CHITRA NARAYANAN | Updated on March 07, 2011 Published on February 17, 2011

Cheering crowd   -  Business Line

LF18CHITRA2   -  Business Line


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The ICC World Cup 2011 logo.   -  PTI

Crowd cheering Indian team in Hyderabad   -  The Hindu

Ramanujam Sridhar, Chief Executive Officer of Brand-Comm

Pramod Bhasin, President and CEO, Genpact.

As always, the English commentator John Arlott had got it right. He had pointed to the changes in cricket and written, “Cricket reflects its society.”

So, in keeping with the times, this quaint game is today not only marketing driven; with its scandals and scams, unsporting behaviour and hyped up heroes, it also mirrors our society.

Off the ground at least, we seem to be getting what the busy multitasking generation wants — form rather than substance, froth instead of cream, and pop culture instead of refinement and taste. Unbridled vulgarity has become the standard bearer for a game that once thrived on controlled and genteel middle-class mores.

And yet, if you look hard enough in the stands, you will be sure to find many an anachronistic Indian avatar of Charters and Caldicott, the cricket-crazy pair from the 1938 Hitchcock movie The Lady Vanishes who didn't have time for anything but cricket. They even ignored all the mysterious goings-on in the train as they struggled to get back to England in time for the Test match.

In spite of all the grumbling about the descent of cricket, the true connoisseur of the game who appreciates a Test more than a one-dayer will be there at the World Cup venues. Pramod Bhasin, the affable President and CEO of Genpact, who describes himself as a serious watcher of the game, is likely to be one of them.

Bhasin's love for the game, warts and all, is indisputable. The minute you ask him about the best match he has watched live, he goes into raptures over Gavaskar's knock at the Oval Test where he scored 200.

Yet, for all that, Bhasin has travelled to every continent, save Australia, to watch World Cup matches, by his own admission spending a ridiculous amount of money — especially in the last edition in the Caribbean.

Although it pinched his pocket when he ended up with tickets to matches where India did not figure because it had been knocked out early, Bhasin is the epitome of the sporting cricket fan of yore.

He shrugs away the loss self-deprecatingly, choosing to dwell on the sunny moments in Barbados. He is ribbed by friends and family alike for his unnatural passion for the game.

“When you are travelling long-distance, you come across really passionate spectators,” he says, recounting jolly moments chatting with West Indian fans or knowledgeable English spectators.

He admits he has an irritating habit of passing comments continuously on every ball bowled. “So much so that at the end of the match, I find myself all alone watching the game — one by one my family members have moved away,” he says with wry humour.

But undeterred, Bhasin says he latches on to a likeminded soul two rows ahead or behind. “We are all expert commentators of the game in this country — in India you will come across many who know the game intimately,” he quips.

True, the genuine Indian cricket fan loves to analyse the team's prospects threadbare, statistics are unearthed from the recesses of memory to stress a point, every decision is debated — but above all, he or she is a good sport, who does not let patriotic zeal come in the way of appreciating a good delivery or a shot well executed — certainly, not the crowd one saw at Eden Gardens rioting at an India loss.

Ask Brand Comm CEO Ramanujam Sridhar, another of those classic connoisseurs of the game who's travelled continents to catch a match, to pinpoint the difference between watching a match, say, 24 years ago when the World Cup first came here and now, and he says, “There was less noise to begin with.”

According to him, today there is a new kind of viewer — who comes very well prepared to appear in front of the television camera, with painted face and crazy headgear. “In the old days, we went to see a game. But today's spectator is a completely different animal.

"The moment the camera turns towards them, they start waving and dancing,” says Sridhar. But what gets his grouse most is sitting with a crowd that gets restive when Aaqib Javed blocks a ball, not appreciating the beauty of a bowler mounting a strong batting defence.

A change for the positive, however, is more women in the stands. “It's women and children to the fore these days,” says Sridhar.

Stadia trivia

Just as the Indian spectator is changing, so are the cricketing grounds. Cricket's playing arenas have so much character, history and oddities spun into them that a fan can spend hours debating the differences between a Green Park, a Gabba and a Chepauk.

Even as the game's centre of gravity has shifted to the subcontinent, for the paying spectator the Mecca as far as venues go still remains the Lord's in England. Nothing comes close to the atmosphere, the history, the aura, both Bhasin and Sridhar concur, as they rate the viewing experience there the best.

In the subcontinent, however, the Lord's of Asia, the venerable Eden Gardens at Kolkata, built in 1864, and with the ability to seat one lakh spectators (though officially it is listed as 63,000 seats), has sadly not stood the test of time, yielding ground to newer stadia.

Ask any Indian fan today and it is Mohali, built over a century later, that is unquestionably emerging top of the charts. It could be a sign of the shifting political equations in Indian cricket, it could be commerce and logistics driven, it could be a sign of sporting tracks winning over dead pitches, it could be simply superior infrastructure, but going by the World Cup venues this time around, there's very little place for nostalgia anymore here.

In a sense, that's the tragedy of Indian cricket — the sentimental fan may go on about the regal look of the bar at the Madras Cricket Club built in 1916 and the quaintness of the old stadium, but the infrastructure upgrades may see a lot of the old-world charm going out. “That's a challenge — how to make a place modern without meddling with the nostalgic elements,” says Sridhar.

“At the Lord's the type of hospitality you can get at reserved boxes, with specialised catering etc, we have not been able to match in the Indian stadia,” complains Bhasin.

Forget the catering, getting tickets to the game is itself proving to be a herculean task for the serious fan. In what is being seen as the CWG syndrome all over again, already a ticketing mess has unfolded. Stadia with capacities in excess of 30,000-40,000 are able to offer only 3,000 to 4,000 tickets to the paying public as sponsors, clubs and organisers have hogged most of the seats.

Both Bhasin and Sridhar grumble about the difficulties they are having in buying tickets. You and me would probably give up and watch on television, but you may be sure that the two — along with the hundreds of true blue connoisseurs of the game — will, much like Charters and Caldicott, make it to the venue at the nth moment.

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Published on February 17, 2011
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