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Bowling them over

With the emergence of IPL, cricket is now firmly part of the ‘celebrity culture’ that dominates our urban planet, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

india Updated: May 01, 2008, 22:02 IST

The Indian Premier League (IPL) has rammed home a new meaning to the notion of a ‘generation gap’. Taking my 13-year-old son to watch the Delhi Daredevils playing their first game at the Kotla was meant to be an exercise in family bonding and also a chance to get my teenager to savour the joys of the sport. Sitting in one of the spiffy new corporate boxes, we had the added pleasure of legendary Australian fast bowler Dennis Lillee for company. As Lillee poured his wisdom on the game, I could sense my son getting restless. “I want to be on television Dad, like all my friends, with a placard cheering a sixer. What’s the point in coming to the game if you don’t come on TV!” was his candid confession. While I groped for a response, the hospitality executive was more helpful: “Why don’t we take you to the seats near Akshay Kumar. I am sure the camera will focus on that area.” My son was delighted, I had got my wake-up call. Move over Lillee. Akshay Kumar, one of cricket’s new mascots is here.

With the emergence of IPL, cricket is now firmly part of the ‘celebrity culture’ that dominates our urban planet. Watching the Kolkata Knightriders seems to be as much about the ability of Sourav Ganguly as it is about the larger-than-life presence of Shah Rukh Khan and entourage. Mohali has Preity Zinta to lift the spirits; Bangalore has Vijay Mallya and Katrina Kaif to raise the glamour quotient; Mumbai has Hrithik Roshan to add a little bit of spice; while Delhi has Akshay’s machismo to draw in the crowds. Cheerleaders, film stars, fireworks, event managers, and yes, 22 players in coloured clothing hitting lots of sixes: the purists may be alarmed, but the fact is that ‘cricketainment’ is finally a recognised industry.

This is a mini-revolution that was waiting to happen. After all, Indian cricket has always been the ultimate form of mass entertainment, but was still managed like an old economy family firm. The players were brands, but couldn’t quite encash their brand value. Someone needed to end the dichotomy. The ready manner in which the IPL has been embraced by fans, sponsors and the cricketers is proof that there was a yearning for changing the rules of the game. In particular, the infrastructure at most of the grounds has significantly improved with the advent of the new league. Comfortable seating, much-needed floodlights, sparkling outfields, large scoreboards — going to a cricket match might actually turn out to be a pleasurable experience if sponsor money is ploughed back into improving the facilities across stadiums. Moreover, the globalisation of sport offers endless opportunity: watching the genius of Shane Warne co-exist with the energies of young talents from Rajasthan has been the highlight of the IPL so far.

And yet, the euphoria of having discovered a new world of cricket cannot be at the cost of certain enduring traditions. Sport is ultimately about a deep emotional connect between players and fans and not about transient pleasures derived from being part of a three-hour extravaganza. There is almost something sacred about this relationship that cannot be diluted by flashy music videos, glamorous cheerleaders and even more magnetic film stars. When on-field tension is matched by off-the-field hype, when the camera focuses relentlessly on the stars and the dancers instead of the cricketers, then questions must be raised about the direction the sport is headed.

In a sense, Twenty20 is to cricket what Page 3 is to journalism: fast, exciting, but also, often vacuous and titillating. Test cricket is a bit like the editorial page: serious, but at times, somnolent. If Page 3 and Page 1 can co-exist, why can’t Twenty20 cricket live with the other forms of the game? Don’t forget that when 50-overs cricket took off in the late 1970s, there were similar apprehensions expressed over it destroying the five-day match. In the event, Test cricket has proved remarkably resilient. The recent India-Australia Test series saw large crowds and even better cricket being played. Just as Page 3 has been given its due space in journalism, shouldn’t the newest form of the sport be also given its moment in the cricketing sun?

It should, but with a clear rider: Page 3 cricket must not be allowed to become Page 1 sport. A decade ago, when the colour supplements began to emerge across newspapers, many saw the reporting on the party circuit as a much-needed ‘break’ from the often grim whirl of daily news. With a section of urban India slowly discovering the joys of a leisure society, it was felt that journalism needed to reflect this emerging reality. Page 3 was born out of this desire for change, much as Twenty20 cricket has emerged because of the pressures of a lifestyle that places a premium on time. Watching a five-day cricket match that could conceivably end in an honourable draw is seen as a luxury that today’s generation can ill afford. Similarly, a 1,500-word special report on hunger in rural Bihar or a lengthy editorial on India’s strategic challenges were viewed as unsuited to the changing tastes of the reader.

A decade later, Page 3 has slowly but surely crept its way to Page 1: there is almost a breathless excitement with which we report on the world of glitz and glamour. Shah Rukh Khan’s six-pack is headline news; so is Sunjay Dutt’s marital status. Khan and Dutt can at least claim to be big stars. A google search revealed, for example, an incredible 458,000 entries in the name of item girl Rakhi Sawant. Television channels don’t just ask her questions on who she met at which party, but she’s even debated female infanticide statistics. A professor’s love triangle in Patna college becomes an endless soap on news television. But the same channels will scarcely report on Bihar’s worst ever floods. Is it any surprise then that there is so little journalistic space devoted to what is surely the biggest news story at the moment: the growing food crisis across the globe. When the mind is numbed, the head can scarcely be held high.

Twenty20 cricket faces the same dilemma. What might have started off as a harmless ‘distraction’, threatens to become the staple diet. Across the cricketing world, there is a clamour for more. After all, this form of slam-bang cricket will bring in new audiences, and more revenues. But on the flip side, it could also lead to a ‘dumbing down’ of the sport, severely damaging some of cricket’s unique elements, on and off the field. Will young batsmen now be coached only to play power cricket, without facing upto the technical and mental challenges that the art of batsmanship throws up? With short boundaries and only four overs in a match per bowler, will any young bowler really learn the craft of bowling?

And more worryingly, will franchisee sport ‘commodify’ players and reduce their commitment to a ‘nationalist’ ethos (as has happened with most American sport)? Indeed, as ‘made for television’ sport takes over from the ‘real thing’, we need to draw a lakshman rekha that will ensure that the sanctity of cricket isn’t destroyed forever. Bollywood, in particular, already exercises a hegemonic influence over contemporary popular culture, virtually trampling over all else. Item numbers threaten traditional dance forms, ‘Indipop’ on the FM blares over classical music; television soaps draw audiences away from the stage. Even book release functions often need a film star to light up the evening. It would be a pity if cricket’s new tsars saw Shah Rukh’s presence in the dressing room to be as essential a measure to judge their success as that of a Sachin on the pitch.

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