Dare we hope for a miracle?
Given the cricket mania that grips the average Indian, the World Cup is the one event that can unhinge the regular Indian sports fan.
Photo: H. Satish
Celebrations galore: watching a lot of cricket has fostered an intense love in the Indian fan.
SHOULD we care so much whether India wins the World Cup? Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since India beat West Indies in that oscillating final at Lord's, and since then results have invariably failed to match expectations. Ashish Nehra's six-wicket burst against England and Sachin Tendulkar's outstanding form through the tournament generated much of the momentum that was to carry India to the final in 2003. But this was India's first appearance in a title match in 20 years, only its second ever. India's form in the one-day game this past year has been poor; and such is our away record that the hard-earned but unexpected Test victory in South Africa gained disproportionate significance in the context of a series that the Indians subsequently lost 2-1.
Do we dare hope for a near-miracle in the West Indies?
Hype is the new normal, excitement the new steady state. The talented, but raw, Suresh Raina was made out to be something of a young god, only to be swept off his pedestal. Mohammed Kaif was once considered a potential Indian Test captain, but he has since been consigned to the fringes even in limited-over cricket.
The position of cricketers is relatively tenuous because there is an inflow of talent. When one's place in the side is not assured, the urge to capitalise on the present would naturally surface. Brands are created and destroyed as a matter of routine.
Conversely, take the case of tennis. Sania Mirza's now regular second round appearances at Grand Slams will hopefully drive audiences to demand better things of her this season. The attention she has received so far is exaggerated and clearly not linked to her results, for the simple reason that there isn't an Indian player for now who can challenge her. By those yardsticks, Jeev Milkha Singh, the first Indian golfer to break into the world's top 50, should have received just as much attention but he (and one emphasises that pronoun) maintains a lower profile.
Marketing the players
Anything that comes loose and unpackaged is viewed by the public mainly with condescension and summarily dismissed. Hence the need to market games like chess and squash, and refine the image of talented, photogenic players like Tanya Sachdev and Dipika Pallikal. Ironic, and just as incongruous as trying to sell us Yuvraj Singh's looks (as opposed to his shot making), but the media are doing all that is essential to hold the public's attention. A big, well-defined tournament, where results reflect not only a player's personal ability but also the depth of a nation's talent, is the easiest thing to promote.
The Cricket World Cup is the one event that can unhinge the regular Indian sports fan. One loss against, say Australia, and his self-esteem gets hit. It's a crime to make so much money and perform so poorly, the fan thinks resentfully; why, I could probably make more runs. In extreme cases a mob will rise and vandalise a cricket star's house. Said player's patriotism to the national cause will be vehemently questioned, especially if he belongs to a minority community. A subsequent win over Holland doesn't count for much, the fan asserts; but another victory against Pakistan against whom India maintains a perfect Cup record will restore the nation's pride, its dignity. (And please, give that player a bonus: he's earned it.)
Or at least that's how it used to be in these ambiguous times Pakistan is no longer the archenemy, although no doubt broadcasters will cynically play up the rivalry if needed. For, the relationship between sport and the spectator is symbiotic. War is amusement for aggressors; sport of the highest international quality is surrogate entertainment for the masses.
Professional sport, for its part, cannot survive without brand advertising (and the necessary target audience). It is when viewers buy into the glamour that the relationship turns curious. Fans imagine they have a special link with their favourite player. Autograph sessions allow fans to "meet and interact" with their idols. "I met Tendulkar yesterday!" usually means you made eye contact with him for one whole second when you greeted each other hello.
But such moments of intersection excite us, and make our interest in a player more personal. It allows us to summon empathy. The team's swinging fortunes impact at some level on our sense of self-worth, depending on how much we empathise with the players.
Cricket or, at least one-day cricket played on home soil grips the average Indian television addict, irrespective of his social class. Nothing is quite as thrilling as the sight of Tendulkar in full flow; nothing stirs the patriotic fan more than watching the peculiar emasculation of an opposition batsman whose middle stump is sent cartwheeling.
As Bill Tilden observed in The Art of Lawn Tennis, there is much to be gained from a close study of the finest professionals; and certainly, watching a lot of cricket has fostered an intense love in the Indian fan. That awareness, coupled with (or perhaps propelled by) his over-exposure to the game, leads him to believe however that he grasps the nuances far better than he really does.
Any measure of comprehension is, in the end, relative, but in India, a large majority appears convinced of its own insuperable expertise in the subject.
Hence, for instance, the loose criticism of Virender Sehwag's "flashy" batsmanship, but few recognise that ultimately technique ought to serve the larger purpose, which is to look comfortable and score runs. Granted, the opposition is bowling at him better, but Sehwag's balance is still good; his hand-eye coordination hasn't deteriorated. Other factors have contributed to his present slide, poor judgment and a lack of confidence being just a couple. His talent, however, is indisputable.
A more valid criticism is that the Indian side is currently suffering from an identity crisis. It hasn't quite discovered the equilibrium between batsmen and bowlers, the best mix of experience and youth.
`Seam position' became a fashionable term to drop after S. Sreesanth's searing spells against the South Africans, but Irfan Pathan has lost his form completely, while Munaf Patel continues to battle injury. Harbhajan Singh's showing in the middle overs has been mixed. How is this side expected to win matches if its bowlers cannot run through sides?
Sourav Ganguly's resurgence at the top of the order is a good thing then, not least because he'd have the motivation to do well. Great batsmen like Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid will similarly need to push themselves. The eight-match build-up to the World Cup will be crucial.
Given the circumstances, though, cricket fans would be well advised to cultivate an air of cynicism and work on their defence mechanisms, and instead look forward to the rest of the year.
India plays away series later this year in both England and Australia something that hasn't happened in a while and if this side can do well there that would be quite an achievement.
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