Saturday, September 12, 2015

Of Leander Paes, colonial sports, and the Indian sports psyche

Recently, Leander Adrian Paes added yet another Grand Slam to his kitty when he paired up with Martina "The Swiss Miss" Hingis to win the 2015 US Open Mixed Doubles crown. Since I am not subscribed to the particular channel that aired the tournament, I missed out on what must have been an enthralling match, and I rather regret that. 

I have always been a great admirer of Paes, ever since he burst on to the scene winning the junior US open and the junior Wimbledon championships, almost a quarter century back. He had risen to the top of the world junior rankings, and the Bangla magazine Anandamela had published an interview with the young man, the title of which can be translated as, "I want to be the number 1 player in the world". Although he was referring to his career as a singles player, and he had failed to achieve that particular ambition, he did in fact make good on his promise when he and Mahesh Bhupathi tore through the Majors in 1999, and rose to become the top two doubles players in the world. Things turned sour between them soon after, and each went his separate way, carving out a niche in the world of tennis; Bhupathi from a entrepreneurial point of view and Paes as a defier of age and a true successor to Martina Navratilova.

As I mentioned earlier, I had got to know of this news from the facebook posts of my friends, of which there was a deluge. Paes is usually not in the forefront of the Indian sports media, but when he wins a Grand Slam, he tends to dominate the news for a day or two. Provided, of course, there is no competing cricket news or, in the case of the Bengali regional newspapers, any competing local football news. In spite of that, there is probably not much doubt that he is the greatest sportsman in the history of India so far as we are talking about athletic sports that involve two or fewer players in a team. This fact was reiterated by an old classmate---and now a facebook friend---of mine in a facebook comment. He rued that people in India do not accept Paes as India's greatest sporting icon, that it is very very rare that he is in the news, and that Indian sports fans reserve their adulation for "...that colonial game : cricket". Here's my reply.


Well, I don't know about very very rare. You see, the last two times he was in the news were when (a) he won the Wimbledon and (b) when he was scheduled to play at Kolkata alongside Bhupathi and Mirza after a gap of a lot of years. At those times, he was definitely in the news quite a bit. As far as greatest sporting icon is concerned, yes, I can't think of another Indian athlete who has achieved so much consistently over a long time in an individual (<=2 people) sports. However, if you bring other forms of sports into consideration, then V. Anand might also lay claim to that particular epithet. If team-based (>2 people) sports is included, then perhaps Dhyan Chand might also get the nod. 

Now we come to cricket. Yes, it is a colonial game and yes, people do faTafy their gawla a little too much about Tendulkar & Co. However, if you look at the public perception of the game in the seventies and the eighties, apart from the World Cup victory, there wasn't really much to distinguish the Indian cricket team on the world stage, and people like Gavaskar and Dev were respected, but not adulated. I'm pretty sure that Kolkat...Calcutta people of the decades leading up to the nineties got more excited about EastBengal-MohunBagan derbies than India-Pakistan cricket matches, and more newsprint was spent in comparing Manna-Goswami-Habib-Chima-Chibuzor-Christopher than Vishwanath-Amarnath-Chandrashekhar-Nawaz-Qadir-Khan. Cricket really took over the collective Indian psyche (just like Baseball and Gridiron have for the people of the US) after Hero Cup 1993, which the Indian cricket team won, and due mostly to the incredible business acumen of Dalmiya et al., who got together with the then novel cable sports channels to ensure that this erstwhile colonial cure to insomnia would become the national pastime. So people have really started to concentrate on cricket after it has become a neo-colonial game, a game...nay, a product that India exports to other countries.



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