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Cricket And The Blue Billion

Compare the level of cricket craziness surrounding this year’s WC with the enthusiasm demonstrated by Indians in 1983, the one time we actually brought home the Cup, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Apr 04, 2007 00:48 IST

Somebody mailed me this joke at the beginning of last week. This is how it goes: a teacher asks all the boys in her class to stand up and say what their fathers do. The first boy gets up and says, “My dad is a lawyer; he goes to court and fights cases in front of a judge.” The second boy says, “My papa is a doctor. He goes to a hospital, wears a white coat and treats patients.”

All goes well till the teacher finally asks a very reticent boy to tell the class about his father. Reluctantly, the boy begins: “My daddy is a rapist. He pounces on strange women and does very bad things to them…”

The teacher is horrified. She stops the boy mid-sentence, dismisses the rest of the class and sits him down in front of her alone. “Tell me truthfully,” she says, “is what you said about your father really true?”

The boy looks embarrassed. Finally, he admits that no, it wasn’t true. He had made up the story.

The teacher is even more appalled. “But why,” she asks, “do you need to make up a story that is so horrible?” “Well miss,” he stammers, “it’s because what my father really does is even more shameful.”

“Really?” says the teacher. “What does he do?”The boy whispers the answer: “He plays cricket for India.”

Alright. It’s not terribly funny; worth a chuckle or two if perhaps but hardly side-splitting stuff. But jokes like this made the sounds for much of last week. Other chain-mails spoke of the Indian cricket team’s schedule (“next match St Bede’s Boys’ School; after that Nirmala Ladies College...” and so on) and some suggested that the murderers had killed the wrong coach in a West Indies hotel room.

Rarely have I seen an entire nation get so angry, so outraged and so bitter about something that was, in the final analysis, no more than a sporting encounter. For the first few days as India began to rave and rant, I thought we were just being silly. But having thought about it, I think our response to the World Cup debacle tells us a few things about our national character.

We are a nation of dreamers. Even before the team left for the West Indies, most cricket commentators conceded that we had, at best, only an outside chance of winning the World Cup. Judging by previous performance over the last few months, it was not unreasonable to assume that we would make it to the semi-finals. But anything more seemed like wishful thinking.
Yet, in our minds, getting to the final was almost a sure thing. We swallowed all the hype about the blue billion, about how the prayers of the Indian masses would guarantee victory.

The facts may not have been on our side. But we were only too ready to mistake dreams for certainty.

Such is our gullibility that we become easy prey to marketers and salesmen. It is no secret that Indians are essentially a credulous people. We believe in things that much of the civilised world treats with disdain: godmen, black magic, astrology and, sometimes, even the promises of duplicitous politicians.

Marketers have worked out that they can exploit this gullibility and this willingness to suspend disbelief for their commercial benefit.

The cricket hysteria has been fed and magnified by crores of advertising rupees. The enthusiasm surrounding our World Cup prospects may have emerged out of some naïve belief in the powers of our team, but it was fanned to extreme and unrealistic levels by ad men and marketing experts who realised that they could profit by associating their products with this hysteria.

Compare the level of cricket craziness surrounding this year’s World Cup with the enthusiasm demonstrated by Indians in 1983, the one time we actually brought home the Cup. It wasn’t that we didn’t love cricket in 1983. It just wasn’t as big a business then. And so, there was nothing like the 2007 hysteria in those days. The unrealistic optimism surrounding our prospects this year was largely a creation of marketers who wanted to exploit our gullibility to flog their products.

We swing from one extreme to another. Rarely do we find any kind of balance in our assessments of people. We have seen this in the political field. When Indira Gandhi was on a high in 1972, we treated her as a goddess. When she fell from grace in 1977, we acted as though she was a demon. But by 1980, we were ready to vote her to power again.

So it is with cricket. Just take our attitude to Sourav Ganguly. By the time he was finally booted out of the Indian team a couple of years ago, most of us had bought the line that he was a tired, old has-been who was clinging on to his place in the team only so that he could keep his endorsements. (Except in Calcutta where Bengali chauvinism always wins out over everything else.) Then, a few months ago, we suddenly performed a 180-degrees about-turn. Now Sourav was a victim, a great batsman who had been unjustly treated by the demonic Greg Chappell. He had to win back his place in the team.

In the aftermath of the recent debacle, we have demonstrated a similar fickleness. Once, they would not let Mahendra Singh Dhoni move around in Ranchi because his fans would smother him with their affection. Now, they attack the house he is constructing. Once, Virendra Sehwag was a public idol; now he has to slink back to Delhi to avoid public anger. Once, policemen were posted outside the homes of cricketers to keep the adoring crowds at bay. Now, the policemen are there to protect the players from violent attacks.

In our anger, we pick on the very things we always admired. Why do cricketers end up endorsing so many products and appearing in so many ads?

The reason is simple enough: consumers tend to buy products that are endorsed by members of the Indian cricket team. No advertiser would spend so many crores on securing endorsements otherwise.

And yet, the moment the team starts performing badly, we seize on the endorsements as the reason for the failures on the field. “These guys are too busy shooting ad films to concentrate on the game” we declare self-righteously. Or “they are more interested in endorsements than in cricket.”

Not only is this a reversal of our own emotions — the only reason they are asked to endorse products is because we then go out and buy them — it is also illogical. All cricketers know that their ability to win endorsement deals depends solely on their performance on the field. They are not idiots. They are hardly likely to want to play badly because they’d rather concentrate on the ads. They know that the ads depend on the cricket.

We often miss the point about other people’s success. Of course cricket is a huge business today and cricket earns most of its revenues from the Indian subcontinent. But where does this money go? Even if you take away the commercial benefits that accrue to advertisers, the overwhelming majority of the rupees earned from cricket go to the BCCI and to the TV companies to whom they sell the rights. Payments to players amount to a very small proportion of the total revenues.

And yet, have you ever heard anyone say, “The BCCI must be held accountable as it earns hundreds of crores from cricket” or, “we should pick on the TV companies that deal in rights worth millions of dollars”?
Instead, each defeat leads to the same refrain. “These cricketers earn too much money.” Always, we single out the guys who actually make the least.

And finally, there’s the question of national character. It is clear now that France would probably have won the football World Cup if Zinedine Zidane had not lost his head and butted an Italian player who made an obscene remark about his sister.

Yet, how do you suppose France reacted? The President invited the entire football team to the Elysee Palace and gave a little speech in which he praised Zidane as a national hero. Nobody had forgotten that France had won the previous World Cup almost entirely because of Zidane’s goals.

Contrast this with how we have treated our team after its return from the West Indies. I don’t see President Kalam inviting the cricketers to Rashtrapati Bhavan and telling them “Don’t let the defeat get you down”. Advertisers are rushing to pull out ads featuring cricketers.

What does it say about us as a nation that we can be so petty, so unforgiving, so small and so vindictive towards men we regarded as the pride of India only a month ago? Does it not suggest that we are small-minded, ungrateful and needlessly vicious?

I think it does. And I think the way in which we are reacting shames us as a nation.

Yes, the cricket team may have failed India. But, by being so petty, narrow-minded and needlessly bitter, all of us have failed India far more.