Let me start with my thesis: Sport in India is a joke.
I write this article as I watch my favourite ever sportsmen devastate the Bangladesh bowling attack with another spectacular performance. He has just completed his 45th Test century (half a dozen more than his nearest competitor), and would go on to make a breathtaking 143 runs.
It’s been 20 years since Sachin Tendulkar first gripped India’s emotions as a talented 16-year-old, and up to this day, he remains in the eye of the Indian public the one untouchable, uniting figure in the country. Globally, he’s ranked as one of the greatest to ever play the game. I don’t exaggerate when I say that there has been no more unanimously loved Indian since that Gandhi character.
Sport can’t be a problem in India when an athlete is the nation’s more powerful icon, can it? Sport can’t be a problem when the Indian Premier League (IPL), a competition of cricket’s newest format, the Twenty-20, is Asia’s first billion dollar sporting league , and one of the richest sporting leagues around the world? Of the top-10 most earning cricketers in the world, spots 1-4 and 6 are occupied by Indians. Number one is the captain of our national cricket team, MS Dhoni, and although his 2009 earnings of approximately 10 million USD are Lilliputian compared to the amount of money that superstar athletes make in other sports worldwide, these cricketers aren’t exactly fighting to feed their kids.
How can sport be a problem when India is ranked the number 1 Test Cricket team in the world? How can sport be a problem when our cricketers are as famous as our much-revered film stars? How can I call sport a joke in India, when millions keep their eyes glued to their TV sets, the housewives offering prayers to our pick of a hundred thousand gods for another victory, the fathers ditching work and the sons ditching school to sit home and watch another India international cricket match?
The problem, obviously, is the fact that all the glorious stories and figures in India belong to cricket, and if we do strike lucky and succeed in another sport, the successes are either quickly forgotten, or the newspapers find it tough to squeeze in the news amongst the barrage of daily cricket stories that the Indian audiences are overdosed with.
There are, of course, a few exceptions. Field Hockey, officially our ‘national sport’ has been headline material twice over the past few years. The first time was in August 2007, when Bollywood came to temporarily save the day (and earn a lot of money) as the blockbuster film Chak De India on the story of India’s women’s hockey team made the sport the flavour of the month.
The second time was a few weeks ago, when the members of the Indian hockey team boycotted a national camp in Pune, demanding their unpaid dues. The news wouldn’t have made as much noise as it did but for the fact that India is set to host the Hockey world cup in a month. There was suddenly the ridiculous danger of the home team fielding a B-squad for the greatest stage of their so-called national sport.
The stand-off between the players and the hockey federation stretched for several days, with everyone from state ministers and movie stars (After Chak De India, superstar actor Shahrukh Khan became the self-appointed ad-hoc spokesperson for Indian hockey) pitching in their opinion.There were debates on national TV, front page articles in the newspapers, and more editorials written about the sport nationwide than those accumulated in the last ten years. The Hockey Federation seemed to have the sponsor money with them, so when news broadcasters asked the federation’s bigwigs in a live telecast about where the money went, they got bumbling, anxious responses. The audiences were glued: we smelled corruption and couldn’t look away.
Cricket must have watched jealously for a week. Well, finally, a resolution was reached: the players got their money, and India began another cricket series. The media’s attention shifted away and order was restored in the universe.
Most of the sport fans in India didn’t even know that the hockey world cup was imminent, and what more, that it was being hosted by India. The general public only became interested when hockey went wrong, and we suddenly had the federation to throw our verbal rotten apples at, and Shahrukh and the media had us showering our sympathy on our poor professionals who never get what they deserve, and the facilities are appalling, and the money is bad, and now, it is the women’s hockey team turn to start asking for their money and so on and so forth.
The problem is that, with all the attention and finances thrown around by the broadcasters, promoters, media, and government authorities to make cricket the most lucrative business in India, there is little left room left to share with other sports in the country. It is perhaps no surprise then, that India, a country of a billion and a half people, has won a staggering ONE (1) individual gold in the history of the Olympic Games, and that too went to the shooter Abhinav Bindra at Beijing 2008, who was rich enough to self-finance his training, equipment, and success, free from the meddling hands of the government. The Olympics, obviously, don’t feature cricket, or India would have be raking in the medals and the positive vibes.
Team sports in India, such as football, basketball, and hockey, are forever stifled by age-old bureaucratic traditions, where a young talent finds it near improbable to climb up the ranks without politicking with the authorities on the side. Football has managed to thrive a little more than the others because of the century old tradition in the country and the marginally successful I-League. Even they have complaints: International superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi are far better known than the members of our own national team.
The hockey debacle has once again exposed India’s monomaniacal obsession with cricket. A cricket international would never be treated the way the hockey internationals were. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is obviously the country’s richest sporting body. Compared to it, other sports, and particularly basketball, is still miles behind. Basketball even lacks the ‘national sport’ sentiment that hockey is often credited (or burdened) with or the historical significance of football.
Ayaz Memon, one of India’s most respected sport’s journalist and a columnist for NBA.com/India, writes in his article ‘The Changing Face of Sports’ that, “…NBA can be of help to India: not necessarily because of the sport it represents, but more because of the way it has gone about conducting its business. I used the last word of the previous sentence deliberately, because in India, sport has hardly been seen as business, more as pastime: the government provides some grant, officials hang on to office for power rather than passion for the sport, and players fight heavy odds to eke out a living or at least some glory.”
The NBA business model relies a lot on individual marketing of players to deepen their fan base. Would a basketball star in India ever be marketed this way? Would another sport’s star ever be held in the kind of reverence that is showered on cricketers like Tendulkar or Dhoni? The Basketball Federation of India (BFI) has been pondering bringing in a NBA-inspired league system to basketball here, and although it would generate a little more excitement and hope for the sport, it would only be a modest first step.
Compared to a few of the other sports, Basketball has a relatively cleaner reputation in terms of corruption or embezzlement in India, but I believe that the trend of seniority-based preferential treatment and unfair team selections would have to be cleaned out from the sport’s culture. When I spoke to India’s former women’s national captain Divya Singh, she said, “I don’t like cricket very much, but I admire the way that it is managed. It’s possible for basketball to grow in India. There is a court in most of the schools in India, and kids play the game regularly at a young age. Their talent needs to be channelized in the right way.”
The other good news is that, as time has passed, the attention level of your average viewer is diminishing by the day. Half a century ago, cricket started off as a five-day marathon, and in the 70s morphed into a day-long game. Now, the most recent form of the game (the Twenty-20) only lasts around three hours and has taken cricket hysteria to new heights. If projected as a shorter, faster, and more athletically appealing sport, basketball has the perfect opening to carve out a space for itself in the public's consciousness.
In recent years, Leander Paes, Sania Mirza, Viswanathan Anand, Bhaichung Bhutia, Saina Nehwal, Abhinav Bindra, Vijay Singh, and others have had relative successes in their respective sports, gaining a little bit of fame and commercial value. We are still a long way away before the successes of non-cricket athletes are taken by the majority of Indians seriously. The mainstream media’s regular interest in hockey’s darkest day shouldn’t be just some one-off fling with other sports in India. Like hockey, sports like basketball should be put under the scrutinizing media spotlight, making the structure behind the system accountable as well as help in promoting the game.
*First published on SLAMOnline.com on January 28, 2010.