City City Bang Bang, Columns

Is smaller better?

There was a time when cricket lovers would fantasise about the kind of team that would have been possible to put together if India and Pakistan had not been partitioned. The combination of Indian batsmen and Pakistani bowlers, the prevailing wisdom went, would be unbeatable. On the face of it, that certainly seems true, for that team would represent an embarrassment of riches. Fast bowlers, a wide variety of spinners, each with his own special brand of guile and an array of batsmen, classical, swashbuckling, unorthodox, and reliable, all adding up to a world-beating eleven.

But is that necessarily true? At any given point in time, with a defined roster of accomplished players to choose from, it probably is. But as a larger principle, and in the fullness of time, does size of the nation from which a team is drawn, make such a difference? It could be argued that the opposite is more likely to be true. Performance improves not by acts of consolidation, but by those of disaggregation. Smaller countries seem to be able to produce performances that are disproportionate to their size. Clearly, India is a stronger team than its sub-continental rivals, but is that much stronger as its size warrants?

Take the example of our other neighbour Bangladesh, which obviously never figured in such fantasies. When it was part of Pakistan, the eastern part of the country stood nowhere in terms of cricket. In all its 24 years, not a single player from the erstwhile East Pakistan made it to the national cricket team. The best that they got a single player making it to the 12th man position. Unlike its cultural cousin West Bengal, which certainly fared better when it came to the game, it had no great cricketing legacy, nor any heroes to look up to.

After attaining its Independence, things have changed beyond recognition. It took the country time and perseverance, but bit by bit Bangladesh has today become a competitive presence on the world cricket scene. In the past, it managed to pull off the occasional upset before quickly lapsing back into mediocrity. But as the current World Cup underlines, that is a thing of the past now. It is now winning more consistently, and more importantly is a team that simply cannot be taken lightly, as Pakistan discovered a few days back. In the days to follow, India will meet Bangladesh and it is clear that is likely to be a keenly contested game.

Interestingly, West Bengal, on its part, is still a middling regional side that has shown no significant change in its performance. It has won the Ranji Trophy only twice- once 30 years back, and for the other occasion, we would have to go back another 50 years. Over the last 15 years, in the time Bangladesh has made such impressive strides, the state would have contributed a handful of cricketers to the national team, and barring Sourav Ganguly, one would struggle to name anyone that made a lasting impact. This is true not just of Bengal, but of most Indian regional sides.

One can understand why small affluent countries with developed infrastructures and a strong legacy do well at the game, but what explains the rise of smaller teams in the developing world that morph into being globally competitive performers? Sri Lanka has seen its ups and downs as a side, but in the past, it has reached a ranking of No1 in both ODIs and T20, and its best ranking in Tests was No2. Apart from winning the 1996 World Cup, it won the T20 World Cup in 2014. For an island nation with a population of 21 million, that’s not half bad. And the fast-improving Afghanistan, which gave such a fright to the much-stronger-on-paper Indian team, is well on its way to becoming a force.

It would seem that something quite extraordinary can happen when a strong sense of identity and pride get triggered. This seems to be particularly true of countries that do not have many other means to make a mark on a larger international platform. Sport, in this case, cricket, becomes a vehicle that carries a larger burden than usual. The difference between being a regional side and being a national team, is that regardless of scale, the stakes shoot up. There is more to play for, and more to receive by way of reward. Not just in material terms but in being seen as being vital to a nation’s self-esteem. And smallness of size seems to vastly magnify the sense of achievement when victory is won is against a larger or more established rival. Combined with exposure to the best competition across the world has to offer, we can see how lambs turn into lions (and tigers).

Having something meaningful to fight for can also provide a much stronger sense of purpose that can drive a team. There is an alchemic transformation that converts a bunch of individuals into one single organism, that finds answers within its own ecology. At its best, it fuses together energies, bolstering the sagging, nourishing the weak, catalysing the strong, pushing ever onwards, responding to challenges with a strength that it has no business possessing. There is an innocent ambition uncluttered by expectations that can often drive the small against the large, and give it an edge that the other lacks.

The larger implication is that of breaking down large disparate units into smaller tighter ones, which nurture a greater sense of belonging and further self-belief is certainly worth looking at. Shared identities become more meaningful, and purpose is easier to find. This is not an infinitely stretchable argument of course, for these comes a point when the smallness of size can translate into nothing more than insignificance, but there lies something potent coiled up in the idea of being small and independent. Freedom comes with many advantages, and one among them is that striving for the once-impossible becomes that much more meaningful.

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