They spilled on the roads, countless faces painted with national colours, waving the Tricolour, airing slogans as India broke into one large and spontaneous celebration of the conquest of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 on April 2. There have been few more telling demonstrations of outpouring of collective National pride than late that night. That cricket is one of the few refuges for nationalism was then cast in stone.
Yes, India has always been on that emotional journey as the team won and lost and making the ambitions and aspirations a mass sentiment. It is, therefore, not surprising that cricket and its players are on such an elevated pedestal in India as the Smash survey predictably reveals. If anything, the fact that that 19 per cent of the respondents have not voted for cricket as India’s favourite team sport is interesting and at once encouraging, too.
The reasons for cricket and cricketers’ dominance in India’s mindspace are not far to seek. Simply stated, the arrival of colour TV in India may have coincided with the hosting of the Asian Games in November 1982 but the Indian cricket team’s unlikely triumph in the World Cup on June 25, 1983 sparked off an even greater following for the game in the country than it already had. And to top it all, successive Indian teams won more often than they frustrated the fans.
The arrival of cable and satellite TV in the 90s also fuelled cricket’s amazing journey since no other Indian sport had a product that could be sustained with at least 100 days of live action. Come to think of it, whole most Indian sport never had a product that could be TV friendly and appeal to a larger audience, Indian cricket has been innovative and came up with the Indian Premier League to grow its market.
Mention of TV brings me to the challenge presented to sport other than cricket by the rapidly growing consumption of televised sport from Europe and the United States of America – be it football, basketball, Formula One racing, tennis and golf. Indian sports officials need to address this quickly since impressionable young minds are being raised to admire and support such sport, leading to too little patronage of quality for Indian sport.
And all this has happened when there are few sports that have held our national interest ever since we lost all that we had in hockey – and before that football where we once finished fourth in the Olympic Games and were Asian Games champions. The interest among the people in such sport was high because the country won and brought along emotional attachment.
Then again, it is not right to say that Indian fans do not support teams in other sport. To cite some recent examples, there was not a seat to be had at the Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi when India was winning the Jawaharlal Nehru Gold Cup football tournament in 2009. The story was the same when India played Pakistan in the FIH World Cup hockey in 2010. Come to think of it, we probably have not heard a more deafening roar than when the Indian 4 x 400m relay quartet was winning gold at the Commonwealth Games 2010 Delhi. I have been at hand to watch the Indian Davis Cup team spark intense emotions. To cut a long story short: Give the Indian fans the chance to celebrate Indian teams in any sport and they respond eagerly, especially if it is evident that the national squad can compete.
For a nation starved of winners, cricket has thrown up a few wonderful names that have won the hearts of a vast majority of the sports following public. There have been others too who have captured the imagination of the Indians with their achievements. The names of V Anand, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, Abhinav Bindra, Rajyavardhan Rathore, Saina Nehwal, Pankaj Advani, Jeev Milkha Singh, Vijender Singh, Sushil Kumar and Sania Mirza readlily spring to mind but it is a fact that they are not seen on our TV sets often enough.
We have seen sporadic spurts in interest in other sport but since either the champions from India have been inconsistent or their feats have not been on live television. India went gaga over Sania Mirza when she made it to the fourth round of the US Open tennis championship in 2005 but she has given the nation few opportunities to feel as proud again.
After becoming the first Indian to win an individual gold medal at the Olympic Games, shooting ace Abhinav Bindra has done little of note just as the man who won silver in 2004, Rajyavardhan Rathore. From the point of view of performing consistently in televised sport, Saina Nehwal is the best India has had. Anand, Pankaj Advani, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sushik Kumar are other names that come up high on the consistency stakes but sadly their best achievements have hardly been on live TV and, if they have been, not frequently enough.
Organisationally too, India has been a tale of missed opportunities. The Premier Hockey League that India floated some years ago had several in-built flaws, including not spreading across the nation. The I-League, as our national football league is now called, suffers from comparison with the televised leagues from Europe. But more than anything else, instead of celebrating our achievers, self-seeking officials have played spoilsport.
I reckoned that Indian hockey could be revived when the team won the Asian Games gold in Bangkok in 1998. Instead of thinking up a couple of ticker-tape parades, the hockey mandarins sacked six players and the coach, almost telling enthusiastic fans not to let their children take up hockey. There were no rewards but punishment for a fine achievement.
Sport, other than cricket, also need to get innovative and conceive marketable products. Perhaps a league that combines some sport – from athletics, swimming, cycling, archery, shooting, boxing and wrestling – can hold the attention of the fans as well as spark a greater awareness and following.
As much as it needs its teams and sportspersons to be seen on national TV more often for these players to become household names, India needs to rediscover its love for neighborhood sport rather than romance just sport brought to us from the playfields of Europe and the Americas. As long as cricket remains the only consistent sporting refuge for nationalism, it will remain on the pedestal.
This piece first appeared in Smash, the sports supplement of The Sunday Indian.