Opiate of a billion

Opiate of a billion

Greiving fans : a 'funeral' for Indian cricket following the teams failure in 2007 world cup

Indian cricket changed overnight. All it took was the excitement and energy following one victory: India's World Cup win on 25 June 1983. That evening, what used to be a mere sport was converted into a lucrative career option, and cricketers into default national icons. And from then on Indians – and along with them, the rest of the region – began to look to cricket as both a relaxant and something into which to channel their energies, patriotic and otherwise. Soon enough, the corporate world would take note – and the rest of the world would follow.

Cricket has been played in the Subcontinent since at least the early 18th century, but it was only around the close of the 19th century that the game began to assume particular significance in the region. With the inception of an influential cricket series in Bombay in 1892, the game's popularity increased, and by the 1930s, the Pentangular matches (so-called for their inclusion of Europeans, Parsis, Hindus, Muslims and 'the rest') were being viewed by 25,000 or more spectators. The Indian Cricket Board was formed in 1928, and India played its first Test match at Lords, in London, on 25 June 1932.

But it was only after India's triumph in 1983 that the game came to be perceived as a viable path to fame and income for middle- and lower-middle-class Indians. That victory paved the way for corporate sponsors to invest in cricket, in anticipation of rich dividends. It also gave the media events for it to build hype around, and cricket proved a salve for a troubled nation. Today, no hyperbole can capture the importance of cricket in the everyday life of the country. And the reason for this can be traced to one of modern India's most sensitive disconnects: India is the world's second-most populous country, but its global presence remains relatively less significant. On the political stage and the economic front, although desperately trying to edge herself into the circle of super powers, India has not quite made it.

This marginality is especially prominent in sport. In the past two summer Olympics, the Indian tri-colour was hoisted in victory only once. India has never won a gold medal in a non-team sport in the Olympics. As Indians turn their attention to cricket, however, the narrative of 'catching up' suddenly disappears. Cricket is the only realm where Indians, for the past two decades, have consistently – the World Cup debacle in the West Indies this March notwithstanding – been able to flex their muscle. It is India's only crack at world domination. Clearly, the widely voiced aphorism is true: for Indians, cricket is much more than a game.

In the two decades since 1983, the craze for cricket has become a veritable mania. In the contemporary sporting world, few would argue with the assertion that, economically at least, India is the new cricketing superpower. As a consequence, cricket has become integral to defining the culture of postcolonial India, a country anxious to define its position in a world rapidly changing and characterised by globalisation and growing inter-dependence. As was evident during this year's Cricket World Cup, for the short duration that Indian hopes were alive, cricket mania completely dominated the country. During the week of 17-23 March, all other news seemed to melt into the background as millions of Indians sat glued to their television sets, following their team's every move.

As was to be expected, cricket commerce was also at an all-time high during the series. Given the amount of attention focussed on it, India's early loss led to widespread dejection, vandalism and public wrath across the country. (A similar situation held sway across the country's western border, after Pakistan too suffered an early and ignominious defeat.) This is because the fortunes of the Indian cricket team encapsulate the story of postcolonial India in microcosm: a tapestry being woven around the performance of 11 men, who carry on their shoulders the hopes and demands of a country of a billion.

Feel-good space
The Indian madness for cricket does not transfer to other sport. Indeed, the attention drawn by the country's two other popular games, football and hockey, does not compare, even though the latter is technically India's national game. Since the mid- to late 1970s, Indian teams have fared poorly in these games at the international level. In hockey, India performed miserably in the Olympics and the Champions Trophy tournaments during the 1980s and 1990s; in the eight-country tournament held in the Netherlands in August 2005, the Indian hockey team finished a dismal seventh. Though it did win India bronze medals in the 1968 and 1972 Olympics, hockey's popularity has notably diminished over the past three decades – during which time cricket's ratings have skyrocketed.

Meanwhile, the last time that Indian football performed decently was at the Bangkok Asian Games in 1970, where the team won a bronze. Since then, the tale of football in the country has been one of continuous decline; in rankings for June 2007 compiled by the International Football Association (FIFA), India placed at 161st. Football infrastructure in the country is such that FIFA's president, Sepp Blatter, argued during a recent visit that India should not hope to enter the sport's big league anytime in the next two decades.

