Where stars are projected larger than life

AMRIT MATHUR

STANDING on the dais at a fund-raising function, mike in hand, in front of a captive audience, one major cricket sponsor announced that in India 3 C's mattered most: country, cricket and cricketers. One is not sure how much importance is attached to the country nowadays but there is no disputing the enormous clout of cricket and cricketers. Cricket, in fact, is so pervasive and powerful some non-believers (yes, these deviants also exist) complain that we are a country only of cricket and more cricket.

While the sponsor, who pumps many crores into the game, said the obvious, he failed to mention that the most crucial C of them all is cash. Everything runs on this fuel, it is the oxygen everyone needs.

Cricket is important because it raises serious money. It is an entertainment show which always tops every TRP rating even when savaged brutally by some ignorant Rubyji. Cricket generates cash, is the hottest topic of conversation at social do's, board rooms /drawing rooms and bedrooms. Cricket raises obscene amounts of money because it delivers, in the language of market specialists, millions of eyeballs which belong to potential consumers. And for anyone wanting to sell a product, be it colas or cars, cricket is the safest way to connect with people.

But while cricket has spun this extensive commercial jaal some myths about its position need to be examined. Cricket is supposed to be this great cement which binds India together (from Kargil to Kanyakumari, Kutch to Kohima and beyond), it is touted to be a crucial factor contributing to national integration. Romantics and social scientists don't tire of reminding us that this, together with consumerism, is modern India's religion. But, pause, hang on a minute. Is cricket really, seriously, a passion? And a religion?

Nonsense. India does not have a cricket tradition to speak of, hardly anyone here values its values, there is little respect for the game. This view does not rest on stray incidents of hooliganism, nor is it influenced by the acts of some misguided spectators chucking bottles into grounds to disturb games. Reality is we don't love cricket and have scant respect or awareness about its history, tradition or values. Cricket fans are completely innocent of all these things.

What's astonishing, however, is even Test players are caught on the wrong foot on this score. In England this summer, face to face with Farokh Engineer, many current Indian players had no clue who the gentleman was! Some, believe me, asked: India khela hai? Kitne match? Can you imagine this ?! Farokh Engineer was a major, major star, not just another cricketer.

Confusion about cricket's position arises when ordinary interest is misinterpreted as deep passion. For most fans cricket is good time pass, a popular show with popular performers which produces entertainment, mazaa and enjoyment. Just this — there is hardly any thought of commitment, faith or devotion.

Of course there is nothing wrong in this because top quality sport is top entertainment and enjoyment. But why attach a lofty, noble tag to what is just popular interest ? If cricket was so precious, stands would not be torched, missiles sent into the fields or players abused as happened in Mumbai recently. Supporting the home side is perfectly normal, it is ok to scream and applaud Harbhajan's inner edge to fine leg. But when Hooper's smooth cover drive is greeted with complete silence in a packed stadium it leaves you with a weird feeling. A truly sporting crowd would appreciate a wonderful shot even when played by someone from the other side.

Essentially, we are devoted to cricketers, not cricket, we place personalities above the sport. Cricketers are the centre of this universe, the suryavanshi rajas.

In this solar system (with Sawai Sachin and Maharaj Sourav) we are mere subjects, happy doing aarti and performing puja. The bhakti is so strong that Sehwag, an infant in international cricket, is such a celebrity that if he sneezes, or has a minor headache, the news hits the headlines.

Partly, this extreme curiosity is fuelled by the wealth of cricketers. Being a stats - obsessed nation we pay attention to silly cricket ratings and want to know who is averaging what. Just as box office collections of films are a topic of daily discussion on the evening TV news, there is incessant speculation about which player is worth what kind of money.

This interest in figures is not academic, figures are important in helping measure a person's worth and determine the commercial clout he wields. That is why the following questions are always doing the rounds : Did Kaante make money, what is riding on Shahrukh Khan, what is Tendulkar's worth, how much does he take home every year, what is ESPN / MRF / VISA/ FIAT paying him, is Sourav more expensive than Dravid?

When players are magnified in stature and their abilities multiplied there are two dangers. One, the cricket aspect is pushed into the background, and attention gets deflected to personality and paisa. Two, when stars are projected as larger than life supermen capable of superhuman feats, expectations are unduly raised. Cricketers are not tigers, and it is unfair on them to think they will produce extraordinary feats.

There is also the danger, when players are projected as Gods, that they are viewed as magical saviours or great patriots. Such things don't happen, and when players do stumble, doubts are raised about their commitment to the country. This tendency, either way, is wrong and dangerous, it is as indefensible as mixing religion with state policy.

That sport impacts national prestige is accepted and understood but is Tendulkar waging a war for India? Or, is it the collective responsibility of 11 Indian players to redeem the hopes and aspirations of 100 crores? Is Sourav's team supposed to inject pride into our system and maintain national morale?

Cricket should be seen in the proper perspective, it is a marvellous sport but one should not go over the top about its virtues.

Winning at Lord's is fantastic, defeating West Indies at home is nice but neither comes close to winning a Nobel. Nor is defeat against New Zealand, however disappointing, a matter of shame or a national disaster. Let cricket remain a khel.