December 21, 2006, 10:01 AM
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Bangladeshi and Indian fans have snapped up most World Cup tickets!!
South Asia's cricket obsession
By Boria Majumdar
A recent news report in newspapers across India and Bangladesh drew the attention of cricket fans across the globe.
It quoted the World Cup cricket official Janelle Penny as saying that 90% of tickets for matches involving India and Bangladesh had been sold out much ahead of the championship in March.
Add to this the fact that in Australia, Indians, Bangladeshis and Sri Lankans have already booked the giant screen at Federation Square in downtown Melbourne to watch their teams play.
At a time when Indian cricket is underperforming, such euphoria is surprising.
A billion hopes
And for Bangladesh, which has no chance of moving up much in the championship, the craze is inexplicable unless attention is moved to some startling truths, which go beyond cricket in general and the World Cup in particular.
The craze isn't unnatural because cricket in South Asia has gone beyond being a national phenomenon to a more global or trans-national one.
This is because the fortunes of the Indian and other South Asian cricket teams encapsulate the story of post-colonial South Asia in microcosm - tapestries permanently being woven around the performance of 11 men who carry on their shoulders the demands of more than a billion people.
This realisation once again dawned on me while speaking at the University of Toronto recently.
I was amazed at what cricket implies to India and its diaspora. Words of caution that cricket helps provide an illusion of a national consciousness, inconceivable otherwise, were not entertained.
When asked what was likely to await coach Greg Chappell if India won the Cup, I was in two minds.
Before I could get myself to say anything reasonable, an over-enthusiastic cricket fan from the audience jumped up and suggested, "Chappell may even receive the Bharat Ratna [the highest Indian civilian honour]".
That a non-resident Indian in Canada who follows cricket on the Internet could pronounce such a radical view was revealing.
Cricket for South Asians across the world provides a space where all differences are overcome.
The assertion of an Indian or Bangladeshi identity globally, expression of cultural nationalism or feeling of emotional commonality are all rooted in cricket.
Interestingly, a poll conducted by a national daily in India a couple of years ago on the attitudes of the Indian youth found that more than 50% of the respondents, given a chance, would live in some other country. This figure might have been higher for Bangladesh given the continuing political and economic instability in the country.
Yet all of these expatriates would inevitably stay up nights in the US to watch their country play in England and participate in detailed analyses of their team's strengths and weaknesses in countless internet chat rooms.
The reaction of the global South Asian, a contradiction of sorts in that he wants to escape his country yet embrace its best-known passion, draws attention to two things.
First, cricket is no longer a mere national obsession.
Modern cricket is truly a trans-national phenomenon, which obsesses the cosmopolitan global South Asian who transcends the geographical boundaries of the nation.
This Indian or Bangladeshi is less national and more global, a world citizen capable of casting a critical eye on the tribulations confronting contemporary economic and political life.
Cricket, religion at home and a symbolic flexed muscle in the international arena, is thus South Asia's best-known brand name.
In recent times, Bollywood and cricket have emerged like the ubiquitous Indian curry that is fancied as an authentic flavour of India the world over.
For most people who otherwise have a very vague idea of the country, its current political situation or economic structures, the words cricket and Bollywood, like curry, is sure to at least generate an enthusiastic response of "Oh yes, I know that one, my best friend is crazy about cricket".
Today, it is the culture of Bollywood cinema and cricket that serve as the very distinctive and exotic essence which draws people who would otherwise be uninterested in 21st Century India, which has little to set itself apart from a host of other southern countries.
In other words, cricket, irrespective of the way India or Bangladesh is performing, helps post-colonial South Asia assert itself on the world stage.
In fact, South Asia and its super-strong diaspora have gradually begun to replace Western control with South Asian control in cricket.
One simple fact is enough to prove the point.
In the inaugural match of the 2004 Champions' Trophy at the Rose Bowl in Hampshire, England, not a single advertising billboard was from a local company. Every company advertised was from the sub-continent.
And South Asia, despite being a late and tardy entrant in the contest to win the rights to host the 2011 World Cup, was eventually a runaway winner.
Finally, World Cup ticket sales point to the class differentiation across South Asian diasporas of the world.
Had the championship been held in Europe and not in the Caribbean, the number of Bangladeshis making it to the tournament would be far less.
This is because sections of the Bangladeshi diaspora in the US are of a much higher income bracket compared to those in the UK.
While Indians would anyway dominate the event, such is the strength of Indian diasporas in the UK, US or even Australia, for Pakistanis and Bangladeshis the Caribbean offers an opportunity like none other.
It is as if their countries have suddenly shifted next door, making their presence in the World Cup more than a mere occasion to see some excellent cricket.
To round up with a final example of this obsession - the Press Trust of India news agency reported on 3 May from Port of Spain in the West Indies: "An Indian visitor to Jamaica happened to be the first applicant for 2007 Cricket World Cup tickets as official ticket centres were opened throughout the tournament's nine host venues.
"Mr Venugopal, who went on to Trinidad and Tobago, said: 'I want to see India play next year. I am definitely coming back even if that means I spend all my savings.'"
The author is a sports historian and author of Twenty-Two Yards to Freedom: A Social History of Indian Cricket. He is a research fellow at Latrobe University, Melbourne