Caught In The Slips

The two-match ban on Hardik Pandya does nothing to address the culture of entitlement and misogyny that runs deep in men’s cricket in India

A boy I went to kindergarten with later played cricket for a second division club in the Calcutta league. We went to different schools after kindergarten, and I only renewed contact with him some years later after meeting his family at a function in a neighbour’s house. We were in Class VII. It was 1987, the year of the Reliance Cup. In those years, I lived and breathed cricket, so I was overjoyed to reconnect with someone who was on his way to becoming a professional cricketer. He was going to be an all-rounder, like my hero, Imran Khan. Whenever we met, we’d discuss only cricket, but I also noticed how adult he seemed, talking nonchalantly about meeting people like Pranab Roy, Sambaran Banerjee and Arun Lal. Local clubs from other neighborhoods hired his services for their annual tournaments, and he felt visibly important talking about these. Sadly, he remained a khep khelowaar and never made the cut for the state Ranji team.

Cut to some years later. My sister became unhealthily obsessed with a Bengal all-rounder, and got hold of his phone number from someone. I found out only after she started getting calls from that number and acting all fidgety and uncomfortable about it. Apparently, he had asked her to meet him. She was still in school, so she obviously couldn’t, so I decided to get to the bottom of it. Accompanied by three of my friends, I turned up one afternoon at the Eden Gardens to watch a league match between Sporting Union and Mohun Bagan. I tried very hard to meet the star all-rounder of Mohun Bagan, having made my sister call the number and inform him the previous evening. I sent word to him in the dressing through an attendant, but he managed to leave through some other exit of the BC Roy clubhouse than the one where we were waiting. To cut a long story short, it turned out that two of his friends were using his phone number and exploiting his fame to chat up young girls — without his knowledge, I was told, but I didn’t buy that.

More than a decade later, stopping for dinner at a dhaba in Russell Street late one night, my friends and I were witness to a conversation among a bunch of Bengal players, one of whom went on to play the IPL some years later. Bengal was either facing relegation or had just been relegated from the elite group in the Ranji Trophy (my memory fails me here), but the conversation at our neighbouring table largely revolved around women and sexual conquests, with glowing mentions of an absent senior player who was so suave he could pick up women ‘like that’.

These were the eighties, nineties and mid-2000s. Indian cricket in 2019 is a very different beast, and Indian cricketers are bigger stars than ever. But at the end of the day, they are also people who have been through years of extraordinary struggle to make it past school, college, league, state and zonal levels into the national team. And every day, they walk a tightrope, where one failure, one injury, one transgression, could cost them their place in the team.

Yes, we live in a cutthroat world where success is measured in TRPs. But the career of a young cricketer is too precious to gamble away at the altar of the TRP god. Karan Johar’s regular guests from the celluloid universe thrive on his prying, provocative questions, because their stardom depends on their ability to ratchet up controversies and stay in the headlines. But the future prosperity of Hardik Pandya and KL Rahul depends entirely on how well they play on the field, and thereby, get access to the perks of success, namely, endorsements. Karan Johar, to put it mildly, has been criminally insensitive to the fragility of their positions. Pandya has at least taken a shot at apologizing, however inadequate it may be. Johar, a Bollywood A-lister, has made no such moves, and probably considers himself beyond culpability. This morning, Hotstar pulled down the episode from its streaming service, presumably in the light of the unwanted controversy it triggered.

Is this beginning to sound like a defence of what Hardik Pandya said on the show (which I must confess I have not watched, only read and heard accounts of)? It is not intended to be, since there can be no two ways about the fact that Pandya put his worst boorish, sexist, braggart self on display and seemed almost eager to live up to the ‘north Indian male’ stereotype. He also clearly underestimated the consequences of his flippant comments, since one assumes that he could have refused to answer if he found Johar’s questions objectionable. He let the headiness of stardom offered by the invitation to the show get to him. Egged on by the host, he stupidly let the world see that he has not transitioned from the environment of son-preference and misogyny that he probably grew up in. And he completely ignored his responsibilities as a role model to youngsters, though some might argue here that he didn’t sign up for it.

Now that a two-ODI ban has been pronounced on him, one can only hope he comes back a more sensitized man and does justice to his talent and hard work. But will this mark the end of the culture of entitlement, self-importance and casual misogyny that runs deep in the institution of men’s cricket in India? Most likely not. Not as long as the male cricketer is made to feel like royalty just because he plays the country’s most popular sport at a certain competitive level. Not as long as a young state-level cricketer enjoys greater popularity with girls compared to his peers. If he makes it to the national team, there will be women vying for his attention at parties (and the IPL is one long party, we are told) and in hotel lobbies. He will willy-nilly enter into undeclared contests with the ‘lads’ and try to tally as many notches in the bedpost as possible. Being a ‘player’ will be about more than just batting, bowling and fielding.

But the thing about 2019 is that the conversations have changed. Being an ‘ally’ might be a more attractive proposition today than being a ‘ladies’ man’. Tales of broken beds are less likely to evoke awe than in the olden days when such stories contributed to the larger-than-life image of a cricket star. More importantly, there is intense social media scrutiny today of every utterance and action of public figures, followed by severe opprobrium if they fail to meet the exacting standards of the commentators. And as we have seen, if the din in social media is loud enough, it can even influence action.

As a millennial at home in this new world, and an active participant in social media, Pandya should have known this better than most. By airing views that reeked of toxic masculinity on a widely-watched TV show, he has probably already ruined his chances with large numbers of women and by logical extension, with advertisers. The additional penalty of the two-match ban only serves to blur the lines of jurisdiction and inject some fear in the environment while doing nothing to address the problem at its root. Between big boys playing at night, and big boys playing the knight, the planet has made a few revolutions around the sun that the BCCI is yet to catch up with.

[The views expressed belong solely to the author, and may not reflect the opinions of the editorial team]

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