We need to make our sports talent truly world class

  • Abhijit Banerjee
  • Updated: Apr 17, 2016 14:48 IST
Had Bangladesh only managed to contain their excitement for another three balls, they would have won their match against India on March 23. And next time or the time after that, they will (REUTERS)

In December 1983, the Bangladesh national cricket team played the West Bengal team at the Eden Gardens in a single innings match. West Bengal made 243. Arun Lal scored a century. The Bangladesh batting collapsed and ended up with just 113 and were defeated by 130 runs.

A lot obviously has changed since then; had they only managed to contain their excitement for another three balls, they would have won their match against India on March 23. And next time or the time after that, they will.

The first lesson from Bangladesh’s arrival and impending arrival of the Afghans is that the way you become an international team is by playing international matches. There is no substitute for sustained exposure to the highest quality; at least in batting and fielding the difference between the merely very good and the truly outstanding is determined by what you do in the space of milliseconds, and there is no way to get used to making that judgement correctly by thinking about it. You have to be there, you have to try it, fail, and learn from your mistakes. You have to believe in yourself, believe that you can, and know that you will have another chance. None of that can happen unless you are thrown into the big game.

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This has implications for how we handle all our sports. We have more than a billion people; somewhere there must be talent, even accounting for the tragic human waste represented in our world-beating rates of malnutrition. We need many well-funded, visible global contests in India in every sport where we plan to excel, where our athletes and sportsmen can compete against the world and lose. Till they start winning.

But the implications are broader; every other day I get a letter from a Chinese scholar who are fully funded by their government to come and spend a year at MIT. Would I please send them an invitation? About once a month I get a similar letter from a potential post-doc from Pakistan. Sadly we have so little space in our building that I can almost never accede to these requests, but it is evidence that the money is there. I almost never get the same kind of letter from someone based in India; probably, at least in part, because of the lack of funding.

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Once we recognise the importance of exposure, it is hard to avoid a much more radical thought: If Bangladesh can do it, why not Uttar Pradesh? If Afghanistan can compete and win, what is stopping Maharashtra? Or for that matter, West Bengal? They are certainly big enough — several times larger than Sri Lanka or West Indies, or tiny New Zealand. The talent must be there; what stops it from being world class is mostly lack of being exposed to international competition. Won’t we be better off with five world-class teams, rather than just one? When the national team plays together (say in a World Cup), it would be able to draw on the established stars of all five (or 10 or 20) teams, making us an invincible force. But in most tournaments, like the Asia Cups and their like, India should offer to field multiple teams, just as the United Kingdom does, with England and Scotland and Ireland.

To get there, the place to start is probably at the zonal level. We could invite some international teams to join the tournaments we already have. We will of course need to increase the prize money, raise the visibility and get media to play along, but if Pakistan or Sri Lanka were there to challenge our best zonal team, I cannot imagine it would be hard to get the fans or the advertisers interested.

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But let me end on an even more radical idea: Why not forget about national boundaries altogether, just for the small window afforded by cricket? Instead of the Eastern states of India, why not an East zone team that includes Bangladesh? A Southern zone team with Sri Lanka thrown in? Or a Western zone team that brings in Sindh and Balochistan from Pakistan, but not Punjab or NWFP, which logically belong to the Northern zone. Nepal can join the Central zone with which it shares a border.

To make these possible, cricket administrators will need to work together with the counterparts across the border. They will learn to appreciate the challenges that the other side lives with, and some new lines of communication will be built. More importantly, it will add a new dimension to the existing list of identities, which rarely cross borders. A Sindhi from Karachi or a Marathi from Mumbai will now have to be a West zoner as well, and cheer for the very same players that he might boo when they play for their national team. Despite the current, deeply misguided, hullabaloo, the problem in South Asia is a surfeit of nationalism, not lack of it. We are so committed to the specificities of our present that we often forget just how much of our history and culture is shared. Playing together, as Lagaan reminded us, confronts us with what we have in common.

Abhijit Banerjee is Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, and director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT

The views expressed are personal

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