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The ‘country versus club’ debate is not new to Indian cricket. But the 24/7 TV news turned Gautam Gambhir into an acid test of nationalism, writes Ashok Malik.

india Updated: Nov 20, 2011 11:37 IST
Ashok Malik

In early 1980, Sunil Gavaskar stepped down from the Indian captaincy and announced he was too tired and unavailable for the upcoming tour of the West Indies. Eventually, the tour was cancelled. However, Gavaskar spent the summer not resting at home in Mumbai but playing county cricket for Somerset.

Gavaskar’s friends saw nothing hypocritical in this. The winter of 1979-80 had seen India play 13 home tests, including an exhausting series against a strong Pakistani side. India’s best batsman was mentally fatigued and not in prime shape to travel to the Caribbean Islands — and take on what was then the best team in the world. County cricket in England was quite different.

In 1952, Vinoo Mankad faced a similar predicament. Months before India’s tour of England that summer, Mankad, then India’s best all-rounder, requested the selectors to pre-confirm his place in the squad. He had an attractive offer from Haslingden, a club in the Lancashire League, and as a professional wanted to safeguard his earnings. If the selectors confirmed he was touring England, he would turn down Haslingden.

The selectors refused to guarantee Mankad’s place in the team. The left-hander dropped out of the tour and went on to play for Haslingden. Mid-series, a devastated Indian team was forced to request Haslingden to release Mankad. It even sent a replacement cricketer.

As is apparent, ‘country versus club/county’ debates and choices are not new to Indian cricket. These have long preceded the Indian Premier League (IPL). Where Mankad and Gavaskar were lucky was that their decisions were not dissected by that 24/7 khap panchayat called Indian news television.

On this count, the recent fracas involving Gautam Gambhir and the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) has been revealing. It has shown up the media for a fundamental inability to understand a sportsman’s ethic. It has emphasised the dangerous sensationalism news — particularly cricket news — is subjected to.

Finally, it has been a reminder of the tawdry and crude nationalism that (at least some) news channels have made their calling card.

What were the facts of the Gambhir case? He was carrying a niggle since the world cup, as were it seems Virendra Sehwag, MS Dhoni, Sachin Tendulkar, Zaheer Khan and others. Some of them were carrying niggles even before the world cup.

A niggle is a problem but is not necessarily life or career threatening, not always enough to miss a tournament as big as the world cup or as lucrative as the IPL. Pride and money are both legitimate motivations for a sportsman.

Once Gambhir reported for the KKR pre-IPL camp, he was assured of his season fee. Whether he played the crucial play-off game against Mumbai or didn’t would have made zero difference to his bank balance. Why then did he play that match and refuse to discuss the MRI report?

He was desperate to play because his team had a realistic chance of winning the IPL. By this stage, he was driven by competitiveness and not cash.

When the MRI report was received, Gambhir only asked: Will it get worse if I play the Mumbai game? The answer was: No, the injury requires rest at some point but will not get worse. That made up Gambhir’s mind. He would play and discuss the MRI findings later.

Take another example from KKR itself. Brad Haddin too arrived for IPL 4 carrying a niggle. Early in the tournament, the team physiotherapist advised him an X-ray. The Australian wicket-keeper was reluctant. The momentum had set in; he wanted to finish the IPL and didn’t want potentially bad news interrupting him. The physiotherapist insisted.

The X-ray was done. It was found the injury would get worse if Haddin continued playing. The player’s first response was: “I wish I hadn’t done that damned X-ray.” His IPL was over, but never — not before the X-ray and not after — was his season fee at risk.

Did news television report any of this? The Haddin story was censored as too inconvenient. The KKR CEO Venky Mysore was accused of “walking out of an interview” on being asked “pointed questions”.

It was obvious on screen that he had done nothing of the sort. A wild and as it now appears concocted story was telecast alleging that the KKR management had injected a steroid into Gambhir’s body without his knowledge.

Do mainstream channels realise the damage they are doing to their credibility?

More important, why have some channels taken it upon themselves to hand out certificates of nationalism every evening at 9 pm? Who is to decide who is anti-national and who is a nationalist?

How is commitment to India to be tested — by deciding which cricket matches you play and which you don’t; by demanding an instant verdict on the villain of the day, be it a cricketer or a politician or anybody else?

In resorting to such sanctimonious gimmicks, some news channels are setting themselves up for a backlash. After all, as CLR James might have said, “What do they know of nations who only nationalism know?”

(Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based political commentator. The views expressed by the author are personal)