Bat and Ball Beat Bigotry and Bal

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Message for Bal Thackeray: gotcha! Indians and cricket-lovers all over the world had cause to celebrate last week as the first Test match between India and Pakistan got under way in Madras. For some, the joy comes from the prospect of a dramatic cricketing encounter between traditional rivals, the first since 1987. For others, the real delight is the knowledge that each ball bowled (and there will be thousands in the course of the series of matches) represents a stinging slap on the face of Thackeray.

Schadenfreude is unbecoming of adults--but, I submit, completely justified in this instance. For more than a decade, Thackeray and his Hindu-extremist Shiv Sena party have deprived the subcontinent of cricket's greatest spectacle. Twice in that period Pakistan has canceled cricketing tours of India, frightened by Thackeray's threat to unleash his Hindu hoodlums on the visitors. His "soldiers," as he sometimes calls the thugs at his command, have dug up cricket pitches to prevent play between the countries and have sworn to do bodily harm to players on both sides. Thackeray himself has boasted of his ability to frustrate the desires of a billion cricket-crazy South Asians. Now, it's their turn to gloat at his defeat.

And make no mistake, Thackeray was defeated by India's cricket lovers. Sure, he would like everybody to believe he was persuaded to suspend his opposition to the series by the pleadings of Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, whose Bharatiya Janata Party governs Thackeray's native Maharashtra state in coalition with the Shiv Sena. In reality, both men were frightened (such delicious irony!) into submission by the public displays of outrage by cricket fans across the country. Neither can afford to antagonize these potential voters at the moment. The BJP fared poorly in local elections last November and is widely expected to lose the next general election. The Sena suffered severe reversals in the last general election, and many pundits say it is likely to lose power in Maharashtra in the next round of local polls. In democratic India, even bigots fear the power of the ballot--and the country's cricket enthusiasts represent a gigantic vote bank that straddles all religions and social strata.

Thackeray's position was more precarious than Vajpayee's, mainly because the Sena boss' support base lies in Bombay, Maharashtra's capital and home to the most ardent cricket fans in the world. Needless to say, they took a dim view of Thackeray's spoilsport stance. They were appalled at the notion that their favorite son, master batsman Sachin Tendulkar, would have to live under police protection after his life was threatened by the lunatic fringe of the Hindu hordes. It's one thing for Thackeray to unleash verbal broadsides against the Pakistanis, but anybody who messes with Tendulkar messes with 18 million Bombayites. The final straw came on the evening of Jan. 18, when Hindu-extremist vandals trashed the Bombay headquarters of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and damaged its collection of trophies, including the World Cup India won in 1983, its greatest sporting triumph.

For a populace that frequently displays more fervor for cricket than for any religion--including Thackeray's--this was tantamount to defiling the Holy Grail. Sena officials denied any involvement in the attack, but nobody was prepared to believe them. Even the city's normally sedate broadsheet, The Times of India, was moved to decry the "desecration." Irate citizens took to the streets to denounce the attack and its instigator, shattering the myth that nobody dared challenge him in his own city. After that, there was never any doubt Thackeray would fold. The "request" from the Prime Minister was an attempt to let him save some face. Nice try, guys, but we saw right through that one.

A better man would have bowed gracefully to public demand. But that would be too much to ask of Thackeray--this, after all, is the man who recently encouraged his supporters to surround the home of a Muslim film actor dressed only in their underwear, to protest the star's ties with Pakistan (he had received Islamabad's highest civilian honor). No, a graceful retreat was out of the question. With characteristic churlishness, Thackeray announced he was suspending his objection to Indo-Pakistan cricket for just one year. But not many are buying his bluff. Now that he has been forced to back down, the Pakistanis will doubtless laugh off any future attempts at intimidation. How horribly galling it must be for Thackeray to know that the people who once treated him as an object of terror should now regard him as a bit of a joke. The former cartoonist has become a sorry caricature of himself.

So, what's a deflated windbag to do? Luckily for you, Mr. T, there's some good stuff on TV these days: an India vs. Pakistan cricket series, would you believe? Find a comfortable armchair, fix yourself a bowl of crow and watch a game. Chances are, it will be so engrossing that you will forget that stinging sensation on your cheeks.