Obsession with cricket

Sachin Tendulkar... if he sneezes it is a cause for national concern, if he gets injured it becomes a national emergency.-V. GANESAN

Linked to player adulation is our fascination with cricket statistics. We, as a nation, are masters at recalling cricket records. Kids and grandmothers have PhDs in this field, they can instantly recall strike/economy rates of players, their career profiles and every other kind of irrelevant detail.

What are the main issues of Indian cricket we are obsessed with? The performance of the Indian team tops this list and two questions asked most often are: Why don't we win more often, and why do we fare poorly abroad? These questions matter because victories result in jubilation and spirited celebration while defeats cause untold despair, disappointment and depression. Also, there is endless speculation of the `kya ho jata hai' kind.

Many think this happens because Indians travel poorly and that is why our overseas record is modest. Normally, wickets are blamed for the dismal record but nobody has a definite answer as to why talented Indian batsmen can't get a grip over pitches that have some movement and bounce.

Other observers hold India's low quality domestic cricket responsible for our ills and there is a vocal (perhaps old fashioned) militant group that targets the players. Their analysis is based on the premise that celebrity players are distracted and their focus is reduced by increased off-field commitments. Meeting commercial requirements, shooting ads and walking the ramp are good for bringing in money but not good for cricket. Player attention is divided and performance impacted.

With opinion divided so radically, it is difficult to arrive at a clear answer and the delightful debate, ranging from the sensible to the sensational, carries on endlessly. Meanwhile the team wins (to raise hopes) one day, only to collapse immediately after that and this once again sets off another round of speculation.

Next on the popularity chart of hot topics is our blind — almost complete — devotion to cricket stars. India is a cricketer-crazed nation; our passion driven by personalities and everyone (from chaprasi to the chairman, from corporate czar to corporation karamchari) is a fan. In this maha bhakti, Tendulkar is shreshta, first among unequals. If he sneezes it is a cause for national concern, if he gets injured it becomes a national emergency.

Not that the other players are short of attention. They remain in the public eye and even their hairstyles get noticed. Sehwag's receding hairline has caught as much attention as his diminishing batting average. Harbhajan's look and hairstyle in an advertisement led to public protests and much adverse comment. And when Dhoni went for a haircut, such was the frenzy in Ranchi's shopping mall that the police had to be summoned to rescue him from adoring fans.

Linked to player adulation is our fascination with cricket statistics. We, as a nation, are masters at recalling cricket records. Kids and grandmothers have PhDs in this field, they can instantly recall strike/economy rates of players, their career profiles and every other kind of irrelevant detail.

Equally strong is our fixation about the money earned by top players. Endorsement deals are big news; they are tracked closely like major political developments, business mergers and juicy filmi gup-shup. There is tremendous curiosity about runs made by Dravid in Tests and the money he makes from business contracts. In this valuation system the bank passbook is as important as the match scorebook.

Often the issues that engage us are extremely trivial. For instance the recent noise about an internal squabble among the Pakistani cricketers. The frenzy over whether a player slapped a coach, the dispute about the choice music, the speculation over which hotel doors were banged in the middle of the night and rude behaviour with a female guest at a disco was quite unprecedented.

Recently TV has carried out a series of sting operations on political subjects. But, apart from the match-fixing episode, cricket has been free from such hatchet jobs. Otherwise, cricket coverage is over the top with newspapers devoting space to what was consumed at breakfast, and detailing room service orders and the shopping activities of wives on tours.

Strangely, all discussion on Indian cricket is focussed on a few players and the newsworthiness of the rest is little more than nothing. Every step of the Indian side is documented in exhaustive detail; there is ball-by-ball, blow-by-blow, minute-to-minute coverage. Contrast this with the neglect of Duleep matches and the struggle for Ranji games to find space. And, while international games are massive, spectacular celebrations (with fireworks, live music and all the attendant glamour) first-class cricket is still played at some centres, which have temporary shamianas for dressing rooms, makeshift toilets and primitive travel/stay bandobast.

This divide is as glaring as the Bharat versus India contrast. One side of Indian cricket is shining; it is a world of enormous riches and top-end luxury. But there also exists a less-privileged world untouched by luxury, removed from privileges or paisa. Star players are seriously rich but a vast majority of players live, if not below the poverty line, close to the edge.

Fortunately, in these lives there is a now a ray of hope because of increased match fees for Ranji. With players able to make more than a decent living from playing cricket, young talent will be encouraged to stay with the game and experienced players would want to carry on and keep competing, instead of moving on. Already, many retirement plans have been abandoned and players are increasingly mobile, moving from one team to the other, using a BCCI provision, which permits a State association to import three professionals.

Hopefully, the money will also help raise quality.