Editorial / Calcutta can play cricket
Running on the pitch
The Telegraph Diary
Letters to the editor

Time was when the saying, �It isn�t cricket��, had implications for things far away from the cricket field. The saying has become meaningless now because there exist good reasons to argue that cricket is no longer played even on the cricket field. Cricket and the ambience in which it is played have made nonsense of the synonymity between cricket and fair play and between cricket and decency. Cricket has undergone a radical transformation and with it has changed the composition of the crowd and its behaviour. The latter aspect is most noticeable in India and even more in the city of Calcutta. Even 10 or 15 years ago, it would have been difficult to conceive of a test match in Calcutta being disrupted because the home team was at the point of losing the match or because an Indian star had been adjudged to be out. But both have happened in recent times in Calcutta. Crowd violence is not a new thing in Eden Gardens. New Year�s Day, 1967, was the first time a test match could not be played on a particular day at the Eden Gardens because the spectators had gone berserk. But this show of anger was not directed at the players but at the organizers who had sold too many tickets and had provided cramped accommodation. Making players targets of violence is a new dimension of crowd behaviour in Calcutta and it is not an aspect of the city�s culture of which one can be proud.

In the past, cricket was a sport, a gracious and an elegant one. Cricket lovers in Calcutta went to Eden Gardens to see it as such. Everyone wanted to see good cricket, nobody expected India to win; an Indian victory was an added bonus. Good cricket was always applauded. This attitude changed with a number of things. First, the popularity of one-day cricket, second, the advent of television and third, rising spectator expectations once India won the World Cup in 1983. One-day cricket brought instant entertainment. Cricket ceased to be a sport but became something akin to professional wrestling. There was a continuous demand for more excitement, more sixes and more fours. Television brought money to the game and enhanced its popularity. At the same time, it took away from the ground the connoisseur who now preferred to watch the game in more detail from the comfort of his drawing room rather than from the cramped concrete stands provided at Eden Gardens. The stadium came to be filled by those driven not by the love for cricket but by their compulsive need to get instant excitement. Rising expectations and the emergence of Indian stars fed this need.

There was no space in this ambience for failure. Stars, making millions, were deprived of their right to fail. From the beginning of the Nineties another factor added to the charged atmosphere. This was the circulation of rumours that players were involved in taking bribes and fixing matches. Suspicion led to the belief that failures were deliberate. Expectations and suspicion made a heady combination in which cricket had no place. To an extent, cricket is the victim of its own transformation and its own enrichment. This is somewhat inevitable. The most unsavoury aspect of this situation � violence � has in the recent past manifested itself in Calcutta. People in this city are known for their passion and their excitability. To this is added the awful, almost inhuman, conditions in which spectators, after paying good money, are forced to watch matches at Eden Gardens. Nowhere else are 100,000 people cramped together under a blaring sun without adequate access to drinking water. These circumstances become tolerable when the heroes perform, when India wins. When these expectations were seen to be denied, the crowd erupted. This is not to condone what happened at the India-Sri Lanka match in the World Cup semi-final and again in 1999 during the India-Pakistan test match. Those were shameful incidents in the life of a city proud of its culture. Even if no one plays cricket any more, there is no reason for Calcutta to surrender its own sense of playing cricket.


Sociology and psychology, disciplines anxious to generalize, have given football fans the academic treatment for years: anomie, plebeian male-bonding, inner-city tribalism, the decline of community, the rise of working-class racism, every ready-to-wear idea available has been tried on football hooligans to kit them out as worthy subjects. Nobody has done the same for cricket fans. This is largely because cricket�s followers tend not to be alienated and violent. At least they don�t routinely go berserk, although they can. On the eve of a test match at Eden Gardens, where spectators have sometimes turned matches on and off at will, a little speculation on the nature of cricket�s following is permissible.

While the rich and the poor form part of cricket�s audience in India, it mainly appeals to the people in between. This conveniently elastic category isn�t really the middle class: it is, rather, that class of urban Indians that has some English, from just howzatt at one end of the spectrum to hermeneutics at the other.

