On one side there are fans of Sachin Tendulkar refusing to admit that his prolonged slump is a problem. On the other hand there are his critics, zooming in on cricketers summoned from the recent past, hauling them way past their achievements, to the level of the absolute ideal, in order to compare and contrast with Tendulkar’s supposed shortcomings. Arunabha Sengupta delves into his conversations with veteran sports historian Mihir Bose to conclude that cricket in India is a mythological drama depicting the clashes of created gods.
If we don’t like a god, we must create another
“In God we trust. The rest bring data.”
These words of wisdom are attributed to Professor W. Edward Deming, American statistician, author and consultant. Applying quality control techniques and sophisticated statistical methods, Deming was instrumental in rebuilding post World War II Japan into a leading producer of high quality innovative products and shaping the country into an economic powerhouse.
In a perverse way, the quote offers a curious explanation of the sound and fury that surrounds the Indian cricket world, especially the fan-frenzy that hems it in and sustains its commercial fumes.
As the ocean of opinions on Indian cricket are tossed around and violently churned in many turbulent discussion forums, the beliefs and convictions that rise up are often deep-rooted in personal perceptions. Data is most often a bothersome evil — surprising too, since cricket has one of the richest trail of numbers found in any sport. The ideas and conjectures have all the reasons to be more robust, backed up by reason and logic, with aid of figures underlining the facts.
Yet, it is not so. Figures and objective evidence do not seem to fit into the equation. The perceptions are most often as detached from facts as possible. And we need to look at the Deming quote backwards to decipher a reason behind this phenomenon.
Indian fans do not follow cricketers — they believe in the gods that they make out of them. Hence, data is an overhead and sometimes a menace for their fanatical convictions.
There are plenty of beliefs littered around the cricket world that are considered gospel that fall miserably in the face of facts. We have covered several of them on CricketCountry earlier. From the ridiculous claims about Indian defeats when Sachin Tendulkar scores a century, to the best players against the fearsome West Indian pace bowlers, from the supposed fab-factor of the fab-four to the luck factor of MS Dhoni, there have been examples aplenty about the misconceptions that run amok. However, for the purpose of this article it will suffice to look at the latest burning question surrounding the retirement of Sachin Tendulkar.
When we shared some views on the topic, we as usual received plenty of reactions from all corners of the cyberspace.
The points put forward by our article were simple enough.
Yes, Tendulkar is going through a prolonged trough. Yes, the dip in form has lasted 21 Tests. Yes, there are growing reasons to suggest that he should call it a day.
However, no – neither should he take any decision, nor should he be forced to make a decision by the selectors based on public opinion. No, he is not the first name to go through a lean trot. Most importantly — no, Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting are not excellent examples of bowing out in grace. If anything they are exactly opposite — both endured lean trots extending to far greater periods than the 21 Tests of Tendulkar. Ponting never recovered; Dravid did recover to have a great series in England before failing in Australia and quitting.
And there were numbers supplied to back our claims, we performed a comparative analysis of the slumps in form of the three giants of modern day batsmanship.
The reactions from various quarters and platforms were numerous and, given this is Indian cricket we are talking about, largely predictable. In some ways, they encapsulated the salient features of the arguments that are rocking the country.
There were obviously the members of the Tendulkar fan clubs, of varying degrees of devotion, most of whom were delighted by the comparisons. However, to many of them the evidences of the current slump continue to be less than alarming.
And then there is the anti-Tendulkar brigade for whom these numbers are a great botheration. Especially because of the evidence against Dravid, the man many of them have championed as the ideal to follow. The numbers showing Dravid himself went through a slump of 31 Tests from 2006 to 2009 were just too devastating for the divine gentlemanly image of the retired master that this group of Tendulkar critics have nurtured.
Indeed, we know of Tendulkar being proclaimed as ‘God of cricket’ which, to many of his fans, makes him impervious to mortal vulnerabilities like loss of form. Similarly, there is a striking rise of a counter deity in the form of Dravid, who is branded as the platonic ideal of everything gentlemanly associated with cricket. Minor and major blemishes in Dravid’s record — and yes, there are quite a few of them — make this new cult bristle with indignation. And they can be as extremist as the infamous Tendulkar worshippers.
It is quite apparent that in order to tear down a created god in the form of Tendulkar, there is quite a force out there that is endeavouring to forge another out of another very mortal man. A pity, because both these men would have been much happier to remain human.
Of course, in the history of Indian cricket there have been other gods – a few of them springing up due to the dearth of icons in their part of the world.
A section still believes that every triumph of the current Indian team is the result of some divine esoteric cosmic miracle performed by one particular god, and as usual it is sacrilegious to point out that there was just one solitary tournament win during his five years of captaincy.
And then, some decades earlier, we have had people thronging the streets to get a darshan of Sunil Gavaskar, the very man the crowd later pelted with orange peels at the Eden Gardens in keeping with the fascinating history of the country in respecting her legends. Yes, it is the created gods who forever have had to deal with the most morbid fire of criticism.
