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Monday, December 22, 2003
NONE IN A BILLION

By Zev Borrow

No one is sure how many people live in India. Mention you're headed that way and you'll hear something like, "Wow, India. There's like a billion people there, right?" You nod; sounds right. The Indians you meet once you're there aren't any more exact. A guy at the crazy soccer match in Calcutta says, "800 million, max"; another guy at the camel races in Rajasthan says, "a billion flat, give or take a few hundred million." Sounds reasonable, until you consider that there aren't very many places on the planet where you can give or take a few hundred million people. The United States, give or take a few hundred million, is either empty or twice as crowded.

But that's India, a place where numbers, and most everything else, can make your head spin. From 20 million or so temples to 3 million or so Hindu gods; from hundreds of millions of desperate poor people to hundreds of thousands of free-ranging cows; whatever you count, big numbers abound. But there are much smaller numbers, more precise and no less bewildering, especially to sports fans. Olympic medals won by India: 16. Medals won at the 2000 Games: 1 (bronze, women's weightlifting). And here's a round number for you: Indian athletes most Americans could name on Jeopardy! if the category were Indian Athletes You've Heard of Even Once: 0.

A billion people, and one bronze medal? A billion people, and no Indian center in the NBA? Clearly, if George Steinbrenner owned India, the pitching coach would have been fired decades ago, not to mention several prime ministers. Which begs a question: does the second-most populous nation on earth play anything well? Because if Asia is NEXT, you have to wonder what's next for India.

It takes 21 hours to fly from New York to New Delhi, a trip sure to leave you hallucinating. Still, on my first day in-country in late October, I think I've found my way to the offices of Sharda Ugra, a sports writer for the newsweekly India Today. Ugra, a longtime critic of Indian sports, shakes her head at my presence: "All the way from America to find out why we're so inept?" She cites a study showing that the best-performing country at the 2000 Sydney Olympics was Barbados, which won a lone bronze (Obadele Thompson, men's 100-meter sprint) but has only 2.7 million people. Worst performer? India. Ugra ticks off a few reasons that account for much of India's sports futility: poor facilities, weak coaching, government mismanagement. "We are a country that loves to watch high-quality sport," she says, "but our system does not produce world-class athletes." She mentions China. "There is no effort to harness sporting talent here. The Chinese system has a dark side, but some of it makes sense."

You don't often hear people speak wistfully about the Chinese system. Then again, you don't often hear people lamenting parents who put too much emphasis on education and not enough on sports. Unless you're in India.

"Most parents here view sports as a waste of time," says Vece Paes, father of Leander Paes. Leander, who won the 1999 men's doubles titles at the French Open and Wimbledon—with countryman Mahesh Bhupathi—can stake a legitimate claim to being India's most famous jock. (Yeah, exactly.) "Parents don't see sports as a way to earn a living," Vece says. "They say, 'Play sports and you'll wind up begging on the street.'" With more than 25% of Indians living below the UN poverty line, you see their point. India may be the world's biggest democracy, but for 800 million of its people (give or take), the daily quest to survive is truly the only struggle that matters. As for the 200 million-strong middle class: "We are not a sporting nation," says Paes, a former Olympic field hockey player. "We don't go out on weekends to play or ski. We're brought up to be cerebral, not with an aggressive manner. That way is seen as immodest, un-Indian."

Curious to see for myself, I visit an akhara, or wrestling training school, in Old Delhi the next morning. The akhara is a crumbling stone building with cracked wooden shutters for windows. Inside, rusted ceiling fans hang motionless over thin mats. Twenty young men come here six mornings a week to be trained by Chandgi Ram, a gold medalist at the 1970 Asian Games. But today, at least, things are relaxed. Pairs of wrestlers practice on the mats, while just as many others sit and talk. Wrestling in India goes back 5,000 years, but Indian wrestlers have won only one Olympic medal, a 1952 bronze. This is partly because Indian wrestling traditionally has meant sandpit wrestling, which is exactly what it sounds like. The akhara has a 15' X 25' pit filled with sand, which sits untouched because India's wrestling federation has banned sandpit training. "It is too hard to train in sand and compete on mats," Ram says. But Parvesh Tyagi, a 20-year-old wrestler, says sandpit wrestling survives on Sunday afternoons at a pit in Old Delhi: "We wrestle for money for big crowds." Then he mentions American wrestling. "I like The Rock! Do you know him?"

I don't have the heart to tell him The Rock isn't really a wrestler, or that we're no longer friends. I also don't have the heart to tell him that I doubt India will be a wrestling power anytime soon.

