When Olympic Sports Lost Out
Cricket, Television And Globalization in India
One of the greatest tragedies of our hockey is that its most glorious phase preceded the era of live television in India.
—Shekhar Gupta, 2002
Café 20: Aaj Tak Bhangra, Cricket And A Hunger Strike
The twenty-fourth day of September 2007 began as just another day on Aaj Tak, India’s most popular Hindi satellite news channel. The first news bulletin of the day opened with the headlines of the hour but when the camera cut to the news anchor, viewers saw a sight they had never seen before. Instead of the usual serious looking news anchor, dressed in a tie and suit, and sitting in the usual news studio, the camera cut to a new special studio with the tagline Café 20 prominently displayed in the background. Eight of Aaj Tak’s most prominent news anchors were sprawled out at four separate tables in a café-like setting and they were all wearing the Indian cricket team’s blue uniform. It was the morning of the India–Pakistan final in the Twenty–Twenty Cricket World Cup in South Africa and India’s biggest news channel had decided to focus on the build-up to the game, to the exclusion of all other news.
Significantly, the anchors on display were not the usual sports reporters or commentators. These were men and women who normally presented the channel’s mainline political coverage. Prominent among them was the channel’s executive editor Deepak Chaurasiya, usually seen only outside the offices of the BJP or the Congress. Their dressing up in the Indian team’s colours was the equivalent of John Simpson of the BBC wearing the Union Jack and turning up in the news studio to cover an Ashes game between England and Australia. Café 20 was as clear a signal as possible that in an overcrowded satellite television market, Aaj Tak had hitched its fortunes to the aspirational nationalism of the Indian cricket fan. To drive the point home, the Aaj Tak logo was prominently displayed on the Team India jerseys the anchors were wearing, right next to the logo of Team India. The game itself did not begin until 5.30 p.m. India time but Aaj Tak’s Café 20 began early in the morning and continued through the day. There was no pre-match analysis or reporting—simply news anchors in the Indian colours chatting informally about what they felt about the cricket team. One anchor held up a cricket bat as he showed the viewers his own take on the square cut, another demonstrated the intricacies of leg-spin bowling, while a third fondled his cricket pads.
When the match ended in an Indian victory after a nerve-wracking thriller that went down to the last over, the Aaj Tak camera cut once again to Café 20. This time the studio had not just the eight anchors who had begun the day’s programming, it was overflowing with Aaj Tak’s entire Delhi staff—all dancing in gay abandon to the tune of a dholak specially brought in for the occasion. Dancing with Aaj Tak was Kapil Dev, the first Indian captain to win a World Cup (in 1983), who had stayed in the studio through the day as a contracted expert. As other news channels went around the country showing instantaneous street celebrations, for 20 minutes, Aaj Tak’s viewers saw only one sight: its entire staff doing a Punjabi bhangra in concert with Kapil Dev.
It was yet another reaffirmation of television’s allegiance to the tricolour: cricket, nationalism and television mixing in a seamless hue that more than anything else encapsulated how tightly India’s satellite television revolution is inextricably entwined with cricket. Aaj Tak was not an exception. Every other news channel—and India now has more than 50 24-hour satellite news networks focused almost exclusively on cricket that day. An alien landing in India and watching Indian television that day would not have been wrong in assuming that cricket was the only news in the country that day. Yet it was a day when the ruling Congress announced the accession of Gandhi scion Rahul to a formal position as general secretary in the party’s hierarchy and one of the Left parties supporting the Congress government targeted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as ‘immature and inexperienced’ for pursuing India’s nuclear deal with the United States. These barely featured as news. But news television’s tunnelled focus on cricket wasn’t just a product of what is now a cliché: the fanatical Indian support for cricket. There was a clear economic dimension to the cricket coverage.
