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Conversion of fans into sportspersons is India’s big challenge

This transformation is the challenge ahead for sport in India. At the policy as well as societal levels.

mumbai Updated: Apr 14, 2017 17:23 IST
Ayaz Memon
When it was thought that Indian cricket fans would be cricket fatigued and picky about the IPL, the turnout of sports fans at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai was a pleasant surprise.
When it was thought that Indian cricket fans would be cricket fatigued and picky about the IPL, the turnout of sports fans at the Wankhede stadium in Mumbai was a pleasant surprise.(HT FILE)

Having been to both IPL matches played at the Wankhede Stadium so far this season, I have been pleasantly surprised by the big crowds that have turned up, despite the onset of a harsh summer and the hardship of commute.

The box-office draw of local team Mumbai Indians has always been huge, of course. And with IPL matches being shifted away from the city in the last season on an HC directive because of drought in the state, some ‘making up’ had to be done.

Even so, the response of fans was a revelation. After a long and hugely successful international season in which India played 13 Tests (and won 10), it was thought that they would be cricket fatigued and picky about the IPL.

There were also serious compunctions over the absence of stars like Virat Kohli, AB de Villiers, Ravindra Jadeja, Umesh Yadav (for some days) and R Ashwin, K L Rahul, Murali Vijay, Mitchel Starc, J P Duminy, Quinton de Kock (for the entire tournament), but this hasn’t been a dampener at all.

How successful the 10th edition of the IPL will be vis-à-vis previous years remains to be seen. Bums-on-seats is indicative, but not the only determinant to success. How TV audiences, sponsors tot up will reveal the true picture.

But this piece is not so much about the IPL, but the impact it has had on Indian sport and psyche. While cricket was – and remains – India’s pre-eminent sport, other disciplines have gained enormously due to the IPL.

In the match against Hyderabad at the Wankhede, I met a lady chaperoning 5-6 kids in the 8-12 age group. Hardly surprising since the IPL attracts a lot of women spectators and a cricket match is always better for kids than staying at home with video games. But it was the brief interaction with the children that was illuminating. Asked of their cricket heroes, names that came up (obviously) instantly were Virat Kohli, M S Dhoni, K L Rahul and Rohit Sharma.

I decided then to bowl a googly, and asked them about non-cricketing Indian sportspersons. Without exception, they named P V Sindhu, Saina Nehwal, Sania Mirza. Three of them were even familiar (with scores) of Sindhu’s recent win of Carolina Marin in the Indian Open.

The sample size is minuscule but I found this pertinent. Young Indians are latching on to the country’s sports stars and their achievements like never before. Obviously those doing well have greater recall.

How does a domestic tournament like IPL matter in this? For one, it’s success established there was enough heft in the economy to make sport hugely lucrative — as revenue for the sports body and as livelihood for players. Added to this was the realisation that ‘young India’ is interested in sport, particularly as a matter of ‘national pride’ when desis do well.

This compelled Indian media to look at sport more aggressively and led to a boom in sports broadcast in the past 6-7 years. There is very little sport played anywhere in the world that we don’t see on TV today, which means young Indians are exposed to far more disciplines — and champions that inspire — than ever before. The IPL’s success also had a direct effect on other sports, which led to many leagues in other sports and growing corporate involvement. Not all have been financially successful like the IPL, but this has certainly expanded the eco-system of sports in India. All this, of course, may still not make India a sporting nation. For that, interest in sports must develop into participation. This has to happen at a mass level, so the conversion from fans to athletes at a young age has to be high.

For instance, if even two of those six kids become sportspersons – at whatever level – the progress is good: if all end up as couch potatoes, it is not good at all. This transformation is the challenge ahead for sport in India. At the policy as well as societal levels.

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