March 12, 2008

India in the lights

Their tour of Australia showed that India's time has come, both on the field and off it

'Indian cricket has found its voice' © Getty Images

Over the years India has been colonised, scorned and patronised. Inevitably, the hackles of its more abrasive citizens have periodically been raised. Always the struggle is between earnest reformers and rankled revolutionaries. It can happen on battlefields, in newspapers, on sports grounds, in the spirit and in the mind: the rallying of human attachment. Only the greatest of men, amongst them Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, have been able to keep the past in its place the better to stride unencumbered towards the future. Even these mighty leaders have not always been able to take their people with them.

And then comes the settling of scores. In some respects the recent series down under was such a settling, but to a much higher degree it was an assertion of fearlessness. India looked Australia in the eye and did not blink. And the look told not of temporary passion but serious intent.

By and large India has done extraordinarily well over the last 60 years. From the chaos of Partition, from the demonstrations and the slaughter, has come an enduring nation that commands respect, a country that has retained its independence in Independence. Although outbreaks occur here and there, for fools and hotheads cannot be abolished by decree, India is intact. Still it plays the game of the coloniser, a game once described as an Indian game accidentally invented by the English, an amusing conceit that shows cricket's adaptability.

To the chagrin of some, but through economic inevitability, India has become the dominant force in the game, a circumstance that has released its entire character, warts and all. Nothing builds confidence half as well as power. Suddenly India has no need to sue for grace for it carries a big stick. It must only realise that the time has come to talk quietly. India does not need to protest about anything. Its task now is to apply the rule of law and to advance the principles of justice, especially those espoused by the American philosopher John Rawls, for none takes such care of the underdog. Above all, Indian officials must read Animal Farm, with all its attendant warnings.

Nowhere was the changing of the guard more apparent than in the recent campaign down under. Always the true test comes when the champion steps into the ring, for then bluff is called and shallowness exposed. India arrived expecting to win. It was not a question of mere fragile hope. Nor did the various turbulences distract them from their purpose. To the contrary the Indians answered every slight with one of their own, joined every argument and added a few of their own making.

That India ended the campaign in better shape than it began confirms the impression of a nation whose time has come. It is idle to pretend that cricket does not tell us something about the state of a nation. To the contrary it offers a window into the minds of a people

Australia is a land of fires, droughts, floods, flies, kangaroos and koalas. Even the birds have bright plumage and make a lot of noise. It is not sensible to expect its cricketers or newspapers to tiptoe around like characters in an Edwardian play. It is a place that crushes the spirit or enhances it.

That India ended the campaign in better shape than it began confirms the impression of a nation whose time has come. It is idle to pretend that cricket does not tell us something about the state of a nation. To the contrary it offers a window into the minds of a people.

Of course sport serves other purpose as well. Nowadays it provides entertainment to all sections of society. Formerly it was regarded more as a craft than an adventure. Opening batsmen were not expected to hit boundaries in the first hour. These days they are supposed to strike three in the opening over. Twenty-over cricket has risen from the need to entertain. History suggests that popular culture does not threaten so much as sustain the high-brow. In any case, even Test cricket has awoken from its slumber. Standing warily behind a blocking bat or sending down dibblers with a ring field no longer serves the purpose. Cricket survives not because it has merit but because it has a market.

Competition is another part of sport's attraction. Men and women relish the chance to push themselves to the limit, enjoy pitting themselves against each other. Satisfaction of the sort obtained from a superb round of golf, or a last-gasp winner is hard to find. Sportsmen also relish sitting in the rooms afterwards, all energy spent, skill released, divisions erased (unless Harbhajan Singh and Matthew Hayden have been playing), and only the reckoning remaining.

Yet the most significant role of sport is as an expression of the energies, talents and culture of a school, group, village, city, province and country. Cricket is an expression of culture and the clashes at the SCG reached into the depths of Indian and Australian self-knowledge. It turned out to be a battle between equals. The players looked each other in the eye. India did not blink. Indeed, the visitors looked fresher by the end. Meanwhile the Australians suffered more mysterious withdrawals as Brad Hogg and Shaun Tait followed Damien Martyn into the paddock.

Australia has always played cricket by its own lights. Turning its back on English customs, it developed its own approach founded upon an egalitarian outlook that endures (the captain is a hard nut from the backwaters of a forgotten island). Yearning for action, resisting melancholia, Australian sportsmen must attack. Latent insecurity and loathing of cant is demonstrated in a suspicion of walkers, and walking, and a willingness to abide by the umpire's decision. And so Australian cricket forged its own path forwards, formed its own ideology. India has never been as clear-minded about itself. Whereas the Australian settlers had an almost empty continent on which to create a nation, India had proud memories of itself, traditions recorded in books or burned into minds - attitudes and customs strong enough to survive any empire. But hundreds of years of foreign influence were bound to leave their mark besides which no nation can stand still. Since 1947 India has been rediscovering itself. Of course the same applies on the cricket field and the triumph of 2007-08 lay not so much in the results as in the sense that an identity had been found.

