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At war with the wrong enemy

Gaurav Kalra @gauravkalra75

Updated: January 18, 2013, 3:53 PM IST
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Waqar Younis told the story with relish of a one-day game in 1989 when he dismissed Kris Srikkanth twice in two balls. First an lbw appeal was upheld that 'Cheekaji', as Waqar likes to call him with a naughty twinkle in the eye, protested vehemently was wrongly given. Imran Khan was in a generous mood and decided to give him another go.

On the very next delivery, Waqar found the outside edge of 'Cheekaji's' bat. While we waited just recently between our broadcasts, Waqar told the story. We found the video online. Everyone in the room laughed. Srikkanth joined in as well!

In the cauldron of a sporting contest, the combatants do get feisty. They compete for every inch with ferocity - one wins, another loses. And it ends. Sport is the exact opposite of war. It is largely that moment and that moment alone, and then a memory. The scars of defeat heal. The joy of victory fades. What remains are the stories. To be recalled in the years that follow in the company of a captive audience. It is the allure of sporting battles. They are vicious but temporary.

As Pakistan's hockey players waved forlornly while departing home, I wondered if in our discourse matters of deep relevance have become intertwined with rabid populism. How was their expulsion a 'tough message' to an errant neighbour? What was really accomplished by packing them off? Why is the presence of a man whose only talent is dribbling a ball with a hockey stick abhorrent? How is it 'anti-national' to applaud his skill when he dissects a defence line?

I have always believed the pedestal sporting contests are sometimes placed on is unkind. Issues of national importance aren't settled in a sporting arena. Sportsmen are not soldiers. They can bowl cricket balls, not hurl grenades. They are goal-keepers and wicket-keepers, not troops locked in mortal combat. Nations have every right to invest pride in their feats but no more. They must not be burdened with the extremities of symbolism or used as pawns in battles one-upmanship. It does disservice to the idea of sport.

The hockey players involved in the league were here as individuals. Invited to be part of a novel concept and rewarded for their skill. No goon with his cosmetic national swagger should have been allowed the opportunity to intimidate them. The women's cricket team from Pakistan was coming to Mumbai to be a part of the pinnacle of their sport. Presumably, they were excited at the idea of competing against the best teams in the world- and while here take in the sights and sounds of a city they must have heard so much about. To catch a glimpse of a film star, to giggle uncontrollably while shopping - they were to be in Mumbai for the chance to make memories.

To my mind, the Indian state is abdicating its duty by snubbing these sportsmen and women. A practical solution isn't necessarily the right one. Popular sentiment, only the gods above know how that is measured, can't always be the guiding principle in decision making. Here was an opportunity to be upright at the cost of being unpopular. Tell the hockey players 'you have no reason to fear, play on'. Assure the cricket girls 'come to Mumbai and play without a worry in the world. On our watch, you are safe. On our land, we guarantee your well-being. We are that kind of people. We are that kind of country'.

Instead, a disgrace has been unleashed. The hockey boys were struck off team sheets and packed off home. The cricket girls are being shunted off to another city with an unsubtle message- you are such a burden. How does any this act as a deterrent to violence on the border? How is it a soothing balm to the family of the soldier who was beheaded?

What has gone on is a violation of the very principle of governance - when asked to assure the safety and security of visitors to your shores, leave no stone unturned. These aren't killers; they are practitioners of a craft. Let them exhibit it and applaud them while they do. Deal with the real enemy, not a convenient diversion. Hysteria is sexy but when directed at a soft target, it is a blot on our claim as a 'great nation'.

When this tardy episode settles, as it inevitably will, some of us in the activity of sports journalism must introspect too. Cricket between India and Pakistan isn't really the 'Mother of all battles'. It definitely isn't 'War minus the shooting'.

I fondly recall working on this documentary - A Bat and Ball War - when Pakistan toured India in 1999. In hindsight the title was spot on. These are merely 'wars' with sporting implements as weapons in the hands of talented 'soldiers'. They indulge in these 'wars' with all the might at their command but emerge largely unscathed. To one day sit by the side of a former 'enemy'and teasingly remind him of the time he was dismissed twice in two balls. We must get it people, the stakes aren't as high as we tend to think.
First Published: January 18, 2013, 3:53 PM IST

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