Samir Chopra August 13, 2008

Whose line-up is it anyway?

Team India might be the team we call the "Indian team" but really it's just the "BCCI India XI", just like the English team at one time was the MCC XI (before the TCCB and then the ECB took over)

In response to my previous post on the alleged linkages between national character and cricket, reader Ajax wrote (in part): "Who exactly are the 'national boards'? This is the greatest marketing gimmick in the Commonwealth. Is a player unpatriotic for joining the ICL?" If I've understood Ajax correctly, he is asking, "What makes the national teams playing today the 'official ones'?" In return, I'm going to be self-indulgent, and quote myself from a post I wrote on 'Eye on Cricket' a few months ago. Talk about subversion.

I'm watching the ICL India XI get their caps from Kapil Dev as I write this. This moment is one of those that philosophers love; it shows something we took to be a conceptual given, is actually a matter of convention or arrangement. For as long as we've known cricket in India, it was assumed there was only one 'Indian' team. And the BCCI was its lord and master. This India XI, for trademark reasons, I'm sure, is called the "ICL India XI" and not just the "India XI", but it's an India XI as much as the BCCI's XI is. Team India might be the team we call the "Indian team" but really it's just the "BCCI India XI", just like the English team at one time was the MCC XI (before the TCCB and then the ECB took over).

The point I was trying to make (slighly loosely) in response to watching a bunch of players taking the field calling themselves an India XI, is that when people say "That's my country's team", they are referring to the group put together by the organisation 'in charge'. And the 'in charge' just means "doing it for long enough in a situation where they are (or have become) the only ones". And over that period of time, the entities in question, both the organisation in charge and their selected group become identified with the game in the 'national representative' sense. But that is a matter of established convention, not some otherworldly linkage, and they remain 'official' only so long as they don't face competition.

Had Kerry Packer's WSC stuck around long enough to fully permeate the consciousness of a generation of spectators, the confusion over which team was the 'real Australia' would have been pronounced and genuine. Indeed, by the time the WSC Australian XI went to the West Indies in 1979 for the Supertests, I had become seriously confused myself. What I seemed to be reading about in the papers sure as hell sounded like Test cricket to me. (And I still consider Greg Chappell's batting in the series one of the finest performances against the "West Indies team".) This thought experiment is well worth playing out.

Imagine the Packer dispute had not been settled. How long would it have been before fans would have started wondering which side- the Packer XI or the ACB XI -made claims on their allegiance and support? Perhaps they would have supported both but the intensity of their nationalist ardour might have been dimmed somewhat. The raising of the question of which team was the 'real' one would have brought the awkwardness of the answer to the fore. There is no 'real' 'official' Australian XI. But to expect one is to expect that anything could be more 'official' than what is already at hand: a bunch of players selected by the (hopefully only) organisation in charge of the game.

The moment there is more than one organisation in charge, the confusion begins. Witness the situation in boxing, where it is not clear who the 'world champion' really is. Surely there must an 'official' world championship (or there must have been one in the glory days of Ali, Frazier et al). But there wasn't. There was just the championship of the dominant boxing council (Good Lord, what was that alphabet soup again? IBF, WBC, WBA?) When it lost its dominance, we had the spectacle of multiple world champions and the urge to find unification champions. The chess world championship underwent similar confusion.

The existence of the ICL India XI served to remind me of the origin of the Indian National Team[tm], the BCCI and the linkages between the two. The BCCI is not identical with some mystical entity called "Indian cricket"; the 'Indian team' just happens to be their team. And I sure as hell support it like a good Indian fan. Why wouldn't I? But still, it's worth acknowledging the convention at hand. (And conventional arrangements are nothing to sneeze at; think of how languages got to be the way they are!)

The ICL might not survive but hopefully, it will have reminded people of how things got to be the way the things are, and how things could change in response. Because when organisations act like monopolies, they have the bad habit of displaying laziness, complacency and greed.

Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here