Category Archives: Assimilation

Calling Usman Khawaja an ‘Asian’ Batsman

I discussed this problem on Twitter already, but I wanted to flesh out my thoughts a bit more. Yesterday, during the first day of the Test between Aus. and N.Z., Mark Nicholas said a shot by Usman Khawaja was almost “Asian looking.” Cricinfo immediately ridiculed the comment as insensitive, as did some of my Twitter friends — but the issue is a little more delicate.

Here’s why it makes us cringe: 1) Any mention of racial essentialism is not cool. Saying a practice is inherent to a race/culture takes you to tricky areas (“You are Indian, therefore you must like X.”). 2) Khawaja is Asian (of Pakistani descent, specifically), but he plays for Australia. To say he is an ‘Asian’ batsman implies he’s not fully Australian; he’s a foreigner in our midst. (I’ve addressed Khawaja’s heritage in another post.)

A related example: A few years ago, I went with my family on vacation to South Africa. At one stop, my father met a South African shopkeeper of Indian descent; naturally (because all Indians rejoice inside when they see a member of the diaspora), my father asked him where he was from. My brother later berated him for doing so; it’s probable that this particular South African had lived in the country for generations; to ask where he was from implies he wasn’t from South Africa. (Similarly, I have friends of Indian descent here in America who absolutely hate answering the “where are you really from” question because white people never have to answer it, and it sort of emphasizes their difference and exclusion. “Oh, you’re not really American; you’re a foreigner.”)

OK. But here’s why it’s a difficult issue: 1) To call a batsman ‘Asian’ in cricket means they have deft wrists. It’s as style of play that apparently was once associated with Asian players (Ranji, I’m told, in particular). It’s sort of why we call left-handed leg-spinners Chinamen. In other words, it’s nothing about a person’s culture or heritage; it’s simply cricketing shorthand. (Dissent: But when was the last time you heard a white batsman called ‘Asian’? Surely there are wristy players outside the subcontinent, right? And isn’t ‘cricket shorthand’ derivative of colonial/racist discourse? I mean, come on — Chinaman?)

2) Then again, we know that the diversity of cricket (and how it is played) is its chief attraction. Pitches are different around the world, as are sporting cultures; this leads to different types of players and techniques. How can we talk about this diversity without referring to different cultures? (Dissent: But is it true that Asians are now more “wristy” than other batsmen? And what exactly is the “West Indian style” of cricket? If you find yourself using words like exuberant and Calypso — well, that’s taking us back to colonialist discourse, right?)

Perhaps Nicholas should have just named famous players who did in fact play with their wrists. “Khawaja almost looked like X there.”  I don’t know — am I just indulging the worst kind of political correctness here?


When Foreign Reporters Tackle Cricket

Kirk Semple of The New York Times had a tough assignment: wake up at 5 a.m., and watch a bunch of South Asians enjoy the India-Pakistan semifinal. The result isn’t pretty — the lede made me cringe:

If there seemed to be a shortage of taxis at 5 a.m. on Wednesday, one possible reason was apparent on the streets of Jackson Heights in Queens.

Ugh. The rest of the article is better, but still mildly annoying. The fans come across as almost insane (“he…excitedly rocked back and forth…”), and Semple treats the exercise like an anthropologist venturing into Papua New Guinea (no one “expected any trouble among the customers”). There’s also the usual question any Western reporter must ask a cricket fan: how do you deal with the game’s duration?

The trouble with the India-Pakistan storyline, compelling as it may seem to Western editors, was that it completely overpowered any real discussion of the game itself. If you read comparable coverage of soccer World Cup fans, articles tended to note their passion, but also their reactions to the actual sporting event (e.g., I don’t like X player; I don’t think this team will do well; I’m frustrated by Y move…). But most Western reports of the semifinal have tended to emphasize the cultural element of the game — as if people enjoying a sport is not a universal human trait.

Cricket fans, a couple of tips when talking to reporters: a) Do not say the words “cricket is a religion.” Just don’t. It’s a cliche, it’s not true and it confuses the hell out of Westerners and b) Try slipping in snide comments about American football or baseball.

Is “Cricket Diplomacy” An Oxymoron?

Mukul Kesavan gave a rather bewildering interview to NPR today on the subject of the India-Pakistan game. The host asked Kesavan to explain a recent editorial in which he said nothing good comes from a game between the two rivals.

Prof. KESAVAN: What I meant by that is that cricket games between India and Pakistan tend to be so fraught with national feeling. And its national feeling that is of a strange Balkan thought, because it’s not a republican nationalism. Its nationalism based upon notions of partition, and irredentism, and war, and blood and soil. […] . If my team lost, I’m filled with a kind of poisonous bad feeling; and this, despite the fact that I now that I should be grown up and adult about this.

