Even when he was playing the IPL, Ashwin was frequently tweeting and retweeting people’s needs for plasma or medical attention during the pandemic.
It is just months since the pop star Rihanna tweeted about the farmers’ agitation in India, after which Indian celebrities reportedly received ‘a call they could not refuse’. In the process of heeding that order masked as a request, they almost copy-pasted pro-government messages. Many Indian people were appalled at what they saw as spineless, clumsy behaviour from personalities in a position to do better.
Now that COVID is raging through the country, our cricket pantheon has again disappointed their millions of followers. Some Indians are upset that the IPL is even continuing while Rome burns, and when the medical resources being used for the protection of teams could be used for the public. More disheartening, however, is the somewhat cursory support the influential cricketing fraternity has extended towards the crisis.
It’s not that Indian cricketers have not contributed towards Covid relief. For a change, some of them donated actual money, instead of just a bat or a shirt. The sense, however, is that real fire to make a difference beyond their comfort zone lacks among our cricketers.
There is no Steve Waugh, throwing himself in the chaos and grime of Kolkata and working for Udayan, the NGO for leprosy-affected children, even in his playing days. Waugh still contributes Rs 25 lakh a year to the foundation.
There is no Imran Khan, driving all around the country to collect funds, and building from scratch a cancer hospital that offers free treatment to the poor. There is no Muhammad Ali, hitting the streets to protest the Vietnam War or racism.
We do have R Ashwin, though. The culture of Indian cricket is to stay away from anything sensitive. And maybe Indian cricketers, sometimes, have genuine reasons to pick discretion over valour. The political and public retribution, the shrill media hounding, is just not worth it sometimes. But only sometimes. There come events, such as now, when you have to stop being afraid.
Ashwin, just 34, is one man who hasn’t been afraid. Not often. Even if he has suffered for it.
In 2017, the offspinner came to the Times of India office in Mumbai as the paper’s guest editor. This columnist was present there. Ashwin said, "I do take a stand and there are many people who don't like me because I take a stand. Everybody wants the other to be mum and that has become a way of life for us. I don't know if we will be able to move forward as a nation if it goes on like this. I can't urge the others to do it but at least I can do what my conscience tells me is right.”
During India’s thrilling series in Australia last year, Sunil Gavaskar wrote that Ashwin’s place in the side was often uncertain not due to any cricketing shortcomings but because of his candid nature.
“For far too long Ashwin has suffered not for his bowling ability of which only the churlish will have doubts, but for his forthrightness and speaking his mind at meetings where most others just nod even if they don’t agree,” Gavaskar wrote in a column.
On April 26, Ashwin said he was taking a break from the IPL to be with his family. Maybe such an extreme move was precipitated by extenuating personal circumstances, and nothing more. But it showed him to be a man willing to look beyond his cricketing priorities, like American footballer Colin Kaepernick, who knelt on one knee during the national anthem to make a statement against police brutality and racism in the US. Besides, even when he was playing the IPL, Ashwin was frequently tweeting and retweeting people’s needs for plasma or medical attention during the pandemic.
He also put out a tweet offering whatever help he could.
“I know there will be people who will retort with a tweet about my position. I’d like to reiterate that this is a virus that spares no one and I am in this fight with all of you. Let me know if I can help and I promise to help anyone that is within my capacity,” Ashwin posted.
Hardly any cricketers, celebrities or politicians in India have so openly offered their help.
There will be those who snigger at Ashwin, such as the anti-woke brigade, which can be as selective with the truth as the fanatically woke can be hypocritical. But at least the woke, sometimes, are alive inside and capable of saving a life or few.