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The great unifier

The great unifier
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First Published: Wed, Apr 06 2011. 10 28 PM IST

Scenes of joy: People celebrating the historic World Cup win in Delhi. PTI
Scenes of joy: People celebrating the historic World Cup win in Delhi. PTI
Updated: Wed, Apr 06 2011. 10 28 PM IST
If the events of the past few days have proved anything, they have proved the power of sport to lift a people. You can see it through any prism—calling it uber-nationalism, transient, overhyped—but the net result is the same: On Saturday night, a nation really did explode in collective joy.
A moment that was spontaneous, raw and pure, though the sentiment is beginning to grate 48 hours after the event—especially with politics muscling in and muddying somewhat the purity of the feeling.
Scenes of joy: People celebrating the historic World Cup win in Delhi. PTI
Sport has always held that exalted status right from the days of the ancient Olympics, during which time the civilized world would be a war-free zone. Nothing so dramatic has happened in Afghanistan, where the cricket team has had an astonishing journey over the past couple of years from non-existence to a spot in the last Twenty20 World Cup, yet an optimist would believe there’s a general feeling of goodwill back home whenever the team plays.
Today, the value of hosting a big sporting event—qualification: hosting it well—is immense for any government, which is why there’s such a long queue for the Olympics and football world cups, though the direct financial spin-offs are minimal. Ask anyone in Bangladesh, whose first steps on the global stage these past two months were taken with a confidence and joy that were mercifully inversely proportionate to the team’s on-field fortunes. Or in Brazil, where the World Cup—which they host in 2014, after 64 years—is seen as the final step in the country’s evolution to a credible global giant.
The words of Carlos Dittborn, head of Chile’s 1962 football World Cup organizing committee, echo down the years. His country was ravaged by a 9.5 earthquake months before the tournament, leading to widespread loss and tragedy. As Fédération Internationale de Football Association (Fifa) debated moving the tournament elsewhere, Dittborn made an emotional plea—“We must be given the World Cup because we have nothing.”
Soon after last month’s tsunami, I wrote to Alex Miyaji, the head of the Japan Cricket Association, whom I had interviewed while in Japan during the 2002 Fifa World Cup. He’d already been on the BBC, photographed with cricket equipment in the background; he told me he intended to do whatever possible, “through cricket, to bring back smiles, hope and the strength to move forward to the people who have lost everything”.
While still in the afterglow from Saturday night, I was asked how 2011 compared with 1983 and whether cricket was now more important, did it mean more to people than it did back then? Well, yes and no. No, because anyone who was around in 1983 can recall just what winning the World Cup meant to a nation on the margins of global importance and a decade away from liberalization. It meant cars and scooters honking their way through crowded streets at midnight (it happened this time too but by an eerie coincidence, that final also finished around 10.30pm, IST), flags being waved and a generation of men and boys with long hair, moustaches, skinny shirts and flared trousers generally making merry.
Yes, it meant a lot back in 1983.
What’s changed, of course, is how we interact with cricket—or, indeed, with any sport. With fans trading ringside seats for lounge-room easy chairs, the sport comes to the spectator rather than the other way round. And it comes in every form so as to be part of our lives. It’s not just cricket, though that sport leads the way; a recurring ad through the World Cup was of badminton champion Saina Nehwal flitting from one airport to another plugging 3G telephony. And she also sells cooking oil and herbal products, among others. In Bangalore, where I stay, billiards champion Pankaj Advani is a frequent “guest editor” for one or other of the local newspaper supplements and Anil Kumble is as much in the news for his contribution to the cause of wildlife as he is for his cricket administration. The line between player and fan is blurred to some extent; we now know, thanks to Twitter, Facebook and the more mainstream media, much more about our heroes than we did in the past even though they are ring-fenced by security and agents.
Twitter, of course, has made the world a large drawing room with real-time chatter and debate. Outraged over the toss? Vent with your followers worldwide. Think Roger Federer should retire? Post it as a status update and brace for the impact. How does the umpire decision review system (UDRS) really work? Ask and ye shall receive a thousand explanations instantly. The first cricket World Cup in the age of social media made the global truly local, allowing the Indian diaspora—whether in groups or alone in a Midwest town or African city—to experience almost exactly what their brethren were back home. The geographical divide almost ceased to exist.
And that brings us to the Indian Premier League (IPL), which has created its own billion-dollar empire free of conventional geographical boundaries. But that’s another thought for another day.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Espncricinfo.
Write to Jayaditya at extratime@livemint.com
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First Published: Wed, Apr 06 2011. 10 28 PM IST