Cricket Game Fever Mounts In India

It is a virtually unknown sport in the United States, but cricket draws hundreds of millions of fans around the world. And tomorrow, they will tune in to watch India play Sri Lanka in the finale of the sport's biggest tournament, the Cricket World Cup. Editor and commentator Sandip Roy is in Calcutta, India, where cricket fever is running high. He tells host Michel Martin about the event and its impact on south Asians.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now, we want to tell you about a sporting event this weekend that is certain to be watched by millions - and it is not college basketball's Final Four.

(Soundbite of cricket game)

Unidentified Man #1: We are number one.

Unidentified Man #2: We're proud to be an Indian. India!

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

MARTIN: It is the cricket World Cup final. India is facing Sri Lanka. Just for the semifinal, an estimated billion people tuned in to see India defeat Pakistan. And there will be many Americans watching from movie theaters in Queens, New York; Artesia, California; and Dallas, Texas. Dallas alone is expecting 1,200 people for a Saturday live showing.

But the biggest parties will certainly be in Sri Lanka and in India, where the match will be played. We wanted to know what it's like to be surrounded by cricket madness. So we've called upon commentator Sandip Roy. He's a longtime contributor to NPR, and an editor with New American Media. He's with us now from the Indian city of Kolkata, where he says cricket fever has infected everybody. Sandip, thanks so much for joining us.

SANDIP ROY: You're welcome. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So just how bad is it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROY: Well, you know, we say March Madness in the United States. This March has been March hysteria here.

MARTIN: Well, give us an example. I mean - stories every day on the front pages?

ROY: In the run-up to the semifinal match against Pakistan and then the day after that, the front page of our local newspaper actually had no stories about anything else but cricket. The headline was "Game of the Century."

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROY: And it said: Relax, boys, it's just a match. And then after that, before the finals happened, the headline - India actually just released its census figures, and there's 1.21 billion Indians now. So that was the front-page story -finally knocked cricket off the front page. But the subhead to the census story was also that that's 1.21 billion hopes riding on the Indian cricket team.

MARTIN: So no pressure at all.

ROY: Well, you can imagine the pressure when you - like, imagine you're a cricketer, like Sachin Tendulkar, and you're in your hotel room in Mumbai. And you look across from your hotel window, and there is a giant billboard with your face on it, looking down on Mumbai. And the slogan under the billboard says: We've waited 28 years to hold the cup. Hope that wait ends now.

MARTIN: No pressure. No pressure at all. And I understand that you really -it's really not even wise to try to get any business done right now. Don't even think about getting your cable installed, or anything of that sort.

ROY: Absolutely not. My MacBook is actually giving me some trouble, and I finally tracked down the Apple Care person in Kolkata. And they said well, we're usually open half day on Saturday. But this Saturday, don't even bother coming in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, I'm thinking - I doubt that many people will - have seen cricket. Could you just try to explain it, briefly? And what's the appeal?

ROY: I'll give it my best shot. You know, people often describe it as baseball but with two batsmen. But the basic idea is there are two teams, 11 players in each team, and they take turns. One team bats; the other team tries to bowl them out. The batsman hits the ball all over the field. And while the other team members run around trying to catch the ball, the batsmen try to take runs. And when they're over and they've reached a certain number of runs, the other side tries to defeat them by reaching those - more than that number of runs.

And you know, cricket at one time was a five-day game. It was leisurely. They took tea breaks; they took umpteen drink breaks. And it was - people said it was more a game to be played than watched. People said it was like watching grass grow. But now, in this sort of modern world, it's become one-day games with limited number of (unintelligible). So there's a lot more fireworks happening than has been usual.

And with that, the viewership has gone - become astronomical. You know, in the semifinals, the cricket - the ads that ESPN sold for the semifinals went up to about $45,000 for 10-second ads.

MARTIN: But the matches still last - what, like hours, right?

ROY: The match now takes about seven or eight hours, and that's regarded as a very short and abbreviated form of the game. And there are probably a lot of purists and old-timers who lament that this is really the end of cricket -because they remember when the matches were for five days, at least.

MARTIN: So where will you be watching on Saturday? And I understand your mom is very devoted to the game as well.

ROY: Yes, my mom is quite fiercely devoted to the game, and she gets very superstitious about it. So I'll be watching it with family because I don't really want to venture out where it's going to be really insane.

MARTIN: So as we mentioned, India has been to the finals three times, but has not won the tournament since 1983. And Sri Lanka is the only team in the tournament that won a match without losing a single wicket. So there you go. But we're not predicting.

Sandip Roy is an editor with New America Media. He's a longtime contributor to NPR. He joined us from Kolkata, where he will be watching the cricket World Cup final on Saturday - so don't even bother to call him. Sandip, thank you so much for joining us.

ROY: Thank you, Michel.

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