The Indian cricket team’s alternative World Cup jersey, which has an overdose of orange or saffron, has generated controversy with some Congressmen and a Samajwadi Party MP commenting that it is the beginning of saffronisation of cricket and that the Tricolour should instead have been used as the colour scheme for the ‘away game’ jersey.
Though orange has been part of the Indian jersey for almost two decades now (team names were in orange), it has never been able to dominate over the non-controversial blue colour (Indian team jerseys across sports) by which the team has been identified and fondly called ‘The Blues’.
Will the team gradually become ‘The Saffrons’? The colour is associated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata party which has a saffron and green flag, but it is the saffron part which makes the anti-BJP secular parties see red.
This is the second time in this World Cup that the country is outraged and agitated by what the cricketers wear. When Mahendra Singh Dhoni sported the ‘drawn dagger’ insignia of a military unit, there was national outrage before the ICC stepped in and asked Dhoni to remove the symbol.
Now Dhoni, and the team, will have to worry a bit about the orange jersey the team will wear in the match against England on June 30. England as the home team need not change their first jersey colour, so India has had to do the honours and jersey sponsors Nike came up with the orange-splashed design. This is the second time that blue has been displaced as the basic colour of the Indian team. The first occasion was when a yellow jersey was used in 1994 during a series in New Zealand.
Should all three colours of the national flag have been given equal prominence in the new design?
From what has been seen of the jersey, it is not clear if the Tricolour gets any prominent space. Orange, green and white have in fact struggled to find a prominent place in the jersey and first made an appearance when Sahara sponsored the team and the Tricolour was splashed across the front.
In the last three decades, the three colours, or at least the orange, have played hide and seek with the jersey, sometimes appearing as a dot, sometimes as a bold announcement of pride.
The Pakistani flag is fully green and the team has always sported different versions of green.
Most national jerseys sport some version or colour of the national flag as though singing the national anthems before each match was not enough nationalism. The national flag itself is not seen on the jersey due to rules, but has found a place on the front of the helmet, which batsmen kiss after scoring a century or leading the team to victory. Here the intention is to dedicate the victory to the country and thus directly inspires nationalism.
After kissing the national flag, players usually display a religious deference, looking up to the heavens or drawing a cross, lest the gods residing above feel left out of this praise-giving ritual. Aggressive nationalism has always shared space with the divine. Muslim players go down on their knees to show their allegiance to Allah as Pakistani opener Babbar did after his match-winning century against New Zealand on June 26.
Many players wear religious symbols around their neck. When Sourav Ganguly took his jersey off in an aggressive celebration of victory at the Lord’s balcony, he revealed an embarrassment of talismans around his neck, showing that superstition and divinity played a prominent role in his game.
Within the confines of the national jersey of a World Cup are entwined notions of religiosity and nationalism, and the hapless player, apart from scoring a century, is also forced to openly show his allegiances to the gods and the country. Some mange to squeeze in some symbolic act for their wives or their newborn by sucking their thumbs like soccer players do.
No player so far has shown any atheist or secular symbol, suggesting that heroic players fear the gods as much as their admiring countrymen do. Just raising of the bat or pointing it towards the pavilion was for long the pattern and that was purely a secular show. Now that alone won’t do.
Political symbolism, party or military salutes etc., are completely banned in sports and the black power salute in the Mexico Olympics of 1968 resulted in both the African-American athletes being banned. They also wore no shoes on the victory podium to draw attention to the plight of the black poor.
Sport is not just a game of winning medals or trophies. You have to win it for your country or club. Now it has become a ritual for all winners in top athletic competitions, especially the Olympics and Asian Games, to wrap themselves in the national flag while they do a victory lap. Victory or even a century thus belong to the country, and if you think it is yours alone, you can go take a walk.
In this context, it is no surprise that the BCCI, which has been headless and is being run by a two-person committee answerable to none, quickly accepted the orange-based design. Who will object if the colour of an aggressive form of Hindu nationalism finds prominent expression in the Indian team’s jersey?
However, there is no doubt that the Indian cricket team is now increasingly and indirectly being used for some sort of political expression. Creeping militarism and nationalism shockingly found expression when the entire team sported military caps in the recent home series to pay obeisance to a military strike against Pakistan. That particular event opened the floodgates and sure enough, Dhoni, an admiring militarist and honorary captain of the army, went ahead and put an army unit insignia on his gloves.
Now comes the saffron jersey, which gives the go-by to the Tricolour. There would not have been any political conspiracy in this design, but sure enough it plays into the enveloping attempts to sprinkle some political dust on the Indian cricket team.
(Author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)