The recently concluded World Cup started poorly and ended in the same negative pulse. A stadium that could take 130000+ was close-to-empty for the inaugural match. Good organizers would not treat teams that are highly accomplished to play in front of a virtually empty stadium. It smacked of poor organization and management by the BCCI. Money in the BCCI kitty does not buy fans on-the-ground. Moreover, fans don’t follow a venue just because it is named after the Prime Minister of the country. It gets worse. Many expressed their annoyance claiming that despite the stadium being more-than- half-empty the online ticket booking platforms showed “sold out”.
All this ended up leaving the BCCI looking ill-set up, and poorly managed. Money can’t buy you competence. Only commitment cans create appropriate sports management. What should have been a gala inaugural match flooded with cricket enthusiasts that fielded two highly distinguished teams – New Zealand and England – must surely have left the teams feeling lost in spirit. Cricket is played for the fans and young people who come to learn the nuances of good cricket. The organizers lacked the enthusiasm and the capacity to make an attractive and well-spirited start to the tournament. If good sports management is about leadership and intent, both these dimensions were sorely lacking. At the end of the day, it was sheer coincidence that it was always those matches which had the home team playing in which the crowds in our fancy stadia were chock-full.
The politically ambitious are not necessarily the ideal sports organizers. Their eyes are set on biased goals. You have to know the intricacies of the game to hold offices of influence that run sports. Political bosses are usually a disappointment as sport managers.
Political picking does not make the right criteria in choosing a good cricket setting. You should be looking at a crowd of cricket lovers – spectators who come to enjoy good cricket because they know the game and appreciate everything good about it regardless of which team is doing well. Naturally, one would ask why they didn’t choose Wankede, Eden Gardens, Chennai, or Bangalore, to get things started. Crowds there are critical observers who understand the game, who appreciate the performance of a good player regardless of which team he is performing for. The home team will, of course, get a higher decibel of cheers. But the opposition is never going to get a dumb silence as the Ahmadabad stadium offered to the Aussies. The closing event was a boring sea of women and men in ‘India blues’. If you were watching it on television, it was clear the crowd was massive but it was not a cricket-lovers paradise unlike the other cities named above. You need big-time and broad-minded cricket administrators to make those decisions. Cricket, is, after all, not politics. The Ahmadabad stadium was a dismal example of a crowd who came only to see India win; and shout slogans that did little to advance the spirit of cricket.
Compare this to what used to happen in Australia each time Sachin Tendulkar walked to out to bat. An entire stadium stood up to greet the great man and applaud him in the most dignified way. That is cricket in its best spirit. Interestingly, several locations in India also draw somewhat close comparison. The opponents also get cheered for a good show.
Our cricket culture has dipped to pitiable standards. Kohli is a great player; but it gets nonsensical and over-populist when an entire stadium idolizes him by screaming “Kohli, Kohli”. Can we do all this with dignity?
Sadly, all this has left the image of the country sullied. Pakistan players were often booed when they got out and that was invariably accompanied by slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. Enthusiastic airlines pilots also announced scores when India was closing in on victories, once again drawing the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogans within the aircraft. (And I thought cricket was totally secular). If you are a religious Hindu, you could whisper it to yourself as a matter of spiritual joy but to yell it out as a mass chant on a flight excludes people who practice their joy in different ways. Quite often, enthusiasts who want their favorite player to do well, fold their hands publicly in quiet prayer. One somehow felt that the “Jai Shri Ram” slogan was anti-Pakistan, not an invocation of divine blessings.
We all pray for the good things we want. Let us all know that this is a secular country and we must learn to celebrate our joys in common ways. Hindutva cannot grip cricket or else its collapse is imminent. You are even greeted at the end of a match at immigration with a “Jai Shree Ram” rather than a ‘Namasthe’. This aggressive pseudo nationalism is taking us down the tubes. People from other countries don’t identify with the joy because they don’t understand its meaning. A World Cup is a global event and to boo a team from a country deemed’ enemy’ takes us to the lowest depths.
