Saturday, September 22, 2007

Cricket and Baseball: Following the trends..

Cricket and baseball: following the trends

The sociologist, historian and Indian cricket enthusiast Ramachandra Guha once pointed out in an essay that there remains a correlation between the nature of society and the sport that it relates to the most. Thus, soccer, a “socialist” sport, has never taken much root in the US while the rugged individual-dominated American football is not quite revered across the world except for prima donna capitalist America. Yours truly tries to relate to this argument while tracing the spread of two similar and popular sports.

One sport owes its origins to the exploits of the propertied aristocratic classes in an imperial nation. The other originated from the drive for profit by the enterprising immigrants who were in the process of building a nation. The former was picked up by the hoi polloi of the colonies invaded by the aristocrat imperialist nation. The latter thrived and became a national pastime. Two games played with similar terminologies and the same basic rule: hit the ball with a bat and try to avoid the fielder. Yet, both evolved into vastly different milieus, dragging along and influencing vastly different cultures. Such is the story of cricket and baseball.

Baseball today is a national sport in two powerful nations: the US (where it originated) and Japan (as a legacy of the Meiji period, where everything Western was seen to be progressive). Simultaneously, the Monroe Doctrine has helped baseball travel into the hinterlands of the Caribbean and Latin America, even as American influence in political economies of Korea and Taiwan since World War II saw the spread of baseball to these environs too. Still, the centre of the baseball universe is rooted in America, as the sole superpower draws in the best talent from all across the world to participate in the yearly festival of baseball under the aegis of Major League Baseball (MLB), one of the three big professional sporting leagues in the country. The age of globalisation has ensured that the heart of the US is where players from the peripheries want to showcase their skills. And that’s why premier players from Japan, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Taiwan, South Korea, Cuba (defectors, of course), Venezuela and Panama ply their trade in the MLB.

Cricket on the other hand, has been internationalized; the fall of the British Empire has correspondingly transferred the centre of gravity to the colonies, bringing into the forefront the professionalism of Australia, the elegance of India, the rustic wizardry of Pakistan and the tenaciousness of embattled Sri Lanka. Even as these erstwhile colonies emphasised nationalist development despite vast internal differences, cricket was used as the binder for building a pan-nationalist sentiment. Thus cricket is almost a religion, cutting across vast scythes of primordial and class differences within the erstwhile colonies: India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The rise of liberal and social democracy in England changed the very class character of people playing the sport in England itself. Today in England, there is a sudden cornucopia of immigrant talent that is playing the game, a far cry from the days when cricket was the exclusive preserve of earls, dukes and vassals. In the erstwhile colonies, meanwhile, cricket has become so close to the masses, that no longer is it a hobby and a privilege for the upper or the middle classes but also a passion-filled career option for those from the lower classes. A Mohammad Yousuf in Pakistan (one of the top two batsmen in the world today), a Harbhajan Singh from interior Jalandhar in India, a fisherman’s son Sanath Jayasuriya from Matara in Sri Lanka and a farmer’s son, Glenn McGrath today underline the heroes of the sport. Stark in contrast was the past, when the Maharaja of Vizianagaram played for India just because he had the money to boot his way into the team and Ranjitsinghji and Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi were as famous for their cricketing exploits as for their ostentatious inherited wealth.

Baseball in America has changed too. From being an exclusively “white” sport, which gave leeway and respect to a racist albeit stalwart performer like Ty Cobb and which had for an emblem one of its greatest ever players, Babe Ruth, the sport became multicoloured in the late 1940s. The integration of African American players into Major League Baseball hitherto subjected to playing in Negro leagues was heralded by one Jackie Robinson, whose pioneering achievement in breaking the colour barrier in the sport was recently commemorated by MLB on the event’s 60th anniversary. Once the floodgates were opened to multiple races, in flowed talent from Latin America, so much so that the lingua franca of America’s favourite pastime (baseball) is Hispanic today. The Dominican Republic, the nondescript Central American nation’s primary exports to the US are quality baseball players (pitcher Pedro Martinez, sluggers David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero, Albert Pujols and Manny Ramirez, athletic speed machine Jose Reyes are some such names active today). Venezuela’s political temper against the United States might be blowing hot today, yet Magglio Ordonez, Johan Santana and Omar Vizquel are as important exports to the US as Venezuelan petroleum is.

Globalisation and the transfer of momentum into the emerging liberalised economies of the colonies is changing the nature of cricket now. From being a sport that was used to buttress nationalism, it is now taking the American professional route, a market-oriented one. The introduction of the Indian Cricket League and the Premier Cricket League in India has to be seen in this contest. No longer is cricket just a national pastime, it is a thriving business, a reflection of the ideology of the times, neo-liberalism. So, when the “stars” of the Twenty-20 leagues in India battle it out, they won’t be using their national labels but will be using their individual worth, commodities in the market to be sold for public consumption.

Conversely, the re-emergence of nationalism in countries such as Japan has brought new trends in baseball. Japanese professional baseball players, many of whom are stars earning their bread in the MLB in America, were successful in winning the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, the first international World Cup featuring professionals. Even the socialist state Cuba, emphasises the importance of Cuban nationalism by refusing to send its players to play the professional leagues in America, and making it a point to excel in every international tournament which features the Americans. The Cubans, not surprisingly, were finalists in the World Baseball Classic, while the Americans could not even manage to reach the semi-finals

Thus both bat-ball games, cricket and baseball, have inherited paths of development that has been entrenched in the political economies, where they have thrived. Ramachandra Guha was right, after all. Piece published in the "The Post", Pakistan.