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GONE TO THE CRICKET MATCH
- Cricket has changed, but it has changed to survive

The curtain will come down on the cricket bonanza this evening. There will be celebrations somewhere and heartbreaks somewhere else. In India, enthusiasm for the match is obviously unbounded, especially as the national team, written off as a non-starter in the beginning of the tournament, has emerged as a formidable challenger to the Aussie cricket machine. Bombs over Baghdad have done nothing to dilute this enthusiasm. Indeed, George Orwell’s famous jibe about sports being war minus the shooting has come to acquire something of an ominous ring in the present context.

In both India and Pakistan, cricket, however much this might depress the genuine cricket lover, has come to be imbricated with politics and nationalist passions. This is perhaps more true for India than for Pakistan. This Indian team for the World Cup has the unique distinction of being mentioned by the president in his speech to both houses of Parliament; of receiving good wishes from the prime minister and the deputy prime minister; and, if reports are to be believed, the chief minister of West Bengal has been speaking to the captain of the team over the telephone not infrequently. In fact, if the Iraq war had not intervened, Atal Bihari Vajpayee would have travelled to South Africa to watch the finals. Now, alas, he can only pray for the Indian team and for George W. Bush. This involvement of politicians is a new feature even in a country where, thanks to history, cricket and politics have never really been as separate as they should perhaps have been.

It will not be unfair to ascribe this interest of leading politicians in cricket to something more than their personal fondness for the game. Cricket commands popular enthusiasm, it determines popular sentiments and passions. It has come to acquire features of mass hysteria. Politicians, like the media, can ignore this only at their own peril. It is difficult to pinpoint what has endowed to cricket in India this mass dimension. One factor must be the fact that cricket is the only game in which India is half way good. The other must be rising expectations: after 1983, fans expect India to win. But a more important point to remember here is the nature of response to the one-day game. Test cricket does not evoke the same kind of response among the people and the politicians.

One-day cricket is instant and packaged excitement and entertainment. There is always a decision. To enjoy this, there is no demand to understand the finer points of the game. It thus sells itself easily to viewers and thus to sponsors, advertisers and television channels. Popularity creates the hype, and the hype feeds the popularity. It is a vicious or a virtuous cycle depending how you want your cricket played and appreciated. Technology has, of course, a part to play in the hype and popularity since it has enabled the game to enter the sitting rooms of people. For the discerning viewer, it has made visible aspects of the game which were invisible from the stands. The downside of this is, of course, the bizarre situation in which everyone fancies himself to be an expert on cricket. But when former cricketers and self-styled experts utter banalities and arrant nonsense on television, one cannot complain too much about homespun experts. This has to be accepted as the price of popularity. Quantity does change quality and adversely most of the time.

Cricket has been dumbed down and lumpenized. The former is evident from the comments of so-called experts (one of whom spouted the piece of wisdom that there is nothing in the laws of cricket which says that benefit should go to the batsman) and in the presence of a pretty face in the experts team. The phenomenon of lumpenization revealed itself when India won the match against Pakistan in the qualifying round. Horrible anti-Pakistan sentiments were voiced by otherwise sensible people; similar SMS messages circulated. But worse still was the kind of revelry that was seen on the streets. The jubilation was totally out of proportion to the significance of the victory and had an odd undertow of aggression, if not of violence. The recurring image of screaming young men on motorbikes had an eerie similarity with certain events in Gujarat. A game of cricket had suddenly been transformed into a battle against Pakistan. A phoney war that had nothing to with cricket. It was jingoism and even a kind of communal frenzy that had intruded into the playing arena. All this was not entirely new, but this time round there was something ominous about it. Gujarat has added a new dimension to middle class revelry.

Cricket, especially one-day cricket, carries so many different kinds of loads that it has become impossible for players and spectators to think of the game in isolation. Players have to think of contracts and endorsements, over and above their fitness and performance. On the field, they have to put on the mask of aggression since one cannot survive on the modern sporting arena without an overdose of machoism. Spectators too are conscious of these things as well as of their heightened expectations from the national side. All these bring to the cricket field a charged ambience that bears a resemblance to the arena for gladiatorial combat. Cricketers are icons and an immediate fall from status follows failure. Deification resides close to abuse.

The old fashioned cricket lover, nostalgic of the days when cricket was a more gracious game without a hint of raucousness, still clings to his old love. He consoles himself that cricket, no matter how much it has changed, no matter how much its audience and its appreciation have changed, still remains cricket. Brian Lara still walks when he knows he is out…a rare gesture that compensates for much that is not quite cricket in the old sense of the term. All this is admittedly romantic but it is difficult to divorce cricket completely from some residual notion of romanticism. The sheer aesthetics of the game — even when played in coloured clothes and under lights — evokes the romanticism. There is, after all something majestic about a Sachin Tendulkar straight drive and something quite magical about the way Glenn McGrath, over after over, maintains, bowling from close to the stumps, an immaculate line on or just outside the off stump.

Cricket has changed and has changed to survive. But the sound of the ball on the willow, the image of run-stealers flickering to and fro in the mellow sunshine (rather than glaring lights) carry with them the everlasting fragrance of vanished times when the clock always showed a quarter past three and there was honey still for tea.

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