Episode 81: Escape from Kyiv; the Modi grip on India’s cricket ball

Cricket authors (and obsessives) Peter Oborne and Richard Heller launched a podcast early in 2020 to help deprived listeners endure a world without cricket. They’re no longer deprived of cricket, but still chat regularly about cricket topics with different guests each week – cricket writers, players, administrators and fans – hoping to keep a good line and length but with occasional wides into other subjects.

Kobus Olivier, CEO of the Ukraine Cricket Federation, returns to the latest cricket-themed podcast by Peter Oborne and Richard Heller, with an update on his personal situation and the impact of the war. They are joined by Sharda Ugra, one of India’s leading cricket writers, who has analysed with great authority the relationships between Indian cricket and the country’s politics, business and wider society.

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Kobus and his four dogs managed to escape from Kyiv to the west to a small town near the Hungarian border. They were sheltering with five families in a school building converted into a refuge. He describes their eleven-hour car journey, constantly interrupted by Ukrainian checkpoints but mercifully not by Russian bombs or shells. Their conditions were now calmer and more normal: he had enjoyed walking the dogs for the first time since the invasion began.

He has been in constant daily contact with Indian medical students in Ukraine: some 8000  of 15,000 had been trapped in horrifying conditions in Kharkiv,  but had been evacuated in a convoy of buses and were waiting to cross the Polish border. He explains the background to their medical studies in Ukraine, which (as Sharda explains) had attracted students from poorer families with much lower fees than prevalent in India. Kharkiv university has been devastated and Kobus believes that the education market in Ukraine was now ruined: Indian students would never return, especially if the war ended with the country under a Russian satellite government, and there would be no pool of adult players to sustain its cricket aspirations.

Sharda says that the students’ stories had dominated Indian conventional and social media: evacuation had taken most of them only to safer parts of Ukraine and they had put out desperate personal pleas to leave the country altogether. There was intense controversy over the government’s handling of their situation, especially the timing of its advice to leave, and efforts by government ministers to induce expressions of gratitude from the students.

Sharda acutely analyses the accelerating appropriation of Indian cricket by the Bharatiya Janata Party to serve its political and cultural agenda. Politicians have always been involved in Indian cricket but they shared power and patronage: none tried to assert their ideology through cricket as Mr Modi’s  government and party.  Their control is exemplified by the new colossal Narendra Modi stadium in his home base of Ahmedabad and reinforced by their courtiers among current and former players and commentators. There is a strong code of silence about problems in Indian cricket, including serious environmental challenges from heat and poor air quality.

Among cricketers, Bishen Singh Bedi is almost alone in resistance to the political takeover, and she describes the career penalties which might befall others for joining him. She assesses the potential influence of political factors on the exit of Virat Kohli from the Indian captaincy: she contrasts his delayed but dramatic defence of the fast bowler Mohammad Shami against social media abuse with the almost total silence of Indian cricketers over anti-Muslim attacks on former Test opener Wasim Jaffer.

She responds to the shocking assertion by the novelist Arundhati Roy that the Modi government has brought India towards a “pre-genocidal” condition towards its Muslim minority.  She predicts that it will make no difference to the build-up for next year’s World Cup in India, given the long history of world sports turning a blind eye to big  political issues.

However, she comments that for all the threat to Indian cricket from the Modi government’s control and the pervasive nationalist and Hindu supremacist ideology it promotes it retains the love and following from Indians of all faiths and classes. It has expanded its geographic base and more and more players are emerging from less favoured regions, including Kashmir despite its troubles. The Indian Premier League is largely beyond the government’s writ and the pursuit of success by its teams can offer opportunities for players, coaches and analyst who do not toe the government’s line.

Finally, Sharda pays tributes to two great players sadly removed on the same day: Rodney Marsh and Shane Warne. She brings out Marsh’s contribution, as first director of the National Cricket Academy, to the production of confident, successful Indian teams. She conveys the heartfelt grief of Indian fans at the loss of Warne, a global figure who belonged to them as much as to Australians, always approachable and with a special empathy with every young spin bowler.

Get in touch with us by emailing obornehellercricket@outlook.com, we would love to hear from you!

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Previous Episode – Episode 80: Waiting for the Assault on Kyiv

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Peter Oborne & Richard Heller 

Peter Oborne has been the chief political commentator for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, a maker of several documentaries and written and broadcast for many different media. He is the author of a biography of Basil D’Oliveira and of Wounded Tiger, a history of Pakistan cricket, both of which won major awards.

Richard Heller was a long-serving humorous columnist on The Mail on Sunday and more briefly, on The Times. He worked in the movie business in the United States and the UK, including a brief engagement on a motion picture called Cycle Sluts Versus The Zombie Ghouls. He is the author of two cricket-themed novels A Tale of Ten Wickets and The Network. He appeared in two Mastermind finals: in the first his special subject was the life of Sir Gary Sobers.

Oborne & Heller cricketing partnership

Jointly, he and Peter produced White On Green, celebrating the drama of Pakistan cricket, including the true story of the team which lost a first-class match by an innings and 851 runs.

Peter and Richard have played cricket with and against each other for a variety of social sides, including Parliament’s team, the Lords and Commons, and in over twenty countries including India, Pakistan, the United States, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, France, Greece, Australia, Zimbabwe, New Zealand and Morocco.

The Podcast is produced by Bridget Osborne and James Willcocks at The Chiswick Calendar.

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