Football is the Beautiful Game and golf the ugliest. But where does carrom fit in the grand hierarchy of sports? I can hear you snigger already. Carrom a sport? At best, it's a board game on par with an unplugged version of an '80s Atari video game. (They've recently brought out a Carrom 3D ipad app.) At worst, it's what a type of middle-aged man tries to convince newspaper readers on a Sunday to be a sport so as to delude himself into believing that he's not un-sporty at all.
But that's where you're wrong. Carrom is a sport that requires skill, involves passion and forces the player to make strategic decisions. And I'm not extolling its virtues out of nostalgia. Sweet as it is to remember one's wonder years with the sight and cracking sounds of the carrom board, getting nostalgic about carrom-playing can actually get in the way of a sport that's crying out to reach at least table-tennis status from becoming popular.
Cricket, for all our memories of swinging an arm and a bat in 'half pants', has reached its unstoppable popularity not because we vividly miss those bouts of galli cricket but because a whole superstructure has grown around the sport propping it up beyond just the games.
Carrom has an intelligent beauty about it: a square wooden board around which two or four players sit or stand with the object of knocking into the pockets (the four holes in the four corners of the board) nine carrom men (the disks that are sent cracking about the board) of one's colour (white or black) and hopefully the high-value red coin by using a striker (a larger disk) and Newtonian physics.
If measuring the right force, mass and acceleration to propel a disk with the force emanated from the tip of one's fingers is a crucial aspect of carrom, having an intuition for Euclidian geometry is another. How to knock one of your coins that's partially eclipsed by your opponent's piece into a pocket is a skill that mixes neuro-engineering with a Jedi knight's feel for the Force. And when a particularly acute-angled shot leads to a coin sliding across the wooden board and into a pocket - hit not too hard that the striker too goes but also not too slow that the disc freezes midway - we witness a beautiful act of the calibre of a Federer forehand, an Azharuddin leg glance, or a Messi chip.
But the beauty of a sport - or rather, how beautifully it is played - alone is not enough to make it popular. Cricket's popularity comes from great players, great games and the great hinterland that covers cricket, highlights it, exaggerates it, commentates about it, writes about it, and mythologises it. Carrom needs that kind of 'theoretical support' where experts will talk about matches, make legends out of great games, build heroes, disseminate and discuss key moments of carrom history. Chennai-based A Maria Irudayam may not be a household name even in India despite being a two-time World Carrom Champion, a nine-time national champion and a recipient of the Arjuna Award in 1996. But countries like Switzerland, Germany and Holland - not to mention Sri Lanka and Pakistan - have serious carrom enthusiasts too. The fifth World Carrom Championship was held in Cannes, France, in 2008. (Sri Lanka beat India in the final.)
The host nation and dates of the 2012 World Carrom Championship will be announced soon. ESPN had telecast the championship in 2008. Very few people knew about it then, which is just as well as the production quality sucked. They had simply replicated camera angles meant for billiard match coverage. The commentary, too, was as bland as a Doordarshan on Republic Day.
Carrom can well be made into the next big spectator sport. The thought of a crisp, super slo-mo TV replay of a glorious bisecting shot pocketing a coin along with an intelligent bit of commentary could give you goosebumps. I'll certainly watch out for the dates for this year's world championship. What carrom needs is theoretical support through coverage, word-of-mouth banter (read: Facebook noise) and a critical apparatus set around it.
It's time carrom, the finest non-contact contact sport, gets its due buzz so that it can erupt and ricochet as a cracking phenomenon. I can feel the air near my fingers quiver already.