New Delhi, Oct. 13 -- It is a moment that will remain etched in an Indian cricket fan's memory and not only because it is repeatedly shown on television. It is that freeze-frame moment when Mahendra Singh Dhoni launched the ball into the skies and beyond, and led India to a memorable World Cup victory, the second in its cricketing history. The Indian captain was hailed as the greatest strategist ever, the sobriquet of "captain cool" sitting pretty on the man, who had not just conquered the world but the heart and soul of every Indian living on planet earth.
One and a half years later, the man under whose reign India also become the number one test cricket team in the world, albeit for a brief period, is facing the wrath of the media and public, who want him to be booted out as captain. The exit from the highly unpredictable and the least skill-oriented format of cricket, the T-20 World Cup, has led to an orchestrated media campaign. From a man who was the king and could do no wrong, Dhoni's every move is seen as being made by someone who is arrogant, lacks ideas and can turn even gold to dust with his thoughtless moves. He should consider himself lucky that his team beat Pakistan in the Super League of the World Cup, otherwise his fate could have been worse. He could have required police protection from those very people who had once hailed him as the pride of a rising, shining India, someone who symbolised the "new" India with aspirations of being a superpower in the globalised world of today.
Like it or not, the reality of India, and not just of the present times alone, is that we live in extremes. We believe in black and white, where you are either a hero or a villain. Cricket for us is not a sport where two teams pit their skills against each other, and the one with better talent wins. It is a battlefield, the Kurukshetra of the Mahabharata, where the Indian team is seen as representing all that is good and great about us.
Winning is a triumph of good over evil and in the present context even more than that. The Indian team has now become a symbol of middle class aspirations, where as an emerging superpower, its cricket team has to be world beaters. Defeat is unacceptable, even if it happens in the field of sport. "We are the best" may sound like a tag line for a consumer product being advertised on the idiot box, but it is a line which is taken so seriously that even a performer like Dhoni is today being condemned in strong, harsh words.
The only yardstick of judging talent is victory. In the biting, sarcastic comments which spew venom and represent the mood of the nation, or so we are told, the ignorance of any knowledge of sports or the realisation that the whole edifice and beauty of sports lies in its unpredictability, is completely absent. The corporate language of "perform or perish" has over the years gained in currency and made things worse for those who have suffered at the hands of an unforgiving public, even when the media was not the monster which it is today.
In the pages of history, the year 1971 was a milestone for any genuine cricket fan in India. It was the year when India, under Ajit Wadekar, beat the West Indians for the first time in their own country. It was also the year when India finally conquered its colonial masters in their own backyard. For the present generation, bred on an overdose of limited-overs cricket and its T20 format, the Oval Test may not evoke any memories of pride and thrill. But, for those steeped in its history know that it was then that "we" beat England for the first time ever in their own home ground. It was a heady year and when Wadekar and his men returned home, they were taken around in a cavalcade, and treated like all-conquering heroes. India, it seemed, had taken a giant leap forward in announcing to the world that "we too matter."
Three years later, in 1974, Wadekar's men were soundly thrashed by England and at the Lord's Test - India were in fact bundled out for 42. This "scarred" the nation so much that Wadekar's statue, which had been put up in Indore to celebrate the historic 1971 win, was disfigured by fans. On his return back home, the Indian captain had to be provided security - otherwise enraged fans would have manhandled him for bringing "disgrace" to the country.
If nationalism linked to a team's performance was alive then, it has increased manifold in today's televised world where consumer goods companies make cricket and its stars a vehicle to sell their products.
We are never tired of being told that the tricolour's pride is in the hands of our cricket stars. They are our "heroes" who have shown the world that we have arrived as a nation. Media analysts too are not far behind in fuelling such fervour. Every time we win, we are told that our team is the representative of that "new India" which is confident, has faith in itself and is capable of giving back as good as it gets.
This argument, if applied to defeat, could mean that we lack confidence, are timid as a nation and have fallen prey to old, bad habits.
The growing number of cricket fans have, over the years, seen the sport only in terms of victory and defeat.
The shorter format has made it worse, because it has got them interested in the game not because of the joys of watching a skillful battle, but the thrill the run-chase equation gives them.
It means that all they understand of sports is winning. Defeat is not to be tolerated. In an atmosphere like this, sports as a sport becomes the first casualty and a rational debate to analyse a defeat or a victory is an impossibility. The media - for its TRPs - panders to this public sentiment, making villains of the old and heroes of the new. And this will be a never-ending cycle, unless we mature as a nation where sport is meant to be watched and enjoyed and not seen through the prism of nationalism.
A tale of 5 captains: heroes painted black in defeat
Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi
Captain, Test: 1962-68
The Nawab of Pataudi, whose father Iftikhar Ali Khan had the distinction of leading both India and England, was the youngest-ever Indian captain. He was appointed captain at the age of 21 after Nari Contractor was seriously injured, hit on the head by a bouncer on the tour of the West Indies in 1960-61.
