Friday, March 23, 2007

Its only a game - too good article

Courtesy: Cricinfo

This piece was written before it was established that Bob Woolmer was murdered. We don't yet know for sure why or how Bob Woolmer died. We shouldn't rush to judgment; it is still possible that it was an accident. It is equally possible he was murdered. And, while conspiracy theorists are working overtime on the motives, it is also quite possible that we will never know the full truth.

And in the event of this not being an accident, it is quite likely that Woolmer was a victim of cricket's seamier side. Either it was the stress, induced by the most obscene and blind expectations of cricket fans who brook no failure, or he was killed by people who felt let down or had something to fear.

Either way, it should serve as a wake-up call to those who run cricket, and those who profess passion for it. If a game starts taking lives, there is something sickeningly wrong with it. But this is not really about Woolmer. We didn't need someone to die to awaken us to a problem. The signs have always been there, it's just that most of us have found it expedient to ignore them. Commodification has been chipping away at the soul of cricket for years, and now the game is the danger of losing its head.

Take the current predicament of this World Cup as an example. The major stake-holders in the tournament - the television channels and major sponsors - risk losing millions, either in cash or kind, if India go out in the first round. They are not the number one team in the world by a mile. Not even number two. They are ranked sixth in the ICC team ratings and, while that might not always be the best indicator of a team's worth, they have not won a competition of note outside the subcontinent since 1985. Yet the fate of the World Cup rides on them. It's a disaster waiting to happen.

Cricket has acquired a dangerous obsession with money, to the extent where it is not a question of a game needing the money to survive or grow but making as much as possible at any cost.

The reason for this is not hard to comprehend. Cricket has acquired a dangerous obsession with money, to the extent where it is not a question of a game needing the money to survive or grow but making as much as possible at any cost. Players have been ground to dust and cricket, the one-day variety in particular, has been divested of any meaning and consequence. It would seem that the administrators have learnt very little from the match-fixing scandal, which was as much a result of greed as of a surfeit of matches that meant little to the players.

Meanwhile, the Indian administrators have managed to market a massive captive television audience to acquire financial muscle that relies little on the capabilities of the national team. As a result the cricket economy has gone ahead of the game, which is struggling to catch up.

It's an economy that relies more on projection and hype than reality. SetMax, the entertainment channel owned by Sony, paid nearly 40 % of the total cost of the ICC rights in the hope of recouping it from advertisers. Luckily for them, India made it to the final of the last World Cup and one Champions Trophy. But that was clearly not enough and Sony didn't even bother to bid for the next set of rights, which have been won by ESPN-Star for US $1.1 billion.

ESPN-Star is a joint venture between Disney and NewsCorp, but there is little doubt which television audience they are banking on. It is an unhealthy dependence. So much should never depend on the performance of one team. Apart from putting unfair pressure on the players -- it must take a lot for the Indian players to play normally in such an abnormal situation -- it leaves the cricket economy dangerously imbalanced and prone to huge risks.

The passion of the fans is the biggest strength of cricket in the sub-continent - but it is also its weakness, particularly in case of India and Pakistan. Sri Lankan fans are far more stoic about their team's fortunes and far more accepting of failure, whereas in Bangladesh they are grateful for every little or big victory, be that of the team or individual. But in India and Pakistan, the passion borders on frenzy. As an Indian, I would like India to win the World Cup. But it might not be such a bad thing for cricket if they were to be knocked out in the first round

In India it is brazenly and cynically fueled by an increasingly sensationalist and populist mass media, which treats cricket as one of the biggest baits to attract advertisers. Instead of providing perspective and being the voice of reason, the media feeds the frenzy and cashes in on it. Stars are built up and decimated. Exaggerated glorification is matched by proportionate vilification. So cricketers are either to be worshipped or denigrated. There isn't a middle ground, a measure of reality, or a sense of proportion.

The reality is that India reaching the World Cup final would be an overachievement. Australia and South Africa possess superior teams, New Zealand have more balance and depth and Sri Lanka are the most improved team in world cricket. India have proven, but ageing, batsmen, a bowling attack that's susceptible to pressure and poor fielders. To be a fan is to dream. But to many Indian fans the dream is the reality.

Nationalism is the bedrock of cricket. But you can't call yourself a true fan if the sight of 18-year old Tamim Iqbal charging down pitch to belt Indian quick bowlers brought you no thrill. Yes, India played below themselves, but every cricket match has a winner. To be unable to comprehend, and appreciate, this runs against the spirit of the game.

Yes, India not making past the first round would be a huge setback. But it would be accorded the status of a national calamity. It will be discussed in Parliament. Television channels will conduct inquests. Effigies will be burnt, cricketers' homes will be attacked, and these will be gleefully publicised. A couple of months ago, Greg Chappell was slapped on the back by a man in Bhubaneswar seeking his fifteen seconds of fame. He was obliged. It could get worse. Someone could get killed. Perhaps someone has already been killed.

As an Indian, I would like India to win the World Cup. But it might not be such a bad thing for cricket if they were to be knocked out in the first round. Cricket needs a reality check. It has an unhealthy, and unsustainable, business model that relies primarily on an increasingly delusional and one-dimensional fan-base. The bubble has to burst for a semblance of sanity to be restored. We must learn to once again enjoy cricket as a game.

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