Friday, April 30, 2010

Cricket - No More Please

According to me, Sachin Tendulkar unintentionally killed other sports in India. Unconventional, but this is my tribute to the great man. I grew up playing many sports, but in the end, it had to be cricket. One would be a fool to pursue something that wasn’t cricket in those days. Cricket it was, from morning to night, daily. When ESPN-Star used to show that advertisement stating ‘256 (or so) days of live cricket this year’, everything was right for me in the world. Perfect.

But, I am a convert. A die-hard cricket fan, who used to look forward to even see Kenya play at the Eden Gardens now doesn’t give a damn about who is in India’s 20-20 World Cup squad. I normally follow the fortunes of my favorite IPL team, but no more than that. I just happened to realize that cricket is not the beginning and end of the sporting world. And thank God for that.

Traditionally Calcutta is regarded as a football powerhouse of India. Growing up in the city, for 18 years, I have seen nothing that would support that. It is actually a ridiculous tag that has no relation with the present reality. No parent encourages children to be a Bhaichung Bhutia. It has to be a Sourav or Sachin.

For those wondering where this is heading, I will make it clear now that the intention is not to write a cricket bashing article. Cricket is unbeatable, no issues with that. It makes the people happy. It makes me happy too. Sometimes, I may add. This is simply from a personal point of view, a celebration of new trends in the average Indian sports fan. A celebration of a tiny shift to maybe football, or even Formula One, in the hearts of the people. Tiny, but significant. And i came across all this when Pune happened to me.

On 3rd April 2010, I walked into my usual evening hangout here in Pune. A coffee shop with a LCD telly. A double-header was on in the IPL that day and guess what, I see them showing Chelsea v United instead.
During my first year of engineering, I saw a sight that will stay with me for a long long time. I saw a bunch of 8-9 year olds playing full ground football at the local school, complete with jerseys of European clubs. Now, what is so unique one might ask. Well, just the bit that I have never seen such a game in almost 2 decades of living in Calcutta. ‘Supposedly football crazy Calcutta’. Well, that tag can be put to bed now. Thank You.

Amongst non-cricket sports, football is growing, and football following is growing at an exponential rate. It is a big deal for me, because I have spent hours trying to get half a dozen friends to have a kick-about with me without success. Because I have spent hours trying to convince my hostel-mates to watch an Arsenal-Liverpool game instead of a cricket match, where the series has already been decided. Because I have cursed ESPN-Star Sports for hours when they decided to show inconsequential cricket games while not broadcasting important football ones. Well, I think the new Star Cricket channel solves that particular problem. Relief.

The college years of my life here in Pune, as you would expect has been defined by friends. And many of them, infact I have met and bonded because of football. This city is the perfect example of an urban centre that does not begin and end with one sport. The enthusiasm for soccer is awesome. The rivalries amongst friends intense. The build up to big games exciting. Everything is positive here.

One will argue that following the fortunes of the Big 4 in English football doesn’t help Indian football. I buy that actually. I agree with it totally. But here is why there is hope.

I remember the craze that swept many a Puneite when Pune FC was promoted to the national league. It was refreshing. But it wasn’t sustained. So we are stuck on the hope level. The fact that Pune FC has done fabulous in their first year and coupled with some Lalit Modi-esque marketing might just make the interest long lasting. The growing legion of European Club fans in India is shooting up by the day, but we also need to give some support and sing some songs for our compatriot professionals. Quality is sad, even depressing, but so is our interest.

This commentary has major football weight-age, honestly because football forms a major part of my life. But the point I am interested in making is before we continue to have the clich├ęd late night shows on news channels debating the death of non-cricket sports (where Arnab Goswami asks the panelists over a thousand questions in 10 minutes without any reply), WE must show interest in other sports. Parents must encourage kids to take up something else. Cricket, the infrastructure and money that we have will not be effected one bit, but the same actions will benefit other sports in a big way.

India dominates the cricket world (not necessarily due to results), and it would be great to stay that way. But when advertisements are forced in between balls in an ongoing over, when time-outs are enforced to earn some more, when test cricket schedules are tweaked for 20-20 entertainment, when there is a T20 World Cup every year, my belief that the madness must stop gets stronger. A popular defense of 20-20 cricket is that it will encourage more countries to join in. Well, that is unbelievable. Do we want slam-bang-vanish cricketers or do we want a Sachin Tendulkar who leads the same 20-20 IPL runs chart by hitting 3 sixes all tournament. That is possible because he played 4-day and 5-day cricket at Shivaji Park when he was growing up, not 2 hour jokes.

We applaud Pullela Gopichand, Leander Paes, Vijender Singh etc when their deeds lead to the Indian national anthem being played on foreign land, and then very conveniently forget about them in a matter of weeks. But we still remember cricketing moments that happened ‘ages’ back such as the Tendulkar hundred in a losing cause, that Yuvraj Singh hattrick, and many more as if it happened earlier today.

Well, it did turn out to be cricket bashing, dint it? Despite my best efforts. But I guess, talking about Indian sport without mentioning cricket much (positive or negative) is not possible. Anyway, the points made I think.

In early 2011, India will play in the Asia Cup Football, her first major football meet in over 20 years. At the same time, the Ashes will be on. Which one will India be watching?

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