Monday, March 19, 2007

Wanted: Enemies at home

When I introduce cricket to people unfamiliar with the game, I describe the nature of the game (as played and watched in India) as being akin to war - the only clashes which interest and rally people are the ones waged with foreign nations; internal conflicts are to nobody's taste. But jokes apart, the lack of Indian interest in domestic cricket is certainly worth a discussion. Well, at least worth a couple of anecdotes, in any case.

When I was a kid, I used to bicycle past the university cricket ground to and from school, and often pause outside the fence to watch inter-university matches. Best I remember, the only souls watching the match would be a few kids like myself hanging around with the hope of chasing the odd ball lofted over the fence, and a few peons from nearby offices biding their time before the inevitable return to work after xeroxing the electricity bill. And to think that I now pay $7 to watch high-school football games, and college ball tickets are so expensive I prefer to watch them on TV!

More recently, I was in Udaipur, Rajasthan, during a Duleep trophy match. It was a "first-class" match in all respects except for the viewership, attracting as many spectators as a snake-charmer would on a hot afternoon in Kolhapur. Later in the afternoon I walked across the street into an office for some business, where a few of my distant colleagues were animatedly discussing the Indian cricket team. When I butted in and asked them if they were following the Duleep trophy match, they looked at me as if I had brought up an alien subject, nodded no, and continued their discussion.

Reams have been written about what ails the institution of domestic cricket, but what intrigues me is the mind of the individual so-called cricket fan. Is it indeed a paradox, or am I missing something in, that in a nation where cricket is supposed to be an obsession, most fans wouldnt be able to guess the names of any players (except the celebrities) on their state or zonal cricket teams?

This week saw a whole bunch of articles (TOI, ET, IBN) surface about nervousness and despair in the ranks of "India Inc" (god, how I hate the expression) about their advertising plans going bust if the team doesnt make it far. One estimate was a loss of Rs 150 crores in withdrawn advertisements. It seems like a no-brainer that in domestic sports, advertisers win no matter who loses, especially in markets like India where most of TV advertising is dominated by national brands. I hope that the scare of losing the 150 crores, or actually losing it (we shall see soon), will persuade the corporates to put their money where it should be.

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