The prism of nationality

Some of us love cricket for the intrinsic beauty of the game, while some of us enjoy it only if our side wins

Amit Varma

November 16, 2004

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Wednesday, November 17, 2004

4pm IST - A question of identity

Among the many mails I got in response to my last post, one made me think that I need not have blogged on the subject of cricket and nationality. It brought my attention to an essay entitled "The Burden of Cricket" by Dilip D'Souza, published a couple of years ago in Seminar. It is a lucid, thought-provoking essay that expresses everything I'd been trying to say, only far better. I shall not attempt to take an excerpt from it because the whole of it is so good. Do read it for yourself.

Ali Burki wrote in to me to point out that nationality was not the only prism through which we viewed cricket, or the only bias we might have. He wrote, "Americans do love their sports - baseball, basketball etc - though nationality does not play a role here." Dan Newell elaborated on the same point. "The idea of personal validation through a sporting team is not restricted to where a person lives, with many examples in my daily life alone," he wrote. "The most poignant example [is] my brother, who has painted the Chelsea Football Club logo on his wall, even though he's never been to England, nor are there any links in our family with football, let alone that particular club."

Ali and Dan are right, of course. In the course of forming our identities, we align ourselves with groups, to put it loosely, which make us feel good about belonging to them. Once these groups, of which our nation is an inevitable one, are tied up with our sense of identity, we become irrevocably attached to them, and the tie becomes an emotional one rather than one based on logic or fact. That is not a bad thing. As Dan says, "It is the emotional involvement that keeps one's interest in the contest." Sport is enriched by it. My only issue is when it clouds our thinking about the game to such an extent that only the validation matters, and not the sport itself.

That is clearly not the case with Dan, who lives in Sydney. Discussing Muttiah Muralitharan, he ends his email with the sardonic comment: "Perhaps Mr Muralitharan should endear himself to the Australian public by taking diuretics." Nice.

Chintan Patel takes the discussion further and says that nationality is just one of many biases we have. He writes:

An overwhelming majority of people already have well defined views on issues, and it is very hard to find someone who [can] objectively analyze a piece of new information given to him or her. This was reflected very obviously in the United States presidential elections, which had the country polarised. There is so much conflicting information thrown at the masses, and most people only retain things that reinforce their beliefs. A glaring example of this [comes up] when people talk about cricketers' records. A Sachin [Tendulkar] fan will cite (and selectively remember) Sharjah and the 2003 World Cup while a hater will cite (and remember) the failures.

That's the confirmation bias at work, something I've written about before, and which I think we all contain to some degree or the other. Can any of us ever be completely objective? I can only speak for myself, and any answer I give will be biased, either by my alleged regard for my abilities, or by a latent desire to appear modest.

Phaneesh Kumar brought a couple of interesting perspectives into this debate. In a mail to me, he wrote that the moral contexts of such biases matter. "I do not know of a father who decides to fund the education of the brightest student in his son's class [instead of his son's]. There, people are supposed to be biased. It's morally correct to be so. If you wanted to support someone else's mother or wife [instead of your own], because she was 'objectively' better than yours, the law wouldn't agree. That's both legally and morally the wrong position to take."

Phaneesh, however, goes on to add that a lot of people who strive for objectivity when it comes to the nation are actually just putting up a front. "When the question comes to the nation," he says, "then being able to stand so much above it that you can criticise it is a great show of morality and objectivity. We see this 'objectivity' in the press every day ... From all the forums I visit and hear from, [many] Indians loathe their own country, and their own cricket team."

Do they, perhaps, suffer from misautogeny?

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

3.45pm IST - Cricket and country

If there were no nations, an impossible condition to begin with, sport would be no fun. Sport, I often suspect, subsists on one facet of the human condition: the need for validation. It is a good vehicle, when we play it, to prove that we are better than the other person, and to thus validate ourselves. Even when we watch sport, the thrill of it comes from supporting one side, for whatever reason, and feeling their victory as a personal triumph.

