Mohammed Shami And The Silence Of “New India”

At 5:16pm, on October 26, the BCCI’s Twitter feed offered us a photo of Mohammed Shami and Virat Kohli with the words: proud, strong, upward and onward. Those words could well mean that Kohli and Shami were celebrating the launch of the Agni-V missile. Or the arrival of more Rafale jets. Or the price of petrol.

By Sharda Ugra, 29 Oct 2021

What if the 15m strong @BCCI “Official Twitter Handle of Team India” had said something resembling this:

Just want to say to the people, aap please yeh sab cheezein band kijiye, (stop these things) religious [differences], casteism, because we work above all these things. I know we come from different religions, some are Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and we come from all parts of India – some from the north, some south, some east, but we come together we see just one thing that we work for and that is India. We do what we do for that flag, we sweat on the field day and night for that flag. It is such a shameful thing that we see there are people like this.

If that’s far too many characters for a single tweet, then how about something like this below then?

They deserve support & backing not the vile abuse they’ve had since last night. If you abuse anyone on social media, you’re not a fan and we don’t want you.

Those words won’t stop the trolls or keyboard “warriors” or the bots, but at least it would have showed the cricketing world how the Indian team responds when a teammate is abused. Abused not just because he had a bad day, but because of what his religion happened to be. After the Indian team’s defeat to Pakistan, Mohammed Shami’s Facebook account was not targeted by “fans” angry about the lines he bowled. He became the focal point of hatred and bigotry as he was the Indian team’s lone Muslim whose loyalty was marked suspect when playing against a team full of his co-religionists. Two days later Facebook removed the abusive comments.

In response to the comment, Shami received plenty of support from fans as well as from former cricketers and IPL teams. Some of it was direct – like “this crap needs to stop” – Irfan Pathan and Deep Dasgupta – most trying to keep a safe distance and professing vast love for Shami. Like Yuzvendra Chahal, the only current player around the Indian team who directly took Shami’s name on social media.

From the Indian team now in the UAE for the men’s T20 World Cup, there is deafening silence. More telling because its leading members have an enormous social media presence – captain Virat Kohli (163m Insta followers/ 44.2m Twitter followers), Rohit Sharma (21.3m Insta followers/ 19.5m Twitter followers), coach Ravi Shastri (1m Instagram followers/ 1.5mTwitter followers), mentor MS Dhoni (36m Insta followers/ 8.3m Twitter followers), social media phenoms K L Rahul (11m Instagram followers/ 6.1m Twitter followers, Ravichandran Ashwin (3m Instagram followers/ 10.4m Twitter followers), Jasprit Bumrah ( 9.2m Instagram followers/4.3m Twitter followers) and Ravindra Jadeja (3.5m Instagram followers/ 3.6m Twitter followers).

They may be unaware of the significance of ‘taking the knee’ on the orders of “management”, but it is impossible they are ignorant of what happened to Shami on social media.

Elite athletes, if they want to, can remain deaf to outside influences and counter currents running through society. These are gifted young men, committed and focussed mostly to make a name for themselves, expanding skill and experience and maximising their earning potential during short career spans. But in team scenarios, what they do instinctively respond to is an attack on their tribe.

Like K L Rahul revealed after an on-field bust-up on the England tour this July, “If you go after one of our guys, you are going after the whole team, all XI of us will come right back.” All for one and one for all. You mess with me, you mess with my whole family.

Except to the public eye, in this case, the tribe has not spoken and Shami appears to have no family behind him.

Again, it is not possible that Shami’s teammates have not spoken to him, expressing solidarity in private. In team meetings they would be speaking about all for one and one for all. It is their inability to do so in public that is revealing.

What could possibly be preventing an Indian team cricket team from coming out in verbal support of their teammate? What prevents them from doing what is in fact, the right thing to do? Who would not be moved, inspired, hopeful if they did so? Who could take offence if they did? Cricket? Fans? The Market? Unlikely.

Those quotes above about yeh sab cheezein band kijiye and ‘you’re not a fan and we don’t want you’ – that’s Rani Rampal, captain of the Indian women’s hockey team and Harry Kane, captain of the England men’s football team. After India lost its Olympic semi-final to Argentina, men burst crackers and shouted casteist abuse outside the house of Rani’s teammate Vandana Katariya. Rani’s response was unequivocal.

After England lost the Euro2020 final to Italy through a penalty shoot-out, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, all three non-white, were subjected to racist abuse for having missed their penalties. Kane’s response was unequivocal.

The Indian cricket team’s response as of date has not been unequivocal. It has just not been.

On the field against Pakistan, Kohli was exceptional in his poise and composure after the match. The photos of him alongside Babar Azam and Mohammed Rizwan are what should be the strongest memories from an India vs Pakistan contest. Unfortunately, the teams play each other so infrequently, that no what grace and mutual respect is witnessed on the field, post-match, it is drowned in a deluge of sewage from TV channels and social media in both countries.

All you can think now is that maybe Kohli will make a statement on the eve of India’s next match on Oct 31st vs New Zealand. Some say the moment has passed and whatever Kohli says now, will be too late. But is it ever late to do the right thing?
This is the most loved sports team in the country and they should stand for the best in us. Not for silence in the face of hatred against your own. Not for meekness in the guise of avoiding controversy.

Remember, Kohli and Shastri constantly talk about their team being “different” from what Indian teams were, about being a ‘new India’. About aggression, about ‘giving it back’ on the field. How about you now go on the front foot, be aggressive and ‘give it back’ to bigots and trolls too, who went after your teammate, a “new India” cricketer. Why can’t you join some of those ‘old India’ boys standing up for one of yours, saying it is “shameful” that champion players have to “face crap.”

But wait, what if it was the Evil Bots from the Other Side? The Pakistani Dark State’s grand conspiracy using its fake truth software industry to target the fair name of India and Indian cricket? Is that so? Wasim Jaffer didn’t happen? And the India v Pak Anything online only is an exchange between Their Abusive Trolls and Our Polite Patriots?

Either way, it should be immaterial to an ‘apolitical’ cricket team. The most vile language was used on your Muslim teammate and silence on the subject is not sanguine. All the Indian team needed to say that no matter where it comes from, online abuse, hatred and bigotry of their own in this case was, is and will always be unacceptable. This is not stepping on political thin ice that poor innocent sportspeople prefer to shy away from. (Until they retire and join politics.) This is decency. This is a sign of that word cricketers toss around so glibly – character.

Sharda Ugra spent three decades reporting sport as required by tabloid, broadsheet, newsmagazine and website  but now lives in Bangalore and writes to suit herself.