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March 14, 2000


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Born to lead

Ashwin Mahesh

Two wins, and it's a different story. The first one, against incredible odds, as anyone who sat through the first ten overs of the Kochi game will tell you. In the space of about 80 or so deliveries the South African openers mauled the Indian bowling, and there's no euphemistic alternative description of it. That the match was retrieved, first by attrition of the runaway batting, and then by India's aggressive response, was remarkable, and distinctly different from the past.

In hindsight, bowling Dravid was brilliant, but an unlikely event for future encounters; the way Cronje took him on in Bihar should have settled that. Predictably, the first essay's momentum garnered a convincing win the second time around, with the captain putting his personal stamp on a convincing victory.

Has Indian cricket turned the corner, then? It remains to be seen, but the early signs are encouraging. More importantly, victory is being attributed to specific qualities - aggressive captaincy being notable - that long evaded the helmsman of the side, whether it was Azhar or Sachin. Curiously, however, Sourav's Warriors are in fact Sachin's Losers, or for that matter, Azharuddin's Wanderers; team composition hasn't changed meaningfully, only the results have. We have the same woeful fielding for the most part, with a few outstanding exceptions, we're still throwing good wickets away just when the batsman are settled, and we're still short of frontline bowlers. Time will reveal whether the new India, reshaped only in attitude, has deep roots, or if current successes with the new skipper are merely an amusing coincidence.

The captaincy itself, however, tells a tale, one that is quite poignant now, and will remain so regardless of how well Ganguly does. Cricketing opinion has focused on Sourav's attitude, his positive and attacking style, and has pointed to this as the most likely reason he will be more successful than his predecessor(s). Maybe, but I think there's more to it, and at the threat of raising a lynch-mob, here goes.

Captaining the Indian team is very much like holding down any other leadership position in Indian public life; indeed, one might say that even belonging to the team is a lot like membership in any privileged institution in Indian society. The unspoken subtleties that rule other aspects of our culture rule cricket too; there is, in fact, no reason to think otherwise.

Who else, among past Indian captains, might we remember as a leader of flair and poise? Of which other Indian captain might we say, "he was a natural leader"? If your answer to the poser was Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, then you'll see where I'm going with this. Without underplaying the role of individual character and personality, and without discounting the force of one's talents on the game, it can still be stated with some validity that those whom society is conditioned to accept as leaders are likelier to achieve the kind of results we would like to see from our captains. In every society, and in every individual in that society, there are unseen benchmarks by which one is accepted as a leader, or rejected as being unqualified to lead.

This isn't the sort of racist argument that gave us colonialism or the current round of bloody-minded bureaucrats, although it admittedly runs dangerously close to that tight-rope. The argument here is not that we must view Ganguly's leadership in any sort of white-man's-burden view of the world; there is no measure by which his birth and upbringing in a privileged setting can be said to have "qualified" him for leadership. And if it did, before you flame me on that one, bear in mind that I didn't make up the society that has given us today; I am merely expressing my observations of it. The Scindias hold down three spots in Parliament and an otherwise silent Mysore Maharaja figures he'll switch to the new chambers of power in New Delhi; hardly the natural order of things in a democracy.

We tend to forget that behind the appearance of oneness with the public that team members have on television, they must nevertheless have been brought up in ways that reflect averages in Indian society. In some instances, it is easy to mention this even in public discourse, without causing a storm. For example, it is often observed that the average Indian cricketer is drawn from urban middle class backgrounds, and disproportionately from the upper castes as well. This is just fact, whether it is right or wrong is entirely another matter. And of course, there are exceptions, no disputing that.

I accept without argument that my thinking here is anecdotal. I merely consider all the folks I've known when I was growing up, and wondered aloud why some of them were accepted as leaders of the group whereas others were not. The usual adult machinations exist in primary school too! Some kids were older, some were bigger, others owned the bat or ball, others were adept at retrieving the ball from Uncle Anti-Cricket's home while his dog looked away momentarily. Sometimes the game wasn't on, because the one child is whose house there was space enough to play was out doing something else with his family.

And on the days he wasn't doing that, the game ended when his mother decided it was time. No other mothers were asked, no one else mattered. Indeed, these cultural nuances often stretched beyond how they manifest themselves amongst the children. How many times did the lady of the manor shoo away the kids, telling them it was time for studying and dinner? How many other women garnered and exercised that privilege to discipline others' children, on the other hand?

These are nuances of the game in India that we can all identify with, at one level or another. From them, we learned not only cricket, but also to psychologically identify the sources of authority, much as in school.

Some lessons, we are bound to take forward into adult lives. We have been shaped to respect the educated, take orders from the privileged, submit to superior physical power, and conditioned similarly to fit into a scheme of things. There's a harshness to these observations, I admit, and anecdotally, they may even be invalid. But really, who was the last high-school dropout you took orders from? When was the last time you saw an Indian captain on television and said to yourself "he ought to learn to express himself better", thinking that it's a bit like watching a CNN story of Calcutta's street people? Why should our emotions and responses be any different from the players'? Of course, there are better things about India, but in affirming that to ourselves, we silently also acknowledge the negatives.

It's still early in the game. Ganguly might make a good captain for all the right reasons, which would relate to his personal skill as a leader, his combative nature, and a possibly shrewd mind. My own view is that he is far more likely to succeed than to be turned aside, and that will be to the immense joy of the desi cricket fan. The failings of society at large need never be attributed to the players on the field, or the significantly more entrenched roles that cricket administration plays. The cricketers' charge is a limited one, restricted to on-field achievement, and the minuses of more poignant things reflected in the captain's appointment are not of his doing.

Equally, though, the India beyond the endorsements and cricketing records exists, and in that reality, the Shaun Pollocks and Stephen Waughs who come calling on us have the grace to look beyond their on-field achievements, looking to leper camps, and cancer victims.

True, the BCCI and the players are not guardians of our rights or enforcers of our responsibilities. But they - the administration, especially - are an unmistakable sign of an enduring India, in which the behind-the-scenes machinations of the connected few still calls the shots. The mandarins of the sport in India, and the individuals who profit from it, are no less successful than those tourists who choose to look beyond their material lives; that they are content to remain in their privileged worlds is shameful.

Which is why, even in a time of apparent success, it behooves us to consider how our society is reflected in the circumstances that permit it. There is an India in which Sourav Ganguly was born to be captain. That there is, might today be a blessing for the sport in our cricket-addicted nation, but equally, it is a sign that no matter that we have come this far in half a century of constitutionally mandated equality, there is still the long road ahead of us.

True, every once in a while, someone will clear the hurdles to acceptance by the force of his talent; it is to Indian society's (and Indian cricket's) credit that the Vinod Kamblis of our nation can make it. And yes, there is also an India in which Md. Azharuddin could be captain. It is also, unfortunately, more the exception than the rule.

The appearance of a mantle worn naturally by the new skipper tells a troubling story of India, even as the sun shines on Indian cricket.

Ashwin Mahesh

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