Cricket à la World Cup 2003:
extravaganza in TV land
and related thoughts
by Jayant Deshpande
The endlessly hyped-up World Cup quadrennial ritual is now in full swing, with India trying to psyche itself up to meet the brutal demands of its fans. Add to that the controversies brewing over Zimbabwe. Things will soon reach fever pitch (pardon the pun), and I can’t resist adding my two bits to the copious verbiage spewed out on cricket in this heady season. Writing in the Indian Express, a top national daily with a social conscience, T.J.S. George hits hard: he says, quite simply, that cricket is a colonial hangover we should get rid of, so we can get on with the urgent task of badly-needed development. Hard to refute his sentiments, if we value our sanity, but it would be equally hard to dismiss the sentiments of die-hard fans.
My love affair with the game began with matches broadcast on AIR. I was a boy of about ten, living in Budhwar Peth, in an old wada. Names like Manjrekar, Contractor held us under their spell, gluing us to the radio set; we hung on to every word as the match progressed, usually somewhere far off, but also as close as Bombay. Test matches were the only thing on the menu, and that too, sparingly. Long, lazy afternoons spent following every move on the field as the commentary unfolded. As kids we also played cricket on the fenced-in, rectangular, grassy strips along the outer walls of Shaniwar Wada between its massive turrets.
Then I emigrated. Before I knew it, I took to baseball and ice hockey. Baseball is as close as North America gets to "that crazy introverted game they call cricket"; remember, West Indies is the only notable cricket team in the Western Hemisphere. (I note here that Canada now has a team that made it to the World Cup, and in fact upset the Bangladesh team against all expectations). A long hiatus followed before I returned to the land of cricket mania that is India. So I set about trying to make up for lost time. It all started coming back, with One Day Internationals to help me along in the rebirth. If it’s a ODI, I can work up some interest. But 5-Day Tests invariably wear my patience thin. It’s hard to get excited; they simply lack the adrenaline coursing through fifty overs of suspense, nervous tension, fortitude, cunning, strategy and the burning hunger for a quick result. The World Cup fits the bill, and provides the thrill.
India got knocked out midway through the 1999 World Cup. Then the match-fixing scandals surfaced in 2000, and I began to detest the game, or at least what it had become: a money-spinning sport that thrived on betting and ended up tainting the players. It is now like any big-money, professional sport, shorn of its innocence. Cricket is now wicke-d.
I began to reflect on the intangibles surrounding the game itself: non-stop TV coverage—pre-game, live and post-game commentary, highlights and analysis—that fuels armchair euphoria; these are vicarious pleasures that now define the cricket ethos, taking it into a new dimension. But having known only radio coverage at one time, TV has become a high-tech crutch to prop me up when I attempt to follow the subtle nuances and intricacies of the cricketer’s lingo. I can still get ‘stumped’ by the experts. Thank God for the visuals; otherwise I’d be mostly out to lunch. Bewildered, and befuddled. American baseball also has its nuances, and jargon to match, but cricket is in a class by itself. And especially because of the time over which it stretches. It is said that the Japanese prefer torture to cricket; they've adopted baseball because a match is over in a few hours.
Radio coverage no longer moves me. Yet, like many other sports, cricket has become a media sport. More accurately, an electronic media sport, presented in bits and bytes, fine and chopped. Fine, because we see only the elegance of play after the fact, as though some moving phantoms were producing the effects for our pleasure. Chopped, because we see only constantly shifting, selected frames.
TV is the venue for this venerated pastime of Britain’s former colonies. We don’t watch cricket, we eavesdrop on it. Cricket isn’t played on a field, but on the screen.
The electronic medium ruthlessly selects only what it considers interesting or important enough to be broadcast to its viewers. Its images become a fragmented view of the world. It’s up to the viewer to integrate them into a satisfying whole that approximates the real world he thinks he knows.
On the field, conditions are crude, rough, whole and expansive. After all, the players are real human beings who must slog it out in hot, humid conditions where the quality of the surface keeps changing, the distances are long, and they tire as the day wears on. This is where TV creates the illusion: it detracts from real life conditions and the pain of the players, who are the creators of the experience. Viewers merely participate in a fantasy without the pain.
But this thought nags:
I’m thinking of the ‘idea’ of a national team identity. Can there really be one? The patriotism would seem odd to a casual observer. Look at the incongruities: Africans are predominantly Negroes; yet their national cricket teams have on them players that are mostly of Asian and European descent. That's just as well—talent, and not race, is the criterion for selecting players. The divide on the basis of nationhood is incidental.
I’ve always felt that any sort of jingoism, or patriotic chest-thumping destroys the spirit of sport, which is to raise its standard of play, not divide the world into different camps and bring into question the unity of all humans on this planet. Competition is fine, rivalry is fine, as long as it improves the sport itself.
And a final thought: there's the competition in sport, and then there's the business of sport. The latter, where everything is sponsored to death, hardly benefits the average fan who loves the former. What does it matter who wins or loses, except to vested business interests? Sport is, after all, spectacle, so why not infuse it with cash—that obviously is their motto; it's totally at odds with the ideals of sport founded in Greece. A winning attitude ought to raise the level of play, the art of the game. Is that always the case?
The TV coverage has itself assumed the proportions of an international icon. What would cricket—and the World Cup showdown—be without it? Lovers of the game can only pray that a war against Iraq doesn't compete for our attention or steal the spotlight, forcing this jamboree off the front page—or ignored altogether.
(POSTSCRIPT: As it happened, the war in Iraq started just a few days before the World Cup final on March 23, 2003. And as everyone knows, India made it to the final, but Australia won the Cup).