Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Why we inject cricket with a greater moral purpose

Suresh Menon in The Hindu

We pour into sport our highest emotions and our greatest passions because that is a way of rescuing it from meaninglessness

It is facile to say that Indians do not understand the concept of “conflict of interest”. We have had in a parliamentary panel on anti-tobacco legislation an MP known as the “beedi king of Maharashtra”. Vijay Mallya, of Kingfisher Airlines, served on the parliamentary panel on civil aviation.

It is not that we don’t understand the concept — we merely turn a blind eye to it, arguing that parliamentary panels, for instance, need “experts” in the field. Our faith in the integrity of our businessmen and politicians is touching.

Why therefore should we make such a big deal about conflicts of interest in cricket?

Undermining the spirit

The simple answer, of course, is that just because it is condoned elsewhere, it does not follow that cricket should too. It is ethically wrong, even if sometimes it is legal, as in the case of Rahul Dravid and others who are given a ten-month contract with the BCCI so they can then sign a two-month contract with an IPL team. Contracts with in-built loopholes are a testimony to the nudge-nudge, wink-wink style of the BCCI’s functioning. They go against the spirit of the game.

Many greats have played the dual game, but that doesn’t make it right. In 1956, as selector, Don Bradman picked the Australian team to England. He then wrote on the series for the Daily Mail. “He set an unusual precedent,” wrote his biographer Irving Rosenwater subtly.

In a clear-headed letter following his resignation from the Committee of Administrators, Ramachandra Guha makes a forceful point: “The BCCI management is too much in awe of the superstars to question their violation of norms and procedures. For their part, BCCI office-bearers like to enjoy discretionary powers, so that the coaches or commentators they favour are indebted to them and do not ever question their own mistakes or malpractices.”

Guha’s indictment of the system

Guha’s letter indicts the system, and if the BCCI (or the CoA, which sometimes looks and acts like the BCCI in different clothes) has the interests of the game at heart, then it will have to be acted upon. It has brought into focus another aspect of cricket corruption — the ethical one. It has taken a fan of cricket — and not just a fan of cricketers, which is what most Indians are — to point out the anomalies.

Guha has made the sensible suggestion that conflicts of interest which exist from the highest level to the lowest are best dealt with at the top, saying, “This would have a ripple effect downwards.”

So why cricket? Why should the sport — which is believed to mirror society — answer to a higher morality than other fields of human endeavour?

To understand this, one must acknowledge the essential nature of sport. It is artificial, it is in the large sense meaningless, it is “something that does not matter but is performed as if it did,” to quote Simon Barnes.

The very artificiality of sport gives us the right to inject it with a greater moral purpose than, say, business or politics. Even politicians who are otherwise known to be shady are expected to be honest on the sports field. Bill Clinton might have cheated on his wife, but had he cheated on a golf course, there would have been no redemption.

Being artificial means sport is not of the real world; the sharp practices of the real world should not be allowed to seep into sport. Thus sport cannot be a mere reflection of society, but has to belong to a higher realm, a fantasy world where everything is perfect. Or should aim to be.

Aspire for perfection

The argument here is not that cricket is perfect, but that it ought to aspire towards perfection, both on and off the field. The process is important even if the product sometimes disappoints.

We pour into sport our highest emotions and our greatest passions because that is a way of rescuing it from meaninglessness. It is relevant because our emotions make it relevant — and it gives us an opportunity to coat the essential artificiality of the activity with the reality of our most positive feelings.

Cricket is full of contradictions. Administrators who should be preserving its status as a touchstone of goodness cheat and lie, and live for the bottom line. Players who understand its place in society and owe everything to it, compromise for the extra dollar. It is a sickening win-win situation: the BCCI keeps the players happy in return for their silence.

One or the other group has to ensure they are guardians of the sport. In India, it was finally the Supreme Court which took upon itself that role because neither officials nor players had the inclination.

Guha’s letter has raised some fundamental questions. Not just about the BCCI or the CoA. But about our relationship with cricket. And how much we are willing to ignore uncomfortable truths so long as a Kohli scores a hundred or an Ashwin claims five wickets. Passion should be made of sterner stuff.

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