In a country that loves to play cricket in every available space — parks, streets and fields — sports merchants are increasingly peddling football, tennis and hockey dreams. Private leagues have mushroomed in recent times, promising India a place in the FIFA World Cup or the opportunity to host a tennis event on the scale of a Grand Slam. But these are clearly far-fetched and misplaced notions.

The recent Asian Games at Incheon gave us a realistic assessment of Indian sport. India emerged with 11 gold medals, two of them in kabaddi, behind China’s staggering 151, Korea’s 79 and Japan’s 47. Even Kazakhstan, with a population smaller than Kerala’s, claimed 28. The difference is huge, not to mention the disparity in facilities.

Meanwhile, the brewing new sporting culture attempts to grab the attention and loyalty of the country’s youth through private leagues. The sponsors are all visible, of course. They have to be, having invested in the teams and players in the franchise-based ownership. The trouble is that their association with sport is purely commercial.

If cricket is big in India, I would credit it to the catch Kapil Dev took at Lord’s in June 1983 to dismiss the marauding West Indian great Viv Richards. India won the match and the World Cup, propelling cricket to new heights on home soil.

Kapil Dev also blazed a trail for Indian sportsmen inking lucrative commercial contracts. He was the first to use a logo on sports equipment, in defiance of the administration, alongside other stalwarts like Sunil Gavaskar and Ravi Shastri. “I was only looking to make my future financially steady,” Dev said. The cricket board finally relented. Cricketers signed up sponsors and shared the spoils with the board.

Long after retirement, Dev, again with an eye on the market, created the Indian Cricket League (ICL), setting off a sporting revolution of sorts when the league’s first ball was bowled. The country’s first major private sporting league saw players, many of them unsung and unknown, signing fruitful contracts. Every cricketer looked to earn a spot in the ICL and the authorities smelled the threat instantly. The cricket board scrambled to counter it by launching the Indian Premier League (IPL).

The business and cinema world was roped in to lend glamour and money, and attract the youth. On offer was an entertainment package of cricket, song and dance that proved a roaring success in the very first season. Spectators flocked to the venues and the IPL turned even mediocre cricketers into household names.

The me-too games

The business of sport was buzzing like never before, forcing the administrators of other sports like hockey, kabaddi and football to sit up, take notice and emulate the success. The cocktail remained unchanged — a heady mix of business and Bollywood.

Cutting-edge coverage from Star Sports saw hitherto low-profile sports such as kabaddi, football and hockey challenging cricket for prime-time attention. The TRP ratings are reportedly encouraging and all appears hunky dory. The players are basking in national attention, and the sponsors and team owners have little to complain about. But how does this help the sport develop?

The current generation has grown up watching the best of sporting action beamed into its drawing room from around the globe. It can certainly tell the best from the ordinary. “I will not watch the ISL (Indian Soccer League) if there is a foreign league match on at the same time. There is no comparison,” asserts a young football fan.

Well-known football commentator Novy Kapadia prefers to be more optimistic — “The ongoing ISL has attracted the crowds back to Indian football stadiums; 35,000 in Mumbai and 30,000 in Delhi are impressive figures in cities which do not have fanatical fans. Hopefully these fans, many of them new to Indian football, will continue to support the domestic game when the I-League starts in January next year. Also, Indian players seem to be learning by observing the level of commitment and training of the foreign stars. The eight franchises should seriously develop grassroots programmes and academies in the near future.”

India’s success at the inaugural T20 World Cup was followed by the launch and success of the IPL. But IPL can hardly be credited for the country’s successful showing in the shortest format of the game. West Indies great Michael Holding put it candidly, “IPL can’t improve anyone’s cricket.”

Similarly, the Hockey India League (HIL) cannot be held responsible for the state of the game, good or mediocre, in the country. As the former hockey great Zafar Iqbal said, “It has helped lift the profile of hockey. It keeps the game in the news and some foreign players come and compete with our youngsters. Importantly, hockey players can earn money, too, which was not so when we were playing.”

Limited goals

The success of ISL, IPL, HIL, ITL (tennis) or KIL (kabaddi) will not have any impact on India’s progress in the international sports arena. The franchises will pick the best and offer attractive contracts to bolster their respective teams, but will they invest in developing talent at the grassroots level? That responsibility is with the government and that role remains unsung. For the 2012 London Olympics, the government spent ₹260 crore on the preparation of sportsmen. I don’t think any corporate would spare that kind of money.

Dev too, while excited about the opportunities, is circumspect about some of the ground realities. “There is nothing wrong in these private leagues. They provide entertainment and I believe there is scope for every sport, not just cricket. But success depends on role models. IPL attracts the best because India has some of the best in the world. Can we say the same for hockey and football?” he asks.

Moreover, while it is exciting to play against or watch the likes of a Roger Federer or Del Piero, it is equally true that merely competing with stars past their prime cannot lead to improved status or fortunes. For all the success of the ISL, India will struggle to earn a football ranking below 100. Despite the IPL, Indian cricket continues to fare poorly overseas. It would be naïve to expect that the IPTL alone will be enough to throw up an Indian tennis Grand Slam winner.

(Vijay Lokapally is Deputy Editor, Sports,The Hindu)

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