Would cricket be the same again for you?’ asked a teary-eyed, middle-aged Bengali journalist on the eve of the Nagpur Test. The question had many layers of meanings attached to it. As with most journalists from Bengal, he was terribly upset that this Test was going to be Sourav Ganguly’s last. Life without Ganguly in the Indian cricket team was difficult for him to swallow.
Like most other Indians, I am a great admirer of Ganguly’s strength of character, resilience and immense contribution in instilling self-belief in the team. So the gentleman was keen to hear my answer.
That I, a North Indian who wears his identity on his sleeve, agreed with him that cricket would not be the same again after Ganguly’s departure, struck a sentimental chord with the gent and he poured his heart out. For more than a decade now, Ganguly had given a meaningful pan-India identity to Bengalis tucked away in Bengal. The bigger Ganguly became, the prouder they felt as Bengalis and as Indians.
They cried at his failures, rejoiced in his success and felt betrayed when his loyalties to Team India were questioned. And in the press box, Bengalis were treated with respect, even if grudgingly by some. They grew in numbers with the growing needs for newspapers ‘back home’ to report exclusive stories on Ganguly’s exploits.
Ganguly had given them a new self-esteem, had made them acceptable to even the most cynical and chauvinistic member of the press corps. And now, before the Nagpur Test, the time had come to bid him farewell. In the absence of any other Bengali cricketer who could carry on Ganguly’s legacy, the sense of loss was even greater.
On the fourth day of the Test, Bengali journalists arranged a farewell dinner for him. No ‘outsider’ was invited. “We were not being parochial. It was just that we wanted to share his last moments in the Indian team together. We know he does not belong to us alone, but to the whole of India. But do please understand the sentiment behind that farewell dinner,” said one of them. I understood him perfectly.
For decades now, Satyajit Ray and Amartya Sen were the Bengali ‘heroes’. But none would have the resonance in the popular imagination as Sourav did. In a country where one belongs to a region first and then to the nation, he had helped bridge regional and national identities.
Cricket in our country has this reach to subsume regional and religious identities. A couple of years ago, when I was at the house of a Muslim friend, I was talking to his son. The family belonged to Aarah in Bihar and the son was a college student. The conversation veered round to cricket and he revealed the ‘minority psyche’ and the role cricket has played in assuaging many ‘hurt sentiments’.
There was a time when some members of his family would not identify with the national team. Some of them would feel incensed by the constant questionings from their Hindu friends — “Did you celebrate because India lost today?” — and would would end up wanting Pakistan to win. With Mohammad Azharuddin becoming a cricket icon, Muslims started identifying with the Indian cricket team in much greater numbers. Hadn’t Mansoor Ali Khan Pataudi given that sense of belonging? No. Because Pataudi was a Nawab and the ‘common Muslim’ couldn’t identify with him. The son of a lower middle-class Hyderabadi became that icon. After Azharuddin found himself mired in match-fixing allegations, cricket-loving Muslims found new heroes in the Mohammad Kaifs, Zaheer Khans and Irfan Pathans on the field. And today, when Muslim families sit around their television set to watch a cricket match; they want India and only India to win.
This typifies the binding power of cricket. In the aftermath of the anti-Muslim killings in Gujarat in 2002, while the Indian team was practising on eve of a one-day international in Baroda, some Hindu spectators were initially taunting Muslims in the crowd. But once Zaheer Khan and Irfan Pathan entered the ground, this taunting lot started shouting slogans in favour of the two.
Whatever cricket has done — and not done — to Indians, it definitely has given various regional and ethnic identities a sense of national belonging. And it will continue to do that.
Pradeep Magazine is the author of the forthcoming authorised biography of Sourav Ganguly.