‘For India, cricket is a product not a sport’

MURALI KRISHNAN writes: For a country where cricket is viewed as a business, not a sport, and the Indian cricketers as a brand, not a team, it could all end in a painful hangover if the brand does not deliver against Sri Lanka on Friday.

India’s distressing defeat at the hands of minnows Bangladesh in the Caribbean has not only left a cricket-crazy nation, which dissects every move and every word of cricketers beyond any rationale, thunderstruck, but also has sent sponsors, advertisers and multinationals in a flap.

Market analysts would have us believe that should India fail to reach the Super 8 stage of the World Cup, it would put Rs.3.5 billion worth of ad money and roughly Rs.13.25 billion in sponsorship money at risk.

Add to these future sponsorships and sales of consumer durables that are riding high on the World Cup frenzy and it could be even more dreadful news if the men in blue are edged out if it boils down to run rates to qualify.

A day after its heady triumph, Bangladesh mocked at India’s “cash-rich cricketers” and the cricketing authorities for making cricket “a product, not sport”.

“India sees cricket as business but Bangladesh knows and plays cricket as a sport. The only country that has not invited Bangladesh to play a Test series is India, just because Bangladesh is not financially viable as a team. Now, India have to understand that cricket is a game and not a commercial apple!” wrote Tareq Mahmood in Prathom Alo, a leading daily newspaper of Bangladesh.

That cricket mania always grips India before any major tourney is well known. For a showpiece event like the World Cup, the excitement is even more palpable as it does not get any bigger and the game becomes the adhesive that binds people across the country.

But this time around the fixation has gone up several unreasonable notches fuelled by the multitude of TV channels tracking the build-up in minute detail even as they fight for a slice of the viewership pie.

Not a day passes without channels buffeting viewers with deafening cheer campaigns, road shows supporting the Indian team, special prayers, musical performances and interactive cricket programmes that are expected to play out during the six weeks.

If that was not enough, people have been pounded by mobile games as well as match updates and cricket clips on mobile phones as companies pitch in to pull in crowds with attractive offers to boost sales.

Capitalizing on cricket frenzy, sportswear brands have launched novel cricket adverts while soft drink companies have introduced gold coloured colas, each vying for that seamless space to increase their brand value. And this time Bollywood too has jumped into the bandwagon, releasing a movie, aptly titled Hattrick—a story of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

While it is now well acknowledged that India is the epicentre of world cricket, boasting of the largest market and widest social base, this mass hysteria does seem out of place when one sport becomes to dominate so much of Indian life.

As the well known cricket writer Rohit Brijnath fittingly puts it, “To have a conversation on cricket in India occasionally requires no second person. Most of us can argue vigorously with ourselves, internal debates that suggest a delightful schizophrenia, where we are optimist yet pessimist, believer and sceptic, supporter and critic, all at once.”

Experts reckon the 2007 World Cup alone will attract television advertisements worth $17 million as maximum sponsorships for cricket flow in from India. Of the ICC’s sponsorship amount of $550 million earned last year, $300 million came from India.

Perhaps, if it had not been the megabucks that swathes cricket and the advertising blitzkriegs we would not get so worked up if India loses. But then sports promoters and those who manage the game have other ideas, bent on exploiting the brand for all its worth, irrespective of whether the cricketers play for “mind, body, heart and soul”.

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Murali Krishnan is a senior editor at Indo-Asian News Service.