December 1, 2008

A thorny passage

The Mumbai attacks mark what may be the beginning of a difficult period for the game in India

When Mumbai burns, the heat is felt thousands of miles away © AFP

"Aussies Dead in Mumbai Massacre." Thus the poster for the Australian the day after the attacks. Aussies? Well, yes - among nearly 200 others. But at times like these, all the gab of globalisation goes by the board, and concentration routinely becomes kith and kin, home and hearth.

Yet there is something shockingly new to the mayhem in Mumbai for distant foreigners, not least of the cricketing kind. Hitherto, terror in south Asia has been seen as a feature of Pakistani and Sri Lankan landscapes, where, especially in the case of the former, it has been regarded as confirming the destination as a bit of a hardship posting.

By contrast, India generally and Mumbai especially have been cricket's candy mountain, offering ever-tastier enticements to the star player - not merely money but excitement, attention, and a sense of importance. Non-Indian cricketers love cricket, but in their countries not everyone does; India offers a culture that values the game as much as, if not more than, the most enthusiastic professional practitioner.

Of course, the distinction was never quite so crisp. India never stopped being a country of extremes, with the possibility of violence. On May 11, bombs detonated in Jaipur, killing or injuring 250 people; three days later, Cameron White, Shane Watson, Graeme Smith and Jacques Kallis played an Indian Premier League match there. At the time, though, everything somehow seemed far rosier. Now confidence is more fragile, and more susceptible to sudden shocks, and India's economic and technological advances work curiously against it.

Almost four decades ago Australia toured an India wracked by civil unrest and economic austerity following the split of the Indian National Congress and bank nationalisation, aggravated by Charu Mazumdar's Naxalite terror. They were hemmed in by riots in Bombay; in Calcutta every window of the Australia hotel was broken by demonstrators against the presence of Doug Walters (who was thought, erroneously, to have served in Vietnam) and the team bus was bombarded with projectiles on the way to Dum-Dum Airport.

Yet their countrymen knew next to nothing of this. Mirabile dictu, there was not a single Australian journalist or broadcaster accompanying the team; team manager Fred Bennett was indifferent to complaints; and the attitude of Australian players was laconic resignation. Accordingly to Ashley Mallett, when the players were under siege in their Eden Gardens dressing room they simply drank tinnies, waiting for the violence to subside. Bennett burst in at one point and said agitatedly that the crowd were after captain Bill Lawry's blood. "Hand him over and we'll get on with the drinking," Walters suggested.

Today Mumbai is a centre of global commerce, tourism and media that reports itself assiduously and comprehensively, for internal and external consumption. When it burns, the radiant heat is felt thousands of miles away. Thus the shock and disorientation of seeing locations familiar to western tourists in flames and under fire, and the distress of knowing friends and colleagues may be involved.

When the smoke of burning hotels clears, some other signs may be seen in clearer aspect. Dazzled by the efflorescence of the Indian Premier League six months ago, observers have ignored less exciting but perhaps more meaningful phenomena since. The salient index of stocks on the Mumbai exchange, which rose six-fold in five years to the end of last year, has this year shed half its value. Offshore institutions, which bought a record US$17.4 billion of stocks last year, have sold $13.5 billion of stocks in 2008. The Indian middle-classes, so fundamental to the IPL's success, have been the chief sufferers.

Just two months ago, the right to broadcast the Champions League were sold for $900 million to ESPN-Star Sports, making it the highest-valued cricket tournament in history on a per-game basis. Since then, the financial services industry worldwide has had a nervous breakdown, and once-bankable deals have been redefined as wild flights of fancy. When BHP Billiton gave up its pell-mell pursuit of rival miner Rio Tinto last week, the surprise was that it had taken so long.

So far the BCCI has relied on money to solve everything, to open every door, reconcile every difference, silence every doubter. In the face of such horrors as Mumbai has endured, however, money is muffled almost to muteness, and little use to anyone

Sponsors for the Champions League have been far harder to find than for the IPL, while the tournament has occupied more dates than the Queen's Birthday. In the minds of many fans, in fact, it remains blurred with the similarly benighted Champions Trophy - so many champions, it seems, so little time. Nor, apart from those domestic cricketers for whom it loomed as the biggest payday of their lives, has it been obvious who exactly benefits from the tournament, or exactly to whom it will appeal.

Postponement saves us from pondering, for now at least, who next Saturday was going to watch Western Australia play the Dolphins at Chinnaswamy Stadium, having not watched the world's top two Test nations duke it out there last month.

The BCCI itself is embroiled in a legal battle with its former chief, Jagmohan Dalmiya, expelled from the board almost two years ago, but now intent on the administrative equivalent of a victory after following on. Just days ago, the High Court in Calcutta ordered criminal proceedings against the board president, Shashank Manohar, administrative officer Ratnakar Shetty, secretary N Srinivasan, and ICC president-to-be Sharad Pawar for swearing false evidence. Pawar's power base may be further eroded if the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party can parlay its tough stand on terrorism into votes at the polls early next year.

In the near term, one jolt may be particularly felt. So far the BCCI has relied on money to solve everything, to open every door, reconcile every difference, silence every doubter. "Money doesn't talk, it swears," Bob Dylan sang famously, and for the last year it has carried on like Sarah Silverman. In the face of such horrors as Mumbai has endured, however, money is muffled almost to muteness, and little use to anyone.

