What does the way we criticise cricketers say about us?
Earlier this month India and South Africa met on Mohali's tired wicket in a fast-paced Test in which both sides appeared to suffer fatal setbacks multiple times. On social media, reactions came swiftly. As India collapsed in the first innings, many said that losing wickets the way India did was "criminal". As the game progressed and India collapsed to 200 all out in the hour after lunch on the third day, there was talk of "pathetic" batting.
Mohali was not an aberration. Casual viciousness of this kind is an inescapable part of being a cricket fan, particularly on the subcontinent, unless one is willing to lock oneself in a room and not discuss the game with anybody else.
What does it say about us that we apply such terms to what we see? The response I receive most frequently is that this is "common usage". The argument seems to be that calling some of the outcomes players produce "pathetic" or "spineless" or "gutless" is fine because it is common. Further, since it is common, it must be harmless.
If it is common usage, why did we learn to think this way?
There is nothing inherently valuable about being able to hit a cricket ball or bowl it well. If cricket suddenly stopped being a means of professional livelihood, then professional international cricketers, who have dedicated their lives to being expert players of cricket, and sacrificed school, university or learning other trades, have no discernible skills to fall back on. Sportsmen (and artists), reaffirm an essential aspect of humanity - that to be human is to possess the desire and the capacity to excel at something - to want to be good at something because there is merit in virtuosity for its own sake. They are celebrated because they achieve a level of expertise that the rest of us cannot approach. And they are called "gutless", "spineless", "pathetic", "cowards" if they fail.
Fantasies about stardom and adulation provide pictures for the imagination, but the endless hard work required to become an expert at controlling a football, or running a marathon, or bowling fast cannot be inspired by mere pictures. It is driven by that most human desire to excel. Ask any great sportsman and they will say that excellence is a worthy end in itself. A flourishing professional set-up provides an institutional framework for the sport to be practised, but just as great physicists or mathematicians are not in it for Nobel Prizes or Fields Medals, elite sportsmen (like the ones good enough to play international cricket) are not motivated simply by the moolah; the pursuit of excellence is a worthy end in itself.
Sport and art must flourish in society partly because they provide sandboxes for people to learn how to excel. A teacher once explained to me the utility of learning a dead language, such as Sanskrit or Latin. The utility of studying these languages lies partly in the fact that they have no applicability in day-to-day life; excellence in learning them, or some esoteric specialisation in mathematics or history, shows that one is capable of learning. This is the most valuable skill imaginable.
If sport is a public good of this variety, what does it say about us that calling elite sportsmen cowards and worse has become commonplace in some countries? It would be appropriate for people to see brazen corruption of the sort that exists in India - say, between a powerful businessman and a government minister, where the minister takes a decision that helps the business in exchange for donations to his party's fund - as "criminal" or "spineless" or "gutless". But such episodes are rarely seen in these terms. They are likely to be described as "corruption", or even viewed with admiration for how they subvert the system. Or, depending on your political persuasion, as "development" or "crony-capitalism". But it is rarely considered cowardice on the minister's part or criminality on the businessman's part (the terms are apposite in each case).
It is only when material economic interests are not involved, like in a batting a collapse in a Test match, that cowardice, criminal malice (in the age of spot-fixing) and the state of a player's vertebral column enter the discussion. The outcome must appear to emasculate a cricket fan in order for it to be considered in such vicious terms.
What is it about cricket that invites such hatred and grievance? These reactions are not so much the result of ignorance as they are the result of the view that ignorance is not really a problem when it comes to the likes of cricket or even art.
In recent months we have heard a great deal about intolerance in India. A person is intolerant if his response to something he disagrees with is to threaten that thing's physical existence. There have been many manifestations of such intolerance in India recently. It commonly takes the form of abuse, of accusations of treason or cowardice, and even murder. It was alleged about the previous Indian government that people were fired from jobs not because they were incompetent but because the consequences of their entirely competent work were unsuitable to the powers that be. Being fired from a job may not be conventionally seen as violence, but is it not a form of economic violence when one's job is subject not to one's competence, but to the arbitrary whims of others?
All these are effects of intolerance. The cause of intolerance is a lack of curiosity. It is the view that it is acceptable to not know anything as long as the things one objects to are unpopular among people like oneself. It confuses popularity with reality.
As a result, in a popular spectator sport like international cricket, rapid shifts in fortune or significant deviations from the popularly desired state of things, causes casual and corrosive abuse directed at players, be it at the ground, on social media, or, as was the case recently, in the form of bottles and other objects being thrown at players. When confronted with a reversal of fortunes, the instinct is not to wonder why, it is to rapidly conclude that the entire spectacle is a deliberate malicious effort by the players to humiliate them - the spectators.
In cricket the consequences of intolerance are relatively minor. Those who play for India are well- compensated individuals who have the means to protect themselves. Even when intolerance boils over and their homes are attacked by mobs, or they receive threats, the police in their home towns respond with alacrity and assure the players, public and press that they're not going to stand for any nonsense.
The consequences of intolerance for society are far deadlier. There is little difference, in my view, between someone who casually terms a player or a team a bunch of cowards or speculates about a player's character because of reverses on the cricket field, and someone who decides to participate in a mob that attacks a writer for opinions that writer expressed that "hurt the sentiments" of the mob. The difference, if it exists, lies in the capacity for literal violence, not in the desire for it. On the question of whether or not it is worth thinking or learning about what has been said or done, there is no difference: both groups agree that thinking or learning are unnecessary.
It is perhaps cricket's greatest contribution to common Indian life that it reveals so much about ourselves. In cricket we see the best in our society and the worst. In cricket we have something we can use to practise the art of being curious. Let us not waste it by treating it like soap.