Monday, February 19, 2007

The business of cricket

The World Cup, cricket’s biggest extravaganza, is just round the corner. Starting any time now, we are going be inundated with ad. campaigns centred around this noble game. From colas to cars, from health drinks to insurance, our cricketers will be seen endorsing a range of products. Every product manufacturer and service provider worth his salt will try to cash in on the exalted status that cricket enjoys in this country. In the weeks leading up to this gala event, our cricketers will be the toast of the nation even as footballers and Grandmasters cry foul. But any voice of dissension will be drowned by the collective hysteria that this game evokes in our countrymen. If our boys manage to do well in the competition, they will be feted and rewarded and be generally fussed over. If they do badly, then a few effigies will be burnt; maybe the coach and a few inconsequential members of the team will be sacked. But come the next cricketing jamboree and everything will be forgotten. And the circle will begin all over again.

I was watching a very interesting debate on a news channel the other night. Two teams representing premier schools in the country were speaking for and against the topic: ‘do cricketers (and the game in general) deserve all the attention and adulation.’ The team that spoke against the topic raised a number of valid points. Cricket is not our national game; hockey is. Then why is so much money and effort spent in promoting cricket while hockey is brutally neglected? Why is it that sportspersons like Dhanraj Pillay and Anju Bobby George do not enjoy the same superstar status as does a Sachin Tendulkar? Why is it that even after winning the biggest honour in the sport on multiple occasions (8 Olympic golds if I am not mistaken), hockey still lacks the kind of infrastructural set-up that’s truly international?

There are other classic arguments which have been forwarded over the years. Only a handful of nations play the game of cricket. By that token, it cannot be called a global sport in the strictest sense. Therefore honours won in cricket cannot really be equated with honours won in hockey or volleyball, which are played in greater strength and are therefore more competitive. Moreover it’s not a fast-paced sport unlike soccer, but is played at a leisurely pace. A test match stretches over five days, with six hours of play every day. That’s a total 30 hours simply for a game to get over. A soccer game gets over in 90 minutes. So if you were to watch an entire four-match test series, it could amount to as much as 120 hours of viewing time. That, some people feel, is a criminal waste of time. When India features in an important cricket match, the turnout in schools, colleges and offices is abysmally low. So there are economic implications as well with losses running up to crores for each day of cricket played.

So what is it about cricket that holds an entire nation enthralled? In one of his essays, eminent sociologist and cricket historian, Mr. Ramachandra Guha, attributes India’s survival as a united and independent democracy to eight different factors. One of these is the game of cricket. That kind of puts the whole argument into perspective. Cricket in India is not just a sport. It has transcended into a higher, more meaningful plane. If one were to read Ramachandra Guha’s ‘A corner of a Foreign Field’, one would appreciate as to how closely cricket has been interwoven with the political the social framework of India right from pre-independence days. Cricket is a sport that the native Indian picked up from the ruling Britisher. In due course, he became so proficient that he was able to beat the Britisher at his own game. It did wonders for his self-confidence and morale.

Cricket also played its part in ridding the Indian society of its prejudices. Mr. Guha, in his book, discusses the case of P. Baloo, a low-caste Hindu with a marked talent for spin bowling. At a time when high-caste Hindus were reluctant share the same table with those from a lower caste, P. Baloo was playing alongside Brahmins and the odd Maharajah. He went on to tour England and earned a reputation as India’s first cricketing star.

The progress of Indian cricket has also been indicative of her emergence as a nation of reckoning. If India’s first test victory on English soil helped her emerge well and truly from the shadows of the Empire, then the series win over the West Indies showed that she was capable of competing at the highest level. The 1983 World Cup triumph announced her arrival to the world. With the game, the Indian cricketer also evolved. He is no longer submissive or subdued. He plays with fire and aggression. The mood in the cricket field adequately reflects the collective mood of a new India – daring, enterprising and raring to go.

So detractors of cricket may say what they want. Cricket will continue to be India’s most popular game. People will continue to follow the game with an aching devotion. And the average Indian will continue to search for deeper meaning in her cricketing triumphs.

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