There is a romantic in me who believes that many of us watch sport for reasons other than the vulgar desire to win, that we enjoy the intrinsic charm of the game itself, removed from who its participants represent, and what they mean to us. But there is a realist in me with an email mailbox, who finds in many of the emails sent to him, and in the newspapers and magazines that he reads, that most of us cannot but view the game through the prism of nationality.

Take, as an example, the recent Mumbai Test between India and Australia. India won the dead-rubber Test on a pitch that was, by any objective reasoning, a bad one for Test cricket - 40 wickets fell in around 200 overs, and the two sides contained some of the world's best batsmen. Yet, shortly after I called the pitch a disgrace in my verdict for that day, my mailbox was flooded with mails questioning my patriotism. Ricky Ponting's protest at the pitch was taken as an Aussie whine, although he first made it on the morning of the third day, with Australia on top. Any criticism of it, whether by me or by such rightly venerated figures such as Harsha Bhogle, Peter Roebuck, and Rohit Brijnath, was taken as offering excuses for the Australian defeat.

What staggered me was that so many Indians viewed the issue of the pitch in a context of nationality - the pitch had helped India win, therefore it must be good. I did receive objective defences of it, with quite a few people writing that it made the Test entertaining and eventful, but these were in the minority. And much of the majority also viewed the Nagpur pitch as a bad one, because it helped the Australians more than the Indians.

I find similar rifts on most cricketing issues. Most Sri Lankans believe Muttiah Muralitharan's action is clean, and most Australians believe he chucks. There are, of course, exceptions in both cases, but their national governments would not enjoy the support these views have, so it is fair to call them representative. Many Australians and Sri Lankans will deny that nationality has anything to do with it, and some of them would be justified in doing so. But are the reasoning powers and general intelligence of both nations so different that they can come to such drastically different conclusions? I don't think so. If Muralitharan was a blonde Victorian, a lot of people would think differently about this issue.

Oddly, I am one of those rare people who supports both Murali and Darrell Hair's action of calling Murali for throwing. If Hair genuinely believed that Murali threw the ball, then as an umpire it was incumbent upon him to call Murali. It is wrong to accuse him on having any intent other than upholding the laws of the game, even if we now know that he was mistaken, and it is disgraceful that accusations of racism should be have been made against him, and others who shared his then-reasonable views. It is equally wrong, in the light of so much evidence that vindicates Murali, that he should still be branded as a chucker. The prism of nationality is responsible for both wrongs.

It is a prism through which we view all things, not just cricket. George Orwell, in an excellent essay written in 1945, gave a superb illustration of this. He wrote:

For those who feel deeply about contemporary politics, certain topics have become so infected by considerations of prestige that a genuinely rational approach to them is almost impossible. Out of the hundreds of examples that one might choose, take this question: Which of the three great allies, the U.S.S.R., Britain and the USA, has contributed most to the defeat of Germany? In theory, it should be possible to give a reasoned and perhaps even a conclusive answer to this question. In practice, however, the necessary calculations cannot be made, because anyone likely to bother his head about such a question would inevitably see it in terms of competitive prestige. He would therefore start by deciding in favour of Russia, Britain or America as the case might be, and only after this would begin searching for arguments that seemed to support his case. [Orwell's italics, my colours.]

Replace the references to politics with references to cricket, and it holds true. For instance, let us replace Orwell's question with a topical cricketing one: Which is the second-best side in the world, after Australia? Is it England, New Zealand, South Africa, Sri Lanka, India or Pakistan? If you have friends from two or more of these countries - and who doesn't, in these globalised times - throw this question at them (without straightening your arm) and see if their answer matches the country they support. But don't fight with them afterwards, as often happens in these matters. Cricket is an emotive issue, and nations have a lot to do with that.

Amit Varma is managing editor of Wisden Cricinfo in India.

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