Its top tier may be gilded, but Indian cricket’s base is rotting away
Just over a year ago I was in Kanpur, researching a book on how India has changed since the midnight of August 15, 1947. When I arrived, I was told UP was playing a Ranji Trophy match at the Green Park and I felt the gods were smiling on me. For us, the midnight’s children generation, Green Park is one of the most romantic names in cricket. There, just before Christmas 1959, India beat Australia for the very first time. The news made the front page of the Times of India, with dear old K.N. Prabhu writing, “Let the trumpets sound, the drums roll. Let the herald angels sing”.
And how we sang. In the following Test in my home town Bombay, as Abbas Ali Baig scored a second successive 50 to save India from defeat, a girl rushed out from CCI’s North Stand and kissed him on the cheek. But that day, what I saw at Green Park was utterly soul-destroying.
From the outside, the stadium gave the impression that nothing at all could be going on inside. It was impossible to find a way in. When I finally managed to get in, I found there were about 200-300 spectators, nearly all college students. However, they seemed to know nothing about UP cricket, or even care. This, despite the fact that, at that very moment, Suresh Raina was at the crease. Soon, noticing that I was accompanied by my wife and a lady friend, both of whom are English, they literally turned their back on what was going on in the middle and wanted to be photographed with them.
I was well aware that Indian cricket had changed since my childhood and a few years ago a friend had joked, “Be careful, do not arrive in a town where a Ranji match is going on; you may be dragged in from the streets to watch it”. But that India’s premier domestic tournament had sunk to such a low level was a shock. India may rule world cricket through its money power, yet at home the Board has criminally allowed cricket to be reduced to the level of a streetcorner sideshow. What matters to the marketers of the Board is ‘eyeballs’—those who watch cricket on television—and as long as the money rolls in they do not care. The result is that both among spectators and, even worse, among players, there is an attitude of astonishing indifference. All this is sadly mirrored in the press. I had to search very hard in that morning’s Kanpur papers for news of the Ranji match.
Since then, the events of this summer have further depressed me. I had been looking forward to India’s tour of England. The last time India played a five-Test series in England was in 1959. I was 11, followed it avidly on radio—there being no television—and now I wanted to follow it in person. Indeed, I came back early from the World Cup to catch the first ball bowled at Trent Bridge.
But after a great win at Lord’s, the Indian team seemed to think it had done enough. Now I have seen teams get beaten, England having to go through 5-0 blackwashes against the mighty West Indian teams of the ’80s. But even then some English players showed a fight; there was remorse and anger among spectators and much media soul-searching. Now, the indifference of the Indian players as they got beaten in three days at Old Trafford and the Oval was shameful. To the bewilderment of the English, Indian spectators in this country did not seem bothered, most of them stayed away from the Tests, and the Indian media just shrugged. It was as if this was a bad circus performance. No matter, the next show will be along soon.
But sport is not about performing death-defying acrobatics. A successful sport is a pyramid with a base firmly anchored in the grassroots. You can put all the lights you want at the top of the pyramid, but neglect the base and the sport dies. Look at Indian hockey. When I was growing up, India was unbeatable and the game at the grassroots flourished. Now there may be the odd victories, as in the Asiad, but in world terms India is still second-rate and the game’s long-term decline has not been reversed. I hope and pray that it does not happen to cricket.