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A bridge so near, yet too far

Cricket became a global sport but failed to dissolve national and religious identities. Instead, it put a premium on them.

india Updated: Jan 28, 2003 12:26 IST

Cricket became a global sport but failed to dissolve national and religious identities. Instead, it put a premium on them.

The 1996 World Cup began not so much with the tacky opening ceremony in Eden Gardens as with the bomb blast in Colombo that took at least 80 lives. In response, the Australians announced that for security reasons they would not play their scheduled opening match in the city. The West Indies followed suit. The Sri Lankans insisted the venue was safe and were strongly backed by their south Asian co-hosts. Intensive negotiations within the ICC proved fruitless.

Thus, bitterly divided, world cricket stumbled into its high profile jamboree.
Australia and West Indies forfeited the matches but suffered no further penalties. As a gesture of solidarity, India and Pakistan sent a joint team to play an exhibition match against the Sri Lankans in Colombo. That match, with its historic scoreline, “Kaluwitharana caught Tendulkar bowled Wasim Akram”, may have been ‘uncompetitive’ but it was far from meaningless.

Given the traumatic events with which the Cup had opened, the ultimate Sri Lankan victory was seen by many as a case of poetic justice. But it was not merely as passive victims of first world prejudice that the Sri Lankans acquired support across and outside south Asia.

They played with an invigorating élan and alert resolve. Their aggressive openers, Jayasuriya and Kaluwitharana, established new benchmarks in exploiting the 15-over field limitations. It was during this World Cup that Jayasuriya climbed into cricket’s top echelon, batting with fluent, fearless, light-footed enthusiasm, bringing a touch of playground exuberance to the televised spectacle.

In the field, the Sri Lankans were a beguiling mixture of the lithe and the portly, and under Arjuna Ranatunga’s savvy captaincy the disparate and sometimes fragmentary talents cohered into the most consistent unit in the tournament. Delightfully, team cohesion left ample scope for individual flair.

At the outset, the debate was whether Tendulkar, Lara or Mark Waugh would emerge as the dominant batsman of the Cup. In the end, the only performer who outshone Jayasuriya was his team-mate Aravinda de Silva, who adapted Test match precision to the requirements of one day run-getting. His crucial innings in the Calcutta semi-final — after the Sri Lankans had lost their swashbuckling openers for next to nothing — was both aesthetically breathtaking and tactically flawless. His century in the final was a model of composed assurance. The unflappability that characterised the team as a whole was epitomised in De Silva’s quiet mastery of everything the Australians could throw at him, including Shane Warne.

The game of highest quality was probably the first round encounter between India and Australia in Mumbai, graced by exceptional performances by both sides.

The most unexpected result was the Kenyan victory over the West Indians in Pune — an achievement that may seem less remarkable in retrospect, but which nonetheless provided the kind of giant-killing fillip that remains one of the great charms of international cup competition.

The prime first round Delhi fixture between India and Sri Lanka was seriously mishandled by both police and cricket authorities and resulted in unruly and dangerous scenes outside the ground. It also witnessed the destruction by the Sri Lankan openers of all-rounder Manoj Prabahkar and his bitter exit from international cricket.

At their semi-final re-match in Calcutta, the trouble entered the ground itself. As India collapsed on a turning wicket, a section of the crowd began pelting the field with bottles and lighting fires in the stands. Match referee Clive Lloyd called a halt to proceedings and awarded the match to the Sri Lankans.

For the Indian media, this was the game of shame. But after the indignation had subsided, few bothered to pursue the underlying questions about how and why the disturbance had taken place. Not surprisingly, unwelcome crowd interventions were to recur at Indian grounds in the years to come.

In the long run, the significance of the 1996 World Cup was the unprecedented degree of commercial exploitation it brought to international cricket. In India, it became a celebration and self-affirmation of a thrusting consumer class taking its place in a neo-liberal world order. For the PR and marketing industries, it was the event of the decade. Credit card booking and corporate hospitality marquees made their first appearance on sub-continental grounds. Tobacco, airlines, TV and fridge manufacturers all jostled for a piece of the action. In the battle for the biggest slice of the global television market — India — Doordarshan and Sky fought out a draw in the courts.

For the ordinary consumer, the corporate scramble to exploit cricket had the merit of producing the entertaining Cola wars. Coke outbid Pepsi for the official World Cup sponsorship slot, but Pepsi responded with its cheeky “Nothing official about it” campaign.

Pepsi revelled in debunking the stuffy image of the traditional ‘gentlemen’s game’, promoting in its place a brash, self-consciously contemporary, winner-takes-all ethos. Coke struck back with its evocative “passion has a colour”/ josh mein rang hai advert, in which a lush montage of cricket-images from gallis and maidans was backed by a soaring Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan on the soundtrack.

These are still the best cricket-based adverts ever produced, forerunners of the epic romanticism of Lagaan. Marketing experts believed, however, that they may have failed in reaching their target youth audience; the contemplative style would appeal mainly to the over fifties. Still, in retrospect, they seem more appealing than the flippant amorality of Pepsi’s approach; in the wake of the bribery and corruption scandals, one wonders how “nothing official about it” would play now.

Despite the Solidarity Match in Colombo and the close co-operation of the Indian and Pakistani cricket boards, south Asian unity was stretched to breaking point during the tournament. On both sides of the border, aggressive and antagonistic nationalist sentiments seeped into the crowds, the media coverage and even the advertising. In India, there were full-throated chants of Pakistan hai hai no matter whom the home side were playing.

The quarter-final between India and Pakistan in Bangalore (the first meeting between the in south Asia for seven years) was openly promoted as a near-simulacrum of warfare, and the result was greeted with inordinate glee in India and equally inordinate depression in Pakistan. One lesson of the 1996 World Cup — confirmed repeatedly in many regions since then — was that far from dissolving national and religious identities, globalisation puts a new premium on them. They become more malleable and more casually exploitable by both corporate and political interests.

Despite the corporate packaging, the tournament as a whole, thanks not least to its pan-South Asian identity, was experienced by most as a festive celebration of a global game. Nowhere else would the competition have been followed by the same numbers, cut across the same variety of social constituencies, or elicited the same degree of informed interest.

But in establishing south Asia as the epicentre of world cricket, the Cup also threw up questions about the governance of the sub-continental game, about accountability and priorities in its development, that are still far from being answered.

Out of the culture of venality and self-aggrandisement on display in the 1996 World Cup emerged the match-fixing maelstrom. Inevitably, the deregulation of the financial environment of the game exercised an insidious influence on the values and priorities of those playing it.

As for that historic solidarity match, and the spirit of India-Pakistan friendship it symbolised, they seem memories from a lost era. Nonetheless, it is a fact of life that the full promise of south Asian cricket will never be realised in the absence of cooperation between the two countries. Perhaps that’s the biggest unanswered question from the 1996 extravaganza.

(The writer is a renowned author and critic. His ‘War Minus The Shooting’ provides wonderful insight into the 1996 World Cup).