Mihir Bose: Two cheers for Indian football

On the wall outside DYPatil stadium in what is navi Mumbai, the city that has been developed beyond the narrow confines of the south of the island where I grew up, there is a poster which reads: Come on India, let’s football.

The last time I was at the stadium was back in 2008 to see the final of the first Indian Premier League. Then it was packed to the brim and testified to the Indian love for cricket. Last week with the Indian cricket team in Australia I had come to see Athletico de Kolkata take on Mumbai City in the new Indian Super League and the contrast was evident.

The IPL, even back in its first season in 2008, was brimming with the best players in the world eager to harvest the riches on offer. Despite the fact that it had just started it was clear this was a revolutionary new cricket tournament which would have a dramatic impact not just on India but on world cricket. There were sceptics, largely in English cricket, who felt the quick fire format and the hurry with which the tournament had been organised meant it must fail. We now know how wrong they were and how cricket all over the world, but particularly English cricket, has had to come to terms with this new Indian tournament. English cricket, long the rulers of the game, has even had to adjust the start to its season, once so sacrosanct in the game.

Football’s Indian Super League may be modelled on the IPL but its impact is nothing like that and cannot be. For a start India cannot dictate how world football should be run as Indian cricket can. And the players on view are yesterday’s men hoping to get a last fat pay day before they hang up their boots. Certainly the football I saw in the match was poor, not much better than League Two in England. Nor was the stadium full. The authorities aware they would not get a capacity crowd had not even opened the upper tier. Even the stands that were open were not packed. But there were still about 30,000 present, almost half the capacity.

And what was interesting were the efforts that had been made by the organisers to attract crowds. There was a very interesting mix of supporters including mums and dads with little children and a whole array of school boys. They turned out to be children from a school a few miles away. They were all kitted out in Messi T-shirts. They did not appear to know much about the game. One kid I spoke to had come with his uncle. He was clearly not much aware of the Mumbai team he was supposed to support and he could not even tell me why he was wearing the Messi shirt. However his presence and that of his school mates showed the desire by this new League to reach out to the young.

The contrast a few days later with cricket was instructive. At the Wankehede in south Bombay where I had played as kid when it was a dirt track, they have now completely re-done the old cricket stadium. Rebuilt for the 2011 World Cup it saw India repay the investment by winning the cricket world cup. Yet when I turned up to see a Ranji trophy match, India’s premier domestic tournament, there were not more than a hundred people present. This is despite the fact that they could walk in free. And the match could not have been more compelling.

Jammu and Kashmir, who are the great minnows of Indian cricket, were poised to beat Bombay, 40 times champions of the Ranji trophy. J& K had never played this, the greatest ever Indian cricket team, and now on their first showing they were going to pull off one of Indian domestic cricket’s greatest upsets. The event had received almost as much media coverage as the Indian Super League yet it had excited no interest whatsoever in Bombay.

And this is where the Indian Super League has been provided a glorious opportunity by the mismanagement of the game by the Indian cricket board. What has happened to Indian cricket is something very strange indeed. India is the powerhouse of world cricket, providing 80% of world cricket’s income. The rest of the cricket world dances to India’s tune. Yet at the Board level cricket is a mess with the Indian Supreme Court trying to work out how it should be governed.

And as a sport it only flourishes at the highest level while the grass roots of the game are in a wretched state. What Indian spectators care for are events which provide real tamasha, fun, frolic, excitement all rolled into one, like the IPL or international cricket. It helps that in the one day form Indians do well and there is a lot of interest in such international matches, hardly any for Test cricket.

Even before this visit I was well aware Indian cricket had changed since my childhood and a few years ago a friend had joked, “Be careful do not arrive in a town where a Ranji match is going on you may be dragged in from the streets to watch it.” But that India’s premier domestic tournament had sunk to such a low level was a shock. The sad fact is that the richest cricket board in the world has criminally allowed cricket to be reduced to the level of a street corner side show. What matters to the marketers of the board is “eyeballs”, those who watch cricket on television, and as long as the money rolls in they do not care. The result is that both among spectators and, even worse, among the players there is an attitude of astonishing indifference to much of domestic cricket.

This is where football can capitalise and with the help of ISL stake a claim in India’s sporting calendar. As it happens this weekend sees the Premier League holding a huge jamboree in Bombay with Richard Scudamore, and some Premiership clubs, in attendance. Now this is no more than a marketing exercise for the English clubs, the second such international event they have organised. However the popularity of the Premier League has whetted Indian appetite for good high class football. What the ISL needs is to exploit this appetite. There is certainly no lack of desire with the ISL heavily backed by some of the richest and most high profile men and women of the country including leading cricketers like Indian cricket captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni and the great Sachin Tendulkar.

However while the ISl has made a good beginning there is no getting away from the fact that it has a long road to climb before it even begins to challenge cricket. An advertisement currently running on Indian television shows how difficult that road will be. The ad shows a boy returning home with his cricket bag on his shoulder. He is looking disconsolate and when his mother, who is wearing the traditional salwar khameez, asks what is wrong he says selection for the school team is next week. Yet his father is away so who will help him perfect the straight drive? The mother uses her mobile phone to google straight bat, she practises the shot and soon she is shown holding two bats. She offers one to her son and with the other she demonstrates how to play the straight drive.

That anyone can perfect a straight drive quite so quickly is the standard sort of fantasy admen like to indulge in and the ad, of course, is not meant to promote cricket but a mobile phone. But the fact is it uses cricket as a means to reach people. When an ad to promote a similar, or some other Indian product, shows an Indian woman in a sari demonstrate to her son how to take a free kick or a corner we will know that Indian football has arrived.

But that will take time and more than just a visit by Richard Scudamore to Bombay.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 29 books. The Spirit of the Game, published by Constable and Robinson, is now available in paperback. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose