The devotion of the cricket disciples

THE cricket season has just kicked off, and after a prolonged break players return to the middle.

AMRIT MATHUR

Sourav Ganguly gets some valuable advice from a past great, Sunil Gavaskar, during the conditioning camp in Bangalore. — Pic. AFP-

THE cricket season has just kicked off, and after a prolonged break players return to the middle. Fresh battles with international teams will resume in front of stands packed with delirious fans. Away from this wild excitement, in complete anonymity, another Ranji season will shortly commence with 500 or so first class cricketers straining desperately to move forward, get closer to the ultimate mandir, the Indian dressing room.

That excitement is rapidly building up, and everyone is thirsting for action, was demonstrated by the large media presence at the Bangalore camp. While 50 odd players practised under the watchful eyes of coach John Wright (and received tips from Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev) an equal number of journalists waited patiently for information, digging for news to report, searching for fresh angles to present to readers and viewers. This quest for khabar meant the video analyst was interviewed, so was the net attendant, the bus driver, the local manager, even the person handing out mineral water bottles.

Does this hysterical coverage indicate anything, besides the obvious point that cricket is huge and that interest in any aspect connected with it is incredible. Some will see in this colossal interest a larger importance, they will spot deeper meaning into what could be merely heightened curiosity.

According to this view, cricket in India is many things at different levels. It is, for example:

A religion, and a passion An adhesive, a super Fevicol

A commercial enterprise that drives a huge industry

A khel, which effectively, is our national sport

Is cricket really all of the above? Yes, but let us look at this closely.

Nobody disputes that cricket is India's pre- eminent sport because every child is busy putting bat to ball. In terms of sheer numbers and popular interest cricket is a one horse race. Hockey has emotional appeal, currently it is experiencing a resurgence of sorts but it will take considerable time, and many wins, before it encourages youngsters to pick up a Rakshak/Vampire stick. Football excites many, kids are attracted thanks to extensive coverage of quality international matches and replica shirts of Beckham/Ronaldo have a large market. But on a scale of ten cricket is 9 and a half. The next best is far, far behind — struggling to register at 4.

Likewise, there is no disagreement about cricket being a mega industry which generates serious money. Some examples of cricket's economic clout: DD pays the BCCI two crores a day for rights yet makes a one crore a day profit on the deal. Pepsi pours more than a crore into the sponsorship of each international match. Sahara pays almost half that amount, per game, for putting its logo on the clothing of the team.

With cricket pulling in big money, players take a decent share. Sachin heads the money list but other stars, though a fair distance behind, are not financially powerless. Yet, the distribution of wealth is so skewed that the top 15 make money, the rest are, in a manner of speaking, below the poverty line.

Coach John Wright watches former India captain Kapil Dev giving tips to some of the probables at the camp. — Pic. AFP-

There is universal acceptance that cricket, like films, unites India. Sourav and Shahrukh are symbols that are recognised and respected from Godhra to Guwahati, Kargil to Kanyakumari. Everyone follows cricket. Everyone watches films. Cricket is a hit all over the country, it never fails to score at the box office. Even a weak product (a Test match with Bangladesh) recovers its cost and keeps the circus rolling.

Cricket as a passion? Yes, of course. Our curiosity for cricket is insatiable, we live on a steady diet of cricket statistics. Scores, strike rates, career records, all manner of ratings are followed more closely than the figures on the stock exchange. We are figure obsessed, that is why the unending comparisons of players from different eras and hot debates about the superiority of one over the other. SMG better than Sachin, or the other way round? Don't even try to sort that out — even ten Nobel winners will fail to give you a proper answer.

That cricket is powerful in India is understood, it is a reality but a problem arises when we credit it with imaginary qualities and give it undue importance. Cricket, for instance, is hardly a religion, it is not something we respect, honour, revere or hold close to our heart. The sport has caught everyone's imagination but interest is, strangely, accompanied by irreverence and disrespect — look at the boorish behaviour at cricket grounds (even top stars are not spared by loutish fans), the woeful lack of credible institutions and traditions.

Instead of solid faith what exists is hollow hype and halla, we are dazzled by cricket's glamour but our devotion is targetted at cricketers not cricket. When it comes to abject adulation we are sewaks and bhakts, ever willing to prostrate ourselves at the feet of Gods manufactured by the media and marketing whiz kids.

There is a need to restore balance, to treat cricket and cricketers with greater maturity and freeing ourselves of over the top, you-are-star-we-are-fans attitude. Cricket, and plenty surrounding it is eminently news worthy; fans want information but should the expulsion of an official in Baroda hit the evening headlines on TV? Does the appointment of a fitness trainer or that of a match referee for the Challenger Trophy deserve a mention on the front page of national newspapers?

Celebrating extraordinary achievements of the team, or its talented members is perfectly understandable, but should birthdays of stars be converted into national festivals? Who knows, but this encroachment on their privacy could be a nuisance and a bother they could do without.

Such is our devotion we think nothing of this excess. But why does this happen? Answers vary from What's there? (meaning how does it matter) to What else is there?