Cricket and The Mad Dog Show

This piece has been published in the April 2007 issue of Cricinfo Magazine. It was written the day before India’s loss to Sri Lanka.

Imagine a man, dressed respectfully, and a scruffy dog he owns. The man catches the dog and sets its tail on fire. And then, as the dog runs around frenetically, the man says smugly: “Look – mad dog.” He even sells tickets. He calls it: “The Mad Dog Show.”

Indian cricket is The Mad Dog Show. Indian fans are like that burning doggie. The media is the respectable gentleman. Every time I see footage of mobs burning the effigy of a cricketer, and the voice-over of an anchor droning sanctimoniously in the background, I am appalled by the hypocrisy. “That is a beast you feed,” I feel like screaming. For all their talk about crazed subcontinental fans, the crazed subcontinental media is no different.

It is a cliche that cricket and Bollywood are India’s two great passions, but perhaps there really is just one. The media presents cricket like Bollywood drama, not sport. There aren’t winners and losers, there are heroes and villains. If India wins a game, they have lifted the nation. If they lose, they are traitors. Every act is wilful. 

In the quintessential Bollywood blockbuster, there are many twists and few shades of gray. Similarly, in their coverage of cricket, our media does not bother with nuance. Everything is larger than life. A mighty heave that just sails over the midwicket fence conjures up epic adjectives. An identical shot that is caught at the boundary is unequivocally condemned. One is “flamboyant”, “brilliant”, “stunning”; the other is “careless” and “irresponsible”. Note, for the latter set of adjectives, the implication of volition. 

The media is merely catering to the market, of course. The Indian Cricket Fan™ is a mighty beast which brings in much advertising money, but a dumb one. The nuances of the game do not matter to it. It wants spectacle. Passages of obdurate defence against wily spin do not excite it: wickets and sixes do. It wants batsmen to whack the ball, not nudge it around, and bowlers to grab wickets, not buy them. It cannot accept defeat – as in a Bollywood film, the hero must win – and does not enjoy the intricate dramas constructed from ball to ball. Indeed, what it really wants, and will slobber over, is a highlights package that shows it winning. It probably wishes the channels could just broadcast the highlights live. The rest is boring filler material. 

All subcontinental fans aren’t like this, of course. But there aren’t enough exceptions to constitute a significant market segment. Cricket coverage is such that niches cannot be satisfied: one official channel, the one that paid exorbitant amounts of money that it must earn back, broadcasts any particular game. All the news channels – and there is a glut of them – have to cater to the lowest common denominator to survive. The connoisseur has few options, such as, ahem, the magazine you hold, that look at cricket as more than gladiatorial combat for jaded voyeurs.

Indeed, the fear of the voyeurs getting jaded makes the media try harder to produce sensation. The most tried and tested way of doing this in the subcontinent is through shrill nationalism. So you have “Pakraman”. Also “War in the Windies”. And, of course, LOC. (“Love of cricket,” it seems!) This ensures that emotions are most pitched, and this also plays up on the theme of defeat as national betrayal. No true fan would stone the house of a player. But no true patriot would let a traitor go unpunished. 

As this self-fulfilling feedback loop between the media and The Indian Cricket Fan™ plays itself out, think of the players. International cricket is a demanding sport, and the physical and mental stresses it puts a player through are formidable. When one adds to that the stress of our media, searching for sensationalistic headlines, behaving like paparazzi, it must be almost unbearable. It is common to say that our cricketers bear the burden of a nation, but they also bear the burden of madness. How can that beast be satiated? What are the consequences if the other team plays better on the day, as is often inevitable? Cricket is a hard sport, but the cricket that our players play is much, much harder.