Wednesday, April 09, 2008

On Cricket

Let's for once leave aside accusations of impropriety or the Acorn's accusation that the Congress is using the Election Commission for its partisan ends. But there is something quite unsettling when one listens to MS Gill. He states -

"All other sports in this country are suffering because of cricket and I'll try to do something to set it right"
I just don't understand these sweeping conclusions. The inability of most of our sports to raise their standards is indeed unfortunate but it is overly simplistic to sweep away all the complex reasons that are responsible for it and to blame one sport, which merely happens to the same sport we are arguably most visibly successful at.

"..television has changed the face of cricket, bringing in huge riches, which had an adverse effect on the game"
So he intends to solve India's sporting woes by tackling the evil, that is Indian Cricket. Joy!

Yes, it is quite obvious that television has indeed brought tremendous wealth to the Indian Cricket and to Indian cricketers. The BCCI is definitely the richest sporting body in India and one of the richest in the world. MS Gill is not the first but the latest in the deluge of cricket pundits who have been outraged at the ludicrous sums of money, that has now been associated with cricket, doubly so after the IPL auctions.

Cricket is, I will argue, the only sport in the country where a sportsman has any chance of making a decent livelihood if he is able to perform at a certain level. (I use the masculine gender deliberately) And the present lot of uber-rich cricketers do owe a great deal of their success to television and the liberalization of networks.

But what is the logic driving the argument that success, glamor and money in cricket is solely responsible for holding back the development of other sports?

My brief experience with Indian Athletics:

I too, as a child, had dreams of being a sportsman for India, representing my country and winning Olympic medals. Those dreams were crushed quite early with my parents, perhaps rightly, forcing me to choose academics over other extra-curriculars. I still persisted somewhat, and competed at local levels. After my 12th board exams, in the summer of 2002, in response to an advertisement in the Times of India, I showed up at Priyadarshani Park and after a few trials, I was selected to represent Bombay City District for the Shot Put at the State level for National trials. I was ecstatic and began to harbor dreams of national glory - Yes, I am a bit of a day-dreamer.

The state competitions were to be held at the Sports Complex in Balewadi, Pune. My experiences there over the three days were an eye-opener into the reality of sports and sportsmen in India. While the stadium itself, at the outset, was quite impressive, a closer look revealed a completely different picture. The stands were dirty and were missing seats but worst of all was the athlete's dorms. The bathrooms were unhygenic, water supply erratic and the rooms very ill-maintained, where I was to stay with the other athlete's from Bombay. I was the new-comer, the others however were trained and seasoned in both sports and expectations of sporting infrastructure - social and physical. There were no facilities for drinking water and no food available, even though the competition was underway. We used to walk a kilometer down the road every evening, cross a national highway on foot in pitch darkness, and reach a dhaba that served roti with the special vegetable for the day. I bought and drank bottled water on all three day. The others well...

The conversations I had with the other athletes were also illuminating. For a 16 year old naive kid, surrounded by 25+ year olds, I was in for a surprise. I had absolutely no idea how dismal and pathetic the condition of sports in the country was. I did question from time to time, our inability to produce medals at international meets, but as most other kids, I just forgot about it and moved on to something else. But here in Balewadi, Pune and in my interactions with real athletes who competed at state and national levels, I saw and learnt exactly how deep-rooted the problem really was.

I think it is quite silly to simply blame cricket.

I know everyone seems to hate comparisons between Indian and China, but at times these comparisons are not only required but greatly informative. In 1992, the China Regulations of Physical Education and Student Athletics mandated that physical education was to be provided to all students at all grades in every school. Now, that sounds familiar. As far as I know, most public and private schools in India also have one or two Physical Training/Physical Education periods a week. However in China, the educational system has a physical education exam that needed to be satisfactorily completed before the student was promoted to then next grade.

All we did in school, when the PT period started was run out of class and depending on what sport was in vogue, played it. The lucky 20-30 or so got to play football or basketball, while the girls were content with playing throw-ball or gossiping under the trees. Not once, in all the years I spent in school, was I ever taught a sport, or its rules. The whole point of PT periods were to take a break from the constant rote learning that bored us all. My school had one PT instructor, who as far as I remember, didn't even know the rules of the games.

Now I agree that my school is not representative of all schools in India. But having grown up in middle class Mumbai with friends who went to other schools and from all my anecdotal evidence, I will venture a bold generalization at this point, and claim that this scenario is true of most schools in India, barring perhaps the handful of ultra-prestigious ones.

All athletes develop their athletic abilities, only if they are first lucky enough to discover it and then if they are keen on pursuing it and have sufficient backing both from their parents and schools. In a system where there is tremendous pressure from standard I to perform academically, it is indeed very difficult to convince parents to allow their students to spare the precious few after-school hours and spend them in training instead of in tuitions. The tremendous competition for a handful of seats in professional colleges perhaps makes this a warranted fear.

If we are to develop sports, the very first step and I would think obvious step is to catch kids young and train them. Sports education needs to be made a serious subject in schools. Great Bong mentioned that he had to learn a sport and its rules and would be tested on his knowledge for the board exams. Now maybe the system is different in West Bengal, I honestly don't know, but I seriously doubt that our education system promotes sports seriously at all.

There needs to be physical examinations and students have to be incentivized to pursue sports not out of choice but perhaps compulsion, as an "additional subject", albeit soft, kinda like the few years I had GK in middle school. Apart from that, the government needs to stop being needlessly biased towards cricket and cricketers and treat every single sport equally. We need to stop spending tax-payers money on providing only cricketers with land, apartments and monetary awards. I don't think it's entirely wrong to spend tax players money on rewarding sportsmen, but the rewards needs to be uniform across all sports.

Additionally everything comes down to an individuals choice. How many of us really watch hockey? How many of us watch badminton or table-tennis, or track&field or national football? The more viewers a sport gets, the more ready advertisers will be to flock to that sport and put their money in it. I don't think there is anything more complicated to this story than basic economics.

Shah Rukh Khan's movie had kids in my colony getting their parents to buy them hockey sticks and are now playing hockey every evening in the grounds, for over a year now. I believe there is hope. Let's get our priorities right and for once solve the cause of these ills that plague our systems instead of covering up the symptoms with band-aids.


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