Anjali Doshi reflects on the unattractive display of hyper-nationalism by Indian cricket fans at the recently concluded World Cup
As we got off the overground train at Vauxhall, just south of the Thames in central London, and walked down Harleyford Road to The Oval earlier this summer, there were blue shirts and saffron-white-green flags everywhere. We approached the ground: the thump of the dhols was as constant as a heartbeat, the tricolour seemed at home in a foreign field, the bhangra was being jigged in every cranny, and blue-jerseyed fans had filled out the ground. It has a capacity of 25,000—large by English standards—and almost all of the crowd was there to cheer on India in their second World Cup fixture, against Australia. The perpetual refrain of “Kohli, Kohli” was occasionally punctuated by shouts of “Modi, Modi”. Either way, it was clear long before passing through the turnstiles which team had the stronger support.
The Oval, opened in 1845, wears its tradition and history like a second skin, and is home to some of cricket’s most iconic moments—including Don Bradman’s last-innings duck, India’s first Test series win in England, under Ajit Wadekar in 1971, and Kevin Pietersen’s Ashes-clinching heroics in 2005. Yet the scene this summer seemed to have been plucked out of South Mumbai and transplanted to South London. A colleague joked on Twitter that she counted 36 people in the crowd dressed in yellow, before specifying they were stewards rather than Australian fans.
At one level, this monopolisation by Indian fans is a simple function of their cricketers being the most followed sporting team in the world, by virtue of India’s population of 1.3 billion and diaspora of 15 million. It is also due to the obsessional enterprise they displayed in staying up until 3am to dominate online ticket lotteries on the tournament’s official website, signing up with travel companies in India that offered tickets as part of a World Cup package, as well as having the disposable income to spend thousands of pounds over advertised prices. This domination by Indian fans was one of the themes of the tournament. In Manchester, where India played Pakistan in the most-watched cricket game in television history—the audience was widely described as reaching 1 billion, though this sounded like a suspiciously convenient figure—Indians outnumbered the Pakistanis by 5-1. Tickets were being sold on the black market for more than £5,000.
The 2019 World Cup was a reminder, if we needed one, that though India may have lost in the semi-final, they are a force to reckon with on and off the field. Indian fans colonise cricket grounds around the world, making even the English feel unwelcome in their own home; the captain, Virat Kohli, is among the most powerful men in the country and the highest-paid sportsmen in the world; and the Indian cricket board is not only among the world’s richest sporting bodies, but also the most authoritative—and authoritarian. The International Cricket Council controls the global game in name only.
But India’s might in the cricketing universe lacks the self-awareness to see the pitfalls of so much power. India may rank a lowly 130th out of 189 in the United Nation’s human development index, but that would make little sense if the only thing you knew about India was its cricket. For Indian cricket exists in a parallel universe of domination and excellence that belies the country’s harsh everyday realities. No wonder, then, that cricket, as Ramachandra Guha has examined in A Corner of a Foreign Field, his definitive history of the sport in India, becomes the “vehicle for the unfulfilled aspirations of everyday life”. And in doing so, it also becomes a vehicle for hyper-nationalism: cricket is the one area where India can lay claim to excellence. In August this year, India were No 1 in Test and No 2 in one-day international (ODI) rankings. A few months earlier, Kohli had led them to a Test series win in Australia for the first time.
During India’s first World Cup game, against South Africa in Southampton, a handful of supporters donned Modi masks and danced their way through the predominantly Indian crowd, high-fiving fellow fans and revelling in their horseplay. But what might have been interpreted by the casual observer as a harmless piece of hijinks was, to a critical Indian eye, a little more significant.
It was telling that the fans felt comfortable wearing masks of the Indian prime minister at a sporting event, blurring the boundaries between politics and cricket. More than that, it felt—even if only subconsciously—that the mask-wearers were performing a spot check on the other spectators’ patriotism. If you didn’t respond with cheers and whoops… well, what kind of Indian were you? Did you object to Modi—and, if so, why? It wasn’t exactly sinister, but it wasn’t entirely comfortable either.
“As globalisation strides forward, the search for national identity becomes ever more desperate and ever more dominated by the hostility to perceived national enemies, both within and without the country’s borders,” wrote Mike Marqusee in War Minus the Shooting, his portrait of the 1996 World Cup in the subcontinent. “The carnival of globalisation turned into an orgy of nationalism.” Marqusee may not have imagined that two decades later, this orgy might now be more accurately described as the “orgy of hyper-nationalism”. What concerned him most about globalisation was that it creates “not a global culture of sport but a tele-vised substitute… in which national identities are commercial playthings”.
There is no better example of this than the Indian home minister’s tweet after the team beat Pakistan in that game in Manchester:
Another strike on Pakistan by #TeamIndia and the result is same. Congratulations to the entire team for this superb performance. Every Indian is feeling proud and celebrating this impressive win. #INDvPAK
Despite India’s 7-0 record against Pakistan in the World Cup, the tweet, which referred to the Balakot strike by India after the attack by the Pakistanis in Pulwama in February, was in poor taste. But the response—over 125,000 likes and 17,500 retweets—suggested that many Indians were in agreement with this conflation of sport, politics and nationalism. As Guha put it: “Cricket has always been a microcosm of the fissures and tensions within Indian society: fissures that it has both reflected and played upon, mitigated as well as intensified.”
