Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Why are Indians Cricket Crazy?

The most forwarded email joke making rounds on internet these days is: “When every Indian is worried about and is debating where Ram was born, a bunch of Australian players and the cricketing fraternity is worried about and debating WHY Laxman was born”

VVS Laxman has revived India’s interest in cricket yet again. The spot fixing scandal and corruption had eclipsed the interest in cricket and the high esteem and passion in Indian mind. But one good game, memorable performance and famous win has changed everything. The fans back like nothing had happened before.

A few months ago the same team that consists of 4-5 one-man-match winners, lost to Srilanka in a dismal batting show. Not many were surprised. The situation was tailor-made for Murali who had decided to retire on that ground and wanted to close with a bang. There were only 2 things that could have stopped this. Either rain or Murali himself.

But would it reduce popularity of Sachin, Dravid or Dhoni in any way? I doubt.

Would their innumerable sponsors start thinking about them any differently? I doubt. Would their fans stop flocking them when they come to public areas tomorrow? I doubt.

World cup football 2010 gave a brand world champion champions? Has it changed anything for Indian sports fans? I doubt.

For first 1 week in Common Wealth games, Indian athletes have put together a spectacular performance. It’s raining medals and India is second position. That’s an awesome performance but would that make shooting or archery more popular than cricket? I doubt.

The fact is we are a cricket crazy nation. Our love or passion or obsession or whatever-you-name-it for cricket is above any sane, logical understanding. Our cricketing heroes have done well over the years to earn that position but they never seem to come down couple of notches if they don’t perform or misbehave. I really wonder why? A few years ago, match fixing scandal threatened to throw this off gear. A lot of high profile players were involved, their names were dragged in the scandal. We believed some of them, we looked at some others as innocent victims (or bali ka bakras). We paused, thought for a while and moved on - moved on like never before. Those players who emerged unscathed from this agni-pariksha (trial by fire) became even bigger heroes and signed even bigger sponsorship contracts and retainers from BCCI. They were considered invaluable players for IPL and we would see their real star value unleashed in the IPL auctions slated to take place before next IPL season.

This phenomenon shown by otherwise reasonable, easy to understand Indians completely is very hard to relate to. There are many theories about why Indian exhibits this crazy love for cricket. The most heard theory is cricket is an icon of colonial hangover, a symbol of British dominance on Indian hearts and minds. When British left India in 1947, they left behind 2 important things English Language and Cricket. Indians latched on to both of them with vengeance. English language made Indians’ presence felt to the world and made them richer while cricket kept them entertained. There is no doubt that Indians learnt cricket, while British were ruling them. Without any doubt that was the starting point. But it’s over 63 years since British have left. Till 1991, we were kept isolated from the world in an attempt to drive away British influence from our hearts and minds. It seemed to have worked. When we opened our eyes to the world of liberalization, we did not notice British. We welcomed Americans, Koreans, Japanese, French, Italians along with British. We had other role models to follow. British influence on our hearts and minds was greatly diminished. Even with English we had “indianized” the usage the accent which needed to unlearnt at several call centers. Besides, even British have moved away from cricket. When England was hosting cricket world cup, ESPN had to run the famous “Apple Singh” campaign to create awareness about it as the local people who mistook it for football world cup. So certainly we are not following British in our obsession for cricket.

Some link euphoria around cricket to India’s global success in cricket. In 1971, Ajit Wadekar’s team received a warm reception and test cricket became quite popular. Then came world cup win in 1983. This has to be considered a big turning point in the history of Indian cricket. As a young boy, I remember staying awake late in the night to watch the finals on Lords. I can still feel the adrenaline rush in my blood when I think about it. For records, this cricket match was a David Vs Goliath fight. Indian was team was considered lucky to reach final but nobody watching this match including large number of Indian fans, the opponents and the team themselves gave themselves any chance. Even if you listen to the commentary of that match now, the commentators were talking West Indian victory as undeniable end result. What happened on that day is a history now. It was a thumping win that revived Indian One day cricket.

Then came T20 world cup win in 2007 was another such turning point for T20 cricket. India won the T20 world cup and 20-20 the shorter version of the game, just 3 hour match full of entertainment became extremely popular. The Indian team now plays more T20 matches the test matches and some players are specialist T20 players and do not intend to enter the test match cricket. IPL is an amazing success story. This is the place where two obsessions of Indians kiss each other, Cricket and Bollywood.

