Here’s what I’m concerned about: Over the previous two decades or so, audiences have fractured. Some people have called this trend the ‘Daily We;’ the idea that people don’t have to go to the same sources for their entertainment or news and instead retreat to whatever suits their personal preferences best. This in turn means that the traditional gatekeepers — newspapers, broadcast news — find their come-one-come-all moderation no longer in demand.
What does this have to do with cricket? Even in the 1990s, the cricket stars were very real and clear. They played for the Indian national cricket team, which meant they had the flag to carry, and they weren’t explicitly commercialized (as the Indian consumer market was still developing). There was still a sense that these athletes — Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, e.g. — could appeal to a mass audience, not just by their performances but by their all-round middle class appearance.
Now, however, we face a different landscape. The danger of the franchise system is that it puts the money question up front. There’s no myth to the athletes; the bargain we make with them becomes explicit: we get entertainment, they get lots of money. This isn’t to say that cricketers didn’t care about money in the 1990s or even before; I think the match-fixing scandal that brought down Cronje et al. did more damage than we realize. But there was a useful illusion in place that allowed me — and still does — to look at Dravid and see hard work, sincerity, intelligence, and not “really rich guy.” So: will cricketers’ standing survive the IPL onslaught, when their salaries are so publicly determined, and that too by a mechanism as crude as an auction? Will T20 players command allegiances across the spectrum? Will Test-only ones do? Can they claim to be national heroes, or merely symbols of a niche market or the prize possessions of the Indian consumer?
Which is why the Rahul Dravid retirement was so poignant. He hadn’t played an ODI in years, and he seemed like he belonged to a different time. His brief return (and exit) to the stage only made gap in eras more glaring: will the future generations ever produce as fitting a man as this one? Didn’t it seem like a man from a simpler time had just passed — or am I only indulging silly, naive nostalgia?