Is cricket India’s WWF?


Kings XI Punjab batsman Chris Gayle celebrates reaching his century during IPL T20 cricket match against Sunrisers Hyderabad in Mohali on Thursday. PTI Photo

As is generally understood, WWE, which is the metonymy for institutionalised freestyle wrestling, is not a spectator sport but theatrical performance. No bookie offered you odds on who would win in a classic fight between the Rock and Hulk Hogan, since the outcome was decided in advance.

The violence in the wrestling ring is staged, the performers comporting themselves dramatically to signify pain, burning anger and vengefulness. Faces are contorted and gestures made so that the fans of the respective wrestling stars can be driven to excitement.

Vince McMahon, CEO of WWE and a wrestler himself, is listed as a businessman. The name of the game is entertainment and the wrestler is an entertainer rather than an athlete. The excitement provided is fuelled chiefly by fan loyalty to fake sportspersons.

Cricket is a spectator sport and bookies accept bets on what team is likely to win a match. Still, there are aspects to the game in India that indicate that it is gradually moving out of the realms of tennis and football, genuine spectator sports, to become something dependent on fan emotion. Cricket was once considered too long drawn out and a shorter version of the game was devised around 1980. But in India, even the Prudential Cup victory of 1983 did not generate the excitement of the later years and its growing popularity in the 1990s is attributed to the mushrooming of private TV channels.

Since the 1990s can also be related to the commencement of India’s growth story, one might make an association between cricket’s rise and the concurrent ascendancy of the middle-classes; cricket was after all patronised chiefly by the middle-classes at one time.

The growing popularity of the game among those with spending power saw cricketers becoming popular in TV advertising. But because corporates had invested in them, even cricketers not performing were kept alive in advertisements, distinctions deliberately blurred between what they were achieving in the game and what might be imagined by their fans.

Even as cricket benefited in India because it was patronized by those with money, its popularity waned in cricket-playing countries like Australia, the West Indies and England and the game attracted considerably less talent. There being little money in the sport outside India meant India’s cricket administration gathered great economic power which could scarcely be rivalled outside.

This, rather than their prowess on the field, led to Indian players becoming stars as they had not been.

One also detected an effort to inflate the reputations of Indian cricketers by TV channels, which depended considerably on advertising revenues, when visitors were asked leading questions about Indian players. Sachin Tendulkar, for instance, was compared frequently to Bradman, but only on Indian TV.  

The advent of the IPL has seen cricket being transformed once again within India because the BCCI now has the clout to reward or punish foreign players, who cannot earn in their home countries as much as they do in India.  Since the teams in the IPL are all named after cities or territories within India with specific loyalties, players’ fees are not based only on what each player brings to the game but also on whom spectators prefer to see. The IPL, therefore, makes Indian players seem more important to the game than those from abroad.  Patriotism as an emotional component has also left Pakistani cricketers out in the cold.

The economic control of any game by a single country cannot be good for the game, but that is what has happened in cricket. When, increasingly, the earnings of a player become important in judging his or her contribution to the sport---as is happening around the world---judgements become warped. This is especially true of cricket, which is asymmetrically controlled and hence loaded in favour of Indian players.

The top five football earners are from Argentina, Portugal, Brazil, Wales and Spain, i.e. evenly distributed across many football playing countries. Most of the top earners in cricket are Indian.

With traditional cricket-playing countries losing ground and the arrival of new entrants like Holland and Afghanistan, one doubts the value of the game to the world; one is even led to believe that it is kept artificially alive on Indian lucre.

This is substantiated when new versions of the game (like T20), in which momentary luck plays a more important part than skill, emerge to give the
new entrants an even chance.

With the true skills of cricket’s stars likely to be thrown into doubt, which way is the game going to go? Gradually, one expects, it will lead to cricket becoming pure entertainment with the creation of fake stars as in WWE, who will go on to join Bollywood as the Rock and Hulk Hogan joined Hollywood.

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