Cricketers or gladiators?

Pic credit: @mandeeps12 Twitter handle

It was an unpleasant surprise. We tuned in to the India versus Zimbabwe encounter to find cricketers of the two teams lined up, but no Sachin Tendulkar among them. Coming on the back of 1998, when Tendulkar with a bat in hand was more powerful than Thor with his hammer, his 28 against Allan Donald & Co. in the previous match seemed all the more inadequate. And India lost. It was the 1999 World Cup, so Tendulkar had to get going in this second match, without which India might not.

But the news was: Ramesh Tendulkar had breathed his last, so his youngest son had flown back to Mumbai. The narrow loss that day made India’s title hopes bleak. Rules of that edition meant Azharuddin & Co. had to win all the remaining matches to lift the trophy. But nobody complained. You don’t play when your father passes away.

Or you didn’t.

Mandeep Singh did play for Kings XI Punjab last week in spite of his father’s death. The Times of India reported that he did want to come and pay his last respects, but according to elder brother Harvinder, “I told Mandy not to come back. I told him our father was a fighter and he should stay there (in UAE) and fight for his team. Father saab wanted Mandeep to don the Indian team jersey once again and he shouldn’t forget that. He should focus on making a comeback. That will be fitting tribute to our father.”

Harvinder is spot on. Making a mark in the Indian Premier League is essential today to get one’s India jersey back. Also, Mandeep could not have seen his father one last time and returned to UAE like Tendulkar did in 1999, because of the bio bubble. But is it fair to the young man?

To his credit, Mandeep did not show much emotion after reaching his 50 in the next match against Kolkata Knight Riders, apart from raising his bat towards heaven where he believes his departed father now resides. It was also heart-warming to see his captain KL Rahul and coach Anil Kumble enter the ground to appreciate his sacrifice. But wasn’t it heartrending, too?

A son having to attend his father’s funeral through video call is a tragedy. It’s an even bigger tragedy because Mandeep is no migrant labourer, who did not have the means to reach Punjab from UAE amid this global pandemic. He had the means but could not use it. One can always take a cynical view of his elder brother’s words and say they actually cared more for the moolah. That would not only be wrong but also shallow. Harvinder’s decision has got nothing to do with IPL. It can be said without much hesitation that any Indian family that has a cricketer playing at some level, would have reacted the same way. Don’t we already know how 18-years-old Virat Kohli batted on for Delhi even after his father’s sudden demise? The fact that Mandeep agreed with his elder brother shows he, too, thought fighting for the team is more important.

One can get philosophical about it, remembering Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker, where Raju goes back on stage leaving his dead mother because life is a circus. When the bell rings, you have to perform. But once we are done philosophizing, we must ask ourselves if we are putting way too much pressure on our cricketers and their families. We must ask, why playing cricket is more important than grieving for that one person who meant the world to me?

All of us live in a world of cut-throat competition, many of us work in straitjacketed corporate offices but someone forced to work despite his/her parent’s death is still not common. Why then is a cricket match of any level so important? The most alarming aspect about these incidents in cricket is, the employer (or team management) is not forcing this decision on the cricketer. Either he himself is taking it or his family is telling him to do it. That means the pressure is coming from within i.e. we, as a society, have made cricket more important than our loved ones. It is not a profession anymore, even less a game. “Cricket is religion in India” is no more just a catchphrase coined for promotional purpose, it is a reality. It should scare us. It should scare cricketers even more because if tomorrow someone decides to take a break for one last meeting with his departed near one, he risks falling off the pedestal he has unknowingly ascended. Thousands of trolls may bay for his blood, terming him a traitor. We have already put army caps on their heads, why shouldn’t they behave like soldiers?

Does this sound too alarmist for a franchise league? It should not. MS Dhoni’s daughter has been threatened with rape for his failures in this league where national prestige is not at stake. What could happen if someone does a Tendulkar today and the team loses?

Cricketers do not behave like this in any other cricket-playing nation. Forget parent’s death, they regularly miss international ties to be with wife in labour. David Warner has done it, even England’s Test captain Joe Root has done it. But Dhoni did not leave the squad to be present for Ziva’s birth in 2015. He got to see his child only after finishing the World Cup. One exception to this rule was Gautam Gambhir, who missed the Mumbai Test against Sri Lanka in 2009 for sister’s wedding. Fair enough. Cricketer Gautam could play a number of matches later, but duties of a brother could not have waited. India, too, could play one match without him. They won it but even a defeat should not have hurt. We must ask, are we oversensitive about cricketers? Is that over-sensitivity turning them into gladiators? The answers are important because only a diseased society needs gladiators.

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