Do we really love cricket?

A version of my story below was published today in Mint.

Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it?

The historian Ram Guha once compared cricket in India to football in Brazil. It is easy to disagree with that, but hard to figure out which hairs to split. On one hand, cricket in India is surely followed more fervently, with temples made for some cricketers, with an obsessive passion that Brazilians, for all their lust for football, surely can’t match. People have even speculated, not entirely flippantly, on the economic impact cricket has on India because so many people stop working when a cricket match is on.

On the other hand, football matches between minor club teams in Brazil can attract tens of thousands of spectators, while Ranji Trophy games in India generally draw so few people that you could fit them all in a bus. Much of the following of the game in India revolves around celebrities, with few fans concerned about the nuances of the game.

Our love for the game is deep and passionate. Our love for the game is fickle and superficial. Which is it? Do Indians really love cricket? It is futile to generalise about an entire country – each individual has his own relationship with the game – but certain patterns of love and longing for cricket run through the country. And outside it.

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People who are cynical about long-distance relationships know nothing of cricket and Indians. Non-resident Indians around the world pine for cricket as if their lover is an ocean away, and go to insane lengths to stay in touch. Prem Panicker, a legend among NRIs for his cricket writing for Rediff, once told me about a bunch of US-based Indians who, visiting India, dropped in to his office to chat with his team. This was a decade ago, and Rediff had just finished doing ball-by-ball commentary of the 1996 World Cup, and were wondering if such effort was worth it. “We wrote more than 60,000 words over eight hours during a day’s play,” Panicker told me. “We were wondering if anyone actually read that much.”

These kids did. They described to him how six of them would gather at one of their places, and they would follow the game in batches of three. One batch would sleep while the other half would ‘watch’ the game via the ball-by-ball commentary, refreshing the screen ferociously. Then, at the innings break, they’d wake the other batch up, brief them on what had happened, and go off to sleep. The other three would then take over. Refresh. Refresh. Refresh. All night.

Panicker said that this story was an eye-opener for him, as he realised how much cricket meant to these kids. “All of us like the game,” he said to me, “but this was like an obsession.”

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If you love cricket, really really love cricket, watching it on television just won’t do: you have to go to the ground once in a while. Being at the ground is not just about ambience and being part of the event and so on: it’s about seeing the bits of the game that television cannot show you, the big picture instead of selected little details, the thousand dramas that the cameras don’t capture, the ebb and flow, and not overs punctuated by commercial breaks. You see subtle changes in field placings,  and the way batsmen react to them. You notice the way fielders walk or strut or bite their nails, and how they interact between overs. Every ball has a back story, and you get a lot more of the context at the ground – even if you’re sitting at square leg and can’t see the ball swing.

And what love it takes to watch cricket in India! Cricket stadiums here, with a couple of notable exceptions, are monstrously uncomfortable at best and torture chambers at worst. Spectators spend their entire day sitting on damaged wooden benches or stone slaps, often under the direct gaze of the sun. Some grounds do not allow them to even carry water inside. Toilets are pathetic, often messy and lacking running water.

In many other countries, such as Australia or South Africa, watching cricket at the ground is a pleasure in itself: you hang out with friends, maybe get a tan, maybe spread out a rug and enjoy a beer or two, listen to some music that’s playing in the stands or, during breaks, on the PA. The cricket is just one part of the event. But in India, everything apart from the cricket is excruciating. What else but an unrelenting love for cricket can then drive people to the grounds?

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But sometimes even love has limits, and can be harshly tested. As our lovers sit and sit and sit, slowly being cooked in the sun, the discomfort in their backsides often reaches their heads. And when the cricket is also not to their satisfaction, they can get violent. It is no surprise to me that the Indian venue most famous for its crowd disturbances is also one of the most uncomfortable: Eden Gardens, Kolkata. Part of the blame for that has to fall on the stadium itself.

But not all of it.

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Are those who throw Bisleri bottles or other projectiles onto the field expressing some kind of love? In my view: No. It is like throwing acid on someone who has rejected you and saying, “Ah but this is an indication of the depth of my desire.” Those who talk about the passion Indians feel for cricket often refer to public displays of it that are not a sign of love, but something more perverse.

Cricket in India, sadly, is tied up with nationalism. This is a product of our past: for the first few decades of our independence, there was nothing at which an Indian could point and say, “Ah, India dominates in that, it can show the rest of the world how it’s done.” Cricket, for what its worth, turned out to be something we weren’t too bad at. (Leave aside the inconvenient fact of how few countries play cricket.)

