It’s been a miserable last few days for millions of fans of India’s two most popular endeavours – cricket and entertainment.
Dean Jones, Australian by birth but who has touched the lives of cricket followers globally, and India specifically from the time he retched and heaved to 210 in the tied Test of Chennai in 1986, passed away at an upscale Mumbai hotel. That he was doing something he loved the most – discussing cricket on global television as part of the host broadcaster’s analytical segment – and that he didn’t suffer a great deal is scant consolation.
A little over 24 hours later, SP Balasubrahmanyam, the Singing Moon who delivered upwards of 40,000 cracking film songs in various south Indian languages and Hindi, lost his protracted battle against multiple ailments in Chennai.
Jones was only 59, SPB had turned 74. As if a world grappling with the deleterious impact of the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t already in the inescapable clutches of gloom and uncertainty.
An inextricable bond between cricket and the entertainment industry has existed in India for ages. The high-profile wedding between Tiger Pataudi and Sharmila Tagore was the first affirmation of the formal coming together of the beautiful people. It was inevitable, therefore, that current skipper Virat Kohli’s union with Bollywood actor Anushka Sharma, nearly three years back, would make greater waves in this age of ultra-intrusiveness spurred by the social media circus.
For some reason, several observers ranging from the pundit to the casual follower have deemed it prudent and acceptable to constantly and needlessly drag Sharma into the cricketing landscape when she would rather be left alone. A celebrity herself, she well knows that she will attract attention in her own right; when she is one half of India’s most celebrated power couple, there will be even greater interest, whether she likes it or not. Such is the cross she has to bear, and for the most part, she is okay with it, though how she manages that, a majority of us will never comprehend.
That being said, everything and everyone has a tipping point. For far too long, the occasional Kohli failure has been laid at her doorstep. Few, if any, have credited her for Kohli’s batting successes in England in 2018, or for India’s maiden Test series triumph in Australia in 2018-19. Yet, her name is invoked when arguably the best batsman in the world today hits a trough of sorts.
Sharma was, understandably, hardly amused when, last year, a flamboyant former India wicketkeeper accused national selectors at the World Cup of serving her tea instead of watching matches. Farokh Engineer’s target might have been what he called ‘the Mickey Mouse committee’, but by distastefully invoking her name for no rhyme or reason, all he did was attract justified indignation across the board. Sharma’s response was top-class. She didn’t mince words when she said, “I have led my life, built my own career with utmost dignity and I am not going to compromise that for anything. Maybe, it’s hard for some to believe that, because, I am a self-made, independent woman who only happens to be the wife of a cricketer.”
It’s against this backdrop that the developments of this week following Sunil Gavaskar’s remarks on Hindi commentary during Royal Challengers Bangalore’s loss to Kings XI Punjab in the IPL must be viewed. Kohli walked in at No. 4 in the second over with his team in deep trouble chasing 207 for victory, and as he took guard, Gavaskar said something to the tune of, “Virat didn’t get a chance to practice (for a long time). He knows he will improve with practice. During lockdown, he only practiced against Anushka’s bowling, we have seen the video, but nothing is going to come of that.”
There was little to indicate that these words were suggestive of malice, or carried even a hint of innuendo. The former India skipper wasn’t alluding to a well-kept secret or trying to be cheeky. Not even in his wildest imagination, therefore, would he have imagined the subsequent blowout.
After all, as long back as in 2016 when Sharma was being trolled by the vicarious, Gavaskar had nothing but great words for her. “All I can say is that they are frustros,” he had said, referring to the trollers. “She brought a lot of stability in him at a time when he was just emerging as a lynchpin of India’s batting. She has been a support and backed him. In my opinion, she has only helped him grow as a human being and as a cricketer.”
Trial by media, and by omnipotent social media, has come to be the norm these days. The outrage from various quarters bordered on the vitriolic. Particularly scathing were attacks from the very same anchors who still think nothing of dragging a young woman’s reputation and life through the mud every evening on prime time television in a campaign reeking of vendetta and salaciousness while donning a cloak of moral righteousness for the rest of the day. The irony wouldn’t have been lost on Rhea Chakraborty, though it’s fair to say that more pressing matters will be occupying her mind-space.
Through the maelstrom gathering pace around them, the two central characters have been pictures of class, composure and dignity. Sharma’s social media post in response to Gavaskar’s comments carried neither malice nor did they spew venom. She did mention that she found ‘Mr Gavaskar’s message distasteful’, adding, “… I would love for you to explain why you thought of making such a sweeping statement on a wife accusing her for her husband’s game?” That was her interpretation of what Gavaskar had said; whether it’s an overreaction is not for anybody else to judge, particularly given the puerile criticism laid at her doorstep in the past.
Sharma concluded by saying, “Respected Mr Gavaskar, you are a legend whose name stands tall in this gentleman’s game. Just wanted to tell you what I felt when I heard you say this.” Point made, point taken, no histrionics.
For his part, Gavaskar retained his famed poise, pointing out that he had not blamed Sharma for Kohli’s failures and that he had always batted for wives accompanying their husbands, both on overseas tours and during matches at home. Well worth remembering that Gavaskar made those comments when Kohli came out to bat, not after he was dismissed. For now, that’s where things stand.
Would things have come to such a pass had the keyboard warriors, emboldened by the anonymity and the safe distance social media provides, not have gotten into the picture? Taking potshots and making mountains out of molehills have been perfected into a fine art. But before reaching for the nearest stone, it will be worth casting the eyes on the glass walls surrounding us.
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