The party-spirited cricket World Cup

Sharda Ugra has a sharp piece out in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2024 laying bare the ways in which the BJP hijacked the 2023 ODI Cricket World Cup via the BCCI, whose secretary Jay Shah is the son of Union home minister Amit Shah. The Reddit thread on the article has a link to a full archival copy.

It was clear to everyone the World Cup had been stage-managed by the BCCI; as I wrote when it concluded, just a few of the symptoms of the BJP’s interference were that Sunday games had been reserved for India, many tickets were vouchsafed for government officials or to bodies with ties to such officials, police personnel were present in the stands for many games, snatching away placards with shows of support for Pakistan; many spectators (but not all, and not everywhere) often chanted “jai shri Ram” — the BJP’s “call to arms”, as Ugra put it — in unison; Air Force jets flew past the Modi stadium named for Prime Minister Narendra (even though he’s alive) on the day of the finals, which only the government has the power to arrange; the man himself elected to bunk the game once it started to become clear India would lose it; and throughout the tournament the game’s broadcaster was fixated on showing visuals of celebrities, including BJP leaders and supporters, in the stands when they weren’t of the game itself.

Together with releasing the tournament schedule late, all-but-accidental delays in clearing visas for Pakistani and Pakistan-affiliated cricketers and journalists, suppressing the sale of merchandise affiliated with the Pakistani and Bangladeshi cricket teams, and DJs playing songs like “Ram Siya Ram” and “India jeetega” during India games, the BJP’s hyper-nationalist hand was in plain sight, especially to those who knew what to look for. Many of these feats had been foreshadowed during the 2022 Asia Cup, when Star Sports and Pepsi had joined in on the fun. To these incursions, Ugra’s essay has added something more in-your-face, and obnoxious for it:

… three independent sources — one each from the team, the ICC and the BCCI — have confirmed the existence of an all-orange uniform, which was presented to the team as an alternative two days before the [India-Pakistan] game. They had already been given a new training kit — an orange shirt and dark trousers — a week before their first fixture. When the all-orange kit arrived in the dressing-room, the players looked nonplussed, according to an insider. Here, the story split into two versions. One, out first, said the uniform was rejected because it “looks like Holland”. The other had the Indian cricketers saying to each other: “This is not on… We won’t do it… It is disrespectful to some of the members of the team” [referring to Mohammed Shami and Mohammed Siraj].

That this was an ICC tournament had become moot by this point, with the BJP-BCCI combine subsuming or just disregarding too many of its rules and tenets for the international body to matter. The BJP sought to have a literal saffron-versus-green contest on the ground, replete with provocative music and police presence — not to mention also packing the stands with people who booed Pakistani players as they walked in/out — and the BCCI obliged. The only reason this doesn’t seem to have succeeded was either an unfavourable comparison to the Dutch circket jersey — which I’m sure the BJP and/or the BCCI would have noticed beforehand — or that the players didn’t want to put it on. According to Ugra, an orange or a blue-orange jersey was on for a UNICEF event called “One Day for Children”, and the corresponding match was to be an India-Sri Lanka fixture three weeks after the match against Pakistan; there, India wore its traditional blue, presumably the BCCI had stopped insisting on the saffron option.

But what rankles more isn’t that the ICC folded so easily (Ugra: “The ICC demonstrated neither the nous nor the spine to resist the takeover”) but that the BCCI, and the BJP behind it, laboured all the time as if there would be no resistance to their actions. Because, clearly, the two things that seemingly didn’t go the BJP’s way were the result of two minimal displays of effective resistance: the first when “Young Indians among the ICC volunteers eventually had [“Ram Siya Ram”] removed from the playlist for the rest of the tournament”, and the second when the Indian men’s team refused to don the saffron tees and trousers.

The ICC is a faraway body, as much undermined by the Indian cricketing body’s considerable wealth and political influence in the country as by the BJP’s now well-known tactic to take advantage of every little administrative loophole, leeway or liberty to get what it wants. The latter alone is reason enough to not expect more from the ICC, at least not without being exposed a few times to the demands of the adversarial posture engaging with the BCCI merits. Instead, the BCCI’s capitulation — completed in 2019, when Jay Shah became its secretary — and its organisational strategies in the Asia Cup and the World Cup cement the conclusion that it cares nothing for rituals and traditions in service of the spirit of the game. There is no public-spiritedness, only party-spiritedness.

And just as the BJP wins its third term to form the national goverbment, the T20 World Cup will begin.

Featured image: A surfeit of India flags among spectators of the India versus South Africa match at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, 2015. Credit: visitmelbourne, CC BY 2.0.