In few sporting disciplines other than cricket are India taken as seriously as, say, the USA in the context of space research. Our sporadic Olympic successes in recent times have inspired fundamentally flawed journalistic rhapsodies – our medals, excluding Leander Paes’ Atlanta bronze, are not won in the Games’ prestige, mainstream competitions – woolly-headedly celebrating the false dawn of a completely imaginary new era but, globally speaking, we hardly pass muster. And yet this state of backwardness, which is a pinprick in a land which likes to think of itself as rising and shining, has not pre-empted the sudden and dramatic explosion of commercially underpinned, franchise-based contests across a wide spectrum of sport.
They promise thrills galore even though the spills that have characterised the midsummer madness that is the Indian Premier League – the original endeavour that inspired all the copycat take-offs – keep hitting the headlines. Comfortable illusions all. If India craves this spectacle, it seems to have been given it in full measure and a little more. Entrepreneurial ambition has soared so high that football, admittedly with famous has-beens, and tennis, with some of the world’s top stars, are within its ambit, and we have acknowledged indigenous experts, most of whom played the games up to very, very respectable levels, singing energetic hosannahs. They welcome it all, if only to stress, in the main, the money the entire range of enterprises is hoped to generate. Here, then, is a major change taking place in the character of corporate association with sport in India, which has football, pace bowling and even archery academies run by extremely high-profile industrial houses. And that is not all. Corporate houses, despite being aware that they can’t really count on crowd support except when a regionally representative identity is factored in during a competition, had their own football teams playing nationally for decades – and with great distinction. In Goa, they still do. In the country’s Capital city, a textile giant ran a pretty good football competition for years. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, many of these entities pulled out when football, amid a lot of rhetoric on the so-called importance of professionalism though very few people knew what it meant, decided, in contemporary parlance, to corporatise itself, kicking off, first, a National League, and then re-branding it I-League, which hastened the Indian game&’s slow but inexorable decline. India lost another textile company’s representative outfit, and a car-manufacturer&’s, even as it banged on about the putative need for turning everything upside down in the supposed new age. Not that cricket, which is where all brainy, educated folks are said to flock, fared any better. A very senior person in a worldwide, blue-chip, multi-industry corporate house headquartered in Mumbai, asked why they hadn’t got into the IPL, said they would surely have – if only its organiser, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, was half as sincere about the game as it was about the eminently questionable rest of it.
“We didn’t want to court unwelcome publicity” was the refrain of his explanation. Today, of course, the IPL is known more for the trail of scandals it annually leaves than for anything else, whether or not urban India shrugs it off like it bypasses so many things in everyday life. If the sundry initiatives make for a situation in which we can’t match New Zealand away from home and struggle to catch up with Bangladesh in our backyard, the world mightn’t be all too eager to portray us as path-finders blessed with the Midas touch. An engineered dissociation of talent-nurturing grassroots efforts from any sport&’s glitzy, show-case apex, which now monopolises our collective attention, results precisely in the sort of situation we find ourselves trapped in. As the hiatus gets bigger and bigger, with the inevitability of a tragedy, sport-for-cash shows proliferate. There’s nothing to fill the void with, though, and it’s a black hole.