Who we are is the first generation of Indians whose parents heeded the nation’s call for family planning, the generation with a mob of uncles and aunts but just one sibling. We were born in hospitals, in cities, extracted by male doctors.
We know who Balwinder Singh Sandhu is, and remember him with bowed reverence for a single moment in the vast history of cricket. And, Javed Miandad is the name of a wound. If you want to know why, my friend, you must read more about national calamities. Many years later, his sad final walk to the pavilion would seem like justice.
We are the urban middle-class generation that made cricket the national sport of India, and do not wish to apologise. Why we did not take to hockey has many tired explanations but the one not many would have heard of is that hockey was doomed by the size of the hockey ball. Too small for a fast team sport, too small to be enjoyed in the stadium or on television. You are thinking ‘but a cricket ball is the same size’.
Some people would argue cricket is not a team sport and that at any given moment its field of play is much smaller than hockey’s. Hence the size of the ball does not affect cricket as much as it does hockey. The more respectable view, which means sociologists and other very serious people consider it the truth, is that just when Indian hockey’s golden age looked surely over, Indira Gandhi brought colour television to India to transmit New Delhi’s impressive ’82 Asian Games, and as television sales grew, in ’83 India unexpectedly won the cricket World Cup.
Our childhood coincided with the rise of Indian cricket. And children are patriots. There was self-loathing, too, which is often a consequence of juveniles seeking national pride and finding none. So we laughed when we learnt what Imran Khan was believed to have said about Madan Lal, “He runs faster than his ball.”
As our lives were largely empty, we spent hundreds of long days watching cricket and nothing much on the cricket field escaped us: the posterior of Roger Binny, for instance, an image with no special meaning but an integral part of our cricket memory. And, we longed for a left-handed Indian batsman because we had none.
As the years rolled by, the fever only increased. Even during the years when world cricket was in the shadow of Steve Waugh’s Australia, when we were at the peak of our youth and the world was exploding with possibilities, cricket could bring us great joy and deep sorrow.
Years later, in 2013, I avenged some of that old sorrow when I was invited to speak at a comedy club in Sydney. Australia had just lost the Ashes 0-3, and I told my audience: “I am glad to be in Australia, once a cricket-playing nation”.
By then I did not qualify as a cricket fan anymore. I had moved on, like many others of my generation who were once fierce lovers of the game, who were the very heart of the sport. Somewhere, somehow cricket had lost us. It was not disenchantment. It was nothing so emotional or powerful. At least that would have been honourable. We just lost interest. When I ask others what happened between cricket and us, I often hear, “It’s all that betting.” This is a lazy analysis that has been borrowed and repeated, like “Kejriwal fled from his responsibilities”, and “Rekha is an enigma”.
Blaming the betting scandals lends a moral high ground to the termination of a long relationship. So its lack of conviction is not very surprising. There is a lot of loose talk but nobody really believes that every international match was or is thrown. Also, the betting scandals predate a generation’s sudden separation from cricket.
Natural then for some to suspect age as having something to do with it all.
Some of us believe that we have never been fitter, not merely on a measure of colon hygiene and mental balance, but in athleticism too. Forty may not be the beginning of old age anymore, but in professional sports that appears to be the case. For the first time in the lives of Indian cricket’s most significant generation, everybody on the national World Cup team is younger than us, assuming that MS Dhoni is not lying about his age. Could that be the reason why we, of a particular vintage, have abandoned or almost abandoned the sport? Does a sports fan, too, retire from the sport?
But this just does not make sense. Across the world, sports fans in general are unaffected by their own ageing.
Some men blame marriage. Cricket, because of its sheer length, is a wife’s foe, especially a non-cricketing wife. And the new man cannot get away with what his father could. But it is hard to accept that domestic pressures can deny a man his couch sport. Also, the statistics of sports channels do not support the demonic-wife hypothesis because men of the age and type in question are consuming a lot of sports.
Could it just be that our world has expanded and we have transformed ourselves from being sports patriots into sports lovers? We do not need India anymore to adore sports. It does appear, as it has for the past few years, a generation of urban-educated middle-class Indian sports fans, who were the heart of the nation’s cricket, have left the pond for the ocean. Though this may not be so apparent this month.
(Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People)
(The views expressed by the author are personal)