What describes ‘Indian Cricket’ the best? – Its honors, its medals, its records, its eleven illustrious men who don the Tri Color and win the country its accolades? Or its grit that has endured all to make it rise from the shadows of subjugation, stand up, challenge the odds and fight the existing hegemony and become a force to reckon with? Perhaps, each one of that, yet, nothing can lay bare its trials and tribulations, its fascinations and failures, its raw passion and its hysterics better than the unconditional love affair that each one of us has shared with it for years together. It’s the people of India that make its Cricket captivating, bustling and curiously intimidating. Right from braving the harsh Indian Sun to enjoy an enthralling game of gully-cricket, queuing up long hours to buy tickets to a match, plastering bedroom walls with posters of favorite cricketing stars, getting hooked to TV and Radio sets for the latest scores, to treating every India – Pakistan encounter as ‘do or die’—It’s the 1.2 billion cricket fixated people of the country that work as the sole stimulus for Indian Cricket to achieve the unfathomable time and again, because for them, Cricket is not just a religion they follow, but an inherent faith they live with and swear by.
Today, as Indian Cricket stands at the crossroads of changing times, with a row of medals gleaming bright on the chest, and eyes set firmly on greater goals, the onus of protecting our rich cricket history and ensuring it does not get hidden beneath layers of newer successes lies with us. It’s imperative to realize the importance of knowing the past in order to understand our present and predict our future. Where does Indian Cricket stand and what is its future? – is a crucial question that must be answered with an all-encompassing knowledge of the past. After all, legacies of excellence work as both memories of merit and inheritance of fine examples.
Let me begin by asking you, who would you rate India’s all-time best left arm spinner? While most of you would be tempted to say Bishen Singh Bedi, who’s indeed been a genius, I’d still request you to ponder a bit more, delve deep in history and search for Palwankar Baloo. He belonged to the lowest rung of the prevalent Caste system of the pre-Independence times, and worked as a grounds-man in Pune Gymkhana Club in the days of the Raj. His job profile was to prepare the wickets, cut the grass and keep the ground ready for the British officers’ recreational activity of playing cricket. He picked up the nuances of bowling while watching them play and soon offered his services as a net bowler too. The British officers’ hunger to bat was insatiable and hence Balu was asked to bowl at as long as he could. He would be offered One Aana for every time he took an officer’s wicket. And believe it or not, Balu would always finish the month many times richer than his paltry salary as the grounds-man. His talent to bowl was then recognized and he graduated to playing competitive cricket but since the Caste system in India was at its lowest ebb, he would not be allowed to enter the dressing room or eat with the players even though he won them many a games. He went on to play for Hindus in the all-important Quadrangular in Mumbai. Yes, the first ever tournament in India was held on the basis of religion with a team each of Hindus, Muslims, Parsis and a team comprising of officers of British forces called ‘The Europeans’. It was an extremely popular tournament and brought the entire city of Mumbai to a standstill for the duration of the cricket fest. India was still under the rule of the British and while the likes of Gandhi were fighting for Independence, a new breed of cricket lovers were getting increasingly involved with a sport introduced to them by their rulers. These were indeed the early beginnings of Cricket in India, a story we ought to know, for a leaf which does not know its tree, also does not know his own life story.
India was becoming increasingly passionate about cricket, as much as its western counterparts. Initially, cricket worked as a vent to our emotions, an expression of our freedom and a muted request to treat us as equals. But as time progressed, cricket became an important vehicle to assert our national identity. Post-Independence, a cricket match between India and its warring neighbor Pakistan was looked upon as war without weapons, that high the passions rode. Soon, not only Cricket but also Cricketers were pronounced National Heroes with Baloo brothers, C K Naiydu, Gavaskar and later Tendulkar acquiring Demi-God statuses.
Yet, the watershed event that would change the dynamics of Indian and World Cricket was yet to happen. In 1983, India took the world by storm by lifting the World Cup against a much stronger West Indies, at Lord’s, the Mecca of Cricket. This not only announced our arrival on the World platform, but also instilled in us a self-belief, which lacked hitherto. For kids like me, the 1983 win gave us a reason to take up cricket and idolize Kapil Dev, the people’s cricketer. A nation needs heroes to pursue a particular sport and the team in 1983 gave us just that. We relinquished the status of perennial underdogs and started trading on equal terms with the then superpowers of cricket. We continued in the same vein for a while but lack of consistency proved to be our bane. While we were a dominant force at home, we were still the whipping boys overseas. Yet, we had the intent to improve and it showed eventually.
