, and it is we who are responsible placing and replacing characters on them. Andrew Flintoff or Sachin Tendulkar or Brian Lara or Wasim Akram play the same game today that they played when they were anonymous youngsters participating in sport. For them, it is still a game of technique, of skill, of watching the ball, of letting their instincts rule. Thanks to us however, it is more than that - it is about the burden of our expectations, thanks to the fact that we place our prestige in their hands. This, in most instances is possibly unwittingly so, both for us and for them, to the extent that we have come to understand it as the natural state of being. Of course, some would argue that this is what creates the value of sport in the first place - the many millions which Tendulkar earns are not because a billion Indians are obsessively interested in his unorthodox grip and his impeccable judgement of length, but because they feel confident that they can confidently place their prestige in his hands. In this, Tendulkar's success only serves to increase the burden on him. One of my most favorite lines about Sachin Tendulkar comes from C P Surendran (old readers will know that i have used this quote before as well) -
‘‘Batsmen walk out into the middle alone. Not Tendulkar. Every time Tendulkar walks out to the crease, a whole nation, tatters and all, marches with him to the battle arena. A pauper people pleading for relief, remission from the life-long anxiety of being Indian, by joining in spirit with their visored savior.’’That is what a talisman is - apart from what Barnes suggests is his ability to lift his teammates and make them believe. In this however, i have misgivings, for the confidence which Tendulkar's presence in the Indian side may give his teammates, is surely different from the confidence that it gives to you and me. Besides, whether these teammates can lift themselves up to perform to the the best of their ability has to do substantially, if not entirely, with qualities inherent in these other players, than it has to do with Tendulkar. This is amply demonstrated by the fact that the same Tendulkar has played in (and led) some mediocre Indian sides, as well as some good ones. This elevation of Flintoff from stand out performer (in the 2005 Ashes) to talisman is something for which observers and commentators are solely to blame. The "fantasy" that Barnes refers to is created by his own ilk, and is about success, even though it may occasionally masquerade as one about skill, such as the nostalgia about Flintoff's famous over late one evening at Edgbaston in 2005. Flintoff himself has probably bowled as well, if not better, in tougher conditions than that, but this was the one celebrated over which contributed towards his "talismanization".
It is possible to assert here that the popularity (and therefore "success") of any sporting event depends not of the quality of sport produced, but on how many people may be interested in the victory that is possible. Thus, a contest against a mediocre Pakistan side is more popular (and more valuable) than a contest against a quality Sri Lankan side (it could be argued that the 2001 Indian Test tour of Sri Lanka produced a higher quality of Cricket than the 2003-04 Indian Test tour of Pakistan). What then do we watch when we watch sport? Are we actually watching what the players are doing? Do we try to read the contest? We celebrate the "passion" of Cricket fans in India - what is this "passion" all about? Does the value of a victory depend largely on the popularity and support that may exist for the opponents? We celebrate the fact that the average man in front of his television is likely to shout out instructions to say Rahul Dravid about batting - but do we realize the absurdity of this?
The franchise based model of Twenty20, it has been argued, is likely to create a "healthier" sporting environment in India - one devoid of the rampant nationalism evident in the following of India's Test and ODI side. But is the fact that an India player playing for a franchise from say Delhi, gets booed when he comes to play the Bombay based franchise at the Wankhede any different from say Andrew Symonds getting booed (and more) when he came to Bombay last October? Isn't the very success of Twenty20 based on the premise that new rivalries can and will be manufactured? The fact that the format is popular, is due to the fact that the length of the game (about 3 hours) is the perfect duration for these rivalries to be played out in an evenings entertainment. The actual Cricket that is played is irrelevant - Joginder Sharma and Glenn McGrath inhabit the same rarified atmosphere on the crude leveller that is the IPL.
Bhattacharya in his book balks at the "callous" Orwellian view of national sport. But is the grandiose notion that Sport is as vital as Life itself, anything more than just another slogan? I am distinctly uncomfortable with an interest in detail, in actually wanting to observe and watch what is actually happening on the field, and trying to understand it in terms of the rules and intricacies of the game (however erroneously one may do this) being cast as "liberal". The converse "non-liberal" notion seems to be that the market is the ultimate arbiter of the "success" of a sport - thus Twenty20 is a great sporting contest, simply because it attracts a bigger audience than say the Wednesday of a Test Match.
In my view, there is nothing "liberal" about the former notion, and nothing "non-liberal" about the latter. What it illustrates however, is a fundamental difference of interest in what it is that is actually been watched when one is in the presence of sport. Essays like these usually end on a note which irritates me no end, with the obvious observation that both points of view have (more or less equal) merit. In this instance, both the prestige and inherent critical content of a sport both obviously have value. Orwell's observation has been proved to be an accurate one time and again either due to the use of high profile sport as a vehicle of prestige or as a site of protest (the Beijing Olympics are a case in point). I would argue however, that a sport endures and thrives on account of interest in it for its own sake. It is therefore valuable to promote this interest. It is important to reflect from time to time on what we are actually watching when we "watch" sport.