Thursday, November 27, 2008

Passion for cricket in India can fight back against brutality played out in Mumbai

  1. Passion for cricket in India can fight back against brutality played out in Mumbai

    On the television in every beautifully appointed room of the Taj Palace Hotel in Mumbai a charming information film runs on a permanent loop.

    Passion for cricket in India can fight back against brutality played out in Mumbai
    Under attack: Mumbai, India's commercial heart, has been hit by terrorists Photo: AP

    In the film, a tail-coated Roshan Seth is cast as the spirit of India's most famous hotel, walking new guests through the rich history of this most evocative of hotels.

    Initially a pleasure-dome in the dying days of the Raj, it witnessed the building of the Gateway to India, erected on the waterfront opposite to greet the visiting George V in 1928.

    Since then it has played host to the key figures in independence, partition and received a stream of stellar guests from the Mountbattens to the Lennons. Last night's horrific events have added a new, unwelcome and bloody chapter.

    I came across the film in February, when fortunate enough to be staying at the Taj while covering the launch of the Indian Premier League, a sporting venture that seemed to encapsulate the dynamism and commercial fearlessness of the new India.

    It is not, perhaps, too great a leap to speculate that these are the very qualities that made the heart of India's most vibrant city a target for jihadists.

    The main event of the week was the player auction, in which the eight franchises in the new league competed for the services of some of the world's greatest players.

    It was an outlandish display of the new wealth being flexed by this sporting start-up, and was staged no more than a mile from the Taj at the Oberoi Hotel on Marine Drive. The other principle entirely appropriate that the player auction took place in the heart of Mumbai.

    Not only is it India's commercial heart, it is also the centre of its cricketing culture. To walk from the Taj to the Oberoi was to experience first hand the passion for cricket in India.

    First you cross the Oval Maidan, a mile-long strip of patchy grass in the heart of the city, on which scores of impromptu cricket matches take place apparently from dawn to dusk.

    Next you pass the Brabourne Stadium, historic home of the Cricket Club of India, a venue steeped in colonial ease that is due to host one of England's Test matches next month.

    When I visited, Andrew Flintoff was making a tentative return from injury at the ground for England Lions, and it was possible to watch him do so while sipping a cool drink beneath a beating fan in front of the pavilion.

    The Brabourne stages Tests rarely since the Board of Control for Cricket in India abandoned it in favour for the vast purpose-built bowl of the Wankahede Stadium, an 80,000-capacity arena whose floodlights are visible from the upper terrace of the pavilion.

    Now badly dilapidated and undergoing renovation, the Wankaheded symbolised the first era of Indian cricket's expansion. A mile to the south on Marine Drive the Oberoi played host to the birth of the second when I visited.

    An irresistible coalition of franchise owners, including entrepreneurs such as Veejay Mallya and Bollywod star Shriti Patel, and cricketing demi-gods descended on the hotel in a masterpiece of hype expertly choreographed by IPL commissioner Lalit Modi and IMG.

    While cricket boards in England and Australia looked on and muttered about the threat to the game's heritage, Indian administrators were getting on with creating the most exciting new competition that game has ever seen.

    It was irresistible to the domestic media, and my abiding memory of the event was witnessing first-hand the almost maniacal media interest in the game in India.

    Sourav Ganguly, the former national captain and a living icon in his home city, was one of the few players to attend the auction.

    When he made to leave he was followed by 17 camera crews and as many print journalists, and his slow passage across the lobby of the Oberoi was carried live on rolling news channels. Today some of those same journalists may be back on that same stretch of marble filming pools of blood.

    The future of a sporting venture is an irrelevance when weighed against the massive loss of life of the last 24 hours, but it is to be hoped that the brutality played out in the hotel lobbies does not stall cricket too long.

    In founding the IPL, and attracting the world's best players, Modi and his colleagues have underlined India's pre-eminence in a game that was brought to the sub-continent by colonisers who deluded themselves that it could be a tool of empire.

    From the IPL has sprung the Champions League tournament due to feature Middlesex that was today postponed.

    In the century since, the game is a powerful symbol of self-determination, economic confidence and it is the former colonials who dance to India's tune. Here's hoping the music can re-start soon.

    Passion for cricket in India can fight back against brutality ... - 1 hour ago
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