It happens in an all familiar 3-hour family entertainment package that is full of action, drama, suspense, our favorite stars and dancing girls. IPL also gives us a rare opportunity to see our retired cricketing heroes, we have grown up watching, in action. An Amazing cocktail of fun and sports! Truly hats off to this innovation. Irrespective of whom heads the venture, this format and innovation is here to stay. But IPL can only be considered as a result of India’s craze for cricket not the cause India has enjoyed a lot of success in Hockey at global level by winning Olympic medals. But that did not become a religion. The players were not worshipped along with gods nor did they get any advertisement endorsements or iconic status. Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi were first seeded doubles pair and won many competitions together but I do not recall any major impact that they were able to create on Indian minds. It is another story that they did not give the advertisers and sponsors adequate time to work out a campaign when they were ruling at the top. Gopichand (remember him?) had won British open Badminton tournament. I am not sure how many of you are even aware of this, leave along remembering it. Abhinav Bhindra and Rathod who won us Olympic medals, they did get their share of fame but none of these sports became a national topic, leave along national craze. In first one week of commonwealth games in New Delhi, India stands second, ahead of most of the established nations. But that is unlikely to give a boot to shooting or archery or weight lifting. Sania Mirza, I would say, is a notable exception. Please pardon me Sania-fans but I don’t really recall any major win by her which made us proud. Her global ranking kept going up but the media did not even bother to report why it is going up. We liked her and loved her as a sportsperson but Tennis did not rule our hearts and minds.

Obviously, success of our teams or players in global platform is an important starting point but not good enough to hold 2 billion eyeballs glued to the TV, no matter where they are. I have been living abroad for over 5 years now. But I still track all cricket tournaments. Often I try to search for Internet links that telecast live matches. Every year, religiously, I pay thru’ my nose to subscribe to IPL or World cup cricket package. Every year I convince my wife, that this year would be another year and I would actually get up at unearthly hours and watch the matches with the same enthusiasm. When I am watching cricket, I explain to my 2-year old rules of cricket and tell him ‘This is sachin uncle”, “This is Dhoni-uncle” and feel happy if he remembers them next time. I have actually tought him all the umpire signals including powerplay and he uses it wisely to impress the guests to impress them suitably. In Singapore, there is a ground where amateurs can get together and play tennis cricket in desi-style. Every time my train passes from that ground and I see kids playing cricket 1. I feel very proud 2. I actually try to watch what happened on the next ball. Isn’t this a crazy, insane and inexplicable behavior shown by an otherwise rationale, intelligent and responsible set of people. Obviously, the reason for the relationship between Indians and cricket has foundation in a deep routed subconscious mind.

I read about an experiment conducted on a group of people belonging to different races and regionalities. There was a boxing match shown to a group of people, for whom both players were unknown. One player was clearly winning and other was clearly loosing…getting beaten up badly. But he was still trying. The spectators were asked to choose the player that they would support and surprisingly a large number of Asians chose the losing player. When they were asked why do they support a losing player, they told that 1. He has not given up, he is still trying. 2. He is an underdog he needs support.

Simple isn’t it? This experiment proved something that all of us intuitively do favor the underdog. Being an underdog for last few centuries we seem to relate ourselves to underdogs a lot better than the winners. This actually set me thinking. I started thinking about various games, how they are played, how the rules are set and what impact does it have on the players. Basketball for instance, offers a natural advantage to tall, athletic players. A short player say 5’4” would stand no chance against a normal sized 6’4” player in this game. The 6’4” player would beat the 5’4” guys 99 out of 100 times. Look at soccer, the most popular game on this planet, heavily favors players who can run fast, have stamina to keep running for 90 minutes, who have quick reflexes and good eyesight. If any of these characteristics are missing chances are that the player may not become a top-notch soccer player. Take tennis for instance. Powerful shoulder, quick reflexes, ability to sprint short distances are cornerstone for any successful player. Ramesh Krishanan was one of the most gritty and perseverant player India had produced. I still remember the Davis cup match in 1987 which he played with grit and determination to take India to finals. Yet John McEnroe had ridiculed him once saying “..he is really a difficult player to play against, I have to swing my racket twice to return his service”. He had one of the slowest serves in the game and hence could go beyond quarter-finals in any grand slam.

The point I am making is take any sports, it favors players of certain physical abilities, characteristics and it is very hard for player who do not possess those characteristics to beat them in those games. Cricket, however, is a notable exception. It does not favor any particular physical trait or characteristics. Any player of any shape or size can dominate a seemingly superior player on a given day.

I actually realized this very recently, when India lost the test match to Srilanka thanks to Murali’s bowling. Murali is currently the most successful bowler in the history of the game. He has taken 800 test wickets and 515 one-day wickets. He is the most feared bowler in the game considered to a magician of the turning ball. But he is one of the biggest underdogs of all times. For starters he is Tamil playing for a country, where Tamil population is persecuted and is associated with one of the most powerful anti-government establishment anywhere in the world. To come from such a social class and entering the national feat is not easy feat. But his underdog status does not end there. By conventional norms he is a handicapped person. He is born with double jointed wrist and permanent kink in his elbow. This physical handicap actually helps him to rotate his wrist virtually 360 deg and turn the ball deceptively. That is his weapon that took him right upto the top. I cannot think of any game where a special person can become the number 1 player and dominate strong, athletic players.

