The cricket republic

Between February 19 and April 2, India will co-host cricket’s Fifty50 World Cup. Immediately after that it will stage the planet’s richest cricket tournament: the Indian Premier League (IPL), India’s flagship Twenty20 (T20) event. At the beginning of 2011, India toured South Africa. Later in the year, it will play top-line Test series against England and Australia. In a country that needs few excuses not to immerse itself in cricket lore, 2011 is an extraordinary bonanza. It’s a 12-month festival of quality cricket.

They say you can never understand a society without understanding its major sport. At one point, baseball defined the Middle American dream and the idyllic self-image of the towns and cities of the vast American heartland. Today, the English Premier League is not just emblematic of English football but also of British multiculturalism — it attracts talent from all continents — and, paradoxically, an essential insularity that has made the country non-competitive in everything. England has a fantastic football league but a terrible national football team!
That each of the three versions of cricket has a market in India is indicative perhaps of the multiple rhythms of this land and of the many Indias that exist under that one political identity. The languid, never-ending Test match could, at the end of five days, leave you with nothing but a thrilling draw. This is typical of the karmic fatalism that is still the lot of millions in India, even though as a sentiment it is clearly past its prime. The Fifty50 game speaks of a broader, smaller-city India which still has limited entertainment and economic options and so can pack a stadium for an entire day. The T20 revolution, with its attendant razzmatazz, is the ideal product for the metropolitan crowd, a direct rival to the three-hour film, and tailored to audiences that have more money than time and are in tune with the business and leisure principles of the developed world.
Which individual, which demographic and which geography follows which type of cricket? The answer is a snapshot introduction to the Indian — any Indian — you’re interrogating. It’s almost as fail-proof as a marketing survey.
Why is India so cricket-focused? Modern sport is not an amateur pastime but hard commerce. A large economy — the United States, Australia — can sustain and support many sports. As such, baseball, basketball, American football and golf may all be lucrative in the US. India offers the strange case of an economy that is now big enough to shore up more than one sport but a society that is still essentially a one-sport phenomenon. This causes it to over-invest in cricket. Consequently, the game and its practitioners attract disproportionate media and spectator interest, sponsorship money and advertisement revenue.
Why is India cricket-fanatic to the extent of ignoring other sports? The fact is cricket offers the rare example of sustained good performance by Indian players and teams in any sport. Tennis has the occasional Leander Paes or Sania Mirza, badminton the lone world-beater in Saina Nehwal. Indian athletics produces the odd track and field star. The hockey team wins a big tournament about once a decade. Individual golfers are slowly climbing the ladder on the tour. Yet, none of these comes close to the conveyor belt regularity of cricket stars and skills.
Capital breeds capital. The fact that money is poured into cricket makes it an attractive career path for young Indian sportsmen. This makes team selection tough and, to the degree possible, meritocratic. In turn, this leads to successful teams, mass interest and still more money pouring in.
With no other international cultural product does India so call the shots. Seventy per cent of global cricket revenues are generated in India. Australia sets its cricket calendar to match India’s; England wants Indian players in its domestic tournaments to make its county games worth the while for Indian television channels and audiences; West Indies cricket authorities wait for an Indian tour to make money by selling television rights and in-stadia advertising contracts to Indian companies. Cricket is not just India’s sport; it’s India’s power trip.
In a sense, India’s success and sustained interest in the upcoming World Cup are crucial to the Fifty50 game’s future. This format of cricket is more or less past its sell-by date. The World Cup of 2011 is possibly its last hurrah. If India gets knocked out early — as it did in 2007, in the previous edition in the Caribbean islands — television ratings will almost certainly collapse and the organisers and sponsors could face a financial setback. The future of such Fifty50 extravaganzas itself may be up for question. If India does well — and the schedule of the tournament has been tailored to keep it in the running for a considerable phase — then, on the other hand, conventional one-day cricket may find enough of a market to stave off the challenge of the IPL/T20 monster for a while longer.
The politics and the money of cricket are important no doubt, but not as compelling as the hunger and devotion of the ordinary cricket fan. India is united by cricket, curry and cinema, as the line goes. Listening to radio commentary, stealing a glance at the television in the middle of a busy day at office, asking the next man on the street if he knows the score, rushing home from school or work to catch a game being set up for a close finish: every Indian has many such experiences, many such confessions.
In 2008, when the first IPL was played to unbelievable enthusiasm, the state of Karnataka was in the midst of legislative elections. Political parties had to end public meetings early because people — voters — wanted to leave and catch the evening’s IPL game on television. This is not an apocryphal story; it actually happened.
Cricket is the great leveller in India. It unites regions and religions, social variants and economic diversities. It is what binds the business tycoon and the shop-floor worker. Along with the film industry — perhaps politics as well, in a certain kind of way — it offers the most evocative and salient vehicle of social mobility. In a land of faith and spiritualism, cricket is a self-renewing religion. On the 19th day of February, it begins its quadrennial pilgrimage. If you want to hear the heartbeat of India, be there for the World Cup.

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