Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fans, Fanatics, Finance and Fate in Indian Cricket

This post is also available at the Scroll website

Eyes focused, two fingers and thumb on the seam, lithe, lively and lethal, Brett Lee
charged in to bowl. A crucial card played by Ricky Ponting, which held the fortunes of the fiercely competitive teams in tantalizingly fine balance.  74 runs remained to be scored off 76 balls, a large proportion of which were to be bowled by the brilliant Brett Lee and the miserly Michel Johnson. Shaun Tait, erratic yet effective in patches, waited in the wings. It was as close as a quarter final could possibly get. The din was unbelievable in Ahmedabad.

M.S. Dhoni had negotiated a couple of dot balls, not very convincingly. Pressure was
mounting. The ball from Lee was short, outside the off-stump, whistling through the air, crying to be hit. The eyes of the Indian captain lit up and he went for the cut. He connected fiercely. Eyes turned towards the vacant point boundary.

However, Michael Clarke from backward point leapt to his right and held on to the blinding white flash streaking past him. The thousands of raucous voices were muted simultaneously as if with a magic remote. In deathly silence, the skipper trudged back to the pavilion.

And now we take our eyes off the ground and look at the parallel universe of the

What followed in the game is history, documented graphically and oft. The sterling show of pluck by two left handers, some moments of smiling fate and some audacious stroke play, have been replayed and written about in the print, electronic and audiovisual media in an avalanche of information so representative of the times. So, let us get back to the moment of the captain’s dismissal and how it affected the Internet.

FaceBook and Twitter went on a hypercritical overdrive. In the past one had to foray into the fields and become one amongst the tens of thousands in the stands to get to know the weird working of the minds of the hordes of fickle fans who consider themselves to be the cognoscenti.  Today, thanks to the modern thought conglomeration made possible by Social Networking, packets of fanaticism can trace their irrational paths at the speed approaching that of light, and splatter contents across walls at the other side of the world.

“A$$hole Dhoni ... must have got a signal from the bookies that it was time to get out.”

“MSD bats only in ads nowadays.”

These are largely benign examples of some of the seething eruptions of men who had been let down by the Indian captain while they expended their sweat and blood for the Indian cause in cubicles and revolving chairs of their offices, or holding expensive Styrofoam glasses of Barista coffee or with mugs of beer in their reclining sofa sets at home.
If Raina and Yuvaraj had not managed the impossible of keeping their cool even as thousands of the i-Phone and laptop owning supposed cream of the populace were letting off their steam in the vitriolic virtual space, Captain Cool of the recent past would have ended up as Captain Calamity. 

And now let us look back at the dismissal. Short of length, outside the offs-stump, no one in the square boundary. Six inches on either side, an infinitesimally late reaction by Michael Clarke, or a marginally less agile fielder in the position, and the ball would have rebounded into the ground after thudding into the advertisement boards. Forty thousand people would be on their feet in the ground, splashing the stands with euphoric sound waves. And the thought connections across the virtual network would have resonated with different sentiments altogether.

Forget a hitherto un-thought of batting average in both tests and One Day Internationals by an Indian wicketkeeper. Forget the win loss ratio in tests which is currently almost three times better than any other Indian captain. The image of the man, and the reaction of his fan following, hinges on chance outcomes, six inches this way or that – and it determines the course of lives and histories.

 The cyberspace was similarly congested with caustic criticism when he bowled Ashish Nehra, which allowed South Africa to snick and clobber their way to a close win in the first round. The wisdom or the lack of it of not bowling Harbhajan was brought out by every arm chair critic who had ever glimpsed, even if not grabbed, a tennis ball during gully cricket. Indians are never too tolerant of those amassing money through endorsement of products, and the captain bore the brunt of the heartbreaks of those who had sweated away for seven hours glued to the television screen, half burnt cigarettes in hand and feet up on the settee.  If Peterson’s inside edge off the first ball had clipped the leg stump instead of sneaking to the fine boundary, it would have been another masterstroke of the ever unfazed skipper.

Contrast this with the heady summer of 2007, when the Captain Cool image was embossed with the loving warmth of a nation as India edged out their arch rivals in the final of the inaugural 20-20 World Cup in South Africa. When the Indians returned from the victorious mission in the most farcical of cricketing formats, television channels queued up to capture the homecoming images of the heroes, with a respectable English News Channel providing enlightening status updates to the viewers with snippets such as, “Dhoni’s brother has just taken the dog out for a walk.”

In the last over, supposedly India and Dhoni had been cool as a cucumber and had outwitted Misbah ul Haq to pip Pakistan by five runs. 
If we recall the last over, it had been bowled by the weak link of that day – Joginder Sharma. And if Misbah had not tried that peculiar scoop which went down the throat of
Sreesanth, or if he had played it one yard either way, the bottom line would have been entirely different. The craze for T20 may have been less inane and insane. The Milton Friedman like free market in the game –transforming the
face of cricket by putting players up for auction and filling grounds with cheerleaders, Bollywood stars and Lalit Modis – may have been delayed or dampened.
Cricket is intricately woven into the social texture of the sub-continent, and much more importantly in the financial fabric. The corporations swoop in to make mega bucks out of the madness that can be approximated as love for the game even as the passion tends towards the psychological limits of obsession.  However, right from the first seed that had been sown three decades ago resulting in the money plant of the current day, the fan following has been dictated by the roll of fortune’s dice.