Two points: first, it’s not clear to me what Kesavan means by “republican nationalism,” because I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist. What nationalism isn’t based on a notion of “partition…blood and soil”? You could point to revolutionary France or America, but both countries emphasize their cultural and historical differences even as they blend in ideals of universal rights and freedoms. No nationalism is based solely on republican rights for all.

But that’s a relatively small point next to Kesavan’s argument that “poisonous feelings” erupt, especially in the shorter versions of the game. It’s a fascinating hypothesis that because Tests last so long, it forces fans to calm themselves and their tension, so that the match’s narrative overpowers personal ones (or even national histories).

I’m not sure I buy it. The case for pushing a sporting tie is that a) it fosters cultural dialogue and cooperation (millions of fans in both countries are watching the same program and seeing commonality rather than difference; moreover, fans from one side — in this case, Pakistan — get to travel across the border); b) it sublimates whatever nationalistic tension to cricket’s own traditions (e.g., listening to both anthems before a match; watching the players shake hands and congratulate each other after the match; seeing teams play each other according to prescribed rules and neutral umpires); c) if you do end up with poisonous feelings, it’s about a freaking cricket match, and not, say, Kargil or Islam v. Hinduism.

I don’t want to be misunderstood: I’m not saying playing cricket automatically leads to better relations between the country. Sadly, no. But there’s enough of a case to believe that it’s not an exercise inevitably fraught with tension, as Kesavan suggests. On the other hand, one problem with incorporating cricket into countries’ diplomatic negotiations is that it makes the game a pawn in each cycle of tension/thawing. So, when things are going well, India and Pakistan tour the lands and much merriment is had. But when things go badly — and let’s face it, they inevitably will — one country barring the other from sending a cricket team is part and parcel with recalling a High Commissioner. Banning cricket ties has become a signal of a diplomatic freeze. In doing so, the game inadvertently becomes infected with the discourse of conflict, and it must carry more cultural baggage than it needs. I don’t mind people getting worked up over an India-Pakistan game, but I do mind it getting tossed around like a regional pawn. It’s sort of like childishly boycotting the Olympics during the Cold War.

Are South Asian Cricket Audiences “Mature” Enough?

During my blissful two-week vacation in India last month, I came across a number of articles, by foreigners and Indians alike, accusing the average Indian cricket fan of bad faith. These authors argued that Indians are not “cricket crazy” per se; they are Indian cricket crazy. Most would decline the option of watching a fascinating contest between, say, Australia and South Africa — if only because their beloved Sehwag were not on the roster. Attached to this critique was the word “mature” — that is, “mature” cricket audiences clap when their opponents score runs, or when their batsmen reach certain milestones. Apparently, Indian audiences don’t count in this category.

Now, I’ve made similar observations in the past — I have said most Indians don’t care about the game itself, and I have defended the right for audiences to boo particular villains (i.e., Ricky Ponting). That said, Indian audiences aren’t uniformly bad; no doubt, they will cheer their own team more than the other, but I still note applause, however weak, when foreign teams perform well in India. But here’s my problem with the “mature” line of argument: first, I see nothing wrong with being “immature” (i.e. not watching games involving other teams, and not clapping for other teams). For one thing, this isn’t behavior unique to Indians.  Witness the recent rout during the Ashes in Australia, when local audiences largely abandoned their team (and commentators fretted about whether Australian cricket had entered a dark new age). And isn’t it often said of the English that they only care about cricket when their team is playing against the Australians?

Secondly, what is so wrong with particular audiences watching a game only for particular reasons? Cricket doesn’t exist in a vacuum; for most people, it is a game connected with specific cultures and traditions. For cricket purists to wander the globe and parse through (the already small) population of cricket fans and say, “You’re a true fan; you’re not a true fan; you understand the nuance; you don’t” — well, it smacks of an elitism that would make proud the Victorian veterans of the game. And that, of course, is part of the larger problem — the post-colonial baggage we keep carrying around. Many of my American friends, as sports-crazy as they come, refuse to watch particular finals or match-ups when their home teams are not involved, or if the two teams playing don’t have particular heft. This is a natural reaction — but you don’t see many accounts from American essayists bemoaning a lack of respect or “true” interest in basketball or baseball or whatever.

Two quick final points: obviously, I love cricket, and I would, if I had more time, devote my life to watching all its games, even the ones involving the Netherlands or Kenya. Maybe I’m an exception. But two: Ashis Nandy, in his amazing Tao of Cricket (seriously: go read this book; it’s quoted almost everyday because of its famous first line — go look that up too) noted that Indian audiences often had a mythical respect for foreign teams that did well in India. I forget the details, but he said they looked on West Indian bowlers as necessary villains; that is, roles that needed to be played by particular people to make the story unfold. They hated the villains, but also respected them. (Again, I forget the particular mythologies Nandy cites — but it’s good stuff. Anyone have a copy and know what I’m rambling about?)

