The field was many things as a boy. It was the street on Calcutta bandh days where extra cover stood on the pavement. The empty school ground on holidays where the barefoot maalis (gardeners) might invite you to play hockey. The sloping, paved area at the back of your building, near the red tin garages, where the ball kept trickling into a filthy drain. You picked it up with two fingers, washed it, and played till light left the day.
On the field you picked your team carefully. The guys who hit sixes into the sun, seemed to have a magnet in their hockey stick and could trap a football on their instep. You didn’t pick according to surname or non-veg rules. You just liked the guy who passed the ball.
You didn’t really realise it back then but you liked the field because it was mostly blind. It didn’t see religion, as Mohammad Kaif beautifully wrote. It was a place of a different faith. It didn’t care if you played in thin keds or your uncle had bought you Adidas boots from Muscat. It didn’t discriminate if you spoke with a squeak. It didn’t give a damn if you were undersized or your dad was rich. Well, okay, if you were the kid who owned the ball, you got some special privileges.
Else the field recognised talent. It was the only thing which was sacred.
The field had to be kept clean, your mom told you that, or was it your dad, your coach or your elder brother? This wasn’t the place for bullies, ball-hoggers, name-callers, cheats. This was the place for the team, with whom you sweated, won, swore and ate puchkas. Leaving them to go home was the worst part of the day.
The field is where you start to understand what fibre is. You are not sure you have it but you see it. The guy who gets benched and won’t whine. The fellow whose shins are stripped of skin but still tackles. The one who puts an arm around the guy who scores the own goal.
But the field isn’t completely immune to ugliness. It’s not some disconnected, innocent, untouched world. It’s also mean and base because so much of the world outside leaks in—the racism and sexism, the elitism and cronyism.
The field has a hateful history of death threats to black athletes and hotels that won’t allow them to stay. It has got a hideous present of bananas thrown, monkey noises and bigotry in the stands. It has got male golfers who sip their beer silently as elite golf clubs resist women members. It has got an Olympic host who dithers before it lets go an administrator who says women talk too much in meetings.
And so, the field, you understand as you grow older, has to be protected. It doesn’t survive on its own. If it has to remain meaningful, in any form, it has to be nourished. You need athletes who hit the lines but also draw them. The ones who honour unwritten codes and kick a football out when a player is injured or apologise when they win a point off a net cord or don’t attack when a Tour de France rival crashes.
There’s nothing heroic here, nothing medal-worthy, just basic stuff which keeps the game in order. A sort of self-policing, a kind of upholding of some basic decency. Amidst the hard, inflexible tribalism of sport you need at least a dusting of spirit on the field.
Some actively make a statement, others inadvertently fight the prejudice of the field. Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi of Pakistan and Rohan Bopanna of India play tennis doubles together. They fit well. The blond, German long jumper Luz Long makes a gesture of friendship to Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics, with Hitler watching and a gold medal at stake. Andy Murray writes an article in L’Equipe in defence of his former female coach, Amelie Mauresmo.
This is how the field finds balance, how it maintains some dignity, how it becomes something to show off to your kid. Mateship can’t just be a press conference platitude, courage can’t only be wearing a hard tackle, it has to be something real and deeper.
In the mid-1960s, when the tennis star Althea Gibson shifted to golf, she was—as Steve Eubanks wrote on lpga.com—once not invited into a clubhouse and had to change her shoes in the parking lot. In an act of unity, the other players changed in their cars as well.
It makes you think, whose field is it anyway? The fans, the groundspeoples, the officials, the coaches? Yes. But mostly the players, both current and former. This field is the place they are associated with, their arena of work. This is the place whose belief systems and integrity they have a say in. This is the place whose teamwork they love to expound on. This is the place from which they crave fairness. This is the place holy to them.
And so it doesn’t even matter if they don’t know Wasim Jaffer. To stand by him is to speak up for the field.
And also for the kid on the egalitarian street that’s left inside them.
Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.