Till Doordarshan began telecasting matches in the Seventies, cricket�s audience listened to the game more than watched it. Cricket, like revealed religion, depended on the Word and its interpreters. Radio commentary was religion because it transported you to unseen, unknown realms. �This is All India Radio. We now take you over to the Eden Gardens for a running commentary on the fifth day of the fourth cricket Test between England and India. Our commentators are...�

When I started listening in the mid-Sixties, these commentators were Chakrapani, Pearson Surita, and the unspeakable Maharajakumar of Vizianagaram aka Vizzy. Fortunately, A.F.S. Talyarkhan had stopped broadcasting by then, because if his columns in Blitz were anything to go by, he must have been a dreadful windbag. Vijay Merchant used to do the expert commentary. Devraj Puri and Anant Setalvad came later. So did Suresh Saraiya, but once he got into the box he never stopped talking: it was commentary as a continuous loop of speech with no beginning or end, where to pause was to admit defeat, where radio silence was dead time.

Hindi commentary used to be broadcast on a separate frequency till AIR thriftily merged the two so that every twenty minutes the listener travelled from a game in which the ball was bowled to one in which the ball was thrown because Hindi didn�t have a word for �bowled� and was too proud to borrow an English one. The definitive Hindi commentator was Jasdev Singh. He knew nothing about the game but his voice was calm, and he conveyed the events on the field to you with a kind of prissy accuracy which was a welcome departure from the chronic agitation of other Hindi commentators who tried to make up for their lack of cricketing lore and insight with bursts of hysterical excitement: aur veh OUT!!

Anyway, the mid-Sixties was also the time when portable transistor radios became affordable and the respectable urban poor, wobbling on cycles, could be seen carrying largish sets, antennae extended, speakers crackling with Vividh Bharati, Radio Ceylon or cricket commentary. The point is that cricket, though enjoyed for its own sake, was also tied in complex ways to an aspiration to be respectable and middle class. The reason cricket�s spectators were generally peaceful was that they wanted to belong, unlike English football crowds for whom football stadiums were arenas where they could act out their alienation from a bourgeois world.

The relative tameness of cricket�s audiences has also something to do with cricket�s fans being raised, till recently, on radio commentary. Listening to a complex game being described needed concentration, attention span, an engagement with the game�s traditions, and some use of the imagination to fill in the bits the commentators left out. Radio socialized thousands of Indians into cricket, but it also taught them deference: it gave them a set of second-hand opinions on everything and left them dependent on authoritative commentary.

Till the Eighties, it was commonplace to see spectators at the ground watching the action in the middle with a transistor radio pressed to their ears. They were in the stadium watching but to understand what was happening they needed those familiar voices naming the fielders, describing the shots played, measuring out praise and blame. Most of all, they needed those familiar phrases (�runs in to bowl�, �played back along the pitch�, �walks back to the top of his bowling mark�) to set out the leisured rhythms of the game. Cricket is to sport what dhrupad is to music and both set great store by tradition, arcane knowledge and connoisseurship. Radio commentary, in the terms of this analogy, is the reassuring tanpura drone that anchors the performance.

It is important to acknowledge that cricket crowds aren�t always peaceful. I can remember the time Brabourne Stadium, Bombay, erupted when the umpire, Sambhu Pan, gave Venkataraghavan out in the 1969-70 series against Bill Lawry�s Australians. The crowd disagreed and decided to burn and otherwise damage the stadium. But unlike soccer hooligans, who are violent in gangs and whose violence is directed at each other, the Brabourne Stadium rioters were protesting an injustice against the home team and their rage was directed at public property. Significantly, this vandalism had been provoked by the observations of a radio commentator, Devraj Puri. Puri declared that Venkataraghavan had been wrongly given out by the umpire. For the thousands of fans inside Brabourne Stadium who depended on the wise men inside their radios to understand what was going on, for whom Akashvani supplied the first and last word on the game, it was as if a higher authority had struck down the verdict of a fallible earth-bound umpire. Even in their violence they were deferential.

With the ascendancy of one-day cricket and the related capture of the game by television, cricket�s following in India changed. The game became more accessible. Watching was more literal than listening: you didn�t need a commentator to bring you the game entire, you needed him for a gloss on the game. The game became a spectacle for the simple reason that you could see it. The limited overs game dramatized the spectacle by simplifying the game and thus making it even more accessible to those who had neither the time nor the inclination to learn to like the five day game.