'Indeed, the visitors looked fresher by the end' © Getty Images

Under the admirable captaincies of Anil Kumble and Mahendra Dhoni, India discovered a new, contemporary voice. Too much has been made of the various episodes involving Harbhajan. More significant has been the way the Test team fought back in Perth, and the manner in which Dhoni's men took the ODI finals. India was not broken on the wheel, was not affected by the local noise, did not take a step backwards. In short, it met the Australians on equal terms, as an united force.

The Indian team expressed the confidence of a nation. Forget about the raptures and furies. Consider the last over of the campaign. Australia needed 13 runs to win. Already Sachin Tendulkar had played another beautiful innings. Already Dhoni had played boldly and thought fearlessly, summoning an unsung swing bowler from a family of wrestlers, and a teenage legspinner, and throwing them the ball at critical times. Now he tossed the ball to Irfan Pathan, put his arm around him and muttered not the usual platitudes but a cheerful, "Irfan, you cannot be so bad that you give away 13 runs in the last over." Afterwards Pathan told TV reporter Vimal Kumar that he had not felt the pressure as he had grown up seeing his father trying to put food on the table. That was pressure. Dhoni had grown up the same way, fighting for his place. It is also the Australian way. And who was Kumar except a boy from the rural areas who has risen through the ranks? Ishant Sharma's dad repairs air conditioners.

Indian cricket has found its voice. Not that the inheritance has been abandoned, for that is childish. Rather it has been interpreted and renewed. Australian cricket had always belonged to the people. Now the same applies to India. Australia had been crying for an opponent that plays cricket with sustained intent. The rivalry between the nations, Australia with its 108 years and India with its 60, both with booming economies, has just begun.

Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • jarydd on March 14, 2008, 0:23 GMT

    has the balance for power shifted? a test series victory and a loss in the tri nations and we are being asked if the balance of power has shifted? Last time India toured here they actually performed better in the test series, which they drew 1-1. does anybody remember that? Last summer Australia lost the CB series to England. then what happened? Oh yeah, they won the world cup. Then what happened? They won a one-day series in India. To be the best you must win everywhere, not just try hard. Perhaps India should be worried about their upcoming series against South Africa, because lose that series, and the momentum is gone. We can only hope, because then, some balance might return to the game

  • cricketmad on March 13, 2008, 23:34 GMT

    To the Indians taking offence to Roebuck's suggestion of taking responsibility--calm down guys. Now that India is at the forefront of deciding the future of International crcket, we need to be more responsible. We missed the oppurtunity to take a stand against Zimbabwe for clearly discriminating against white cricketers. I understand that Zimbabweans suffered immensely under the Ian Smith's apartheid regime, but eye for an eye is not the answer. It wasn't Gandhi's way 100yrs ago and it should not be today. Peter Roebuck is making an honest attempt to understand the reasons for India's rise in Cricket and as an international economics powerhouse. Our memory is short-It was Roebuck who called for Ponting to be removed from captaincy after the Sydney test. He is right in pointing out that we shouldn't ape the Aussies blindly. We did well in Australia not because of aggression, but because we had the stomach for a fight in the Sydney Perth and Adelaide tests.

  • vtha010 on March 13, 2008, 8:30 GMT

    With all due respect Peter, our cricket team was and is an enigma. We indians have spent every year since 1987 with bated breath for a new dawn to lead us to the top of world cricket where most of us believe we ought to stand. The series in australia was fantastic, but lets put it in perspective. I for one would like to see australia eke out every ball and struggle for every run in the upcoming series in India. To make that a reality is the challenge for our cricketers. The day I see relief reflected on the face of australian cricketers at securing a draw in India is the day that, for me, India can claim as being the best. Lets not muddle the cricketing facts, the reality is that we are on the way up to take what we as a nation feel is ours, but we have a long way to go and face a champion team that burns with just as much passion. Time will tell if it truly is "India's hour" and if our hunger to be the best outweighs the aussie determination to hold onto their perch.