In 1983, when a bunch of rather unheralded Indians took on the might of the West Indies, everything proceeded as per regular laws of nature before chance played its part, changing the Indian way of life forever. 

Selectorial blunders, so typical in Indian cricket, were carried out to predictable perfection, gaping bloomers  that are now projected as strategic brilliance. Kirti Azad featured in the final, bowling all of 3 overs and lasting three balls before playing an attractive hook off Michael Holding into the giant palms of Joel Garner. Ravi Shastri, the Champion of Champions in the next big tournament India won, had to sit it out in the dressing room. Yashpal Sharma poked around three quarters of an hour for 11, negotiating the greatest ever fast bowling quartet before falling to the bland offspin of Larry Gomes. He had been preferred as the two drop batsman ahead of Dilip Vengsarkar – that too at Lords, a ground where the colonel could score centuries at will.   

It went more or less according to sure-fire script as long as the Indians batted. The four pronged pace attack had the batsmen hopping. Mohinder Amarnath played a steadying innings of 26, consuming 80 balls in the process – a statistic that has sunk into the oblivion of euphoria and time. Sandeep Patil, Kapil Dev and the rest could not manage too many. The Indians managed just 183.

However, those were the days before the love of cricket and the financial impetus had turned
fans into fire-breathing fanatics. Cell phones had not been invented. Internet was in the incubator of the United States Military. Speculating endorsers had not made business plans based on the results of tournaments. Above all, no one expected the Indians to win. Hence, the players could concentrate on the game as they changed and went out to field.

Madan Lal, Roger Binny and Mohinder Amarnath were now asked to team up with Kapil Dev and do to Greenidge, Haynes, Richards, Gomes and Llyod what Roberts, Garner, Holding and Marshall had done to the Yashpal Sharmas and Kirti Azads.
It was now that two chance occurrences changed the face of India forever.

Balwinder Singh Sandhu, a decent, hard working, eminently harmless medium pacer, useful but less than threatening in English conditions, attempted an outswinger which somehow eluded his intentions and almost all existing physical laws to come back and hit the stumps as Gordon Greenidge shouldered arms.  

In walked Vivian Richards, eager to end the match in a hurry, with enough time to adjust his stroke twice before blazing the turf with boundaries off Madan Lal. Having raced to 33 off 26 balls he shaped to pull a trademark tardy Madan delivery from the off stump into the wide open spaces of the on-side.
Ninety nine times out of hundred, the great man would have ended the stroke with nonchalant gum chewing, once in a while wondering whether he should ask the bowler to fetch it from the stands. On this day, however, he top-edged. And Kapil Dev ran and ran and ran from widish mid-on as time  stopped still and the world watched in disbelief, and pouched the ball inches from the fence.  

In retrospect, it can be deduced to have been a trap. However, a minute difference in timing would have had it soar for six. Some days things happen for you and some days they don’t. On that day, the two unusual wickets sent back Greenidge and Richards. Mohinder Amarnath started looking unplayable. West Indies were all out for 140.

While a lot of Indian fans – remarkably many of them newly converted – deigned to disagree that the outcome had been a fluke, Clive Llyod scoffed under his bushy moustache. West  Indies toured India that winter and steamrolled over them winning the six test series 3-0 and all five of the one day internationals. 

However, the elements of chance had conspired and succeeded, thus creating a following for the game which brings out the unmatched Indian parameters of numbers and irrationality.
Latching on to this lucky stroke, the game went through a gradual upheaval from the mid eighties, and with the coming of globalisation, Sachin Tendulkar and his cronies, it has reached the level of madness that allows corporations to milk millions from this melting pot of mania.

Make no mistake. The Indian team had sweated it out and won that day with some excellent cricket and commitment. The 1983 team had introduced victory as a possible alternative in the rather morose history of the sport. The willow and the leather soon catapulted into the status of the national sport, displacing the official hockey sticks and plastic balls. By the turn of the century, it had become a religion, with its own pantheon of worshipped gods, cults and myths. However, eyes cannot be closed to the workings of the hand of fate.

When music blares every time there is a boundary, wicket or any other regular or irregular pause in the game, when stars descend from the Bollywood firmament and swing their hips to the rhythm of the fortunes of the home team, when frenzied fans are perpetually a step away from letting the champagne flow or setting fire to effigies, it is easy to be swayed by emotions.

It is difficult to remember that the gods are man-made and have human limitations.

Commercialised as it is, cricket is not clockwork but a sport. And as in any other human endeavour, much depends on chance. On being a fraction of a second early or late into the timing, on playing it a yard to the right or the left, on the odd bounce, on landing on the seam, on the gusts of winds and the cloud cover in the skies.

The perturbing paradox remains – if consciousness about chance factors defy the monumental odds and grow amongst the populace, if rationality rules and therefore emotional extremism dies against the steely coldness of logic, will that good for the game?  Will that be good for the corporations who profess commitment to the game by eking out franchising deals? What will that mean for the talented individuals earning with the sweat of their brow?

If allegations of match fixing does not flow as packets of frustration through the fibre-optic cables from millions as soon as M.S. Dhoni departs, will it be good for his claims as a successful modern day cricketer? 

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