The BCCI philosophy, hitherto, has been to tell the rest of the world: "We are changing everything. Get on board or be left behind." In future, however, the board may need to win friends as well as merely influence people.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Kalyanaraman on December 1, 2008, 23:32 GMT

    Please let us know what will everyone do if the next terrorist attack is in England? Or are we all naive enough to think it can never happen there just because it hasn't happened so far? Also it must be remembered that in today's Global economy everything is linked. If Indian cricket struggles the world game will lose about 70% of revenue which mean many of the ICC development programs will suffer. ESPN Star which paid $900 million will suffer and since they also own Cricinfo, Cricinfo may also feel the pinch as may Gideon Haigh himself. On the positive side, the Indian middle class will rejoice at reduced cable tv costs. Indians living in other countries can say goodbye to that charges much more for an India series than a non-India series. This disposable income can be invested or spent on other more deserving sports in India like athletics or tennis. Either way India will continue with or without cricket just as Cricket can continue with or without India but poorer for it.

  • Deepto on December 1, 2008, 18:45 GMT

    Unfortunately Cricket Australia and the ECB needs the Champions League more than the BCCI does, given that the only other options they have is to prostitute themselves with the likes of Stanford.

  • roger on December 1, 2008, 16:31 GMT

    An excellent article in the present situation. It's tough to play after a terrorist attack where the players can't give 100 percent. However the show should go on. It went on in earlier attacks in the world incl. USA, UK. Hope it will go on in India now

  • Nick on December 1, 2008, 14:08 GMT

    It is hard, from a fans point of view, so say that so-and-so should tour, when if he were your own son you would tell him to stay home.

  • Richard on December 1, 2008, 9:22 GMT

    "India will play for sure, yes the problem will be he Lord Snooty teams, (Eng,Aus,SA,NZ)."

    Its all very well Indians and the like saying things like this but your not the target. These terrorist types always say it is westerners they are targeting and they always target the areas were wetserners are most likely to be. What bigger coup for them than killing a major western sports star? As some others have said, why pretend everything is hunky dory when clearly it isn't! Teams can't be expected to go and play where there is a chance it won't be safe, and at the minute the Indian sub-continent is not safe, India is on war alert for gods sake! Fair enough India, Pakistan & Sri Lanka are the main power bases of cricket support and finance but if it aint safe it aint safe.

  • Swami on December 1, 2008, 8:09 GMT

    I have been faithfully following the game in India for over 25 years now. Under current circumstances, I would support the idea that England or any other team that doesnt feel safe, does not play cricket in India. Its a very small price to pay as an Indian for a much larger issue. On the contrary I am afraid that playing cricket will incorrectly signal that everything is alright, when everything clearly is not. Safety is psychological as well, and the last thing we want is a substandard team playing for the sake of it which demeans the quality of the game itself. It will be very sad if there is no cricket in India for some time, but so be it while we get down to fix some real issues here.

  • Thiagarajan on December 1, 2008, 5:55 GMT

    I appreciate the fact that people see cricket or any sports as a major bond builder, healer et al. But we should not forget that cricket is just a sport and trying to conceal the security issue that the country faces with entertainment is plain careless. As cowards the terrorists are, they can try and attack anyone or anytime. We have to look at cleaning these scum bags before we work on the seam for swing. I do hope that sports holds the strength to unite nations, but we are not talking about war between nations. We are involved in a war between the brave common citizens and the coward terrorists.

  • Pratyush on December 1, 2008, 5:28 GMT

    Somewhat agree but I dont quite agree that India will have a difficult phase. Attacks like these are meant to destruct confidence and India has always shown they come through rather quickly. In a place like Mumbai, there is hardly the time to worry so forget about other things. India will play for sure, yes the problem will be he Lord Snooty teams, (Eng,Aus,SA,NZ). I agree they have concerns but Indian security is competent enough to provide them security throughout the tour. Its two different things to attack an unattended place and even thinking of attacking a securitised area. In India the second is not possible. So it will be a sad day if tours are called off. This is exactly what these agents of terror want, and India is not prepared to give.

  • Anand on December 1, 2008, 4:59 GMT

    It is a difficult time for cricket indeed! One might think cricketers are not soldiers a hence why should they risk life and limb for a game. At the same time that is exactly what these evil (for the lack of a better word) terrorists want - to change our lives, routines and business. Of course one should not be foolish in the face of clear and present danger. If I were in the England team I'd go play after the Indian establishment assures top security and changes venues to say Madras and maybe Calcutta. C'mon guys lets show the terrorists they have achieved nothing! My sympathies for all those who lost their lives and were injured in Bombay. Let cricket heal the wounds. The BCCI can contribute to help the families of the affected families which is the most important thing right now rather than political rhetoric.

  • Mohan on December 1, 2008, 4:31 GMT

    "who next Saturday was going to watch Western Australia play the Dolphins at Chinnaswamy Stadium, having not watched the world's top two Test nations duke it out there last month."

    Same kind of questions were asked before IPL and we saw what happened, didn't we? Why don't people understand that the reason no one attended India-Australia Test match is that Indians by and large don't care for white-and-white cricket?

    As for Mr. Haigh's barely concealed glee at the prospect of bcci's power being reduced in light of Mumbai incident, all I can say is, dream on.

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