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September 9, 1998


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The real thing!

Harsha Bhogle

It’s amazing how often people rush to clothe a new idea in witch’s garb. They look for claws and fangs, they assign it body odour and bad breath, generally give it a detestable air and before it has had time to flower, are ready to burn it at the stake.

On the other hand, recommend that things remain exactly as they are and witness the lovely low purr of satisfaction that emerges. Suddenly, perfectly agreeable words like “tradition” and “heritage” are accorded sainthood; they become strong defensive weapons, they are used to build a fortress to shelter stagnant minds.

Invariably, new ideas come in a basket and they range from the distasteful to the refreshing. But like with the butterfly as with the moth, they require time to reveal their true colours.

Remember, the best cricketing ideas in this century were initially looked down upon, even ridiculed, with great ferocity. To give you just two examples, professionalism and the idea of earning money to play the game, and one-day cricket, were both initially accompanied with Dracula-like horror. I don’t know what the sceptics have to say today, but it can safely be proved that with the combination of amateurism and test match cricket alone, none of us would have been watching any cricket today.

Admittedly, there have been some forgettable changes. The sheer strength of the anti-bowler legislation for one. A couple of rules for determining the fate of shortened matches for another. Some people talk about covered pitches, but they go too far back in history for me !

That is why it didn’t surprise me, in spite of the success of Sharjah and other non-traditional venues, to see the opposition to the Sahara Cup in Toronto. To the diehard sports lover, the idea of India and Pakistan playing five matches in Canada was like the All-Blacks playing the Springboks in Calcutta. Or like watching the Lakers play the Bulls in Delhi.

“Where would the atmosphere be?” the sceptics thundered? “In front of five thousand people?” the critics snorted. “Why, you get more than those when my son plays his galli matches,” they said, adding a delightful little variation to the truth themselves.

By the end of the first year, everyone was convinced this was real cricket, not the slog-around-at-the-skydome-and-nip-across-to-the-Niagara variety. Most of the sceptics had vanished, buried under the avalanche of viewers, and only the enemies-of-the-new-idea school remained. Year two, and Sourav Ganguly took care of most of those, for when you have an idea whose time has so visibly come, the opposition tends to look lame.

I must confess I have myself been staggered by the popularity of the Sahara Cup. An official India v Pakistan series was bound to generate passion and viewership in that order. But I had, till Tendulkar created magic this year, seen the declining interest in Sharjah, largely because matches were becoming predictable and Indian crowds were staying away. And without crowds shouting themselves hoarse, I wondered if the match would have the right feel, especially on television.

But two years down the line, I have realised that it is not the background but the main picture that counts. Viewers want to see a contest, and it seems to matter little whether there are five thousand or seventyfive thousand in the stadium.

Indeed, I am now getting increasingly convinced that the soft and subtle shades of the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club actually produce just the right effect. The Club is wonderfully green, there are wooded houses all around and the clubhouse has a very neat, cared-for look to it. It is all so different from the necessary but ugly concrete monsters we have in India and Pakistan. A small, less passionate crowd actually makes it easier for the players to move around, and failure is more easily absorbed and discarded.

In most parts of the world, defeat in an India-Pakistan match seems to rob the dinner of its salt. The players are morose, their faces suddenly six inches longer, and every person they meet is either apologetic or triumphant, depending on where he comes from. Defeat hangs heavy, and it reminds you in everything you do.

Not so in Toronto, where an India-Pakistan match is what it should be. Just another cricket match that someone has won and someone has lost. Disappointment has several outlets, and the players can smile at the receptionist and the bartender and the busdriver, for there is the great joy of anonymity. You can walk down the streets of the city and not have to believe that your face has been blackened. The cheerful blonde will still smile back, god bless her.

More than anything else, the Sahara Cup is a made-to-order television show, the ultimate proof that cricket is as much a television sport as it is a spectator sport. That is one of the great changes of our times, and the success of the Sahara Cup, in some ways a test case, is perhaps also an indicator of the way the sport is going to go.

It is a welcome change because for all his loyalty, the paying spectator can only sustain the game to a certain extent. The modern game needs funds, and these can only come from television which creates audiences not only beyond stadiums but beyond countries.

Things like pretty backdrops and coloured clothes, therefore, start to acquire a new meaning. I have often been asked by people why cricket from England or Australia looks better on TV. Or indeed, why the Sahara Cup is more pleasant viewing than say, the Titan Cup which was also produced with identical crew and equipment. The reason is that our grounds are largely brown and grey; dull, unexciting colours. In Australia and England and Toronto, the outfields are green and the stadiums are more open. It is a bit like the coriander we add to the curry just before it is served. It doesn’t change the taste too much, just makes the food more appetising !

And the Sahara Cup also makes everyone a lot more money, something which most peculiarly is being held against it in the last couple of months. I have never understood this and I don’t think I ever will. If Titanic or Satya make millions, it is something to be applauded. If the Resurgent India Bonds raise 4 billion dollars, everyone pats each other on the back. But if a cricket tournament makes money, it seems to be the closest you can get to selling your soul! Is it then such a terrible thing to do to make money through valid contracts and through valid cricket matches? Aren’t cricketers still representing their country? Or are the Commonwealth Games, among the tinier international meets, the only way of doing that?

Hopefully, by the time the Sahara Cup begins, everyone would be jostling for a place in front of the screen again. Hopefully, they will cheer and they will moan, they will acquire a smile and they will lose it, their cup of tea will grow cold as their passion heats up. And if they are cricket fans, they will also remember that it was around this time last year that the great resurgence in Indian cricket began.

It was the Sahara Cup and the victory at Karachi that sowed the seeds for what happened at Dhaka; kindled and nurtured the self-belief that took India through those tense moments in Bangladesh. And, in a manner of speaking, set the scene for what happened at Sharjah and in Colombo.

Make no mistake, the Sahara Cup has worked because it is high pressure cricket. And in a World Cup year, we could do with as much as we can of it. That is the bottom line, not money vs medal arguments. Or talk of sending half a team somewhere and the other half somewhere else.

Harsha Bhogle

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