In 1990 British politician Norman Tebbit proclaimed his cricket loyalty test: In a match between England and their country of origin, whom did immigrants support? Alas, like most Indians in Australia and England, I would comprehensively fail the Tebbit test.
India’s recent Australia tour was deeply satisfying as the first ever Test and bilateral ODI series wins over the former cricketing powerhouse. The T20 results ensured an unprecedented win across all three formats.
The spirit of friendliness, camaraderie and professional fraternity throughout the tour was notable. Australian cricket has been in the doldrums over the past year. Captain Tim Paine has spoken openly of the need to win back public respect. Australia lost the three-format series, but fought hard and fair. With a bit of fortune, the series could have swung the other way round.
But then, series outcomes in previous tours of Australia, South Africa and England could also have been better for India with less idiosyncratic team selection. Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri must learn to tell friend from foe and end their combative rejections of constructive criticism, while ignoring hostile criticism.
Team India won the admiration and affection of host commentators and fans, outplaying Australia in batting, bowling and fielding. Most Australians believe this was the best bowling and fielding unit to come from India. The pacers and spinners alike were relentless, penetrating and potent wicket takers. Rishabh Pant was a revelation behind the stumps with his incessant chirping and witty banter with Paine. MS Dhoni’s cricketing nous in checking the remaining overs with the umpire, in order to choose which bowler to respect and whom to target in the final successful push for victory, was teachable.
The most crucial lesson of the tour is how Team India is a microcosm of the dramatic change taking place in the country. My generation grew up with the ‘chalta hai’ philosophy. India is a poor developing country and must make do with second and even third class standards in all walks of life with respect to quality, service, performance and other benchmarks. There was resigned acceptance when the East Asian tigers left India’s development efforts in the dust to race ahead in poverty alleviation, national and individual income growth, and health and education outcomes.
For the generation of my nephews and nieces, the children of friends and then again their children in the rising generation, there has been a revolution of expectations. ‘Chalta hai’ has given way to ‘nahi chalega’. There is self-belief in the ability to compete with the best in the world and emerge as champions, and then defend that lofty status, through discipline, application and physically demanding training regimes. There is a conscious cultivation of mental toughness too to survive the challenging passages of play and emerge triumphant on the other side. Entrepreneurial drive and a rigorous work ethic will help India scale peaks in many walks of life.
Still, the cricketing triumph is no cause for irrational exuberance. India has among the worst overall sports ranking per capita of any country in the world. This should cause shame, embarrassment and introspection. Sports is not just whimsical entertainment for amateurs outside work hours. It is serious business that requires scouting for talent, and nurturing it from childhood to maturity without discrimination on grounds of religion, region, caste or gender by investing in the physical and administrative infrastructure.
It is also a critical component of soft power. International sporting success is crucial to instilling national pride, symbolising national integration, providing a fertile source of inspirational stories, shaping the national narrative and changing the outside world’s perceptions of a country. The disparity between China’s and India’s organisational abilities in the Olympic and Commonwealth games, respectively, is exceeded by the disparity in their respective athletes’ international performances.
Finally, a thought experiment. Imagine if the reservations mania extended to the selection of Team India. Where would India rank among the cricket playing nations?
This article was published by The Times of India on the 16th of February 2019.
Ramesh Thakur, a former United Nations assistant secretary-general, is an emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.