Last week’s newspapers carried the stock photograph at the end of a cricket series, showing the captains of the two competing sides on the rostrum with the trophy. Since the series was shared 1-1, South Africa captain Graeme Smith and his Indian counterpart Mahendra Singh Dhoni held the trophy together, both of them looking into the camera, Smith a head taller than his rival. But Dhoni was in no way dwarfed because his stance and his hands on the cup complemented the expression on his face. This wasn’t the look of an upstart who is delighted to be in august company. It wasn’t the look of defiance of someone who has done better than expected. Dhoni’s expression was one of confidence, just a bit of short of arrogance.
If you go back to accounts of India’s cricket tour of the 1950s, they make for dismal reading. Bowlers didn’t make an impression; the fielding was slovenly while the batsmen were terrorised by fast bowlers like Freddie Trueman. But for one aspect of India’s cricket, there was universal praise: everyone agreed ours were Gentlemen Cricketers. Though there was a hint of condescension there, it was an acknowledgement of the good manners shown on and off the field by our cricketers. Some of these players were as talented as any of today’s. Vijay Hazare, for example, scored a century in each innings in a Test in Australia against Don Bradman’s team while a Lord’s game was called Vinoo Mankad’s Test because of his incredible all-round display (scores of 72 and 184, 73 overs bowled in England’s one innings for five wickets).
But in spite of their talent, our teams always underperformed. They were beaten before they started. In their minds they were playing against ‘superior’ foreigners, so how could they do anything but lose? You can understand that in a way. These cricketers were all born in British India; they were brought up in an atmosphere where the white man was king.
Many of our cricketers of that time came from simple backgrounds. They were thus doubly handicapped, first vis-a-vis the English-speaking Indian elite and then the British
ruling class. No wonder they behaved like gentlemen: history weighed on their shoulders; they were equipped to be only good losers.
The change began imperceptibly with the transitional generation, those born just before 1947 but brought up in independent India. The one who could have exerted a huge influence on the team was Mansur Ali Khan ‘Tiger’ Pataudi, the Nawab with an Oxbridge education. But as a captain he was, by temperament, too laid-back and since he didn’t see any difference between himself and the foreigner, he couldn’t imagine why anyone else would.
Sunil Gavaskar changed all that. As a batsman and captain he was defensive; as a cricketer he was combative. You see that in his columns even today. He spots the condescension, the assumed superiority, the ill-disguised double-standards of English and Australian cricketers and sportswriters, and goes for them no holds barred. On the field he gave no quarter, playing the game as hard as the Aussies, but without their boorishness. We all remember the famous incident in Australia in the era before neutral umpires, when incensed with yet one more biased decision against him, he almost walked off the field with his team. That was obviously an over-reaction, but indicative of the way Gavaskar played cricket.
Captains since then, each in his own way, have sent the same message across to the opposition: I play for India. Don’t mess with me. Some captains have conveyed this quietly, while someone like Sourav Ganguly did so in a deliberate way as when he kept Steve Waugh, supposedly a stickler for time and tradition, waiting near the pitch for the toss. When Greg Chappell became the coach of the team and tried to play the ‘Superior Australian’, sparks inevitably flew. Chappell may have been a legend as a batsman, but reputations now only took you so far with our players. The Indian cricketer could not be bullied. If India is the number one team in the world, it is this attitudinal change that has taken it to the top.
Obviously cricketers don’t live in isolation. The changes in Indian attitudes have taken place not just on the cricket field but in society as a whole. This has to do with the country’s increasing prosperity and its rise as an economic power. Even as recently as the 1970s and 1980s, many Indians were embarrassed to be Indians. No one is now. Embarrassment has given way to pride.
We look at a Dilbert cartoon strip and the brainiest guy is an IIT graduate called Asok. Indians are at Nasa, they are at Silicon Valley startups. They head international banks and major multi-nationals. Unknown to us, a sense of pride creeps into our subconsciousness, and adds a swagger to our step. Why do you think Indian sportsmen have suddenly begun to win a record number of medals at international events like the Commonwealth or Asian Games?
Look at that photograph again. Dhoni is a small town boy from one of our poorer states. He comes from a modest family. He didn’t go to college. But none of this matters. He holds that trophy with the confidence of one who belongs, and belongs without dispute, on the world stage.
(Anil Dharker is a Mumbai-based author and columnist)
*The views expressed by the author are personal