Not cricket if Indian cricketers don’t speak out now

Not cricket if Indian cricketers don’t speak out now

Bollywood stars are being called upon to take a position on violence against students and others protesting the CAA, no reason why cricketers should be left out

Irfan Pathan and Akash Chopra. (PTI Photo)

Top Indian cricketers must be feeling lucky. And a bit ignored. Unlike Bollywood A-listers, they aren’t being called upon to condemn the violence unleashed on university students and others protesting the recently passed Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) or, in what could be a scarier prospect, take a position on the Act itself. The two former cricketers to have bravely spoken their mind, Akash Chopra and Irfan Pathan, have done so without any goading. Harbhajan Singh has joined with an appeal for peace. Sourav Ganguly, of course, has disappointed with his trivialisation of daughter Sana’s dissent-hinting view.

The fewer nudges and exhortations directed at cricketers should not be read as a comment on relative star power. Some of them match the brightest in Bollywood in popularity and influence. Bollywood bigwigs, honorable exceptions aside, are being needled and shamed for the craven ways in which they have lately conducted themselves before the powers-that-be. If cricketers have been spared (thus far), it is because they haven’t been as obsequious. At least not as openly and not as frequently.

The cricketers’ ‘neutrality’ sits well with the received wisdom about keeping politics and sports separate – though that hasn’t stopped politicians from piggybacking on cricket’s popularity and milking it as administrators – but there are times when cricketers have emerged real-life heroes for showing spine when it mattered.

I speak not of positions on issues where some space for enlightened expression has already been created. The modern cricketers’ stances on matters such as mental health, homophobia, and racism, important as they are, are more an outcome of older struggles than a lodestar for new ones.

I also do not speak of statements on issues that are felt at a deep, personal level (Fawad Alam’s reluctance as a practicing Muslim to don the team shirt carrying a beer manufacturer’s name) or reflect empathy for a difficult situation in a foreign land (Moeen Ali’s entry into the field with “Free Palestine” and “Save Gaza” wristbands).

This is not to suggest that even these are easy. Alam drew much popular ire for his breaking of ranks so to speak, including from seventies star-batsman Doug Walters. Ali narrowly escaped disciplinary action for violating the International Cricket Council’s Equipment and Clothing Regulations. Said regulations disallow “display of messages that relate to political, religious, or racial activities or causes during an international match”.

Standing up against surging communal sentiment, authoritarianism, and hypernationalism in one’s own country is another ball game altogether though. In times when the space for sane opinion is truncated and the risk is of antagonising prickly governments and seething countrymen, it requires extraordinary conviction and courage to swim against the current.

Kumar Sangakkara has batted for Sri Lanka with as much aplomb off the field as on the field, more than once reminding his divided nation of the virtues of pluralism and condemning violent majoritarian impulses.

Andy Flower and Henry Olonga’s black armband protest mourning the “death of democracy” in President Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe remains the most memorable on-field protest.

The Flower-Olonga pair would have anticipated the hostility it eventually saw – their careers suffered premature ends and both left their homeland soon after never to return – but their consciences wouldn’t permit them to watch silently the march of tyranny. This ability to place one’s identity as citizen and the value of justice above all else distinguishes the star from the hero, makes for biographies and obituaries that go beyond descriptions of life cycle events, listings of records, and celebrations of specific outings.

It is ultimately for individuals to decide whether and when to speak – a coaxed-out voice can never have the ring of a free one – but cricketers (and other celebrities) perhaps should be conscious that the goodwill they command can help shape opinion and behavior for not just commercial campaigns.

For inspiration, Indian cricketers need not look far. Back in 1993, Sunil Gavaskar stood – actually, physically – between an angry mob and a cornered family, till the mob retreated. West Indian pace batteries would know all too well about that courage. Maybe those with pretensions of stepping into Gavaskar’s giant shoes need to too.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and writer)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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