The game of cricket---I wonder if it can still be addressed as a game---has long transcended its image of being a gentlemanly and refined pursuit where twenty-two players endeavoured for five full days on an emerald patch of grass, to put on show all that was the very definition of class, finesse, dignity, flair, chivalry, elegance and most importantly, fair play. A game which had a philosophy all its own, one which mirrored a way of life which had the word genteel' attached to it more than any thing else. A slow moving game at most times, but one, which held within it certain esoteric charms.
The game as it is played today, seems to have become the very definition of all that it did not stand for when it began---aggression, intimidation, bad mouthing, chicanery, derision and a must-win-at-all-costs obsession, where money has made monkeys out of cricketers and the drive towards corporatising' the game has, in a manner of speaking, long gone beyond the long-on fence!
We have entered an era where they say matches have been fixed, games thrown away by a few men, for whom the feel of a thick wad of currency notes was far more important than the feelings of a few million supporters. Where the game is run like an industry by the mandarins of the various cricket boards across the world who look so very important to only themselves; a group of self-absorbed men for whom pelf is everything and authority, the basis of their existence. A cricket match is more of a circus today that comes to town, pitches its tent, and plays out its tricks before moving on to another town, not elephants and all, but bats, balls and wickets!
Cricket today is all about power and aggression, psyching out the opponent, glaring, staring, standing your ground even when your nick to the wicket-keeper has shown the same deviation as a two-mile-long train changing tracks, bowlers who belligerently point to the dressing room after scalping a batsman, batsmen who menacingly wave the bat after hitting the ball out of the ground as if to say that they can do the same with the bowlers' heads; where innocence, camaraderie, fair play, respect, restraint and even fun have all fallen cheaply to their nemesis called commerce with the score card reading a metaphorical 1 for 6, the 1' being the only thing that has accrued money.
In spite of all this, why is the mere mention of the word, cricket, enough to send multitudes of Indians into a kind of frenzy that may, to the rest of the world, seem like mass psychosis? The Kolkata rickshaw puller who will not eat for two days in order to save up enough to buy himself a gallery seat at the Eden Gardens, the profoundly inter-active Mumbai taxi driver who can talk about the game with the same tact and ease with which he weaves in and out of peak hour traffic, much like his fellow Mumbaikar, the incomparable Sunil Gavaskar, who did the same, times without number, with many a Malcolm Marshall bouncer.
The innocuous looking Chennai housewife who shows cricketing knowledge that clearly goes beyond the confines of her smoke filled kitchen, the techie' from Bangalore who can hold forth on the fortunes of a cricket match with the same felicity with which he can define the worth of a software, the tens of millions of others who sleep and wake up perfectly in sync with the time zone within which falls the venue of an India match in some foreign land so that they can watch not just the first ball being bowled but also the last shot being hit; people who rearrange their routines to suit the hours of play!
Now, what is about the Indian mind that makes it rave and rant for a game, which is not exactly the greatest thing in the world for the rest of the globe, except perhaps in just the ten odd countries which play it at the highest level? What is it about the Indian heart that longs to see a cricket match almost as passionately as a mother waiting to see her long lost son? What is it about the mere sight of a cricket star, the mere accidental brushing of his shirt that can send the Indian aficionado into raptures of delight? Why is the game the be all and end all of existence for a vast majority of Indians? What is it about a country, which even thinks up a script to make a film in which you have a bunch of bumbling village idiots led by the savviest of them all, that challenges the might of British imperialism on, of all the places, a cricket field?
I know India is poverty ridden. I know India is full of people who long to find a way out of their miserable realities, a desperate people looking for some sort of anodyne to soothe and calm their frayed thoughts. I know India is where corruption, nepotism, communalism, extremism and a few others that signify moral and legal decay have become entrenched in the national consciousness. I also know that the teeming millions desperately need a diversion from time to time while attempting to maintain sanity amidst the chaos.
But then, is a cricket stadium inside which is played a cricket match any better than the raucous, desultory, mayhem ridden streets of either Kolkata, Mumbai or even Bangalore, where pandemonium reigns over the shrillness of a million automobiles honking in maniacal unison?
Perhaps the drivers inside their automobiles are honking to seek a quick getaway from the madness all around. And inside the cricket stadium, perhaps the fans too. Some where deep down, wanting to search for an escape route from the hubbub of a largely dreary existence.
In India, the game of cricket, as of life itself, endures. And will India win the World Cup in South Africa? Let it be.
Sunaad Raghuram is the author of the best-seller "Veerappan: The Untold Story", Viking, 2001