Imagery has a place in our lives. On Thursday evening, one of the men paraded by the Delhi Police with his face covered in ignominy was an Indian Test cricketer and a double World cup winner. At about the same time, two captains were stepping out under the mountains in Dharamsala to toss ahead of a cricket match. It was a bewildering contrast. The Indian cricket follower was presented with a fait accompli. 'It appears some of what you were watching over the last few weeks was contrived', we were being told, 'be that as it may, here watch some more. That was just a few rotten apples and bad eggs, all is well'.
It had only been a few hours since the top police officer in Delhi had chillingly exposed three players from what had so far been the Indian Premier League's most admired team. The revelations left Indian cricket followers gasping. A senior Indian cricketer described the events to me a as 'kick in the guts'. The guilt or innocence of these individuals would have to wait for a legal process, but this was a savage moment. It begged for reflection. Instead at 7 pm, on cue the raucous prelude to the night's entertainment was upon us. The cheer-girls were just as energetic, the presenters just as excitable, the analysts just as bombastic. We were invited to an alternative universe - where reality was a diversion.
The host broadcaster felt no compulsion to acknowledge the dreadful truth of the day with the same viewers who were reeling under its impact. It felt no urge to convey the message that perhaps the scripted entertainment hadn't always ended once the cricket began. That perhaps some of what had gone on over the last few weeks on our TV screens was a lie. No board official felt the need to use the platform to assuage irate fans. Perhaps a recorded message from each of the nine captains promising to preserve the integrity of the tournament? Perhaps a word from team owners assuring greater vigilance against deviant elements? Perhaps members of the high-powered governing council apologising for their inability to rein in the crooks? Nah, that sounds boring, let's do some jhampik and some jhapak instead.
I shudder to think how the Rajasthan Royals would have coped had they been scheduled to play on the same evening. Rahul Dravid's crestfallen demeanour made it quite evident he was numb from the monstrosity of what had been inflicted on him and his team. All these days, he had been setting fields to bowlers who were duping him. When they slipped one down leg-stump with the fine-leg up or bowled a rank long hop it wasn't a mistake or an error of execution - it was treachery. Here he was, leading with class, batting with finesse, igniting passion and having so much fun doing it - for one last time as a professional cricketer. Suddenly his swansong had become a misery. As it turned out, even a day later the Royals appeared equally shell-shocked and were beaten handily.
I am convinced the IPL needed to take a temporary break from this relentless playing schedule once the arrests were made. The atmospherics are simply not conducive to playing cricket at the moment. Suspicion, anger and cynicism are the over-riding emotions. The BCCI's top brass needs to engage with law enforcement agencies to understand how deep-rooted this menace is, if other players and teams are under the scanner and what more could be public soon. Surely, no right-thinking person will believe this begins and ends with Sreesanth, Chandila and Chavan? Surely, it's only logical to assume more players have been compromised? Surely other passages of play in other games have been similarly scripted over the last few weeks? Instead of acknowledging that stark possibility, India's cricket bosses have stuck with the tired 'few rotten apples and bad eggs' argument and the standard 'we will punish the guilty' bravado.
Tweaking a schedule should have been simple enough for the world's most powerful bunch of cricket officials. Instead the tournament with all its cosmetic bells and whistles has been allowed to rumble merrily on. As the Royals prepared to play for the first time since those explosive revelations, the conversation on the build-up programme of the host broadcaster focused on twirling moustaches, the weight of travel bags and Akshay Kumar's endorsement of Sonakshi Sinha's gift to predict the result of most cricket matches she watches. It was insensitive and offensive. Did Sky Sports talk about the merits of Mohammad Amir's outswinger on the day he was exposed as spot-fixer? Must the official broadcaster of an event facing a serious credibility crisis not temper its message?
Despite periodic setbacks, our engagement with cricket as distant watchers has an inherent purity. Odd occurrences are the allure of our sport. Now every moment of innocent frailty is in danger of being labelled as pre-designed. Catches can be dropped, run-outs do happen, yorkers do turn into full-tosses and bowlers do sometimes over-step. In today's discourse though these scenarios will be considered contrived. The country's top newspaper wasn't squeamish to list 'unusual events' in the tournament so far. That those moments involved players against whom there isn't a shred of evidence of wrong-doing was no deterrent. But such is the environment that boundaries between truth and fiction have vanished.
Watching an IPL game now can be torturous and tragically comic at the same time. Is a batsman adjusting a leg-guard sending a signal to bookie? Was a bowling change that didn't come off done so on the direction of a puppeteer on the outside? If viewed through the prism of suspicion, cricket will lose its reason to exist. That danger won't go away by shoving more of the game down our throats, garnished with song, dance and glamour. Our cricket needs a cuddle and an embrace. It needs to catch a breath.
First Published: May 18, 2013, 8:25 AM IST