The importance of rituals

Published : Nov 10, 2001 00:00 IST


IF you desire a tutorial in linguistics (i.e. how to say the Aussies are overrated in Punjabi, Tamil, Hindi, Marathi) or wish to examine the nature of Indian food habits (why some men prefer overcooked pau bhaji and others watery sambar), just spend an afternoon in the Indian cricket team's dressing room.

It is an advertisement for India's diversity, and a reminder of its rich variety of colliding, co-existing cultures.

But this also poses a question: where does this team find its common ground (okay, so maybe Tendulkar isn't allergic to sambar and Srinath's known to swallow pau bhaji under duress, but you get the point). It makes you wonder, beyond the vague concept of patriotism, what binds them as a team, what ropes them into an unit, what ritual or practice or tradition aligns their diverse ambitions towards a common cause.

The alarming truth is that for an ancient civilisation, steeped deeply in tradition and ritual, India's sporting teams reflect little of that. Of course, custom for us involves bickering BCCI officials, decapacitating losing captains and expecting Tendulkar to walk on water, but that's not quite what I had in mind.

Paradoxically, Australia, a land of unending sameness, culturally not so much impoverished as similar, worships tradition and finds great strength in ritual when it comes to sport.

All across a wide country, national and club teams have mascots, names (soccer team is the Socceroos, hockey team the Hockeyroos, Victoria's cricket team is the Bushrangers), team songs, team colours; they have family days and season-ending dinners, annual awards for the best players given out at glittering functions, and at the turn of the millennium the selection of a Team of the Century in most sports, where the past and present embrace each other. It ensures a strong (club and national) identity, a solidarity, a sense of participation and a recognition of the contribution athletes have made across generations.

It is not the primary factor why a nation of 19 million should have such disproportionate sporting success, but it is an indicator of a rich sporting culture.

Ask an Aussie about cricketing rituals and he might well say, "Yeah mate, emptying the bar on the plane to England." But this predilection for cold beer glosses over a series of artful ceremonies and conventions at whose heart lies the concept of team.

For instance, in the first session of each Test it has become de rigeur for Australian players to wear their baggy green cap: it is a gesture of solidarity and a salute to their heritage. At the end of a victorious series too, players gather (like in the middle of the field after winning the Ashes) to sing their theme song Underneath the Southern Cross, the honour of leading the players in song another tradition handed down through generations (from Rodney Marsh to David Boon to Ian Healy to Ricky Ponting).

Not all these are ancient rituals, many are modern, the reflection of inventive captains and of a driven team (much like batsman after scoring a century, Australian bowlers now hold up the ball to the crowd after taking five wickets in an innings).

Much of Steve Waugh's philosophy revolves around the privilege of playing for Australia, of paying tribute to the men he plays with and the men who wore the baggy green before them.

As Waugh told me recently, the traditions of any sport are an important ingredient in developing the public image of a sport, providing the participants at all the various levels with a common bond, and also providing a tangible link with the past. For cricket it is very important that many of the great traditions of the game are maintained. It provides a sense of order, and when difficult times are encountered by any sport there is a tangible support element for the players and the game itself to look up to.

"As far as the Australian Team is concerned, the traditions that we uphold are an important element used to develop a sense of pride, camaraderie and high morale that hopefully will give us a mental toughness when we are challenged. Not only do we embrace tradition but we feel an obligation to set new ones to hand on to coming generations. The players 'own' the Australian team traditions and to be able to partake of these rituals and traditions has meant you have been awarded the highest honour in Australian cricket - you have been selected to play for your country."

Pride is the essential ingredient, and much of Waugh's new traditions personify that. Australian one day players sport a number on their caps that signify their place in history (i,e the number 95, identifies the player as the 95th to play one day cricket for Australia).

When a Test player is awarded his cap, there is a pre-match ceremony as it is handed over. But Waugh is clever, he attaches a further symbolism to this moment. When Simon Katich received his cap it was from Richie Benaud and in one small gesture, Waugh had paid tribute to and linked two generations. It ensures Katich gets the message too: you are joining a select band of brothers, you are representing a proud nation, if you betray this cap then you betray not just Australia but Benaud too.

In contrast, Sunil Gavaskar was once livid when he saw a group of cheerleaders wearing the Indian team shirt (given to them by players), for he saw it as disdain for the national colour. As he wrote then, in 1999, What a pity the India shirt and cap mean so little to some of the members of the Indian team.

Not everyone agreed with Sunny, some players contesting that after 50 one day tournaments, so many meaningless, they have a surfeit of shirts. But essentially they missed Sunny's point: it was not the shirt that was the issue, but the sentiment. That the privilege of playing for India was being stepped on. After all, it is sentiment, translated into ritual, that emboldens a team.

Waugh extends his rituals to encompass the crowd as well. After a victorious series, his team does a lap of honour, but with a difference. They will shake hands with strangers, stop for a brief word, even pose for pictures with fans. In England this summer, a fan was even invited to bowl at the nets. Again, at the heart of this practice is bonding, this time between public and player.

Waugh also invites other sportsmen to dine with his team, a ritual that stems, he once wrote, from his belief that winning people surround themselves with inspirational, infectious types. So meticulous is Waugh that when Patrick Rafter arrived for dinner once, he ensured the tennis player rotated his seat during the evening so that all the boys had some access first hand to his thoughts.

In the Indian team, some progress is being made. Team dinners and the handing over of a cap (in front of TV cameras apparently at Sourav Ganguly's insistence) show the promise of becoming common practice, but they need to be cemented into ritual, into lasting through time, beyond the change of captains and coaches.

Not everything Australian demands imitation (what language would you sing a team song in?) and neither is Waugh the perfect captain (far from it), but to dismiss Australia's rituals as foreign thus useless (as we tend to do) is an act of ignorance. Any ritual that binds a team into a tighter, purposeful, proud unit is worth embracing. Any custom that links India's cricketing generations is worth starting.

And inviting Sunny Gavaskar for a team dinner would not be a bad start. Oh, and don't forget to rotate his seat.

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