The Bails Are Off – The Story Of How A Loyal Indian Cricket Fan Lost His Faith In The Game!

As a child growing up in rural Kerala, cricket defined a major chunk of my childhood. Many of my early memories are centred around this sport I so admired. I remember how me and my brother along with our neighbour’s kids would play cricket from morning till sundown without even feeling slightly tired. We’d endlessly talk about the game and its many great players. Arguing about who had the best cover drive, the best hooks, the best straight drive.

The four of us were later sent to boarding school in Ooty, where we were coached by Mr Beale, an Anglo Indian man, statuesque in appearance and conduct, fair and sincere, he defined for me the idea that cricket is the gentleman’s game. But soon enough, I realized my cricketing skills weren’t exactly top notch and I resorted to mostly watching this game I adored.

Like many Indian families, mine too were fanatics of the game. When Sachin played his stellar innings during the Sharjah match in 98 on his birthday, my whole family sat glued to the TV, cheering every single master stroke from the Little Master. While many would have switched off their television sets in anger, me and my brother sat glued to the television faithfully for 5 days in 2001 as we saw India becoming the first country to ever win a follow on.

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When we reached the finals of the world cup in 2003, my father invited the cousins and relatives, snacks were ordered in bulk and as every wicket fell and everyone’s hopes started to fade, I continued to root for the team defiantly and when the final wicket fell, I cried like a baby.

The first time my faith in the game was shaken was when the many allegations of match fixing surfaced in the year 2000. Our captain Azharuddin and the ever playful Jadeja (now we know why!) were found guilty of the same and were promptly banned from the game. The sheer idea that such a deviant act exists was first revealed to me and like a Christian hearing about the crusades for the first time, the roots of doubt had crept into my once blind adulation for the game.

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Once the initial shock wore down, I shook it off as a one time thing and went on with my religious viewing of the sport. I watched eagerly as Ganguly took over the reins. Suddenly, we were more defiant, more confident. We no longer cowered under the taunts of the Aussies, we fought back. He was a born leader and it yielded results. More wins and laurels were coming our way and India greeted it with sheer joy as we watched the ‘Bengal Tiger’ roar like a lion with his shirt off from the lofty heights of the Lords balcony.

Suddenly, cricket was everywhere and so were cricketers. Their faces were stamped on every hoarding in the street. They swooped in on our airwaves and asked us to buy everything from health drinks to shaving cream. Cricketers were now mentioned in the same breath as movie stars. But they were more relatable than the swanky, designer wearing celebs. Many of them came from humble backgrounds like the common man. Their joys and tears were real, their sweat and blood too.

We cried and celebrated with them, they were us and we resolved to stand by them through thick and thin. With a batting line up of Sachin, Sehwag, Dravid, Laxman and Ganguly under our belt, we were easily a force to be reckoned with. The fact that we weren’t coming up with able pace bowlers always haunted us but we never gave it much thought in the frenzy of the victories.

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Dada stepped down a few years later and after a few hits and misses, the youngster from Ranchi stepped up to the plate. While I detested his batting skills that looked almost Neanderthal, I understood we couldn’t have asked for a better replacement. Shrewd and calculative, he was decisive and level headed. He stood by his players and never gave up in crunch situations. A younger Indian team was herded and trained as our brilliant and irreplaceable veterans were fast approaching their retirement. A young team needed a young leader and he was easily the best man for the job.

Then in 2008 came the IPL, cricketing puritans were understandably upset with this format. Cricket had hit a whole other level of commercialisation and the format really didn’t inspire quality. Slogging became necessary, bowlers became mere pawns. The quality of the game was in danger.

I watched in horror as I saw the game become about everything but the game. Scantily clad cheerleaders who looked completely out of place in a cricket stadium gyrated in front of caged audiences. Cameras focused on infantile Bollywood superstars desperate to hog the limelight. Promo shows before the match were infested with actors selling movies and companies pushing products. It was all too much way too soon. Cricket had started to become nothing but a business.

