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India vs Australia | National integration in Brisbane

In politically charged times, sports teams deliver an important message of racial or communal equality, even if it’s a practical sort of unity.

January 20, 2021 / 09:35 PM IST
No team had managed to beat Australia in 33 years at the Gabba and never ever an Asian team, before India.

No team had managed to beat Australia in 33 years at the Gabba and never ever an Asian team, before India.

Sport is not always as lofty as Olympic mottos would have us believe. But it entertains. It inspires and it makes lives and careers. And it unites. Dressing rooms are not always the happiest of places, but at least they make people from different backgrounds tolerate each other and work together. In politically fraught times, this delivers an important message.

India’s triumphant squad in Australia is being celebrated not just for its cricket, but also for representing the various hues of the country. The North produced Rishabh Pant, Shubman Gill, and Navdeep Saini. Cheteshwar Pujara came from Gujarat. There were the Mumbaikars - Ajinkya Rahane, Rohit Sharma, Jasprit Bumrah and Shardul Thakur. Mohammed Siraj is from Hyderabad. Washington Sundar, Mayank Agarwal, R Ashwin and T Natarajan hail from the southern states.

When France won the 2018 football World Cup, their team too became a high-profile advertisement of tolerance and unity. An astonishing 87 per cent of the squad was made up of immigrants or children of immigrants. Kylian Mbappe, who became just the second teenager after Pele to score in a World Cup final and whose blazing runs touch Usain Bolt speeds, is the son of a Cameroonian father and an Algerian mother.

No immigrant has yet played cricket for India. But given the size of the country and its numerous castes and sub-castes, Indian dressing rooms have been khichadi pots too. It hasn’t always been smooth going. The early years of Indian cricket saw clashes between the aristocrats, such as the notorious Prince of Vizianagaram, Vizzy, and genuine players such as CK Nayudu and Lala Amarnath.

Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi, the man who led India to its first Test series victory abroad, against New Zealand in 1968, was a royal too. But he was a cricketer first, and credited for making the dressing room a place without regional discrimination, where only performance mattered. In one of Indian cricket’s many national integration moments, Mumbai’s Ajit Wadekar top-scored in the series in New Zealand.

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VVS Laxman, speaking at the third Pataudi lecture in 2014, said, “Mr Pataudi advocated equality and Indian fervour in an age when feudal thinking and regional bias were dominant. He instilled self-belief and pride in the Indian team, the confidence that they were second to none”.

But while the patrician-proletarian divide in Indian cricket eased with time, regional conflicts, such as the one between Mumbai and Delhi, remained. Mumbai was the nursery of Indian cricket for several years. It reflects in its domination of the Ranji Trophy, which it has won a record 41 times. Karnataka/Mysore and Delhi are a distant second and third with 8 and 7 titles, respectively. However, this led to accusations of arrogance and favouritism against Mumbai.

Money changed all that. Indian cricket is often blamed for being too commercial. But hot sexy cash, coupled with liberalisation and the rising confidence of mofussil India due to players like MS Dhoni, levelled the playing field. Multi-million dollar television and sponsorship rights ensured that money filtered down from the BCCI to domestic players and staff and small centres. Anxieties eased and so did dressing room politics, at least the kind that was caused by money.

There will still be groups and tension. Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma were reportedly engaged in a cold war during the 2019 World Cup. But for the most part, the Indian team symbolises a certain realistic unity that should be accessible to all of us, despite the best efforts of some politicians.
Akshay Sawai
first published: Jan 20, 2021 09:35 pm

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