The role of TV was changing for youngsters; it had also become a coach for young cricketers. Kids sat by the TV and learned how to play. A young Sehwag batted in front of the TV copying Sachin’s every stroke. The Sehwag who blasted a century on his debut in Bloemfontein batting alongside Sachin looked every bit like him, not just in stature but in his strokeplay too.
As more experts came into the studio and commentary improved, youngsters were able to learn the million subtle aspects of the game that experience teaches. These were the finer points that they may never have learned otherwise. An array of former greats talked at length on TV about a variety of nuances from how a batsman is balanced while playing a shot to how bowlers need to make sure they are not falling away in their delivery stride.
This was an education few coaches at a junior level could provide. With former players talking about professionalism, preparation and expectations, young players got a glimpse of the attitude required to succeed at the highest level.
Television took the game into remote areas that rarely, if ever, produced international cricketers.
Out of Jharkhand emerged MS Dhoni with flowing locks and a bat like Thor’s mighty Mjölnir. The 2011 World Cup’s unsung hero Munaf Patel hails from Ikhar in Gujarat, while RP Singh and Bhubaneshwar Kumar come from Rae Bareilly and Meerut respectively.
Dhoni became the icon of Indian cricket with his aggressive batting, calm demeanour, and strong middle class values. If Sachin provided the hope that a talented middle class Indian could dominate the world, then Dhoni took the story to the next level by hailing from a small town. Brands, like Titan’s low-end watch brand Sonata, that were striving to reach out to small town India made him the poster boy of progress.
With TV sets present in even low-income families, it was educating and inspiring an audience of modest means to pursue their dreams of fame and fortune. Many players with humble backgrounds were able to search for a living in the game. This was in stark contrast to the pre-liberalisation days when players were forced out of the game because of the lack of money in the system.
There’s a legendary tale of Budhi Kunderan being selected to play a Test match for India and not owning a pair of gloves for the job. He had to borrow a pair from Naren Tamhane, whom he had displaced from the playing XI. Players received Rs 250 a day to play Test cricket and if the game was over in four days they received only Rs 200 a day. Talk of incentivising ruthlessness!
This situation could have continued but for liberalisation. And many players like Wasim Jaffer, Harbhajan Singh, the Pathan brothers, and even Rohit Sharma may never have had a chance to continue in the game because there wasn’t enough money in it for them to make a decent living.
The money went toward better payment for players, better facilities, better training across the board. Even a Ranji Trophy player could hope to make a living by playing the game, and if luck smiled on him he could become an IPL millionaire.
Money for the players became even more widespread with the advent of the IPL. The IPL itself, it must be said, was the result of a fortuitous development. T20 cricket was developed by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) as a means of getting bums on seats after turnout for longer format games was dwindling. T20 was a product of the times and configured to deliver high-octane entertainment in a time frame and at a time of day that suited its audience.
India who didn’t have problems of how to draw crowds was not enamoured of T20. The pundits saw it as nothing but a crass form of cricket. It was mass entertainment and this immediately meant that it wasn’t worthy of attention by the connoisseurs.
BCCI was not interested in this new format, so much so that they were unwilling to send a team to take part in the T20 World Cup. The International Cricket Council (ICC) called for a vote on this and India grudgingly sent a team.
A new team without Sachin, Dravid and Ganguly and with Dhoni as the inspired choice of captain left for South Africa to participate in the T20 World Cup. The nation watched enthralled as Yuvraj Singh hit Stuart Broad for six sixes in an over, demonstrating just how exciting the format could be.
India’s lifting the Cup in a keenly contested final against Pakistan was the stuff dreams are made of and the nation fell in love with the new format. To their credit, BCCI put together the IPL in a manner that lifted the game experience. The IPL was staged with the kind of speed, professionalism, and scale that befitted BCCI’s stature in international cricket.
Everything about the IPL from Shah Rukh Khan to player auctions, city based franchises, advertiser-sponsored strategic timeouts were lapped up by the game’s many audiences. The inaugural match featured a breathtaking century by Brendon McCullum batting for the Kolkata Knight Riders and the IPL was here to stay. The IPL brought more money into the game and with a larger player base, made the pot of gold accessible to more players.
At the time of writing this piece we are eight editions into the IPL and despite some controversy it shows no signs of diminishing. The fans turn out in droves and cheer raucously. The IPL brought back passion for the game at a time when it seemed to be flagging. And for all that its detractors may say, T20 is probably financing Test cricket.
T20 can be likened to an app – a small piece of software that entertains you. If the app is boring you will delete it as people could well do to Test cricket. People still follow Test cricket scores, but there aren’t many who want to watch twenty-four runs scored in an hour when they can watch twenty-four runs scored in an over.
To continue the analogy, T20 is to cricket what Twitter is to communication – a short quick burst requiring great skill that is extremely addictive. It’s perfect for an ADD-oriented world, where people are looking at being entertained for a short period of time. Few can keep track of T20 matches the way one remembers Test cricket, but it entertains and that’s what a sport should do.
T20 has reached a stage where some players have to choose between club and country. Some years back even considering a choice like that would have been unthinkable.
Even as some are still sputtering with indignation at the thought, there is a fear we may some day reach a stage where the franchise will mean everything to the player and to the fans. The national team itself could merely feel like a set of players assembled from franchises. The English football team is an example of this with Wayne Rooney of Manchester United teaming up with Gary Cahill of Chelsea and James Milner of Liverpool.
In an era of more powerful bats and shorter boundaries, T20 is ruling the roost. It provides youngsters with the choice of succeeding in cricket without ever playing the long version of the game. The amount of money in the game is encouraging more youngsters to play and persist despite obstacles.
The money can at times be intoxicating, especially to young players from humble backgrounds. It’s ironic that at one point of time players were driven out because the game lacked money; however, today some players are pushed out due to their inability to handle the fame, fortune, and glory.
Television with regional commentary is destined to provide the next level of empowerment in cricket, enabling youngsters to learn the nuances of the game in a language they understand well. Many of the upcoming players by virtue of their background don’t have English comprehension skills commensurate with their cricketing skills.
The 2015 World Cup was broadcast in English, Hindi, Kannada, Tamil, Bengali and Malayalam, and provided a wealth of perspective to these youngsters. In keeping with their policy to reach out to the regional sports audiences, Star India has recently announced the launch of five regional sports channels in Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, Bengali and Marathi.
The story of the impact of liberalization on cricket will continue to be written. History is not static, for each day history is being created. Liberalisation set off a chain of events that will be etched not just in history books but in cricket books as well.
– From “The Effect of Liberalisation on Cricket”, Harsha Bhogle.
Excerpted with permission from What’s Changed: 25 Years of Liberalised India, Edited by Kartik Kompella, Random House India.