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    South Asia
     Apr 5, 2011


Cricket win stirs Indian renaissance
By Sreeram Chaulia

A quarter of the way through India's initially nervy run chase against Sri Lanka in the final of the cricket World Cup on Saturday at Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium, television cameras zoomed in on a puzzling sight. Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni was sitting in the players' pavilion, flashing a smile. To be smiling at such a tense moment, when it looked like his team was falling apart with two senior star batsmen dismissed, seemed absurd.

Was the captain smiling with resignation that the hopes of a billion Indians of winning the game's biggest prize for a second time - would be dashed? Was it bravado? Was it belief in his abilities to craft a comeback?

The answer came as Dhoni walked out into the center of the cricketing world's attention. From the moment he took the batting crease, despite the formidable Sri Lankan score his team had to reach, his body language said it all.

His superlative, tournament-winning knock of 91 runs was audacious, power-packed and devoid of doubt and anxiety. After smashing a hapless Sri Lankan bowling attack all over the park and delivering the final coup de grace - a massive six to win - the poker-faced Dhoni hardly reacted even as every village, town and city in India was erupting in a frenzy of fireworks and celebrations.
Emotions did overrun the Indian team and their diehard fans in the ensuing hours, but what stood out was the calm, collected, methodical and courageous leader who had fought against the odds with a sense of mission. Indians of all class, religion and caste saw a loss being converted into a win through the easier-said-than-achieved mantra: "do not give up." The psychological boost is going to linger, as will dramatic memories from the final.

The self-confidence that Dhoni and his teammates have shown in a gruelling 41-day World Cup tournament featuring 14 countries is, in many ways, a reflection of the "India rising" story. The belief that India deserves recognition as an important global player has grown apace alongside its gross domestic product rate over the past decade. Despite being a post-colonial society plagued with the typical ills of bad governance, institutional failures and iniquities, if there was a barometer of India's optimism it has lately been recording a steady uptick.

This "feel-good" sentiment despite daily frustrations has not been limited to the privileged elite, but has percolated deeper and driven a generally observable quest for self-improvement and material gain. Travels into India's poorest villages and most unhygienic urban slums show a strange resilience and collective will to not just survive but to rise out of misery and script a more hopeful future.

While the match was watched by an estimated 1.2 billion people across the world, it was the masses of India who took to the streets as the national team snatched victory from defeat's jaws. The slumdogs felt that they had arrived.

It is facile to dismiss the nationalistic pride of World Cup revellers across the length and breadth of India as a media-manufactured false consciousness or as an opiate that diverts the toiling masses from real-life miseries. The alternative perspective is to view milestones in popular sport as a cathartic force that ushers in feelings of renaissance and deepens the grittiness of an upwardly mobile society at a specific historical juncture in the linear schema of modernization.

American economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron argued in 1962 that countries emerging from "economic backwardness" needed ideologies that favored change to push older vested interest groups out of their saddles and build new clusters of power. In his simplified but fascinating correlation, the more "virulent" the ideology favoring socio-economic and political transformation, the faster the rate at which a "backward" society could catch up with advanced economies.

The changed, egalitarian social composition of the present Indian cricket team in recent years (Dhoni leads a team of superstars who have lower middle-class origins) is a microcosm of the shattering of the aristocratic hold on what used to be a quintessential colonial-style sport.

The infectiousness of the success of the team on the field is rubbing off across the landscape of struggle in every pathway of life in India. Historian Boria Majumdar has shown in his classic, Twenty Two Yards to Freedom, how cricket has been a means to cross class barriers and to anticipate a democratization of Indian polity. These trends have now picked up an unstoppable momentum after India's second World Cup triumph in 28 years.

Caribbean-Marxist intellectual CLR James argued in 1963 that cricket in the West Indies was a bitter legacy of British colonial implantation but also an instrument of resistance against it. The centrality of cricket in social transformation and racial justice in Trinidad and Tobago was captured in James' book, Beyond a Boundary, which demonstrated that defeatism or pessimism that spread cancerously in societies pummeled by exploitation for centuries can be washed away through upward fortunes of the nation's cricket team.

The achievements of India's current cricket teams in longer and shorter formats are stupendous - the World Cup's one-day matches comprise 50 overs - each over is six balls bowled by one bowler - while Test matches last days. But their external impact on the Indian psyche will be earth-shaking. Spain needed the soccer World Cup victory last year very badly to boost national morale after its economy sank into a painful meltdown.

India was in far less desperate straits compared to Spain on the eve of its cricket team's miraculous and defiant date with history on Saturday. But the drive to win and to expand the realm of possibility has redoubled as a result of this victory.

Eleven steely men in blue outfits have produced everlasting memories that will fast-forward change and lift India's spirit as it lurches towards its place under the sun.

Sreeram Chaulia is Vice Dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs in Sonipat, India, and the author of the forthcoming book, International Organizations and Civilian Protection: Power, Ideas and Humanitarian Aid in Conflict Zones (IB Tauris).

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