Damn Those Who Damn Cricket

Why fault a beautiful game because Indians are less equipped to excel at other sporting pursuits?

The knee-jerk diatribe (“Damn Cricket” Little India, July 2007) blames cricket for the absence of South Asian players in the NFL or NBA. Its sentiments are probably shared by other second generation Indians, so the piece – with all its fallacies and contradictions – deserves an answer.


There are many reasons why you don’t find players of South Asian origin in contemporary American professional sport. And it has nothing to do with cricket.

Let’s admit for starters that the culture of sports has never been a serious part of an Indian upbringing. Until the Tendulkars, Gangulys and Dhonis began raking in millions as cricketing stars, parents in India hardly ever encouraged their kids to take up a sport or game as a full-time profession. Any sporting pursuit was fine as a “hobby” or even something to embellish a resume. But a sole bread-winning occupation? Forget it. If in your teens you mustered up the gumption to tell your dad you wanted to be a sportsman, he was apt to reply: “Fine, son. But what do you plan to do for a living?”

Mind you, it’s not that your dad was a sports-hater. He probably loved it as much as you did. But a typical middle-class father in an economically under-developed country (politely termed “a developing economy” or “the Third World”) had other, more weighty burdens influencing his priorities in life. Earlier generations of Indian sportsmen depended on doled-out jobs – “sports-quota positions” – in government or benign corporate houses to keep their home fires burning.

This step-motherly attitude translated into meager allocations for sports-related infrastructure which, in turn, meant lack of adequate training facilities. Maestros like Dhyan Chand (hockey), Milkha Singh (athletics), Prakash Padukone (badminton) and Sunil Gavaskar (cricket) achieved greatness not because of the standard of amenities they got, but despite them. Only since the late 1990s, could a talented young aspirant even consider sports – read: cricket – as a viable career option in India. There was just too much economic insecurity all around for the luxury of being a professional sportsman.

First-generation immigrants from India carried this insecurity to their new, affluent host-countries as part of their baggage. Since most arrived as students, the top priority was getting a decent GPA, then a decent job, followed by the Green Card – their passport to the American Dream. Because that “dream” hinged primarily on good grades, active participation in any sporting activity was unthinkable. As a small concession, you could spend an occasional Saturday evening watching football/baseball/basketball on television in the company of friends and a six-pack of inexpensive beer.

Even today, the emphasis on academic qualifications at the cost of sports is a given for all but the rarest of NRI families. A distant relative, well-settled in New Jersey, prided on his teenage son’s progress as an unusually gifted tennis player in the local circuit, but his wife put her foot down when the game demanded more of her son’s time and threatened to affect his grades. Result: he has now settled down on the West Coast in a “good job” that has nothing to do with sports.


The telling point is: this story is the rule among NRIs, not an exception.

Apart from the absence of a sporting culture in our homes, there is the question of biology. Want to know why six-footer Indian males cannot emulate the feats of Spurs point-guard Tony Parker who stands at just 6’2″? Want to know whose “fault” this is? Blame it on your genes, my friend. We must accept that to an overwhelming extent, our physique and mental make-up determine our progress (or lack thereof) in international sports. Physique is not merely height. It’s a whole complex of parameters encompassing speed, strength, stamina, anticipation, hand-eye coordination. And mental make-up is not bookish intelligence. It’s primarily the instinct – not incorrectly called “animal instinct” or “killer instinct” – to beat the odds as well as the competition.

This will rile those who oppose “biological determinism” and view it as a “racist” approach to studying humankind. I disagree. I hold that every ethnic group has, by reason of its evolution and civilizational orientation, certain characteristic traits that it cannot easily escape or wish away. Indians as a race have profound physical limitations that hamper our advancement in modern professional sport. Of course, talent and skill matter. Which is why the likes of Ramanathan Krishnan, Vijay Amritraj, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Sania Mirza and even the podgy Ramesh Krishnan hold their own against the best in the tennis world with admirable court-craft. But when up against the brute force of power tennis, we can only go so far and no further.

I must qualify this point with two caveats. First, our physical and mental attributes are not permanent prisons. Evolutionary history has shown that with the right inputs – diet, environment, mental conditioning – races have overcome such limitations. The Chinese are an inspiring example. Studies and medal tallies reveal that the average Chinese today is taller, stronger, fitter, faster and more athletic than his ancestor. If the Chinese can, why can’t we? An Olympic gold medal in athletics, for instance, need not remain a pipe dream for India. But it will happen only if we plan ahead, prepare single-mindedly and show consistent patience over a long period of time. Not just a couple of decades or generations. And definitely not within the lifetime of a 26-year-old!