Both football and hockey have longstanding histories in India, and the reasons for the decline of their play in the country are many. The Indian Olympic Association, the All India Football Federation and the Indian Hockey Federation have all recently accused the corporate world and the media of what they perceive as unfair treatment of these two sports. While there is a kernel of truth to these contentions, poor marketing strategies, internal politicking and the myopic views of the officials who run these institutions have also accounted for their sports' stagnation.

Given India's history of failure in other team sports, the Indian public has grown accustomed to leading on the cricket team. Somewhere along the way, appreciation of individual performance came to be drowned out by the clamour for national victory. Players are now lauded not for great innings so much as for those performances, however brief they may be, that have proven decisive. After his penultimate ball four against Pakistan in the final of the Independence Cup in Dhaka in January 1998, Hrishikesh Kanitkar was as much a star as Saurav Ganguly or Robin Singh, both of whom had scored very high in the same match. Stars are made on the basis of last-minute saves. Thus, a young Sachin Tendulkar, a relative newcomer in 1993, whose meagre score of 15 runs had been a disappointment in that year's Hero Cup semi-final against South Africa, was catapulted to stardom when he conceded only three runs while bowling in the last over. The crowd hailed a saviour who had brought victory by two runs; Tendulkar's sad 15 was forgotten.

Cricket today provides India a feel-good space, where nearly all differences can be overcome. The assertion of an Indian 'identity', the expression of cultural nationalism or the feeling of a common emotion – these are no longer confined to the stadium and post-match activities. For instance, a poll conducted a few years back found that more than 50 percent of India's youth would prefer to live in another country. However, as journalist Sandipan Deb has observed: "Even when they do go away to some other country, they have a live cricket scorecard open surreptitiously on their computer monitors throughout their working day, and they turn out in daunting numbers at the stadium whenever India's playing in their adopted country." The global Indian wants simultaneously to escape his country and to embrace it. Clearly, cricket is no longer a mere 'national' obsession.

Anthropologist Robert Foster has offered similar analysis of the role played by the Papua New Guinean rugby star Marcus Bai in stirring the Papuan national consciousness. Similar to Bai's role vis-à-vis his countrymen, cricket in India is no longer a vehicle for merely imagining the nation, but has become one by which to transcend the nation – to escape the troubled country, even, through a form of 'imagined cosmopolitanism'. Foster says that such imagining conjures a utopian vision for the future, one where a Papuan, or an Indian, can engage with the world on a level playing field. In India, however, cricket provides far more than an opportunity for imagination. The sport allows postcolonial India to assert itself on the world stage.

The postcolonial game
For a short while, India's craze for cricket succeeded in hiding the grim realities confronting many of the region's countries, particularly with regards to poverty. Retired cricketers faced destitution, and it was, and to some extent still is, commonplace to hear of former players being rescued from inhumane conditions by human-rights workers and the most ardent of fans. If this was the fate of once beloved sportsmen, there was little wonder about the circumstances of much of the rest of the population.

Since the turn of the millennium, things have begun to change. In 2004-5, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) formally started a pension scheme, converting cricket into a proto-industry. Any player who has represented the country now qualifies to receive a monthly pension of at least INR 25,000 from the cricket establishment, for as long as he lives. Players' widows are also part of the scheme. Perhaps most significantly, however, a proposal is now under discussion to extend the pension scheme to India's roughly 50,000 national-level, interstate players, known as Ranji Trophy cricketers. Doing so would suddenly allow for a relatively large constituency to see cricket on a national level as a realistic, stable, life-long career.

Even as it finally begins to look to the well-being of its non-international players, Indian cricketing has felt confident enough to turn its attention to its would-be competitors – namely, other sports. Take a look at the following news release, from May 2006:

On India's 1932 England tour

The Indian cricket team will play a match every year to raise around Rs 45 crore to promote other games in the country. "It is not only cricket the BCCI is worried about. It will spend Rs 50 crore every year on training the country's top-ranking junior player of any individual game played in the Olympics," BCCI president Sharad Pawar said. He concluded saying, "It is not good for the country that we are not winning golds in the Olympics. Cricket has people's cooperation and the board's finances are improving. It is appropriate for the board to assist other games."