In the 1970s, for example, we may not have had a bustling economy and world-famous Indians, but we did have Sunil Gavaskar. Some years after that, we won the World Cup! For a country with such an inferiority complex about firangs, one that we are only now getting over, that was huge. Popular emotions over India-Pakistan matches are the stuff of cliché now, and there could be no worse expression of nationalistic pride. The ‘Pakraman’ branding when India resumed cricket against Pakistan; the jingoism whipped up by a shameless press because they know there is a market for it; the MPs raising questions about cricket in parliament; the mobs burning effigies and stoning players’ houses – all that isn’t love, its acid.

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And the media cannot separate nation from cricket either. Some of our best writers still talk of our players being symbols of a newly assertive India, of how the journey of the cricket team mirrors the rise of our nation, and other such impressive-sounding rubbish. Listen, Sourav Ganguly took off his shirt at Lord’s and waved it around because he was a wonderfully spirited and passionate individual expressing his joy at the moment. There was no national or post-colonial significance to that. Enough half-baked analysis!

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There are really two crickets: there’s cricket the sport, and there’s cricket the entertainment. As a sport, there is much to love in it: the length of a cricket match and the vast number of variables involved make it highly nuanced. It is like a play with many acts that makes most other sports seem like hurried vignettes. There is epic drama, with scope enough for Machiaveli, Mephistopheles and Sun Tzu to display their wares. There is space to think and evaluate options – a ball is bowled, then the universe stops and rewires itself, then rinse and repeat – and the true cricket lover is never short of things to immerse himself in. Surges of adrenalin can alternate with meditative thinking on the game. Even seemingly boring passages of play – batsmen letting balls go by, a spinner bowling six maiden overs in a row – is filled with action in the mind of the cricket lover.

Plenty of Indians love cricket the sport. They note the delicate shifts in a bowler’s follow-through that cause him to lose his ability to reverse-swing the ball, they are experts on seam position, and they notice when a batsman’s propensity to inside-edge the ball on to his stumps increases because of an unconscious change in his backlift. But there are also other Indians who yawn or boo at times of the most intricately contructed drama. They want fours and sixes and wickets and action and shots of women in the crowd. They want to be entertained.

Many more Indians care for cricket the entertainment than cricket the sport. For them, cricket is like another Salman Khan film, only with Yuvraj Singh as the star. Will he hammer the bad guys? Will he be the hero, or will they let them down? Will he be paisa wasool?

It is they who make cricket such big business in India. Cricket as sport is a niche pursuit for aficionados. Cricket as entertainment is a mainstream moneyspinner. Getting Mandira Bedi and Rohit Roy to do a cricket show makes perfect sense in those terms, however much they make purists like me cringe. Their ignorance of the sport is entirely besides the point, because who cares about the sport anyway? Audiences want action, excitement and eye candy.

This is why so much coverage of the game is hyperbolic, designed to keep viewers perpetually excited. That is why most commentators are ex-cricketers, hired for being familiar to a celebrity-obsessed audience, and rarely for the insights they offer. Tamasha rules, entertainment rules. Will the sport survive?

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Two decades ago, when I was a boy, there weren’t too many ways for most Indians to entertain themselves. There was Bollywood. And there was cricket. The opportunity cost for watching a game of cricket wasn’t much: what else would you do in its place anyway? That has changed.

Since India began liberalising 16 years ago, a burgeoning middle class has found itself with many other ways of spending its time. As India has opened up to the world, hazaar things have flooded in from outside, competing with cricket for our attention. There is much more on TV to watch, there is the internet with all its riches, there are many more nifty places to hang out at: who’s got time for bat and ball?

Indeed, this is one reason India’s big cities – in particular, Mumbai – no longer churn out top cricketers like they used to. Kids in big cities find a lot else to do with their time, and many career opportunities that are far more lucrative than the risk that taking up cricket involves. At the same time, the smaller towns have developed fast enough for opportunities to play cricket to grow, but small-town kids don’t yet have so many options of timepass to compete with cricket. That is why so many new-generation India cricketers are from the smaller towns – Dhoni, Pathan, Munaf, Raina, and so on.

But as time goes by, and India develops, that will change. As globalisation proceeds, cricket will be competing with more and more alternatives for a potential fan’s time. And consider this: what is called the shorter form of the game takes up a full working day. No longer insulated from competition, can cricket retain its following as the years go by? Will Indians still have time for the game ten years from now?

Reason says it won’t. But what does love know of reason?