Untutored in the deference taught by radio, this television-raised generation of spectators goes to the stadium not to watch the game (that can be better done at home via slow-motion replay) but on the off-chance that the cameras might be watching them. Where an earlier generation had been taught to revere cricket by a broadcasting monopoly, this one grew up watching the game as one entertainment among many others supplied by cable television, all meant to sell colas and tyres. Television money revived the game, but it also trivialized it because entertainment isn�t as serious a matter as religion. So where once angry cricketing crowds at Brabourne Stadium burnt the stadium down, the last time Indian crowds stopped a match at Eden Gardens, they did it by throwing plastic cola bottles on the pitch. In this epoch of cable cricket, even the violence feels sponsored.



Your day or mine?

The International Women�s Day also made the day of India�s most talked about bachelor. On March 8, 300 of the country�s most talented, good-looking and successful women surrounded Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and the PM, quite evidently, enjoyed every moment of his time in the sun. Although many women journos in the capital reportedly spent the first half of the day preparing for the big bash in the evening, they had the show stolen by the likes of the fashion designer, Ritu Beri, herbal queen Shahnaz Hussain and other celebs. But if journos gave in tamely to ladies from showbiz, politicos refused to give in so meekly. Above the din, one reportedly heard culture police Sushma Swaraj give some tips to Ritu Beri. Women�s bodies are the same, Swaraj made her point, it is the clothes that make the difference. The minister for information and broadcasting then succintly put in that it was the task of the fashion designer to show beauty through more clothes than less. A yawning Ritu was apparently seen nodding politely. The Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, was also there, but probably not in the mood to make a noise about her fashion consciousness.

Celebrity status

But then our I&B minister is a celebrity in her own right. It is not without reason that she has herself being referred to by all and sundry � even by her own party members � and progressively, as �Sushmaban� instead of �Sushma behn�. Even the more progressive sections of the party rarely miss a chance to remember her feats. Recently, when the Balco controversy hit Parliament, NDA allies opposed to the deal met Arun Jaitley, who was to speak on the Balco debate later in the day. The allies emphasized that the government should come out clean on the issue. Jaitley replied, �Don�t worry, I�ll be as transparent as FTV�. That, incidentally, wasn�t too revealing, was it?

Stolen thunder

Talking about Balco, this is how the government position was revealed. Recently, the Chhattisgarh chief minister, Ajit Jogi, called a press conference and alleged that money had exchanged hands in the Balco deal. He pointed at rumours that Rs 100 crore had been received by some extra-constitutional authority in the PMO. Jogi created his sensation at 5 sharp in the evening. But he forgot that he was pitching himself against a former journalist. The minister for disinvestment, Arun Shourie, got wind of Jogi�s allegations at 5.30. Soon after, he promptly landed at the PTI office, and got down to work. Shourie required little help. He first looked at the typewriter, but then had to be told that the agency no longer worked on typewriters. No problem. Shourie made himself comfortable in front of a computer and keyed in his reply to Jogi�s diatribe. He apparently also saw to it that the PTI released his copy before he left the office. So within an hour of Jogi�s triumph, Shourie�s answer was there on the agency for all to see. If not for all to believe.

Family matters

Sweet tidings for the finance minister, but not so for the leader of the opposition. While Yashwant Sinha presented his budget in Parliament, Sonia Gandhi sat with a stoic expression without paying much attention to the budget provisions. This expression remained the same till apparently Sinha reached the section on customs duties. As the FM announced the easing of duties on artificial jewellery, Sonia sat up. No prizes for guessing why. Son-in-law Robert Vadra earns his roti (or pizza) from this trade. However, it appears that the lady should now be less concerned about family matters. The electoral scenario for the Congress is becoming increasingly grim. Naturally, senior partymen are peeved at the leadership. A former general secretary of the Janata Dal, Wasim Ahmed, who joined the Congress on the eve of the last Lok Sabha elections, has hit upon a novel way of expressing displeasure. The other day at the central hall in Parliament when a fellow politician, probably to keep track, asked Ahmed where he stood party-wise, the leaders shot back, �I am in the Congress, and therefore, not in politics�. Some people can be so cruel.