According to one senior television news manager, his network had received more advertising for coverage of the Twenty-twenty World Cup, two months before the tournament even began, than the entire advertising it received for covering the Union Budget. This, when the concerned channel was not even broadcasting the event—broadcast licensing rules allowed it only limited use of the actual match footage. The economics of the private television business and the heavy advertiser interest in cricket meant that the news channel could not but focus its energies on the game. Television coverage offers a useful prism to understand the contours of modern Indian identity; in a complex process of diffusion it subsumes both cause and effect. Television producers are cultural gatekeepers, mediators of what they understand to be an ‘Indian’ identity, as they try to appeal to it for economic profit. We have argued elsewhere that in a land divided at multifarious levels by factors like language, caste and custom the unrelenting drive to construct and capture a national market for maximizing profits led television producers and advertisers to turn to cricket as the lowest common dominator. Channels turned to cricket because of its indelible link with what might be termed ‘Indian-ness’. Their focus on cricket, in turn, further augmented its equation with notions of Indian identity. This is a process that unfolded through the 1990s and Aaj Tak’s Café 20 was only the latest alliteration on this palimpsest.
There is now a substantial literature tracking how cricket, from the colonial era, has always had a political dimension in India and much of this literature attributes the striking pre-eminence of cricket in the Indian imagination to a set of complex and contradictory processes that parallel the emergence of an ‘Indian’ nation. As a crucial hinge of the modern Indian nation, cricket is also the easiest way to register on TV ratings. In more ways than one, Aaj Tak’s Café 20 symbolized the vast gulf between the status of cricket vis-à-vis other games in modern India. There is no doubt that cricket rules but the question is, why cricket? Until the early 1980s, cricket was not the most pre-eminent Indian game. Cricket was popular but hockey was the ‘national game’ and soccer was equally popular in large parts of the country. Yet from the 1980s onwards cricket assumed centre-stage. Cricket’s emergence as the new Indian ‘national’ game does not necessarily stem from some peculiar Indian affiliation for the game but is inextricably linked to the expansion of Indian television and a confluence of factors that came together: the creation of a large middle class, the economic reforms, the birth of the satellite television industry and a whole gamut of forces that fall under the broad rubric of globalization. This chapter maps the growth of Indian television to draw out these linkages and demonstrate the central role of television in making cricket integral to modern notions of Indian identity. This emergence also marks the sunset for the nation’s Olympic sports, a condition likely to prevail in the Indian sporting landscape unless something dramatic happens in London. Cricket dominates television because its administrators adapted the best to the forces of television and globalization as they took shape in India. Hockey and soccer were left behind because their administrators refused to change and by the time they did, they had missed the bus. It would be foolhardy to attribute essentialist causal effects to television. Television does not explain everything but it is equally impossible to understand post-liberalization India without reference to satellite television. By 2007, India was home to as many as 300 indigenous satellite television networks and television’s embrace of cricket was the fuel that drove driven the rise of India as the financial centre of the global game. In a complete reversal of the earlier power order in the game, 70 per cent of the International Cricket Council’s earnings are now estimated to come from India and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is now the richest cricket body in the world. India has always had the numbers but this new-found money power is a recent phenomenon deriving from the muscle of India’s burgeoning private television industry.
Cricket, Indianness and Television
It is possible to date the rise of cricket as the pre-eminent Indian game almost precisely to the date when television began expanding. Television became a mass medium in India only during the 1980s. There were three intersecting factors: the creation of a national network of transmitters linked with satellite technology; Doordarshan’s commercialisation and resultant focus on entertainment; and economic reforms that made television sets cheaper. Until the 1982 Asiad, Indians had never seen sporting events on television. The only way to follow any game had been to follow the commentary on radio. Now for the first time they could see their sporting heroes, in colour. That changed everything. India’s dominance in hockey had declined since the late 1960s, but in the showpiece Delhi Asiad, the hockey team lost 7–1 to Pakistan in the finals. This was the first time most Indian viewers, not fortunate to be at the stadium, were seeing the hockey team in action and the camera was cruel. For instance, Mir Ranjan Negi, the hapless goalkeeper on that day, later complained that the inexperienced Doordarshan cameramen never showed how he charged at Pakistan’s defenders. The camera would only cut to the empty goal after he had been beaten in his charge, with the effect that television viewers only saw an undefended goal post that seemed permanently open to Pakistan’s roving forwards. Negi never played a game for India after that day and for years was hounded as a ‘traitor’, who had ‘sold out’. Someone even cut the electricity at his wedding function, such was the popular anger he faced.
His story has since been picturised in the 2007 Bollywood blockbuster Chak De India. That loss to Pakistan on television, watched for the first time by a national Indian audience, did irreparable damage to the image of Indian hockey in the national imagination.
