My father was obviously born in the wrong generation. For his first Test for the country in 1961, he got a cheque of Rs. 150. When he was part of the historic 1971 win in West Indies and England, he got the princely sum of Rs. 750 per match. Contrast that with a Robin Uthappa, who without a single international century, is already a crorepati many times over. Or an Ishant Sharma, who after his first international tour, is already lining up mega-contracts. My own favourite story of cricket from another generation is related by the legendary Bishen Singh Bedi. In 1956, India defeated New Zealand in four days in a Test match. The team, paid Rs. 50 per day at the time, did not receive an allowance for the fifth day. When one of the players dared to ask a cricket official for an additional Rs. 50, he was curtly told, “Who asked you to win the match in four days?”
Thank god, the world has changed since then. As cricketers went under the hammer this week, one couldn’t help but think how dramatically the sport has been transformed. As corporate tycoons in blacksuits and film stars with their entourages bid furiously for the big names in the game, there seems little doubt that this was a revolution in the making. As someone suggested, never before has so much money been put up by so few for a handful of cricketers. In those few hours when cricketers were being ‘bought’ and ‘sold’, the sport was finally part of the Great Indian Bazaar.
Cricket has always been burdened by a myth: unlike other competitive sports, we were told, cricket and the men who played the game were doing it for the ‘love’ of the sport. So while footballers were being transferred by clubs for millions of dollars, golfers and racing car drivers were millionaires, cricketers were expected to be amateurs playing a sport for the sheer joy of it. In India, this meant that you were employed in a 9 to 5 job by a public sector bank or through the ‘charity’ of a benevolent business house like the Tatas, even while you sweated it out on the field. Wearing the India cap made the size of your bank balance irrelevant. A Vinoo Mankad was actually dropped from the Indian team for a tour of England in 1952 because he had the ‘temerity’ to try and earn a living by playing professional cricket for a Lancashire club.
In part, this was because of cricket’s colonial origins. The public school-gymkhana ‘games ethic’ demanded that sports be seen as leisure activity, pursued on lazy Sunday afternoons over glasses of nimbu pani by like-minded individuals at the club. Cricket, in a sense, was perfectly suited to this worldview. Which other sport would allow teams to play each other over five days, at the end of which there could be an ‘honourable’ draw? Which other sport was played with such an insistence on the ‘rules’ and ‘traditions’ of the game? Soaked in romantic prose, cricket was branded for decades as the ‘gentleman’s game’. Even the odour of Bodyline in the 1930s or the numerous instances of sledging on the field could not stop cricket’s historians from spinning an imaginary universe where ‘fair play’ was seen to matter more than winning or losing.
Moreover, cricket appeared to be a perfect fit for a feudal, Brahmanical society, living by a certain principle of ‘exclusion’ and hierarchy. For years, you couldn’t play the game unless you were a child of privilege or had access to club membership. Middle-class urban Indians at least could aspire to a shot at fame. But for those who lived in smaller towns and came from poorer families, cricket was a luxury that their parents could ill-afford.
There is also another burden that Indian cricket for years has had to live with. This was, in a sense, imposed on all Indian sport by the Nehruvian model of socialism which necessarily saw big business as ‘evil’, and sport as an avoidable distraction rather than as a professional activity. While Panditji at least enjoyed the odd game of cricket, Gandhi, who seemed to care little for sports and culture, never watched a cricket match. His antagonism towards the game can also be traced partly to his dismay at the manner in which the pre-Independence Quadrangular and Pentangular cricket tournaments were played along communal lines. As a result, the early Indian cricketers like C.K. Nayudu and Lala Amarnath had large fan followings, but somehow they were never ‘legitimised’ as national icons. It required, for example, a cricket fanatic like S. Radhakrishnan to finally push for Nayudu, India’s first great cricketer, to be given a Padma Bhushan, well after he had retired.
Cricket at least enjoyed the benefit of princely patronage. The attitude towards other sports was, if anything, even worse, with hockey perhaps the biggest victim of elite hypocrisy. Is it any surprise that Dhyan Chand, the legendary hockey player and the first true international sports star produced by this country, died in near-penury? Or that Shankar Laxman, the goalkeeping hero of the 1964 Olympics, had to struggle through much of his life in a two-room tenement?
Even in journalistic terms, sports for decades was ‘reserved’ for the back pages of a newspaper. Somehow, sports journalists were never given the same recognition as the rest of the editorial departments. Those who reported on sport were seen to lack the ‘intellect’ of those who wrote on the ‘weightier’ issues of the time.
When did sports, especially cricket, become a front page story? The evolution of cricket from a feudal sport to the Great Indian Dream has been gradual, spurred by the growing convergence between sport, entertainment and corporate India. The 1983 World Cup victory was a possible turning point, coinciding with the onset of colour television and the sudden realisation that cricketers were a marketable commodity. From Kapil Dev endorsing a shaving cream to M.S. Dhoni’s slew of multi-crore contracts, the growth in player brand value has since then been exponential. With television reaching every corner of the country, cricket has been forced to shed its elitism to emerge as the ultimate symbol of aspirational India.
The Indian Premier League is, perhaps, the final step in cricket’s journey to becoming a 21st century business enterprise. Sure, there are many concerns with the new league. The auction of players seemed to have a ‘tamasha’ element attached to it, with hype becoming a substitute for substance. There will be questions over the transparency of the business model; whether the league will only create a super-elite category of overpaid, arrogant superstars at the cost of domestic cricket; whether the new bosses of the game have any emotional attachment to the sport; and, most worryingly, whether the gap between cricket and other sports in the country will now only widen. These are all legitimate concerns that must be addressed if the IPL is not to end up as little more than an annual jamboree of the rich and famous, managed by a cricket board that presides over a multi-crore industry without practising the basic principles of corporate governance.
And yet, we must give the IPL the benefit of doubt for now. After all, should Indian cricket slip back into an age where players were a bit like ill-paid daily wage labourers, who were expected to pay obeisance to board officials if they wanted to be selected for the country? Or should cricketers be seen as highly talented professionals who have earned the right to demand their price in the marketplace? Big money must never be allowed to replace the honour of representing your state and country. But neither must talent come cheap.