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I was aggravated but justified it to myself saying it was bound to happen. As long as the ODI and Test matches continued, cricket would be fine. I even started watching the IPL, emotionally detached I watched it for the sheer entertainment of it all. It was tripe but it was entertaining tripe. I rationalised the whole thing thinking, this meant employment for more players, more scouts would discover more talent, it would all work out in the end.

I’d often cringe at how crass the whole affair was. Dolled up cheerleaders were now in the studio too, dancing to ugly Bollywood numbers as ageing old cricketers watched them hungrily, churning out rotten humour and baseless expertise on a format that really didn’t require much looking into. It was like watching a spoilt teenager being gifted an exorbitant inheritance.

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Then came the two great moments that every Indian cricket worshipper of my generation will never forget. When our most admired hero scored the highest individual score in ODI’s, we were crazy with joy. All speculations to his singular greatness where now but fodder for dust bins. He that embodied the spirit of cricket in our eyes, the one truly worthy of getting to 200 runs first, did it. After 40 years of waiting, it was well worth the wait.

It wasn’t just that he’d done it nor that it was against the formidable bowling attack of South Africa which included Dale Steyn, one of the best pace bowlers I’d seen. It was that he did it in true Sachin fashion, with glorious stroke play. He paced his innings like a craftsman, so much so that it was only when he reached 190 you realized that history was about to be made. Thankfully some things had remained the same.

Soon followed our greatest victory, the World Cup that had evaded us since 1984. Under the reins of our brave captain, we watched eagerly as the team slayed every opponent that came their way. That the cup was being held in our backyard gave us even more confidence and we didn’t once take it for granted. Me and my friends gathered together at every match at a local club and cheered each victory over brimming mugs of beer.

We watched the finals nervously, hardly saying a word, grunts and whoops littered that days vocabulary. Finally we jumped and whooped with madness as we watched our captain almost poetically stamp victory with a final six. I broke down in tears as I saw the young team carry the only ‘God’ all Indians worship around the stadium on their shoulders in his home ground. He deserved it before his final good bye and we were well on our way to becoming a team to be reckoned with for the next decade. All was well and it couldn’t have been better if it was scripted.

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Meanwhile the BCCI had acquired enormous powers in the cricketing world thanks to insurmountable cash flow that cricket was generating thanks to the IPL. Forbes had announced the IPL as the hottest sports league in the world. Using their new found power the BCCI bullied their way into trying to gain VETO power in the cricketing world. Australia, India and England would be the major players in this greedy, power hungry move.

The proposal stated that the position of Chairman of the ICC will rotate between BCCI, CA and ECB. Which would result in them having an autonomy over decision making. It didn’t help that our chairman was N. Srinivasan, the Sepp Blatter of cricket who ran the whole of BCCI like his personal property. Corruption was rampant on all levels and eventually the system would crumble. The BCCI was ruining cricket as we knew it.

Then came the final blow, the many cricketers and teams that were accused of match fixing in 2013. The saga went on for a few years, with the details emerging bit by bit and a defiant Srinivasan hanging on to his chair desperately like a stubborn toddler made everything more ugly.

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Soon enough Srinivasan was removed and today the last nail in the coffin was rammed in with the ban on Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals for two years. The matches we passionately watched were rigged and now doubt is everywhere. Every victory and defeat will be subject to speculation. A sport cannot survive without the trust of its fans and that trust has been lost.

As a fan who stood by cricket all his life, today I realize the truth I’ve avoided realising for so long. Indian cricket is dying. The worst part is that it is not from lack of funding or interest but from greed. A greed that clearly couldn’t be sufficed by the enormous wealth that could’ve been legitimately acquired. A greed that destroyed the very foundation of a sport. A greed that exploited the faith and loyalty of the fans. An immoral greed that has dug a grave for our greatest passion.

So instead of hanging around to throw the last hand full of dirt over the grave, I bid adieu to the sport that was an integral part of my life. A sport that taught me how to take defeat in stride, a sport that taught me that loyalty and courage were the biggest necessities for victory. Good bye cricket, the bails are off for good. Howzzat?

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