The trend looks irreversible

PEOPLE thought interest in cricket would bubble over after the World Cup but the expected drop did not happen.

AMRIT MATHUR

Gautam Gambhir... swishing at loaded questions. — Pic. RAJEEV BHATT-

PEOPLE thought interest in cricket would bubble over after the World Cup but the expected drop did not happen. Cricket held its position despite the lean season and, surprisingly, showed enough indications that instead of shrinking it was actually spreading.

This growth is part of a steady but silent takeover. Cricket dwarfed other sports long ago, caught the attention of fans and conquered public attention. With this, players became celebrities and role models who motivated young Indians. They also wielded enormous financial clout, as part of a booming cricket industry. All this peaked during the World Cup, and as India made the final, the stock of Indian cricket and cricketers went through the roof.

Astonishingly, there is no hint of a roll back, a slide or a reversal of this trend. The World Cup is over, India's next engagement is several months away but cricket continues to hold interest, whether through Parthiv Patel's aborted attempts to appear for the class 12 exam or Ashish Nehra's ankle.

Even cricketers can't fully comprehend this unique fascination, this astonishing appeal of the game. In a way, this was unwittingly revealed by Rahul Dravid's remarks before his wedding which he tried to keep private and low key. When the media descended on his house to cover the event and badgered him for details, an exasperated Dravid asked: Why should you people be interested in my personal life?

This annoyance, and innocence, reveals lack of awareness about what is called ground reality. Dravid is news, his wedding is big news. And the fact that the media is denied news is news in itself.

There are other indications as well about cricket's takeover, and the rising graph of players. Kapil paaji is brand ambassador/consultant/advisor to more companies than there are teams in Ranji. No page 3 event is possible without the presence of a cricketer. They are seen inaugurating shops, are prominently present at fashion shows, product launches and exhibitions. Why, even wedding anniversaries/birthday celebrations/nam karan ceremonies of cricket related people make newspaper columns!

Such excessive hype is often harmless — how does it matter if Dinesh Mongia gets more mileage than Dino Moria at the new gol gappa outlet and Avishkar Salvi is projected as the latest sensation to replace Brett Lee. Surely, nobody gets taken in by the manufactured headlines and the breathless hype.

In this current craze to inflate the size of sports celebrities, one recent trend about cricketers overtaking film stars in popular ratings has gone unnoticed. Earlier, film icons were in a class of their own, they were undisputed kings who ruled over subjects across the country. But now, all of a sudden, the kings have become commoners and the army of King Khans (consisting of Shahrukh, Salman, Aamir, Saif, Fardeen and others whose names I can't recollect) come lower in heirarchy than top cricket khiladis. The batting order, so to say, has been inverted and this is reflected in the advertisement films aired every evening on TV. When the Indian team went to England for the last World Cup Shahrukh Khan was shown masquerading as Sachin in one cola advertisement. During the World Cup in South Africa his role changed, all he now did was wish Sourav good luck. Which shows steady decline in protocol, the film king reduced to the status of an ordinary cricket fan. Proof, is it not, that when it comes to film stars versus cricketers, it is definitely cricket first.

As part of this new reality film stars want to be seen at cricket matches, and cricketers get invited to film shows like the one held recently in Johannesburg. That cricketers are in a league of their own is also demonstrated by the President's invitation to the cricket team to have chai in the Mughal Gardens.

But when players acquire a large, largely non-cricket profile, some tricky problems occasionally arise. Consider, for instance the issue about cricket contact with Pakistan which the Government froze, its decision based on certain political realities. Now the government is reviewing its position, again due to emerging political developments, and the issue is also up for debate.

On this sensitive matter various people have had their say, both for and against, from the groundsman at Gaddafi stadium, Lahore to our new opener from Delhi, Gautam Gambhir. A newspaper quoted the young left hander as saying he disapproved of resumption of cricket ties with Pakistan. And why? Because Pakistan must stop cross-border terrorism, replied Gambhir.

One view is there is nothing wrong in Gambhir talking on serious issues and as an aware citizen he should express his opinion. The other is: why doesn't he just play, and leave more important matters to more important people. Perhaps it would have been better if Gautam had let this go safely, and not swished at the loaded question.

A related issue is the rising trend of celebrities in one field expounding freely on every subject under the sun. Actress Rekha is one specialist who regularly educates us on profound issues of life and its deep philosophy though there is nothing on record to suggest she is qualified to speak on such matters. Similarly there are countless so-called celebrities, from fashion designers to members of mahila andolan samitis, ready to give lectures on WTO and POTA.

Young models, whose only claim to fame is holding a toothpaste tube in front of a camera, will argue with Sourav Ganguly about the behaviour of the pitch on the third morning of a Test match. Sourav feels captaining India is difficult because everyone knows more about cricket than the captain. This is the legitimate grouse of a harassed, and pressured, captain but even this indicates how deep the cricket virus runs in India. It is just not possible to get away from cricket, during season or in the off-season.

With cricket attracting more devotees, very soon the cricket takeover of India will become complete. To facilitate the process, inventive methods are already being employed, for example the induction of women anchors on TV in a bid to widen viewer base and target a new audience segment. In the future, as cricket grows further, the genuine cricket fan will have to endure more of Ms. Bedi but that, I guess, is the price that must be paid.