Contemporary history. March 20, afternoon. The last rites were on of Pakistan's second innings of the test at Eden Gardens, Calcutta. India was about to clinch victory. Harbhajan Singh's offspinner is misread by Danish Kaneria, the ball hits the stumps, both bails drop, the match is over. Those glued to the television sets were agog with expectation, they would now watch the exultation of the Indian players, the crest-fallen look of the Pakistan team, the splendour of the crowd reaction. But no, Doordarshan ' or Prasar Bharati, whatever it be ' had other ideas. The moment the bails touched the ground, over to rapid-fire advertisements, one after another, that went on for a full three minutes. By the time the gods doling out the telecast condescended to return to the Eden Gardens, the excitement and the ecstasy were over, the players had already retired to the dressing room, and a good chunk of the crowd had melted away.
Thereby lay a lesson. The 'commercials' are no longer an adjunct of cricket. It is the other way round: cricket is the pretext to hang advertisements on. Tele-watchers will be offered what is the absolute minimum of the cricket spectacle. They will be denied, though, the frills, such as the visuals, the reaction of players at the moment of victory or the reflexes of those who lose a match or, for that matter, of the ambience of the playing field. Telecasting is serious business; it is for profit-taking; it is not intended to cater to silly aesthetics or banal sentiments.
Please wake up, this is what economic liberalization has done to the nation. About everything that touches life and living is judged from a single angle: their money-worthiness. Maximization of return is the be-all and end-all of existence, nothing else matters. Advertisements roll money for television companies. Cricket is an excellent medium to channel advertisements, for the public at large love cricket. The meaning of existence for those who control the media is, however, not to spread pleasure and enjoyment from sports or music or films. The central issue is to make money and yet more money. The more advertisements one can squeeze in in the course of a particular telecast, the greater is the prospect of minting money.
Inevitably, in case it is a cricket match, even as one over slides into the next one, the intermediate seconds are pounced upon to accommodate a barrage of advertisements. A commentator might be making an interesting point about a particular cover drive or a bowling action; that must be rudely cut off and advertisements inserted instead: money-making is a stern task-master.
Such a vulgar passion for profit maximization which gives short shrift to respected commentators and deprives citizens of sharing the pleasure of cricket with spectators present on the ground is an essentially Indian phenomenon; British and Australian television would not dream of crudity and incivilities of this kind. The graces of life, the nouveau riche assume, are synonymous with the acquisition of filthy lucre. The malady travels far. The vulgar urge to accumulate wealth is not confined to those who preside over telecasting rights alone. Those who sponsor the advertisements also step in. They too are in the business of profit maximization. They, besides, live in lucky times. India's middle and upper classes currently provide a lush market consisting of at least 150 million people with a hankering for consumer goods of various descriptions.
For sponsors, cricket again is an ideal medium to reach out to this market, since those who splash money to buy consumer goods also adore cricket. The sponsors target their sights on the more talented of cricket players, ply them with money, make superheroes of them. The superheroes, in their turn, endorse the merchandise the sponsors have on offer. The greater the glory attaching to the superheroes, the larger the possibility of merchandise sales. The outcome is a mutual arrangement benefiting both sponsors and players: the sponsors expand their sales, while the players enlarge their wealth. A time arrives when the superheroes of cricket begin to earn a hundred times more from endorsements than they do from match fees. They emerge as darlings of society, the prince charmings in the dreams of school girls; they get to be treated deferentially by ministers and their like.
Soon, myth overtakes reality. The players, the lucky ones, don larger-than-life images. Of more ominous significance, they themselves come to take seriously their larger-than-life images. Once that happens, nursing the image becomes much more important for the players than nursing their cricketing talent. A sample survey of the manner in which our top cricket heroes distribute their off-season time would be good liberal education. Most of this period is, one suspects, taken up by dates for public relations firms for promotional events, such as making short films, or similar sponsorship activities. In consequence, the players perhaps do not have much time to spare even for relaxation with their families.
The lowest priority is conceivably assigned to practice sessions which could help them to keep fit or hone up their skills. A juncture arrives when the merit of a cricketer belonging to the top echelon begins to be judged not by the record of his performance in the field but by the pile of money he makes. The size of a nation's consumer market assumes importance here. Compared to the wealth accumulated by India's more prominent cricketers, the accumulation of the Pakistani players hardly counts. Whatever their merit as cricketers, the Pakistanis are, in terms of the criterion of the market, a lesser species.
Some soul-searching has taken place in the course of the past fortnight over why many of the superheroes in the Indian team caved in so pitiably during the final test at Bangalore. A large part of the answer to the mystery conceivably lies in the hauteur, and if not hauteur, the mental sloth money-making breeds. It was taken for granted that, for the Indian superheroes, the encounter with Pakistan was to be a walk-over; are not superheroes by definition invincible' Few bothered to look into the relative performance of the two teams over the past one year. The individual members of the Pakistani team have displayed superior mettle than the Indians in about every department of the game in this period, the only exception on the Indian side is Virender Sehwag.
The batting skills of Inzamam-ul-Haq, Yousuf Youhana and Younis Khan should be the envy of even the all-conquering Australians; Pakistan has three all-rounders, Abdur Razzaq, Shoaib Malik and Shahid Afridi, of outstanding merit; and its leg-spinner, Danish Kaneria, has in the current series outperformed his far better known Indian counterparts.
Superiority complex is the progenitor of superciliousness and can lead to abrupt meltdowns. The Bangalore test ' and the subsequent ODI's ' prove the point. Once Pakistan grabbed the advantage of a commanding lead, Indian batsmen were caught napping on a turning pitch on the last day of the final test. The superheroes shrunk into awe-struck sacrificial lambs. The lambs even lost the courage to bleat. A couple of the superheroes kept treating half-volleys as if they were deadly serpents; at some point, the spectre was willed to turn into reality. The plight of the team's captain was much worse; in both the innings he presented the burlesque of a floundering greenhorn, giving the impression that he was wielding the willow for the first time in his life.
Superheroes too, like old soldiers, fade away. If their cricketing performance is consistently below par and the crowd commences to walk out on them, the demand for their endorsements would also dip; money-making too will then trickle down. It might then be too late for the defunct superheroes to appeal for a second chance.