by Vivek Menezes
There are a billion and a half subcontinentals who’ve been fed cricket, cricket and more cricket for decades – the very definition of a captive audience – so there’s steady interest here. But look beyond, and we’re talking a very steep, genuinely precipitous, drop-off to England, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies, where “our” sport runs a distant third or fourth to the popularity of football, rugby, basketball, athletics, swimming, etc. And after England and its overseas spawn, you may as well stop counting, because you’re done with all the legitimate cricketing sides in the world. Pretty pathetic, isn’t it?
Indians don’t like to consider this truth, but it’s become quite apparent that most other countries only continue with cricket because India is obsessed with it – they play to keep us company, to humiliate us when the chance presents itself, and, especially, to pick up generous paychecks which would be entirely unforthcoming if India grew up, and concentrated its efforts on real sports, played by a majority of nations, the kind of sports that show up at the Olympics.
But you see, that precise sticking point is the crux of why Indians are obsessed with cricket – it’s another plain fact that we’re really, really horrible at sports where the rest of the world competes, and we hate the Olympics, beacause we get ritually creamed each year (at Beijing, India’s best Olympics ever, little tiny countries like Mongolia out-ranked us. Yes, Mongolia.)
So that’s why you saw – first and above all else – genuine relief flooding Mukesh Ambani and Rajnikanth and Aamir Khan’s faces at the exact same moment in the TV coverage of Saturday’s match.
These guys, three sides of the same spurious coin, sitting in the same front row, had come to roar in glorious triumph, but tiny Sri Lanka gave them heartburn all the way up to the 35th over of the Indian innings. Only then, only when crushing victory became inevitable and all sport had gone out of the occasion – that’s when our heroes in the stands awoke. That's when Aamir Khan started to wave the flag with calculated abandon. It was a moment that comes with ultimate rarity in Indian sports – our guys on top, racing towards a famous victory.
Because, you see, up to and excepting the cup victory, the annals of modern Indian sport are nothing but migraine-inducing, an endless litany of disappointments, failue and humiliations.
We are a billion people grown accustomed to being thrashed on the playing-fields. We Indians celebrate quarter-finals defeats, and fourth-place finishes, the way other countries get excited about actual victories.
In the old days, we took the lickings with a certain resigned acceptance – poor country, no facilities, etc. But now we have that much-advertised, resurgent middle class and all that other stuff that drives Tom Friedman into frothing ecstasies. And suddenly, increasingly, we have bourgeois angst about our national image – look at China, look at South Korea, and what about Mongolia, dammit – and so we have developed a kind of real national performance anxiety about sports.
When that happen, again and again and again, we reach for the only antidote that’s worked – that little blue pill called cricket.
But even when cricket delivers the happy ending, it doesn’t quite satisfy. And this goes beyond the fact that we dominate the sport so ludicrously that it’s probably actually unfair when we take on Sri Lanka. Actually, it's because every knowledgeable cricket fan knows the game’s integrity is in tatters. Over the past few years, it has become increasingly clear that we’re talking about an unusually manipulated and fake sport, with corruption now part of its very DNA.
Why are we so eager to forget the last Cup – perhaps the biggest lurching failure in the history of organized international sports – paid for by an embezzler, studded with obviously thrown matches, and spot-fixing, and garnished with a sizzling murder case? Talk to old-timers, and you'll understand the silence – to a man, they believe the rot is still embedded. And could anyone be blamed for thinking the way they do, when just last week we watched Pakistan spill catch after catch off Tendulkar, any of which would have turned the match the other way instantly? Is this cricket?
Let’s also remember the sport was riven apart again just this past year, when the Pakistani tour of England was interrupted by proven match-fixing that included the captain of the team, and the superb Mohammed Aamer.
Does anyone imagine that it is only the Pakistanis who are prone to the inducement of hundreds of thousands of dollars for bowling a few no-balls, or perhaps quietly running out your team-mate?
After all, where is the money coming from? Isn't it obvious that the trail of corruption leads directly across the border into our own society?