Greatness is not accepted as the endeavour of a normal being with his own very human frailties. It is to be worshipped as the characteristic of the divine, and the divine has to be perfect, else denigrated, denounced and decried.
The mythological drama
Interestingly, in the deification of Tendulkar along with the increasing idolisation of Dravid one sees the repeat of a historical phenomenon. Adulation has long raised Tendulkar to godhood, and has often polarised opinion in doing so. There are many whose only problem with Tendulkar is his status of ‘god’ in the country. At the same time, there is this movement of anti-Tendulkar fanaticism, which has raised Dravid to another epitome of perfection.
This scenario has been seen earlier in the broader concept of Indian history. We can draw palpable parallels to the extreme ritualistic rigours of Hinduism resulting in the spread of the alternative religion of Buddhism, and later some of these Buddhist sects becoming increasingly dogmatic and fundamentalist in their own rights.
That cricket is religion in India is not just a quaint cliché. And the parallel is not as far-fetched as it sounds.
It was during the recently concluded Ashes series that I met Mihir Bose at his Poplar Grove residence in West London. One of the most experienced historians and sports writers in the world today, his words generally pour forth in the form of wisdom crystallised across decades of astute observation of cricket and the greater world.
And as it is with enduring insights, they often shed light down the road long after the spark has been lit. That August morning’s conversation with Bose did make it easier to understand the behaviour discussed above.
In his fascinating book A Maidan View: The Magic of Indian Cricket, Bose discusses the trait of the Indians to create a godlike image of sportsmen. He discusses the aura around Gavaskar in some detail, of people lining up for one glimpse of the great man and down the line how his commercial leanings jarred with the Indian conception of god. He also writes scathingly that India has no sporting culture, and therefore the reaction to sporting heroes is often strange and unique.
However, what India does have a very rich mythology. It is apparent that this view influences the commercial films of Bollywood where a normal man is bestowed supernatural powers. So was it Bose’s view that the sporting heroes are looked at as mythological characters?
The answer was revealing: “The thing about India is that it is a country that produces history but does not write its own history. Most Indian history is written by foreigners. All that we know about ancient India is from visitors who have come and written it down. What is considered history in India are myths and fables. In these myths and fables, men and women are superhuman. Durga can come down every autumn with her children, having fallen out with her husband and kills Mahisasura. You and I may not believe in it, but to a great many people of India it is almost a historical fact. To a lot of people it is not myth. Therefore, it also filters down to cricket.”
Infallible heroes, who can have no weaknesses — the mere mentions of facts or figures to tarnish their halos are deemed blasphemous. It does make a lot of sense.
That day, Bose also explained in detail how Indians took to cricket in the oddest manner, playing for the religious teams in the Bombay Quadrangular and then the Pentangular. “Imagine the Taliban team playing the Jewish eleven, you wouldn’t think of a cricket tournament like that. Yet if you look back, people who have played and watched have very fond memories of those communal matches.”
Indian cricket has been rooted in religious fervour since the very beginning. From the days of those quaint and extremely popular tournaments, players have been equated with religious icons and have, in small pockets and large quarters, been lavished with mythical powers.
Bose also went to the extent of drawing parallels with Mahabharata. “To some extent even for educated people this is true. Tendulkar for example has become a symbol of moral values of India. If Sachin Tendulkar says something then that must be true; because he is like Yudhistira, he cannot lie. If you remember the Harbhajan Singh-Andrew Symonds incident, the whole thing was based on the fact that Tendulkar had not heard it. And if Tendulkar hadn’t heard it, then it hadn’t happened. That was the whole basis of the Indian case.”
Yes, Tendulkar’s status among the Indians is well known. Mike Denness pulling him up for ball tampering so outraged the nation that it threatened to create a chasm in the cricket world. All because the integrity of gods cannot be doubted.
However, the same god can be vilified because there are other sects, other religious faiths who are competing for the pedestal of supreme godhood. A similar image of Rahul Dravid has sprung up, the trait of the gentleman taken to metaphysical levels, who cannot do any wrong, who is the perfect example of dignity and grace, who leaves the game with head held high unlike the icon people claim is a greater god.
It is the propensity to make new gods out of men, even when guided by the objective to tear down the old one.
No one doubts the exemplary way Dravid carries himself, neither can any sane follower of the game question the greatness of Tendulkar. Both of them are very much perfect ambassadors of the game.
Where godhood does create problems is when one refuses to look at the facts and figures. When one refuses to believe that Tendulkar has scored runs at 31.80 in the last 21 Tests, or that such a run of form is alarming. It creates problems when one bristles with injured quasi-religious sentiments on being informed that Dravid did have an even more protracted period of run-famine, or that he averages just 29.71 in South Africa and 38.67 against Australia.
Because, it is for the rest of the lesser mortals to bring data. In our created gods we have complete trust.
In India cricket was seldom a sport that people loved. As a spectacle it has always been a mythological drama. An elaborate stage where demi-gods, each with his own band of followers, strut about performing real or imagined esoteric feats, outdoing each other in the curious game within the game that gets played in the Indian psyche.
(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twiter.com/senantix)