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India, Pakistan and our sense of shame

Wisden India logo Wisden India 25-08-2016
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Salman Rushdie wrote Shame, a novel loosely based on the intertwined stories of Zulfiqur Ali Bhutto and General Zia-ul-Haq, more than three decades ago. Among other things, the book deals with the preoccupation our culture has with shame. It’s a word we love to use in the subcontinent, and it gets frequent airing when our sportspeople don’t perform up to our [often misguided] expectations.

Remember #ShamedInSydney, India’s leading news channel’s response to a World Cup semifinal defeat? A defeat that had come after seven straight wins. Over the past fortnight, despite the efforts of Dipa Karmakar, Sakshi Malik and PV Sindhu, it’s ‘Olympic Shame’ that’s been the talking point. Those who wouldn’t know a Salto from Iodised salt, or a drop shot from a bird dropping, had no qualms about sitting in judgment on athletes whose faces are given airtime only once in four years, when a country pretends to be interested in sport.

Earlier this week, after the fiasco that was the rained-out Trinidad Test, Pakistan overhauled India in the Test rankings. We’ll leave the vagaries of the system for another day – it must be the only one around where a team loses points for winning a Test series 2-0, with the other two matches affected by rain.

For Pakistan, and the sport itself, it was a momentous occasion. This is a team that hasn’t played a home Test in more than seven years, one that has come back from one of the most damaging scandals to afflict the sport. Shame – that word again – has given way to redemption.

Between them, Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq, who will succeed Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq as the standard-bearers of Pakistani batsmanship, have 94 Test caps and 19 centuries. But they’ve never known what it feels like to raise the bat in front of a raucous home crowd. Both are into their 30s, and there are few signs right now that it will ever happen.

India’s cricketers did little wrong in the Caribbean. But for Roston Chase and the rain in Jamaica and Trinidad, they would have won at least 3-0. The resurgence since they folded in the second half of the England tour of 2014 has been heartening, and Viv Richards isn’t the only one who expects big things from them in the months ahead.

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But you can’t have an India-Pakistan contest, even over something as arbitrary as ranking points, without it being reduced to the level of small boys pissing against a wall. Some Pakistanis, instead of savouring their own team’s considerable achievement – they have won 10 and lost just four of their last 17 Tests – prefer to belittle India’s cricketers. The jingoistic Indian would rather say, “Wait till you go to Australia”, than admit how good Pakistan were while squaring the series against England.

There is delicious irony in the fact that two nations that have gradually fallen out of love with Test cricket are now spending quite a bit of time talking about it. But as long as there is no engagement on the field, and there is little sign of a political thaw, all we’re left with are these online slanging matches, where ‘shame’ crops up every so often.

I can tell you what real shame is. Shame is Yogeshwar Dutt, the wrestler, being so paranoid about sabotage that he wouldn’t even eat food cooked in the canteen at the Sports Authority of India campus. Shame is Karmakar having to do a vault that is downright dangerous so that the public would sit up and take some notice. Shame is a moronic politician telling an audience that he would get Sindhu a better coach than P Gopichand who, along with V Anand and Rahul Dravid, is the finest role model Indian sport has ever had.

Shame is Pakistani squash being allowed to wither away after the great Khans, Jahangir and Jansher. Shame is Pakistan’s hockey team, once the benchmark for the rest of the world, not even qualifying for Rio de Janeiro after years of administrative apathy.

Mohammad Irfan once worked in a plastic pipe factory. Lalita Babar didn’t even own a pair of shoes till she was 16. But when these individuals make it to the big stage, after receiving nothing more than rudimentary coaching in their formative years, we expect them to be a match for the world’s best. If they aren’t, they’ve shamed us. 

While the Olympics were on, Ramnarayan Venkatraman, who played his first-class cricket in the evening shadow of the spin quartet and has been a valued contributor to these pages, was part of a social-media debate on how we view and value our sportspersons. “I am used to taunts and jibes as a sportsman, have been all my life,” he wrote. “Even in cricket, India only has to lose a game (and that isn’t rare), and the immediate rant is about bribery and fixing.

“In the lunch room at work, the constant refrain is about how our athletes (Saina Nehwal, for instance) choke on the big stage. This is from the new generation of armchair (or TV couch) critics and parents of know-all young critics of every sport from soccer to motor racing to the now fashionable kabaddi.”

Most of us cannot even fathom a situation where four years of intense preparation goes up in flames because of six minutes of underperformance. Clownish fans of an actor have been abusing Dutt after his loss in the preliminary round of the wrestling competition. They clearly don’t have the mental faculties to ask themselves what state of mind he would have been in, after Narsingh Yadav’s positive test and the atmosphere of suspicion and intrigue. It’s far easier to just say that he shamed India.

To understand and appreciate sport, and those that practise it, you have to get out there and play. Without feeling the pinpricks of defeat, and the joyful aches that accompany victory, you will never know what it’s really like. There’s another thing too. It’s called empathy. Those without it are usually mediocrities spouting nonsense on social media.

Shame.

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