Was it really good-spirited patriotism that strutted itself in all forms decipherable in the lead up the semi-final game against Pakistan, or was it in fact an obsessive case of fervent jingoism? The support for the Indian team bordered on crass, the nation did not just support Team India but ridiculed the opposition. The media, in order to grab eyeballs and increase TRPs, went to unimaginable extremes and added fuel to the fire. Losing to Pakistan seemed no longer an option for the Men in Blue. But wasn't it a game of cricket in which one side had to lose? Yes, it was the semi-final of the World Cup and hence an important game, but would the build-up have been the same if the opponent had been any other team? I doubt it. In fact, now that we have beaten Pakistan it's considered okay if we lose to Sri Lanka in the final, for we have been avenged. Don't you find it strange? What does it tell you about our evolution as a responsible nation?
Let me go back to the 1920s when India was reeling under the British rule and cricket, a European sport, was finding its feet in India. There was an annual quadrangular tournament featuring a team each of Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and the British. Initially, these matches were played and seen as a sport but when the freedom movement gained steam, the stakes changed too. These annual cricket encounters were seen and used as the vehicles to assert our presence and our right to freedom. Every British loss on the cricket pitch was viewed as the nation's victory over its rulers. And one could easily relate to those emotions because the country was struggling for its existence and survival. But even then the Indians (called natives) didn't take up the sport to get even with the rulers; they took it up because they liked playing it.
Post independence and the division of the country, we just carried forward the same sentiment i.e. sport being the vehicle to assert supremacy. The relations between India and Pakistan remained sour for the longest time. We've fought wars and still continue to have other equally important issues plaguing us. Yet, there's enough reason to believe that we as people, have matured and come a long way in trimming down that animosity, especially via Bollywood and numerous other cultural exchanges, perhaps reiterating time and again that the rivalry is only political. Or at least I'd like to believe that India has definitely evolved and has become a responsible nation. Unfortunately though, all it took was a cricket match to topple that process of evolution. Are we not, in a sense, pushing ourselves back a 100 years?
Besides that would it not be fair to spare a moment of thought for cricketers involved in the game? We cricketers are also the product of the environment we've grown in. We also understand the importance of an India-Pakistan game and dearly want to beat them every time we meet. But we also realise that it might not be possible every single time, for a game of cricket is not won by the team that is more emotionally charged but by that team which executes its plans properly and has the skill to support those plans. We know that we carry the expectations of a billion people and would do anything to not let them down. But at the same time we are humans too and can take only so much pressure. We try to insulate ourselves by not reading the newspapers or watching the news channels but despite our best efforts, we can't completely go into our cocoon. While we want to think positively all the time, the thought of a possible loss followed by a backlash finds its way into our mind. What if we lose this game against Pakistan? Will our effigies be burnt across India? Will our houses be vandalised and will our families be safe? Will we be the nation's pariah just because we couldn't win a game of cricket?
"It's about time that we, as a nation, answer these questions. Are we going to behave like this every time we play Pakistan? If we detest them so much, it may not be a bad idea to severe all cricketing ties with them, for a cricket match can't be used as a benchmark to prove our superiority as a nation. Every time we behave like the way we did this time, it pulls us down as a responsible nation"
You must be thinking right now -- since we love you so much, it's only fair to receive the ridicule. While we agree that we are what we are because of your love and support, we are humans too who can and should be allowed to fail from time to time. Memories from 2003 loom large in my mind, when fans vandalised Mohammad Kaif's house and left the players completely gobsmacked. For the first time ever, we felt unsure about our families, and their safety back home. I also vividly remember my tour to Pakistan in 2004. That was the first time I saw cricket being the lead story on the front page of all national dailies for almost every single day. As a player, however much you want the recognition, you'd rather stay within the sports pages, for the repercussions of featuring on the front pages can be manifold. We have in a way, learnt to take even appreciation with a pinch of salt.
I, personally, have taken immense pleasure when we defeated Pakistan in Multan and Rawalpindi and felt gutted when we lost to them at Lahore. The point I'm trying to make is that we also go through the same set of emotions as you do, albeit objectively. And believe me, the Pakistan cricketers, who are otherwise a friendly lot, don't forget to remind us about the repercussions of a possible loss during an event. While they envy the status our cricketers enjoy, they're happy that their country receives a loss in a much better fashion. England did not go to Zimbabwe during the 2003 World Cup because they received threats. While the English players were warned by the outsiders, cricketers in India get that word of warning, quite strangely, from their own fans.
It's about time that we, as a nation, answer these questions. Are we going to behave like this every time we play Pakistan? If we detest them so much, it may not be a bad idea to sever all cricketing ties with them, for a cricket match can't be used as a benchmark to prove our superiority as a nation. Every time we behave like the way we did this time, it pulls us down as a responsible nation. The choice is ours.