Thursday, March 29, 2007

India's Sporting Funk

Wednesday, Mar. 28, 2007

India's Sporting Funk

Kishor Tiwari usually emails me a couple times a day. Tiwari is the head of an activist group that keeps track of farmer suicides in the central Indian region of Vidarbha, and lobbies Delhi for policy changes and more subsidies. Farmer suicide is a big problem in some parts of India, and Tiwari regularly fires off vitriolic email missives to reporters. But his most recent email, two days ago, was different. This time the source of his fury was not Indian farmers, but its cricketers whose disastrous performance at the World Cup — losses to neighbors Bangladesh and Sri Lanka — meant an early return home from the competition. After lambasting the players, Tiwari called on India's agriculture minister to resign, not forgetting, of course, that the relevant minister also sits on the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). Leaving aside their special interests for a moment, Tiwari wrote that farm activists "termed this defeat as national shame".

It's hard to worry too much about India's early exit in light of the other big news from the cup: the murder of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer. But in India, where people have been eagerly anticipating this event since, well, since the last one ended four years ago, the poor performance has been cause for despair even — or perhaps especially — amongst those for whom despair has become a way of life. So far, save a few demonstrators holding up signs calling on the coach Greg Chappell or the captain Rahul Dravid to resign, and a few cases where pictures of players were set alight for the cameras, that despair has not turned into violence. Most people seem depressed more than angry.

Amid the national soul-searching now under way, the BCCI says it will meet in Mumbai next week to analyze what went wrong. Chappell and Dravid will have their say. "We are disappointed but will listen to everything with an open mind," BCCI secretary Niranjan Shah told the Hindustan Times. But the pressure for change is already building. A non-scientific Times of India survey found that 87% of readers think Dravid should be removed as captain, while 92% feel one-time star batsman Sachin Tendulkar should be axed altogether. To the question "Is something fundamentally wrong with the way BCCI runs cricket in India?", 96% of respondents said yes. Eight out of ten people also feel cricket gets "too much importance in India".

None may be more depressed, however, than advertisers. South Asian television rights and the ad revenue generated by the coverage here accounts for close to 80% of the game's global turnover. But with India and Pakistan out of the Cup, audience size is expected to plummet. Advertisers are already demanding rebates on air time purchased on the assumption India would make it to the next round. "It is a crisis," Bharat Patel, chairman of multinational Procter and Gamble told the Times of India. "It's a house on fire situation. If the channel wants to consider a long-term customer relationship they have to concede. They have to give their customers better value."

The same could be said of the Indian team. But BCCI chief administrative officer Ratnakar Shetty says people need to have perspective. "There is disappointment but reactions were fueled by [television] channels building up the team in an unreal fashion," he told the Hindustan Times. "As the players return, we appeal for sanity. No one should be hurt." Not physically, anyway. In terms of national pride, the damage is already done.

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