India has to square up to the full breadth of its influence on cricket. IPL 2014 is the place to begin.
If it’s election time in India, the Indian Premier League must be elsewhere. As IPL 2014 gets going in the , in Abu Dhabi, Sharjah and Dubai, some smart new questions are being asked about cricket and its opportunities to spread its roots. Once elections are over, and security personnel freed up to guard venues and players, the IPL will play out the rest of the season in India. But can the adoption of the UAE as Indian cricket’s temporary home hint at a geographical spread of the sport?
It is, of course, interesting that Indian cricket returns to venues abandoned in the aftermath of match-fixing scandals of more than a decade ago, now with a temporary, court-mandated leadership of the BCCI (under Sunil Gavaskar) in response to cricket’s current crisis of credibility — and serious allegations about the system being rigged — flowing from N. Srinivasan’s reign. But the UAE is no longer just one of the offshore venues it was in the 1980s and 1990s along with Singapore and Toronto. Ever since the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore in 2009, it is Pakistan’s “home” venue, where the Pakistan Cricket Board seeks the guarantee of at least one bilateral series with India in return for finally coming round to okaying the ICC’s revamp plan.
In fact, it is the current crisis engulfing Indian cricket that drew Ed Smith, former England Test cricketer and one of the sharpest writers on sport today, into highlighting the need for the game to find new territories in order to recover its balance. In a column for Cricinfo, he considers the proposition that a sport’s global popularity may be measured by calculating the total number of participants in a sport (by which I presume he means players and fans) and subtracting those from the sport’s biggest territory. So, take away India’s numbers, and cricket’s claim to being a global sport looks rather feeble. And given the anxiety that Indian cricket’s cascading controversies could unsettle the sport everywhere, with India’s growing domination and the relative eclipse of cricket in traditional homes like England and the West Indies, he argues: “If cricket had more countries with a huge fan base, there would be a greater democratic equipoise at the game’s high table.” In other words: “Cricket needs new Indias. Time to take cricket to America and China.”
There may be merit in taking off from where Smith leaves his argument. How may we understand the dynamics of a “new India” for cricket? What is it that India did to cricket that we seek a similarly galvanising role for cricket-innocent sport superpowers like America and China?
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If the men (women have no power in the sport) who rule Indian cricket have any sense of the historical context for the crisis point they have brought Indian cricket to, they have certainly done a superb job concealing it. In doing so, for reasons of vested interests and intellectual diffidence, they stifle a valid appreciation of how radically India has changed the form and idiom of cricket.
Cricket is so dominated by the narrative of imperial design and the space it inadvertently provided for anti-colonial utterance that it remains apologetic about India’s adoption of its abbreviated forms, first one-days and now Twenty20s, as well as its landmark innovations, primarily the IPL. India, beginning with N.K.P. Salve’s determination to bring the 1987 World Cup to South Asia, has successfully contested England’s, and to an extent Australia’s, domination of cricket’s administration. It has been cause for great self-congratulation. But this democratisation has not been just about reordering the seating plan at the high table that Smith talks of. The participants (fans and players) that India brings to the game have also reordered — more precisely, giving the BCCI the leverage to reorder — the way cricket is played. It is here, in the gradual marginalisation of Test cricket, that India remains extremely and perplexingly apologetic. It sees itself — and allows others to cast it — as the guilty party in the diminishing of the Test match’s centrality.
Having led the broadcast economy of — and disproportionately profited from — abbreviated forms of cricket, India does so without making a case for these forms to be honourable contests of the game’s skills, especially T20.
Now, it is blasphemous to make a case for T20 to be about cricketing skills that may matter, and we who watch it do so with a guilty conscience. You know how this breathless argument goes: we don’t watch Test matches, we don’t take time off our busy schedules to fill stadia and thoughtfully take in the ebb and flow of sub-plots in the five-day narrative; we turn out to watch the frenetic run-chases that separate winners and losers in the course of an afternoon or evening; so what Test matches there are still, are being squeezed into shorter series and out of adequate preparation time; and we feel bad about this, we feel guilty that it’s being done in our name, and so we blame the shorter format for luring us away from more worthwhile pleasures.
Of course, this messes up the spectator. But look at what this thought process does to cricket. T20 is presumed to be such a smelly thing that cricket’s most popular and most profitable competition, the IPL, is segregated. It has a separated space in the calendar, and a separate rulebook. It is now becoming yet more clear what business and administrative distortions this segregation brought to the IPL. But while the best practices of cricket administration — such as they are — could be kept apart from T20, T20’s troubles are corroding the rest of cricket. Look at how, in the shadow of the IPL spot-fixing case, Rahul Dravid and Sachin Tendulkar retired from the League so softly. Look how Mahendra Singh Dhoni’s reputation has come under a cloud. Consider how the command performance by commentators has undermined these once credible analysts, they who once candidly assisted us viewers real-time in making sense of the state of play.
But most of all, look how this silo approach is disallowing T20 from evolving into a contest that players can count, unapologetically, as an honourable pursuit, and which we spectators can watch guilt-free.
Cricket may or may not manage to find new Indias, China and America may or may not deliver enough competent players. But India has to square up to the full breadth of its influence on cricket. Indeed, were new Indias to emerge in cricket, it can be said with certainty that they’ll enter the sport with T20. India needs to take charge of rehabilitating the format it’s so far been content to lay only commercial claim to.
The writer is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’