Is India slowly switching off its cricket channel?

For all the money being poured into the game, cricket no longer seems to hold people in thrall as it once did.

ByAnand Vardhan
Is India slowly switching off its cricket channel?
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“I have nightmares that it’s still going on,” quipped former English cricketer and commentator David Lloyd months after the 2007 ICC Cricket World Cup was over in the West Indies. Reports suggest that the recently concluded India- Sri Lanka series of three tests and five one-days games seems to have evoked a similar sense of ennui in a country where the game’s following has been quite clichédly described as religious. That, however, isn’t an isolated case of India’s dipping involvement with the game. 

Over last few years, it could be seen in the declining TV viewership of even international games featuring India. This is especially important as far from being world cricket followers, the game’s appeal for Indians always hinged on an India connection. What, however, is a more clinching indicator is the slow but definite retreat of the game from social conversations unless there is a context of a big ticket encounter- quite unlike the past when even inconsequential matches had people talking. And for a country which loves cricketing records enough to award the highest civilian award to a Mumbai man armed with them, the growing indifference now to the record-breaking feats can’t go unnoticed as a sign of the loosening of the grip the game had on nation’s cricketing attention.

The latest Broadcast Research Audience Council India (BARC) report on low viewership ratings for the matches played during India’s tour of Sri Lanka seems to be consolidating a trend observable over a considerable period of time. The trend shows that except top-billed games (like the jingoistically charged India-Pakistan final in Champions Trophy), the quiet whispers about plummeting viewership are now getting echoed in the cold reasoning of statistics. Though it’s unfair to compare a Badminton world championship final match with a bilateral tour, fact remains that what was unthinkable a decade ago actually happened- the women’s singles final between PV Sindhu and Japan’s Nozomi Okuhara at BWF World Championship eclipsed India’s cricketing encounters in Sri Lanka as a talking point across the country.

While alarm bells have been ringing for the past few years now, the statistical evidence for it has found its way to newspaper reports in the last four years regularly. In 2015, for instance, a report in The Economic Times said “television viewership for the game has dropped 40% to a weekly 61 gross rating points (GRPs) in 2014 from 105 in 2008.” It’s not that the shrinking viewership has been observed for international one-day and test encounters, even the marriage of cricket and carnival ambience, Indian Premier League has been witness to dwindling viewer’s interest. Looking back at last two editions of the tournament, newspaper reports show the receding following of the league. While DNA reported the plunging numbers in 2016 as the lowest for all seasons, Mint found that the slide continued in later stage of the 2017 season too. 

With all the money which is increasingly getting poured in Indian cricket and telecast rights, there has been some muddled up attempts to downplay the drop in viewership. Such attempts, seemingly, are motivated by the need to keep the sponsors’ spirits high and so, obvious hosts for damage control operations have been advertising trade portals like Ad Age India. A careful reading of their denial would suggest that even their reports don’t deny the slide beyond a point. That’s quite evident in this report on the portal which can’t avoid quoting Harish Thawani, chairman of Neo Sports, as he said: “Ratings for cricket continue to decline. While T20 is holding steady, ratings for ODIs and Test matches are falling alarmingly. Even domestic cricket is suffering.”

Beyond the cold logic of numbers, the decline in involvement is easily palpable in its reduced presence or even complete absence in social conversations. That’s quite a point of departure when even inconsequential matches, say the fourth game of a five match series in which India is leading 3-0 against Zimbabwe, used to keep the debates and comments going on in mohalla addas, hostel common rooms or the crowd gathered around a grocery store proving the add-on of television set relaying the game. Without being held hostage to nostalgia, it can be observed that such setting of cricket as a social experience is slowing fading away into margins of fleeting talk, if not oblivion. This shift, obviously, hasn’t gone unnoticed. While the questions about fading popularity of the game in India has popped up on Quora, it has also been discussed as part of the perceived decline in world cricket on discussion platforms offered by Reddit.

Either you go by the evidence of television viewership numbers (which can be dodgy too) or by your first hand observations, it would still be premature to write an obituary of the game in a country which still hasn’t replaced it with any other sporting obsession. That, however, doesn’t stop one from seeking possible explanations for the perceived decline. There are too many theories going around, a few more palpable than other.

