Byline by MJ Akbar: Royal Blush
What impressed me most about this theory was its foundation. It was based on a highly believable cause. It tore the many layers of deception around the anger of the players and reached the heart of their woes: "Chappell is bullying them into an obsessive frenzied fitness regime". Some of the greatest names in Indian cricket have traversed the green while fielding in the regal manner of an ocean liner; there is a strong tradition of stately majesty which some players consider part of their inheritance.
It would require a government to fall to get the kind of newspaper attention that the minor brawl between Indian cricket coach Greg Chappell and captain Sourav Ganguly received. Or not. Falling governments are not such big news anymore.
Even when they don’t fall, they slip each day, and how often can you ruin the front page, or the television screen, with a stumble over Iran, or a twisted ankle over Lalu Yadav? The public is hungry for real conspiracy: press conferences that rip a gut with poisoned sabres, and emails that slice through an artificial reputation like hot tongs on a gas balloon. They want the principal actors on the public stage to wear designer shirts even if they don’t have style, and our political life is a trifle short on such niceties.
I mean Praful Patel can claim a seat at any high table in the world of beau monde, but he is not in charge of conspiracies in his party. So could Jyoti Scindia, but he is not in the Cabinet, yet. Dr Manmohan Singh’s sartorial qualities have improved considerably ever since his tailors were put on the government budget, but he is not in charge of conspiracies in his party either. Defence minister Pranab Mukherjee’s tailor, alas, still lives in Bolpur.
Home minister Shivraj Patil does his best, but someone should tell him that while white shoes with white trousers and white jacket may be de rigueur for a meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Security, it is not going to make the cover of the Cosmopolitan. Actually one of the best-dressed politicians is Lalu Yadav, if only he could do something about his ear-hair, but only when he is not pretending to be poor.
The khaddar of his kurta-pyjama is spun from the finest cotton, and starched with an aesthete’s precision. But Lalu can’t send email so he can’t really be the kind of conspirator that modern media thirsts for. There are of course those who have been able to bridge the two worlds.
The BCCI (Board of Control for Cricket in India) has the same chef de mission as the BCCI (Board of Control for Congress in India), Rajiv Shukla. But when you have weighed the balance carefully, on objective scales, you have to conclude that the political class cannot really match the cricket class in terms of media coverage.
The most reliable commentators on both cricket and politics are the bookies, but the bookies are kept as far outside media limelight as possible, because they compete directly with journalists for occupation of the punditry space. Once upon a time, the journalist was king. Anyone who wanted to know anything about the present and future of politics would ring up a Delhi journalist, possibly one smoking a pipe. Such a journalist’s word was the fatwa of fatwas. The journalist would be quoted at Mumbai parties in tones of hushed reverence. If his august presence was actually visible at any party, hostesses would order a waiter with an appropriately nourishing tray to hover permanently around him. Guests would hang onto the pundit’s every word, giving curvaceous babes a permanent inferiority complex. The luckier journalists can still maintain a foothold on the social circuit, but there are too many cynics around who have got far better information on the Bihar elections, and the fate of Rabri Devi, her eldest daughter and Lalu’s various brothers and brothers-in-law from the bookies. The big difference is that the journalist puts your whisky where his mouth is, while the bookie puts his money where his mouth is. Who would you rather trust? It’s a no-brainer.
The bookies certainly knew the end of the Ganguly-Chappell story long before the end was officially written in some hallowed five-star hotel in Mumbai. They said that it would be draw, and took bets of at least
Rs 500 crores on their convictions. Needless to add, this is precisely what happened. How did the bookies know? Wouldn’t we all like to know that?
There is a term in Urdu called 'noori kushti', a wrestling match whose result has been pre-determined by the sponsor, in which the wrestlers are full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Was the Ganguly-Chappell encounter noori kushti?
The sound was loud enough to be heard from Zimbabwe to India, and the fury burnt acres of newsprint, but wait. The plot thickens. A theory has been floated by an afternoon paper in Mumbai, artfully called the Afternoon Despatch and Courier, that two popes of Indian cricket, Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri, planted the story of Ganguly’s rift with Chappell (which was not a state secret on the Zimbabwe tour) on the talkometer-general of Indian cricket, Harsha Bhogle, who duly nudged and winked it onscreen, in order to improve the ratings of the dead series being televised by ESPN. Of all the reasons for this controversy this one seems the most cogent. If there is a conspiracy there must be a multinational around to blame, isn’t it? How else can we remain a socialist, secular republic? Second, multinationals are always keen to live up to their reputations, as long as they can find locals to be their patsies, so the pattern begins to form. Third, if there is no television, there is no cricket. And there will be no television if there are no ratings. So if you can’t get ratings by the game on the field, then you have to get ratings by playing some games off the field. This is logical. Pythagoras would have approved the symmetry of this construct.
What impressed me most about this theory was its foundation. It was based on a highly believable cause. It tore the many layers of deception around the anger of the players and reached the heart of their woes: "Chappell is bullying them into an obsessive frenzied fitness regime". Some of the greatest names in Indian cricket have traversed the green while fielding in the regal manner of an ocean liner; there is a strong tradition of stately majesty which some players consider part of their inheritance. The modern culture of lightning reactions and sprinting speed to save a single run could be slightly distasteful to anyone called a "Maharaja", one who has prospered in the glow of smothering protection. A New Zealander like John Wright was bad enough. Now this manic Australian called Chappell comes along and demands total fitness. Absurd. It was only a matter of time before the unstoppable force met the immovable object. However, we will not know the full truth about this theory until the courts decide, for surely Gavaskar and Shastri will sue the newspaper for slander unless it prints a decent apology. You cannot sully the reputation of popes without inviting the wrath of God.
I wonder if Sourav Ganguly, who has recovered the captaincy, quite realises what he has lost. Dignity. This has not happened suddenly. Decay is a slow process. It began with his silly and immature tantrums, done for television consumption: whenever he got out, it was someone else’s fault. Any player with self-respect would have announced his retirement the moment he stopped seeing the rising ball. Ganguly has become a public mockery with his spasmodic batting, jerking like a puppet out of control. He knows he is not fit to be in the side, but cannot keep his hands out of the till, for cricket is serious money. Popes who double up as commentators often remind us of his past brilliance to justify his present place. That is utter nonsense. Of course he used to be brilliant. That was why he was honoured with the captaincy. But as captain of India, he is more than an individual of the team. A captain is a symbol of the nation. A captain without dignity is an insult to the nation and the game. Sachin Tendulkar was and is a dignified genius. When he felt that captaincy limited his contribution to the team, he gave it up. The team was more important. When Sachin was injured, he remained out of the team and repaired the damage. Sachin Tendulkar is a god to us, precisely because he knows the limitations of men.
Sourav Ganguly is a god that failed because the demons of self-indulgence destroyed his genius. Sourav Ganguly is playing a game. It is not cricket.