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November 25, 1997


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Is the media harming Indian cricket?

Amrit Mathur

The media, which has been cricket's greatest supporter, is now seriously hurting the game in India.

Lately, it has focussed on the seamier side, in the process throwing up several unpleasant things. Cricket is greater than cricketers, and any decent student of maths will deduce that this makes it infinitely greater than all cricket officials of the world put together.

In simple terms, the basic equation is: cricket is central, officials are totally peripheral, the sport is important, it matters; people who manage sport matter much less.

All this is why the recent hysterical media attention on the board elections was not just extraordinary, but immensely unfortunate. The media glare was undeserved because officials being officials -- and, as per the nature of the beast, being driven by an insatiable lust for power -- will squabble, they have always done so from the time the noble sport was invented on the playing fields of some village green in England.

Cricket administrators in India are like their colleagues elsewhere. Fierce fierce battles have been waged in the board in the past, despite strident assertions of being a happy smiling family. Behind this cosy facade lies the chilling reality that ambitious persons scramble - frantically - to outdo others.

The latest power struggle was more intense than anything in the past but still, why must such activities be splashed on front pages and consume valuable space in sports columns? Why get excited over something essentially trivial? People are excited by players, their performances and actual play -- they don’t really bother about publicity-motivated statements of candidates. Moreover, why should the media pay any attention, spare even a second for the absurd demands of money as compensation for perceived injuries to egos?

To an extent, I do understand why the media is so stirred, having served (that is the correct line because all officials are in honorary capacities, they are engaged in pure, selfess service!) on the board for almost a decade, my feeble mind realises the enoromous power of the organisation. The Board controls cricket, it has monopoly rights over a priceless product which has unlimited demand and phenomenal economic value. And yes, there is no disputing that internal strife weakens an organisation, bickering is an ugly cancer (ok, so also are AIDS and dengue fever) which saps, even kills.

But still, I believe that to think Indian cricket will sink or swim on the basis of relations between two powerful generals is unacceptable. True, cooperation between powerful -- and, in this case, apparently opposite - camps is welcome and needs to be inculcated and encouraged, but even in its absence the game goes on, nobody is indispensable and whatever the upheaval after a few jerks, the sheer momentum of events moves things forward.

The media is understandably seduced by the board’s fabulous wealth. In India, cricket is serious business next only to films -- and though even big films can flop, cricket matches are always box office hits, guaranteed sellouts.

Obviously, then, people are going to fight for a chunk of the moolah. And even more than money, the battle for the board is about clout -- in India, cricket counts, and control of cricket is the ultimate passport to recognition and social climbing, it provides fantastic connections. Association, of whatever sort, with the cricket board enables a magical transformation – from a nobody to a somebody. A somebody who can appear on public platforms and be noticed, do print interviews, issue statements, appear on the evening satellite news channels.

Which is why people want to get on the board.

Which brings us back to the original question of the media’s disproportionate coverage of board elections. Story after story appeared in newspapers about who called whom what, who got what, and so on. Magazines picked up juicy – yet totally uncomfirmed – reports of selectors seeking money to pick players, players on the take to fix games, officials grabbing money...

Next, someone will charge umpires with upholding -- or withholding -- LBW appeals for cash. Why not? Thanks to the media’s curiosity, Indian cricket is constantly in the news for the wrong reasons. Reporting is mostly speculative, there is scant proof but much kite-flying, which is deeply damaging because many subscribe to the 'no smoke without fire' theory.

My point is, should every outrageous statement, every flimsy allegation be prominently printed without concern for balance, objectivity, sense of proportion? The media justifies it by saying they are doing their jobs, news has to be reported, people have a right to know. And, let's face it, mud-slinging makes for more interesting copy anyway.

Earlier only outsiders cribbed about the media’s enduring fascination for cricket. Increasingly, cricketers too are aggrieved by its increasingly intrusive role. Azhar, displaying profound perception, explained the media’s activism by commenting that it builds you up, only to tear you apart piece by piece. Azhar is not the most articulate player on the circuit, he does not react kindly to a mike thrust into his face, turbulence in personal life has only heightened his basic reclusiveness, and in a sense, Azhar is paying the price for his celebrity. I mean, if a Praveen Amre did the things Azhar did, would we even notice?

Madan Lal also made a telling observation about the unprecedented proximity of players and the press. It is unhealthy, he said, never before did I see journalists in the hotel rooms of players. No wonder then that team secrets find their way into print, and personal scores are settled through strategic plants.

What is more alarming, on one occasion recently the lineup of the Indian team appeared in newspapers a day before the selection committee meeting! As it turned out, the journalist who wrote the story and one of the selectors had shared a hotel room the previous night.

So is the media damaging Indian cricket? Perhaps. Again, perhaps not. If officials engage in freestyle wrestling, if Manoj Prabhakar releases cans of worms, if selectors are accused of negotiating berths in the team, then it would appear that Indian cricket’s wounds are largely self inflicted. The media, thus, only magnifies the mess, adds spice and delivers the juicy contents to a thirsting clientele.

Hopefully, this is a passing phase, hopefully sanity will return in the future, and with it, greater objectivity. Or we could just swing to the other extreme, of uncontrolled tabloid sensationalism.

Who knows what can happen tomorrow, anyway?

Amrit Mathur

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