“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” CLR James.
CLR James’ majestic Beyond a Boundary is not just a book about cricket but is about how the sport is a prism into the relations of power in colonial times. The semi-autobiography examined the place of cricket in the everyday struggles for social and political justice within the class and race contours of the end of empire. The sport’s colonial roots enabled James to locate the subaltern subject, in particular the West Indian, into the machinations of imperial rule and culture. For James cricket was the colonial encounter played out through the drama between bat and ball – cricket was an art form, a piece of political theatre.
Fifty years have passed since the book’s publication and much in the world of cricket has changed. For James the ascendancy of the West Indies team during the mid-70s to the early 90s would have been the vindication of the symbolic role of cricket in challenging the supremacy of the former colonial masters. (The recent film Fire and Babylon makes a strong case for the relationship between the politics of anti-imperialism and cricket). But since the decline of West Indies cricket, we have also witnessed fundamental changes in the ethos of cricket – from a game of artistry and skill to one where the imperatives of commercial entertainment have become paramount. This has undoubtedly reached it nadir in the Indian Premier League (IPL). The pantomime that is the IPL represents what is totally wrong with the game now. But like in James’ time cricket tells us a lot about our contemporary postcolonial predicament.
One can claim with little ambiguity that the twenty-over-a-team slog-fest has little of real cricketing merit; except if you wish to watch a few well-known celebrities randomly smashing the ball to the boundary with great frequency and with little regard for tactics or strategy. Even more nauseating is that the action is punctuated by blasts of very loud, poorly amplified (bad)pop music, accompanied by the rather muted, (un)sexualized display of ‘multi-ethnic tropes of cheerleaders’ gyrating to the thumping sounds. The emphasis is on greater, louder and bigger – even the length of the hit or the number of sixes accumulated leads to the winning of a sponsored car or motorbike.
It maybe objected that this critique is an anti-populist rant, defending like James, the elitist roots of the games against the vernacular popularity of cricket in the subcontinent. The problem is not the popularity of the game, or the shift of the ‘home of cricket’ away from its imperial centre, but its capitalist commodity form and the resulting demise of the sport. The game is being controlled by a new corporate elite driven by the expansion of neoliberal capitalism in India. IPL is a brand through which new markets for consumerism are being developed and promoted. The new Indian urban middle-class and the aspiring working class are being inculcated into a consumer culture built upon advertising, commodification and transnational media branding. IPL is part of the cultural wing of India’s neoliberal emergence into globalisation. Key to the expansion of the IPL are the selling of televisual rights and the increasing global reach of the sponsored brands. This is corporate reality TV supported further by the wealthy NRIs across the world.
James would have no doubt condemned the development, not only in terms of a Marxist informed critique of its commercialization, but in the way the game has lost its ethical kernel, built upon the detailed, methodical and nuanced commentary on the minutia of cricketing skill and aesthetic performance. Instead we are bombarded by a media saturated, interminable spectacle, like most of international cricket, that seems to constantly inventing new variations on the old game. The problem is unlike in the past where every minor modification in the team’s performance was reflected upon with great intensity and depth, now we just do not care about the activities of ‘franchises’(sic) like the Mumbai Indians or the Rajasthan Royals. It is all so ephemeral and meaningless. No one remembers any match, or even the winners of the tournament. There is no real passion or appreciation, only televisual fuelled canned cheering and contrived excitement, more like WWF or It’s a Knockout.
The disposability of the IPL maybe tells us something about the nature of the Indian economy and its limitations; how its entry into the global information and communication led infrastructure is built upon ideological quicksand. India remains rather fragilely integrated into a global economy, in which the BRICS countries may even bring into crisis western hegemony, but only through the violence of neoliberal ideology and economic exploitation of the poor. This is not decolonialisation but the establishment of even greater levels of marketisation of social life (and death) in the Global South. The IPL is just old-fashioned opium for the masses.
But maybe in this doom-laden narrative there is something that James knew about the nature of cricket that offers a little hope. Against this global commodity culture of speed and instant gratification cricket’s key attribute is its temporal slowness. What can be more resistive than the five-day test match, where hardly anything happens, when most of it can be rained off, and after five days it all ends in a draw. What can be more magnificent in spending hour after hour enthralled by very little, but actually the subtle drama is in the absence of visible action itself. This is the repressed of cricket, the always present potential, which still maybe provides a little bit of cultural resistance to the Bollywoodisation of the world.