I have never gone to a cricket match with my daughter. That’s because she follows cricket in a desultory way. Football is the game she is passionate about keeping up with, with tennis a close second.
But I won’t make the mistake of saying that Oishi, now nine, is representative of Indian children who have turned away from the game that defines our country.
She is an exception (I know of other exceptions, and it would have been more fun had she not been one). Cricket is not merely the most followed game in India (yes, even among the new generation); it is part of our social fabric and popular culture; a long time ago, it moved from the margins to the centre of our collective consciousness, and has taken up permanent residence there.
When it comes to cricket and India, fandom acquires a different dimension: it is fraught with complexity. Young people, sick of the shenanigans of corrupt politicians, keen on self congratulation, looking for visible manifestations of India being a world beater, look upon the game as a marker of their national identity.
And it’s a short walk from being a fervent supporter of the national team to becoming a jingoist, to using cricket as a vehicle for the expression of aggressive nationalist aspirations.
I don’t know how many children were in the crowd in Ahmedabad when India beat Australia in the World Cup quarter finals on Thursday, but their parents certainly weren’t encouraging them to applaud when Brad Haddin got to his fine half century or when Ricky Ponting scored one of the most outstanding centuries of this — or any other — tournament.
Being Indians, we’ll of course support India. But if we are cricket fans rather than fans merely of the Indian cricket team, shouldn’t we teach our children the grace and dignity of applauding fine play from the opposition?
I do know there were thousands of children at the Eden Gardens when spectators erupted in fury when India looked like losing (and then finally did lose) against Sri Lanka in a World Cup quarter final in 1996.
I know there were thousands of them — ugly, jeering, violent little things — at the same Kolkata ground when the stands had to be emptied by baton-wielding police, and an India v Pakistan Test match played out with a bare, cavernous stadium as the backdrop. I was there. I saw them. I remember.
I recall a father teaching his little boy how evil the Pakistanis — especially the Pakistanis, but essentially any team that dared to beat India — were.
I remember a father teaching his son how best to create a racket by banging two water bottles together, how to boo when the opposition hit a boundary, how to break of bits of crumbling concrete from the steps in the stadium and throw them at fielders from the opposition who were on the boundary line.
We’d be failing in our duties as parents were we to not tell our children of the dichotomy that exists at the heart of being an Indian cricket fan: cricket seems at once to be a matter of life and death and is actually utterly inconsequential.
That is its charm, and its greatest pleasure.