By M J Akbar
Byword - In India Today
March 4, 2011
When you buy tickets to a circus you expect to see a few clowns. A clown is not a fool. It is far more difficult to make people laugh than to annoy them. A good clown must silence his ego, for he has to reduce himself to the lowest common denominator to maximise the laughs. He is a professional. But he is also, inherently, a character, or he would be just another diligent accountant, trapped within the limitations of safety-first. It is this characteristic that impels him to leap into the unexpected.
Sports, it was drilled into me at boarding school, builds character. Judging by the opening bouts of the cricket World Cup, sports builds characters. Perhaps it is the panorama, the scale on which a game that began on a village green, with the pub as the sole source of entertainment, is being played. A cricket star now lives in a universe second only to the football idol, with money to match. Money has this curious propensity to travel in two directions simultaneously: it goes to your head at a much faster pace than it travels to your bank. This heady feeling is even more seductive when you are young. Talent is best nurtured in incremental steps; the happiest god is one who has reached divinity through stages. The sudden transition from obscurity to hero-worship can easily breed illusions when you are in your early twenties. You lose the difference between a tantrum and an honest expression of emotion within the hothouse of intense competition. Stardom can be contagious. Even a starlet like Billy Bowden, the pesky umpire from New Zealand, gets affected, searching for the bizarre within the fine print of cricket legislation.
I was quite determined to be sceptical about the 2011 World Cup. The geopolitics of the tournament, spread across the realm of the British Raj, seemed more interesting than the game itself. You could see, for instance, how far the two wings of the Pakistan of 1947 had flown apart. Bangladesh has the worse team and the better environment. The playing fields of Pakistan are lost to those for whom war is sport, rather than the other way around; Pakistan has become, by common consent, too dangerous for recreation. The ruling planet of Pakistan is now obviously Mercury; mercury has entered the bloodstream of its players. Shoaib Akhtar might have been Shoaib Akhtar irrespective of which country he played for, but a Kamran Akmal is either above or beyond the law. I never fully understood the meaning of the phrase 'on a wing and a prayer' until I saw Shahid Afridi praying with soundless lips at a crucial moment during the match with Sri Lanka. Divine intervention worked that day, but the Lord surely cannot be biased, no matter how fervent the appeals to Him.
It is predictable to report that the hook returned to my cricket-hungry soul during the brilliant tie between India and England. But that was a game that exposed the weakness of two self-appointed triumphalists: neither have bowlers who can survive much daylight, and there is a lot of sunshine coming. Tidbits during commentary were amusing, but not entrancing. I was pleased to learn that Imran Khan banned hamburgers and never forgave anyone who got out to Kapil Dev. But that was not worth a wait.
Epiphany came during a match whose tickets were safe even from the gluttony of the BCCI and its multiple parasites. Ireland is not going to win this World Cup, but Kevin O'Brien's innings against England had the majesty of a rebellion against centuries of colonisation. It was the Easter Uprising all over again as Ireland resurrected from 111 for 5 to 293 for 6 by the 45th over. Ireland believed in themselves, which is always the true starting point of a sporting miracle. When they touched 300 for 6, the World Cup became a holy grail. If W.B. Yeats were alive he would have written an ode to O'Brien. When the unknown John Mooney backed away and smashed a four through cover, English captain Andrew Strauss's stiff upper lip crumbled. Story over, although we still had to wait for Mooney to hit the winning four in the last over and raise a triumphant yell. The magic of sport lies in the triumph of the unexpected.
Stiff upper lips are not quite the fashion in cricket anymore, although the game remains a preserve of the Commonwealth. There is more than cricketing skill on display, of national purpose. A post-war bounce is on parade in Sri Lanka, as it places its newest city on the world stage. Bangladesh is determined to prove that 40 years after independence, it is one of the big boys. Multi-ethnic Canada is visibly as colourful as the Commonwealth. The clowns are pickle at the feast; the main meal is wonderful cuisine. Time to share the joy.