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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 October, 2004, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
Letter: India's cricketing 'religion'

By Vinod Mehta
Editor of Indian weekly magazine, Outlook

Indian cricketers
The craze for Indian cricket unites the nation
Journalist and editor Vinod Mehta reflects on India's obsession with cricket - as millions across the country have been glued to televisions watching India play Australia.

But the drama of the game continues off the pitch, and in recent weeks, some of the country's top politicians have been drawn into the battle for control of the national game.

"A bunch of jokers" is a rather rude phrase, but that is how those who run cricket in India were described by a senior high court judge recently.

Like millions, the honourable judge had been observing elections to positions in India's top cricket body.

Why did these elections assume such huge importance?

Indeed, why does the game of cricket drive 1.2 billion people into a state of frenzy?

Foreigners are totally mystified by India's passion for cricket.

Dying game

Here is a game which some say is dying or close to dying in its mother country England, in decline in the West Indies and unknown in most parts of the world.

But in India, cricket is "religion".

The country comes to a stop when a cricket match is being played - the roads are deserted, parties and weddings are postponed, operations in hospitals are rescheduled, parliament goes in for early closing.

North-south, east-west, rich-poor, men-women, rural-urban, Hindu-Muslim - a craze bordering on madness unites the nation when it comes to cricket.

Sachin Tendulkar
Tendulkar is a superstar in India
It is a rich man's game and India is a poor man's country.

It's a painfully slow game which can last for five days with breaks for lunch and tea.

This in a country where people are furiously engaged in a life and death struggle to somehow make a living.

The natural sport for India should be football, but it is hardly played and has minimal following.

Historians, scholars, social scientists and sports writers have tried to provide an explanation for India's cricket madness - but no one has come up with an acceptable answer.

Cricket madness

For some, cricket's appeal is based on the Brahamanical dislike for contact sports like football.

For others, cricket's appeal is based on Hindu India's relish for complexity, mystery and arcane laws in which cricket abounds.

A few believe cricket's appeal is based on India's struggle against colonialism.

I believe it's all this - and mind-boggling statistics too.

Questions like: "Who was standing behind second slip when Vinoo Mankad had Len Hutton stumped in the 1952 Test at Lord's?" fascinate Indians.

The surprise is most of them have the answer.

Indian cricketers are superstars.

Fame, money, celebrity await the lad who makes it into the Indian team.

Someone like Sachin Tendulkar needs bodyguards and hordes of policemen to protect him.

This lower middle-class Maharashtrian boy from Bombay is now a multi-millionaire, most of his earnings coming from commercial advertisements and advertising contracts.

Ugly side

Just before he retired from the game in 1987, the great Sunil Gavaskar consulted me, among others, about what he should do with his spare time.

I suggested he might write a cricket column.

"How much money will I make from one column?"

Most of our young flanelled fools come from small towns and provincial households
Not one column, make sure that one column appears in several publications. Syndicate it, I said.

Today, Mr Gavaskar writes perhaps the most widely-read weekly cricket column in India and earns tons of money.

My reward? He sends me a New Year's card every year.

It's not all fun and games.

Cricket in India also has an ugly side.

In 1997 my magazine broke the match-fixing story which revealed that top players from India and bookies actually "fixed" matches.

It is undoubtedly the biggest scandal to hit Indian sport, as a result of which the Indian captain, Mohammed Azharuddin, was banned for life.

Match-fixing

Suddenly, the Indian bookie who fixed matches became a famous, or shall I say infamous, figure as it turned out that the Bombay underworld and mafia dons were among the chief bookies.

These bookies managed to ensnare even the late Bible-spouting South African captain Hansie Cronje who had to quit in disgrace.

Former Indian cricket captain Mohammed Azharuddin
Former Indian cricket captain Mohammed Azharuddin was banned for life for match-fixing
Besides the underworld, Indian film actresses are besotted with cricket.

Most of our young flanelled fools come from small towns and provincial households.

Suddenly they are catapulted into a world of classy discotheques, fashion parties, and champagne cocktails.

The gossip columns are brimming with the liaisons of a budding starlet and a budding cricketer.

In the end, I am happy to report, the budding cricketer usually marries the girl mum recommends.

This extended introduction on Indian cricket, on and off the field, is only the backdrop of my talk.

