Passion play

R Mohan reports on the Indian reactions to the crisis which threatened the game's world order

R Mohan reports on the Indian reactions to the crisis which threatened the game's world order

Protesters in India burn an effigy of Mike Denness © Getty Images
"Remember, cricket is not just a game in this country. It is a passion and a religion. It unites people," wrote Kirti Azad, the former Test cricketer and a member of parliament from the ruling coalition. Such a reaction to the events in South Africa involving Indian cricketers was typical.
As a nation of sentimental people were awoken from their winter slumber, their emotions raged against the ICC match referee Mike Denness, who sentenced their favourite son Sachin Tendulkar for what at first appeared to be ball-tampering, a charge that looked ridiculous on the video evidence tendered. Indeed, it later emerged that Tendulkar had merely failed to inform the umpires that he was cleaning the seam, but clarifications from the ICC on the technical offence came rather late.
Sachin's mother Rajni Tendulkar asserted her son "would never cheat". Her quotes made the front pages as the controversy raged on into the unofficial Test at Centurion. The last time she had spoken in public had been to chide her son for rushing to her husband's funeral when he should have been playing for India against Zimbabwe in the World Cup in England in 1999.
The issue of Denness' punishments became so contentious that race readily came into it. Fifty-six per cent of people polled by a news magazine were of the opinion that Denness' decisions were racially biased, a conclusion easily arrived at on the evidence of the double standards over behaviour on the field which have existed for the last few years.
It was time for everyone to wear their national badges on their chests. Television commentators milked dry the emotions of the people with hour after hour of discussion on the subject. "Excessive patriotism has been the hallmark of the Indian commentators," wrote one scribe.
"Dalmiya, who has emerged as a folk hero among some Indians, probably feels he must carry the battle forward or lose face," said the Indian Express. The president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India latched on to the controversy with customary alacrity and scored brownie points in the boycott of Denness, which was facilitated by the United Cricket Board of South Africa.
The Indian government had very little to say officially. But the telephone wires were burning between the External Affairs Ministry and the Pretoria government. Both were in agreement about taking a stand against Denness and the ICC, and the close ties between the governments made possible the final stand taken by the UCBSA.
"The two words that we mentioned in our report to the government are 'bias' and 'inconsistent' with regard to decisions by match referees," said Niranjan Shah, secretary of the BCCI. Government support meant the Board could keep itself on the collision course with the ICC.
There were a few critics of the extraordinary events that led to the unofficial Test. The former BCCI president Raj Singh Dungarpur, a self-confessed Anglophile, declared the Indian players, including Virender Sehwag, to be guilty of excessive appealing and also said that no one was above the law.
Fifty-six per cent of people polled by a news magazine were of the opinion that Denness' decisions were racially biased
The front and editorial pages of newspapers were filled with comments that were condemnatory of the action taken against Indian cricketers. Cartoonists, who are eternally starved of ideas, seized upon the moment. But soon opinion began to shift towards moderation as the BCCI exacerbated the issue by its extreme stand on Sehwag's eligibility for the first Test against England.
Other voices of moderation, such as that of former captain and legendary left-arm spinner Bishen Bedi were drowned in a huge show of nationalism. Asked whether the prestige of Indian cricket and the nation as a whole was at stake because of Denness' gesture, Bedi replied: "Whose prestige? If any prestige has been lost at all, it is that of the game. Instead, individual egos have taken charge. It's just not cricket anymore."
One magazine made the allegory to the hugely popular movie Lagaan in which Indians beat their colonial masters at a game of cricket on which was staked the collective tax levied on a village in the 19th century.
Twanging the emotions became a popular media pastime even as the game lurched through a major crisis and deadline after deadline passed. The England team on tour could not have been amused by all this. But they were one outfit that carried on with the official game. The million-dollar question became whether the future of the game could be secured in such an atmosphere of confrontation, even once emotions had subsided and the cricket-mad public returned to watching live action from Centurion, Perth and Colombo.
This article first appeared in The Cricketer's February 2002 edition