Not in the stars

Congressmen are busy picking on Mamata Banerjee�s exploits. Some feel she should have persuaded Mithun Chakraborty instead of choosing Paresh Pal to contest for Trinamool. One leader quipped, �If people do not go to watch Mithun�s movies, how do you expect them to vote for him�? Chakraborty has no star attraction left in him then?

Footnote / They want a Ray ban

If election comes, can Siddhartha Shankar Ray be far from the news pages? Nope. The other day, Ray reportedly pleaded with the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, to allow the state Congress to have a mahajot with didi�s Trinamool Congress. Yet, Ray had been against any sort of adjustments with Mamata and her ally, the BJP. Ray�s U-turn is being viewed in political circles as another of this veteran�s attempts to enter the political fray and get elected on a Trinamool ticket. Trinamoolis suspect that Ray is aspiring to contest the Chowringhee assembly seat, from where he had won in 1991, defeating the former finance minister, Ashok Mitra. Didi, however, is said to have set her mind against Ray being put up from this precious seat as she has already nominated her boy Subrata Mukherjee for it. She is also reported to have told her associates that she would rather back ABA Ghani Khan Chowdhury than Ray. �Manuda will be missing soon after the elections, but Barkatda will be with didi even if she loses�, is how people in the Trinamool look at things. Will that kill the old man?    


Crooked lines

Sir � Mamata Banerjee has found at least one supporter in R.C. Acharya (�Taking an entirely different line�, Mar 7). But Acharya lacks objectivity. For instance, he sets out to show how Banerjee is better than her predecessors, who only �sought to gain immense political mileage� by announcing sops for their home states, and then goes on to say, �Banerjee has announced no less than five new projects including Bandel-Jirat, Baruipur-Magrahat and Harishchandrapur-Kumarganj� in West Bengal. Is this still not partial enough for Acharya? Banerjee�s refusal to increase passenger fares may have made her popular, but it might end up making a bankrupt institution of the Indian Railways.
Yours faithfully,
S.M. Prasad, Gaya

Passing of a legend

His test average of 99.94, his record of scoring a century every 2.76 innings, and of scoring the maximum number of triple hundreds (2) and the maximum number of double hundreds (3) in tests and several other records are unlikely to be broken ever. Bradman was perhaps the only cricketer in the history of the game whose centuries had become so routine that his ducks made more news.

Yours faithfully,
A.K. Srivastava, Salboni

Sir � Don Bradman has missed his century once more. Just as four runs in his last innings would have ensured him an average of 100, another eight years would have seen him celebrate his 100th birthday. But this was not to be. In passing away, Bradman has taken a piece of cricketing history with him.

Yours faithfully,
Md Ahtesham Ahmad, Andal

Sir � Rudrangshu Mukherjee�s �The Don meets the tide� (Mar 4) is a fitting tribute to the best batsman cricket has produced. Bradman�s career statistics speak for him. As Mukherjee rightly points out, Bradman had some of his best years snipped off by World War II. The long lay-off of seven years makes his consistency in performance seem incredible.

Yours faithfully,
S.M. Chakrabarty, Howrah

Sir � With the rise of Sachin Tendulkar and Brian Lara, there have been attempts to prove that both these players possess greater talent that Don Bradman did. The argument goes that Bradman did not have to face the fiery pace of the West Indian bowlers, or the stiff competition of today�s cricket. But it must be realized that cricket, as it is played now, has little in common with the way it was played in Bradman�s time. For Bradman and his contemporaries, cricket was not a career option, as it has become for the Sachin Tendulkars of today. Cricket needs to be given back its laid-back character to free it from the complications it is riddled with now.

Yours faithfully,
Surya Ganguly, Calcutta

Letters to the editor should be sent to:

The Telegraph
6 Prafulla Sarkar Street
Calcutta 700 001
Email: ttedit@abpmail.com
Readers in the Northeast can write to:
Third Floor, Godrej Building,
G.S. Road, Ulubari, Guwahati 781007

Maintained by Web Development Company