The other caveat has to do with our positive traits. For one thing, Indians – though not strong or fast enough – can be quick. This is not a contradiction. To know the difference, watch any old NBA game between the express fast-break LA Lakers and the less sprinty, but more cerebral and quick-thinking Boston Celtics who scored with superior strategy and sharp passing. Indians did something similar in field hockey. We learnt the game from the British, and mastered it to beat not only our colonial masters but the rest of the world as well, with magical dribbling skills and rapier-thrust passes – until the International Hockey Federation changed the rules to tilt the field, so to speak, in favor of the sturdier Europeans.


What does this tale – albeit short-lived – of Indian superiority in hockey tell us? Quite simply, that the Principle of comparative advantage remains as valid in global sports as it does in global economics. Countries, on account of their geographical position or natural resources or skill-base, are inherently equipped to produce certain goods with greater efficiency than others.

The same principle holds good for cricket. We, among other Commonwealth countries of colonial vintage, took to the game like the proverbial fish to water. In a way, it replicated our laid-back lifestyle and temperament: Which other spectator sport could extend over five days of ten-to-five office-like routine with an extra “rest day” thrown in?  In which other game does a player wait for hours – even days – to get out into the middle of the fray? But that was not all. With our supple wrists and nimble footwork, we brought a whole new aesthetic dimension to the skill of batsmanship and made it a strokeful art-form. (Ranjitsinghji is credited with “inventing” the leg-glance.) With our superior finger-control and tactical guile, we excelled in spinning out the opposition. And so, despite our lethargic fielding abilities and our traditional dearth of pace bowlers, we won the odd match.

But while we lost matches, we never lost our love for the game itself. We applauded a genius like Sir Garfield Sobers, whose team trounced us in our own backyard, but who more than compensated with a display of unparalleled athletic and cricketing prowess in doing so. Millions of Indians cheered this alien black superman. So did millions of Australians and Englishmen at other venues. It was indeed liberating to be part of this universal fraternity of black, brown and white bonding over nothing more than a piece of wood (bat), a sphere of cork and leather (ball), and a 22-yard stretch of clay, mud and grass (pitch).

So what does cricket offer? Let’s count……but wait. How does one convince an ignoramus who confuses “pitching” with “bowling,” who thinks a game that “looks classy” is “not cool,” who believes a game is fit enough to enter “the sports world of 2007” only if it “sells sex,” and who wants to banish cricket “to hell” because it “celebrates gentlemanly conduct”?

Anyone who has seen cricket knows it’s much more nuanced than baseball or golf. It incorporates all their skills and more, then adds a dimension of absorbing complexity – the state of the pitch and its gradual deterioration over the duration of a match.

Anyone who has played cricket knows how poignantly it mirrors life itself. Your individual performance – however brilliant – can’t work in isolation from the dynamic of the group, your wicket tally as a bowler owes its size at least in part to the efforts of your fielders, your score as a batsman depends at least in part on the cooperation and moral support of your partner. Luck and human frailty play their role too – a wrong call at the coin toss can put an entire team in jeopardy, and you got to lump a wrong call by the umpire. In no other game, does a draw or a tie often turn out more riveting than a win or loss.

The problem in India is our maniacal obsession with cricket, not cricket itself. It’s outright puerile and short-sighted – even dangerous – to have just one game dominate our entire sporting spectrum. We need an alternative sport to jostle with cricket in our minds and hearts. Nations routinely boast of at least two (England has foot … sorry, soccer, cricket and Wimbledon), and some have even three or more major ones (USA has football, baseball, basketball, and ice-hockey, besides the US Open in golf and tennis). A single game implies limited openings for players, concentrated sponsorships and financial monopoly – thus lending itself to unholy competition and corrupt practices like performance-enhancing drugs and match-fixing.

But why this unseemly anxiety to have an Indian in the NFL or NBA?  Is that our sole – or even primary – yardstick of sporting achievement? Or does it, in fact, reveal a neo-colonial inferiority complex of the over-eager immigrant desperate to assimilate into the mainstream culture? Either way, it’s quite a comedown for the “pure-blooded” among us who ideally should be playing and promoting the “pure” Indian games of kabbadi and kho-kho. Until that happens, let us accept that in this era of globalization, few things are indeed pure – least of all, ethnic blood.  

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