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From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 24, Dated June 21, 2008

Selling cricket’s soul for thirty pieces of silver

Rahul Dravid’s loss of dignity in the IPL tells of a deeper malaise in the cricketing world where talent is judged against the weight of money, says NISSIM MANNATHUKKAREN

IN BARTON FINK, the 1991 film by Joel and Ethan Coen which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the protagonist is a playwright living in the 1940s New York, obsessed with his avant-garde idea of the “Theater of the Common Man.” After the success of his first play, he is convinced by his agent to travel to Los Angeles to write scripts for Hollywood, where the studio boss tells him that the script is for a BMovie wrestling picture! Since he has to fulfill the contract’s obligations, he gets down to the task, only to suffer from writers’ block.

The Indian Premier League (IPL) season for the year has been done and dusted. We are wallowing in the afterglow of Yusuf Pathan’s mighty hits and Priety Zinta’s bear hugs. Everybody is salivating at the next season’s prospects, especially the players, who are dreaming of Beckhamian salaries. That’s probably why one man’s misery was ignored, despite reams and reams of paper being consumed by IPL.

Rahul Dravid’s predicament in the IPL is not entirely dissimilar to that of Barton Fink: India’s greatest Test batsman is reduced to peddling his wares for a liquor baron. The man who symbolises everything precommercial cricket stood for, is reduced to one among many cricketer mercenaries who have joined the IPL (beneath its cosmopolitan veneer lies the callous world of the mercenary; to argue otherwise would be akin to thinking that the East India Company had an ethical purpose).

All art is created in a particular context, yet, there are some universal underpinnings of art. That’s why we watch Rahul Dravid in Test matches: he reminds us of the art that cricket is. As Neville Cardus put it: “There are many things about cricket, apart from the skill and the score. There is, first of all, the leisure to do something else. Cricket, like music, has its slow movements, especially when my native county of Lancashire is batting. I married the good companion who is my wife during a Lancashire innings.” In his inimitable style, Cardus goes onto describe how, when he returns to the ground after committing “the most responsible and irrevocable act in a mortal man’s life, Lancashire had increased their total by exactly seventeen”. But one does not expect Lalit Modi and company to understand Cardus.

However, the difference between Barton Fink and Dravid is that the latter was not completely unaware of what he was getting into. The signs were not encouraging even at the beginning: it’s not often you see Dravid in a red silk shirt (he wore one for the opening of IPL). opinion But Dravid could not have imagined what lay in store. The public castigation of his cricketing judgement by the team owner went beyond anything he has had to endure during his entire career, including his tenure as captain of the Indian cricket team. He dared to “walk” at the cusp of cricketing glory, with a score of 95 in his debut Test match at Lords. He threw away the second most important job in India, after a few barbs from the chief selector and stingy criticism from journalists. Here, he desperately clings to the tag of an “icon” for Bangalore Royal Challengers. Of course, being an icon doesn’t bring him any more respect than the Kingfisher calendar babes or the many horses in Mr. Mallya’s stables. Nevertheless, we have been subjected to reassurances from Dravid over the last few weeks: how reports of his quitting the Royal Challengers are completely baseless; how he “enjoyed the experience of playing in the IPL T20 matches”; how he hopes to fulfill the three-year contract, and shockingly, “had I been 21, I would have easily cracked this”. It is baffling what 30 pieces of silver can do to human beings. Maybe we can console ourselves, saying that worse things have happened.

There is a deathly silence about Dravid’s humiliation in the cricketing fraternity. Saurav Ganguly was evasive when asked about it. There are no words from the otherwise clamorous Sunil Gavaskar, Ravi Shastri and Harsha Bhogle. Why would they say anything when they are all part of the same gravy train? Bhogle sidesteps the main issue to shockingly credit Vijay Mallya with introducing accountability to Indian cricket (let us be fair and give credit to Mallya for introducing cheerleaders). Then he expresses his great desire: “that cricket be slowly corporatised so that first all limited-overs cricket and in course of time, all cricket is run by franchises.” Not because corporate houses are prefect, but because they ensure accountability. It’s sad that one of the better cricket analysts thinks that accountability can only be ensured if the feudalism of the BCCI is substituted with the capitalism of Vijay Mallya. And he chooses to ignore that it’s the BCCI’S feudal control that has underwritten IPL’s success by outlawing its contender, the Indian Cricket League. No free market that.

NOT A MURMUR of protest from the fans themselves. No outpouring of Kannada nationalist sentiment. The people who wrought havoc when the Kannada icon Rajkumar passed away, could not be roused. The people who stopped Rajnikanth’s films from being screened in Karnataka, for his utterances on the Kaveri issue, choose to look away. Or maybe, Dravid being a Marathi speaker makes him a less of a Kannada icon. Or maybe, the fans just did not care about Bangalore Royal Challengers and their captain. (How can the team build a regional identity and reach the unlettered masses with an anthem — a terrible potpourri of hip hop, hard rock and you name it — that exhorts supporters in an English-accented Kannada that can only be understood the singer himself?) Or maybe, more importantly, Dravid, being the unsung cricketer he is, hardly induces the sophomoric emotions that lesser cricketers do.

Ultimately, it is not about the shortness of the latest version of cricket, the pyjamas-turned-knickers variety, and the barbarities and exhilarations associated with anything orgasmic. After all, there is nothing that does not involve some skill. And everything changes and cricket too has to move on with the inexorable forces of time. But what is preposterous are the arguments that seek to sugarcoat this change with inanities like “people need entertainment” and “money is good for the game”. As if the idea of entertainment meant that we have to gape at women’s undergarments exactly when the ball crosses the boundary, or as if cricket was wallowing in a state of poverty.

Imagine: if we need to pay $1.5 million to a player to promote cricket, how much do we need to spend on women hockey players (or the millions of things in a poor nation that need more urgent redressal)? Recently, the entire national team was herded into one dirty dormitory! It is this skewedness that makes IPL obscene, not its abruptness. It is this skewedness that makes Rahul Dravid not speak his mind and endure his masters’ lack of wisdom. It is sad that the veteran of a many a battle did not have the courage of Ravi Bopara, a budding 23-year-old English cricketer who rejected an IPL contract worth a six-figure salary to concentrate on Test cricket. When it is time to write the epitaph on the glorious career of Rahul Dravid ‘The Wall’, we hope we do not have to resort to Marx’s evocative words about the juggernaut of capitalism: “All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”. •

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 24, Dated June 21, 2008

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