What we talk about, when we talk about cricket

How does an India that has embraced Muslim hating as its new 'religion' deal with two of Team India's pace trio belonging to that same faith, wonders Sameera Iyengar

Mohammed Shami (left) celebrates with Mohammed Siraj in a World Cup match against New Zealand in Dharamsala (photo: Getty Images)
Mohammed Shami (left) celebrates with Mohammed Siraj in a World Cup match against New Zealand in Dharamsala (photo: Getty Images)

Sameera Iyengar

On the morning of Tuesday, 7 November, a WhatsApp message flashed on my phone: "Want to come for afg–aus today?"

Aaaargh! All of me leapt forward, even though I knew it was going to be impossible — it was a critical workday, and I had a doctor’s appointment I could not miss. Unable to say no, or yes, I eventually asked my friend to offer the ticket to someone else, but if he did not find any takers, to let me know. That was the little window I kept open for miracles.

I had been offered South Africa–Bangladesh tickets last minute on another WhatsApp group some days ago. That had not felt as urgent.

And really, I didn’t care that much about Australia — it was Afghanistan I wanted to watch.

My friend — let’s call him Q — echoed the sentiment. Of all the World Cup matches that were to be played before the semis, his key desire had been to watch the Afghanistan–Australia match in Mumbai.

What was going on here?

The Afghanistan team has been this World Cup’s revelation.

They have shown spirit and class and established themselves as a worthy cricket team. They have caused major upsets — beating England, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, all known cricket powerhouses. Everyone loves an underdog doing well.

We also love Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan — who has won Indian hearts over multiple IPLs — and we always want him to succeed. He is not only that fascinating rarity in cricket, a leg spinner, but also an unmissable personality. His is a compelling, infectious energy, intelligent, open, sporting, full of heart.

And then he does things like hug his opponents when they have played well, no matter what the outcome of the match.

On the day of the match I finally couldn’t go for, he touched Glen Maxwell’s feet right after Maxwell stunned Afghanistan to take the match for Australia.

Khan is a big reason for us to wish Afghanistan success.

Rashid Khan of Afghanistan celebrates a wicket against England on 15 October in Delhi (photo: Getty Images)
Rashid Khan of Afghanistan celebrates a wicket against England on 15 October in Delhi (photo: Getty Images)
Getty Images

But that is not all.

There is something about Afghanistan that seems to evoke our empathy.

We have an old relationship with Afghanistan — kept alive in memory by stories such as Tagore’s Kabuliwala. There is a lovingness in that memory for the burly, impetuous Afghan with a big heart.

There is a sympathy for the Afghan people, a sense that things have been very hard for them for some time now. The incursion of the Taliban, the ‘rebuilding’ experimentation of Western powers led by the US, followed by the disaster of their withdrawal, the re-taking of Afghanistan by the Taliban — these are the most recent debacles.

Some of us also have the memory of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the simultaneous arming of religious extremists by the US in their ‘righteous’ fight against communism, leading to the formation of groups like the Taliban.

Somehow, whether we know all the historical details or not, we seem to have grasped that the people of Afghanistan have been having a really tough time. So, when they shine in cricket, we celebrate along with them, deeply aware that they have built something out of nothing. When they take the field, we cheer them on, willing their success (except against India).

Given the Muslim-hating majority culture that we have become, my friend Q wondered about this massive support of Afghanistan.

“Could it be because people don’t see the Afghanistan cricketers as Muslims?” I wondered aloud. “Their support for the cricketers would not stop them from attacking an Afghan on the street, on the grounds that he is a Muslim.”

Q, of part-Muslim heritage himself, nodded mournfully.

We went silent, mulling over this reality.

Was this human nature or simply the sickness of our times—to define another to fit one’s own desire of the moment? To selectively render layers of identity irrelevant? So that I can celebrate you one moment and annihilate you the next? So that I can see no contradiction in being your ‘friend and neighbour’ and in joining the mob that attacks you?

We live today in an India bent on rendering Muslims second-class citizens through threats, violence, killing, ghettoisation, economic ruin, and many other means.

Just as Q marvelled at the discontinuity between this reality and the support of Afghanistan players on the cricket field, I watch our collective thrill as our pace trio decimates team after team and wonder how the majority who have embraced Muslim hating as their new religion deal with the fact that two of this trio are people of Muslim background. Their brilliant bowling and wicket taking abilities are making us feel that the World Cup is within India’s reach. How do we reconcile treating them as our own, and simultaneously treating the community they hail from as our enemy?

I love watching the trio — Jasprit Bumrah, Mohammed Siraj and Mohammed Shami. The speed, accuracy and intelligence of their bowling, and the difficulty batters have facing them is a surprise for me each time — I never thought India would have such a formidable pace attack.

Growing up, it was Pakistan who had the formidable pace bowlers in the Subcontinent.

But it was Clive Lloyd’s West Indian team that we utterly revered. They were the unbeatables, the slightly stooped bespectacled Lloyd leading his team, which included the charming batsman destroyer Viv Richards and the ferocious foursome—speedsters Andy Roberts, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall and Michael Holding. Their names are etched in my memory. How many times have we watched India being reduced to pieces by the sheer pace and skill of their bowling!

That West Indian team was the stuff of legend: Stevan Riley’s marvellous documentary Fire in Babylon captures the cricket, the politics and the anti-colonial assertion that was the story of that team.

As I watched (on TV) India’s bowlers decimate Sri Lanka for 55 runs, and then follow it up with a decimation of South Africa for 83, I found myself thinking of that West Indian team. I couldn’t help making the comparison.

It was thrilling to think that we just might be formidable like that, with unplayable pace bowlers, fearless batsmen and sharp fielding. As I write this, we have won 8 out 8 matches on the trot, with hardly a hair out of place.

We play the Netherlands today (12 November). Our semi-final match is on 15 November. Is this going to be our World Cup?

Q, fresh from having watched a possessed Glenn Maxwell snatch the match from Afghanistan, differed, “It’s Australia’s World Cup to lose.”

T, also present at this theatre meeting where we were talking about cricket, said confidently, “This is India’s World Cup.”

Q, far more cricket-knowledgeable than T and I, pointed out that Australia had a pattern of starting badly, and then getting into a winning habit. He pointed out that no one wins 11 matches in a row.

Not yet, I thought to myself, but perhaps India will?

I mused aloud about our pacers. About our possessed batter, Virat Kohli, who wants his 50th ton and a second World Cup victory so bad, he looks like he will stop at nothing to get it. About the incredible captaincy of Rohit Sharma, whose body language at every match has communicated not just a desire to win, but a decision to win.

We three theatre people, who pride ourselves on reading body language, took stock of this pantheon of performers on the stage that is the cricket field. We are betting on an India–Australia final.

May the best team win. And may that best team be ours, please.

Over to you — Bumrah, Siraj, Shami, Sharma, Kohli, Jadeja and gang.

Sameera Iyengar is a Mumbai-based theatre person and creative producer, who is also a sports nut

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