We had a rather expansive domestic structure in place with as many as 27 teams playing at the Ranji trophy level, which meant that we could choose our best XI from over 500 first class cricketers. This was and is the biggest pool of players any cricketing nation can boast of. Though all the competing teams were not forces to reckon with and rarely won the coveted title, they still played a pivotal role in producing world-class players. Initially, Mumbai, Delhi, Karnataka, Bengal, Tamil Nadu etc. remained the Indian cricket’s power-centers and the majority of Indian players came from these states but things gradually started to change. In fact, the current and perhaps the best captain India has ever produced, Mahender Singh Dhoni comes from a small state unit Jharkhand. There are many such examples. While on the topic of Indian domestic structure, it’s worth mentioning that the BCCI spends crores to organize cricket at all levels starting from Under 16. Every state unit except Services and Railways field their respective teams in these national age-group tournaments. The age-group tournaments are held in these categories—Under 16, Under 19, Under 22. All these matches are covered by 6 static cameras and the matches are played under ICC guidelines. The participating teams are divided into two divisions—Elite and Plate with the possibility of relegation and promotion. The matches are played in two different formats i.e. overs cricket (shorter format) and days cricket (longer format). The number of overs and days vary for different age groups. These tournaments are the feeding line for the state associations to put all the processes in place to ensure a strong team at the Ranji Trophy level.
Besides these annual domestic tournaments, BCCI remains quite active at the Under-19 level, which is in accordance to the ICC’s program for the Under-19 teams. Since there’s an Under-19 World Cup every alternate year, the BCCI has a program in place to keep its best Under-19 cricketers busy throughout the year. There’s at least one annual International tour for Under-19 players that exposes them to their counterparts from different countries and also to alien conditions. To add to all these activities during the season, the BCCI organizes national and zonal camps at its state-of-art academies during the off-season. The idea is to keep the talented cricketers not only involved throughout the year but also to monitor and streamline their progress. It was seen that our young cricketers were left to their own devices during the off-season, which was hampering their progress and these camps are a good way to bridge that gap. These camps are conducted by qualified coaches and assisted by former International cricketers to help these youngsters evolve as well-rounded sportspersons.
Today, as these initiatives and processes are working well on their own, the BCCI has gone a step further to involve the corporates into the mix by introducing the Indian Premier League. Till 2008 the BCCI revenues came via broadcast rights sold to TV channels and team sponsorships, but the advent of the IPL has heralded a whole new chapter in which there is a direct participation of the corporates. These big corporate houses pay huge sums to procure a franchise and players making the BCCI and cricketers a lot richer. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that the post 2008 phase has revolutionized Indian Cricket like never before. While the IPL has given a major boost to India’s supremacy over World Cricket, brought to fore talented cricketers and garnered millions of supporters world-wide, it has also threatened International Cricket for the first time. Ironically, while in the pre-independence era, teams got formed on the basis of religion, today the country is being divided on the basis of states by the IPL franchises. Players are being lured by huge sums to play for their clubs and are being forced to choose between their club and country. While the Indian players escaped this dilemma, the overseas cricketers especially from not so affluent boards were in a quandary. They were repeatedly asked to either forego serious money from the IPL or betray the nation by turning their backs on them. And that brings us to the million dollar question—is the recent commercialization of cricket good? Yes and No –Firstly, cricketers have a limited shelf life and it’s unrealistic to expect a flourishing career in 40s. These already short careers can further be cut short unexpectedly in case of an injury or loss of form. While everyone appreciates and applauds when the athlete is putting up a good show, very few come to his rescue when things go wrong. And hence it’s unfair to criticize the player for making hay while the sun shines. Also, the IPL has given a whole bunch of lesser-known domestic cricketers an opportunity to rub shoulders with the best in the world, showcase their talent at World Stage and earn some big money. IPL is also the only league which has the potential to make cricket a global game.
The flip side of the IPL is that it has made T20 cricket the focal point of competitive cricket. If kids like me took up cricket to don the India colors, the gen-next is learning the game to play in the IPL. While there’s nothing wrong with choosing one format over the other, these kids and their folks aren’t smart enough to understand that pursuing only one format will make them one-trick ponies. It’s imperative to learn the nuances of the game to last the distance. T20 is indeed quick fix and requires a limited skill-set but there are no shortcuts to ultimate success. The administrators must channelize the money earned from the IPL in a way that the importance of playing other formats isn’t lost on the youngsters.
As for now, after a wait of 28 long years, surviving several highs and lows, India’s World Cup victory 2011 is surely a culmination of a long cherished dream, but more importantly, it’s the beginning of another thrilling era of both eminence and dominance. There are many frontiers that still need to be conquered like winning Test series’ in Australia and South Africa.
The winds of change have set in to challenge the old order and jostle for space to make its mark –be it the introduction of T20, the usage of the pink ball in Test Cricket, newer rules, bats, balls, smaller grounds, technical innovations etc, the face of Cricket is changing rapidly. This is the time to tread carefully as well as embark on a new journey –the journey of accepting the change, safeguarding the old and upholding the title of the World Champions. The desire, the dream and the vision must be kept alive.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012 at 7:57 am
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