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Protests in India highlight uneasy ties between cricket and establishment | Jonathan Liew | Sport




AThe seasoned supporters of the genre will no doubt know, the recent online feud between Rihanna and Pragyan Ojha is by no means the first example of a global pop superstar and a former Surrey left arm spinner clashing over domestic policy issues. There was the regrettable and very public row between Zafar Ansari and Bruno Mars a few years ago over the pensions of the officials. And who could forget the classic episode of Newsnight from the early 1990s when Keith Medlycott and Aretha Franklin angrily weighed in on the opposite sides of the privatized utility debate?

In box-office terms, however, the Rihanna / Ojha dispute could eventually top all, largely because it’s the only one that actually happened. What actually happened was that Rihanna shared a CNN article about the protests of Indian farmers, who have mobilized hundreds of millions across the country. Why don’t we talk about this ?! Rihanna tweeted.

It was then that the Indias 24-cap Test veteran came into action. My country is proud of our farmers and knows how important they are, Ojha replied. I trust it will be addressed soon. We don’t need an outsider to poke her nose into our internal affairs!

Of course, many of you will have missed all of this amid England’s inevitable slide to beat in the second Test, as well as the ensuing and hugely boring debate as to whether it is morally acceptable for an Indian venue and an Indian ground staff to be a Indian style pitch for a home game in India.

And yet, as we lose ourselves in the lush color landscapes of Chennai, enjoying the sweeping aerial panoramas of MA Chidambaram Stadium, the city surrounding it and the glittering ocean beyond, it may be possible to hear just the faintest note of dissonance. As we gaze at the cricket, the greatest mass protests in human history are unfolding right now, just out of range. Seriously: aren’t we going to talk about this, even a little bit?

Of course, very few people outside of India have talked about it until recently. This in itself is not surprising. Last summer, Modi’s government abolished the socialist-era protections that guaranteed farmers a minimum price for their produce, a move that farmers say will leave them at the mercy of big corporations that can lower prices. The government, for its part, has responded to the protests with arrests, electricity and internet outages and an increasing erosion of civil liberties. Still, all this remained generally a domestic issue until earlier this month, when tweets from Rihanna and Greta Thunberg beamed the issue to a huge global audience.

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From a cricket perspective, what happened next was the most interesting. One by one, some of the country’s best-known cricketers Ravi Shastri, Anil Kumble, Hardik Pandya, Suresh Raina, Shikhar Dhawan, Rohit Sharma and Ojha issued stern tweets urging the country to unite and condemn foreign interference in Indian affairs.

External forces can be spectators but not participants, Sachin Tendulkar wrote, proving that old Yorkshire customs are hard to die. Indians know India and should choose India. However, the relevance of all of this really goes beyond a few well-choreographed, government-friendly tweets (many of which are ironically added to the hashtag #IndiaAgainstPropaganda). Cricket has always felt like an arm of the Indian establishment to a greater or lesser extent, and this was so long before the rise of the right-wing Modis BJP government and its increasingly sinister ethno-nationalist tendencies.

Last week, to cite just one example, former India Test opener Wasim Jaffer was forced to step down from his position as Uttarakhands head coach amid unfounded, malevolent rumors that he had preferred Muslim players and invited Muslim scholars to address the team. And if the sight of the impeccably discreet Tendulkar taking sides in a controversial political issue was surprising enough, then perhaps the content of his intervention was less.

You may be reading all of this and wondering what it does in the sports section. But cricket has always been a window into other worlds, other cultures, a sport that has never been immune to the forces that shape our history and our politics. And there can be little doubt about that this India seems so much more remote than it would have in freer times, when itinerant parties would no doubt have been accompanied by a media group of dozens, a traveling fan base of thousands, all watching and documenting.

In their absence, we get the postcard from paradise: dragging photos of Marina Beach adorned with the BCCI logo in the top corner of the screen, an officially approved vision of India where no politics exists, where the existence of a world beyond branded boundary cord is hardly recognized.

From our distant vantage point, this is not so much about driving tangible change as it is about what we want to see and what we care about. The gigantic company against the little man, the unrelenting hand of Big Power, the vice-like grip on the public narrative: these are the same forces that shape the battle for the soul of crickets. Maybe this seems like a problem for another place, another time. But if you want to know why the wealth of the games is so unevenly distributed, why fans feel so helpless and out of control, why Australia thinks they can refuse to play whoever they want, you might get some of the same answers.

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