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India’s LBW

NEW DELHI – A casual reader of India’s newspapers for the last several weeks would be forgiven for wondering whether the country was suddenly bereft of political controversy, sex scandals, or official corruption – normally the standard headline fare here. The newspapers’ front pages have had space – under massive banner headlines – only for a topic normally reserved for the sports pages: cricket.

The cause is not some particularly exciting test match. Instead, the public has been outraged by lurid accusations concerning the Indian Premier League (IPL) – bribes for bad play, owners betting on games, and players seduced by starlets and call girls. The national captain was revealed to have a conflict of interest, and the son-in-law of Indian cricket’s most powerful official was implicated in an illegal gambling operation run by a sinister network of bookies.

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The police, whose phone taps led to a wave of arrests, have filed charges alleging involvement by well-known organized crime figures. They have even linked a player for India’s national team to the fugitive Dawood Ibrahim, widely suspected of being the architect of the 1993 Bombay bombings, who has been hiding in Pakistan.

The Indian media have not had it this good in a long time. After years of corruption scandals, political dramas, and protest marches, this was manna from heaven – a story combining cricket, the national obsession, with vice, the national weakness. India’s 300-plus television news channels have been no better than the print media, devoting almost all of their time to parsing every morsel of information leaked or announced by the police. A country that traditionally grinds to a halt during an exciting cricket match has now been ground into submission by its antithesis – the slow unraveling of illusions about a game that seizes Indians’ imagination like no other.

Five years ago, I wrote a column about the phenomenal appeal of the IPL and its transformation of cricket in a manner inspired by the televised razzle-dazzle of American sport. India not only livened up a game that was originally invented in staid and decorous Victorian England; it also brought the game into the twenty-first century, complete with rampant commercialization. Two-and-a-half minute “strategic timeouts” now interrupt the flow of the game, allowing advertisers to hawk their wares to hundreds of millions of enthralled viewers.

The sociologist Ashis Nandy once memorably wrote that “cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British.” Anyone watching the IPL, however, might be tempted to conclude that Twenty20 cricket, the “instant” form of the game, is actually an American game deliberately rediscovered by the Indians.

Other countries have followed suit, with tournaments modeled on the IPL springing up throughout the cricketing world. To keen observers, the IPL represented more than a sports league; it signaled nothing less than the emergence of a new India.

In the IPL’s glitz, glamour, and excess lay an antidote to the hidebound statist mentality that had produced economic stagnation in India in the past. Here was a venture that opened new vistas for businesses and fired the imaginations of young people to emulate the entrepreneurial energies shown by owners, promoters, players, and fans. The IPL suggested a new departure for a country inspired by the allure of its own success.

Understandably, the exposure of the IPL as a morass of deceit, discredited by “spot-fixing” episodes engineered by unscrupulous bookies and venal players, has deflated such heady notions. Cricket continues to hold many Indians in thrall, but many others have forsaken it in the wake of the IPL revelations. The paroxysm of media flagellation will soon abate, but the excitement with which the public followed the IPL will not return.

Weighty minds will probably see the IPL’s tawdry underside as emblematic of post-liberalization India’s crony capitalism and business short-termism. But it is always dangerous to find in sports large metaphors for national decline, so the temptation to view the IPL as symptomatic of everything that is wrong with today’s India must be resisted.

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Having initially been seduced by the idea that the IPL showcased the alluring face of a brave new entrepreneurial India, I am reluctant to embrace the opposite view instantly. But there is no doubt that the flaws being exposed daily in the media – cupidity on a colossal, almost suicidal scale, the quest for easy money, the turn to illegality, and the lack of ethical standards at the highest levels – reveal dangerous streaks in our national character.

The IPL can continue as sporting entertainment, good for a fun evening with the kids in front of the idiot box. But what it has revealed to Indians about themselves is far less amusing. The call for reform in cricket is really a call for reform in the way India goes about its business. The character flaws laid bare in the IPL must be curbed if India is ever to fulfill its obvious promise and take its place at the front of the world stage in the twenty-first century.