Over the course of more than a decade of writing on sports – a time that has coincided with the explosion of international cricket in India – I have covered only one one-day cricket match with ‘visitors’. During this time I have concentrated on football. I have reported on the dismal standards and the doping scandals, taken lonely treks into the Punjab heartland on investigative beats, explored the socio-political role of football in India’s Northeast, covered Tibet’s defiance towards China in the form of a ragtag national football team, and discovered that Britain’s first expatriate footballer could have been an indentured Indian labourer from the Caribbean. As far as cricket is concerned, there have been endless hours at the copy desk, cleaning up messy stories by self-important (and mostly touring) cricket correspondents. In all of this, I can count only one game of cricket in terms of a reporting assignment – admittedly a dismal record.
But this is not a lament. It is, rather, a celebration of a choice. I have nothing against cricket – far from it. Nowadays, I might not haul myself out of bed at first light to see England take guard against Australia in the Ashes Down Under, nor do I sit bleary-eyed (but ever alert) long into the night to watch games in the once-distant West Indies. But all of that is in the past. Since Australia’s Shane Warne and the West Indies’ Brian Lara retired in quick succession in recent months, much of international cricket’s edge seems to have left with them. But my decision not to cover cricket long predates this recent slump.
When Sachin Tendulkar was scoring his record-breaking Test century in Delhi two winters ago, and the world was watching breathlessly, I was in Manipur, trying to make sense of footballing nationalism in the faction-ridden state (see box). When Anil Kumble, again in the capital, was taking his ‘11 for’ (whereby he defeated all 11 of the opposing team’s batsmen) in a single, decisive inning back in 1999, I was on a mission to uncover child labour in Punjab’s lucrative sports-goods industry. In both cases, my stories were relegated to the inside pages of the newspaper I worked for. That is all right and, of course, expected. It would have been petulant to believe that my articles needed to be staring everyone in the face. Yet, this marginalisation of non-cricket stories follows a pattern.
While covering my sole international cricket game in November 2002, a younger colleague, who had been sitting a few rows from me with Maninder Singh – the former cricketer who was hospitalised after an attempted suicide in mid-June – came over and excitedly announced that this would make the 50th match. “Whose? Sourav Ganguly’s?” Missing my sarcasm and suggesting that Ganguly had already played over 300 one-dayers, he said this was the number of games he had now covered as a journalist.
I got to thinking, who keeps count in such matters? Likely not a sporting romantic – but a lover of numbers, or a careerist. Journalists must not be grudged their moments of glory, but there is something more than an enthusiast’s pride to this eagerness to keep one’s personal score.
Cricket reporting – what could otherwise be a beautiful task – now comes accompanied by journalistic ambition so great it seems to gnaw at the game’s soul. The trade’s promise of growth and acceptance distracts from the sport itself, and fosters a destructive competitiveness. Those who choose to report on cricket must thus either discard all sense of propriety and plunge headlong into the game of self-promotion, or opt to keep a distance and merely watch it all. If you choose the former, you may discover a new talent, perhaps even find yourself at the head of the reportorial pack. If you choose the latter, you will invariably be forced to wrestle with your emotions – kicking yourself for being such a shrinking violet, since all the tours are going to other people while the column-inches are filled with poorly filed reports from attention-hungry megastars, mostly made-up controversies and convenient leaks. Indeed, one of the many effects of excessive cricket reporting has been that, in their rush to file something exclusive every day, journalists allow ‘news’ to be planted by the players. During long international tours in particular, when regular stories seem to dry up, petty controversies among cricketers, with their agents, and the high-handedness of Cricket Board officials, are played up to seem significant. It is the journalist pack’s survival tactic.
In India, an aspiring sports journalist must either be content to cover cricket, or seek another profession. After all, barring the occasional blip on the radar screen from the tennis court, no other sport provides the material gratification and ego boost that cricket writing does. To imagine being able to write about anything else is self-delusion – and the situation has only gotten worse with time. You may discuss the exploits of tennis star Roger Federer or the trends in European football with your sports-loving editor during a cigarette break, but you will be called to task if you make the golfer Jeev Milkha Singh your story’s lead, instead of the latest war of words between Greg Chappell and Sourav Ganguly.
When I became a sports journalist, in the mid-1990s, the cricketing boom in Southasia was in its nascent stage. The Internet was yet to be found in Indian newspaper offices at that time, and the ubiquitous television camera and crew were yet to arrive on the Indian pitch. In the mid-1990s, Sachin Tendulkar was just about to sign his first multi-million-dollar deal with WorldTel. In the ensuing upward spiral, prices for telecast rights and TV deals would go through the roof, multiplying manifold with each new series – and soon, these were cropping up by the dozen. As the game became increasingly commercialised, the time-tested tradition of an off-season would quickly be done away with. And with players on the pitch the year-round, sponsors would feel they were getting their money’s worth, and television channels would prove ever eager to cut coverage of other sports to broadcast yet another cricket series.
But back then, us greenhorn sports journalists were still made to believe that, with good, intelligent, head-down work, success would eventually come our way. Cricket was just one part of the wide and wonderful world of sports, in which everything had a place; our paper would even carry reports from English county games. International cricket has supplanted not only reportage of all other sports, but also coverage of other cricket. Today, domestic Indian cricket games do not receive mention in any but the most provincial of papers. If a domestic match is not featuring at least one bitter, discarded Test star, why should it even come up in editorial meetings?
