India at play – SHASHI THAROOR On IPL

IPL winnersON JUNE 1, the Indian Premier League came to a thundering climax with a cliffhanger final match, watched by 60,000 cheering fans in a new stadium and an estimated 300 million television viewers around the world. As cheerleaders danced and waved brightly coloured pom-poms, and star sportsmen from across the globe, clad in their teams’ multi-hued regalia, looked forward to a $2.5 million payday, black-market tickets changed hands for as much as $2,500.

Football? Basketball? No, the IPL is the newest Indian innovation revolutionising that most staid of Victorian sports – cricket.

As the globalising world discovers a twenty-first-century India full of high-tech computer geeks, efficient businessmen, colourful fashions, and glitzy entertainment – a far cry from the old stock images of fakirs on beds of nails, maharajahs on elephants, and mendicants with begging bowls – it is also finding an India obsessed with what most regard as a nineteenth-century sport.

Cricket has seized the Indian national imagination like no other sport. An international match can fill 100,000-seat stadiums, while attracting TV audiences of 350 million. Airline pilots provide passengers with the latest scores; office-goers cluster around the nearest available television. Cricketers occupy a place in India’s pantheon rivaled only by gods and Bollywood stars.

The performances of our heroes are analysed with far more passion than any political crisis. In no other country does a sport so often command the front pages of leading newspapers. Cricket first came to India with decorous English gentlemen. It took nearly a century for the “natives” to learn the sport, but when they did, they took to it like snakes to their charmers. Today, the public’s obsession has made India into the sport’s global financial powerhouse, with advertisers and sponsors pouring unheard-of sums into the game.

It is estimated that India alone accounts for nearly 90 per cent of cricket’s worldwide revenues, putting the game’s traditional guardians, England and Australia, in the shade. India has become the most influential country in the sport’s governing body, the International Cricket Council, which has moved its headquarters from London to Dubai, which has no cricketing tradition but is closer to the sport’s new fulcrum in South Asia.

Winning momentsIn April and May, the new Indian Premier League revolutionised the sport. By bringing the world’s top players to India at unprecedented salaries (one Australian player was auctioned to his new team for $1.4 million, more than most cricketers previously earned in a lifetime), and by spicing up the game through such innovations as American cheerleaders, the IPL is transforming the sport. When the traditional English cricket season opened in April, as it has for the last couple of centuries, seasoned British journalists ruefully reported that while the players and officials were dutifully present, their minds were far away, following the fortunes of the lucrative league in India.

I have often thought that cricket is really, in the sociologist Ashis Nandy’s phrase, an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British. Everything about cricket seems ideally suited to the Indian national character: its rich complexity, the endless possibilities and variations that can occur with each delivery, the dozen different ways of getting out – all are reminiscent of a society of infinite forms and varieties.

A country where a majority of the population still consults astrologers can well appreciate a sport in which an ill-timed cloudburst, a badly prepared pitch, a lost toss, or the sun in the eyes of a fielder can transform a game’s outcome. Even the possibility that five tense, exciting, hotly-contested, and occasionally meandering days of cricketing could still end in a draw seems derived from ancient Indian philosophy, which accepts that in life the journey is as important as the destination.

So, too, is the fact that cricket is a team game that showcases individual excellence. Indians have long been resigned to defeat for their national side (though this is changing), but they have always managed to produce individual record-breakers – outstanding cricketers like the batsmen Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar, or the all-rounders Vinoo Mankad and Kapil Dev, who were considered to be among the world’s best players, even if the Indian teams to which they belonged lost more often than they won. What offers better consolation than the thrilling endeavours of a gifted batsman or the magical wiles of a talented bowler, each performing his dharma, the individual doing his duty in a team game, just as in life each Indian fulfils his destiny within the fate of the collectivity?

In the old days, cricket was reproached as a sport played by Anglicised elites in the big cities. But now cricket is followed by the masses all over the country. New cricketing heroes have emerged from small towns, none more popular than India’s swashbuckling captain, M S Dhoni, the son of a peon in the dusty town of Ranchi, who now commands millions in endorsement fees to tout products that his family could never have aspired to own. Cricket, once the sport of the British upper classes, is in India a great leveler.

Indeed, the sport both reflects and transcends India’s diversity. It is entirely fitting that the Indian team has been led by captains from each of its major faiths – Hindus, Muslims, Parsis, Christians, and a colourful Sikh. A land divided by caste, creed, colour, culture, cuisine, custom, and costume is united in consensus around a great conviction: cricket.

Shashi Tharoor, an acclaimed novelist and commentator, is a former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations. This article has been distributed by Project Syndicate

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