That same day, I attend a high school hoops tournament. Hosted by the prestigious St. Michael's School, it features 24 boys and girls teams. Of all "American" sports, hoops has the strongest foothold in India, although the country lags far behind the rest of Asia in terms of high-level competition. (Note to Knicks: this means no drafting an Indian center next year!) Still, hoops is played by college, high school and club teams, and it's popular with the growing number of teens who have access to the NBA on satellite TV. A few kids at the tourney wear NBA jerseys. (Kobe's, mostly; many of the kids know nothing of his legal troubles.) St. Michael's has two outdoor courts, and between games there's lots of H-O-R-S-E and kids practicing the all-important two-handed half-court set shot. "We love the NBA," says Aruj Ahuju, captain of St. Michael's senior boys team. "I like the Kings and T-Wolves. Kevin Garnett is amazing in the post." The scene is more Indiana than India, which tells me that India could very well develop into a hoops powerhouse. But not for a while. I ask Ahuju if he thinks India might produce an NBA player.

"Oh, no," he says. "We're not very good."


Next stop: Bombay, where I go to watch a cricket match between India and Australia. Any talk about sports in India begins and ends (and likely begins again) with cricket, which is followed with a religious fervor that crosses social, economic and geographic boundaries. In fact, cricket might be India's most unifying institution, producing the country's first sports megastar: 5'4'' batsman Sachin Tendulkar, known as Sachin, who went pro at 16. Now 30, Sachin has become—there's no better way to put it—the Michael Jordan of India. He even has his own restaurant, Tendulkar's, which features a gift shop, his "mother's special Bombay duck" (a fish dish, strangely) and a wall display titled, "What's Sachin Been up to Lately?"

Naturally, I want to meet him. Naturally, I'm told to go through his posse. Okay, that's unfair. It's not like Harsha Bhogle's job is to carry Sachin's bling. Bhogle is a TV commentator and pal of Sachin's. We meet at the Taj Mahal Hotel the night before the IndiaAustralia match. "Cricket has exploded here commercially," Bhogle says. "But it's always been a huge spectator sport, and a sport people play. Right now around Bombay, there are hundreds of games being played by old men in cricket whites and street children with a rubber ball and a plank." Originally three-to-five-day affairs, cricket matches today are often reduced to one-day competitions, spurred by TV and short attention spans. "Cricket allows time for discussion, judgments, even a decent meal," Bhogle says. "So those who can't play the game can talk about it. Like your baseball!"

Oddly, it is only international cricket that's considered important by most Indians. A domestic league draws far less attention. "There's a theory," Bhogle says, "that of all the sportsmen in the world, no one has more pressure than Sachin, who carries the ambitions of one billion people."

Can Bhogle arrange for me to meet him?

"Oh, no," he says, "probably not."

The next day, Bombay's Wankhede Stadium is jammed with 40,000 fans. The match begins at 2:30 p.m. and ends after 11. In a one-day match, each team bats one time, and each team's at-bat is called an inning. Each inning takes around four hours, a pitcher's nightmare if there ever was one. Australia bats first and pounds the Indian squad. But the crowd remains jolly, breaking into several rounds of the wave and even cheering politely at some of Australia's more skilled at-bats. No beer is sold, but lots of deliciously greasy vegetable samosas are hawked. The Australians finish with 286 runs, while India (led by Sachin) manages just 209.

Sadly, I don't learn how to play cricket during this time. But I do learn that Australia has the world's top-ranked team, while India's team ranks sixth. I also learn that even one-day cricket matches are too long, which is the main reason why I'm pretty certain this sport isn't India's ticket to SportsCenter. Still, the day's best moment comes after a 45-minute dinner break, when I hear what sounds like a familiar chant. Could it be? Are fans really yelling what I think they are? "Boston sucks! Boston sucks!" I ask a boy next to me if he knows what's being said. He grins and says, "Aussies suck! Aussies suck!" We laugh and join in, with me chanting "Boston sucks!" all the while.


The next morning I fly to Calcutta to experience India's biggest domestic sports rivalry, a soccer match between two professional clubs, Mohun Bagan Club and East Bengal AC, in Salt Lake Stadium. In Calcutta, England's first colonial capital in India, cricket and soccer are equal passions. Mohun Bagan, whose traditional supporters are the region's wealthy, and East Bengal, whose fans are working class, have more than 80 years of history, and their rivalry runs deep and angry—think Yankees-Red Sox, but add cultural and economic hostilities.

The match begins at 3 p.m. and the sky is heavy and gray. Fans clog all the roads to the hulking stadium, waving flags and lighting fireworks that sound disturbingly like small-arms fire. Some 125,000 people show—a ticket costs about $2 U.S.—with supporters of each club seated on opposite sides of the concrete oval. East Bengal is favored, as it owns the services of Baichung Bhutia, India's best native player. Two of Mohun Bagan's best (one African, one Brazilian) are injured. More Bengal fans have turned up, I'm told, because conventional wisdom says Mohun Bagan doesn't stand a chance. "Why waste money to see your team lose?" a Mohun Bagan fan says. When I ask why he's there, he says, "I'm a fool." I suggest he move to Boston.