It was in the mid-1990s that Southasian cricket stopped being a sport, and was converted into a money-making industry. In the process, the game created a new personality for the previously friendly cricket writer: the bloated ego, the self-important bluster. As the players became celebrities and proximity to them acquired a premium, reporters-turned-rockstars became a loud and intrusive presence on the cricket grounds. In this world of heavyweights, the stakes are high. There continues a running battle in the press box at New Delhi’s Feroz Shah Kotla stadium over which of the local cricket-scribe bigwigs discovered Virender Sehwag. Everyone claims ownership, and as Sehwag’s star fades, all say that they were the first to stick their necks out and warn of his impending decline.
Any serious cricket journalist can vouch for the existence of this kind of petty near-sightedness, which takes away from a meaningful engagement with the sport. For readers tired of the bluster of cricket journalism, there is only one recourse – turn to other sports. Only when the public rewards sports journalism that does not take away the romance of the game, will the editors and television programmers begin to give more importance to other sports.
Manipur’s football nationalism
It is December 2005, and Sachin Tendulkar is scoring his 35th century, beating a record that Sunil Gavaskar had held for 22 years. But Imphal, the capital of Manipur, is oblivious to the tremor rocking the Indian mainland. A flickering TV set in a dank hotel lobby is probably cricket’s only connection to the city. And even there, apart from the hotel cab driver awaiting his call, the Sikh businessman and front-desk manager who rarely looks up from his bills, nobody is watching.
But later in the evening, when the electricity returns after a power cut, there is a remarkable awakening. After a soulful rendition of a local number, the waiter of Sri Krishna Chicken Centre joins his mates to watch the delayed showing of an FC Barcelona-Cadiz Spanish League football meet on cable television. The telecast is greeted with silence and rapt attention. At this very moment another channel is replaying Tendulkar’s century, but no one here is tuned in.
In November 2005, a refereeing decision at the Santosh Trophy tournament in Kochi had hurt Manipur’s chances of advancing to the semifinals; the subsequent protests in Manipur led to a two-day closure state-wide. Public demonstrations were arranged immediately, and effigies of the referee and All India Football Federation (AIFF) officials were burnt. The local cable channel halted telecasts of the rest of the tournament, and Zee Sports’ ratings took a nosedive. Scathing editorials of the referee’s call appeared in the local papers, and a Manipuri referee turned in his badge.
The All Manipur Football Association (AMFA) was quick to withdraw its teams from all AIFF-run competitions through the end of the year; this was followed by the Manipur Olympic Association’s withdrawal from all national-level sporting events. In the uber-organised world of Manipuri sport, the national participation of its teams nationwide is serious business. Manipur is a state deeply divided between hill groups and the dominant, non-tribal community of the Imphal Valley. The Zeliangrong, or Kabui, sect of the Naga community, for instance, is considered a natural antagonist of the Valley-based Meitei community. But even the Zeliangrong Football Association, an organisation with a troubled relationship with the AMFA, called off play, expressing its solidarity with the bandhs.
In Manipur, football represents perhaps the only point on which all can agree. Maybe Manipuris unite when confronted, via national football, with the image of an India that has alienated them in the past, and which spurns them in the present. “Nationalism manifests itself in almost all teams coming out of the state. They are ready to die for the state,” says football-crazy IAS officer R K Nimai.
“Sport is the one counter-insurgency plot by the government that has actually proved popular,” chuckles one political activist. Referring to the spread of hard drugs among young Manipuris, he claims: “First they went for the youth with other tricks. It was rampant in the 1990s, and it worked like magic. Then they discovered the opium of sport. Now they’ve thrust hockey sticks and badminton racquets into their hands, and the guns have gone.” No one seems to be complaining.
Over the past decade, Manipur has served as a nursery for mainstream Indian football. Each major club in mainland India boasts of an array of Manipuri players. Add to that a triple world women’s boxing champion in Mary Kom; a clutch of excellent sportsmen and women in cycling, judo and boxing; evergreen women weightlifters, and a fresh interest in sports not traditionally associated with Manipur (including archery and wushu), and the picture for Manipuri sport could not be rosier. Dhanabir Laishram, a political scientist at Manipur University, suggests that part of the reason why sport has become a raison d’etre for Manipuri youth is a lack of traditional employment options: “Manipur is a case of urbanisation without industrialisation. The agricultural sector too has been poor. Sport has become an industry in Manipur.”
But why does it arouse such passion? In the dressing room in Kochi that day in November 2005, the anger was palpable. We will never play in India again, never! was the refrain heard from many players. “There is a sense of alienation in all walks of life in Manipur, not just in football,” says Nimai. “There was a sense of hurt with what happened in Kochi. Things like this make people feel that the Centre doesn’t really care.”
What would correct that ill-feeling? “An apology, that’s all,” insists Pradip Phanjoubam, of the Imphal Free Press. “All those in Manipur need to have their sentiments assuaged is a mention from the Federation that the referee was wrong. We are not asking for the result to be reversed. That cannot happen in football. What we are asking for is just a show of concern. All of Manipur is looking for just that one word. And not just in football.”