For most of the 20th century, the game to watch was football, if you could get a ticket. The game to hear was cricket, if you had a radio. India could have established a third path, hockey, but it fizzled out after an early spurt of glory for reasons that still escape academic attention and perhaps, therefore, popular comprehension.
Football, compared to cricket, had time on its side. It was a short story. Its brevity ensured pace. It was not vulnerable to weather, except for freak extremes like arctic cold or desert heat. It survived rain with the frisky insouciance of a bird on wing. Cricket was a Russian novel, endless, and prone to so much uncertainty that a sneeze shower could interrupt proceedings. A Test match, the only form of international cricket in the bad old days, lasted a week; five days of play broken by a day reserved for practice at the bar by the clubwallah cricketers, and sightseeing for the abstemious.
Cricket, then, was not a contest within the practical consideration of anyone with a job, even a government job with its more relaxed norms. It was certainly not recommended for anyone with inklings of upward mobility, and therefore dismissed as bizarre by Americans. Audiences were largely youth in the pre-employment stage of their lives, offering a chattering counterpoint to the post-employment generation bored in the upper caste enclosures.
Cricket buffs and football enthusiasts have been conventionally separated along class lines. Like most truisms, this was partially incorrect. Football also bypassed class by being fiercely tribal. In India, the sport wrapped itself around communities. The classic teams of Calcutta soccer, Mohun Bagan, East Bengal and Mohammedan Sporting were ethnically west Bengalis, east Bengalis and Muslims. Tribe co-opts class. Lawyers march astride cooks. Passions are fierce. For a day before any “big match” and for many hours after, pre- and post-mortems nourished the economy of tens of thousands of teashops in Bengal. In England, the flow of conversation and cash went to pubs.
Geography offered a parallel universe for loyalty, often with crossover sentiment. This did not reduce passion. When people thirst for a banner, any focal point will serve. The first serious multiplier in the mass base came with the transistor insurrection in the 1960s. The television revolution sealed the deal. Where there is a market, there will be marketing. Where there is advertising there will be money. Where there is money there will be growth and temptation. Where there is temptation, there will be those who cannot resist it.
Logic suggests that wealth should reduce greed, because it has fulfilled need and satisfied the craving for luxury. But human beings are not logical. Their behaviour can be counter-intuitive. The poor are generally more honest than the rich, because they learn to live within their means. The rich are constantly itching for a back-scratch with golden nails.
Both football and cricket became diseased by corruption the moment serious money entered their domain. Ancillary industries like betting bloated into mammoth operations; they were legal where they could be, and underhand where laws remained behind the truth curve. When so much money hands on minute variables of performance, demand will woo supply. Sportsmen have short professional lives, and most of them stare at nothing once their careers wither in a whimper. For any two heroes in a team, nine will be quickly forgotten and two dozen sitting on a bench will never be remembered at all.
Both football and cricket became diseased by corruption the moment serious money entered their domain. Ancillary industries like betting bloated into mammoth operations; they were legal where they could be, and underhand where laws remained behind the truth curve.
Both cricket and football have grappled with the cancer of corruption for decades. The casualty list is high and includes temporary heroes who once captained national sides in South Africa and India. Top teams in European football have been punished in verdicts of collective guilt. For each incident brought to judgement, we can safely assume ten that have escaped. The stench lingers because it goes to the top, into administration. The most powerful names in Indian cricket share the closet with bookies. An eat-and-feed system takes care of people down the line, including sections of the commentariat.
World football is writhing after the exposure of Sepp Blatter, head of FIFA for 17 years, during which Blatter reigned and cash ruled. It was a mutually beneficial partnership. Now that a World Cup event has become a passport to status, those vying for the privilege are ready to buy their way to success in the oligarchic democracy that controls football. No one is poorer after the bidding process, except of course for the game.
Blatter did not fall on his sword in humiliation. He was pushed from the precipice because too many nerves were on edge. Sport, once the root of sportsmanship, cannot survive if it is nothing more than crookmanship. If a sport loses credibility, it loses all meaning. Cricket has done much to check the ingenious dimensions of corruption. One hopes Blatter’s departure will induce institutional reform, rather than merely change monarchs. Only then will football and cricket remain premier sports of the 21st century.