Cracking the Cricket Code

The Rotary Club of Bombay was honoured to welcome some of the nation’s most accomplished individuals to the meeting last week: Ms. Aparna Popat, nine-time national badminton champion, silver medalist at the 1996 World Junior Championships, two-time Olympian, and four-time medalist in three Commonwealth Games appearances; Dr. Kaustubh Radkar, who has participated in the Ironman Triathlon a stunning twenty times; Air Marshal Baladitya; And Mr. Vaman Apte, international squash player, captain for team Maharashtra in inter-state championships, and holder of several international and national titles. The discussion was moderated by Mr. Milind Wagle, who is a commentator for over thirty sports and for the Olympic, Asian, and Commonwealth Games.

Diving straight into the discussion, Wagle announced the topic for the afternoon, “Is our obsession with cricket hindering Olympic glory?” Baladitya narrated his observations. A decade ago, cricket was like any other game. It is the more recent administrators of cricket, Lalit Modi and N. Srinivasan, who brought cricket into the limelight. The way the game is marketed, with concepts like the IPL, has changed the dynamics of cricket. “It is heartening to see a change in the standards in games like badminton, archery, boxing, and shooting, however, they need to up their game. There is no reason why we shouldn’t be looking at anything less than thirty to forty Olympic medals,” said Baladitya.

Popat brought the discussion to a more fundamental question, seeking to describe the parameters for comparison between cricket and the so-called “other sports” (as they are usually categorised). “So, how would one define success in any sport? Is it the money the sport brings in? Medals? The participation to define popularity?” Popat asked.

Dr. Radkar then explained the structure of the BCCI, calling it a top-down system. This means the state systems follow the same structure that the BCCI does.Unfortunately, the same does not happen with the Olympic association. “The problem,” Dr. Radkar said, “is in the federations for games like hockey, boxing, swimming, and tennis. The Presidents and the Secretaries for these associations have remained the same for years, causing stagnancy in the management.”

Highlighting the problem at the root, Popat stated, “Supporting the athlete at the end is one thing, but we are not addressing the issues that we need to.” One of the core concerns is that the main body is The Ministry of Sports and Youth Affairs, under which there is SAI (Sports Authority of India) and IOA (Indian Olympic Association), followed by the National Sports Federations, and then the State Sports Federations. However, all of them are not on the same page, causing mismanagement. The lack of infrastructure is also a pressing dilemma – not just in Mumbai but across India. In the past ten years, eight cricket stadiums have been upgraded to international status and yet the “other sports” have not received the facilities required for international training. Popat also affirmed that the other sports administrations need leadership, professionalism, and consistency.

Wagle hence compared India’s fascination with cricket to America’s obsession with basketball and baseball. And yet, they have given the world a Michael Phelps. Radkar clarified that it is because swimming rose from the grassroots level through college championships, which is what sets it apart. Once a Michael Phelps is picked up, he is put Happy Birthday Rtn. Peter Born! into the US olympic system at the training centre in Colorado. Additionally, he has the luxury of bringing his private coach, which Indian athletes do not have (fortunately or unfortunately). “America has figured out a way to work around the obsession and bring forth champions,” he asserted.

The problem is definitely not the lack of talent, visibility, innovation, or even revenue, considering that 2016 saw non-cricketing athletes deliver eighty to eighty two percent higher wealth than before; it is simply a curious space to tap into the popular stream that cricket rides in.

Radkar then reiterated his earlier point, “Leadership like Lalit Modi is missing. This leadership must focus on rehab, nutrition, and mental fitness.” Having worked with the Swimming Federation in 2017, he told the Rotarians that the swimmers are only given an alarming four thousand calories a day – which are often packed with junk food. It pales in comparison to Phelps’ ten thousand calories a day.

In conclusion, it is clear that we should not be demonising cricket, because all that would mean is one less sport for India. For these “other sports,” it is ultimately about receiving funding in a way that leads to growth – not just for an individual sports person but for the sport as a whole.