Gurgaon, statistics tell and outsiders believe, is among India's fastest growing and most prosperous cities. Located next to the national capital and home to 876,000 persons (2011) and offices of half the Fortune 500 companies, it boasts the third highest per capita income among Indian cities and a skyline like Manhattan's.
In reality, Gurgaon is two cities. Something locals are well aware, and often reminded, of.
Gurgaon Common lives in cramped, dirty neighborhoods, struggles with water and power shortages and unsafe streets. Gurgaon Elite is cocooned in spacey, gated complexes with 24X7 water, electricity and security services. The two cities ail, celebrate, commute, dress, eat, school, shop and speak differently. And, as it now turns out, play different sports.
The children of Gurgaon Common do not always have the luxury to indulge in an organized sport. Those who do, play cricket. Often with makeshift bats and stumps on any vacant patch they can find. The more enterprising and hopeful-of-being-noticed-for-bigger-things among them scrimp to arrange proper equipment, shoes and whites and participate in neighborhood and club matches.
Gurgaon Elite, on the other hand, has embraced football. The latest, ongoing edition of the Gurgaon Inter-Society Football Action (GIFA) tournament has about 60 participating teams. A similar cricket event would, one suspects, have not drawn half the number.
It's not just the 2014 FIFA World Cup fever either, for the Elite's growing fondness for football has been evident for a while. Their children wear celebrity football jerseys, refer to Barcelona or Chelsea as 'our club', know Luis Suarez's transfer fees, proudly report injuries sustained on the football field and generally light up when talking football. A Gurgaon Elite kid sporting an IPL tee-shirt or gushing about Dale Steyn, Kumar Sangakkara or Michael Clarke is rare. In our own complex, we have seen the number of children playing cricket dwindle to near nil from the time we moved in three years ago. Instead, there is daily football.
What converted Gurgaon Elite to football?
There is the fact that play spaces in Gurgaon Elite complexes are not large enough for proper cricket. To be accurate, they are often not large enough for proper football either but then engaging football can be managed in a smaller area. Cricket, unless one opts for the less-fulfilling nets or pitch-shortened variety or reconciles to restrictions on bowler run-up and lofted strokes, demands a certain minimum expanse and comes with relatively higher risk of damaging neighbourhood property.
Schools offer the space and equipment for cricket but cricket itself does not offer the opportunity to engage the entire class actively and simultaneously over a short sports period. At cricket, more than one individual is likely to feel he didn't get enough opportunity to bat or bowl. It is less likely for anyone looking for a piece of action in a football game to miss it.
It surely also has to do with the football coverage in the media, particularly television, in recent times. A generation ago, one knew, at best, the names of only a handful of international footballers and sides from newspapers and sports magazines. Now, the mesmeric play and on-field antics of an entire galaxy of football stars unfolds before the eyes - cementing, along with smart merchandizing, coaching clinics and other outreach efforts targeted at the Gurgaon (and other similar Indian) Elite, loyalties to far-off clubs and teams and messianic coaches.
It helps that several modern football stars have a pinup quality and an edge and color to their personality that few cricketers seem to possess. Simply put, a character like Shane Warne would not be in minority in the football circuit.
Could there be a third, less evident factor at play? Young men and women across the world are known to make choices that mark them as different from their 'unfashionable' elders and less-happening peers, to signal that they have a mind of their own.
Growing up, we failed to understand our parents' fascination with Dilip Kumar and the enthusiasm around Salim Durrani and went on to embrace Amitabh Bachchan and Sunil Gavaskar. We might now think otherwise but back then Dilip Kumar radiated tedium and Durrani was at best an exciting under-achiever. A few years down the line, it was the 'dour' Gavaskar who paled away and Sachin Tendulkar who came to occupy mindspace. Could the Gurgaon Elite's children also have embraced football because 'uncool' elders droned about cricket most of the time, because only 'uncool locals' now do cricket? Is that why MS Dhoni has to fight with Lionel Messi and Christiano Ronaldo for space in their pantheons?
Meanwhile, Gurgaon Common, less fussed about considerations of playspace proximity, availability and quality and yet to emerge as a viable clientele for international football, breathes, and is allowed to breathe, cricket.
Football was once considered the Commoner's game, cricket the Elite's. That has started to change, at least in Gurgaon. Hardly surprising. After all, space, time, television and packaging have changed larger things, such as the world order.
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Born in Jamshedpur, Manish Dubey bowled with some distinction for his mohalla team, was floored by Arun Lal's batting exploits in the mid-1980s, hates T20s and hopes to write more - and better - on cricket. He currently lives in Gurgaon and works as a consultant on matters of public policy and governance.
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