SPORT

The dumbing down of a great culture

Sport, says the new, revised Oxford English Dictionary, is a pleasant pastime. A matter affording entertainment. Or, if you please, to play a sport is to frolic or gambol, an occupation of the nature of a pleasant diversion.

Generally, experienced sportswriters are not compelled, in their everyday scheme of things, to look up dictionary entries to familiarise themselves with the real meaning of sport. But there are times when a single event — or a series of happenings — is so shockingly outrageous that you have to urgently question yourself if you have the right grasp of the meaning of something that you have always taken for granted.

Take, for instance, the appallingly barbaric attitudes and the despicable behaviour of sections of so-called cricket fans in Jamshedpur, Nagpur and finally at Rajkot — where the third one day International between India and the West Indies was aborted midway through the delightfully explosive Indian chase.

To be sure, nobody — and not the least hardened sportswriters — here, or anywhere, would have been naive enough to have imagined that crowds at Indian cricket venues would begin to behave like choir boys.

In an era when cricket touches off the sort of base passions that politics and commercial cinema do in this country, it would be ridiculously out of place to mourn the loss of innocence and the idealised romance of old.

Then again, at such times, not only do the platitudinous cliches vis-a-vis sport, and cricket in particular, take a beating but also the incidents, in their raw representation, make us wonder if sport, in many cases, has lost track of its essential underlying values.

There is, of course, no attempt here to take a nostalgic ride down to the days when sport was sport in all its pristine purity. This, for the simple reason, it never really was that in reality.

``Sport is for people who can neither read nor think,'' said George Bernard Shaw, dismissing a marvellously invigorating area of human activity with the sort of contempt that was the trademark of his satirical writings.

Other great writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer, to name only two, would have not merely ignored that piece of Shawian wisdom but would have even thought him senile for saying what he did.

For, from time to time, several great literary figures _ not the least the French genius Albert Camus — have watched and written on sport and enjoyed the inspiration provided by the sporting arena and its dramas.

But, then, when you watch the sort of ugly incidents witnessed during the one-day matches against the West Indies, it is hard not to let the cynic in you take over and pronounce spot judgements on the values underpinning India's favourite sporting religion.

Whatever the intensity of emotions in the stands — however deep cricket might have fallen in the ongoing process of its dumbing down as a culture — the fact remains that the bottle throwing acts debase the very essence of a great sport.

If the epidemic struck in Jamshedpur, Nagpur and Rajkot, then it should be said that it cannot be taken for granted that the virus is confined to only those parts of the country.

There have been comments made with a holier-than-thou attitude in certain sections of the media that only the small towns are prone to such problems. But, we know that it has happened in the big metropolitan cities too — who can forget the botched World Cup match between India and Sri Lanka at Kolkata in 1996 — and we know too that the virus will strike sporadically as and when the situation permits.

So, what can now be done to minimise the effects of this life-threatening virus in Indian cricket and prevent its spread before it consumes a great game like a shark eating its breakfast — in one big gulp?

The Board of Control for Cricket in India, predictably, has ''condemned'' the incidents. Wonderful. Just what you'd expect them to do.

The International Cricket Council has sounded out a warning to the Indian board saying that it was seriously concerned about the incidents and would even consider cancelling the remaining matches if the BCCI did not rein in the crowd and prevent such violence as witnessed in the first three venues.

Wonderful again. One more chance for the ICC and BCCI to fight their never-ending proxy wars. One more chance for Mr. Jagmohan Dalmiya and Mr. Malcolm Speed to indulge in their ongoing game of one-up-manship.

Yet, where does all this leave the game? What relief would all this bring to the harassed visiting cricketers from the Caribbean or to the genuine fans who are interested only in watching a good, competitive game of cricket?

The point is, neither the ICC nor the BCCI has ever thought seriously about channelling some of the money generated in the game back in the direction of the very people who help popularise the sport and bring in revenue.

Could the organisers have prevented such incidents in modern stadiums with state-of-the-art security and surveillance systems in place? Probably, yes. But how much of the BCCI's income has gone towards modernising facilities at stadiums in the country and towards hiring private security agencies to keep vigil in the stands? Very little, to be sure.

It is all very well to take the game to the people, to the heartland, as they say. But, in an era when the game is more than a game, a lot has to be done to improve the basic infrastructure in such venues, a lot has to be done by way of serious planning and organisation — in terms of crowd control — before the Rajkots of India can be rewarded for the passions of its citizens.

For, in a way, the bottles were not directed at visiting players. They were directed at the system, a callous system that is sustained by greed and gets fat all the time no matter how deprived the man in the stands maybe.

``Like every other instrument man has invented, sport can be used for good and evil purposes. Used badly, it can encourage personal vanity, greedy desire for victory and even hatred for rivals, an intolerant esprit de corps and contempt for people who are beyond an arbitrary selected pale,'' wrote Aldous Huxley.

In India, in ways that are known — and some that will never be known — cricket has been "used badly'' at many different levels. And it is time now for the right thinking lovers of the game to cry halt to the shameful slide and try and reclaim a great culture that is under the threat of extinction.

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