Why cricket is more than just cricket

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The gentleman’s game, more than any other, has become a test of national loyalty, given the subcontinent’s troubled history

A few weeks before I permanently moved to Sydney, India played Australia in the Cricket World Cup 2015 Semi-Finals. That game presented to me an unenviable choice evoking Shakespearean emotions. I am sure a lot of immigrants empathise with this dilemma – should I support the country of my birth or my new home country? Just like religion and language, I inherited my love for the Indian cricket team too.

Champions Trophy 2017 .IndianLink

 

I cried from the heartbreaks when they lost big matches, and ecstatically celebrated when they won. Australia was my second favourite team even as a child, and is now my chosen home where I hope to raise my child and make my mark. How do I resolve that dilemma?

Norman Tebbit, a conservative politician from the UK, once proposed a highly controversial assimilation test for immigrants – ‘Which cricket team do you cheer for?’ – using sports team loyalty as a test of national loyalty.

Ideological successors to Tebbit worldwide, endorse mutations of that idea and our very own ‘Australian Values Test’ being debated in our Parliament right now is a version of it. My feelings towards the tests are ambiguous. While Tebbit is an old world bigot, his test in isolation is a legitimate concern for countries welcoming new citizens.

Some immigrants swap their passports readily, but refuse to back their new ‘home teams’, even vociferously cheering against them. Those massive crowds in Indian blue jerseys must be disheartening to the English teams playing at home. Yet, I understand the first generation immigrant’s frustrations with economic and social mobility finding an outlet through spectator sports. Behaviour during a sports match can’t make you an ‘anti-national’.

Even though I decided to cheer for Australia during that match, my heart wasn’t into it. Secretly I wished for an Indian victory. This happened each time the two teams played each other. Months later, I hit upon a capitalist idea to resolve my Hamlet dilemma. I simply introduced economics to the equation. Each time they played India, I placed a $25 bet on Australia. Their loss was now literally my loss. The investment created an incentive for my intentions. If not the heart, the head was totally into wishing for an Australian victory. My Indian friends hated the idea, but it worked for me very well.

Tebbit would approve.

I placed another bet recently, on India beating Pakistan in the Champions Trophy 2017 Final. Waqar Younis once said that cricket between India and Pakistan is somewhere between sports and war. Extremists on both sides exploit escalated emotions during the matches to their political advantage. A steady rightward tilt in both countries meant that the Final was among the most hyped in recent memory. Inevitably, Kashmir got caught up in the middle and the Twitter spat on the topic reminded me of the Tebbit Test.

A Twitter comment tried to exploit the cricket match to make a political point about support to Pakistan. Gautam Gambhir, with his usual bluster, then pulled off the admirable feat of combining Twitter clichés with a Chinese reference. This spat didn’t make mainstream news only because Kashmiris celebrating Pakistan’s victory aren’t news anymore. Support to Pakistan has existed for nearly seventy years, even if the intensity ebbed and flowed. Yet, much of India remains blissfully unaware of the loyalties of the average Kashmiri.

In fact, I grew up seeing celebrations of Pakistan’s victories even in the sleepy south-central towns of Warangal and Nizamabad. There still are pockets in India where this happens. Every few years, a new generation of Indians discovers that phenomenon and assumes that their imperious outrage will somehow make people change sides. My own experiments with economic incentives made me wonder if enough was done to switch those loyalties. I just don’t know why it still happens.

The real question remains, who should the Kashmiris cheer for? Even after nearly seven decades, they aren’t convinced that they should cheer for India. No amount of economic incentive or political effort could convince them so far. Can you apply the Tebbit Test here and conclude that Kashmiris are ‘anti-national’? Probably not. This is, in fact, nothing like the Tebbit test because Kashmiris are not immigrants carrying over loyalties from a foreign land. Both their residence and loyalty have remained constant, while the border politics around them kept changing. Perhaps, in a highly complex situation like Kashmir, loyalty tests are futile. For the small pockets in the rest of the country, less so.

Imagine for a second that the final was between India and England, and India had won the contest. No doubt the massive Indian community in UK, most of them British citizens, would have celebrated boisterously. What would Norman Tebbit say?

No, scratch that. Tebbit doesn’t matter anymore.

What would Gautam Gambhir say?