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August 1, 2014

Is cricket losing to football?

Manish Dubey

A game of football isn't dampened by the rains in Mumbai © Getty Images

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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Posted by   on (September 15, 2014, 12:01 GMT)

The author got it very wrong. It is not necessary that a person can follow only one sport. Best example is Bengal or Kerala for that matter. Most kids in Bengal play football, but the passion for cricket is unmatched. I used to play football regularly in my school, cricket maybe once in a month. But I used to watch cricket religiously (I still do) and I used to memorize useless bits of trivia and statistics. The kids that the author has referred to may know everything about spanish or english football, but ask them about Indian football and you will have your answer.

Posted by   on (August 19, 2014, 5:20 GMT)

cricket can never reach football status...atleast not this time....cricket lacks excitement apart tests

Posted by himanshu.team on (August 7, 2014, 4:29 GMT)

There is one thing the author and most, if not all, commentators have ignored. It is the overall development of India as a nation and in particular as an economy. In olden days, people just used to care about securing a government job. Now there are private jobs that are more cherished but more importantly a growing, albeit small at present, number of people want to be entrepreneurs. If India really has to become a economic super power it would need more entrepreneurs going forward. Same phenomena is happening in sports. Those children who really wish to make their mark at the global level, know that they have to excel in Individual sports or in a sport like Football. Cricket is still followed in a handful of countries and is not likely to grow to a much larger base either. If small children really take up football in a big way, India can at least become a regular entrant in the world cup finals. I hope I live to see that day.

Posted by himanshu.team on (August 7, 2014, 4:14 GMT)

There is one thing the author and most, if not all, commentators have ignored. It is the overall development of India as a nation and in particular as an economy. In olden days, people just used to care about securing a government job. Now there are private jobs that are more cherished but more importantly a growing, albeit small at present, number of people want to be entrepreneurs. If India really has to become a economic super power it would need more entrepreneurs going forward. Same phenomena is happening in sports. Those children who really wish to make their mark at the global level, know that they have to excel in Individual sports or in a sport like Football. Cricket is still followed in a handful of countries and is not likely to grow to a much larger base either. If small children really take up football in a big way, India can at least become a regular entrant in the world cup finals. I hope I live to see that day.

Posted by ccrazy on (August 6, 2014, 10:05 GMT)

India need to go beyond cricket. this does not mean we stop with cricket - it simply means we promote other sports. they need equal media coverage and viewership.

Posted by t20cric on (August 5, 2014, 15:09 GMT)

@Masking_Tape: How does India make it into the big 3 nations of the world unless you are talking about population.

@Hush78: I never understood this statement "Cricket needs a strong (enter favourite team) to thrive". The truth is that cricket needs at least all 10 of their test nations to be of more or less equal strength. That way the majority of cricket matches will be entertaining because they won't be one-sided and the upsets could come from non-test nations beating test ones. As it is right now even though Zim and BD have been test teams for a while now it is still thought of as an upset (rightly so) when they beat one of the top 8 teams. If only India is strong and the rest of the countries are weak then we'll see India stream rolling everyone in every game which even Indian fans will get bored after a while. So cricket actually needs a strong 10 nations so every competition is entertaining and because every team brings something unique to cricket.

Posted by   on (August 4, 2014, 6:36 GMT)

One small stat to dismiss all worries of football winning over cricket in India - Pro Kabbadi League opening day viewership in India was 22.1 million, while football WC opening day registered just 2 million. If a sport like Kabbadi that was largely forgotten by Indian masses thrashes football viewership, cricket has nothing to worry about for at least 100 years to come. Meanwhile it is important to note how cricket has been bashing football in recent times in countries neighboring the sub continent. In Afghanistan cricket is already more popular, in Bangladesh cricket has the edge over football now, in Nepal it is neck to neck while China is showing glimpses of adopting the sport big time.

Posted by gnat9 on (August 3, 2014, 14:08 GMT)

Football passion in India is restricted only to a small slice of the urban elite and to some old clubs in Bengal. The average Indian still has little to no interest in the game. Cricket, on the other hand, is a religion in India. Almost every Indian worth his or increasingly, her salt has played the game at some point of time. I don't think the situation is ever going to change. Let the World cup, IPL or any other major cricketing event start, and even the most passionate Indian football fans will return to the cricketing fold.

Posted by Masking_Tape on (August 2, 2014, 19:32 GMT)

Big 3 nations in the world, USA, CHI, IND don't even like soccer. So much for "World Sports." There's more cricket played than soccer in those 3 combined (I just manipulated stats). And seems like every 4 year we go through this "Is soccer picking up" debate in the US. And I'm guessing it happens over in IND too. (Not sure about CHI, seems like they couldn't careless). It's the fever. And it will die out soon.

Posted by Vijimv11 on (August 2, 2014, 17:34 GMT)

Good reality check Manish. I feel India has enough space for other sports to grow alongside cricket. The story of Gurgaon is similar to many other cities of India. But cricket fans like us need not worry, as India will always be a Cricket crazy nation.

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