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July 4, 2000

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See no cricket, hear no cricket

Harsha Bhogle

Sometimes life throws up strange ironies. In the very week that the ICC was in the process of examining two huge bids for television rights, both bids fuelled by the great passion for cricket on the sub-continent, television ratings were showing drastic falls in cricket viewership.

This fall in viewership represents a very interesting phenomenon because ever since televised cricket found a home in the heart of Indiaís middle class, the ratings have only gone one way. It is something that puzzled and bemused observers and sent bells of joy ringing in the offices of television manufacturers. India was selling a lot of TVs and cricket was the prime driver.

It didnít seem to matter too much that India hadnít been winning too much recently. You would have thought that with the dip in the performances of the national team, there might have been some impact on those watching cricket. But through good times and bad (or should that be through bad times and worse !) the Indian viewer never stopped watching. Maybe we have too much time, maybe we are eternal optimists (anybody who reads the front pages of newspapers has to be !) but we watched, and so companies advertised, cricketers earned more through endorsements, television channels paid more for rights and tournament organisers made more money.

All this on what is essentially, a very average product !

Now this is the first sign that people are switching off. Like a disgruntled electorate voting out a careless government, the great Indian middle class is making a very strong statement and I am absolutely delighted. Admittedly if this becomes a trend, and then a strong movement, it will not be good news for those in the television business but given that it will be a slap on the wrist for those that run our cricket, I would welcome it.

Indian cricket needed a correction factor, it needed something to counter the almost obscenely arrogant clothes it had started to wear. The Indian viewer, and far more obviously, the Indian spectator were being taken for granted. India were losing and ticket prices were going up. The stands were packed, the money was rolling in and absolutely nothing was being done for the man who sat on hot afternoons and chilly evenings. There was a feeling that the key to his wallet had been appropriated forever.

The drop in viewership at the Asia Cup is but a very small indicator of a change coming our way. The coming home season will see if there is a drop in audiences at cricket grounds and to a large extent, that will be determined by the direction the CBI probe takes.

It is absolutely critical, far far more critical then a Tendulkar triple-hundred, that the CBI reaches, not just a conclusion, but one that is widely seen to be true and fair. If there is even a whiff of a cover-up, or if the investigations merely meander along, then people will make up their own minds and in those courts you donít need evidence!

An incomplete investigation will strengthen the hands of the crooked and that will be extremely depressing because what Indian cricket needs desperately is a tribute to the honest man. It needs to cheer the eager and the disciplined far more than it needs to win. We need a win for those that play for India and that includes people in board-rooms.

Once that happens, and see how quickly we go in search of good news, the players will start trusting each other again. Whatever people may say in public, that trust had long gone and when there is no trust, there is no team. India were losing, not just because other teams had better players but because the concept of the team itself had taken a beating.

And yet,deep down,there lives in us an optimistic spirit. I also think we are easily satisfied and that is why this first sign of dissent in India isnít coming due to poor performances. It arises out of a feeling that the spectator is being cheated, that what he has been seeing isnít an honest defeat but a sell-out. I also suspect that there is some frustration at not having a second choice. If you donít like a movie you can see another, if you donít like a TV programme you can see another but a sports lover feels stifled at the fact that he is left without an alternative. There is no hockey to watch anymore and there is no tennis either. Occasionally, there is some soccer but everytime there is an international event on television, he realises that he is riding a tram rather than a contemporary metro.

Now the Indian cricket fan is showing his disapproval and we need much more of it. The moment Indiaís cricket administrators realise that the man they took for granted has a voice as well, they will move to satisfy him. Sometimes the route to satisfaction is through dissent.

But just as we need to identify honest, dedicated cricketers, we also need some honesty in the way the game is being run. At the moment there are two voices in our cricket; one is the drone of a management that can never see change, the other is the howl from the cricketer that he alone should ride the horse. Neither solution is perfect because neither species sounds convincing at the moment.

The mix Indian cricket needs is the kind that Prakash Padukone alone, among all our sportsmen has shown. Except for the love of the people, Prakash got nothing from the game in India. And yet, he rose to be the best in the world, powered by a vision and commitment that has hardly been seen. He chose to set up an academy, ran it wonderfully, decided to play a role in the administration of the game and in two years, India were back in the World Group of the Thomas Cup.

Prakash could do it because he has the knowledge and the commitment. And he has a humility that I have never seen in Indian sport. Even more than that, the world knows that Prakash Padukone is incorruptible. When you have nothing to hide, you donít need to compromise and so he could get into and out of the BAI on his own terms. There is not one sportsman in India today who can combine these qualities and therein lies our real failing.

I often wonder what Indian cricket could do if it had the moral standards and the excellence of a Prakash Padukone.

Harsha Bhogle

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