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The Big Mac of sports: Why we love IPL and its scandals

The media's giant cup of scandal runneth over. Each week brings with it a new revelation of egregious wrongdoing, inspiring a flood of blaring headlines, overheated rhetoric, and endless trivia about condoms, model headshots, the other 'Sakshi' blah blah.

Each day brings a new crop of op-eds with columnists straining to say something new, their reactions falling into roughly three categories: outraged, cynical, and counter-offensive. None of them, however, reflect the response of the average IPL fan, which can be summed up as 'entertained.' The spot-fixing row has all the makings of an excellent masala flick: underworld dons, beautiful women of dubious character, secret police operations, bundles of money, tantalising links to the high and mighty. The scandal has become pure spectacle — much like the IPL itself. Unlike 2G or Coalgate which inspire genuine anger, the spot-fixing saga is not viewed as a crime against the nation or its citizens. A fact that seems to have been lost on those opining upon it.

"Following the arrest of three Rajasthan Royals players for spot-fixing, the soul searching and hand-wringing has begun. Cricket has been here before. 'Can we ever trust the sport again?' is a familiar refrain," declares sports journalist Ed Hawkins in the Economic Times, launching into a tirade that variously describes the IPL scandal as exposing the "the rotten, ugly core of the most hated tournament in the world."

One of the more tired themes of the IPL coverage is that of 'betrayal' — of the sport, the nation, its citizens. Where the Shiv Sena's Saamna condemned the IPL as shamefully unpatriotic, the Supreme Court gravely warned, "The viewers may not be able to retain their quietus if BCCI doesn't act," adding "Judges also watch cricket."

They apparently don't watch IPL. No one who has ever attended a league game would ever mistake it for a serious sport. An IPL match is a spectacle of  face-painted, hollering crowds, scantily clad cheerleaders, deafening pop music, chattering emcees, and wild on-field acrobatics.  As Prayaag Akbar insightfully puts it, "Most of this nation, I think, sees this tournament for what it is: a giant carnival of capitalism, one that comes with a little cricket attached."

The average IPL fan right now is not losing sleep over Sreesanth, but busy making plans for the finals on Sunday. AFP

The average IPL fan right now is not losing sleep over Sreesanth, but busy making plans for the finals on Sunday. AFP

The "viewers" know this isn't cricket. We would be genuinely outraged if those rumours about rigging the World Cup victory turn out to be true. But the news of spot-fixing in the league confirms for most of us what we already suspected: The IPL is just one step away from WWF wrestling. There is, however, a distinct and important difference in the average cricket lover's mind between Test matches, one-days etc and the IPL. One is the sport, as in cricket, the other is just sport, i.e. fun.

This inconvenient truth, however, remains buried in the cycle of counter-recriminations in the press.

Hawkins' over-wrought piece of moral dudgeon — which characterises IPL corruption as peculiarly Indian — in turn spurred Indian commentators to take up cudgels on behalf of the IPL, India, and the brown-skinned people of the world. Writing in The Telegraph, Mukul Kesavan seethes in counter-outrage:

Instead of celebrating the league as the beating heart of cricketing livelihood and hailing the BCCI as the gruff but golden-hearted uncle who bankrolls the global game, you have jealous (foreign) cricket boards and their Test-loving lackeys in the (white-and-Western) press, trying to characterize Sreesanth’s misdemeanour as ‘systemic’. In this bilious narrative, the IPL is a sinful Oriental honeypot where corruption is inevitable. This isn’t reportage, this is racism.

Kesavan's piece strenuously defends everyone from Ravi Shastri to Navjot Siddhu to BCCI chief N Srinivasan, the last described as a "distinguished cricket administrator, successful businessman, paterfamilias and pillar of Chennai society." In this narrative — which reads more like farce than serious opinion — IPL is a shining exemplar of virtue, a bizarre perspective unlikely to be shared even by its most ardent fan.

Surveying this outrage-fest from a lofty height are the cynics, who prefer to interpret it as yet more evidence of Indian hypocrisy. On Manu Joseph's scattered list of revelations that the IPL scandal offers about modern Indian society is this: "India might be a deeply corrupt society, but the typical Indian has the indestructible expectation of high ethical standards from other Indians." In other words, we want others not to do as we do, but as we say. But Joseph offers little actual proof of popular outrage. It is, as he acknowledges, "politicians and journalists" who are hailing the Delhi Police Commissioner as a hero and not the Indian public. And if "mobs who burn effigies of cricketers are usually bettors who have lost a considerable amount of money," then there is no reason to assume the rest of India shares in their indignation.

The average IPL fan right now is not losing sleep over Sreesanth, but busy making plans for the finals on Sunday. That it may be rigged will do little to ruin the party. But this does not make us morally suspect or self-deluded.

"Folks who drink Diet Coke and think its healthy are the same folks who watch IPL and think its cricket," declared @karinasood in a tweet that went viral. Except everyone watching IPL is in fact biting into a big fat juicy McDonald's burger. The scandals are just the big pile of yummy fries on the side, be it spot-fixing or Zohal Hamid. It is the sporting equivalent of junk food: made entirely of artificial ingredients. And we're lovin' it.

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