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Indian sport’s quiet revolution

In every city, town and village in most parts of the world, there is a Nobody — or two — who wants to become a Somebody in sports.

These are men, women and children who take to sport not merely to fill in their leisure hours; they are the ones who believe that given the right breaks at the right time, they can become champions – maybe even world-beaters with great wealth and fame.

But try to fit this perspective into the Indian context, and you run into a huge road-block. For until quite recently much of the fame and recognition was reserved for one sport alone — cricket.

As recently as in the late 1990s, in a cafe in Tokyo, a couple adjacent to our table turned to me and said, “Rajnikanth, Tendulkar.” Getting their pronunciation right was tough enough for the ears; putting it down on paper is almost impossible.

Come a long way

The reason I am bringing that incident up is that Indian sport has come a long, long way from the days when in a handful of cricket playing nations — mainly in the sub-continent — only our cricketers were recognised. And back at home, their celebrity, fame and money would turn the best Hollywood actors and Wall Street billionaires jealous. But the new millennium has somehow changed the way we consume sport.

Cricket — a game that enjoys No.1 status only in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — is not the only sport we care for. Those on the other extreme from cricket might even say that we are undergoing nothing short of a revolution in our sporting landscape. That might be a bit far-fetched.

But who would have ever thought that kabaddi — for long dismissed as a rough-and-tumble game which sent up clouds of dust in some rural areas of the country — would be adopted as one of their favourites by Bollywood superstars and enjoy unthinkable — a quarter of a century ago — print and television coverage.

And what is more, such adulation is reserved not only for kabaddi; almost all major sports have benefited from adopting the Indian Premier League model.

And it was heartening to see how many rewards and attention our Paralympic athletes got. At last they have been recognised for their skills and courage.

Says Randhir Singh, a former India player and a Dronacharya award-winning coach: “For kabaddi it helps that a majority of the Indian population lives in villages. And now the TV penetration is high. So it has caught on. For Pro-kabaddi, some innovation has helped too.’’

Another former India player and Arjuna awardee, B.C. Ramesh, says that “kabaddi has a history in India and the rules have been tweaked to make it more attractive.’’

But then, without any kind of rule-tweaking, some other sports are on the road to consistent popularity too. Badminton, for instance, has had a big following on TV and India has some of the best players in the business.

Says the former All England champion Pullela Gopi Chand: “The popularity of the leagues has definitely something to do with the kind of performances the players in their respective disciplines put up at the international level. The quality of the league will be appreciated if the standard of the contests are really good.

“When it comes to cricket, I think the overdose is one reason for the fans to look up to other sports. And, this is good for Indian sport as the leagues are popular because they are packaged really well for all — players, officials, media and sponsors. The biggest factor for the success of the leagues is the assured media coverage especially on TV which is what the sponsors and the players essentially look for.”

Triple Olympian N. Mukesh Kumar agrees with Gopi Chand about the role the media has played: “I believe the biggest reason for the success of leagues [other than cricket] is the way they are projected in the media.

“Look at how kabaddi has become so popular on TV because of the way the media has been covering [it] and this is possible only when the respective federations take all the necessary steps to market their sports in the right manner. The success of the leagues is also because they assure participation of big names in sport as huge money is involved. The popularity of the leagues of other sports is good for Indian sport itself for you see new talent emerging by virtue of rubbing their shoulders with the best in the business.’’

Badminton star K. Srikanth says that professionalism has paid off. “I think the professionalism in organising these leagues is the biggest reason for the success apart from the way the entire event is packaged for every segment. Look at kabaddi and badminton. The fact that fans are coming to the stadia to watch these sports is a huge thing which was unthinkable a few years ago.”

Ultimately, everything points to the fact that the Indian sports fans — and the sports media — have matured. The fans do make good use of the choices they have. They want variety. And quite a few people who were enslaved by cricket have ripped off their chains and are looking for the chance to watch anything that is packaged well for a sizeable television audience.

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