May 24, 2013

A time for sadness and fear

The spot-fixing controversy teaches us about the pitfalls of insecurity and of the desire to keep up with the Joneses

I am writing this soon after watching Rajasthan Royals, rocked by intrigue but glued together by commitment, make a heart-warming entry into the final eliminator of what has, from a purely cricketing point of view, been an outstanding IPL. Royals have had to deal with drama, largely unwanted, and as a result have demanded newer skills of their players - the ability to play under the shadow of false media allegations, for example. But while the action, even the emotion, was riveting, the backdrop, sombre and depressing, was impossible to ignore. This hasn't been just another week in Indian cricket. And this wasn't just another tournament.

And so I find myself in an emotional cauldron; in a sport I love, in a tournament whose cricket I genuinely believe in, but in an atmosphere, even if created by a few, tinged with moral decay and danger. I feel sadness and fear. I am angry very often, but from time to time expectation wells up within: that my sport might emerge stronger, that out of pain a better sport will evolve.

I am partly in denial; I want my sport to embody everything I have experienced within it: beauty, bravery and flair, everything that brings a smile. I want to be happy, I want to shout out that good vastly overwhelms bad. But another part of me is hoping that whatever has to tumble out does, that cricket finds its deepest caverns so those conspiring there can be exposed; that cricket feels so much pain that it will do what it takes to ensure it doesn't happen again. Neither emotion is viable, for I know cricket will continue to exist, like everything else, with the nicest and the bravest alongside the cowardly and the machiavellian.

One thing we must accept, though. The events upon us now are not only about cricket and cricketers, they are about insecurity, temptation, and a desire to keep up with the Joneses. Let us look at each.

Cricket, like all sport, offers glory to few and a lifetime of it to even fewer. For the investment it demands it offers short careers that end when people in other professions are starting to flourish. In that limited time a player must achieve all he can on the field of play and earn as much as he can on and off it. But not everyone can earn enough to sustain themselves for the rest of their lives. That is why insecurity resides in very close proximity to most sportspeople. If they don't make it, they don't have too much to fall back upon.

That leads to temptation, and when it is married to the awareness that it is virtually impossible to police the sport, the mind seeks out opportunities. Admittedly temptation is not the exclusive preserve of those who earn less, but combined with insecurity, it makes for a particular vulnerability.

And then there is the third factor that no one is willing to talk about. In sports teams, apart from talk of sporting prowess and the imparting of inspirational thought, an extraordinary amount of time is spent discussing, and flaunting, material possessions. And even more so in testosterone-fuelled activities, which, thus glorified, are seen as accomplishments; why, they almost become a rite of passage. Young players will gawk at gadgets and cars and eavesdrop on conversations that centre on the company of beautiful women. Like records, this too becomes aspirational.

Young players will gawk at gadgets and cars and eavesdrop on conversations that centre on the company of beautiful women. Like records, this too becomes aspirational

And you can see why they become easy targets for those who offer what these younger, and lesser-earning, players are led to aspire for. You can educate people all you want, but just as children instinctively do what their parents do, as opposed to what their parents tell them to do, younger players get carried away by the environment they are in. They become easy targets for honey traps. That is the beginning of deeper pitfalls. And that is why, while I am all in favour of educating and mentoring people, I am aware of the limitations of that approach, especially when the desire to keep up with the Joneses is so natural and widespread.

This is not to condone what happens, this is not a boys-will-be-boys explanation, for young cricketers today know exactly what not to do. This is my hypothesis on why sportsmen all over the world are particularly easy targets. Some might argue that this is a more universal phenomenon, and they won't be wrong, but there seems to be a sense of accomplishment attached to it in sport all over the world.

But let us stay with cricket and India. Can we then educate at all? Yes we must, for to not do so will be to accept defeat. But education must be accompanied by fear, and I am increasingly convinced that fear will be a greater deterrent. And that is why I was so disappointed that the probe of 1999-2000 was never made public. By burying it, Indian cricket was let down. It cannot happen again. The scandal of 1999-2000 now exists in whispers. The 2013 episode cannot, and that is why, painful as it might be, a greater churn will produce long-term gain. It might lead to better systems, greater transparency, maybe even a law against fixing. Scams made systems more rigorous in the money markets. They could in cricket, which, I suspect, is still much cleaner than the stock markets are.

The timing of what has happened is particularly painful too, because, looked at purely from a cricketing point of view, this was the best IPL yet. Power-hitting went to a new level, legspinners won matches in a format few believed was made for them, catching was ridiculously good, some of the captaincy was exceptional, city loyalties were strengthened, and we rediscovered, to our great joy, that the richest teams need not be the best.

Hopefully by staining it, these weak-willed will end up doing cricket a favour.

Harsha Bhogle is a television presenter, writer, and a commentator on IPL and other cricket. His Twitter feed is here

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