EACH YEAR, in a month the weather was agreeable, my school in Calcutta (as it was then known) used to observe a Sports Day. It was essentially an athletics meet, coupled with a march past of the different ‘houses’ with an army band in attendance. One of the features of the Sports Day was the appearance of a gigantic banner proclaiming “The important thing in sport is not to win but to take part.”
Since the banner was very visible to the outside world, I don’t know how the general commuters who viewed the school as an elitist and anglophone bastion digested this homily. Borrowed in entirety from the public schools of England where it was important to “play the game”, this gentlemanly ethos was ideal for a country that was then on the top of most things. I am sure it didn’t resonate with the enthusiastic spectators that used to crowd Eden Gardens or Brabourne Stadium each winter to watch the visiting teams from England or Australia or the West Indies thrash India quite resoundingly. If India could manage a draw, it was considered a great achievement. As for a win, I remember the time in 1962 when India under Nari Contractor defeated Ted Dexter’s visiting MCC side. So intense was the celebration that you would have imagined India had become a top cricketing nation.
The point is simple: we weren’t accustomed to winning (except perhaps in hockey). As an ex-colony, we had digested the spiel about the importance of just taking part and shouting “well played, Sir” as a Barrington or Cowdrey thrashed the Indian bowling. But that doesn’t mean we believed in it. We desperately wanted to win and celebrate victory, just as we celebrated the military victory over Pakistan in 1971. Maybe it is just a coincidence, but it was in 1971 that our cricketers won consecutive series in, first, the West Indies and then, England.
India’s performance in cricket hasn’t been of a uniform standard since that momentous year. I recall, three years later, the visiting Indians were bowled out for a shameful 42 in the second innings of a Test. But that was an aberration, because in the main our cricket became increasingly more competitive and the desire to win became fanatical. The social profile of our cricketers also changed. I may be wrong, but Tiger Pataudi would have been totally out of synch with the new cricketing ethos that developed, say from the time India under Kapil Dev quite unexpectedly won the World Cup in 1983. Sourav Ganguly’s bare-chested exuberance from the balcony at Lord’s showed quite emphatically that from now on, we weren’t there to take part but to win.
A great deal of criticism was levelled by a section of the ageing Anglophile elite at Virat Kohli for his supposedly churlish behaviour after receiving the prize for being the best player of the tournament. Instead of shaking the hand of every official present and flashing a smile at the cameras, he just grabbed the trophy and walked off sullenly. He was promptly dubbed a brat by the very same people that had debunked the crowd in Ahmedabad for its resounding silence at the Australian victory in the ICC World Cup.
I think the critics have completely misread the mood in India. Today, we no longer speak in revered tones of the time Dattu Phadkar pinned down Len Hutton with four consecutive maiden overs (needless to add, India lost the Test and the series in 1952), but we do talk about Rohit Sharma’s audacious slog shots and Virat Kohli’s deft placements because they were accompanied by clear victories.
The crowd at Ahmedabad had flocked to the final in anticipation of the country’s most emphatic World Cup triumph—11 wins in a row. Instead, they witnessed Australia clearly outmanoeuvre India. They were entitled to express their profound disappointment with silence and Kohli was entitled to internalise the national disappointment with his sullenness. Yes, it was Modi’s duty to pat the disappointed team on the back and compliment it on its performance all through the tournament, but even he was naturally subdued, even as he put up a brave face.
India wanted to celebrate a famous victory with chants of ‘Bharat Mata ki Jai’, ‘Vande Mataram’ and ‘Jai Sri Ram’, just as we had done when we defeated Pakistan resoundingly at the same Narendra Modi Stadium. We were deprived but defeat didn’t change the Indian character. We have set our sights on being a winner in all departments of life and we don’t want to be in second place. You can call this fascistic or anything else, but our sense of Manifest Destiny is driving us. The day we revert to gentlemanly indolence, you will know we have given up.