Mumbai’s relationship with cricket is legendary and, at one time, was so symbiotic that the city was called the nursery of Indian cricket. It has had treasured tournaments, players of supreme calibre, iconic grounds, passionate crowds, exciting series and World Cup matches and more. The Ranji Trophy, Bombay Quadrangular, Bombay Pentangular tournaments ran parallel to the movement for India’s independence. The city was home to the inaugural match of the first ever Test series played in India, against England, at the Gymkhana Ground in December 1933, which India lost by 9 wickets.
Mumbai has had a nearly 50-year-old relationship with the Shiv Sena. Rather, it would be more appropriate to say the party with its unapologetic agenda of nativitism, hyper-nationalism, “fiery brand of Hindutva”, and use of violence as its preferred method has cultivated a political-cultural relationship with the city. Its leaders claim to speak for Mumbai.
To its late founder Bal Thackeray, cricket was both a passion and political instrument. The former allowed him to often claim cricketing greats of Maharashtrian origin as the community’s or city’s pride. The latter meant that he would use the game, its power and playgrounds to leverage political negotiations or score brownie points in politics. If it led to holding Mumbai and its cricket fans to ransom, well, that was too bad.
He did not care to explain the contradiction in his love for cricket and Mumbai, and the diktat to his “boys” to damage the Wankhede stadium pitch or vandalise the BCCI office leading to destruction and loss of prized trophies. Hosting Pakistan’s Javed Miandad at his house, but opposing India-Pak matches in Mumbai was illogical, but he did not think so. In November 2012, even as he lay ailing, Thackeray termed the then proposed Indo-Pak series a “national shame” and disparaged India’s “cricket diplomacy” with Pakistan.
The Sena’s acts this week — storming into the Indian cricket board BCCI’s office and warning its chief against holding talks with his Pakistan counterpart, threatening the International Cricket Council’s Elite Panel umpire Aleem Dar from standing in the scheduled India-South Africa match, raising doubts about the security of Pakistan-origin commentators — jeopardise Mumbai’s ties with cricket itself, at least so far as they involve Pakistan. The wave of extremism has raised questions about the forthcoming T20 World Cup in India, the possibility of matches being scheduled in Mumbai and the security of Pakistani players in the city.
It is time to call the Sena’s bluff, but those who can speak up for Mumbai and cricket have chosen to be silent spectators to this bullying and extremism. Why have India’s all-time cricketing stalwarts and Mumbai’s citizens – Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Dilip Vengsarkar among others – not chosen their side? Equally, where are the voices of the city’s non-cricketing icons, the film stars, the celebrities, the corporate czars and others whose words carry heft and gravitas, and could emerge as a counter voice to that of the Sena? Indeed, where are all those who claim “I love Mumbai” or do they all silently support the hooliganism?
The ICC, best placed to stand up to the party’s strong-arm tactics, did not. It could have insisted that Dar, as an international and qualified umpire, would officiate in the India-SA match in Mumbai. That it feared his safety is a comment on the state government’s ability to maintain law and order. Ironically, the Sena is part of the government, but is locked in a hard-nosed political battle with its more powerful partner, the BJP.
The fact is that the Sena has always primarily spoken for itself rather than for all Mumbai or its cricket. But its voice seems menacing and vociferous because it goes unchallenged from quarters best placed to challenge it. It is the story of the growth of Sena, anyway. Back then, it was the Congress that chose silent support. Now, others have. It is always Mumbai that loses.