'Insignias or not, Dhoni's will remain the deadliest pair of gloves behind the stumps,' notes Shekhar Gupta.
We cannot question the old truism that while politics divides, sport unites. Even more so in the season of the ICC World Cup, which India has won twice in the past.
There is a qualification to this: It unites, but only the partisan. We as Indians are united behind our team, as are others behind theirs. That's what brings us to the controversy over Mahendra Singh Dhoni sporting on his big wicket-keeping gloves the 'Balidaan' (supreme sacrifice) dagger, the insignia of the Indian Army's formidable special forces.
The International Cricket Council, which oversees the game, objectedto this.
Under ICC rules, as of any other significant international sports body, there are restrictions on religious, national or commercial symbols or logos a player can display on his body or livery.
The logos, for example, are of sponsors, deals from whom are approved by the ICC and the respective nation's associations. The permitted national symbols can be worn. Anything customised is a no-no.
Anything military is definitely out. It is a field of sport, not military combat.
The Board of Control for Cricket in India says it appealed to the ICC to let him be. Popular opinion is behind Dhoni's gloves.
Think about it: Team India in the World Cup, Dhoni and our valiant special forces who not so long ago carried out the post-Uri surgical strikes, immortalised somewhat more colourfully more recently by that Vicky Kaushal movie.
Which Indian would argue on the other side of this irresistible triple-magnet of nationalism?
But someone must do so and say the ICC is right. A field of sport, competitive enough, should have no place for what symbolises killing or getting killed. That's why some of us must dare to swim against the tide, particularly those of us who love the sport and also want India to win.
If our sporting nationalism is questioned, so be it. It might be comforting to borrow the old line from Jesus Christ: Father, forgive them, for they (those accusing us of being unpatriotic) do not know what they are doing.
Let us first list the arguments from the 'nationalists' and their trumpeters in the commando-comic channels running nutty hash-tags like #DhoniKeepTheGloves.
First, we must respect the armed forces.
Second, India is being bled by the Pakistanis so a statement must be made wherever they are present.
And third, you cannot deny an individual his choice, especially because Dhoni is an honorary lieutenant colonel with the special forces and has earned his 'dagger and wings' after making the parachute jumps to qualify.
You can't deny him his regimental insignia.
The third is answered easily: His regiment isn't playing cricket for India. And when the regiment fights the bad guys for India, its troops do not wear the BCCI's crest, or that of Hockey India or Indian Olympic Association, although all of them represent the pride and glory of India.
That we must respect the armed forces and their sacrifices is accepted. But what follows, that this statement, as also the protest against what the Pakistanis are doing in Kashmir, should be made by our cricketers in Lord's, Old Trafford or the Oval and so on, is nonsense.
Protests are made by politicians and diplomats, wars are fought by soldiers.
Sportsmen bring glory for their nations by playing to win, not by becoming brand ambassadors for their militaries while wearing their sporting uniform.
Because it is a game two can play. If an Indian turns out in his army's colours, so can -- or will -- the Pakistanis.
A game of cricket, which only one of them can win, will take on the hues of a military contest.
The spirit will immediately travel to the crowds, which are guaranteed to be predominantly Indian and Pakistani. This will turn sport into enmity, reminiscent of the bitter contests between warring Iran and Iraq in a distant past.
'At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare,' wrote George Orwell in his prescient 1945 essay 'The Sporting Spirit'. He goes on to say that the 'significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: And, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies...'
Our sportsmen and women have contested against Pakistan, lately with much greater success than in the past, while displaying an unforgiving, 'take-no-prisoners' fighting spirit, but only in the game.
During and after the game, the two teams have been friendly and sporting, even humouring each other's families and children.
At this juncture, fortunately, there isn't a war actually on. Balakot was a tiny skirmish that cost no lives and almost four months ago. In 1971, while a full-fledged war was being fought, Sunil Gavaskar and Zaheer Abbas played together as members of the Rest of the World team touring Australia. This, when the IAF was routinely carrying out bombing runs over Karachi.
Again, in 1999, the two teams played in the World Cup in England on the day (night in India) of the fiercest fighting in Kargil. Hands were shaken, anybody who tripped and fell was helped along, as with tying the shoe-laces of rival batsmen. You didn't want either side bringing in Tiger Hill here.
Military symbols, uniforms with their lanyards and epaulettes, medals, strings and finery, bands, marches and style are all heady. They also come loaded with baggage where success or failure could look like victory or defeat in a war.
In any game of sport, one side will win, but the other will lose. Will it be then like your army lost that battle?
At which point, we return to Orwell. 'I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield,' he wrote and used the example of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He was both right, and wrong.
Human civilisation has moved way forward since the World Wars and the Cold War. Frequent sporting contact has become an antidote for toxic old enmities. It allows players, their fans, their families and friends to learn more about each other, build people-to-people linkages, sometimes even help vent their frustrations with each other through sport.
I do appreciate that today this view is neither wildly popular nor so politically correct. But, from Olympics to ping-pong, from basketball to cricket, from soccer to hockey, brutally competitive sport has helped smoothen the edges of militarised hostilities, and helped heal scars on our minds.
We certainly appreciate an individual's special devotion to the army, particularly as he also exhibits that by serving it in an honorary capacity.
Dhoni, for example, went to accept his Padma award in his full special forces regalia, including the maroon beret. It was a perfectly good gesture. The Rashtrapati is also the supreme commander of the armed forces.
He doesn't have to take his regiment to the pitch. He will never be short of killer instinct behind the stumps.
He could still feel the inspiration of that 'dagger' in his palms each time he catches a batsman out of his crease.
Insignias or not, Dhoni's will remain the deadliest pair of gloves behind the stumps.
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