Ajinkya Rahane
Ajinkya Rahane Image Credit: ANI

It’s a gentleman’s game, they always said. In recent times, it is not easy to be consistently convinced.

From Darren Sammy’s allegations of racism by players of his IPL SunRisers Hyderabad team last year to the Aussie art of sledging that has no time frame, sometimes it feels like Trevor Chappell is constantly bowling an underarm.

Maybe, it also has something to do with how all around us, mutual respect and humility have become the twelfth man.

Sport and communities- the link is strong, neither exists as an island. Which is perhaps why it feels like a rabbit has been pulled from the hat. Ajinkya Rahane- dignified and classy, has in recent days shown us many things, but none as important as the message, you do not have to shout to be heard. Many these days have the wrong memo.

What happened on the field is history, what took place off it showed that not all heroes wear a cape, some are also in white flannels.

Back home after the series win against Australia, Rahane was asked to cut a cake shaped like a Kangaroo- the Australian national animal. He refused.

That he was even presented with one shouldn’t be all that surprising — everything today is black or white. One wonders if the roles were reversed how many effigies of Australian players would have been burnt at the mere sight of a peacock themed cake.

What Rahane said holds true not just for sport, “it is important to respect the opposition and their sentiments regardless of whether you win or lose.” It is a timely reminder that to give respect is to command respect, both two sides of a coin.

Ajinkya Rahane refusing to cut the cake was more than just the right thing. The children were watching. Image Credit: PTI

Rahane had also presented the Australian spinner Nathan Lyon with a signed Indian Team jersey for his 100th test. Suddenly, in a world gone awry, Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman didn’t seem part of a bygone era. All that was left was to hear Richie Benaud at the MCG.

Without any fuss the stand-in captain has already embraced his role as the deputy once again, for him the Australia series is now history, the English are at the doorstep. The captaincy debate though continues. Many argue it is time for Virat Kohli to follow in Sachin Tendulkar’s footsteps- the best batsman in the world isn’t always a stellar captain.

To be fair, despite Virat Kohli returning home for paternity leave after the first test, India’s fightback had his legacy stamped all over it. He has built a team that has the tenacity and fire to win despite the pressure of a billion prayers that many times seem as anything but prayers.

Whether it was the comeback after what sounded more like a tambola/bingo number 36 in the first test or the constant racial abuse that Mohammed Siraj faced at the Sydney Cricket Ground, the resurgence left many cricket pundits, not to mention former Aussie greats and Michael Vaughan with egg on their face.

The young blood knew they had nothing to lose. Those who fight the good fight, can only win respect.

A representation of new India

Yet is Kohli’s aggression - in his words “a representation of a new India” the kind of message a society on edge needs? Without taking away anything from his batting or his do-or-die spirit, the brashness and the arrogance that filters through at times is not just a representation, it is unfortunately the new India.

Sourav Ganguly swinging his jersey at the Lords balcony in 2002 was controversial and yet it never gave this feeling, even though he is widely regarded as the captain who took Indian cricket’s fight to the opposition. The aggression now feels different, perhaps there is much more at stake today.

Rahane though has been influenced more by the player Dada made a debut with even though in Australia, it was Cheteshwar Pujara who stood like ‘The Wall’.

Rahul Dravid may not have been at Gabba when it was breached but half the team wouldn’t have been there either if not for him.

From Rishabh Pant, Washington Sundar, Prithvi Shaw, Shubham Gill, Shardul Thakur, Hanuma Vihari to even Siraj at some point, this band of boys have all come up through Dravid’s system- the U-19 and India ‘A’ programmes that he has nurtured for the last six years before also becoming the Director of the National Cricket Academy. A man doggedly laying the foundation when foundations all around are shaky.

The greying side- burns only add to the stature of a man who could have also joined the commentary box, the rite of passage for many former cricketers. Yet, when it was presumed that he was silently going into the sunset, the former player was actually helping another generation dream of a new dawn.

In a recent interview Rahane has admitted that Dravid’s role was ‘massive’ in India winning the Border-Gavaskar trophy. Beating Australia at the Gabba, where they had not previously lost a match for 32 years takes a special kind of man. Yet true to form, Dravid says only the boys deserve the praise.

The only Rahul Dravid parallel that comes to mind is the national coach Pullela Gopichand who single-handedly took Indian badminton to the world stage, watching expressionlessly from the side lines while his proteges even did the unthinkable- beat the Chinese.

Line of tall accomplishments

Like Dravid, the self-effacing former All England Champion too has a list of winners- from Saina Nehwal to Parupalli Kashyap and P V Sindhu to Manasi Joshi- the para-athlete world champion, the line is illustrious and the accomplishments tall.

But perhaps Gopichand’s biggest achievement will be how he revolutionised the sport back home. Before the pandemic, not just cricket nets at the park but also badminton academies in nondescript clubs were packed with children of all ages trying to perfect the smash, each with only one dream- a call from the Gopichand academy in Hyderabad.

An academy that was built on a mortgage- the coach had to put up his family home for 3 crores to complete his dream project.

Vision is not for the faint hearted especially when today it is far easier to win on social media. Counsellors over the last year have told me that more than anything children emulate icons on the field and these days all they imbibe is the aggression they see on cricket and football fields.

When empathy is in short supply, disagreements on a family WhatsApp chat or disappointment at the loss of a cricket match both have the propensity to quickly morph into hate, online and offline.

Sports can do much to heal and uplift. At other times, it is also used to take a stand or as in Colin Kaepernick’s case, a knee. The player whose Nike advertisement created a storm refused to stand during the American national anthem protesting the killings of Afro-Americans.

Last year NBA teams boycotted playoffs in support of the #Blacklivesmatter movement. Despite the turmoil in our society, our sporting icons prefer to keep away from any such activism. Perhaps, many have already given it all they have to fight a system and yet succeed.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have our own warriors, only their fight is subtle. As Gopichand, Dravid and now Rahane have shown, history will be kind to a class act more than it will be to a T-20 cameo.

Which is why Ajinkya Rahane refusing to cut the cake was more than just the right thing. The children were watching.