The tragedy of Indian hockey, as Shekhar Gupta points out, was that while television expanded, Indian hockey declined:
Our last championship victory, the Kuala Lumpur World Cup in 1975, was telecast live but then all of India had no more than a thousand television sets, all black and white, and in the metros. Hardly anybody, therefore, would have seen the stirring image of Aslam Sher Khan, brought in as a desperate last-minute substitute to take a penalty corner, kissing his amulet before banging in the hit that took India into the final… A sporting ‘product’ was needed to sell those wares, to consume the sponsors’ and the advertisers’ money, and hockey did not make the grade.
A detailed breakdown of Indian hockey performances bears out this analysis. India lost only two games in the first three hockey World Cups. Between 1986 and 1990, it won only one game. While it has performed consistently at the Asian Games, it has languished at the Olympics and in World Cup hockey.
What is significant from our point of view is that the creation of a national network for the Asian Games coincided with India’s epochal Cricket World Cup win in 1983. This was not Indian cricket’s first great win. The 1971 victory of Ajit Wadekar’s team against England in England perhaps ranks higher in cricketing terms. Wadekar’s team was welcomed back by huge street parades in Bombay but no one had actually seen them play. The 1983 World Cup was different. Unheralded, inexperienced in the one-day format, and led by a new young captain—Kapil Dev—‘Kapil’s Devils’, as they became known, were seen by millions of Indians through their journey to winning the Cup. It is not surprising that this victory was followed by political felicitations that Wadekar’s team and even the hockey players of an earlier era had never received.
The 1983 victory was followed by another victory in 1985 in the Benson and Hedges Champion of Champions Trophy in Australia. Again, television was the conduit, as for the first time, Indians saw the Australian tournament live and in colour. In fact, it is possible to precisely map the rise of cricket with the increase in television penetration.
From 1983, the expansion of the television network became a key governmental priority. Between July and October 1984, for instance, practically one TV transmitter a day was commissioned. Starting from just one transmitter in 1971, 18 had been set up by 1980. The graph leaps spectacularly in the early 1980s with the total number of transmitters going up to 172 in 1985 and 698 in 1995. This expansion was accompanied by a simultaneous increase in the sale of TV sets. In the first decade of television, the number of television sets increased from 41 to 24,838. It took another 12 years for this number to cross the 2 million mark. But from the mid-1980s, the graph suddenly rockets up and we see the makings of a mass medium. By 1986, 3 million TV sets were being produced in India, including 7 lakh colour sets and by 1992 the figure had reached 34 million TV sets. 1992 was a watershed because that was the year when private satellite television first made its appearance. We examine its influence later in this chapter. It is no coincidence that the cricketers of this era, while not necessarily more talented than those of earlier generations, became the first brand names among Indian sportsmen. As television advertising expanded, it looked for heroes, and found them in the national cricket team. Kapil Dev, Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and Dilip Vengsarkar were hired to model a whole range of consumer products, from shaving cream and toothpaste to clothing and English language guides.
By the 1986 Asian Games, cricket had become so popular that a reader of a national daily could write:
The disgraceful performance of the 400-strong Asian contingent…is not surprising when the nation’s main sport is following the cricket score on radio and television. The result is that city children take to breaking window panes and noses…Village children also have now taken to the Englishmen’s game and dropped fast the Indian games…Unless cricket is banished from this country, the rest of the sports would not get any encouragement, people would not do honest work in their work places and youth would not get adequate exercise.
As cricket embraced the new charms of television, hockey, with a combination of bad performances, lack of administrative foresight and short-sighted planning continued to languish until cricket supplanted it in the national imagination. Globalization and the new economy were embraced by cricket while hockey administrators remained mired in old ways. The few times that Indian hockey did well, like at the Bangkok Asiad, its success was followed by administrative wrangling and internal discord. Half the victorious team at Bangkok, for instance, was sacked soon after it won the gold because of differences between the players and the IHF (now replaced by Hockey India). Hockey administrators have made belated attempts to embrace television like with the National Hockey League on ESPN-Star. However, as Rohit Brijnath put it, ‘Cricket has settled on the mind and leaves little place and time for other pursuits. As a nation we are [now] guilty of a one-track mind.’
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