What Team India can teach all of us

The capacity to be good, to do good, and be seen as good — the Indian team has lived this ethic visibly and consistently across the last 20 years. It is perhaps its biggest — and most under-celebrated — achievement.

The world’s right wing has run into an unusual opposition in the Indian cricket team. For various reasons.

One, the Indian team represents a laboratory beaker of classes, castes, cultures and communities. This goes against the basic right wing lowest common denominator of ethnic sameness. Rohit Sharma sounds North Indian but comes from Mumbai. Shreyas Iyer’s ancestors are from Kerala, but he hails from Maharashtra. KL Rahul is Mangalorean. Hardik Pandya is as Gujarati as they come. Surya Kumar and Kuldeep are Yadavs from Uttar Pradesh. R Ashwin is a Tamil Brahmin. Ravindra Jadeja and Shardul Thakur are Rajputs (but play for different states). Mohammed Siraj is from Telangana. Prasidh Krishna is from Karnataka. Mohammad Shami comes from Uttar Pradesh (but plays for Bengal). Shubhman Gill and Virat Kohli are Punjabis (one plays for Punjab, the other for Delhi). When a team is so ethnically diffused that it cannot be labelled, it does not stand for anyone and yet stands for everything. A shaayar wrote: Chaman me ikhtilat-e-rang-o-bu se baat banti hai; hum hi hum hain to kya hum hain; tum hi tum ho to kya tum ho.’ This Indian team lives this. Arrogantly.

Mohammed Siraj (R) celebrates with Virat Kohli after taking a wicket.

Two, the Indian cricket team is the unquestioned ambassador of the world’s largest population cluster (one sixth of humanity). Football may be religion in Brazil but there are more cricket lovers in Uttar Pradesh than in that South American country. American football may be the number one US sport, but that country would need to more than quadruple its population to even match the number of Indian cricket lovers. Basketball is possibly the most popular sport in China, but the following of that sport has been estimated at less than half of India’s cricket base. India’s scale — the largest nation-centric sporting franchise anywhere — provides it with a large responsibility: the capacity to be good, to do good and be seen as good for the largest and most demanding real-time audience in the world. The Indian team has lived this ethic visibly and consistently across the last 20 years; it is perhaps its biggest — and most under-celebrated — achievement.

Three, the Indian cricket team represents the cleanest form of ‘government’. No aspect of Indian public life — not even the judiciary — has possibly been as consistent in living this high moral line. I have not heard of a selector being ‘influenced’ in modern Indian cricket. There has been no whisper that Dhoni (or Kohli or Tendulkar or Ganguly or Sehwag or Dravid or Laxman or Kumble) may have willfully or fleetingly under-performed. In a country, where a range of politicians, TV anchors, actors and businesspersons maybe — and are — morally suspect, a presence in the Indian cricket team is equivalent to a moral ISO certification. This is an achievement in a country ranked 85 on the World Corruption Index.

Four, even as there is a growing concern that India is making minorities a convenient whipping child for everything that has gone wrong from the beginning of the previous millennium, the opposite is true in the Indian cricket team. The Indian team treats its minorities with respect and on merit. Two fast bowlers from the minority community have been lionised for their World Cup 2023 performance, validating a theory: ‘Cricket is sacred, everything else may not.’ I am tempted to misquote some Persian here: Bakhuda deewano basho, ba Shami-Siraj hoshiyaar! (You may say anything against God, but dare you say anything against Shami and Siraj).

The Indian team has been tested on this count. Two years ago, Shami was accused by a section of Indians for having ‘thrown it away’ during a needle T20 match against Pakistan (India lost). Most teams would have allowed the criticism to pass (‘We do not respond to this kind of thing’). Kohli waded in. His words: ‘Our brotherhood and friendship within the team, nothing can be shaken.’ That word ‘brotherhood’. Kohli touched an emotional Indian nerve. He spoke of unity and oneness. High principle, even Sufi. Someone called that public statement ‘Kohli’s biggest century.’

The transactional will measure this Indian team by the number of 200-run-plus wins. The discerning will observe the different: how Virat puts his hand on Siraj’s head when the team converges, how Rahul shouts a word of encouragement after a Shami outswinger, how the team drowns either of them after they have taken a wicket and how Shami-Siraj are praised in press conferences. The minorities are observing this consciously; others possibly osmotically. But no one is missing the message that these two individuals are winning it ‘For us, for India.’ Suddenly, the ‘them’ has been replaced with ‘us’. Cricket is healing the nation.

When a team is so ethnically diffused that it cannot be labelled, it does not stand for anyone and yet stands for everything.

The other day I tracked a social media photograph of Kohli at Siraj’s modest Hyderabad home, which told me a story (half imagined). How he may have told Siraj ‘One day I want to meet your parents.’ How he may have said, ‘Can you ask your mother to make me some low-sugar kheer when I come?’ How he may have dropped in unannounced. How he may have taken the Siraj neighbourhood by surprise. How he may have sat on the zameen, as the Siraj family fumbled around for chairs, and just said, ‘Main yahaan ekdum theek hoon.’

This picture represented the ideal of an aspirational India — different social orbits pulled together by the compelling ethic of a team that believes that every player is — and has been created — equal.

When this World Cup is over, India will need to replicate this DNA across 1.41 billion if it is to emerge as it once was: the best among nations but in a different game. Of humanity.

(First published in The Economic Times. Reproduced with permission from the author)

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