The deep roots of cricket in India

WE know cricket has universal appeal and it has spread across India as a benign virus.

AMRIT MATHUR

WE know cricket has universal appeal and it has spread across India as a benign virus. In big cities everyone is affected, housewives are up to speed on the latest khabar, the media is full of cricket, newspapers and networks faithfully report every bit of trivial information they dig up.

For all the success of Parthiv Patel, cricket is yet to find its feet in Ahmedabad. — Pic. K. RAMESH BABU-

That the game was on a strong wicket away from big cities, however, came as a surprise. At Vapi (close to Valsad, Gujarat, which was an industrial city till economic activity slumped) posters of Sachin Tendulkar were being sold on the pavement, next to those of Shahrukh Khan and Kareena Kapoor. Sachin, interestingly, was not featured in his blue Indian uniform but in smart glares and a stylish black shirt, much like a film star himself. Does this mean he scores over stars from other fields in the popularity stakes? SRK, though a mega star, pretends to be a cricketer in cola ads but ST is the asli, genuine, hot star. He does not have to pretend, does not have to act.

Not far from the pavement, around the busy marketplace, was further proof that cricket is much more than a sport. People claim it is a religion, a unique passion, a nasha; perhaps it is all this. Certainly there is no dispute that cricket is a powerful adhesive, a Fevicol that unites India from Godhra to Guwahati, from Kargil to Kanyakumari. A mobile telephone company acknowledged this in a banner which hung outside restaurants selling chai, pau bhaji and various gutkas. The message on the banner? We connect India, like cricket.

Gujarat, by all accounts, is not a frontline cricket state though Ranji and Duleep hailed from Jamnagar and Baroda has a proud tradition stretching Hazare downwards. Its major centre Ahmedabad is known for Vadilal and chaat more than cricket. Motera has lights but cricket is yet to find its feet despite the success of the baby faced (but mentally tagda) Parthiv Patel.

Though Gujarat is deficient in cricket history, the popularity of the sport is astonishing. As elsewhere, the media delivers top quality action into homes and cricket is prime time entertainment. Some still watch weeping and scheming women in TV serials beginning with K but the overwhelming majority gladly gives up this dose of drama to follow live cricket.

But not all of cricket's popularity can be explained by Sachin's charisma or one-day cricket. Close to Vapi, barely half hour by road, is the Union Territory of Daman which was a Portuguese colony till 1962, where every child is currently putting bat to ball. The usual pro-cricket argument suggests cricket thrived in India because of its connection with the British, the ruling elite. But this view is junked in Daman where till 15 years after Independence local Gujaratis had no contact with the British, on the contrary they needed a passport to get out of the colony. Without the angrez, without TV and without newspaper coverage, Daman had cricket, clubs existed as far back as 1931 and tournaments were held regularly. Things, obviously, changed once the Portuguese departed; among Daman's one lakh population now are 30 cricket teams and enthusiasm for cricket is rising each day. Facilities are not up to scratch (in terms of wickets/coaches/equipment) but there is no denying the massive interest for cricket.

In neighbouring Dadra and Nagar Haveli, also earlier Portuguese territories, the scene is no different. The population of tiny Silvassa is largely tribal but signs are visible that children would prefer cricket instead of kicking a football.Understanding this reality, local authorities are preparing turf wickets and scouting for a coach.

The Board has launched an ambitious programme to promote cricket in areas such as Daman and Dadra, the scheme resting on the premise that cricket needs support in territories where, traditionally, it does not have strong roots. The effort is also to bring larger numbers into organised cricket because, despite the elaborate age group tournaments, most youth cricket is outside the Board structure.

A key issue in this move to spread cricket is to agree on the best way of coaching. Conventional wisdom favours a strict coach who works with trainees in the nets to teach the correct technique but recent trends demand a fresh approach. Nowadays, with youngsters exposed to live coverage, most know the basics and the TV is seen as a teacher. Given the benefit of expert comments and vivid pictures, children know the complexities of reverse swing, what to say of a straight backlift.

The coach, surely, must adjust to this reality and play the role of a motivator more than a teacher. Also, from an early age, emphasis should be laid on building athleticism and developing the mind, both of which are of critical importance in the modern context.

While coaches grapple with these new currents the swadeshi/videshi debate continues to rage. Despite India's splendid performance, and the contribution of the foreign coach, prominent voices (among them Kapil Dev) feel we don't need to import expertise. But the issue is not of passports — what matters is efficiency, skill and competence and anyone capable of delivering this is good enough. That he comes from Auckland or Aurangabad, Meerut or Melbourne is of no consequence.

Ajay Jadeja (participating in domestic tournaments following a court ruling) disagrees, says "an outsider can never understand the psyche of Indian players". If cricket is in the mind, he argues, "only an Indian can grasp what is going through a player as he takes guard at the crease". The foreigner will talk theory and discuss fancy ideas which won't match up with ground realities, and by the time he understands what is going on much time is lost.

Jadeja is not as regressive as he sounds, in fact he is open to using modern methods for enhancing performance. "We have to learn many things from others", he agrees, notably about fitness, diet and training. Others are using science in so many ways, not just for computer analysis. We have to adapt these techniques to compete at the same level.