Cricket has set a great example — excellence, equal opportunity and freedom of choice have ruled

The other day I got a call from Bhuwan Chandra Harbola, an old friend from my days at Kanpur Sports Hostel and my team-mate in the 1996 U-15 world cup that we won. Happy flashbacks weren’t on his mind now. “Wasim Jaffer ka news, padha?” It was a painful conversation that made me sad. As I put the phone down, my mind went back to hostel days.

Five of us lived in small rooms around a corridor. Harbola’s room was opposite mine, just enough space to squeeze in a bed and a cupboard. Every morning, the agarbatti’s aroma would waft in from his room and I could hear chants of the Hanuman Chalisa. In my room, I would start my namaaz. Praise and gratitude to god on wintry Kanpur mornings remains a fond memory from those teenage days. We grew up, I became a professional cricketer, he became a cop, and our friendship endures.

When did religion come in the way of sport? I have played for teams in UP, different zones across the country, India, clubs and counties in England, and never have I been made conscious of my faith. I have worried about lack of runs, motivated my team-mates in bad form, wondered about how to win games. Never have I gone to sleep wondering what a team-mate might think of my religion.

I come from Allahabad, my home was very close to a colony of pandits, where I fell in love with this great game. We played together and our lives were held by this common thread of sport. I am not even talking about the Indian team — just a local team in the neighbourhood where kids from all faiths would mingle and play towards a common goal. In hindsight, I feel my character was shaped there. This beautiful game is inclusive, brings together people of different temperaments, castes, economic backgrounds and faiths.

I remember Sachin Tendulkar’s cricket kit bag and the picture of Sai Baba, whom he revered. By his side, VVS Laxman would have his gods. Zaheer Khan, Harbhajan Singh … everyone to his faith. Sourav Ganguly, our captain, and John Wright, our coach from New Zealand, had taken out the zonal and regional differences. We weren’t playing for our regions, we didn’t see ourselves as UP or Bengal or Punjab or as Hindu, Muslim, Sikh or Christian. We were playing for each other, for the team, for friends, for India.

It must have been very difficult for Jaffer to have to come out and explain his intentions. It tells a lot about the times we live in — where social media trolls do their worst to divide our country.

For us cricketers, reputation and integrity is all we have. The trust and love we have got from the people rest on that. After a successful career, someone who takes up the job of a coach would want to create players of worth, a team culture that breeds success and unity. In some ways, it’s his reputation at stake. I remember Wright coming up with a slogan for our team in the World Cup — “Now or never”! The idea is simple: Unite the team to a common cause, get the energies moving in the same direction, focus the minds on the common goal. That’s what all good coaches do. Wright protected us from zonal affiliations and, together with Ganguly, removed any regional interests or biases from selections.

Prayer is purely an individual thing. I don’t remember a formal namaz in my time in the dressing room, but I have read about how Graeme Hick, former England player, cleared his kit to make space for a young Moeen Ali to pray in the Worcestershire dressing room. Personally, for me, my faith is an individual affair. I don’t take it to the dressing rooms but that doesn’t mean it’s a crime if someone does. Each to their own. As long as they are not forcing it on someone else.

Another memory comes up, more recent. Former West Indies fast bowler Ian Bishop was my co-commentator, and he was in the next room at the hotel. A deeply religious man, every morning would break out with his voice reading the Bible. A great bowler and a gentleman, he would worry about his children’s screen times, talk about his dreams for them — just like you and me.

Religion is an individual issue and never comes between sportsmen. It has never come in the way of Indian cricket. Cricket has been one of the fields where a child born anywhere in India can genuinely dream about reaching the very top — playing for India. Else, an MS Dhoni wouldn’t have come out from Jharkhand’s cricket backwaters. A Zaheer Khan, not from the cricket-strong regions of Mumbai or Pune but from elsewhere in Maharashtra, wouldn’t have become the best modern-day Indian bowler. A Munaf Patel wouldn’t have come from a small village in Ikhar in Gujarat and played his part in India winning a world cup.

As a country, we need to do a lot of soul-searching. We are at a vital point in our history; we can’t afford to divide ourselves. It’s dangerous and self-defeating in the end. I understand sports don’t exist in some special bio-bubble; it will reflect our society at large. But in my understanding, sports, and cricket in particular, has been one field where excellence, equal opportunity, and freedom of choice, have ruled. It has set a great example.

I want to tell young cricketers who are growing up in different parts of the country and dreaming about playing this game: Don’t get mixed up in all this mess. Stay pure, the game will reward you. It’s a beautiful game and for those of us who have been lucky enough to have played it for a living, there can be nothing sadder than to see communalism in it. It’s our responsibility, as adults, to leave our children with an unpolluted environment — in the world around us and in our own hearts. As the slogan of the Indian team I was part of went, it’s ‘Now or Never’.

The writer is a former India player

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