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BW Businessworld

Unsuspected Talent

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Cricketers are not a loquacious tribe. Once in a while they exchange insults on the cricket field; but then they take care not to be heard by the umpire, for if he loses his temper, they can lose their cap. It is said that they make jokes, dirty and otherwise, in the dressing room; but since no one can enter while they are dressing, the jokes go unreported. Some have colourful personal lives, and those who cannot afford to do so have great nights out, but never in India, for here, any dark corner may hide a reporter or a fan. So Indians would never suspect one of their team to be fluent, least of all Rahul Dravid, who was not known to say anything diplomatic even. So it was a pleasant surprise to hear him give the Bradman oration.

More important, however, he found just the language to speak to Australians in. For Indians and Australians are two people divided by language, and the uses they put language to. Australians are known to Indians as a rather rough people with a raucous and often savage sense of humour; Indians, on the other hand, are known to Australians as sneaky, snivelly little brown men who resort to gibberish in some uncouth language when they want to say nasty things about you. Don Bradman's running away from admirers in 1953 when he landed briefly in Calcutta may have been innocent, but it fits well into the two peoples' mutual prejudices.

Even more significant than Dravid's bridge building was what he said about the changing fortunes of cricket. For better or worse, the Indian spectator has been the financier of not just Indian but world cricket in the past few years. However much they may hate the Indian sun and the boisterous crowds, foreign teams queue up to play in India. The Board for Control of Cricket in India is bursting at the seams with cash; its chief is the envy of even Indian politicians, who hardly suffer from lack of cash. It is lucky, though, that he is so vital to the government in Delhi, for otherwise, the finance minister would have had no hesitation to levy income tax on the BCCI's earnings. However, all that could change quickly, for there are signs that the financier is having second thoughts. Spectators started thinning out in the one-day international series between England and India; they kept away in even larger numbers in the series with the West Indies. Unthinkable as it is, even Eden Gardens did not fill up for the last Test.

It may be that the Indian spectator has been put off by the spectacle of Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir being sent to jail in London for spot fixing. That could happen only in London; if they had been found out in Pakistan, it is likely that the scandal would have been quickly buried. People wonder whether it could happen in India — whether it has happened, whether it is happening all the time. The loss of confidence would shatter Indian cricket. Rahul Dravid has asked cricketers to get used to lie detector tests. Technology may help, but much more would be required. Selection would have to be made rigorous, state cricket associations would have to be cleaned up. When one considers that all this would have to be done by BCCI, one cannot entertain much confidence.

However, there is another aspect that can be addressed more easily, namely that of missing crowds. They have a good reason to stay away; the tickets are too expensive. That made sense perhaps in the days of sparse Test cricket; today, there are so many games being played that the present ticket prices can never fill the stands. It is not as if BCCI needs the money, for it makes most of its money out of television rights. That suggests the other reason why the crowds are melting away: they prefer to see the games on television, sitting in comfort on their couches. If they have to travel miles and sit on uncomfortable chairs, often in the sun, they are not going to pay for it.

In fact, there is a case for abolishing entry fee altogether, especially in the metros. Television channels would pay to be able to show a full stadium; the least that BCCI can do is not to charge. Just now, only politicians and VIPs get their seats free; let the privilege be extended to all spectators. That could create a problem of excess demand; it would not do to turn away people because there are no more seats. Seats must be rationed in advance. Let them be given to spectators' associations in each city. They may sell them; let them use the revenue to promote cricket in any way they want. Give cricket back to spectators.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 02-01-2012)

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