Picture this Merv Hughes 6’ 4” with stocky, experienced, aggressive fast bowler bowling to Sachin Tendulkar 5’ 5” boyish frame barely entered test match cricket on fast and bouncy pitch in Perth. Sachin stood no chance technically speaking. But the result was exactly opposite of this. Sachin dominated Merv Hughes and all other bowlers in Australian side and score memorable 148. The impact of this game on Merv was so deep that he walked up to Allan Boarder, the highest run getter at that time to say, “This little prick’s going to get more runs than you, AB” and how true was that. The ability of underdog to win does not stop at physical characteristics alone. On a given day, a player with significantly lesser skills and experience than the champions in the team can win.

Courteny Walsh was one of the leading fast bowlers bowling to Abdul Qadir, who was a leading leg-spin bowler, not very well known for his batting skills. Qadir had to score 14 runs in 4 balls to win the match and he did it. A recognized, leading fast bowler could not win against a batsman with lower skills when the odds were completely in his favor. Is such a thing heard of in any other game? Does an injured, unfit player stand a chance against a team physically fit, globally competitive players in any other game? Highly unlikely in other games but in cricket you never know.

Saed Anwar, Pakistani ace batsman hit his highest score of 184 (N.O.) against India when he was injured and was playing with a runner. VVS Laxman could barely stand upright due to sprained back in the Chandigarh test in October 2010, but he batted with tailenders to deny win to world class Australians single handedly. World class professional, fiercely competitive team of 11 could not get past an injured, ageing batsman batting with players who are not supposed to be good batsman Inzamam ul haq is regarded as second most successful batsman in the history of cricket. He was very tall, well built, powerful batsman gifted with great reflexes and sense of timing. He also holds a dubious world record of being involved in maximum run-outs. It is very well known that he just did not like to run between wickets. It is rumoured that in first class and club level matches he would instruct his batting partner not to run at all and preferred to score all his runs in bounderies. I reckon that cricket would be the only game that would allow a non-runner to be one of the most successful batsman in the world.

Arjuna Rantunga was another such famous case. Shane Warne once famously commented on him that he looks like a person who has just swallowed a goat. One look at his physical dimensions would confirm that Shane Warne was not all that wrong. But when it came to a crunch situation on Srilanka team he would excel either with bat or ball. When a critical partnership would build up, he would ask himself for bowling. Although, he was a part time bowler he would invariable come back with a wicket. If the team was in trouble due to poor batting display, he would stick around to see his team through. Nothing in his physical appearance or athleticism would suggest that he was capable of anything like this. But he did!

Cricket is full of such possibilities and uncertainties. No particular profile or physique of players is profile is favored. If a player gets right combination of different skills and determination then he can thrive on a given day. This evident not only international cricket but also in composition of Indian cricket team. In early ‘90s Indian cricket team was dominated by players in Mumbai and Delhi the top metros in India. Balance of power slowly shifted to second tier cities such as Bangalore and Chennai and now bulk of the Indian team comes from smaller cities, in fact MS Dhoni himself hails from Ranchi a class IV city in India. India has proven that success in India is no longer limited to those who have more access to resources. Everyone has an equal chance of success in cricket. The player could be tall or short, fat or slim, powerful or frail, could bowl fast or slow, could be fast & agile or slow and lethargic, they have decent chance of success in cricket. This exact aspect of the game gives a tremendous sense of hope and harbor dreams in many players who are not particularly gifted by physical abilities.

There is a theory that when Indians watch movies or cricket, they subconsciously start relating themselves to characters on the screen. (and that is why both these things are passion in India) The spectators believe their team has a chance to succeed and win against all odds. The world is flatter when it comes to cricket and David can beat Goliath more regularly. The spectators who subconsciously tend to support the underdogs and subconsciously relate themselves to the characters on the screen, get more occasions to celebrate. That’s what keeps 2 billion eyeballs glued to seemingly endless, uneventful game of cricket! These spectators are not just watching the game, they are feeling it within them. They are not just cheering their heros, they are subconsciously playing with them. They don’t watch cricket, they live, eat, drink, breathe cricket. Their relationship with cricket is quite deep, strong and founded on some fundamental aspects. It is unlikely that any other game or sport would be able to displace this in short term.

We were, we are and we will remain a cricket crazy nation…for good reasons!
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