Victory is a magic potion

DURING the British Raj the real kings were not native Rajas who held court, wore diamonds when sleeping and lived lavishly. The real power rested with British district officials, the Collector and the SP, who ran the administration by slogging, and braved mitti, mirchi and the heat. They governed by travelling constantly, visiting dak bungalow after dak bungalow, circuit house after circuit house, riding on horses and sleeping in tents. The life on these officers in zilas was nomadic and unsettled but they enjoyed their jobs and went about their task with enthusiasm.

In present India, cricketers are the real kings. They are not the mai-baap figures of the past but modern day celebrities who call the shots. Cricket stars are like corporate czars, Sachin drives a Palio besides other cars and the stock exchange by his mega deals. Sachin of course is in a league of his own, he deserves all the adulation and its attendant benefits. So do some of this team mates, the lesser Gods, but such is their power even peripheral players feature as prominently on page 3 as in sports columns. Cricketers are national heroes, they inspire and motivate millions and attracted by the success of the lucky few, millions of fans take to the game in the hope of striking gold, earning riches, embracing fame and catching starlets.

Like the earlier representatives of the Raj, present Indian superstars are a breed apart. As members of the ruling elite of today they move from country to country and go on tour after tour. Such is the demand on their time they hardly get to stay at home, they spin from one plush hotel to another.

There is excess, and India is, to use a neat phrase, badly over-cricketed. The players are feeling the heat as excess shows up in many different ways, notably in injuries and breakdowns. Earlier bowlers broke down and needed to repair important parts, now batsmen experience a similar fate. Sachin, Dravid, Laxman have had to take time out from matches to mend their bodies, captain Ganguly has suffered backaches and several headaches.

Obviously, such strain reflects in performance and part of the reason Indian cricket is where it is in the cricket ratings (for whatever these are worth) is we play even in our sleep. Excess kills enthusiasm, diminishes hunger and watching the Indian team one gets the impression players are going through the motions without emotion. While others, for instance Australia, are hungry, we look lethargic, as if the boys have just gone through a huge meal.

It is no secret the Indian team is not the most athletic, it does not chase balls in the deep with speed, fielders don't lunge far enough to make catches at slip. Kapil Dev played cricket for 17 years as if it was one continuous birthday, his enjoyment, appetite and enthusiasm never slackened. Should somebody ask him for an opinion on the current players, he is likely to say they don't have aag and bijli inside their system and lack the will to fight.

Besides dimming appetite, excess cricket raises chances of failure because when teams play everyday, they have to lose every now and then. In India expectations are immense, and when these are unrealised there is a severe backlash directed against the team. Explains Rahul Dravid, an articulate player who understands this pressure more than others: "It is natural for people to expect us to win but the problem arises when they hold false hopes and start judging us against these unfair yardsticks."

Actually, there are other, less visible problems of excess cricket and it is not just the players in the middle who are feeling the pressure. Spare a thought also for the TV experts who try to enlighten us with their views, the poor chaps who are forced to invent clever things to say all the time. As things stand, experts say things their mums could have said, there is little that is profound because what new, fresh, exciting angles can one produce every morning - beyond a point one runs out of adjectives to praise Tendulkar. In this non-stop cricket coverage, with one series rolling into the next, experts pass loud judgment on players and viewers silently pass judgment on the experts.

Excess cricket has an economic angle as well because if supply overtakes demand, the market has to react to arrive at a fresh level. This is a subtle process and if 3 channels are showing live action, advertising rates have to slip and marketing agents must put in more effort to offload perimeter boards at venues.

Tragically, in the current context of media-driven cricket, the life span of superstars is shortened, the game gives them less time to reign for two reasons. One, when top players perform frequently chances of failure increases, which reduces their appeal. Secondly, over exposure lowers interest, it takes the shine off as the system demands that new stars are created, who are later junked through the same process. Cricket appoints kings but modern rulers come on short-term contracts and are retired/ rejected after a brief spell. This is similar to films where each Friday the box office selects its new king. Or, to see things in a different perspective, top players are cars with limited shelf life, after a while they must move on to make space for the latest model.

Is it possible to change all this and go back to the past when cricket was laid back, easy and less frantic? Much as some would want this, turning the clock back is impossible, modern sport has its own momentum and economic compulsions set the pace. If tennis and golf have their circuits, so does cricket and a certain amount of cricket has to be played among teams. Which is why the ICC has recently developed a ten-year calendar for international teams.

Maybe the entire issue is academic and will blow away if India starts winning. Successful players / teams don't get tired, for them enthusiasm is not a problem, neither is finding sponsors a worry. Victory is a magic potion - it cures all ailments.