Indeed, through the pension scheme and through these new efforts to give players of other sports a boost, Indian cricket has undertaken an important programme of ensuring that sport is, for the first time, able to directly benefit a significant and growing group of people in the country. During the course of what may be seen as a decade-long transition, cricket has become the first Southasian example of what could be called a 'postcolonial' sport. As recently as the 1990s, despite its vast popularity and increasing financial might, national-level cricket was still essentially just a game – a game that rich people played while poor people worked. Several factors during the past decade led to the establishment of cricket as an institution, one in which several groups of participants – cricketers themselves, but also administrators, fans and sponsors – have a stake.

Eastern colonialism
The opening up of the Indian economy during the 1990s, coupled with the role of the new media, stimulated the solidifying of a commercialised, and increasingly jingoistic, cricket culture. Until a 1995 judgement by the Supreme Court, the state-owned television channel Doordarshan had monopoly rebroadcast rights over Indian cricket.

Following the decision, however, the BCCI suddenly found itself able to sell telecast rights of cricket matches in India to any private broadcaster. What followed was a phenomenal influx of corporate finance to Indian cricket. Soon, and just as the Indian public was being drawn into the global economy, names like Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid began promoting various brands of products. Indeed, cricket became inseparable from brand names. Though an indulgence for most Indians, Adidas, Nike, Reebok and other cricketer-endorsed brands found a place in the cricket enthusiast's participation in the game. Off-field, drinking a particular soft drink became importantly symbolic of participation in national triumphs. The 1996 World Cup hosted in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, for example, is remembered as much for being an organisational success as for the advertising war that took place between Pepsi and Coke.

For their part, cricketers went from being mere glamour icons to becoming integral parts of the entertainment/advertisement economy. Soon, in India at least, they were able to directly influence the day-to-day lives of the masses, whether in generating active patriotism, inadvertently inducing destruction following failure in matches, or building and fashioning a consumer culture. Cricket stars began shaping lives.

As India's cricketers rose in stature, the country was increasingly able to disengage itself from its colonial past. This is visible in particular by the ease with which the Subcontinent has been able to overpower Western countries to win rights to host World Cup competitions. Indeed, no other country can match Indian cricket's current financial muscle. As such, over the course of the past decade, the economic nerve centre of world cricket has firmly shifted away from the West, particularly England, and towards Southasia (see box).

Cricket's iconic status within the Southasian diaspora underlines the region's transformation into the new centre of global cricket. One simple example from 2004 is enough to prove the point. During the inaugural match of the Champions Trophy in Birmingham, England, not a single hoarding board at the event advertised for a local company – they were all from the Subcontinent. And Southasia (or at least India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh), despite being a tardy entrant into the contest to win the rights to host the 2011 World Cup, was eventually the runaway winner. Are we now seeing an Eastern economic imperialism, with its basis in cricket, colonising the West in the global sporting village of the 21st century?

A leisurely pastime
The movement of cricket's global power centre was borne out particularly sharply to this writer when, in March 2006, England won a famous victory in Bombay, beating India in the third Test match. After watching the English victory, I left my friends' house in a quiet London suburb. The loss had left me crestfallen, and I assumed that everyone in the London Underground would be discussing the game. As it turned out, however, cricket in England is hardly the game it once was. Only us Southasians, it seemed, really bothered about what was happening back home, and awoke early in the morning to watch the action. For the English, cricket has become nothing more than a leisurely pastime. In the crowded train, I listened in on a football-related conversation between six British teenagers. On inquiring what they thought of the English cricket squad's recent victory over India, I was told, "We didn't know that England was playing a friendly against India!" Upon clarifying that I was talking about cricket, not football, the group was quick to point out that after the biannual Ashes series between England and Australia, cricket generally falls out of focus in most London homes. Though thoroughly confused, I became determined to find out whether cricket had any substantial presence in central London. It did not seem unreasonable, after all, to expect that analysis of the recent match would be shown on the television screens of at least some shops in the area. But a subsequent stroll proved me wrong. In direct opposition to Southasia, nearly all the televisions I saw were beaming football updates. In the working-class neighbourhood in Oxford, the sole place where a pedestrian could catch some cricket news was the local grocery, owned by a Pakistani man whom locals called Lalaji. This dingy corner store stoically continued to air cricket around the clock, despite the expense required to subscribe to the requisite channel.

~ Boria Majumdar, a Rhodes Scholar, is the author of two books on Indian cricket, including The Illustrated History of Indian Cricket (Roli and Tempus, 2006).

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