(This appears in the march issue of Sports Illustrated)
There are two kinds of people in India—those who love cricket and those who don’t. Love being the operative word. Of course, there are other things that are going on in this country besides cricket. But you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise. We clearly don’t project the fact that we are a country that plays other sports, or one that does anything productive at all during this time. Yes, when in the throes of cricket fever, we are willing to forget pretty much everything else.
You walk into a bar, a café or even a pet salon and there is a cricket match on TV. You drive by a store with a TV on during match-time and there’ll be a crowd of passers-by tuned in to the action. It’s as if the whole world comes to a standstill.
Every news channel has its own analysis, its own “wish India luck” campaign. Other channels are doing cricket-centric programming.
Sponsors are tripping over each other trying to get a piece of this high TRP pie. And where is all this sentiment when our teams play other sports? Basketball, football, hockey, volleyball, shooting, badminton, tennis— everything takes a backseat for cricket. All the money in the business is consumed by cricket, leaving precious little for other sports. And that is a function of the game’s popularity. So what is it about cricket that attracts so many people and, therefore, all the sponsors and so much airtime?
Is it because the game is played in a dozen countries? Or is it because it involves two people from a team facing 11 from the other at any given point? Or is it a hangover from the days of the Raj? It certainly can’t be the ultra-fit cricket players. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I saw an Indian cricketer who would look good without his shirt on. Footballers, on the other hand . . . Is it because our cricket team does relatively well (I probably shouldn’t mention the number of cricket-playing countries again)? There is a saying . . . In the land of the blind . . . Is cricket all it takes to make us feel good about ourselves? What about football? Do we not have any higher ambition? There is a reason why it is the most popular sport in the world. But no, not here. We will not support any sport that we can’t do well in. The poor lone rangers who make it big in other sports despite and in spite of the preoccupation with cricket do so only on their own mettle and in most cases without sponsorship, because we know where all the money goes.
It’s all about the money. And all about viewership. The game itself has taken a backseat due to the business of it. Even ardent cricket fans I know lament this commercialisation of a game they consider on a par with religion even as they shake their heads disapprovingly at my “disrespect” (in other words, not bowing at the altar of cricket).
The poor souls who don’t share their enthusiasm are often harangued by the hardcore fans. In fact, some even go to the extent of saying that we should follow the “will” of the majority. Hah, democracy! Someone I locked horns with on Twitter justified his stand on cricket by comparing the sport to movies and the entertainment they provide. Entertainment. Right. Q.E.D.
Cricket in India is perhaps the best marketed product around. The fact that it plays on every sentiment—from patriotism to machismo— is constantly on display. Like you’re not Indian enough if you don’t love cricket! What the hell! Who decides for me?
I have to plan my visits home very carefully to make sure they don’t coincide with a match. If for some reason I can’t, I can only talk to my dad during commercial breaks. (Poor Mom has joined him in resignation. Also, by the way I sure as hell ain’t marrying the cricket obsessed kinda guy. No way.) This isn’t an isolated scenario I am describing, but pretty much the scene in every home where one of the inhabitants doesn’t share the (extreme) passion. As for me, I would happily watch tennis, football or hockey any day! Quick bursts of excitement that leave me with enough time to do other things.
I remember there was a time I enjoyed watching the odd match when it was about the game, not overs squeezed in between commercial breaks. When the hype was not bigger than the sport. When it was a match and not an event. Sadly, I have now been shoved into the minority that is a victim of the overdose. And for that small minority that doesn’t eat, breathe and dream cricket, this can be a trying time. Especially since the cricket epidemic will carry on through the World Cup and on to the IPL. The flip side may be less traffic on the roads during matches!
India hosting the World Cup is of course a matter of great pride and honour. And, like any Indian, I want our team to win. Not just the World Cup, but everywhere, all the time. Like the way I want our hockey team to win. Or our tennis players, shooters, wrestlers and boxers to win. Or, for that matter, our kabaddi team. In fact, I probably might even go for a match or two, since I am going to be in and around Mumbai and Mohali. I am sure it will be fun to watch the madness! My patriotism might get the better of me and I might even join the madness. But will it become an obsession? Nah, I have a life.