By Dushyant Shekhawat
Normally, when a public figure causes controversy because of their wardrobe choices, the offending incident takes place at the MET Gala or a celebrity wedding. Sporting events, with their officially sponsored kits, aren’t normally the site of shocking sartorial snafus. But at the ICC World Cup, former India captain MS Dhoni’s decision to wear wicket-keeping gloves emblazoned with the insignia of the Indian Para Special Forces has attracted the ire of cricket’s governing body, and gotten social media all a-twitter.
According to the ICC, the dagger insignia on Dhoni’s gloves goes against its regulations that wicket-keeping gloves can only sport up to two manufacturing logos, and nothing else. The objection seems technical, but the reaction to it has been conversely emotional. On Twitter, outrage against the ICC’s objection has led to #DhoniKeepTheGlove trending organically. A seemingly extraneous piece of sporting equipment has become a stand-in for national pride, with Dhoni’s supporters demanding an apology from the ICC. Even the BCCI has been hand-and-glove (excuse me) with Dhoni throughout this episode, claiming he will continue to wear them in upcoming games at the tournament despite the ICC’s moratorium. For once, there seems to be a hot-button issue that doesn’t divide but unite the country instead.
It’s not the first time Dhoni has expressed solidarity with India’s armed forces. In the wake of the Pulwama attack in March, the Indian team took the field against South Africa wearing caps with military fatigue prints in honour of the soldiers who lost their lives, reportedly at Dhoni’s behest. But this can’t be dismissed at mere tokenism, the Indian keeper had a special connection with the armed forces. Dhoni underwent basic training with India’s Para Brigade in 2015, and was conferred the honorary rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Parachute Regiment in 2011. If any player on the team has earned the right to wear the “Balidaan” badge, it’s MSD.
The common objection to Dhoni’s gloves is that such actions unduly introduce politics into sport. The same criticism was levelled at the Indian team’s military caps in March. The team turned a deaf ear to such protests back then, and it looks like Dhoni will be rightly doing the same at the World Cup. Sports and politics, for all their dissimilarities, invoke the same type of unbridled passion in their supporters. Keeping the two separate is an exercise in futility.
In the sporting arenas of the world, some of the most memorable moments have occurred when politics bled into the game, intentionally or not. Look back to the story of Jesse Owens, an African-American athlete who won four gold medals during the 1936 Olympics, hosted in Nazi Germany, and is remembered as the man who crushed Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy. For a cricketing example, recall India’s tour of Pakistan in 2004, which came on the back of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s peace overtures to our neighbour, and became a symbol of thawing relations between the two nations. Of course, things seem to have gone into reverse since then, but the 2004 tour remains a fond memory for those who were lucky enough to witness it.
Athletes have been aware of the mass reach a sporting contest affords them, and have used it to raise awareness about issues which they feel passionately for decades. In 1997, Liverpool forward Robbie Fowler was fined by UEFA for raising his jersey to reveal an undershirt bearing a message in support of the striking Liverpool dockers. Fowler gladly paid the fine. Getting his message across was too important for him to be dissuaded by a monetary penalty. Twenty years later, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked off widespread protests throughout the league, by opting to kneel rather than stand during the playing of the US National Anthem before NFL games. Kaepernick’s mode of protest made him massively unpopular, and he went unsigned by any team in its aftermath, but he continued to advocate for his anti-racism cause.
The truth is that we can’t really separate sports from national, racial, or gender identity and country branding. And Dhoni’s gloves are merely a drop in the bucket of personal expression finding its way to the field.
To be quite frank, his decision to pay tribute to the armed forces is preferable to the alternative, which would see his apparel emblazoned with the logo of some soulless corporation. From his jersey to his shoes, the rest of his kit has already been sold out like a mobile billboard to the highest bidder, so he should be allowed to voice his own opinions on whatever is left.
Eagle-eyed spectators and ICC officials are going to be paying close attention to Dhoni’s gear when they march out for their next match against Australia. But in the grand scheme of things, Dhoni’s choice of wicket-keeping gloves is nothing but a storm in a teacup, or rather, a World Cup.