Cricket Combating Crime in L.A.

Incredible story from The Sun: a non-profit engages at-risk youth in Los Angeles by teaching them the virtues of cricket.

Player-coach Ted, 59, said: “We caught these guys in their teens. At that age in Compton they can get into the hardcore gang stuff. The gang situation is like a magnet – it draws them in.

“We have lost a couple. Some have gone back to the streets and two have been killed. We have not only taught them the sport but also the etiquette. Other sports have rules and regulations but there is a superior level of respect in cricket.

“It has a civilising quality. That’s what makes it the king of sports.”

One of the team members elaborate:

Ricardo says of the game that he loves: “You don’t argue with the umpire – you have to have discipline and respect, just like life.”

I’m wary of any story that emphasizes the “civilising” virtues of a sport — let’s not resurrect Kipling or Macauley if we don’t have to, please — but such a strange antidote. Cricket? For gangs? In Los Angeles?

Warning: Graeme Swann May Be An Annoying Idiot

Until this series, I only knew Graeme Swann for his bowling. The guy was the best spinner in the world; he had run through the Aussies at home; old people started talking about some guy called Fred Titmus.

But now, I find Swann may also be a really, really annoying idiot, and that too a racially insensitive one. Read Andy Bull’s profile in The Guardian for details on the first charge; the guy’s dressing room antics (and his recent drunk driving) put me in mind of the stupid jocks who weren’t supposed to find refuge in a game like cricket. (Sigh.)

What’s worse, Swann indulges in a dash of racial humor. Take a look at his “Behind The Ashes” video series; I followed a flattering link that said it offered an “irreverent” (meaning: funny) look at life on tour. It does that, and most of it is actually quite funny, until you get to the part in Episode 3 where Swann basically makes fun of coach Mushtaq Ahmed’s accent and inability to speak English well to his face for a good minute. (See below at 2:30.)

Now, it’s possible “doing the Indian accent” bit is funny in England because of its much higher Asian population (so accepted is the accent, it is akin to making fun of any regional — read: Yorkshire — accent, for e.g.).  Generally, though, it’s not a kosher thing to do in America, where it’s seen as needlessly picking on a very, very small percentage of the population. Not that it’s not done; God knows I’ve had to answer thousands of questions on why I don’t sound like Apu from The Simpsons. (I also absolutely despise having to listen to someone do the accent with the expectation that I laugh at it, as if I’m part of the joke. Swann does this to Mushtaq in the video, and you can tell he thinks Swann is laughing at him, not with him.)

I might be making a mountain out of a mole here. But just take a look at the video. Mushtaq seems like such a nice guy; I almost feel sorry he has to spend his days surrounded, almost universally, by white people. Time to break out the diversity sessions, ECB.

Like I said, the rest of the video is fairly funny (esp. the sprinkler dance bit at the end). But wasn’t the Ahmed moment so, so awkward? Back me up, NRIs — how many times have you gone through this exchange?


Usman Khawaja’s Diversity Task

Usman Khawaja may become the first Muslim cricketer to play for Australia. This is how he views the prospect, according to the Sydney Morning Herald:

“I was born in Pakistan. I came here when I was about three and a half to Sydney,” Khawaja told reporters in Hobart last week after being named in Australia’s initial 17-man Ashes squad…Asked about the historic achievement as a Muslim Australian Test player, Khawaja attempted to tickle the question down to fine leg.

“For me just being selected to play for Australia and getting a baggy green will be the best thing in the world…None of the boys bring it (religion) up and the only time it ever comes up is from the media.”

Here’s the thing: minorities often have to grapple with wanting to be known solely for their talent, or for their status as a record-setting minority. (So, for instance, Denzel Washington, upon winning an Oscar, said something to the effect of, “Don’t say Black Actor Wins; say Actor Wins.”) Political candidates do this a lot as well; some women, for instance, will say it makes no difference; they hope voters don’t consider it as a plus or minus, etc. etc.

That’s a fine position to take, but I think certain historic firsts need to be reported and treated as such. I’d rather Khawaja said something like this: Yes, it’s an exciting prospect; I realize it says nothing about my onfield merit, which I will have to prove on debut, but I’m happy nevertheless to be the first in line.

And why? Because Australia used to have awful, just awful, policies towards minorities. Things have no doubt changed — notwithstanding the somewhat inflated accounts of Indian students attacked — but rather than trying to erase color/difference (“none of the boys bring it up”), I’d celebrate it.

