All sporting venues are theatres of dreams, but the JSCA International Stadium in Ranchi was a theatre with a different theme ahead of India’s third One-Day International against Australia. The country is still mourning the loss of its CRPF braves in the heinous Pulwama attack of three weeks back, it is still rejoicing in the return from Pakistan of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, the MiG 21 Bison hero. There is an air of angst and anger, an atmosphere of already hyper-charged emotion further fueled by the constant outpouring of senseless vitriol from screaming-from-the-rooftop television anchors suspended in the vacuum between imagination and reality.
It is in this climate of tension – both natural and created – that Virat Kohli’s men embraced a path less travelled in an effort to pay tribute to the paramilitary personnel that lost their lives to a cowardly suicide attack. The concept of a public tribute had taken shape prior to the start of the limited-overs series against the Aussies, the process of ideation extending well beyond the ambit of the team and into the corridors of the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s headquarters in Mumbai.
Once all parties involved had decided that the military camouflage cap would be the vehicle of tribute, the more official wheels were set in motion. The team’s apparel sponsors were roped in to design the caps, subsequently approved for use by the International Cricket Council.
Not coincidentally, there was the distinctive hand too of former skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni, an honorary Lieutenant Colonel in the Territorial Army since 2011. It’s an honour Dhoni hasn’t taken lightly; going the extra mile to ensure that it isn’t just a ceremonial title, the Jharkhandi undertook his first parachute jump from an Indian Air Force aircraft as far back as in 2015 in his bid to become a qualified parajumper, given that he is in the elite 106 Para Regiment of the Territorial Army.
Dhoni’s love and reverence for the Armed Forces is well documented, so it was no surprise that he was at the forefront of Friday’s events in the city of his birth. He was the one who handed out the caps to all his team-mates and members of the support staff – including Patrick Farhart, the physio who is from Australia – before in turn receiving his from Kohli. The thunderous approbation when Kohli said at the toss, “This is to pay respect to the martyrs of the Pulwama attack and their families. All the players have decided to donate their match fees from this particular game to the National Defence Fund” threatened to bring the roof down.
Once the initial euphoria settled, however, questions began to emanate from different quarters. By donning the camouflaged cap and unwittingly making a ‘political’ statement, was the Indian team setting a dangerous precedent? Had it allowed the line between support and jingoism to blur? Had it, involuntarily or otherwise, been sucked into the vortex of grandiose showmanship? Become a pawn in the political mind games? What was the need for the captain to publicly announce that the match fees were being donated to the NDF? Could that not have been a private, closed-door affair?
Also at the toss, Kohli mentioned, “I, as the captain of the team, would urge everyone in the country to do the same, to donate how much ever they can to the National Defence Fund and help in the education and well-being of the families and the children of those who lost their lives in the attack.” It is likely that a fair few might have questioned Kohli’s right to make that appeal if they weren’t aware that his team was also walking the talk, hence perhaps the public disclosure. That being said, that’s a matter of perception; like the Umpire’s Call in DRS, it can either be chest-thumping, or setting an example.
The military-cap tribute to the Armed Forces is unlikely to be a one-off, if things go according to plan. Drawing from the ‘Pink Test’ in Australia that generates revenue for cancer research, the BCCI is contemplating a military day of sorts every year, with one international home game likely to be earmarked annually to raise funds to augment the National Defence Fund. The proceeds of the fund, which was established in 1962, are used for the ‘welfare of the Armed Forces (including Para Military Forces) and their dependents,’ the NDF’s website informs us.
(Image Credit: BCCI)
Cricketers, especially, in India have long ceased to remain mere sportspersons. They have been installed as role-models and, as Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul are justifiably finding out, expected to set the right examples. During the ‘Pink Test’ at the Sydney Cricket Ground each January, the Australian players don a pink cap to commemorate the occasion. Royal Challengers Bangalore, Kohli’s IPL team, have played one match each season for the last several years in non-traditional green attire as part of their Go Green initiative in keeping with their standing as the world’s first carbon positive franchise. While those enterprises are lauded, why the thinly-veiled cynicism when it comes to the military-cap tribute, the BCCI/Indian team might ask?
Interestingly, intriguingly, or merely coincidentally, India Women sported the traditional blue caps in their final Twenty20 International against England in Guwahati on Saturday. Just saying.
(R Kaushik is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist who has reported on more than 100 Test matches. He Tweets @kausheek68)
First Published: March 9, 2019, 2:35 PM IST