Life imitates art far more than art imitates life, Oscar Wilde once asserted. In India, one might hope life can imitate cricket, because the country’s cricket team showed – even in the aftermath of Sunday’s World Cup final defeat against Australia – a true determination to achieve excellence.
Despite the loss, there are important lessons that India’s supporters can draw from their cricketing heroes – and from how cricket itself is organised in the country.
India is, of course, no cricketing rookie. It has lifted the World Cup twice. It has also consistently been a title contender for the past four decades. Given its economic powerhouse status in the context of the sport, the Indian team is always expected to reach at least the semi-finals of this and other global cricket competitions.
But what’s refreshingly new about this team is its sheer dominance in the sport today. The ruthlessness with which its players operated on the field throughout the World Cup – delivering crushing victories against almost every single one of its opponents and breaking a number of records along the way – was a sight to behold for cricket lovers immaterial of loyalties.
So much so that all that its bullish fans cared to debate in the run-up to Sunday’s final was the margin of India’s victory.
There is a sense that for this team, being good is simply not good enough. One might argue that this burning ambition is symptomatic of a growing nation hungry for success on the global stage – and to some extent, this applies to the burgeoning middle class. But with India being a country of myriad contradictions, it is just as true that a “chalta hai” (or “anything goes”) mentality pervades through all sections of society, which speaks to this widespread acceptance of mediocrity as a part and parcel of life.
It is this sometimes-defeatist attitude to life that the celebrated author Chetan Bhagat deplored in a recent column for The Times of India newspaper.
Pointing to the cricket team’s excellence, which he correctly linked to the years-long planning, hard work and dedication of all those involved, he called on fellow Indians to get inspired: “The biggest change that is required is in the mindset. It has to go from ‘yes, we are good, and we win sometimes’ to ‘we are the best, and we win almost every time’.”
While it is a stretch for an entire nation, particularly one that is as large and diverse as India, to apply its cricket team’s successes to other walks of life, the counterargument is why shouldn’t it at least try?
For one, there really is no modern-day institution in India quite like professional cricket. It is, for the most part, very well run and generously monetised under the auspices of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Second – and this is critical: it is a genuine, and rare, meritocracy.
More than 15 years ago, the late cricket administrator Raj Singh Dungarpur told some of us journalists that a large proportion of the next generation of Indians cricketers will emerge “not from the high-rises of the country’s bustling metropolises but from its vast hinterland”. Those were prophetic words, but what Mr Dungarpur was essentially pointing to was professional cricket’s open and merit-based system.
It’s a system that's far from perfect, of course.
As with most things commercial, politicians and special interest groups try to find ways to cash in. Thanks to the less savoury elements associated with the game, it has periodically been dogged by match-fixing scandals and betting rackets. And despite the BCCI’s best efforts to take the game to all corners of the country, it can go even farther in its inclusivity drive in trying to break through to the subaltern sections of society.
All that being said, while some high-profile industries and professions, such as filmmaking, have been unable to shake off nepotism and instances of corruption, cricket has shown that a fairly decently run system can achieve much if it keeps the game at the core of its mission.
It is in staying true to this mission that cricket continues to capture the country’s imagination.
For hundreds of millions of Indians, cricket is the national pastime. It continues to bring together people of varying identities, backgrounds and political affiliations, giving them all something to look forward to, to yearn for, to be joyous about. It serves as a welcome distraction, even if it is for a few hours, from the challenges of everyday life.
In recent years, however, cricket has become a vessel for jingoism, which was on display at the World Cup. Such was the partisan nature of the crowd in the final, for instance, that few if any fans stood up to applaud the match-winning performances of the Australian players. The stadium began emptying out even before the post-match ceremony and match officials were booed by some sections as they went up on stage to collect their medals.
Such boorish behaviour stands in stark contrast to when cricket was played during simpler times, when it had far less commercial and political value and was treated as it ideally should be – a game and nothing more.
But with cricket being more than just a game today, with so much money at stake, and with millions of Indians taking it so seriously that it adds to their sense of self and elevates their country's place in the world, could it not – should it not – set a positive example for society at large?
The answer is a resounding yes, but only if the fans are willing to keep an open mind.