Cricket and TV: Exploring a symbiotic relationship

Win or lose, cricket has shown that it remains a national obsession in India. The countless 24-hour news TV channels haven’t stopped analysing India’s failures and probing the alleged divide between the players and the team management – feasting on what comes to them as a God-sent opportunity to keep the viewers glued to a wide variety of programmes featuring cricket. TV has repeatedly challenged newspapers and magazines to keep pace and, to their credit, the print media has managed to come up with stories that the electronic media has, in turn, fed off as well.

If the number of hours that TV channels have devoted to or the reams of newsprint that newspapers have used up for Indian cricket, are taken as a measure of the game’s popularity, you may think that India has actually won the ICC World Cup 2007 in the West Indies. On the contrary, India suffered a shockingly early exit.

Why did India not react even half as passionately when the national hockey team lost to China in the Asian Games in Doha last year? Or when the Indian football squad was beaten by Fiji in a Test series a couple of years ago? Now, Fiji is but a dot on the world map and why was there no national uproar when India lost football matches to the tiny nation? Or, come to think of it, why does not India celebrate the success of men like V Anand, annointed as World No. 1, Geet Sethi who is now a nine time world champion in billiards, world shooting champions Abhinav Bindra and Manavjit Singh?

So what is it that makes cricket such a passion with Indians? Whether the team wins or loses? This is a question that has engaged sociologists and journalists for some years now — and there is not any one answer that anyone has arrived at. Cricket is one sport that keeps the nation engaged, perhaps as much as Bollywood. But unlike the movies, people tend to attach more importance to sport since the team is competing against other nations. And the cricket team does deliver some victories that raise the collective stock of the people.

It is not as if the following for cricket is recent phenomenon. Cricket has had a popular following from the very early days and that has grown since the team secured maiden victories over the West Indies and England in Test series in 1971. The fact that the squad of 1974 which lost 0-3 to England was a public target is an indication that cricket was assuming increasing importance in the collective psyche of the Indian people. The resumption of cricketing ties with Pakistan in 1978 – and its becoming the first series to be aired by Doordarshan – is another milestone in the fans’ love affair with Indian cricket that cannot be ignored. The World Cup conquest came in 1983, barely a year after India ushered in colour TV.

That was but an incremental rise in the number of people who followed the game. The quantum leap in the following for cricket came along with the opening up of the Indian economy. First it was the quality broadcasts on cable and satellite channels like ESPN and Prime Sports (as Star Sports was known in its earlier avatar). And then, more recently, the mushroom growth of the electronic news media added to the rocketing of the numbers. Amazingly, while TV channels make loads of cash from programming around the Indian team’s tours, they have no hesitation in trashing the cricketers each time they fail. They keep creating some notions that, with repeated reiteration, acquire popular images.

There is a certain responsibility former cricketers, employed as expert analysts, have towards the game. If you watch these cricketers slam the present lot, you would be tempted to think that they themselves guaranteed scintillating centuries, memorable five-wicket hauls and thrilling victories. But in the eagerness to garner eyeballs and TRP ratings, some of these cricketers forget that it is a game and make it seem like the present lot lacks commitment, citing it as a reason for failure.

TV channels have no introspecting mechanism that makes them be even remotely fair in assessing the performance of the team and the players. Sadly, more recently, we have had one channel redefine the grammar of TV reporting. As we have known it, TV demanded visuals to support a story. Sometimes, TV has settled for sound bytes as well but this was the first time that a news anchor based his whole story on sources close to the outgoing coach Greg Chappell.

It is okay for cricket fever to grip the nation but the media threatens to make it a disease that eats into the social fabric of the nation. It is an issue that must be swiftly addressed, what with millions of fans assuming the role of critics, encouraged by the comments of the former players on TV. It is one thing to be a fan and altogether another to be a fanatic. It is important that steps are taken to ensure that the fans are reminded that this is just a game, even if the enormous amounts of money in the game now makes people believe that they are huge stakeholders.