Cricket as the Cure for a National Depression

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Laxman drives for the boundary

"What do they of cricket know who only cricket know?"

In that simple rhetorical question the legendary Trinidadian patriot and historian C.L.R. James summed up the significance of a game somewhat incomprehensible to outsiders, and yet of immeasurable collective psychic significance to the nations where it is played. A significance that was on display in India this week, when one man appeared to singlehandedly (to the extent that this is possible in a game that is the very model of team effort) lift the nation's flagging spirits.

The name Laxman dominated that country's headlines all week. But there were, in fact, two Laxmans competing for editors' attention — one symbolizing the troubled nation's shame and disgrace, the other symbolizing its hopes of redeeming itself.

Bangaru Laxman, president of the ruling Baharatiya Janata Party, was implicated in a bribery scandal that has exposed rampant graft in India's corridors of power, and was forced to resign. That Laxman's name in the headlines symbolized the depth of the rot in Indian politics, where although bribery has become a way of life, national security had been assumed to be above the dictates of greed — an assumption trashed by the scandal that revealed an extensive web of corruption in weapons procurement.

Elsewhere, in Calcutta, India's cricket XI (as cricket protocol describes the 11 members of a team) were faring no better in their attempt to stop the Australian juggernaut. The arrogant, swaggering Aussies had won 16 straight test matches (a remarkable achievement in a sport whose test matches, which pitch country against country, are played over five days and as often end in a draw as produce a result), and struggling India was expected to put up only modest resistance. Indeed, Indian cricket has been as subject to the bribery malaise as its politics, with the former captain of the national team and one of its star batsmen having been forced to quit last year after being found guilty of fixing games for bookmakers.

Looking defeat in the face

The game was going according to form as the Australians batting first had amassed 445 runs off the demoralized Indian bowling attack. Worse was to come. India lost its first wicket after only six minutes, with no runs on the board. And the rot never stopped, as the pride of India's batsmen were skittled for only 171. Only one man showed any resistance: Vangipurappu Laxman (like many of his countrymen better known by his initials, V.V.S.), whose 59 included 12 fours (balls smashed all the way to the boundary fence).

Its disastrous showing left India having to bat a second time — if the team that bats second can't come within 150 runs of its opponent's first innings, it can be asked to bat again. Being forced to "follow on" is usually a prelude to a humiliating defeat. And that's how the Indian press were calling it at the end of Day 2 in Calcutta. At best, they hoped, India could avoid the ultimate humiliation of an innings defeat (when the team that bats second fails over two innings to pass the score its rival registered in a single innings, which suggests it was an unworthy opponent).

Laxman had other ideas.

He'd shown a Kiplingesque ability "keep his head when all around him were losing theirs" during the first innings, demonstrating that Australia's bowlers could be seen off, and even punished. Sensing the fire in Laxman's belly, his captain promoted him to Number 3 in the batting order, and as he strode to the wicket with the total on 52, he set out to lead his countrymen and inspire them by his example to believe in their ability not only to stand up to the juggernaut, but to vanquish it.

And on the fifth day...

Laxman remained at the wicket for almost two days, besting nine Australian bowlers and smashing 44 boundaries. By the time he got out, on the morning of Day 5, he had amassed 289 runs, a record for an Indian test batsman. More important, he and Rahul Dravid (180) had led India to the awe-inspiring total of 657 for the loss of only seven wickets. Some 50,000 people had crowded into the ground as word spread around Calcutta that Laxman and Dravid were flaying the Australian bowling.

By nightfall on Day 4, their achievement had seized the imagination not only of the whole nation, but also of the wider cricketing world that has long suffered the domination of the obnoxious Aussies. And more was to come. Putting Australia in to chase a target of 373 on the final day, India bowled out Australia for 212, becoming only the third test team in history to win a match after having been forced to follow on. Where Laxman had put steel into the spine of the Indian batting, a lanky young Sikh off-spinner, Harbajan Singh, claimed the honors with the ball — having dispatched seven Australians in the first innings, he added another six scalps in the second.

With bat and ball, skill, timing, determination and courage, Laxman, Harbajan and Dravid had changed the mood of a nation.

To Americans, cricket may look like a quaint memento of the British empire's heyday, an exasperatingly slow, overly complex game of bat and ball played by gentlemen in white flannels who continue to maintain the time-honored tradition of interrupting the afternoon session for 20 minutes at 4 p.m., to allow the players to enjoy a nice cup of tea. And yet to the British and those they colonized, it remains an almost mystical canonization of their culture’s finest achievements.

TIME's Australia edition recently devoted its cover to an obituary of the legendary prewar batsman Sir Donald Bradman, noting his significance to Australia lay not simply in his unmatched ability to amass runs no matter how fearsome the bowling he faced, but in the ability of those storied exploits to lift his nation's spirits through the tribulations of the Depression and World War II. As writer Thomas Kenneally put it, "When we spoke of literary figures we spoke of Englishmen, but when we spoke of cricket we spoke of our own. No Australian had written 'Paradise Lost,' but Bradman had made 100 before lunch at Lords."

It's just not cricket, old chap

The reference to London's Lords cricket ground, home of the Marylebone Cricket Club and universally acknowledged as the cradle of the game and Mecca of its faithful, is important. To have ruled over its empire and subordinated distant cultures, the British had to believe in the superiority of their own. And cricket was held, from the 19th century onward, to be the ultimate codification of those virtues, or imagined virtues, that gave the British their sense of superiority — fair play, discipline, fortitude, teamwork, self-sacrifice, respect for one's opponent and for the keepers of the rules, the will to win but always fairly and squarely. Hence its original importance to the colonized peoples. It was by succeeding on the cricket field that they could express themselves as the equal or the better of their colonizer, and challenge the shabby racism that underpinned colonialism. It is no surprise to C.L.R. James that the earliest campaigners for Trinidad's independence from Britain are its cricket greats, such as Sir Leary Constantine.

But as much as besting the British at their own game became an expression of cultural pride and national assertiveness for the colonized nations, cricket also indelibly inscribed its values on them as a metaphor for the proper conduct of human affairs. "Just not cricket" is an expression common throughout the former British empire to describe behavior that is beyond the pale.

India's politicians are in a shambles right now, with both ends of the spectrum deeply tainted by the stain of corruption. In America, such a dolorous situation might have the pundits pining for the arrival of a "man on a white horse." In India, they might do better to turn to a man in white flannels.