Indian cricketers of the 1980s had to work in the public sector, appear on Doordarshan and play in front of crowds who called them bus conductors. But, they won things. Today’s rock star, millionaire cricketers don’t.


Anuvab Pal

‘When was the last time we won a tour in England?’

Is there more to life? You wonder. That’s the harmless tweet I sent out after our second ignominious innings defeat in England. Twitter has cynics and young people. We all know that. However, the range of acerbic wit was impressive. ‘1895 when WG Grace was around’ said one. To which another responded, ‘No, we lost that one also. And we weren’t even playing’. There were several that said ‘Never’. One earnest gentleman pointed out ‘2007’ whereas the funniest was a person who said ‘In what sport?’

If you are a mid-30s Indian cricket fan, the ride has been dramatic to say the least. This generation chooses between cricket, The English Premiere League, soccer on a PlayStation and their local IPL team. ‘Who won?’, in my generation, meant either India or whomever we were playing. To younger people, it is a loaded question to which the answer is usually Manchester United. When we were growing up, just the white ball and coloured clothing were enough for the game to be sexy. When the lights came on for night cricket, it felt like a rave party. When young people today say ‘This is too slow’ in a T20 game, they clearly haven’t seen Mohinder Amarnath bat three days of a five-day draw at Old Trafford, where things were so unexciting, even the umpire was snoozing.

We didn’t complain as much then because there weren’t that many avenues to complain. No Twitter, Facebook, sports channels, websites. The BCCI didn’t make as many headlines, so we believed whatever the establishment told us. We believed Bharat Arun was a fast bowler and could open the Indian pace attack (we let him). We believed winning something in Sharjah was valuable and that that was an actual cricket pitch and not a Sheikh’s cock-fighting ring. We believed Ravi Shastri scoring one run a ball was a very fast one-day score vetted by him winning an Audi in Australia. Hell, we believed winning an Audi was a posh thing. This was 1985, not every cricketer had one. Most had to hold down day jobs with public sector banks. Syed Kirmani, perhaps our best wicket keeper before Dhoni, went on to do hearing-aid commercials. I once saw MadanLal, a key first-change medium-pacer instrumental in India’s World Cup win, cooking mushrooms on Doordarshan.

So, those of us born in the 1970s have gone from a generation in which it was enough just to see Gavaskar batting at Lord’s and think ‘Oh look, they are letting him bat, they gave him a visa, people are clapping, treating him like an equal, letting him sit in the dressing-room’ to a generation in which Lord’s is filled only with Indians waving the tricolour and Shikhar Dhawan rolling his moustache as if to say, ‘I live here. Jimmy Anderson is visiting’. I don’t even want to mention Sourav Ganguly’s shirtless incident, a confidence turning point, because there may be children reading this.

Post that confidence turning point, an important moment in Indian post-colonial history, the following things happened:

– Moustaches, bare chests, so many sponsorships there is no place for any white to be seen on the cricketing whites – one wonders whether the country playing is Sahara, Pepsi or India.

– Enough maneuvering to make the ICC irrelevant and the Long Room at Lord’s basically a place for people such as N Srinivasan to get a massage.

– Any DRS sort of decision manipulated to our advantage, maybe the umpire threatened with the governorship of Mizoram.

452275650_GettyStill, with all this, we can’t win abroad. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. We did win the World Cup and Dhoni is perhaps our greatest captain, but maybe it helps to be playing at Wankhede and have a 100,000 people singing Vande Mataram and six Sri Lankan batsmen’s wives singing their national anthem. As the comedian Eddie Izzard says, guns don’t kill people, people kill people, but the gun helps. Also, it helps to play cricket every day. Dhoni probably plays more international cricket in a week than KapilDev did in a year.

And, yet, Kapil Dev got us the World Cup. At Lord’s. Against a West Indian pace attack that was faster than one of those machines that spits balls. Joel Garner was taller than any average lamppost and Malcolm Marshall could probably outrun a decent-size gazelle. At a time when the Indian media hype around cricket was so poor than when he scored 175 to win a game single-handedly against Zimbabwe, there weren’t any TV cameras there to record it because the BBC was on strike. A few years later, back in England, Dilip Vengsarkar scored record centuries to win us a Test series. This time, there were TV cameras, but they were so far away, you couldn’t see the ball. The post-match interviews weren’t sexy red carpet affairs. If you saw him chatting with Tony Greig after the games, you wouldn’t know this man had scored back-to-back hundreds. You’d think he had just been harassed by customs.

Still, through all that inferiority complex, all those State Bank jobs, limited foreign exposure and Doordarshan telecasts, with limited sponsorships from Limca, Rasna and Nirma, in socialist India, we won stuff. In 1985, Gavaskar brought back the World Championship of Cricket from Australia, beating Pakistan in the final, during which a banner from the crowd read: “India vs. Pakistan: Bus Conductors vs Tram Drivers”. As usual, wonderfully racially sensitive Australians.

That India has gone to the IPL, glitz, glam, Knight Rider, blow-this-sport-up-into-an-extravaganza India. You won’t see a bus conductor banner today in Australia mainly because it is mostly rich Indians waving the banners. And, the sportsmen aren’t meek visitors. They aren’t just happy to be sightseeing on visas. They are confident rock star, millionaire cricketers, with movie-star girlfriends, travelling the world like they own it, selling us everything from Swiss watches to motor oil. Shaking it on reality dance shows and paragliding in Brazil in their off time. On the field, not head bent down taking abuse but giving it back, in Hindi, loud, proud, Dhoni’s new Indians.

And, for all that sound and fury, nothing on the scoreboard.

Maybe, we need the meek penniless men back. Who go quietly. Win us things and come home. And, nobody knows.

Anuvab Pal is a screenwriter and standup comedian.