The most remarkable thing about Sunday’s World Cup final was not that India lost. Many of us had seen the defeat coming for days, and some foresaw it as the inevitable fruit of hubris, of “ghamand”. For those inclined to Sanskrit, a couple of lines from the Bhagavad Gita define perfectly the nature of the BCCI (the Board of Control for Cricket in India), whose best-known face is Jay Shah, the semi-literate Gujarati Billy-bhai Bunter in whose unathletic body nepotism and administrative blight have attained their most perfect form.
The verses from the Gita:
आत्मसम्भाविता: स्तब्धा धनमानमदान्विता: |
यजन्ते नामयज्ञैस्ते दम्भेनाविधिपूर्वकम् || 17||
Such self-conceited and stubborn men, full of pride and arrogant in their wealth, perform ostentatious sacrifices in name only, with no regard to the rules of the scriptures.
अहङ्कारं बलं दर्पं कामं क्रोधं च संश्रिता: |
मामात्मपरदेहेषु प्रद्विषन्तोऽभ्यसूयका: || 18||
Blinded by egotism, strength, arrogance, desire, and anger, the vile men abuse Me, who am present in their own body and in the bodies of others.
Let us assume here that “Me” in the last verse refers not to God, or the Supreme Being, but to Cricket, our most beloved game (and secular national religion).
To me, as a man in his seventh decade of life – who watched his first Test match, at age 7, in 1969 – the most remarkable thing about Sunday’s final was that so many neutrals everywhere (by which I mean cricket fans who weren’t Indian or Australian) were cheering not for India but for Australia.
This is not because India weren’t the underdogs in the final, which is usually why neutrals don’t back a particular competitor. But being better doesn’t necessarily put neutrals off. Few non-Englishmen cheered for England in the 1979 final, preferring the West Indies, then favoured so heavily to win that their losing would have been a cosmic shock (as it was in 1983, when they lost to India, back then a kinder country than it is now, more self-effacing, less triumphalist and ugly).
Neutrals cheered Australia on Sunday, a team that has historically been unloved outside its own shores, because most cricket fans worldwide are thoroughly sick – fed up, pissed off – about India’s bully-boy dominance of world cricket. I don’t mean sporting dominance, which neutral fans can live with (as was the case with the West Indians of the Clive Lloyd and Viv Richards era, or Brazilian football in the time of Pelé). It’s the wholesale takeover by the BCCI of cricket’s financing, values, and calendar, giving them a grip over the game that is stronger, more ruthless and vice-like, more absolute and remorseless, more self-serving and mercantilist, than that once exercised by the game’s original overlords in England (who might, at some level, have been forgiven their assertion of ownership over cricket because they did, in fact, give us the game).
The BCCI has warped cricket, distorted it, making it so India-centric that other proud nations – some with better pedigrees than India’s – have been reduced to bit-part players, mendicants, petitioners for match-time. Everything is now about India: the crowds, the songs, the scheduling, the pitches, the money. The one element the BCCI cannot control, mercifully, is the outcome of a match. Try as the BJP might – for the BCCI is now the BJP in cricketing form – the result of a match cannot be influenced to suit its needs the way an election can. International umpires are not the Indian judiciary. The ICC is not (yet) the Indian Election Commission.
That India lost in the final was karmic payback for the BCCI’s sins against the game, and also for the Ahmedabad crowd’s unwillingness to be sporting and civilised, to appreciate cricket as something other than a jingoistic exercise in which India must win every game to the chanting of “Jai Shri Ram” and “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. Let us never again hold the final of a World Cup in such a city, a place in which cricket is but the means to petty nationalist ends, where few stand up to applaud an opposing batsman who scores a magnificent, match-winning hundred. Stay with Chennai, with Mumbai, with Kolkata, where the crowds love cricket (and not just winning).
In the end, justice was done. Australia won. Narendra Modi did not get his heavily scripted opportunity to strut on stage at the stadium named after him. Instead, we saw the most graceless presentation of a cup to a winning captain, in which Modi – sulking like a spoiled child who hasn’t had the celebration he’d thought was his birthright – handed over the trophy to Pat Cummins and then turned his back on the Australian captain. The latter was left bemused and sheepish on the stage, alone with the cup that his team had won but feeling, nonetheless, like a gate-crasher at a party-gone-wrong. For India, it was a moment of national embarrassment. The prime minister had reduced an ancient land to a boorish place, ill-mannered, inhospitable, uncivilised, nouveau-riche.
Let us give thanks to the God of Cricket that the BCCI lost on Sunday, even as we embrace our gallant boys in blue. Maybe some of them will be emboldened now to push back against the BCCI in private.
Repeat after me: Cricket Mata ki Jai.
Tunku Varadarajan is a writer at the Wall Street Journal in New York. A fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, he is also a fellow at the Classical Liberal Institute at New York University Law School. He has written frequently for Wisden.