July 5, 2014

The Sharapova lesson

Cricket is a minor league sport and apparently content to remain so

He even comes to Wimbledon. How can she not have noticed him? © Getty Images

Every now and then you come across an example of such startling human ignorance that you have to sit down, wipe your face with a handkerchief, and pour yourself a stiff drink. Brace yourselves readers, for this is one of those moments

Maria Sharapova has never heard of Sachin Tendulkar.

Who exactly is Maria Sharapova, you might ask, petulantly, but you're only pretending. You know who Maria Sharapova is. Yet of the world's greatest living batsman, the man who built monumental peaks of batting stats and then built some more on top of those, one of only two living cricketers entitled to use the world "Master" in his nickname; of him, Maria is entirely, blissfully ignorant. It is enough to make you weep.

Or, if you are of a particular cast of mind, it is enough to make you log on to Twitter and spew your ire in 140 characters or fewer. The militant wing of the Sachinistas has indulged in an online outrage orgy, an explosion of righteous indignation and patriotic silliness rarely seen outside the Republican National Convention.

And the world being what it is (a collection of squabbling states continually waving their dog-eared lists of petty grievances and uncorrected wrongs at one another) this Tendulkrage provoked an anti-Tendulkrage from those who took delight in the fact that Sachin had gone unrecognised among the Russian tennis-playing fraternity, and who were able to assert with ill-found confidence that although Maria might not have heard of Sachin, she has almost certainly heard of Imran Khan.

That may or may not be true, but if a cricketer has to form his own political party in order to become famous, then perhaps cricket has an image problem. And if Maria hasn't heard of Sachin, despite last year's farewell Sachin extravaganza and the 24 years of Sachin-ness that preceded it, you can be sure that she remains entirely unaware of Ian Botham, Viv Richards, Don Bradman, little Davie Warner, Kane Williamson, and Derek Pringle and of all their varied exploits.

Why is this so, and more importantly, why are we so surprised? Could it be that we have an inflated sense of cricket's place in the world? I can't be sure, but I'd be willing to bet Stuart Broad's next fine on the fact that Maria has heard of Cristiano Ronaldo, that he has heard of her, and that both of them have heard of Tiger Woods, Usain Bolt and Kobe Bryant.

Cricket is a minor league sport and apparently content to remain so. It is only played fully in ten countries around the world and there is regular moaning and griping that two of those ten are not pulling their weight. We grudgingly allow a handful of other nations to play, but only in the shorter formats, and then we complain about them cluttering up the World Cup.

The ICC can't even bring itself to put cricket forward for the next Olympics. It was announced this week by the new ICC president that such a step would dilute the value of the game. I can't see many other international organisations taking this approach. Imagine the board of a multi-national fast-food concern debating whether to buy advertising time during the football World Cup. On the one hand, it would expose their brand to a prime-time global audience of billions. On the other hand, if everyone in the world bought their burgers, they'd be just that little bit less special.

You might think that increasing the sport's exposure could in turn increase its global popularity, boost ICC revenue and even help regenerate Test cricket, as entire new nations discovered the beauty of the game. But to your average ICC official that sounds like yawningly hard work. And who wants a lot of riff-raff cluttering up our nice, tidy, modestly sized sport. Obscure is beautiful, as they never say in tennis, football, golf, athletics, rugby union, rugby league and basketball.

Andrew Hughes is a writer currently based in England. He tweets here