In 2004, Franklin Foer penned a book titled How Soccer Explains the World, An Unlikely Theory of Globalization. When I earlier wrote about my favorite books of the past decade, it earned honorable mention in the globalization category, so certainly a work I hold with high regard.
Foer spent six months traveling to the world’s soccer capitals trying to assess if the growing internationalization of the game could help explain the rapid globalization of the world’s economy and lifestyle. Foer concludes that globalization hasn’t eliminated the need for local cultural characteristics and norms and a single global soccer culture hasn’t emerged. Rather, he believes that local cultures have engaged in spirited campaigns to maintain local ties, which often aren’t in the best of ways. Examples of this include fans of Red Star Belgrade in Serbia who became “Milosevic’s shock troops, the most active agents of ethnic cleansing, highly efficient practitioners of genocide.” In Glasgow, Scotland, Rangers and Celtics fans keep the Protestant Reformation fight going. Ultimately, as Jay R. Mandle describes in his review of the book in the Washington Post, Foer believes that globalization is not likely to deliver on the promise of a more humane world order that some of its proponents anticipate. While Foer’s conclusions are debatable, it is certainly an intriguing and compelling way to look at the question of globalization. In fact, just recently, I’ve seen two articles use the same premise of soccer as a baseline to explain the recent revolutionary dynamics and disruption to the norm in the Middle East and Libya.
Now, let’s fast forward to 2011. In early April, India won the Cricket World Cup, it’s first championship in 28 years. Congratulations to the Indian team and Indian fans around the world! Prior to the finals between India and Sri Lanka, I saw this tweet from renowned Silicon Valley technology blogger Om Malik.
As a regular reader of Om’s column, his suggestion was enough motivation to read the article by ESPN writer Wright Thompson. Thompson had never watched cricket before and with the World Cup being held in India, followed and chronicled India’s quest through the initial rounds of the World Cup (the article was written before India’s heart pounding victories in the semi-finals against Pakistan and then the finals vs Sri Lanka). Additionally, he studied the legend of the great Sachin Tendulkar, winding down his remarkable career and the decades of holding the country’s hopes on his shoulders. While the article gives insight into the sport of cricket, what I also found to be quite impressive was how Thompson linked the changing dynamics and culture of India as a whole to the changing dynamics of cricket in India. Some noteworthy passages:
India’s aggressiveness as a country and quest to be seen and respected
As we all know, India’s experienced substantial economic growth over the last two decades, become a nuclear power, and created a new place for its’ self in the world order. A more confident, aggressive India emerged. This also can be seen in how Tendulkar’s approach to the game coincides with this change in India.
Before Sachin, typical Indian cricketers took few risks. For the first hour, shots were deflected, frustrating the bowler, tiring him out, forcing him into mistakes, a perfect sporting ethos in a country known for vein-popping passive-aggressiveness. Sachin changed that. His style was new. He swung a thick bat, heavier than Indians had used before.
He wasn’t passive-aggressive.
He was simply aggressive.
Furthermore, the new guard of cricket heroes after Sachin such as Virender Sehwag take this brashness even to the next level.
Before Sehwag, Indian opening batsmen were supposed to take the shine off the ball. That’s the cricket phrase. Take the shine off. Break it in. Wear down the bowler. Sehwag would take the shine off by going for fours and sixes. He got a reputation for dogging it on singles. And if Sachin gave birth to Sehwag, then a whole group of younger sluggers have taken it a step further. At least Sehwag still plays Test cricket. Some newer stars don’t.
“The aggression, the brashness,” says Bhattacharya, the cricket writer turned novelist. “It’s now something which Indians see that this is what we have to do to assert our place in the world. We’ve been f—ed over for thousands of years. Everyone has conquered us. Now we’re finding our voice. We’re the fastest-growing economy in the world. We are going to buy your companies. Our cricket team is like going to f—ing abuse you back, and we’re going to win and we’re going to shout in your face after we win. People love that.”
Does India really love the game of cricket, or just the Indian cricket team?
But with this new found ambition and unyielding quest to get to the top, perhaps some of the pure love of the sport of cricket in India has been lost.
He’s a former Indian cricket player turned broadcaster, Sanjay Manjrekar, and he’s been captivated by Bangladesh’s reaction to this World Cup opening in its capital. This pure love for cricket transports him to his past.
“There is a certain amount of innocence here,” he tells us, “which I think India has lost.”
Later when asking novelist and former cricket writer Rahul Bhattacharya about India’s love of cricket, Bhattacharya commented
“The thing about Indians’ love for cricket is a lot of it is having something to support India at,” he says. “A lot of it is celebrity. People in love with [team captain M.S.] Dhoni instead of the actual sport. It happens all the time. In the past five years, you find that matches not featuring India don’t draw crowds. It does seem on some level the love is not for the sport itself but for some of the things it stands for.”
Cricket is everywhere. It’s on 24/7. It’s on red carpets with Bollywood bombshells and in corporate boardrooms. But the more it is, the less it is.
“We’ve been so neutered by cricket now,” Rahul says. “There’s so much of it. It’s reached a point where you can be oblivious to it. Indian fans now just watch India.”
There are many great nuggets in Thompson’s article. A definite must read for those interested in India’s fascination with cricket and to better understand the link between modern India and modern cricket.