He dragged himself back home after yet another busy day. The child, eagerly waiting for him to return, ran up to him expectantly. A smile formed on the man’s tired face. This was good news, thought the child. It was supposed to happen next day, which was match day, when there will be live action.
No, this is not an excerpt from a story. This is a fragment of my childhood. For that matter, this is also the story of several of my peers. It was our fathers who had planted the seeds of cricket into our ignorant minds, watered the seeds every day, nurturing them to make sure they blossomed into green creepers that found permanent residence inside us. Those passes managed from higher authorities, the efforts to stand in the queue after hectic workdays on sun-baked asphalt, to chaperone their children to matches — they all paid off: all of us became cricket enthusiasts, and some of us — like me — are pursuing their dreams to work in the field of cricket.
Talking about the 1990s, live cricket was restricted mostly to international cricket. Major teams would visit India for tours involving warm-up games, not one but many, the highlights of which were the Tests. It was also the decade in which ODIs took wings, with triangular tournaments (why don’t we have them anymore?) cropping up like mushrooms everywhere.
People would memorise India’s cricket calendar. They would save their leaves for the cricketing caravan to hit their home city, or even a city close to them. The daily bulletins would surely have at least one segment in the news of fans gathering at the venue to get tickets, or in some cases, the night before, to escape the hustle and bustle and uncertainty. College-goers would save from their pocket-money. Some would end up with a last-moment plan to watch the match, reaching the venue at the time of the fixture, invest extra money to manage a ticket from those ticket-blackers who fold the tickets around fingers like bus conductors, yelling the prices with no chance of getting arrested. There would be traffic jams; the noise would have been deafening under normal circumstances; and there would be a packed stadium.
Above everything there would be cricket. Pure, lovely cricket.
There is an old Hindi saying that goes sabr ka phal meetha hota hain (the longer the wait, the sweeter the fruit). While this holds in every aspect of life, it probably holds true the most for cricket. I still remember my father taking me to matches, teaching me the nuances of the game with a live view:
“See the cricketer who took the catch? That is the long on.”
“The over has ended. Now watch: the batsmen won’t change ends but the fielders will.”
It was a learning experience every time. It required time. Our fathers had the time to teach us, whether it was a Test match or a 50-over match. We had the time to learn, for studies were not the only thing to focus on in those learning days.
Let us get back to the Hindi proverb. The reason I used it was because we had to wait for cricket back then. Access to only match my city would get in a year was of no less significance than the golden ticket to Charlie’s chocolate factory. We would wait; there was that excitement of being fortunate enough to see the match at the stadium — because cricket matches were not easy to come by.
Nobody waits for cricket these days. Instead, cricket waits for its audience. Take a quick look at the schedules, and you will realise that the matches are scheduled on public holidays, for to sustain itself, cricket has to become the perfect holiday entertainment. It has to become the greatest possible value for money for someone (or, indeed, a family) on a weekend.
Cricket matches do not monopolise public interest anymore: instead, they compete with the Bollywood weekend release. Even on television, they have to fight for supremacy with European football, Grand Slams tennis, and even soap operas. It is not the same thing anymore.
In other words, the fruits are still sweet, but they come across as items prescribed by dieticians. We are still chewing on because we have plenty (and it still tastes nice), but we are not relishing them as much as we used to: we know that if we miss out on one, we will get more of them in a matter of days.
Mass connect has become a major tool of late. As a result the fans now have access to their idols (of course, the ones who want to share). Easy availability, however, spoils the fun at times, which is probably why the audience in the longer formats of the game is not as much as it used to be: “There is cricket round the year, why spend more time for that when we can watch a match inside four hours?” was what my friend answered when I asked her why she does not turn up for ODIs or Tests but is a regular feature during IPL matches.
Talking about entertainment, no example is as prominent as IPL. There was a time when, if you had asked me whether I would expect three beautiful women putting in all their energy to dance because a boundary had been hit, I would have taken you as an alien or would have laughed on your face. Though I still wonder what purpose pompoms serve when an intriguing match goes on metres away from the spectators, I have got used to them by now.
If you ask me, cricket is lovable in any form — provided one knows how to pick the high points. A six or flying stumps might intrigue the mass, but an over that fetches only three runs, leaving the batsman in one dilemma after another with some balls bowled in the corridor or one where the batsmen got eight or so runs without hitting a boundary are sure to impress those in love with the game for a long time.
Change is inevitable. The earth moves every nanosecond. There are pros and cons of everything. You may think they are redundant, but what about the women themselves who have found employment and exposure in the most glamorous sports event in the Indian calendar? Remember the tears of joy of the Sunrisers Hyderabad cheerleaders when the franchise — their franchise — lifted the IPL trophy in 2016? What proof would have been more prominent of there being emotion still alive in the game? Things may not be what they used to be, but there is surely passion left in the game flowing one way or the other, which drags us mortals in flocks to the ground.
May cricket live, in the entertainment, the passion, the purity — in whichever form possible.