Look, the fact is that cricket barely qualifies as an international sport. There are 1.5 billion subcontinentals who’ve been fed cricket, cricket and more cricket for decades, so there’s steady interest here. But look beyond, and we’re talking a steep, genuinely precipitous, drop-off to England, Australia, South Africa and the West Indies, where ‘our’ sport runs a distant third or fourth to the popularity of football, rugby, basketball, athletics, swimming, etc.
And after England and its overseas spawn, you may as well stop counting, because you’re done with all the legitimate cricketing sides in the world. Pretty pathetic, isn’t it?
Indians don’t like to consider this truth, but it’s become quite apparent that most other countries only continue with cricket because India is obsessed with it. But you see, that precise sticking point is the crux of why Indians are obsessed with cricket — it’s another plain fact that we’re really horrible at sports where the rest of the world competes, and we hate the Olympics because we get ritually creamed every time.
At Beijing, India’s best Olympics ever, little tiny countries like Mongolia out-ranked us. Yes, Mongolia. We are a billion people grown accustomed to being thrashed on the playing fields. We celebrate quarter-final defeats, and fourth-place finishes, the way other countries get excited about actual victories.
In the old days, we took the lickings with a resigned acceptance — poor country, no facilities, etc. But now we have that much-advertised, resurgent middle-class and all that other stuff that drives Tom Friedman into frothing ecstasies.
Don’t get me wrong, I have all the necessary cricketing bona fides in place. This is an insider’s plea. Born in Bombay, gifted my first bat when I was just about capable of walking, I worshipped the ground traversed by Sunil Gavaskar’s legs like every other Indian boy my age.
Staying close to the sport through sheer dint of emotion, I bowled spin to inebriated Americans in my college’s residential corridors, and then even made cricket my career for the few years that WorldTel tried to dominate the sport from a small suite of offices in New York. There, I put in my time for cricket: tried (unsuccessfully) to nurture the US to a World Cup berth, and (unsuccessfully) make streaming cricket video a lucrative internet business, and (successfully, for a time) build Sachin Tendulkar a better official website than Michael Jordan’s.
But somewhere around the time that the Indian Premier League took off, the shine came off the ball for me. It was that the make-up of this league, and composition of the teams, is utterly fixed from top to bottom. It’s racketeering, plain and simple. The administrators of the game are the owners of the teams and the main beneficiaries of side-contracts to boot.
The sport now reeks of incest, and the pipeline of pure cash thrown up in this Ponzi-style scheme has completely warped the game we once loved, probably irrevocably. Within hours of beating Sri Lanka, that global athletic power, in a sport almost no one cares about outside the subcontinent, the state and central governments were falling over themselves to hand out incredibly large cash awards to each player, and the coaches as well. Crores each, plots of land, luxury vehicles, the sky’s the limit for our cricketers.
Now here’s something to root for. Treated like dirt for decades, Indian football has developed a core of gritty young players who can hang with the better Asian teams for long stretches, even though they have to beg and fight for facilities that fall short of even high-school set-ups in Germany or Japan.
Indian football has a hope, and a plan, to break into the top 100 in the world within 5 years, a worthy and realistic goal. There are no billionaire cheerleaders, and no Bollywood insiders packing the stands.
But it’s football, truly global. Now that we’ve been there and done that with regard to the cricket World Cup, can we please move on to real sports?
(Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer and a recovering cricket addict, the views expressed by the author are personal)