Mohun Bagan scores first, with a goal off an East Bengal defensive miscue early in the first half. But East Bengal ties the score in the second half, then narrowly misses several shots to go ahead. Things are tense, and after East Bengal wins (on two rounds of penalty kicks), I fear the worst. I notice that most of the club's supporters are rolling newspapers into long cones, setting them on fire and raising them above their heads. Night is falling, and this sight, coupled with the smell of smoke, fireworks and the potpourri of odors that are constant in India, causes me to flash back to Apocalypse Now. Then I am made to understand that East Bengal's insignia is a hand holding a torch. Lighting torches as night falls and fireworks deafen is a victory ritual. And then I'm like, Oh, cool.

In fact, I realize I might have stumbled onto India's sports NEXT. Although the national team is ranked just 128th in the world, soccer here has the look of a growth industry: history, passion, low-cost infrastructure (feet + ball = game). Plus, Salt Lake Stadium is already the largest soccer venue in Asia, and soccer is closing on cricket as the country's most popular sport.

That night I go to what I'm told is India's most popular sports bar—Winning Streak—located in the basement of a fancy old Calcutta hotel. I watch cricket and rugby with a handful of Calcuttans just off work. The Winning Streak looks like any sports bar, except most of the memorabilia is from cricket, golf, Formula One and field hockey. That last sport is wildly popular, especially when India plays Pakistan, but golf may be the other NEXT game here. There's a strong domestic tour, and Indian player Arjun Atwal has won in Europe. Calcutta, as it happens, is home to the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, yet another legacy of British colonial rule and the world's oldest course outside Scotland.

I check it out the next day. The groundskeeper, Lt. Col. Raghbir Singh Saini, is good enough to invite me for a spin around the course in his golf cart, one of two at the club. He speaks halting English, and I speak considerably less Hindi, but I believe Saini learned to care for golf courses in the army and perfected his skills on a two-week trip to Arizona, during which he met a groundskeeper and, I think, Colin Montgomerie. I see that Saini has quite the job in front of him. Several greens and fairways are being torn up and replanted by hand—that is, by the hands of hundreds of workers. Naturally, I ask Saini the only question every groundskeeper must answer: have you seen any gophers? I am happy to report he has not.


Pushkar, a town of 14,000 in the high desert of Rajasthan, is my last stop. Every year, around the November full moon, Pushkar hosts a religious pilgrimage and camel festival that draws nearly 300,000 people. Over five days, a river of pilgrims flows toward Pushkar Lake, considered by Hindus to be holy. Chanting fills the air as pilgrims bathe naked in the holy water, with monkeys and cows in tow. All the while, camel and cattle traders haggle near the sand dunes that lap at the town's fringes. Men and women in colorful saris and turbans, adorned in all manner of silver jewelry and henna tattoos, create a bazaar that offers a seemingly endless array of wares. Who knew there were so many different kinds of camel harnesses?

Each morning, in a patch of dirt near the dunes, there are energetic demonstrations of local dances and traditional Indian sports. The latter includes kabaddi, a game combining tag, wrestling and rugby that dates back 4,000 years. Another game, the name of which I can't determine, features 12 boys with hands tied behind their backs. They race 20 yards before jumping to bite at an orange dangling from a rope held by older boys, who tend to move the fruit at the last second. Watching, I can't help but think: 1) this is no way to raise a nation of champions; and 2) the orange-biting seems in bad taste, what with all the starving people everywhere.

In any case, I'm advised to stick around for the horse and camel races on the last day, which are said to be a festival highlight. Here, I think, I may find some missing piece of the Indian sports puzzle, or at least learn how fast a camel can run.

Unfortunately, the day is a little disappointing. The horse race is chaotic, as many of the nags cut across the hastily laid-out track. The camel races, too, are anticlimactic, with an awkward pumping of legs and jutting of necks. But the animals are faster than I'd expected. I interview the winning jockey.

Me: "What was your strategy?" Him: "I don't practice until this morning, but I am every day on a camel. India has the best camel racers. Look at me!"

He's swarmed by fans, which is when I spy a Westerner in a turban sitting with a camel. I ask him if he raced. He says no, adding that his name is Balu, he's from New Mexico and he just traded his motorcycle for a camel. Balu says he has an "all-India camel permit" and plans to travel around on his new animal. I ask to see the permit. Sure enough, it says "all-India camel permit." I ask about India's sports psyche. "They don't have the win-at-all-costs streak that Americans do," Balu says. "They make sports of other things, like bargaining or driving, and at that stuff they make us look like we're in the minors."

The next morning I head back to Bombay and, ultimately, New York. Before leaving Pushkar, I order tea at a small stand. The proprietor asks what I'm doing in India. I tell him, then ask if he thinks my quest makes sense. "Yes," he says, "because sporting things are important, especially in India. Because sporting things are like dreaming for the people here, and that is good. And important."

He's right, of course. India is not a force in sports that matter to Americans. But the force that really matters in sports is the same in India as it is in America, or anywhere. There is just something good and important about gathering by the hundreds of millions (give or take) and, together as one, chanting Boston—or Australia—sucks.