And the sentiment is clearly reciprocated in Pakistan. In his autobiography Game Changer, the Pakistan all-rounder Shahid Afridi talks about the demands of the Indo-Pak rivalry: “The only thing that drives you in a game against India is being a Pakistani,” he writes. “Our orders were to go and destroy them, almost like a suicide bomber does. I know how that sounds, but you know what I mean.”
Two decades ago, pinning the tri-colour to their helmets or dedicating a century to those who had lost their lives in a terrorist attack—as Sachin Tendulkar once did—was considered the epitome of patriotic sentiment on the cricket field. Now, in a nationalistic and increasingly right-wing Hindu environment, this would be considered too subtle for most. After 40 Indian soldiers were killed in Kashmir in March by a suicide bomber, Kohli led his team out against Australia wearing green military caps to show his team’s support for the troops.
His predecessor as Indian captain has gone even further. What began with wearing army camouflage gloves to display his support for the armed forces, Dhoni wore gloves with army insignia at the World Cup, and has recently been on a two-month sabbatical to serve in a paramilitary regiment in Kashmir. While his dedication to the armed forces may be considered admirable by plenty of Indians—especially his willingness to move beyond photo opportunities and get down and dirty, literally, in the trenches—there is something cringe-making about this expression of hyper-nationalistic sentiment. It should make us all slightly uncomfortable that cricketers are now attempting to masquerade as soldiers and glorifying war and the loss of lives. The lines between sport, politics and nationalism have become more than blurred: they are in danger of vanishing altogether.
The response on social media was revealing. If non-Indians questioned the optics and ethics of Kohli’s caps or Dhoni’s gloves, they were warned in no uncertain terms to mind their own business. What, went the argument, did others know of Kashmir? How dare Western critics feel uneasy about this strange nexus of militarism and nationalism when they themselves deserved the blame for Partition? And if India wanted to flex their muscles in a way denied them for so long down the centuries, who were others to tell them not to?
It didn’t seem to matter that the ICC expressly forbids “any individual message or logo to be displayed on any items of clothing or equipment”. What counted was India’s right of self-expression in a world where the loudest voices are becoming the most valued. We are back to Guha’s “unfulfilled
While India was a colony, cricket was a means of settling accounts with the rulers. After Independence the new nation came to identify cricketing prowess with patriotic virtue. No other sport can play this role. In seeking the emotional allegiance of Indians, cricket has entered into an amiable competition with the Hindi film.” — from A Corner of a Foreign Field, Ramachandra Guha
It came as no surprise to witness the outrage which followed England’s hard-fought win against New Zealand in the World Cup final. India erupted in indignation at how New Zealand had been robbed of the trophy. Even before the final, articles had been penned about how New Zealand would be the most deserving winners. After it, there seemed to be far more people in India than in New Zealand who were upset that, after the scores were tied, both after the 50 overs and the super over, the deciding factor between the winners and losers was the number of boundaries in the course of the match (England were ahead 26-17). Then there was the matter of an umpiring error that led to England being awarded an extra run from an overthrow. While the New Zealand captain, Kane Williamson, was graceful as ever in defeat, the same could hardly be said for the tamasha that followed in India.
It was as though Indians were angry at being denied a proper expression of schadenfreude: their long-held grouse following 200 years of colonisation means most Indians are willing England to sporting failure. There was little acknowledgement that we had all witnessed one of the greatest ever one-day matches. Instead, there was blind fury: New Zealand had been robbed and England were undeserving winners. The uproar that erupted in India—and to a lesser extent Australia—suggested a lack of awareness of why we feel this way. It’s as if one expression of nationalistic sentiment in modern India is to be anti-English, without properly examining why this should be the case.
In a column during the World Cup on the website Cricket Next, written after England stumbled to two defeats during the group stage, the journalist Siddhartha Vaidyanathan wrote: “Centuries of colonialism can take its toll, of course, but even if one were to strip history out (as if that were possible) there is a special thrill that comes with watching a strong England side implode. Brick by brick. Razing a house built over four years.” There was no explanation of why such antipathy might exist without the historical context—simply an assertion that it did.
It’s not all one-way traffic. In The Hindu, cricket journalist and Wisden India Almanack editor Suresh Menon wrote: “Sport is not perfect. Often imperfection is the crack through which we see it at its best. After all, sport is, ‘the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles’, as the philosopher Bernard Suits said, and the final was full of unnecessary obstacles.”
But Menon stood out for his sanity. India as a whole feels in a less stable place—and, not for the first time, cricket best articulates this instability.
This essay was published in the Oct-Dec 2019 issue. The theme is ‘Sport’.