Now, don’t get me wrong, I have all the necessary cricketing bona fides in place, this is an insider’s plea. Born in Bombay, gifted my first bat when just about capable of walking, I worshipped the ground traversed by Sunil Gavaskar’s short, stubby legs, like every other Indian boy my age.
Staying close to the sport through sheer dint of emotion, I bowled spin to inebriated Americans in my college's residential corridors, and then even made cricket my career for the few years that WorldTel tried to dominate the sport from a small suite of offices in New York. There, I put in my time for cricket: tried (unsuccessfully) to nurture the USA to a World Cup berth, and (unsuccessfully) to make streaming cricket video a lucrative Internet business, and (successfully, for a time) to build Sachin Tendulkar a better official website than Michael Jordan’s, etc.
But somewhere around the time that the IPL took off, the shine came off the ball for me.
It was, and remains apparent, that the make-up of this league, and composition of the teams, is utterly fixed from top to bottom. It's racketeering, plain and simple. The administrators of the game are the owners of the teams, and the main beneficiaries of side-contracts to boot. The sport now reeks incestuousness, and the pipeline of pure cash thrown up in this Ponzi-style scheme has completely warped the game we once loved, probably irrevocably.
But it was always the case, only now glaringly apparent – look at a Yuvraj for example – that our cricket players are barely athletic by any objective standard. Even today, I’d bet the American women’s soccer team would whup the Indian team’s ass in collective fitness, flexibility, stamina, and probably co-ordination as well. But add to this the fact that the Indian team occupies a staggeringly disproportionate bubble of comforts. Where the Indian hockey team (hockey is the national sport!) travels by train, and literally has to fight to get decently nutritive food at its training camps, the cricket lifestyle is now five-star all the way, with even the subs garnering crores in commercial deals.
And then, as pointed to above, the Indian cricket team gets to flex its muscles in a non-sport. We beat up on New Zealand’s seventh best set of athletes, and the country goes into hysterics as though it says something wonderful about us. Within hours of beating Sri Lanka, that global athletic power, in a sport almost no one gives a shit about outside the subcontinent, the state and central governments were falling over themselves to hand out incredibly large cash awards to each player, and the coaches as well. Crores each, plots of land, luxury vehicles, the sky's the limit for our cricketers.
But put it into perspective – Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, literally at the same time, won another doubles tournament to earn back the #1 ranking in the world.
You know, tennis, a sport that’s actually played in more than a handful of countries, and where a world championship implies beating genuinely world-class athletes.
I mean, if Sreesanth can get half-a-million dollars cold cash for bowling quite badly, and taking zero wickets, against a team of semi-professional twentysomethings from tiny, war-ravaged Sri Lanka, then my man Lee's prolly taken home at least a billion for his multiple-Grand Slam championships, and Olympic medal, earned against the world's best. Half a billion, at the least. Yes? Yes? Is that crickets I hear?
And so the ultimate truth: cricket has become a pox, a monstrous and pervasive cloud of pure ballyhoo that has destroyed Indian sport across the board.
It sucks up all the money and all the attention, and all of our collective athletic energies disappear into this black hole of a colonialist non-sport, leaving only ashes in its wake.
Imagine if you are Viswanathan Anand (or even Ivana Furtado) – winning chess world championships one after another, against the best minds on the planet, with very little attention paid, and certainly nothing like the obscene bonanza that is currently being poured on the heads of our cricket players. Or Climax Lawrence, stalwart of Indian football, which has exactly one world-class pitch available to it in the entire country (not usable in the monsoons), and remember that Indian football was forced to take a grnt(from the BCCI!) to find adequate training facilities.
Now here's something to root for – treated like dirt for decades, Indian football has developed a core of gritty young players who can hang with the better Asian teams for long stretches, even though they have to beg and fight for facilities that fall short of even high-school set-ups in Germany or Japan.
Indian football has a hope, and a plan, to break into the top 100 in the world within 5 years, a worthy and realistic goal. There are no billionaire cheerleaders, and no Bollywood insiders packing the stands. But it's football, truly global. Now that we've been there and done that with regard to this silly Cup, can we please move on to real sports?