Adversity reveals a man's character. And a nation's character is teased out on battlefields: the bloodied plains, valleys and trenches where actual war is fought and the sports grounds where national teams slug it out.And, perhaps more than the politicians leading it into conflict, nothing typifies a nation's character as much as the personality of its sports captains.
While a nation's leadership is unlikely to be younger than 50, its captains on the sports field will seldom be more than 20 or 30 summers old; a perfect barometer of how the young people in their country think and act; how the personality of their nation is changing.
This could be true of any country and its most popular sport. For us, it is undeniably cricket, that game described as an Indian game invented by the British.
That description is intriguing but apt; understand it and you will understand how the game reflects national character. The key probably lies in the fact that it's a forgiving game, where beauty and subtlety are valued more than the result.
So you will find (or could have found - this is changing) people clustered around coffee tables talking of a great fightback in an ultimately losing cause. Ruthlessness is valued less than the ability to make memories. The less kind would equate ruthlessness with rigour and say that this is a game where rigour matters less; the downright cruel would say that this is true of our work culture as a nation.
It seems churlish to say that the game in a country which has produced Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar (among a galaxy of batting greats) has a soft core. But to settle the rigour question, of the hundreds of cricketers India has produced, how many truly do well in all conditions? And how good have the team's results been over the years, especially abroad?
The answers to both questions are depressing, but only go to prove the point that results affect India only temporarily and forgiveness reigns.
After all, if Indian cricket were all about winning in a robotic manner, it wouldn't really be Indian at all. And Indian teams are not good at ugly, scrappy draws; some recent results suggest it would be better if they were.This national trait of doing things prettily and with heart rather than head is just one of those which gets reflected in the faces of India's Test captains.
Let's scroll back to the modern greats in the captains' ranks. Kapil Dev and Gavaskar were as different as chalk and cheese but there was one similarity. They were excellent individual performers in teams made up of lesser men; the mindset of India of the 1980s was dominated by sullen backwardness. There was also a clear sense of state and zone as a young nation struggled to assert its composite identity.
Sourav Ganguly moulded his Indian team into a bunch of fighters. But big heart was coupled with thin skin. There was always at least a hint of the chip on the shoulder: remember (with pleasure as many of us who belong to his generation do) the barechested jersey-waving at Lord's, cocking a snook at the so-called (colonial) Mecca of the sport?
Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid personified quiet confidence, but more than that a hatred of losing, which in Dravid's case was almost a fear. Steel, tempered with a knowledge of the inadequacies of their teams. This reflected an India that had made rapid strides in the decade and a half since liberalisation began, and was starting to truly believe.
Mahendra Singh Dhoni represents the phase just before the aggro overflowed. Quiet confidence and a much stronger will than most; an ability to rise from smalltown India and take the national stage with elan.
Dhoni was an original, take him or leave him, and reflected a greater sense of self-worth in India. But there was, too, an odd tendency to go absent when things got tough in Test cricket, a residue of the awareness of their shortcomings that Indians of years gone by felt acutely. So, modern India, but tempered by some of the insecurities of the past.
Virat Kohli is all about in-your-face aggro and a slightly vulnerable underbelly, the perfect mascot of a generation Y that thinks it knows what it wants; there will be many occasions where such cocksureness leads to a loss of balance and some grief but such is the underlying confidence that it finds its footing more quickly than generations gone by. His is today's India.
(Shankar has developed into a cricket tragic - a term he recently discovered - over 35 years of following the game. No day is complete without at least one mental cricketing soliloquy or diatribe voiced out loud; on the field this passion has taken him from playing against his father in the backyard to partnering his son in the front garden. Throw in a built-in alarm clock, set for Australian mornings, and you get the picture)
(Views expressed by the writer are personal. If you want to share your thoughts on the game, mail your write-ups to firstname.lastname@example.org )
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