It is a hand-to-mouth kind of existence for the street vendors who sell jerseys, flags etc on the streets outside stadiums. Big matchdays — Indian cricket matches, or the Indian Premier League (IPL) — are the highlights of the trade.
What is his name?
The man… One remembers his sharp and discerning eyes clearly. He was using them as well as his street-savvy sixth sense to try and assess the mic-weidling person in front of him. One could figure he was in the middle of a good vs evil battle of sorts. Part of him wanted to be the ever-weary Indian, trying to figure out what or who I was (whether I was trouble), and part of him wanted to smile, joke, jest and be nice. And, he was indeed a nice fellow. In fact, if I am remembering it right, he was nicer to the long-haired colleague of mine with me that afternoon. They are both from Jharkhand. He likes men who sport long hair too. All Jharkhandis do, apparently. The state’s favourite son MS Dhoni also had long hair, he had emphasised.
So I rang the colleague riding shotgun with me on that assignment, a little over a year back. December of 2018 to be exact. “Sorry man, I don’t remember his name. I do remember he was painting Indian flags on the faces of the fans but I forgot his name.”
Well, no one would remember his name. We had double-teamed him outside the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar during the 2018 FIH Hockey World Cup. It was the day India played their last group game and we were on the streets around the stadium, trying to capture the mood. Our Jharkhand friend was busy and we were eating into his business hours. Yet, he took some time out to help his bhai from home, urging the vendors around to talk to us, tell the “Media wale” their story. He shied away from the camera but promised he will come and spend time with us the next matchday in which India featured. “I am an India specialist,” he said. We had laughed at his joke.
That meeting never happened. News deadlines, match reports and an analysis of how India lost it took precedence. He is still around, I am sure. He is the jersey vendor outside the main gate at Chepauk Stadium. He is the one who hands out caps with tricolours on them for the fans at the Kotla, the Wankhede or the umpteen Nehru Stadiums across India. He is the quintessential provider of colour to the stands of sporting events. He enables fan expression.
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And, nobody would remember his name — no journalist, no fan, no analyst or number cruncher who is busy these days trying to figure out the losses the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) would incur if the Indian Premier League (IPL) gets truncated or cancelled this season due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Remembering names was never my forte, though I would like to believe that life as a journalist has helped sharpen that skill. It failed me again but memories of the lives of the nameless men and women who adorn India's sports spectacles remain fresh with me to this day. Their stories are in stark contrast to their bright wares... Typical India blue dominates the jerseys they sell (the shade of the Men in Blue more than that of any other national side), and different utilitarian forms of the tricolour — from caps to scarves, and face painting, the business of the nameless Jharkhandi, which, requires “a bit of artistry you know” he had proudly mentioned.
They travel across the length and breadth of the country. Many we met in Bhubaneswar belonged to Kolkata or neighbouring Jharkhand. They would come into the city on India matchday and leave after the day’s action, boarding the late night train. They never stayed overnight in the city. The boarding cost would be too high. Going back to their hometowns would help them break even from their enterprise outside the stadium.
It is a hand-to-mouth kind of existence and big matchdays — Indian cricket matches, or the Indian Premier League (IPL) — are the highlights of the trade. Between matches, they end up doing odd jobs — a rickshaw puller, a watchman. One admitted he was a “jobless” mobile repairman on non match days.
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“I have been to matches in Mohali, Mumbai… Across the breadth of India. I travelled to Hyderabad and Chennai as well last IPL season. IPL is always good. IPL means continuous business. IPL also means we have to carry different stuff based on which teams are playing. That way, following an India cricket series is easier on our backs while travelling,” said one seller. His collection had more cricket shirts in blue than those of the Indian hockey team.
It was clear that the whole unorganised sector of vendors who teem around sporting venues across the country expect their best days to be centred around cricket and the IPL. This, after all, is India. Best paydays, by the way, mean a hearty sumptuous meal, or perhaps a treat or a toy for the kid back home. Or maybe his school fees. Nothing more.
The novel Coronavirus appears.
In the past three weeks, the BCCI has been deliberating in their prime Mumbai corporate office boardroom, trying to figure out the best possible way to make the IPL feasible this year. The T20 league means big bucks for all involved. And we are talking about revenue in the range north of Rs. 5,000 crore. In fact, that is the money BCCI would earn even before a ball is bowled in the IPL. Bulk of it comes from STAR, the official broadcaster who would have already paid the Indian cricket board this year’s fee of Rs.4500 core. Vivo, the Chinese mobile manufacturer and the title sponsor of the IPL, would also have paid the BCCI Rs. 440 crore as per its deal.
Now, what will happen if the league does not get staged? The BCCI, who owns the league, will more or less be marked safe. So will STAR and Vivo. The League, prime property and money-spinner of the BCCI, has always had insurance protection to cover for contingencies including cancellation due to war, or any other emergency (the fineprint detailing covers all possible scenarios). A dangerous viral infection will also be in the clauses, one is sure. After all, the successful business empire BCCI has built itself would not have happened without a team of corporate lawyers drawing up fine detail in all of its deals that would ensure maximum potential and minimal damage to the cricket establishment of the biggest nation in the sport.
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So, STAR would probably be compensated by its insurance company. In the contingency that the broadcaster’s deal with its insurance form does not cover for this particular emergency, BCCI’s would. So the Board would pay back the broadcaster using insurance money, and the 4,500 crore would go into its coffers. Of course, the Board is obliged to share profits with the franchise owners. The Ambanis, Shahrukhs, Wadias and the Zintas of Indian sport will walk away from the so-called crisis almost unscathed. At worst, they would take a hit in the profits, gate revenue included. Nothing more.
Whose loss will it be then if the IPL gets cancelled due to the Coronavirus crisis?
Wish I could name them out. Nameless as they are, they represent that cross section of the Indian population who invariably take massive hits, whose lives are always disrupted, whenever something major comes threatening the precariously balanced applecart called the Indian business ecosystem. And the business of sport is as ruthless as any other.
So, while the owners and stakeholders of Indian sport make all the hue and cry about losses they are likely to incur — shout and clang their plates or silver begging bowls from their high-rise balconies even — the ones whose lives are at stake remain silent, staring into a frightening scenario ahead.
Be sure of one thing, though. Once the dust settles, and the roar of the crowd returns to the stands, the colour for the matches would still be provided by someone nameless. Let us call him… Let us call him… Well the name I seek remains elusive and his story remains voiceless, as eerily silent as the stadiums at the moment, around which it revolves!
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