When an economic survey alludes to the batting exploits of Rishabh Pant and Cheteshwar Pujara in Australia to instil public confidence in the Indian economy, then it only confirms that the incandescent afterglow of a remarkable cricket triumph often extends well beyond the boundary.
Now, as Team India embarks on a home series against England, one is prompted to ask: what is it that all of us, especially those in public life, can learn from our on field heroes?
Let’s start at the top with stand-in captain Ajinkya Rahane, a leader who has defied the modern-day stereotype of the strongman boss. By staying calm and composed through good times and bad, Rahane has shown that you don’t have to wear your muscular aggression on your sleeve to be seen as a tough leader.
Rahane’s unruffled demeanor conceals a steely resolve, a Buddha-like tranquility in cricket’s gladiatorial Colosseum. Perhaps, a defining moment of his captaincy was when soon after lifting the Border-Gavaskar Trophy, he seemed happy to fade into the background, inviting his young teammates to bask in collective glory.
In an age of highly individualistic, larger than life supremos, Rahane’s exemplary conduct was a reminder of a gentler era when success was seen as a shared enterprise, where leadership styles put team above self, humility above ego. That he refused to cut a celebratory kangaroo shaped cake because it might hurt Australian ‘sentiment’ reveals a conscientious humane spirit far removed from the confrontational uber nationalism of our times.
The cricket team is driven forward by a genuinely meritocratic spirit, unchained by privilege or a sense of entitlement. A politician’s kin can run their parties like family fiefdoms, business houses still have hereditary succession, even professionals like doctors and lawyers can build on their inheritance. Not so cricket. The days when regional networks and individual bias might influence team selection are long gone.
I am a living example of cricket’s intrinsic non-dynastical template: I was desperate to follow my father’s footsteps and play for India but just didn’t have the required talent. Now, when I watch the likes of a Pant or a Shubman Gill redefine the art of batsmanship, I am further convinced that cricket is not about feudal lineage but about skill and excellence above all else.
An Arjun Tendulkar may bear Indian cricket’s most famous surname but he isn’t going to play for India unless he performs on the field.
This merit-driven eco-system has been accompanied by what I call the ‘Dhoni-isation’ of the sport. When Mahendra Singh Dhoni emerged from the relatively unknown cricketing backwater of Ranchi, he offered hope to thousands of young boys from outside the big cities that the sport wasn’t just about the dominance of traditional elites. Before Dhoni, there were the likes of Kapil Dev too who broke barriers. But it is in the Dhoni generation more than ever before that we are witnessing a small town revolution that has completely reshaped the social geography of Indian cricket.
This demolition of elite structures has seen cricket stars emerge from Palghar to Salem to Surat, all driven by a burning desire to succeed. The sport has been democratized in a manner that other professions should consciously look to emulate: create opportunities and a level playing field to allow for a more competitive work environment and make that a mantra for success.
A key role in this changing dynamic of Indian cricket has been played by the cash-rich Indian Premier League.
T20 may not be every cricket fan’s cup of tea but its role in expanding opportunities for the sport cannot be minimised. Then, whether it is a Jasprit Bumrah or a Hardik Pandya, the IPL has become a global stage where a star is born almost every year. That domestic cricketers can share a dressing room with the best cricketers in the world helps generate an unshakeable self-belief, a crucial X factor in nurturing a big match temperament.
Indian cricket, in fact, has globalised by generating a spirit of atma-vishwas (self-confident) and not an atma-nirbhar (self-reliant) Bharat. Rather than be insular and protectionist, Indian cricket has been open and outward-looking, attributes that are key to the successful economies of the 21st century.
Another special feature of this Indian team worthy of emulation is the enlarged space it provides to youthful talent. Almost every Indian team is now blessed with players who have leapfrogged from the under-19 ranks into the senior ranks with the supersonic speed of a generation in fast forward mode. Credit should go to the likes of Rahul Dravid who as under-19 coach spent the last few years mentoring the junior team.
Cricket, in that sense, is truly recognising and celebrating the demographic dividend in a manner of a freshly minted start-up. Contrast this with our politics where there is still a hesitancy to cede space to the next generation. The BJP amongst the national parties has arguably been the most open in rewarding a more youthful demographic, which might partly explain their success in attracting the under-30 age group voter.
But perhaps the most attractive characteristic of this Indian team is that it plays with a complete freedom from fear of any kind. This maybe partly explained by the financial security the sport now provides the players. But it is also because sport is shaped by a genuine purity of purpose. There are no vote banks to be cultivated on the cricket field, no divisiveness to be sown for petty gain. This is in sharp contrast to our politics which is increasingly marked by offensive dog whistles and harsh rhetoric that only seem to bring out the worst in us.
The Hindu-Muslim bigotry that shapes the political discourse is happily absent from the cricketing arena. This is why our cricket team mirrors the enriching plural ethos of a multi-religious nation. Which is another reason to respect and emulate Team India as a symbol of a better, diverse and more unified India.
Post-script: When an elated Mohammed Siraj embraced player-of-the-match Rishabh Pant after the historic Brisbane win, it was hard not to get emotional. Here was a young man from Hyderabad, who had lost his father while on tour but had chosen to stay back to fulfill the family dream of his playing for the country. Not only did he take 13 wickets and emerge the highest wicket-taker, Siraj played the game with an impish smile and passionate zeal that was truly infectious. Just a few months ago, during the Hyderabad civic polls, a toxic and insidious campaign had been unleashed to question the patriotism of the city’s Muslim population. The achievements of Miya bhai, as Siraj is endearingly referred to by his team-mates, only expose the coarseness of identity politics that choose to judge people by a religious badge. Thank god for cricket!
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author of Democracy’s XI: The Great Story of Indian Cricket.