Ultra patriotism and intolerance have no place in cricket

Do celebrities have proprietary rights over a country and should they use the love of their fans and the popularity of their game to spread messages that ratchet up ultra- patriotism? Virat Kohli has undoubtedly excelled in his chosen field of cricket – a sporting success that has brought in its wake a wave of commercial success. He also adds the optics of aggression to what clearly is the most watched game in India. With a lot of passion, an aggressive player who does well gets the adrenalin of the audiences also going. Should this aggression, particularly the showbiz part that is always questionable on field, now start showing up off field as well, including some of the worst manifestations of right-wing politics as a way of expressing patriotism? From demanding adulation for India and its players to attacks on those who appreciate non-Indian cricketing achievers is a big fall for the gentleman’s game. Simply stated, it amounts to detesting everything that is not homegrown or does not fall within the rubric of one’s nation. 

George Monbiot, an English political activist, believes that excessive love for one’s own country belittles what one finds in other places and demeans the achievements of other nations. He further holds that patriots lie to themselves by placing all they find in their country above the feats and accomplishments of others. On the other hand, on the opposite side of the fence in England itself, we also have extreme conservatives like Norman Tebbit, a former Chairman of the Conservative Party and a Life Peer.

Should this aggression, particularly the showbiz part that is always questionable on field, now start showing up off field as well, including some of the worst manifestations of right-wing politics as a way of expressing patriotism? From demanding adulation for India and its players to attacks on those who appreciate non-Indian cricketing achievers is a big fall for the gentleman’s game.

Tebbit advocated in 1990 the so-called “cricket test” or the what came to be known as the “Tebbit test” whereby he exhorted the ethnic minorities in England to support and cheer for the English cricket team rather than visiting cricket teams from their erstwhile countries. This test, he claimed, would prove, to an extent but not solely, if they (the ethnic minorities) were truly British. The South Asians and the Caribbean have always been the bugbear for Tebbit who has constantly questioned their patriotism. Incidentally, a professor of anthropology at the London School of Economics, white and thoroughbred English, who has spent a long-time undertaking field research in India, openly supports and cheers the visiting cricket teams from South Asia and the Caribbean. So also does his son who has represented London schools in cricket.

Given this, what is the position of India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli? Should the British academic and his son be banished to some other country? Also, a true lover of a game, one is convinced, should transcend oneself from being a partisan supporter of a team to the beauty and intricacy of the game itself. Why should one be constrained and confined to the narrow national interest, which at times, amounts to bigotism? Appreciating the game surely invites fans to enjoy the fine displays of batting, bowling or fielding per se. A bias and a desire to see your team win is fine but to take it to the level of a war diminishes the players, the game and the countries the players represent.

As a qualified umpire with the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA) during the 1980s for the various divisional matches conducted by the TNCA, I must confess, I had to restrain myself many a time from appreciating a good shot or a beautiful ball or sharp fielding as the calling was that an umpire has to be neutral. Such feeling comes naturally to a genuine lover of the game irrespective of which player from which team does well. This appreciation is natural. It springs forth spontaneously and should not be prescribed or commanded by nationalism. Patriotism and nationalism must not dictate to a person as to when to clap or cheer a good performance and for just the side that belongs to one’s country of birth? Dislike for the opposite team, irrespective of whether it plays well or badly, particularly when it plays well, would amount to xenophobia in my way of thinking.

If this was a stray remark or Kohli getting carried away and then doing some self-correction then the remark can be safely buried and forgotten, but the message should be clear for cricketers and non-cricketers alike – a good game should be enjoyed for what it is and nothing more.  We love India and we love cricket. And it is okay if we equally like and clap for some fine shots played by some rival team.

If one likes the left-handed elegance, grace and staying power of Brian Lara or David Gower at the crease, does it automatically lead to besmirching Sachin Tendulkar or Rahul Dravid? Appreciating the silken touch of Zaheer Abbas or Majid Khan from across the border does in no way belittle India’s little masters, Sunil Gavaskar or Gundappa Vishwanath. Also, millions across the world have gone gaga over the exploits of Pele on the football field, and in the contemporary period, on the achievements of Usain Bolt and Mo Farah in athletics, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant in basketball, and Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in tennis, just to name some of the internationally recognised and reputed sportspersons. Not all their supporters are nationals of Brazil, Jamaica, England, USA, Switzerland and Serbia respectively. Where do we deport and banish such legions of supporters? Also, one is sure Dhyan Chand and Vijay Amritraj in the past and in today’s world Sania Mirza, Saina Nehwal, P.V. Sindhu and Leander Paes have a great fan following outside India.

So, what was it that irked Virat Kohli to hold the view that a fan who likes batsmen from other countries should leave the borders of India? Some other India cricketers, too, are known to subscribe to right wing political views but have not gone to the extent of exhorting fans who support other teams and their players to leave the country. If this was a stray remark or Kohli getting carried away and then doing some self-correction then the remark can be safely buried and forgotten, but the message should be clear for cricketers and non-cricketers alike – a good game should be enjoyed for what it is and nothing more.  We love India and we love cricket. And it is okay if we equally like and clap for some fine shots played by some rival team. That alone is true love of cricket, and also of freedom, respect and sportsmanship that India must and does stand for.

(Dr. M.A. Kalam is Dean – Administration and Regulatory Affairs, Krea University, Sri City, Andhra Pradesh and former umpire with the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA). Views are personal)