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Cricket Fever in South Asia.

Byline: Javed Ansari

Cricket has come to South Asia in a big way. No other sport has made its presence felt in the region with as much pomp and hype. The fact is that the sport may have been a 'gora' affair as a part of so many other British exports that found their way into those regions of the world where the Brits established colonies but long after the sun set on the British Empire, the game of cricket still continues to enthuse and bind people not only in the former British colonies but much far afield. Cricket is now played with as much enthusiasm in Canada as it is in Nepal, Afghanistan, Holland, the UAE and Ireland, to name a few. None of these were former British colonies.

The manner in which South Asia has taken to the game is rather interesting. There are ten Test cricket playing nations in the world. Of these, four belong to South Asia - India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Also, among the ten Test nations, only two are Muslim countries -and both belong to South Asia - Pakistan and Bangladesh. The cricket teams of Afghanistan and Nepal, countries located in South Asia, are also coming up fast. They may not have earned Test status yet but both have thriving cricket followings. A proof of this is that both were among the 8 qualifying nations that competed for a place in the Super 8 slot in the 2014 T20 World Cup. While these teams did not make it this time to the Super 8s but if they have the official nod and continuing mass passion to back them up, it will not be very long when they will be fit and ready to compete with the top cricket playing nations of the world.

It is a fact that somehow the masses of South Asia take to cricket with more eagerness than other games. They could have adopted field hockey or football with as much fervour because these games are relatively inexpensive to play, they do not take up too much spectator time and offer all that crowds are looking for in terms of thrills and highs both on the field and through TV broadcasts. But we all know where these games stand as far as the masses are concerned. It is for this reason that neither have advertisers put in too much money behind these sports and nor do media outlets create all that hype when hockey or football matches are played.

With cricket it is different. The best part is that while the five-day Test Match or even the One-Day 50 overs game weighs down on the cricket enthusiast's time, he is pretty much free to watch the 20 overs version which takes just three hours. It is a game full of adrenalin highs and the enthusiast can let his hair down watching the likes of Shahid Afridi, M.S. Dhoni, Kumar Sangakarra or Shakibul Hasan in full bloom. It is a pity that the common sports lover in South Asia has not been fed the same thrills where hockey, football or other sports are concerned. For example, football is South Asia does not drum up the same kind of crowd fever as it does in England, Italy or Brazil. India and Pakistan may have excelled in other sports at one time or the other but none have succeeded in capturing the fire and zest of the sport loving masses in the same way as cricket. Were cricket to be included as a game in the Summer Olympics, the top medal slots would perhaps go to countries from South Asia.

It is unfortunate that the common cricket follower in Pakistan has been deprived of watching the game in his own country ever since the terrorist attack on the Sri Lankan cricket team in Lahore in 2009. The Sri Lankans were in Pakistan as a replacement for the Indian team which had pulled out after the 2008 Mumbai attacks. In order to persuade the islanders to visit, the Pakistan government had offered them the same security arrangements as they would make for a visiting President. The series was the first Test tour of Pakistan since South Africa visited the country in October 2007. But it looked like the terrorists would have none of it - and they managed to succeed in their intentions, with international cricket staying away from Pakistan to this day.

It is a fact that the safety of touring cricket teams in Pakistan has long been an issue. In May 2002, New Zealand abandoned their Test series in Pakistan after a suicide bomb exploded outside their hotel in Karachi. It is good though that the Kiwis returned in the 2003 season to meet their commitments. Other teams have since then refused to tour Pakistan on safety grounds.

It is by default then that the UAE has developed its cricket grounds in Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi and these cities now serve as Pakistan's 'home' grounds for staging cricket series in various formats with other cricket playing nations. There has been some talk recently of cricket tours being arranged wherein India would play against Pakistan in Pakistan or in the UAE but this appears more like a pipedream of Najam Sethi, the sitting Chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board and may never even see the light of day.

However, where Pakistan has been on the back foot, so to speak, in holding 'home' cricket involving top teams, India has taken full advantage of the situation in the form of IPL - the Indian Premier League - and is already holding the 7th edition of the tournament this year. Designed on the lines of England's Football Premier League, the IPL is one cricket T20 event anywhere in the world that symbolizes in a very important way the spirit of modern-day cricket. Far from the laid back and sober game that cricket originally started out as, back in England, T20 today presents the same thrills and crowd involvement as a football match, say between Manchester United and Arsenal on a weekend afternoon or a fixture between Real Madrid and AC Milan.

Attracted by the lure of IPL, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka too have launched their own 'Leagues'. Not as successful as the Indian Premier League, both the BPL and the SCL have, nevertheless, succeeded in capturing the imagination of the masses and are turning out to be important events on the cricket calendar.

Because of its very 'instantness', the T20 format captures the exhilaration and excitement that the masses want from any sports event. This was more than evident from the T20 World Cup which was played in Bangladesh recently. The Test format does not offer any thrill whatsoever and neither does One Day in the same manner as T20 which creates in the cricket spectator the same hair-raising expectation that a close-fought football match would. Television broadcasts also make full use of the opportunity and, thanks to lots and lots of advertising sponsorship money, TV manages to drum up such immense public interest in the various competitions that cricket becomes almost a national fever across South Asia.

All the way from Afghanistan to Bangladesh and from Nepal to Sri Lanka, these countries have their respective national sports. In India and Pakistan, hockey is the national sport. Kabbadi is designated as the national sport in Bangladesh and volleyball is the national sport in Sri Lanka. Bukashi is treated as the national sport in Afghanistan. Only Nepal counts cricket as a national sport along with football. It is obvious that, despite the symbolic significance of other sports, it is only cricket which commands maximum popularity across South Asia - and steamrolls all other sports.

Cricket is a fever that sweeps the subcontinent with a fury that gathers speed with every passing day. Life comes to a standstill when a team from South Asia is playing. Is there an end to this addiction?

The writer is Editor of this magazine and a regular contributor on political subjects.
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Publication:South Asia
Geographic Code:9PAKI
Date:May 31, 2014
Words:1337
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