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A journalist from a local news channel in Punjab recently questioned me about the growing commercialisation of Indian cricket. "Isn't it killing the game? Aren't 10 different logos on a player's jersey crass?" he asked. His cameraman zoomed in embarrassingly close, mike shoved right into my face. The rest of his coterie promptly pulled out their pens in anticipation of a juicy byte that would make tomorrow's headlines.
It may not be an earth-shattering, news-generating question, and my answer was run of the mill, but somehow it is a favourite among the press. As a cricketer, one almost feels like a criminal facing a media trial for a crime you haven't committed. But since you are one of the "beneficiaries", however small and indirect that benefit may be, you ought to stand up and defend your case or be ready to be crucified the following day. You feel trapped, wanting to avoid these questions, but that's exactly what the media wants. It's imperative to stay firm and present your case. Here's my take on the matter, perhaps not news worthy, but worth a read.
Do you know that there are about 550 first-class cricketers in India and about 60% of them don't have jobs outside of the game? Their only source of income is the five-month window in winter, in which they represent their respective states and make just enough to last the remaining seven months.
If you add the players who are on the periphery and make the cut only once in a while, the numbers swell to the thousands. Since corporate houses or banks do not have positions for even the top players in Indian cricket, it needs no mentioning that the players in the second tier find it tough to make ends meet. Their only hope is to make it to their Ranji team one day and then the lucrative IPL, and perhaps don India colours later. Till then they need to bear all their expenses themselves. And trust me, playing cricket in India is still an expensive hobby.
Do people who vociferously condemn the money in cricket ever take time out to fight for the cause of these unemployed athletes? When people talk about certain players making millions in the IPL, do they ever think of the ones who are putting their livelihoods at stake to pursue the sport?
In fact, most of those who have ended up making a lot of money from cricket have gone through the same ordeal while growing up. I'm not sure if many people know that Munaf Patel, before playing for the country, worked in a factory for Rs 50 a day, and that he bowled barefoot during his formative years, since buying bowling shoes was a luxury he couldn't afford. Indian cricket is full of such stories, but we only get to hear the ones about those who make it to the top.
I recently met a first-class cricketer who is a regular in his state side, which means that he's talented. He bowls reasonably quick and has earned the bragging rights of having dismissed Gautam Gambhir and Virender Sehwag in a List-A match.
The tale of his struggle outside the five months of first-class cricket moved me. He lives in the mountains and looks after his apple farm when the cricket season is not on. His off-season job profile is to supervise the work force that he hires on daily wages. Since that money is paid at the end of the day after looking at the quality of the work accomplished, he needs to be on his toes all day. And on days when work force is not at its optimum strength, he needs to fill in himself. The thought of off-season cricket training doesn't even cross his mind. A decent ground and gym are a couple of hours' drive away. The only way for him to keep fit is by running or carrying heavy boxes of apples on his back, up and down the mountains. He doesn't have a "proper" job, and doesn't harbour hopes of getting one.
People who know the business of apple farming will know that it takes only one unseasonal shower to ruin a crop. There are many like this player in Indian first-class cricket. Is it still fair to assume that money in cricket is a bad thing?
Some may just shrug it off by saying that the bigger the risk, the better the reward. But many don't make it to the top, and putting everything on the line doesn't always guarantee a good life. Gamblers don't always hit the jackpot. You've got to be talented enough to reach a certain level to demand perks. Just that in cricket the amount of talent isn't always proportional to the rewards you get. There are things like luck and injury involved, which are beyond anyone's control. Also, one needs to remember that the life of a professional cricketer can be drastically cut short by a poor season or an injury. He must make a lot of hay while the sun is shining, for the sun sets a lot sooner on a professional sportsperson's career than it does on those of other professionals.
Do the naysayers realise that some of the perks trickle down to the ones who need them most only because there are so many logos on the Indian/IPL jerseys, and because there are still takers for the TV rights? The big fish may still survive if that pool dries up, but the others will simply die.
Last but not least, the newspapers and news channels these journalists work for make money selling advertisements. The audience may detest the ads but they are a must for the commercial viability of the news medium. If people in the media don't complain about the fact that their salaries are derived from this same commercialisation, they shouldn't grudge a sportsperson his earnings either. In any case, there are only a handful of cricketers who are making megabucks; the rest are still trying very hard to pursue their dream without burning holes in their pockets.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Aakash Chopra is the 245th Indian to represent India in Test cricket. A batsman in the traditional mould, he played 10 Tests for India in 2003-04, and has played over 120 first-class matches. He currently plays for Delhi in the Ranji Trophy; his book Beyond the Blues was an account of the 2007-08 season. Chopra made a formidable opening combination with Virender Sehwag, which was believed to be one of the reasons for India's success in Australia and Pakistan in 2003-04. He is considered one of the best close-in fielders India has produced after Eknath Solkar.