First, the dip is attributed to the overkill. Despite there being more money in Indian cricket than at any point in its history and players making it to national team or even one of the IPL teams more financially secure, the constant bombardment of cricket all over the year has led to a point of diminishing returns. With the life of a match not lasting past two days and a series barely a week in public memory, the saturation has meant that every match gives the déjà vu feel of a formulaic movie with just minor adjustment of faces. The constant cycle of matches have deprived performances, match situations and results of a context to sink in, and the time frame to stick in public imagination. A scintillating hundred or a match winning five wicket haul is robbed of its aura if it’s repeated thrice a week. In trying to milk the cash cow, the Board for Control of Cricket in India might have overexposed the team in a way that in long run may dry up its money-laden mammaries.

Second, the distancing from the game has been explained in terms of the ageing of a generation which was the most important generation in making cricket a mass obsession in India-the children of 1980s who grew up as youth of 1990s. The all-India transmission of Doordarshan coincided with India’s triumph in World Cup- making cricket the default site for the search for national glory and crash courses in education of cricketing nuances followed. That generation, obviously, is now in its 40s- older than any player in the cricket team. Without any national narrative to associate itself with and other temporal responsibilities of profession and family making becoming prime claims on the time, the generation seems to have moved on to either nationalist baggage-free following of other global games or simply reworked its recreational patterns. 

Identifying himself as part of that generation, journalist and novelist Manu Joseph preceded his perceptive analysis with this simple assertion about the termination of a long relationship: “I had moved on, like many others of my generation who were once fierce lovers of the game, who were the very heart of the sport. Somewhere, somehow cricket had lost us. It was not disenchantment. It was nothing so emotional or powerful. At least that would have been honourable.”

Third, if cricket lost that generation to middle-aged men (and a few women) or simply ennui, why it doesn’t evoke the same frenzy in the generation that grew up in the age of globalisation, mobile phones and internet? It’s no way insignificant a fact that the age group which can be identified as the prime sports consuming (and hopefully, playing) generation in India today grew up in decades (90s and turn of the millennium). It was a period in which access to air waves exposed a new generation to live images of global sports. The process , however, was catalysed and consolidated only with the advent of mass access to the cyberspace-starting from mid 90s and peaking by the turn of a new century. 

It was a game-changer because the internet enabled youngsters to spawn online communities of people sharing their passion for games which were quite niche in India- basketball, boxing and European club football. It somehow let them know that they are not alone in the country following what seemed to them an esoteric passion. “ Online interactions made a whole new generation of Indians realise that they the not the only Indians with non-cricketing passions in sports”, says Jonathan Selvraj, a reporter with ESPN India, who has been covering and writing on boxing, wrestling, and basketball scene in India of late. Selvraj has written a series on NBA’s growing footprint in India. He also recounted how Karan Madhok, one of the writers for NBA India, once told him that growing up in Varanasi, he (Madhok) never thought that anyone was interested in the NBA except him. But, after having a community of NBA followers in India, he found that many from small towns like Varanasi too were as enthusiastic as him to wake up early in the morning to watch the NBA games. 

Such diversification may still be a limited and urban trend but it has definitely dented the monopolistic hold of cricket on the sporting attention of the young in India. So much so that, a segment of sports enthusiasts in post-liberalisation India is finding cricket ‘downmarket’ because of its limited reach beyond the Commonwealth countries. 

Other claimants to recreational culture of the young  have also multiplied in the age of information technology. Apart from social networking as a form of new age entertainment, even the technological versions of sports, e-sports, are making deep inroads into what the young in India are doing with their spare time.

In fact, even viewership of legacy sports like football and cricket have seen significant shift from television screens to online streaming. The online consumption might partially explain the plunging television viewership of cricket too, though at the cost of looking away from other factors making a dent into the following of the game in the country. 

The nostalgia-dripped arguments about lack of quality cricket and intense contests struggle to go beyond expressing a peripheral lament. Similarly, the ‘betting-mafia’ disillusionment isn’t exactly a sporting argument but a ploy to seek a moral pedestal to unfairly judge all sporting events with exceptionalism of a few aberrations. Anyway the last two are the weakest explanations for seeking distance from the game.

Like many things that came with a colonial past, cricket isn’t going to make any significant retreat from the landscape of country’s sporting imagination anytime soon. It, however, seems that a new generation which grew up with globalised air waves and information highways is ready to challenge Ashis Nandy’s assertion of cricket being an “Indian game, accidentally discovered by British”. If that’s so at all, there seems a lot many other games Indians now are trying to make their own, sometimes at the cost of cricket. That shouldn’t be bad news for a country in which rants against cricket’s hegemony usually had the tone of moral outrage of the underdog- other sports, by the way.

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