What To Take Away From The Commonwealth Games

I don’t care that much about the India’s troubles with the Commonwealth Games. Well, let me clarify — I do care that the exercise has been riddled with corruption and inefficiency, but I don’t care as to what it may or may not mean for India’s “honor” or reputation. If it were up to me, the games would have been held elsewhere, not least because India has more pressing concerns than whether or not it can organize an athletic stadium or not.

I make this point because one hears a similar argument — the National Honor Argument, I call it — when India’s cricket team ends up in some controversy or the other. (See “The Sydney Test” as prime e.g.) Obviously, it’s easy — and perhaps right — to take pride when your national team bests others, but it’s not clear whether the results says anything about your nation’s character or history or future.

The Economist put this more succinctly in its cover story this week. E.g.:

No doubt a strong central government would have given India a less chaotic Commonwealth games, but there is more to life than badminton and rhythmic gymnastics. India’s state may be weak, but its private companies are strong. Indian capitalism is driven by millions of entrepreneurs all furiously doing their own thing. Since the early 1990s, when India dismantled the “licence raj” and opened up to foreign trade, Indian business has boomed.

Mohammad Asif’s Strange Alchemy

During Day 1 against Australia, Mohammad Asif proved to the world, yet again, why even if you stack drug charges, discipline issues and woeful fielding on one side against him, he still weighs more. In one over, he took Simon Katich and Marcus North — the first fell to a ball that seamed away, the second to one that came in.

But how did he do it? The replays showed both balls delivered with the same wrist and seam positions (and it wasn’t clear on which side the shiny surface lay). Michael Holding, looking at the evidence, recounted how a batsman once told him that bowlers usually have no clue how they get wickets (implying that luck and chance happeneth to us all). Holding’s theory made sense coming from a bowler; he responded that as long as you put the ball in the right length and the right line, the little magical elves that lie on a pitch or hang in the air will do their path to deliver cosmic justice.

I like that idea a lot, since it goes to the heart of this blog’s thesis (cricket is about fate and chance; a long parable about the limits of human agency and modernity). But it’s also a huge bummer, right? At one point, Holding even insisted that the great Shane Warne would confess he didn’t know why certain balls he bowled did what they did. Right, fair enough, but I like to think Asif does know why he can bowl balls that always come back off the pitch, and bowl others that do nothing at all.

Either way, I’ll say this: Asif — better than marijuana.

Ross Emerson Is Such A Mean Old Man

Kudos to those who catch the Beatles reference in the headline.

There are a couple of things wrong with what Ross Emerson did, when he blathered to media outlets this week that Murali “didn’t deserve” the all-time wicket taker record. First, apart from the technicalities of Murali’s action, insulting the guy after he announces his retirement from Test cricket hardly seems fair, or all that polite. It’s not as if there was a huge stain on Emerson’s career that needed to be washed (and if there were, spouting off about Murali now wouldn’t change a thing).

Secondly, and more importantly, Emerson — like a lot of Australians — does not understand what the rules are or why they were changed. Here’s what he says:

“I haven’t changed my view in 15 years – he doesn’t deserve the record,” Emerson told Sydney’s Daily Telegraph. “You couldn’t compare his record to Shane Warne’s – no one ever doubted the legality of Warne’s action. Murali was a great competitor and a great bowler but a lot of the time he just didn’t bowl within the limits of the law.”

Right, except people did doubt the legality of Warne’s action. Experts — scientists, for God’s sake! — found that nearly all bowlers (except, I think, for R. Sarwan) broke the same rule that Murali was accused of breaking. That’s just hard, empirical fact, seconded by an authority no less prestigious than Michael Holding.

Then there’s this second doozy:

“Once they changed the rules and made it legal for bowlers to bend their arm to 15 per cent they gave an advantage to a couple of bowlers who could get something extra from that rule. I would rather see the rule as it was where you couldn’t bend your arm at all. That would mean everyone was the same.”

OK; this is just absolute, utter nonsense: first, if you allow every bowler to bend arms to 15 degrees (as opposed to “per cent”), you are applying the same rule to everyone. That may sound tautological, but Emerson doesn’t seem to understand that — it’s not as if some bowlers get to bend to 15, and others don’t.

Secondly, the reason the rule was enforced was that nothing under 15 degrees could be detected by the naked eye. It’s all well and good to say 0 degrees, but if a trees falls in a forest and no one’s around to see it — well, it’s pointless to argue about it.

And thirdly, and most importantly, and once again, Ross: everyone bends arms when bowling. Yes, we’d all like a rule that says “no one can bend arms.” But that would reduce every fucking bowler — except, of course, R. Sarwan — to cheating.

So, great, enjoy your 15 minutes in the fame. But keep in mind that no one cares about you, or your career, except for your connection to Muralitharan. Ah, irony.

P.S. Read a report on Murali’s action here.