Known as Tiger Pataudi, he led a team of no-hopers of world cricket into a cohesive unit and India under his leadership won a Test match overseas for the first time ever in 1967-68 in New Zealand. This heroic figure of Indian cricket, who played international cricket with one eye, having lost vision in one eye due to a car accident, is widely believed to have instilled self-belief in his teammates. As Bishan Singh Bedi puts it, "he was the first man who made us realise we are playing for our country and are not just a bunch of individuals."
Yet, after a string of defeats, he was pilloried by the media and ridiculed by the public, leading to a casting vote by the chairman of the selection committee with being sacked as the captain. Unlike then, today he is hailed as the man who laid the foundation of a cohesive, well-knit team, the fruits of which were reaped by future generations.
Captain, Test: 1971-74, ODI: 1974
The ouster of "Nawab" MAK Pataudi as captain in 1971, put a "commoner" at the helm and he did not disappoint India by leading the team to historic wins in the West Indies and England. The Oval Test, where leg-spinner Chandrashekhar's magical spell of 6 for 38 shot India to a sensational win, is part of folklore now.
But Wadekar had to quit as the captain as a bitter, frustrated and even angry man after India's ignominious defeats on the tour of England in 1974. Hailed as a great leader, he was now blamed for everything that went wrong, from rifts to unimaginative leadership that led to that disastrous performance. At the Lord's Test,
India not only suffered an innings defeat, but were dismissed in their second innings for 42, which brought out the worst in Indian fans.
The same captain who was taken in a cavalcade in 1971, was the target of their ire. His statue built in 1971 and put up in a square in Indore, was disfigured and on the team's return, Wadekar had to be provided security for fear of being manhandled by the fans.
Captain, Test: 1983-86, ODI: 1982-87
Arguably one of the greatest all-rounders the game has ever seen, Kapil Dev is remembered as the man who led India against all odds to the 1983 World Cup triumph, a feat that Mahendra Singh Dhoni's men equalled almost three decades later. Hailed as a hero and feted as no one before him, Kapil was to soon realise the fickle and unpredictable nature of the Indian public.
The same West Indies team that his team had beaten in the World Cup final, toured India immediately after that and mauled them 3-0 in Tests and 6-0 in the one-dayers. Fans unleashed their fury in Kolkata, where eggs and tomatoes were thrown at the team. The World Cup star was shown the door immediately after that and Sunil Gavaskar was appointed the new captain.
Gavaskar too did not fare well and Kapil was reappointed captain in 1985 and led India to an emphatic Test series win against England in England. The 1987 World Cup was played in India where Kapil's men lost in the semi-finals to England. The defeat was blamed on Kapil's "irresponsible" shot while batting and public opinion once again turned against him. He was removed as captain once again.
Captain, Test and ODI: 1996-2000
The greatest cricketer ever to have straddled the cricket field has had two bitter experiences as captain of the Indian team. Replacing Mohd. Azharuddin as captain after India's early exit in the 1996 World Cup, followed by defeat in England, Tendulkar could not match public expectations and after the team's repeated failures, he too was removed after intense media and public pressure and Azharuddin was back at the helm.
Another failure in the 1999 World Cup in England, and the selectors announced Tendulkar as captain for the 1999-2000 series in Australia.
But Tendulkar was so shaken and hurt by the manner in which he was treated by the media and fans alike in his first stint, that he remained untraceable for almost two days, after the announcement of his captaincy was made. It was obvious he did not want to lead the country again and only agreed after great persuasion by the selectors and the board.
A Test series whitewash in Australia and the impending return of Azharuddin to the side led to Tendulkar giving up the captaincy. The public and media pressure had once again claimed a victim, who after that never agreed to lead India again.
Captain, Test: 2000-05, ODI: 1999-2005
We may today proclaim him the greatest captain India has ever seen, but the throne of captaincy was not all roses for him. There were many occasions when India were losing more than winning, that everyone was demanding his scalp.
In the 2003 World Cup in South Africa, where India began their campaign on a losing streak, the houses of a few players were vandalised in India and Ganguly was blamed for those defeats. So much so, that in Harare, during the tournament, Tendulkar read out a written statement to the press, requesting the Indian public to see reason, calm down and realise cricket is a sport and no one wants to lose deliberately.
Ganguly was to come under severe scrutiny and face harsh criticism after Pakistan beat India. His spat with coach Greg Chappell did not help, nor his own loss of form and he was not only removed as captain but dropped from the team as well, leaving him a bitter man. He redeemed himself by a phenomenal come-back as a batsman. Though today unanimously hailed as the architect of India's climb to the top, it will always hurt him that he was dubbed a man who divided the Indian team.
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.