Living on eternal hope

Teamwork does not necessarily build from talent especially when egos come into conflict. Group huddles featuring Rahul Dravid & Co. make for a lovely, sentimental picture but they are a superficial expression of bonding.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Parallels exist between India's passion for cricket and English football culture. A good performance from the respective national teams contributes to a feel-good factor; an air of general malaise hangs after a bad show, writes Vijay Parthasarathy.

I was at a crowded bar in York the afternoon when England played Trinidad and Tobago — a side that featured one world class player, Dwight Yorke — in a World Cup group game last year. Never mind seats, there was little place to stand — it was like being sandwiched in a Mumbai suburban local during peak hour. People held their drinks high over their head and manoeuvred through a thick peanut butter spread of people; a bartender said some had arrived three hours in advance to reserve their seats.

"Gerrard will win us the World Cup, mate, wait and watch!" the man standing next to me screamed in my ear when I politely solicited his opinion before start of play. "We have the best players in the world!" That is, of course, exactly what the public says about the Indian cricket team, which got knocked out of the 2007 World Cup in embarrassing circumstances, but I didn't point that out.

Parochial as he may have sounded, to be fair the man's point wasn't entirely devoid of merit. His argument could have been knocked down but it was, to an extent, defensible: in Steven Gerrard, England has possibly the finest inspirational playmaker in all of Europe, and Wayne Rooney counts among the most lethal forwards in the world.

England, as it happens so often, began poorly. Peter Crouch, the gawky Liverpool striker, drew hoots when he failed to score from five yards away; the Manchester United section of the crowd raucously called for a semi-fit Rooney to be brought on while the Liverpool fragment chuckled uneasily.

Clearly, parallels exist between India's passion for cricket and English football culture. A good performance from the respective national teams contributes to a feel-good factor; an air of general malaise hangs after a bad show. The Indian middle class, or at least a large proportion of it, was just as obsessed with Sachin Tendulkar in his prime — and now perhaps with Mahendra Singh Dhoni — as the pint-swigging industrial working class in England currently is, with Rooney. The hero-worshipping is particularly curious, given that both teams have under-performed hugely on several big occasions in their respective sports. England has not won a major tournament since 1966 — the first and only time it won the World Cup, while India has done marginally better since its epochal triumph of 1983.

Peter Glanville, a barrel-chested 67-year-old coach from York, trained Paul Robinson when the Tottenham Hotspur and England goalie was entering his teens. He is in concurrence with the prevailing English opinion on individual talent: "The ironic thing is that these players are, individually very good, but have never really gelled as a team."

Except, it isn't really ironic. Teamwork does not necessarily build from talent especially when egos come into conflict. Group huddles featuring Rahul Dravid & Co. make for a lovely, sentimental picture but they are a superficial expression of bonding. Often the best teams — such as the Australian cricket side, which completed a treble of World Cup titles — comprise players whose performances sneak under the radar and whose personalities are unobtrusive enough to allow them to play synchronously. How many, for example, noticed that left-arm chinaman bowler Brad Hogg picked 21 wickets at this World Cup at an average under 16?

The relatively easy accessibility to sports like cricket and football encourages kids at school to take up the game. In England the higher standard of living affords people the luxury of a career choice whereas in India familial compulsions and an orthodox take on job options may cut short a budding cricket career.

Admittedly, however, the glut of media attention is changing things slowly in India. As more money flows into domestic cricket and a career at the Ranji level becomes reasonably viable, aspirations could find expression in deeds and eventually talent will be competition-driven, market oriented — as is the case in the West.

"English fans are as greedy for success as the players are for money," Glanville opines, sidestepping the point that professional sportspersons need to consolidate their earnings within a short career span. In a country where the average wage hovers around 18,000 pounds a year, many players make up to 40,000 a week — a disparity that drives some Englishmen crazy with resentment, just as inflated salaries for cricketers provokes our envy.

India's obsession fans at home heroworshipped Sachin Tendulkar in his prime.-PTI

"It doesn't surprise me," Glanville says drily, "that when the England team fails on numerous occasions to provide exciting football commensurate with the wages and then finds itself 0-0 at half-time against Andorra — a team made up of teachers, postmen and salesmen — the supporters who have invested both money and time in the game are quick to voice their displeasure."

(The Indian cricket team, one recalls proudly, performed admirably in rebounding from a loss to Bangladesh and compiling a record score in its group match against Bermuda — an amateur side that comprised, amongst others, a rotund yet fairly sharp policeman who has since emerged as one of the faux celebrities of the World Cup.)

"Quite simply," Glanville adds, "the players have heaped the abuse upon themselves. Out of the world salaries will naturally provoke out of the world expectations. The only thing to do is win, and win well."

What binds people in cities as distinct as Leeds and Ludhiana then, is hope — the eternal hope that gifted players will finally come together.

The one significant difference between English football and Indian cricket is, Premiership club loyalties are fierce and are not wholly overcome even for the cause of unity — quite unlike the scene in Indian domestic cricket where matches are regularly played to empty stadia.

England's first half performance that afternoon elicited boos, and the mood in the bar soon turned sombre. England had won its earlier match against Paraguay in unconvincing fashion, and the man standing next to me no longer sounded optimistic. "Did you see how Crouch missed that from five yards?" he whined protestingly.

The six-foot seven-inch tall Crouch, however, would redeem himself towards the end of the match with a headed goal, and then Gerrard would top it off with a screaming left-footer.

"I'm telling you, Gerrard will win us the World Cup, mate," my neighbour said gleefully, afterward.