Indian and Pakistani players share a spirit of camaraderie that is almost unparalleled, and a joy to behold. Some of the gestures between players would shame our administrators who bring their political colours to the sport. Pakistan was made to wait for two days before the tournament before their visas were issued. What was the fear? Indians who earlier traveled to Lahore as cricket fans have always raved about the food and hospitality. Lasting friendships have been built. Restaurants served Indians as if each was a VIP and very often would not even allow them to foot their bills.
We can invite Tom Dick, Harry, Head or Tail to come ahead of time and get acclimatized to the settings within the country, visit tourist sites, and pretty much be free. They were given ten additional days to stay on after the tournament. But Pakistan? They had to return within just two days after the tournament ended. Such is prejudice. And while we can bring the USA (that country of violence and war) at any time with a simple visa procedure, not so with Pakistan.
I often imagine what it would be like if frequent inter-country tournaments between India-Pakistan were held. How absurd that such a decision will have to traverse the bureaucracy of the MEA, be scrutinized by the NIA, RAW and every possible political hurdle especially if Pakistan is included. For certain both countries would find their standards rising. And if we were to add Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, there would be great camaraderie between the players and fans from each country. Cricket can bring the people of all these neighboring countries closer and beyond trade and politics; we would all be able to celebrate our common heritage and common destiny. Sadly, a day ago, Afghanistan decided to close down its Embassy in Delhi. What an exciting team they are- so too Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan. Asian teams would be a formidable force in world cricket.
India brought itself shame in the way it hosted the World Cup. Imagine a Word Cup sans fans from foreign countries. Not a single flag of another country. Matches not featuring India had hardly any spectators and television had to search hard for the odd overseas spectator. On the other hand in Ahmadabad, tickets were sold for fancy prices. A friend was looking for an Rs 45,000- ticket. Others stood in line and were willing to part with ‘anything’ just to watch the match which they believed India was going to win. Black market was an open show and the police must have made a thumping commission.
A cynical blogger, Monal Desai, had this to say the day after the match: “It is not only the match we lost last night. We lost the respect of the World for pettiness, unmatched in any World Cup so far”. Add this to the list of disgraces: When Umpires Richard Kettleborough Richard Illingworth went up to receive their mementoes, they were roundly booed. Could there be a reason or rationale for such loutish behaviour? It must be the worst example for unsportsperson-like behaviour. They booed the Pakistanis enough and more whereas Pakistani cricketing experts from Pakistan showered praises on good performances by Indian. The Sydney Morning Herald and the Guardian London cryptically remarked how India had taken the world out of the ICC Cricket World Cup. As a proud Indian, I hang my head in shame to think that we turned out to be such poor losers.
The stadium began to wear a forlorn look once India started losing. Instead the PM visited the player’s dressing room to console them. Hey. We lost because the other team played better – far better. We were beaten by 6 wickets and with 7 overs remaining. Now that is a thrashing. The Indian team should have dumped their tears and joined the Aussies in celebration. That is the spirit of sport.
The BCCI may be the richest cricketing act around the world and is known as the bully of the ICC making demands we should never make and un-democratizing the ICC with subtle veto-style tactics.
Finally, where was our accomplished and charismatic BCCI President, Roger Binny. You rarely saw his face prominently. Jay Shah was far more prominent although his cricketing credentials are not much to write home about. Roger Binny, BCCI President, is a cricketing hero who was part of the 1983 World Cup final after an unforgettable personal performance throughout that tournament. He is someone who played his cricket at all levels with aplomb. Kapil Dev was not even invited. He led us to that famous 1983 victory. Dhoni was not invited either. So the heroes were kept aside lest the media focus on them rather than the emerging political masters of cricket.
At the rate we are going, before we rise, cricket may just fall. I fear so badly that we might become another West Indies. The story of lost glory which may have already begun with the performance of the most poorly organized World Cup.
Ranjan Solomon is a political commentator, human rights activist, and sports enthusiast
Originally published in The Citizen