They have a favourite expression in Bollywood, going as far back as anyone can recall: suspension of disbelief.
Now that Indian cricket, too, could be termed as an industry unto itself, time perhaps has come for an expression along similar lines, to show how the game and its exponents are looked at by all and sundry: suspension of belief. As an Indian, you really have to be a shrieking fan with a herd or mob mentality to follow the game — especially the neon-lit variety played in coloured pajamas.
Enjoy the game? Sorry, that died with the old guard.
Engage in a bit of banter before or afterward? Be warned, you could be roughed up by the mob in the guise of Indian fans, or someone could ask you to apologise, or even file a PIL. Criticise them? The Lord save you.
That’s the average Indian cricket fan for you: someone more interested in the ‘er’ after cricket. And once the ‘er’ is suffixed, there cannot be any scope for them to err. Shoaib Akhtar is finding that out to his peril. The release of the former Pakistan pace ace’s autobiography, insouciantly titled ‘Controversially Yours’, scheduled for Sunday at the Cricket Club of India in Mumbai has been postponed. Reason? None whatsoever, as of late Saturday evening.
While the title is as lame a name as it is inane, if you ask me, making no bones where it is targeted (the bestseller list; a little like a Bollywood flick titled ‘Barsaat Mein Namkeen’), but that’s up to the man from Rawalpindi. It is also up to the same man from Pindi what he wants to think of a certain Sachin Tendulkar walk back after a half-hearted appeal during the Faisalabad Test during India’s tour to Pakistan in 2004.
“I bowled (Sachin) a particularly fast ball which he, to my amazement didn’t even touch. He walked away! That was the first time I saw him walk away from me — that, too, on the slow track at Faisalabad. It got my hunting instincts up and in the next match I hit him on the head and he couldn’t score after that,” Shoaib is reported (I cannot say for certain since I haven’t read the book) to have written in the book.
And then all fell down: TV channels began assembling ‘experts’ to breathe fire, cricket fans yelled blasphemy and reacted as if the world was about to end, BCCI vice-president and senior Congress leader Rajiv Shukla said Shoaib must apologise, cricketer-turned-MP-turned comedy circuswala Navjot Singh Sidhu called it “cheap publicity… gimmick”, the mob got out in Dahisar near Mumbai “on Saturday against Akhtar, for his comments on Tendulkar, (carrying) Akthar’s (sic) posters on donkey-backs“.
And perhaps half of India thought God has been defiled and reached out for Iodex, Tiger Balm or various variants of pain relievers to get rid of different levels of pain and anguish.
Amid all this, no one bothered to wonder how many of us have read the book, since it hasn’t been released officially yet. Did he claim that Sachin “walked away” from him in only that Test or is there more? Is it just a single instance of a batsman failing or is there more than meets the eye? Are we making a mountain out of a molehill or attacking “the biggest peak”, as Sidhu called it?
In mob-dom, you don’t ask questions; you only react.
Another line from the book given out to the media as a pre-launch publicity went: “I think players like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid weren’t exactly match winners to start with, nor did they know the art of finishing the game.”
In Kanpur, Rajiv Shukla saw red redder than the Communists: “He (Tendulkar) is still touching new heights and as far as Dravid is concerned, he is continuing to play some great knocks, which shows his commitment to the team. Whatever Shoaib has written is distasteful.” No journalist, of course, asked Mr Shukla whether he has read “whatever Shoaib has written” that he finds so “distasteful”.
No need to read between the lines, just the line is enough, and check the tense: the two “weren’t exactly match winners” and “nor did they know the art of finishing”. Obviously past, the tense; and equally obviously meant to say they were “not exactly” great finishers back then; he isn’t talking about the duo’s status all through their career.
Now, statistics says Sachin’s highest Test score is 248 not out, followed by an unbeaten 241. We won’t take into account the first one — it was against Bangladesh, at a time when they were cubs, if they are Tigers now — and the second is a classic against the Aussies, at Sydney.
His other three double centuries in Test match cricket finished in the early 200s; certainly not scores where he went on to play with the tail and eke out draws or victories, unlike, say, Steve Waugh, most of whose big knocks came in partnerships with players lower down the order. Same with Dravid; there have been innumerable matches, many of them ODIs, in which Dravid came down the order and remained unbeaten while the tail around him failed. A good finisher and a matchwinner ensures the tail wags, lends confidence to men whose first job is not to whack the ball or show the full face of it for stodgy defence, and then slowly marshal them toward a positive result — sometimes even a fighting defeat, instead of capitulating.
These two gentlemen could well be the best in business, but they fall short of what the likes of Waugh (snatching games with tailenders), Lara (playing big, real big Test knocks) and even Ponting (changing his game just as the doctor ordered) have done. Is Shoaib wrong by that big a margin? Remember, even in the famous victory against the Aussies at the Eden Gardens, it was Laxman who played a bigger knowck than Dravid.
But what’s deplorable is the level of disquiet unleashed by the mob, the frenzied opposition to any thought or voice than our own, and the closing of ranks among everyone as if on national emergency. Similar reactions are seen when an MF Hussain tries to etch Saraswati, a Salman Rushdie writes a book on alleged blasphemy against a religion, or a Deepa Mehta tries to make a film on purported lesbianism.
No quarter for arguments given, none taken. Let’s ban, torch or smear — so goes the mob chorus.
Now, it is not my case to defend Shoaib Akhtar, though truth be told I have always been fascinated by such characters in sports. Him, and players such as Shane Warne, Sourav Ganguly, Brian Lara, Ricky Ponting, Ian Botham, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Diego Maradona…The list is endless, but in India we take our sport like serious business. So the gods, the greats — the Tendulkars, the Dravids, the Kumbles and the likes of them — are required to be gentlemen with no character flaws, Achilles’ Heel, professional shortcomings.
Gods with flaws? You are asking for trouble. If only we took sports with as much seriousness, we could have produced more winners and gold medallists.
“Democratic societies are unfit for the publication of such thunderous revelations as I am in the habit of making,” said Salvadore Dali, the Spanish painter. And an “autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful,” said British writer George Orwell.
I hope, for the sake of our multicultural plurality and gumption, that we accept Shoaib’s yorker in true democratic spirit (something his own country lacks) of giving an ear to every thought — with a pinch of salt if unpalatable, and with a grin even if the toe-crusher of a delivery proves a hero or two fallible. I hope we do not ban the book in the name of public sentiment, for even the mighty Tendulkar and Dravid perhaps would not like that — felled by a bouncer, they would get up, dust their trousers and take fresh guard, and expect the same of us.
I hope we remember even the Achilles had a weak spot.