Prem Panicker

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Prem has been writing about cricket since 1996 -- and sometimes wishes he hadn't.

The good, the bad, and the ugly

The 2007 World Cup in the West Indies was an unmitigated disaster -- not only because of the murder of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer, or because of the impossibly extended nature of a competition that, as my friend Rahul Bhattacharya once put it, is still going on somewhere in the Caribbean, or because the early exit of India and Pakistan robbed fans from those two countries of any desire to endure the rest of the tournament, but because the organizers made the mistake of forgetting that cricket is, finally, all about the fans.

Stringent measures in the name of "security" meant that the locals couldn't bring their preferred alcohol into the grounds. Musical instruments were banned as well. And cricket in the Caribbean without liquor and music is, well... it's just not cricket, put it that way.

Realization dawned only midway through the tournament -- and then the organizers made a bad situation (empty stands) worse by giving away tickets for free -- a proceeding that pissed off those who had spent hard earned money on procuring the exorbitantly priced tickets.

Long story short, 2007 was a disaster. Rather than learn from it, the organizers of the latest edition have walked further down the path of reducing ticket-buying fans to irrelevance. As pointed out in an earlier post, the bulk of the tickets go to the ICC and to the local clubs; genuine fans are left to scramble for the handful of tickets that remain after all the interest groups are satisfied.

And then the online ticketing site goes down.

Ratnakar Shetty, head of the organizing committee, unwittingly underlined the problem when he said that only a few tickets could be offered to the general public because the BCCI had to fulfill "contractual obligations".

The question is, obligation to whom? To the clubs within the umbrella of the BCCI and its state associations, because they are the ones who vote office-bearers to power, and hence must be sweetened with hand-outs. Clearly, neither the BCCI nor the ICC believes that it has any sort of obligation to the fans -- thus, each "stadium renovation" is primarily intended to extend the size and scope of the "hospitality boxes" for the sponsors and officials, and each such extension is at the cost of seating space for the general public.

Any other sport that dared to so thoroughly ignore, even humiliate, the fans that are its lifeblood would have collapsed long ago -- but cricket, especially here in India, grows apace, because of the passion the lay person brings to the game; a passion the organizers have not been able to kill, despite their best efforts.

In that context, consider this story of Ikhar, a little village in Gujarat most natives cannot even identify on the map; of the lanky seamer who put that village on the cricketing map; and of how one man's Cinderella story is inspiring an entire region to emulation. A clip:

By making his way into the national squad, the 28-year old Munaf has spurred the imagination and aspirations of the people in several villages across Bharuch. Many boys and teenagers want to follow the footsteps of the pacer, who is in the World Cup squad.

His achievements have triggered a trickle-down effect with hundreds of children taking to cricket seriously in southern Gujarat. Children travel several kilometres and sometimes hitch-hiking rides to pick up the basics of the game at the academies that have mushroomed in the wake of Munaf becoming a star. The coaching camps in Bharuch are flooded with requests from parents to admit their wards.

Shoaib Sopariya, 17, is one among them and he travelled 28 km to Bharuch to attend a special coaching camp organised by the Bharuch District Cricket association recently for a talent search by MRF Academy. Those in the talent hunt felt the boy was promising and Shoaib came in for praise from T Sekhar, who had coached Munaf.

Shoaib virtually breathes cricket and gets excited while talking about the game. He reels out the teams playing in the World cup. He is happy that his role model, Munaf and Yusuf Pathan from the neighbouring district of Vadodara are in the World Cup squad.

That is where the soul of Indian cricket rests -- not in the hospitality boxes populated by sponsors, nor in the seats filled through "contractual obligations". Now if only the BCCI had the vision to see that, and to tap into it...

Shoaib resides in a one-room tenement along with his parents and two siblings in Ikhar, Munaf’s village. Many days, he does not get to eat his favourite mutton as his father cannot afford it. His father, Ibrahim Sopariya, travels 28 km from the village to Bharuch to earn his daily wage. All he can make after drudgery is around Rs 2,500 a month. But the father is willing to give part of the earnings for his son’s future.

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