Within minutes of Australia winning the 2023 Cricket World Cup at Ahmedabad on the back of a workman-like century by Travis Head, a WhatsApp message started doing the rounds: ‘Travis Head ke ghar pe ED ka chappa (ED raids Travis Head’s home)’.
The malicious intent of the messenger apart, the sardonic quip inadvertently tapped into our current national proclivity to rig and, when possible, suborn the standards of fair play.
Not just the 120,000 blue t-shirts that had thronged the stadium (yes, named after the one and only one) but also millions and millions of Indians are entitled to feel that they have been cheated out of a victory that our narrative manufacturers and event managers had assured us was ours, simply because we say so. Just as a few months ago, a routine and rotational hosting of an international gathering was converted into an ‘our moment has come’ frenzy, the ‘unbeaten’ team was deemed destined to win just because we have ‘waited’ too long. As part of our much proclaimed national ‘march’ to glory and power, we seem to have concluded that the rest of the world owed us a World Cup trophy. As the Punjab Kesari (that authentic voice of the Hindi heartland) headline put it on Sunday morning: ‘It was time to get even [ with Australia].’
To be sure, Rohit Sharma’s team has every reason to feel proud of their campaign, winning the first nine matches of the tournament. But since the Cup has eluded Rohit Sharma, he and his colleagues should be prepared to be skewered by the Monday-morning quarterbacks. In our collective boorishness, we no longer know how to be graceful in defeat. Cricket outshines all other sporting contests when it comes to command our attention and adulation. We are thus not very good particularly at taking a cricket defeat.
As a nation we were silently hoping for a genuine ‘national triumph’ at Ahmedabad, a contest won (or lost) according to established rules, vigilantly and vigorously enforced by an external body and its neutral referees. Most of us feel in our bones that much of what we claim as ‘success’ and ‘achievements’ are carved out under dubious rules enforced by dubious and enfeebled umpires. Apart from a lustily cheering home crowd, Rohit Sharma’s boys had no undue advantage. Fair contests, fairly won, have a satisfying flavour of their own.
Every society feels the need for stars and winners, to bask in the glory of laurels of its sportsmen and sportswomen. In recent years, however, we have managed to crowd heroes and achievers out of a national imagination that has not allowed to look beyond the ‘inspirational’ and ‘visionary’ leadership of one man.
The institutionalised personality cult does not countenance any other iconic ‘achiever.’ If we look unsentimentally at the leadership landscape in India, other than honourable Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, there are no recognisable leader in any area of national activity. In a country that has supposedly elevated the soldiers and their generals to a new and higher status, we do not have any officer commanding a national presence; the last soldier who sought limelight for himself, General Bipin Rawat, met an untimely death. There is no business tycoon who seeks a national voice for himself; in fact, both Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani have wisely opted to keep a low profile and rarely allow the cameras in their vicinity. No film star, no religious leader, not even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, is allowed to eclipse the one and only one national leader.
It is in this context that the 2023 World Cup offers us a few sobering lessons in leadership. The four captains who led their teams into the semi-finals had one trait in common: a no-bragging, no-bombastic persona. Neither Kane Williamson (New Zealand) nor Temba Bavuma (South Africa) nor Patrick Cummins (Australia) and Rohit Sharma (India) once gave the impression that they and they alone would take his team over the line. Differences in personal qualities apart, each of the four captains displayed an almost similar work ethic that sought to bring out the best of collective energy and synergy. Team interests trump individual glory and oversized egos.
Rohit Sharma’s leadership template, in fact, goes against the national grain. He is not flamboyant, he is not flashy, he is certainly not an exhibitionist. Showmanship does not come easily to him. He is not an obsessive leader. He has confessed to value his time and life beyond the cricket ground, with his family. But he still manages to mesmerise us with his lazy excellence when he flicks the ball over the boundary for a six or with his quiet ability to read the game. All that he would allow himself to say was that he wanted to win the Cup for the team’s coach, Rahul Dravid.
Admittedly there could be only one winner at Ahmedabad.
Neither the presence of the great inspirational leader himself nor all the tricks of event management were sufficient to help Rohit and his teammates fire up enough to get the better of the Aussies on Sunday. Perhaps the Aussies were a little more thoroughgoing in their off-the-field, backroom planning; they had sort out our batters and bowlers.
Nonetheless, to the extent cricket has come to encompass a national passion, cutting across all our fault-lines, the Ahmedabad outcome would be felt personally by almost every Indian. And, our defeat would be worth the pain if it leads us to introspect clear-headedly that as a nation and as a society we have to understand there are limits to bogus showmanship and grandstanding, and that there is no substitute for real skills, genuine talent, and authentic leadership – on or off the field.