Batting stalwart Rahul Dravid elaborates on what cricket means to Indians. Excerpts from his speech at the annual Bradman Oration in Canberra yesterday...
As players we are appreciative beneficiaries of the financial strength of Indian cricket, but we are more than just mascots of that economic power. The caricature often made of Indian cricket and its cricketers in the rest of the world is that we are pampered superstars. Overpaid, underworked, treated like a cross between royalty and rock stars.
Yes, the Indian team has an enormous, emotional following and we do need security when we get around the country as a group. It is also why we make it a point to always try and conduct ourselves with composure and dignity. On tour, I must point out, we don't attack fans or do drugs or get into drunken theatrics. And at home, despite what some of you may have heard, we don't live in mansions with swimming pools.
The news about the money may well overpower all else, but along with it, our cricket is full of stories the outside world does not see. Television rights generated around Indian cricket, are much talked about. Let me tell you what the television -- around those much sought-after rights -- has done to our game.
A sport that was largely played and patronised by princes and businessmen in traditional urban centres, cities like Bombay, Bangalore, Chennai, Baroda, Hyderabad, Delhi -- has begun to pull in cricketers from everywhere.
As the earnings from Indian cricket have grown in the past two decades, mainly through television, the BCCI has spread revenues to various pockets in the country and improved where we play. The field is now spread wider than it ever has been, the ground covered by Indian cricket, has shifted.
Far and wide
Twenty seven teams compete in our national championship, the Ranji Trophy. Last season Rajasthan, a state best known for its palaces, fortresses and tourism won the Ranji Trophy title for the first time in its history. The national one-day championship also had a first-time winner in the newly formed state of Jharkand, where our captain MS Dhoni comes from.
The growth and scale of cricket on our television was the engine of this population shift. Like Bradman was the boy from Bowral, a stream of Indian cricketers now come from what you could call India's outback. Zaheer Khan belongs to the Maharashtra heartland, from a town that didn't have even one proper turf wicket. He could have been an instrumentation engineer but was drawn to cricket through TV and modelled his bowling by practising in front of the mirror on his cupboard at home, and first bowled with a proper cricket ball at the age of 17.
Then came Munaf
One day out of nowhere, a boy from a village in Gujarat turned up as India's fastest bowler. After Munaf Patel made his debut for India, the road from the nearest railway station to his village had to be improved because journalists and TV crews from the cities kept landing up there.
We are delighted that Umesh Yadav didn't become a policeman like he was planning and turned to cricket instead. He is the first cricketer from the central Indian first-class team of Vidarbha to play Test cricket.
Virender Sehwag, it shouldn't surprise you, belongs to the wild west just outside Delhi. He had to be enrolled in a college which had a good cricket programme and travelled 84 kms every day by bus to get to practice and matches. Every player in this room wearing an India blazer has a story like this. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is the heart and soul of Indian cricket.
Playing for India completely changes our lives. The game has given us a chance to pay back our debt to all those who gave their time, energy and resources for us to be better cricketers: we can build new homes for our parents, get our siblings married off in style, give our families very comfortable lives.
The Indian cricket team is in fact, India itself, in microcosm. A sport that was played first by princes, then their subordinates, then the urban elite, is now a sport played by all of India. Cricket, as my two under-19 teammates proved, is India's most widely-spoken language. Even Indian cinema has its regional favourites; a movie star in the south may not be popular in the north. But a cricketer? Loved everywhere.
It is also a very tough environment to grow up in -- criticism can be severe, responses to victory and defeat extreme. There are invasions of privacy and stones have been thrown at our homes after some defeats.
What lifts us...
It takes time getting used to, extreme reactions can fill us with anger. But every cricketer realises at some stage of his career, that the Indian cricket fan is best understood by remembering the sentiment of the majority, not the actions of a minority.
One of the things that has always lifted me as a player is looking out of the team bus when we travelled somewhere in India. When people see the Indian bus going by, see some of us sitting with our curtains drawn back, it always amazes me how much they light up. There is an instantaneous smile, directed not just at the player they see -- but at the game we play that, for whatever reason, means something to people's lives. Win or lose, the man on the street will smile and give you a wave.
After India won the World Cup this year, our players were not congratulated as much as they were thanked by people they ran into. "You have given us everything," they were told, "all of us have won." Cricket in India now stands not just for sport, but possibility, hope, opportunities.
On our way to the Indian team, we know of so many of our teammates, some of whom may have been equally or more talented than those sitting here, who missed out. When I started out, for a young Indian, cricket was the ultimate gamble -- all or nothing, no safety nets. No second chances for those without an education or a college degree or second careers. Indian cricket's wealth now means a wider pool of well paid cricketers even at first-class level.
For those of us who make it to the Indian team, cricket is not merely our livelihood, it is a gift we have been given. Without the game, we would just be average people leading average lives. As Indian cricketers, our sport has given us the chance do something worthwhile with our lives. How many people could say that?
Let us not be so satisfied with the present, with deals and finances in hand that we get blindsided. Everything that has given cricket its power and influence in the world of sports has started from that fan in the stadium. They deserve our respect and let us not take them for granted. Disrespecting fans is disrespecting the game. When we play, we need to think of them.
The importance of Test cricket
Test cricket deserves to be protected, it is what the world's best know they will be judged by. Where I come from, nation versus nation is what got people interested in cricket in the first place. When I hear the news that a country is playing without some of its best players, I always wonder, what do their fans think? People may not be able to turn up to watch Test cricket but everyone follows the scores.
I don't think day-night Tests or a Test championship should be dismissed. In March of last year I played a day-night first-class game in Abu Dhabi for the MCC and my experience from that was that day-night Tests is an idea seriously worth exploring. There may be some challenges in places where there is dew but the visibility and durability of the pink cricket ball was not an issue.
We have Test cricket like we have always had, nation versus nation, but carefully scheduled to attract crowds and planned fairly so that every Test playing country gets its fair share of Tests. And playing for a championship or a cup, not just a ranking.