This article first appeared in Forbes India magazine
By Aakash Chopra
Watch any TV channel for an hour, at most, and you’re sure to see at least a couple of suave cricketers in custom-made suits, hair styled, seasoned models with an attitude to match—nothing like their sweaty, muddy facades on the field—telling you why they prefer to ride a certain motorbike, drink a particular cola, brush their teeth with only that toothpaste, or use precisely that fairness cream.
Way back, appearing in adverts was believed to be a film star’s prerogative; a cricketer trespassing into that domain was a rarity. Vijay Hazare, Abid Ali, Farokh Engineer, Sunil Gavaskar all appeared in ads while they were playing, but Kapil Dev, post his World Cup-winning effort in 1983, brimming with rustic charm, saying ‘Palmolive da jawaab nahin!’ or holding out his mug to reveal the secret of his energy, was probably the first to make an impact on TV.
Cricket is now a strong metaphor for middle class aspirations and amusement, and riding on its success, sport star endorsements have come a long way. They seem to have a much better connect with the youth, or so we are told; after all, cinema is scripted and sport—mostly!—isn’t. Today’s cricketer doesn’t just play the IPL, represent the nation and earn millions in playing fees: He is also a youth icon and a pin-up boy.
Change in societal attitudes towards sports—and cricket in particular—has made marketers and brand managers sit up and take notice. Cricketers, too, have made most of the superstardom, via product endorsements, as an obvious sequel to the brand equity built playing for the country.
That though, is only a part of the story, glossed up and ready for prime time. How do they get there?
It starts with practising, after school, a couple of days in a week. As the passion grows, so do the hours. As competition increases, it becomes imperative to practise seven days a week, and for far more than a couple of hours a day. While their peers take tuitions to get better at studies, these lads bury themselves completely in cricket. Bunking classes to play matches and attend trials, not finishing homework, even missing exams becomes a norm. Their grades take a hit, but if the kid is halfway decent in cricket, parents ignore the decline.
Young cricketers go through a montage of complex experiences, and, en route, they cross the Rubicon, sometimes wilfully, often in sheer ignorance. Plan B never really exists. They train and groom for one dream: Donning India colours. For a few, very few, that dream does come true, for others, it’s an endless wait for Godot. If you’re any good, let me not even mention the pressure of unyielding media scrutiny, and the pain of disappointment, leading to bitterness, cynicism and a complete disenchantment with the game. Many talents have been lost in the yellowing leaves of cricket memoirs, erased from public memory.
And yet, with all its charming uncertainties, cricket continues to lure thousands of little kids who, with a twinkle in their eyes and hopes in their heart, scamper off each day to cricket academies.
It’s a huge gamble, but what isn’t? Perhaps that’s why playing the ‘game’ well has become more important than playing the ‘sport’.
Boy from the Boondocks
MS Dhoni was the quintessential small-town boy. He was expected to peter out even before he could exert a pull on the cricket-crazy crowds. Many of us thought he would give in to his inhibitions, insecurities, wither away with time. But MS has, quite unremorsefully, made us eat our words.
How has he been able to sail through it all? The metamorphosis from long-haired pinch-hitter to suave captain couldn’t have been more fascinating, particularly for those who have seen him from close quarters.
In 2004, when he arrived on the scene, he had his bold helicopter shot and a natural affinity for hitting the ball. I remember first meeting him—reticent and self-conscious back then—on an India A tour to Kenya and Zimbabwe. We shared a room for over a month, which gave me an opportunity to understand why he was an extraordinary player. He was extremely shy, to the extent that he wouldn’t even order room service himself. But the moment he donned cricket gear and crossed the boundary line, he transformed into a completely different person. On the pitch, he was the most adventurous guy I’d come across hitherto; he would go after the bowler regardless of the situation of the match. He always backed himself to pull off some of the most innovative and audacious shots. Like, playing a reverse sweep off a fast bowler in the crucial death overs!
He was special, right from the onset.
Over the years, I’ve come across many cricketers from Tier-2 and -3 cities, and, at the risk of sounding patronising, I’d put them in two categories: 1) Hyper-cautious of their surroundings (because of their little exposure), sceptical (they’ve been told not to trust big city people), preferring the road that’s travelled a thousand times (cricket is their only ticket to a better life), yet daring to dream big; and 2) Go-getters with very little concern for the risks involved in their pursuit, needing very little to survive back home, so likely to get satiated with a little success.
Dhoni mostly belonged to the second category, but with big ambitions, perceptive vision, and the rare ability to remain unflustered. He gambled without the slightest worry about the odds. In the one-and-a-half month that I spent with him, I realised the man badly wanted to make it big in international cricket, but if it went wrong, he was quite ready to pack his bags and go back to Ranchi to ride his bikes and play with his two dogs. This extraordinary mix made him different from everyone, even the ones from big cities and big dreams. Any youngster—not just sportspeople—can take this leaf out of Dhoni’s book: Dream, chase your dreams with all your might, but don’t get so obsessed that you lose sight of the reality.