(This post also appears in the author's Cricketcountry column)
Captain Michael Clarke declared the Australian innings while batting on 329, casting away the more than sufficient time to go past Brian Lara’s epic Test highest score of 400. Thirteen years back, Mark Taylor had decided 334 was good enough at Peshawar.
And in contrast, for many, many Indian fans, the country definitely ends up a poor second against the glittering milestone of Sachin Tendulkar’s 100 centuries.
Where exactly in history did the national thought processes pass each other and bolt in opposite directions?
Changing sporting psyche of two nations
In the same book mentioned above, Fingleton said that Bradman played for records. He pointed out that the despicable theory of Bodyline was brought into the game because teams were tired of Bradman’s relentless pursuit for runs, runs and more runs; insatiable appetite which ground the opposition into dust. Hundreds did not satisfy him, neither did double hundreds. He just batted on and on, prompting many a wicketkeeper to ask, “Hey Don, haven’t you had enough yet?”
Fingleton also wrote that for a while Bradman’s ambition took the individual to a greater plane than the game in public consciousness. People became more interested in the records that were eroded by the flow of The Don than the cricketing fortunes of Australia.
In spite of all this, Fingleton, whose career panned out under the continuous shadow of The Don, was definitely not, in modern terminology, ‘bashing’ the great master with his pen.
His attempt was to analyse the situation objectively. He had nothing but praise for Bradman’s extraordinary batting skills. Unlike modern day critics he acknowledged the tautology that runs never hurt the country.
And stepping well away from that peculiar realm of the ridiculous, he did not blame the batsman for public adulation. It is truly farcical to point an accusing finger at a magnificent achiever for what boils down to be a social phenomenon.
On the contrary, he tried to explain why it happened. The period coincided with the Great Depression, which started in 1929, a year after The Don made his debut for Australia. For a nation beleaguered by the problems of livelihood, frustrations creeping into every business endeavour, many a common Australian broke the shackles of insurmountable distress and let his fancy fly with the unbelievable feats of Bradman at the wicket. He was the magician who made the dark clouds disappear, even if just for a day, and with the wave of his willow wand, sunshine seemed to streak momentarily back into life.
Now let us fast forward to the ‘70s and ‘80s. An Indian man of this era identified life as a series of endless struggles. Basic necessities of life – collecting ration, a journey across the city, starting a business or moving house – things taken for granted in developed countries, entailed hours of queuing, standstill traffic, immovable documents across bureaucratic tables, uncouth middle men with palms waiting to be greased …
Indians lived under the shadow of the rest of the world, forever the underdog, with sporting achievements all but negligible.
The cricket team was supposed to wade in the depths of defeats, sometimes holding out for honourable draws - and on remarkably rare occasions, in feats of legend that would live on as fairy tales for generations, stumble upon a sudden victory.
In all this squalor entered one batsman who started rewriting record after record in the Caribbeans, in England and then in most other parts of the world for the next 16 years. In between, there was the fascinating World Cup triumph of 1983, but India never became an unbeatable, or even a decent travelling team. They won only 23 of the 125 Tests that were played by Sunil Gavaskar. But when he overtook Bradman’s tally of 29 centuries, Geoff Boycott’s collection of 8114 runs or hit centuries in each innings on three different occasions, the struggling nation clutched on to the solitary toehold in the highest peaks of unfamiliar sporting summits. Thus began the Indian dreams, held together against the dark backdrop by the records set during Sunny days.
Gavaskar was well aware of what his records meant to the Indian people. When Kapil Dev trudged slowly towards Richard Hadlee’s 431 wickets, the retired master observed that it was very important for him to get there – with Allan Border having usurped his batting throne, another Indian needed to take over the bowling crown as soon as possible.
And when Sachin Tendulkar emerged as a phenomenal talent, he took over as the architect of national dreams. Again, Gavaskar famously set the targets of 15,000 runs and 40 Test centuries before the youngster – peaks that mortal men had to squint to visualise, but which have been conquered and relegated to the level of mere milestones by the modern genius. With Tendulkar, the riches of records, that long lasting supply of opium used by the masses to dull their struggle strained sensibilities, returned to the fore – and his greatness in both forms of cricket saw more and more glittering collections build up in the coffers of delightful memory.
Tall Poppy Syndrome
Australians, in the meantime, played other team sports as well. Their sporting psyche, thus, was built also on rugby, Australian Rules football, soccer – team games which did not suffer from the massive dichotomy of individual versus team that dogged cricket. The Australian male stereotype was the tanned, healthy youth who loved outdoors and was very close to his male friends, or 'mates'. With minimum population and plenty of open space and resources, one had no reason to grudge sharing the good life.
At the same time another phrase became popular in the national vocabulary – the tall poppy syndrome. Since the Second World War, this derogatory term has been used in the country with increasing frequency as an epithet for people who, due to merit or otherwise, rise far above his peers. The average Australian is not too keen to rise, shine and be labelled tall poppy, preferring much rather to be one of the mates. Maybe this enables some to throw away personal glory even when it is in their sure grasp.
The Indian in the Outfield
Contrast this with the Indian character that grows in space constrained confines, starting the day with a race for bathwater. Where status is measured not by erudition, talent or contribution to society, but by bank balance, salary and the model of car. Population spilling out of the living quarters, Indians have grown up in the society of individualistic struggle and competition, and a yearning for personal accomplishment.
In step with these social constraints, Indians are united less by the game of cricket and more by the individual achievements associated with it.
The individual always scores far above the nation – that is the way the nation thinks, whether we like it or not. It is apparent in the way national monuments are defaced by the local young man scribbling his name alongside that of his beloved. It is the same phenomenon that sees personalities and dynasties rather than policies and ideology dominate politics. It is an extension of the same characteristic that leads the fan to cheer the opposition when his hero is not in the team, and cry himself hoarse for the century of the idol even when the side crashes into defeats.
Transition – but how far?
Following Tendulkar’s gargantuan efforts, and the gradual emergence of a golden combination of cricketers, for the first time the Indian fans started to get used to regular victories. While the country had won 43 and lost 89 Tests in the 57 years before Tendulkar arrived on the scene, there have been 69 wins and 55 losses in the 22 following years.
And as victory came down from the pedestal of rare, celebratory moments to merge into the day to day flow of experience, there emerged new questions. Why should records be so celebrated, at the expense of team performance? Why is the individual allowed to become greater than the game? Why should the game suffer as a result?
Well, I am not that certain that the team will ever suffer if Tendulkar scores a hundred. And judging by the turnstiles across the world, an overnight asterisk beside No 4 on the Indian scorecard ensures people flocking in on the morrow to witness the continuing flow of genius. So, I am not particularly convinced that it is hurting the game.
What remains questionable is the public obsession for records, and the possible ways the resulting pressure keeps affecting the team. This is a genuine problem, and as discussed, has roots in sociological factors, a phenomenon as much Indian as arranged marriages and Bollywood.
As India chugs along with its plethora of extremes, pavement dwellers crouching beside premises of flourishing software campuses; struggling with poverty and illiteracy while claiming to be a global power with nuclear arsenal; it is way too difficult to predict whether and when Team India will have the monopoly of public imagination and the players will become proletarian performers, elevated only with the emergence of the nation at the zenith of achievements.
Till then, this contention between hysteria for personal landmarks and fortunes of the national team will continue to be another of the curious contradictions of a curious country.