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This passion is a six

AFP

An opportunity that was lost ... a contemplative Sourav Ganguly.

LAST Sunday, while India was losing the World Cup final to Australia through a heartbreaking combination of ineptitude and ill-luck, the New York Times treated its readers to an essay by an American travel writer on his experience of being a "cricket heathen" in India. After mildly amusing descriptions of his discovery of the sport and the passions it stirred in the Indian soul, the author, Michael Y. Park, concluded with an anecdote: "Even when I tried to escape civilisation deep into the Great Indian (Thar) Desert in the northwest, near the border with Pakistan, cricket dominated conversation. I was on a three-day camel trek, and my camel driver ... played only camel polo and had never seen a professional cricket match because he'd never watched television. But ... this man who had never been more than 20 miles from the fairy-tale fort of Jaisalmer and who had never heard of nuclear bombs or Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous State, rattled off statistics about the national team and details of the players' private lives. He even worked in a few disparaging remarks about the Pakistani team. (He) noted my atonishment. `You have to understand,' (he) said, spitting out a gob of betel nut and saddling up his camel. `Indians are crazy about this cricket.'"

It's a lovely story to illustrate the extent and reach of the passion for India's real national sport (despite all the General Knowledge quiz books which instruct students that India's national sport is hockey, the marketplace has voted decisively for cricket). But that is not the only reason I cite it here.

Readers may have noticed that in reproducing the tale, I omitted the name of the cricket-chauvinist camel driver. Mr. Park does not make much of this, but it was Amin Khan. This committed fan of the national team, with his "disparaging remarks" about the players from across the border, is a Muslim.

It should hardly be worth mentioning. After all, 12 per cent (and perhaps 14) of our population follows both the Islamic faith and the fortunes of our national team. But it is a sad commentary on our times that the loyalty of Indian Muslims to India's cricketing success should have been questioned by certain elements in our country. It has long been one of the favourite complaints of the Hindutva brigade that Indian Muslims set off firecrackers whenever the Indian team loses to Pakistan. This is one of those "urban legends" that acquires mythic proportions in the retelling, even though the evidence for the charge is both sparse and anecdotal. Certainly some Muslims may have behaved in this way, but the percentage of the community they represent is minuscule. The camel driver, it is clear, would have been astonished at such conduct: even he, illiterate and poor, knows where his home is, and therefore where his loyalties lie.

But then those who identify the nation with a specific religion would themselves not expect devotees of other faiths to share their feelings. Their unseemly triumphalism after India's victory over Pakistan (a victory achieved by a team including two Muslims and a Sikh, and captained by a Hindu with a Christian wife) was unseemly precisely because it took on sectarian rather than nationalist overtones. And reports came in — perhaps exaggerated — of clashes between Hindu and Muslim groups within India in the aftermath of the defeat of Pakistan. What on earth, I wondered, would prompt petty bigots (on both sides) to reduce a moment of national sporting celebration into a communal conflict?

Cricket in independent India has always been exempt from the contagion of communalism. Despite the religious basis of Partition, Indian cricket teams always featured players of every religious persuasion. Three of the country's most distinguished and successful captains — Ghulam Ahmed, Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi and Mohammed Azharuddin — were Muslims, as was our best-ever wicket-keeper, Syed Kirmani. Perhaps more important, so were two of the most popular cricketers ever to play for the country, Abbas Ali Baig and Salim Durrani. Who can forget the excitement stirred by Baig's dream debut in England in 1959, when he was conscripted out of Oxford University by an Indian team in the doldrums and promptly hit a century both in his first tour match and on his Test debut? Or that magical moment when, as Baig walked back to the pavilion in Bombay after a brilliant 50 against Australia, an anonymous sari-clad lovely ran out and spontaneously greeted him with an admiring (and scandalously public) kiss? The episode is part of national lore; it has been immortalised in Salman Rushdie's novel The Moor's Last Sigh. Who cared then, in those innocent 1960s, that Baig was Muslim and his admirer Hindu? Who in the screaming crowds that welcomed his appearance thought of Salim Durrani's religion when they cheered themselves hoarse over that green-eyed inconsistent genius with the brooding movie-star looks? I will never forget the outrage that swept the country when he was dropped from the national team during an England tour in 1972; signs declaring "No Durrani No Test" proliferated like nukes. I do not believe there have been two more beloved Indian cricketers in the last 50 years than Baig and Durrani — and their religion had nothing to do with it.

Which is as it should be. Apart from the great Muslim players I mentioned, India has been captained by Christians (Vijay Hazare and Chandu Borde), Parsis (Polly Umrigar and Nari Contractor), and a Sikh (Bishen Singh Bedi). Mohammad Kaif will be leading India before the decade is over, just as he captained the national youth team to spectacular success a few years ago. Cricketing ability and sporting leadership have nothing to do with the image of your Maker you raise (or fold) your palms to in worship. When India wins (or loses), all of India wins (or loses).

The degradation of public discourse that has accompanied the rise of religious nativism in our country since the late 1980s must not be allowed to contaminate our national sport.

Shashi Tharoor is the author of India: From Midnight to the Millennium and the recent novel Riot. Visit him on www.shashitharoor.com

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