Sports and the Nation

Is a country’s political and social health reflected in how its sporting entities perform?

Over the decades, the cricketing fortunes of India, Pakistan, West Indies and England have been linked to turmoil on home soil.

One keeps hearing about how the state of Pakistan’s cricket reflects the state of the country. According to this theory, the condition of cricket in the country and its team mirrors the economic and political situation in Pakistan.

This theory is popular in other countries as well. For example, Brazil’s dismal performance in 2014’s football World Cup impelled many Brazilians to propose that the economic woes being faced by the country and the rise of corruption in Brazil’s political institutions were reflected in the way the Brazilian football team performed in the mega event.

In 1974, when the Indian cricket team was battered by England (3-0) in a Test series, some Indian commentators suggested that the political upheaval being faced at the time by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had left Indian society feeling agitated and cynical.

They suggested that it was this mind-set that was then also exhibited by the lethargic performance of the Indian cricket team on its tour of England that year.

Team India all packed for another thrashing on the 1974 tour of England. Critics suggested the men were being affected by the political turmoil back home.
Team India all packed for another thrashing on the 1974 tour of England. Critics suggested the men were being affected by the political turmoil back home.

Against the tide

There are numerous such examples involving various countries. But in the last decade or so, the way Pakistan’s economy and politics have suffered due to the rise of religious and sectarian violence, economic mismanagement, and a startling rise in crime, the Pakistan cricket team’s wildly unpredictable performances have often been described by many to be reflective of whatever bad that is going on in the country.

I am sure a lot of what goes wrong does rub off on how a country’s sporting culture takes its contemporary shape, but there is no hard and fast rule that this is always the case.

For example, in 1971, when Pakistan was being ripped apart by a vicious civil war in its eastern wing, the Pakistan hockey team actually went on to win hockey’s first ever World Cup (held in Barcelona, Spain).

Then, when Pakistan was being harshly criticised for employing violent methods against separatists in East Pakistan, its hockey squad was pushed to play out of its skin to produce results that would contradict the negative perception of a country on the brink of a political and economic collapse.

1971: As civil war raged back home, the Pakistan hockey team went on to win the inaugural Hockey World Cup in Barcelona.
1971: As civil war raged back home, the Pakistan hockey team went on to win the inaugural Hockey World Cup in Barcelona.

Unity in adversity

In the context of cricket, two most vivid examples come to mind in which teams from countries caught in political, social and economic strife, actually used the predicament to inspire themselves to achieve something on the cricket field that was in stark contrast to what was happening in their respective countries.

In the 1970s, almost all of the island-states in the Caribbean that make up the West Indies cricket team, were in the grip of radical political upheaval, so much so that some of the larger Islands were even on the brink of a revolution, as supporters of political parties often fought running battles against each other and the police.

The economy was suffering, the politics was shaky and society often faced rising incidents of crime and violence. This is when a batsman from Guyana, Clive Lloyd, was made the captain of the West Indies cricket team (1975).

Streetkids face off against troops in Kingston, Jamaica (1976).
Streetkids face off against troops in Kingston, Jamaica (1976).

But compared to what was going on in the Island states, Lloyd’s team reacted in an opposite manner.

The team negated the political disunity and turmoil on the Islands and replaced it with cricketing unity and a determination to change (through cricket) the perception of the Islands being shaky banana republics.

Turmoil on the Islands remained till the early 1980s, but from 1975 onward, the West Indies cricket team began its climb to eventually become the number one Test and ODI side in the world, a status it would continue to enjoy throughout the decade.

The Windies' rise: As political chaos engulfed the Carribean states in the 1970s and early 1980s, the cricket team responded (under Clive Lloyd) by becoming the leading cricket team through the 1980s.
The Windies' rise: As political chaos engulfed the Carribean states in the 1970s and early 1980s, the cricket team responded (under Clive Lloyd) by becoming the leading cricket team through the 1980s.

And the irony is, the team’s performances actually began to decline when (in the 1990s), political stability began to return to the Islands and the economy started to exhibit signs of improvement.

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English revival

Another cricket side saw itself rising as a cricketing power in the late 1970s. England had been a strong Test side but it had fallen on the wayside in the mid-1970s.

However, between 1977 and 1979, England toppled the time’s top two teams, WI and Australia (under the captaincy of Mike Brearley, who was considered to be more of an intellectual than a batsman).

This happened when England was facing some of its worst post-War economic and political crises and race riots between West Indian and South Asian immigrants on the one side and White supremacists on the other.

As unemployment, strikes and riots were bringing England to a halt, the England cricket squad was emerging to become the world’s leading team.

As the economy continued to nosedive, race riots erupted in England in the late 1970s.
As the economy continued to nosedive, race riots erupted in England in the late 1970s.

This supremacy was lost after 1979, but when even worse race riots erupted again in 1981, Brearley (now in his 40s) was reappointed as captain after England lost the first Test of the 1981 Ashes series against Australia.

Brearley came in after the second Test of the six-Test series, and as various cities in England (and Northern Ireland) burned, England went on to defeat a strong Australian side 3-1 (after being 1-0 down).

Like the West Indies, England’s captain had turned political and economic turmoil into an inspiration to do (on the cricket field) the opposite of what was happening on the streets.

Mike Brearley, 1981: He was considered more of an intellectual than a batsman. As a captain, he twice took the England team to the top, especially during a shaky period for the country's politics and economy.
Mike Brearley, 1981: He was considered more of an intellectual than a batsman. As a captain, he twice took the England team to the top, especially during a shaky period for the country's politics and economy.

Misbah's charge

In Pakistan, it is only now that men such as Misbah-ul-Haq have begun to receive acclaim and appreciation for captaining the Pakistan cricket team to success in an era when the country was being ripped apart by extremists and (ever since 2009), no Test playing side was willing to tour Pakistan.

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Pakistan turn things around to chase 302 against Sri Lanka at Sharjah

The country was falling apart, but did Pakistan cricket? Not quite. On the contrary, in the year international cricket came to a halt in Pakistan (2009), the team won that year’s T20 World Cup in England.

And, when three Pakistani cricketers were caught spot-fixing during a Test match in England in 2010; and consequently, the Pakistan cricket team became the scene of a vicious power struggle between opposing groups of players, many observers stated that the team was reflecting the state of the country, which at the time, was in shambles.

Such a state would continue to haunt Pakistan till the launch of the military operation against extreme militants in 2014.

But ironically, under Misbah (who was appointed captain in 2011), the Pakistan cricket team performed quite brilliantly, especially considering the fact that all Pakistan matches were now being played abroad and in foreign conditions.

Also, Misbah had been given a team suffering from severe infighting and of a country in the grip of a grave existentialist crisis.

Misbah-ul-Haq: The wartime skipper.
Misbah-ul-Haq: The wartime skipper.

This year’s inauguration of the ambitious Pakistan Super League, masterminded by Pakistan Cricket Board’s Najam Sethi, is yet another example negating the theory that a country’s political and social health is always reflected in the way its sporting entities perform.

There are no such hard and fast rules.

The Pakistan Super League kicks off in great style.
The Pakistan Super League kicks off in great style.

This article was first published on Dawn.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.