  • masterblaster666 on March 13, 2008, 8:11 GMT

    @Manoj1234, Peter Roebuck is an Englishman settled now in Australia and so not one of those "Aussies" as you just referred to him. And if you don't statistically measure India's past successes, you would also see that things were different this time. Our famous Test or ODI victories in the past were largely based on miraculous individual performances which the individuals in question would find hard to repeat. In Kolkata 01, it was Laxman and Dravid. In Delhi 99, it was Kumble. In Sharjan 98, it was Sachin and so on. In this ODI series, India consistently pushed Aus to the edge and those who say it's too much ado about two victories forget about the Melbourne reversal and Aus's narrow escape at Adelaide and Sydney. Yes, Sachin took up the tab again in the finals but the rest batted around him with an application not seen consistently in Indian cricket with the bowlers tying Aus down again and again and that's why this triumph is special.

  • KrossFokus on March 13, 2008, 7:01 GMT

    I am not sure if some of the conclusions that Peter Roebuck has made out of young Indian cricket team's attitute are as obvious. Turn your eyes away from the Indian cricket by an angle and see the ironies. Two days ago India lost 2-0 to England in hockey and failed to qualify to play in Beijing olympics this year. This is the first time in 80 years, infact the first time since the inclusion of hockey in olympics that India has failed to qualify to play in Olympics. And now the irony: India has won the Olympic hockey gold the highest number of times that is eight times. Athletics and other sports are in pathetic shape and there is no hope of India getting an Olympic medal in those for the next twenty years! Majority of the sportspersons in India apart from cricketers come from very humble backgrounds just to find a job. So its impossible to believe that India is a sports nation in making just because people from its smaller towns and villages are coming to sports.

  • Loon on March 13, 2008, 6:18 GMT

    I find it funny that just a few years ago India drew a series with Australia in Australia and for all money looked like winning it, from the first test to the last and everyone was enthusiastic about the future of Indian cricket. But it didn't work. Can it work this time, I'm not sure because I'm not physic. All I know is that for India to prove themselves they have to actually win a test series before they shout about being the best. However, on another note, I must say I turned off my television set and tuned my radio to another station when Harbhajan, Ponting and Symonds started acting like little, ponsy, spoilt school kids. If they want to act like that, they should actually back up their talk with good cricket, not by the constant stream of mediocrity that they did provide. The constant barrage of whinging over this summer turned me elsewhere for entertainment, and if it wasn't for Gilchrist and the Sri Lankan's I would never have watched the one day series either.

  • Manoj1234 on March 13, 2008, 3:10 GMT

    Hi Peter, It seems us Indians have really enjoyed the victory , celebrated immensely and are going forward, but you Aussies can't seem to forget the defeat. This is probably ur 10th column about india coming of age , on and off the field. Come On now. India didn't come off age just after this one stupid tour to Australia. Its been progressing , you just noticed the changes after it hit you in the head spot on. In one of your older articles, I was surprised to see a line ' Yes Hindus and Muslims can laugh together', appearing totally out of any context - I guess it was when dhoni and pathan laughed or something. Still don't understand how 'hindus' and 'muslims' got into the picture.

    I think your real focus should be on the recently re-inforced and thoroughly exposed cultural deficiencies in the Australian team, which by the way has a greater reflection of Aussie society than the Indian Cricket team is representative of the Indian nation.

    Thanks Manoj

  • snarge on March 13, 2008, 0:02 GMT

    I know comparing the merits of the two teams on the field was not the major intent of the article. But saying that India are matching it with Australia is quite premature. The Test series victory was quite comfortable, India's win in Perth quite narrow. Others have already pointed out India's need for consistency. The one who suggested that India are now number one needs to have a good look at himself. How long since India have won more than 1 Test in a series? Since 2005. They are only capable of the odd stunning performance, and this has been the case for a long time.

  • Saloo on March 12, 2008, 23:33 GMT

    India has really shown itself in cricket in this series. For anyone who has not been following cricket but watched this season's cricket, I dont think he or she would be able to tell that Australia was the world champions - both teams played equally well. India has emerged as the new challenge and with so many younger players waiting in the wings, fresh from winning the u19 world cup, other teams should watch out. Besides, despite the blips on the radar of Indian cricket, we have been one of the most consistent teams (even during the 2007 world cup where we played consistently badly) and I think I can confidently say that India have shown themselves to be serious contenders for the title of world champions.

  • VidhuraMuni on March 12, 2008, 19:02 GMT

    It is too soon to say that India's time has come. India has to consistently perform the same way for atleast next 1 year and only then can we say that India has arrived.

    India has experienced these ups and downs in it's form(remember 2003 World Cup and in contrast to that the 2007 World Cup). It is the sustaining of the momentum and the form for longer terms that makes a champion !!

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