Elections

Remember the election I mentioned earlier? Well, it took place on 29 September at a five-star hotel in Calcutta.

Four hundred journalists were camped outside the venue. There was live TV coverage.

For the media, for at least a week before the election date, this was headline news. Little other news found space in the papers.

Unseen and unheard behind this election loomed Sonia Gandhi, the boss of the Congress party
The election causing so much excitement was for the president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, or BCCI to call it by its abbreviated name.

You might ask why an election for a private registered body formed in 1929, mandated to run Indian cricket, should arouse such disproportionate interest?

The short answer is money.

The BCCI is hugely powerful because the game is so popular, but more than that it controls an extraordinary bank balance.

In 2004 it is slated to earn over $80m from hosting matches, team sponsorship, sale of TV rights and ticket money.

Of course, the fact that the president of the body gets as much media coverage as the prime minister of India is a bonus that goes with the job.

If you add the annual earnings of all the other cricketing federations registered with the International Cricket Council, or ICC, they don't add up to what the BCCI earns.

Money

India, in fact, accounts for 80% of all money in international cricket and has a TV viewership that is 10 times the size of all other ICC member countries put together.

But, like everything else in India, there is a catch.

The top job pays no salary, it is an honorary position.

saurav ganguly
Cricket attracts three quarters of all sports advertising in India
The president and other office bearers work free and bear the burden for, as they put it, "the love of the game".

Naturally, very few people who follow cricket believe that love for the game is the primary motive for lusting after the jobs.

Enter the Indian politician. As if he didn't have enough on his hands, the Indian politician covets this job too.

The current election saw one of India's most senior ministers, Sharad Pawar, competing to become president.

Others in the running included a former law minister and a host of politicos from across India's political spectrum.

Eventually the contest was between Mr Pawar and a minor Congress party functionary.

Unseen and unheard behind this election loomed Sonia Gandhi, the boss of the Congress party.

Bollywood drama

One word from the lady to the state units of the cricketing body, many controlled by the Congress, and Mr Pawar would have the job in his pocket.

Finally, Sonia did what she does best: she kept studiously silent.

And her silence ensured that Mr Pawar - whom she dislikes because he challenged her for the top job in the Congress - lost.

But not before there was a prolonged Bollywood-type drama with elections repeatedly delayed, high court judges called in and then asked to leave, writs thrown around.

Jagmohan Dalmiya
Jagmohan Dalmiya played a vital role in deciding the election

In the end, the result was a dead-heat - 15 votes each to Mr Pawar and his rival, the minor Congress politician.

There is one more character I forgot to mention.

He is a middling construction magnate from Calcutta with legendary in-fighting skills.

Mr Jagmohan Dalmiya, the outgoing president of the BCCI, was summoned for the casting vote because of the tie.

Naturally, he voted for his nominee, the small-time Congress politician, who many think would allow him to do some extensive backseat driving.

My story of the intrigue and drama behind the epic struggle for control of the BCCI would be incomplete without a few words about Mr Dalmiya.

He is the scourge of the white cricket establishment - that is Britain, Australia, New Zealand - who have long ruled the International Cricket Council, headquartered in London.

The leading lights of this establishment can never forgive or forget how Mr Dalmiya challenged and taunted them before winning the right for the subcontinent to host the 1996 World Cup tournament.

He led the triumphant subcontinental delegation and came out of the ICC meeting with a British TV crew pressing him for an interview.

"You can't put on air what I'll say," he declared, and then added with a smile: "I wonder how with this intelligence you could have ruled us for over 200 years."

I should declare an interest. I've had problems with Jagmohan Dalmiya.

He took me and my magazine to court when we accused him of cover-up in the match-fixing scandal.

"During the match-fixing row, my son's friends asked him if his father was a thief," he told the press.

Thief or saint, villain or hero, Mr Dalmiya has ensured that elections to India's top cricketing body resemble a Bollywood pot-boiler.

You never know.

Somewhere in Bombay some smart producer could already be working on a script.

Vinod Mehta is one of India's leading journalists and editors. He is the author of three books and president of the Editors Guild of India.

Letter is a new BBC World Service series in which one of a panel of international broadcasters give their views on the latest political, cultural or social developments in their region.


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