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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 22

Cricket and India’s Soft-power Miscarriages

Saturday 19 May 2007, by Bhartendu Kumar Singh


The early exit of our ‘Team India’ from the World Cup show in Caribbean Islands has jolted the billion-strong nation. No one had expected that cricket, which is as the most popular street game in India and has engendered household names like Tendulkar, Sehwag and Dhoni, would be a source of embarrassment for a rising country in global politics. That the defeat has come from our small backyard neighbours makes the embarrassment all the more enduring.

However, realists in the sports world had never fancied any chances for India in the ongoing World Cup. And why should they? After all, India figures sixth in the list of ICC one-day rankings. (We have now slumped down the ladder even more!) During the last two years, the policy of flirtations and experimentations has only given us a series of humiliating defeats, eroding Team India’s self confidence and morale. The expectational gap and the emotional outbursts in various parts of the country are, therefore, unwarranted.

Since the historic win in the 1983 World Cup, cricket replaced hockey as the most favourite game in the country. However, during much of the nineties, the game did not bring many laurels to India although we had a dream chase up to the finals in the 2003 World Cup. This was also the time when the country was coming out of its Cold War envelop and knocking at the great-power club. Individual brilliances could not help the team to perform well and rule the cricketing world, limited to less than a dozen countries. India always found it tough to touch the top two positions in the cricket hierarchy.

Cricket only symbolises the wretched state of affairs of sports in this country. Viewed as one of the important tools of soft-power projection, India’s dismal performance in all kinds of sports puts cold water on its great power ideas. Whether it is the Olympics or the Asian Games, one finds India at the bottom of the medals list. In the 2006 Doha Asian Games, India could win only 10 gold medals—an embarrassing performance when compared to China that walked away with more than half the gold medals. Worse, India lost to China in hockey and failed to win a medal in the event for the first time since the inception of the Asian Games in 1982 at Delhi.


THE power transition in international relations brings to the fore an interesting comparison. All great powers have done reasonably well in sports. During the Cold War days, the first two positions always went to the US and the then Soviet Union. In the Athens Olympics, China came second only to the US, in keeping with the changing balance of power. China is set to jostle with the US for the top position in the coming 2008 Beijing Olympics. If China has made its way as a ‘sports superpower’, it is because it made early investments in building a modern sports infrastructure and grooming young and talented sports persons. Funds were never a problem in the post-reform period.

On the contrary, sports has become the most serious joke in India. The management is still largely in the hands of politicians who would have been loath to any kind of sports in their young days. The leftover is grabbed either by the bureaucrats or businessmen. There is rarely any game that is not controlled by any of these three tribes. The high-level politicisation of games is often witnessed in the jumbo delegations to sporting events. Barring a few areas, there is also no mass culture of sports in the country. It is still not seen as a career. Little has been done to attract investments and build infrastructure in sports so as to nurture and promote talents.

It is, therefore, appropriate that instead of demonising the innocent cricketers or for that mater looking down upon our sportsmen, we give a thought to the process of uplifting the sports culture in this country. India can learn from the experience of other great powers. In China, for example, about 300 million people take part in sporting activities regularly. Recreational and competitive sports have permeated all levels of society. Government offices and other organisa-tions are encouraged to have short breaks to do exercises or engage in other sports.

Sick nations cannot become great powers. Sports bring name, fame and recognition not only for the individuals and teams but also for the nation. It is a great unifying force and image-builder for the country. Above all, it is a progress report of the health status of a country. Unfortunately, India has been too casual in building its image as a big sporting power. Hence, there is an early need to depoliticise sports, invest in infrastructure and promote a sports culture. That is indeed the long term solution to our on-the-field miscarriages.

Dr Singh is the Assistant Controller-General of Defence Accounts (Training), Indian Defence Accounts Service, New Delhi. The views expressed here are his personal.

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