It is quite fascinating

Cricket operates in a most fascinating manner even in normal times, and in a high pressure competition like the World Cup, it unfolds in a more tantalising way.

AMRIT MATHUR

Cricket operates in a most fascinating manner even in normal times, and in a high pressure competition like the World Cup, it unfolds in a more tantalising way. In Harare, cricket's political face was clearly visible, especially when the Zimbabwe Sports Minister decided to launch a spirited, and very bitter, attack on England and Australia.

Security in the World Cup is tight but appropriate, it is there without being oppressive. — Pic. AP-

The occasion was a routine reception for the Indian team where, initially the usual warm words of welcome were uttered. But this done, suddenly, in the fashion of a good slogger who cannot contain himself when presented with juicy half volleys, the gentleman entered the attack mode, using language so strong that trained diplomats squirmed with embarrassment.

Normally, criticism at government level is couched in political correctness, tough talk is concealed in polite terms. Harsh words are said gently to make them less offensive, the impact softened so that you hurt but don't injure.

But here, as the Indian team feasted on prawns/ idlis/chana and rice, the mask dropped, all pretence was discarded, the gloves came off. These two nations, the Hon. Minister thundered angrily, are still living in the colonial era. Referring to their reluctance to visit Zimbabwe, he declared this was nothing short of modern day racism, one more pathetic attempt to display white superiority.

While one questions this conclusion (what wrong did Australia do? they are playing in Zimbabwe) there is no denying cricket, and sports, is a playground for politicians. But having said that, and despite the games netas play, ultimately it is players who hold centre stage.

Some have already hogged the highlight in this World Cup in their own distinctive style. Shane Warne did so in startling fashion, he opened his mouth and popped pills given to him by his mother. Jonty Rhodes broke a finger, and probably the hearts of millions, all of whom will miss his electrifying presence at point.

But besides the unfortunate ones who miss out, for whatever reasons, the big event is a huge opportunity for players to perform, to make a mark and ensure a permanent place in history. Certainly, these factors motivate players, they understand the significance of the occasion and are aware that this is a great mauka. It is for this reason Srinath bends his aging back and pushes his weary body, same reason Donald punishes himself to extract one more lethal spell from his tired frame.

For all players, established stars or aspiring ones, the CWC is a stage, a massive platform on which to perform at a time when the eyes of cricket crazed janta is riveted on them. Players are similar to models, all made up and pretty, walking the ramp, strutting their stuff under the glare of unprecedented attention. They know that if someone makes it here he stands to strike it big.

Not everyone can touch greatness, and for every success story there are many examples of shattered dreams. Rhodes was not granted his wish of a last triumph at home but even as he quit, hardly able to hold his emotions, he made some interesting observations. His fielding, he said, was a result of hard work — to an extent that for each run saved he had to work one hour extra each day! Also, when asked about future plans, he said he had nothing worked out but would try and get into the real world.

That international khiladis inhabit an unreal, even bizarre, duniya was demonstrated by Herschelle Gibbs who is presently South African cricket's major hero. As a result of being a hot celebrity, Gibbs released his autobiography but when the book was launched he admitted (in a most charming, candid manner) that he had never read a book, any book, in his life. Then, as if this was not enough, he dropped another bomb, with a disarming smile. Unlikely, he said, that I will read my book either. But not everything in the World Cup is bizarre, there is much that is hardnosed and practical and much more serious. Take the matter of security, for example, which is supervised closely by professional policemen. When trouble was anticipated in Zim, contingency plans were ready, for combating likely offenders. At one level it was just a matter of confronting demonstrators with water cannons and ensuring there was no nuisance at the ground.

At another level, there was careful planning so that no security slip marred the event. As part of this exercise, an elaborate plan was put in place which meant hotels being sanitised, control rooms established and manned round the clock, visitors screened, policemen deputed on floors where players were staying. Team movement was closely monitored, policemen travelled on team bus which otherwise too was escorted by motorcycle outriders. Security is tight but appropriate, it is there without being oppressive.

Actually, more than security, far more impressive is the commercial protection provided to the event. The bust up between Indian players over conflicting advertising almost grounded the CWC, and that was only one element of a large arrangement for ensuring financial viability. When sponsors are putting serious money on the table to associate it stands to reason that people who don't are kept out.

Ambush marketing is the nightmare of organisers because if they can't look after their right holders the entire commercial structure collapses. Hence the ban on Britannia/ Philips to run promotions, the court cases to stop them from exploiting the event without paying for doing so. This World Cup has seen careful registration of trademarks so that merchandising sales are not jeopardised.

The extent, and the extreme lengths, to which arrangements need to be made is reflected in the use of spotters at match venues. The ICC hired people to mix with the crowd to see that no clashing advertising takes place. The odd spectator can walk in wearing a Samsung shirt but if he is in a group then he must remove it or risk eviction.

South Africa has enacted stiff legislation under which commercial violations of this nature are tried as criminal offences carrying stiff penalties. Whether these get used or are meant only to scare potential violators remains to be seen. But already, at Capetown, one gent found out that there is no scope for messing around — the poor guy was escorted out of Newlands because he was spotted drinking Coke!