That Virender Sehwag was the centre of attraction at the Nehru Cup final is a telling statement about the power of cricket, and the irresistible appeal of cricket celebrities.
Common wisdom says the game is bigger than the individual but this theory is severely tested in India as the sport is seemingly driven by celebrity cricketers. But while cricketers are big, cricket is the instrument that manufactures heroes and transforms ordinary blokes into supermen.
Membership to this charmed world of endless glitter and glamour is not easy — it takes sustained excellence to gain privilege. Kapil Dev was granted admission only after he fired the country’s imagination by winning the World Cup. Sunil Gavaskar qualified on the strength of his classy style and heaps of runs scored. Sachin Tendulkar became a national icon because of a million international runs and obvious genius.
Members of this exclusive league are granted lifelong privileges in a field which extends beyond cricketing boundaries. As national celebrities, they play many roles, ranging from opening showrooms to judging Nach Baliye contests.
Though cricket grants celebrities a free passport, individuals still need to develop skills to exploit the opportunities. Many stars have failed this test and missed out. Some, like Tiger Pataudi, refuse to chase attention.
There are also the examples of Kapil and Gavaskar who, adjusting to the commercial possibilities gifted by a surging economy, have moved away from conventional areas. Kapil , a fearless adventurer on the field, is now an equally daring entrepreneur. Gavaskar, a broadcast star, has carved a niche for himself with determination and dignity, qualities that marked his batting.
It will be interesting to see which way the next lot of Indian cricket celebrities go. Sachin, quite likely, will follow Bachchan, the unquestioned don, and exist in a class of his own. Dravid could be cricket's SRK, articulate and intelligent, a terrific brand ambassador considering his cool, clean and correct approach. Sourav ? Difficult to say.
Cricket celebrities are loved and admired for their sporting achievements, and they are commercially hot because of the connect with consumers. But when it comes to actual cricket, it is best to put team interest first because cricket remains, even in the contemporary context, bigger than all cricket stars/celebrities put together.