I don’t think the Indian cricket team is quite used to this. They are so used to fan euphoria, so used to maddening crowds, so used to being mobbed that it must have been a big surprise for the boys in blue when they checked in to the picturesque Portmarnockgolf resort and had only one fan waiting to welcome them: me! Since there was zilch competition, no jostling, no pushing, no insanity of any kind, I had captain Virat Kohli, MS Dhoni, Shikhar Dhawan, Suresh Raina and other stalwarts of Indian cricket available solus and unhassled as I posed for pictures and selfies with them. By the late evening, a few Indian fans did turn up looking for the Indian players but there was very little heart in the quest.
For me, the inevitable question has been,why with a tough 81-days long England tour ahead, would the Indian team want to be in Ireland of all places? Why would India want to play the midgets of cricket and spend a week travelling to a country where filling up a 5000-seater stadium is a serious challenge? But there is obviously a lot of cricketing strategy at work. There are serious efforts afoot to build ‘Brand Cricket’ in geographies and markets that could have future potential. I could see and sense that the strategy is obviously working in good measure because the stadium at the Malahide Cricket Club, with a capacity of 11,500 was almost sold out earlier today in the first India-Ireland game. Fact of the matter also is that maybe 80 per cent, perhaps even 90 per cent of the stadium was full of South Asians, many of them born and brought up in Ireland, and perhaps those that have genetically inherited the game of cricket from their fathers.
The recent IPL opened our eyes to the genius of Rashid Khan from Afghanistan. That one single player put his country into the cumulative consciousness of all of India’s cricketing fans. Which is why the recent, and first ever, India–Afghanistan test match received much hype, despite it finally not being much of a contest. But that is not really the issue. What smart analysts would surely see is that the game of cricket now has one more nation in its fold. The entry of Bangladesh as a full-fledged cricketing nation is almost two decades old now. Ever since, no other country has really been inducted into the mainstream of the game. The problem that the ICC, the governing body of international cricket, is faced today with is that there are not even 12 countries available to play a World Cup.
Before Afghanistan and Ireland were inducted recently as full test playing countries, there were only South Africa, Zimbabwe, West Indies, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Australia, New Zealand and England … a total of just ten countries playing the game. Contrast that to 32 countries currently playing in the FIFA World Cup and with at least a 100 others pining to be in Russia for the football extravaganza.
While in India cricket is immensely popular and wildly profitable, in the rest of the world, cricket is in serious trouble. For England, Australia and New Zealand, it is no longer their primary sport. Football and rugby are far more popular. West Indies are as it is a loosely welded team from the Caribbean belt. For years now they have had serious trouble funding their team. The problem is perhaps not as pronounced in South Africa, where too rugby has a large following, but sponsorship money in SA too is tight. The South Asian countries Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have huge cricket fan base but they do not have quite the kind of monetary support to the game that India has. Basically, ‘Brand Cricket’ is in trouble.
The game of cricket basically came from England and has historically been played by countries that were part of the British Empire. But going forward, if the game of cricket has to survive globally, then it has to create a franchise in geographies that have strong South Asian presence. Which is why there was much controversy about taking the game to the US, Canada and other countries which have substantial cricket crazy audiences. There have also been talks of reaching out to countries like Mauritius, Fiji, Kenya, Uganda and others that may have large enough playing base to finally grow to be serious cricketing nations.
Ireland may not fully stand true to the above requirement but there are large enough crowds yearning for good quality cricket in this island nation, which even has an Indian origin Prime Minister. In the match today, one of the star Irish players was in fact India born Punjabi boy, Simi Singh from Mohali, near Chandigarh. Singh shifted to Ireland ten years ago when his dreams to play for his home state came to naught. He became a bona fide Irish citizen two years ago and now plays for his new home country as an all rounder. Ireland are getting serious about cricket. The first ever official test match was played in Dublin last month versus Pakistan, and was a near sellout.
So much for ‘Brand Cricket’. In the privileged position of being the only-and-lonely Indian cricket fan in this faraway outpost yesterday, I have had my share of fun. I met the swashbuckling ViratKohli up close. He really has swag. More importantly, he carries the swag well. I met Dhoni who is accompanied by wife Sakshi and daughter Ziva. Dhoni is extremely well mannered and polite. I was really impressed by the man. But what impressed me most is that the Indian contingent are all in such good shape. All muscle. And thankfully without any airs. They look so ordinary in real life. But the future of ‘Brand Cricket’ is firmly in their hands. As they make the special effort to visit the likes of Ireland, they are brand ambassadors for both the game of cricket, and of course India. More power to them all!
(Carol Goyal is a cricket enthusiast. She is an unabashed ViratKohli fan! But for her the game of cricket goes beyond the flurry of fours and sixes. It is serious business as well.)