Friday, May 23, 2008

It's not cricket

This first appeared on comment is free, but what the hell...

If sport mirrors society, then India's Twenty20 cricket league has been a revelation. There have been allegations of racism, on-field violence and blunt sexism directed at imported cheerleaders. Off-field bigotry and pitch fisticuffs are deplorable, but the fact that they are being debated is not.

For this we have to thank the arrival of Twenty/20. Although cricket has always been seen as a religion in India, it was one that was only observed when the national team played. Very few people ever turned up to watch the domestic game in India, which was a poor preparation for the big occasions and did not garner meaningful television audiences.

The result was that Indian cricket became a trainspotters' delight - full of obscure language and rows over statistics, which only emphasised its idiosyncrasies. Twenty20 has finally ended this exceptionalism, asking Indians to think themselves as global trendsetters. That in turn has made the country take seriously debates about sporting attitude, fans' behaviour and the influence of money.

By borrowing from baseball and football and with a billion dollars behind it, Twenty20 has also revived a wilting sport. In this incarnation cricket has at last caught up with modern sporting age.

Like other spectator sports, razor-sharp reflexes in Twenty20 must be melded with technique. Pouring a day's game into three hours and 240 deliveries means that wrong decisions are mercilessly penalised. Purists might complain that gone is the tussle of wits between batter and bowler, replaced only by a slugfest of runs. But fans like a game that fits nicely into an evening. There is also no option for sides to draw - finally recognition that rewarding sporting prowess matters more to fans than competitive balance.

There is more to sport than watching teams vie for supremacy. Shorn of nationalism, Twenty20 has at last made cricket in India a cultural obsession in the same way football is in England. Thousands turn up at stadiums. The teams are multi-national and multi-ethnic. Indians have finally learned to love the brilliantly coarse Shane Warne, who has seen his unfancied team, the Rajasthan Royals, dominate.

The league has also proved you cannot buy success: billionaire Vijay Mallya spent a small fortune on Bangalore's Royal Challengers only to see them bottom of the league.

The game itself is a vehicle for change - challenging Indians to ask whether they as a society are really as modern as they think they are. In sport, when a country has issues, its teams face many of those same issues. So Indians have had to own up about the racism that blights their society - the apparent sending home of two black cheerleaders because of their race was front page news in Delhi. When the bombs exploded in Jaipur, home of the Rajasthan Royals, international players were not condemned for wanting to return home.

It is clear that the game is here to stay. In the coming years it will be interesting to see how the Twenty20 league shapes up. There have been calls from the Pakistan cricket board for a team to be based in Lahore. This presents risks as well as opportunities. It is true that good sporting rivalry is good for business, but it'd better if this did not stir a religious version of hooliganism.

Do not blame the game if passions explode. Twenty20 is the illustration, not the explanation, of the problem. That's why it has had a profound and welcome cultural impact in India. There are promising signs that it will become a sporting glue, binding together people from different backgrounds in support of the game. If that is not cricket, who cares?

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