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Running between wickets

The similarities between Dhoni and Kapil Dev are uncanny. Both are cricketers from small-town cricketing outposts, one the Haryana Hurricane, the other the Ranchi Rockstar, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: Sep 26, 2007, 01:12 IST
Rajdeep Sardesai
Rajdeep Sardesai
Hindustan Times

On the face of it, Wanderers 2007 is Lords 1983 all over again. As Mahendra Singh Dhoni lifted the ICC World Twenty20 trophy, the beaming smile brought back memories of another dynamic champion. The similarities between Dhoni and Kapil Dev are uncanny. Both are cricketers from small-town cricketing outposts, one the Haryana Hurricane, the other the Ranchi Rockstar. Both blessed with oodles of raw talent, power and athleticism; neither of them really caring much for the history of the game, or the reputation of the opposition. <b1>

Both trendsetters: until Kapil Dev burst on to the scene, Indian fast bowling was considered less than military medium. Until Dhoni arrived as a hard-hitting wicket-keeper-batsman, Indian glovemen, with the possible exception of Farookh Engineer, were hardly flamboyant frontiersmen. Both are style icons of their generation: Kapil’s trademark moustache and wide smile lit up the ad world in the 1980s (so what if


English remained refreshingly Haryanvi). Dhoni’s flowing mane makes him Indian Idol material, the kind who might trade his bat for a bike one day. Both have redefined the image of the quiet, self-effacing Indian cricketer: this is the new fearless Indian cricketer with an attitude.

The two years, 1983 and 2007, are similar for other cricketing reasons too. One-day cricket was an unknown entity when India won the World Cup 24 years ago. This was an era when the grammar of batsmanship was defined by Sunil Gavaskar, the master technician. To score 36 runs in 60 overs, as the Little Master did in the inaugural world cup, wasn’t seen then as the disaster it would be today. Until 1983, India’s lone world cup win had come against lowly East Africa. Quite simply, we were novices at limited overs cricket.

Ditto 2007. Unlike England, where Twenty20 cricket has been played for three years now, only a handful of such games have been played in India. Moreover, after the World Cup defeat in the West Indies, most cricket fans had given up on their team. Like in 1983, few expected this Indian team to reach the semi-finals of the Twenty20 championship, leave aside win the tournament. Perhaps, it’s the element of sheer surprise that makes the achievement all the more spectacular.

But 24 years are an eternity in a sport like cricket. The fact is that the social geography of the game has changed dramatically. The 1983 winning 11 had four players from Delhi, two from Mumbai, two from Bangalore and one from Chennai. It was the quintessential Big City team, mostly comprising upper-middle class men. <b2>

The 2007 team, by contrast, is very much a Tier 2-3 town team, unburdened by metropolitan consciousness. The winning 11 against Pakistan had only one player from Delhi, one from Mumbai and just one from Bangalore. The rest were from towns like Rae Bareli, Rohtak and Kochi, places with no cricketing history. Many of them come from lower-middle class families, having lived in one and two-room tenements for much of their lives. A majority of them defies the stereotype. Till the Pathan brothers stepped on to the scene, Vadodara cricket was shaped by the royal lineage of the Gaekwads. Now, the sons of an imam in Narendra Modi’s Gujarat are the stars of the game. Even Rohit Sharma is not the typical Mumbai cricketer: he played his cricket not in the gymkhanas of South Mumbai or the maidans of Shivaji Park, but in the distant fields of Borivili.

Most sociologists would see this as confirmation of the rise of small-town India: to the multi-storey malls in Rohtak, you can now add the residence of Joginder Sharma. This is an India which has been strangulated for years by the English-speaking metropolitan elite and is now desperate to break free. This is the India for whom playing cricket is a vehicle of social mobility, of finally unshackling an oppressive system where the public school tie appeared to matter more than ability. With its uniquely meritocratic approach, cricket could do what few other fields of activity in this country provided: a chance to excel and be recognised, irrespective of one’s lineage.

So, while the South Mumbai and South Delhi teenagers are reduced to couch potatoes playing video games on their latest XBox in air-conditioned comfort, their counterparts in a Meerut or a Mysore are hungry for success on hot and dusty cricket pitches. It’s that hunger for success that shone through during the Twenty20 Cup, best captured in Sreesanth intensely glaring at a Matthew Hayden, the champion Aussie batsman. It isn’t the kind of behaviour they would approve of in a Doon or a Cathedral.

Deeper social transformation

Cricket, in that sense, is only a metaphor for a deeper social transformation. Take the emergence of the phenomenon of the Hindi news channel. In 1983, those who worked in the non-English media were seen as lesser beings: they got far lower salaries, their rooms were smaller, their stories attracted scant attention. How, after all, could you compare an Oxbridge educated editor with someone from Chaudhary Charan Singh university? Today, quite remarkably, there has been a dramatic change: Hindi TV journalists can demand a price in the marketplace, the energy and robustness of Hindi channels is to be admired (even if it is misdirected at times), and most news networks acknowledge that their Hindi channel viewership is more important than their English audience. A Hindi journalist can no longer be dismissed as an ignorant vernacular; he is now seen as the person with a ear to the ground.

A similar change can be seen in the IITs. In 1983 they were populated by English-speaking graduates. Today’s young IITians come from small towns, their English imperfect, but their educational achievements second to none. The rules of admission remain the same. What has changed is the emergence of coaching classes in every nook and corner of the country, each one offering the dream of becoming an engineer one day.

Cricket vs Politics

Take politics too. In 1983, politics was still dominated by the upper caste, anglicised, Brahminical elite. Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister and Rajiv her heir apparent. Chief Ministers were puppets in the hands of the high command, with the non-English speaking ones particularly vulnerable to the whims of their political masters (remember Anjiah?). Indian politics in 1983 had not been ‘Mandalised’: the Lalus, the Mulayams, the Mayawatis were still struggling to make their way up the political ladder. <b3>

In 2007, the wheel has come full circle. Rahul Gandhi may have been anointed Congress General Secretary, but even he knows that his future is dependent on regional satraps who may not eat with fork and knife, but sure know how to cut into traditional vote-banks. In 1983, a Mayawati-like figure could scarcely dare to dream to be CM, leave aside being Pm. Today, she is unapologetic about her ambition to the top post.

And yet, unlike politics, the new cricket order has its serious limitations. Dhoni may have placed Jharkhand on the global cricket map. But the fact is that the state is still beset with abject poverty and political mismanagement. Dhoni may light up cricket grounds with his willow power, but on his home turf in Ranchi, four-hour power cuts are routine. Rohtak may celebrate Joginder Sharma’s last over against Pakistan, but what of the depressing sex ratio in the town? Rae Bareli has its first cricket hero in RP Singh. But what of the worsening law and order situation in Sonia Gandhi’s constituency? And while the Pathans are the pride of Vadodara, the fact is that the communal situation remains fragile in parts of the city.

So, while we rightly celebrate our new cricket heroes, let’s not see them as catalysts of change just yet. Don’t forget the euphoria of the 1983 win was followed by the horrific anti-Sikh riots just a year later. 2007 may be a watershed moment in Indian cricket, but beyond the boundary life isn’t quite so smooth.

Rajdeep Sardesai is Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN and IBN-7

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