The growth of a nation and the rise of a cricketing superpower
There’s an adage that in India, cricket is a matter of life and death. That, of course, is nonsense. It’s more important than that. Cricket has become synonymous with the country, and it’s hard to imagine what else truly unites this nation of a dozen religions, a hundred languages and 1.2 billion souls other than their mutual adoration of the game.
Such Is their love of cricket, you might think it’s always been part of the culture (indeed some argue that a form of the game has been played in the country since the time of the Mahabharata). But cricket as we know it only arrived in India in the late 1800s and even then, took a hundred years to impose itself as the national sport. But during that time it’s acted as a mirror, reflecting the Indian national psyche and its peoples’ hope for themselves.
Cricket, like the Civil Service and the Post Office, was bequeathed to India by the British, ostensibly as a means of teaching the natives the great English values of fair play and possibly the benefits of a strong front-foot defensive shot. It was first espoused by the maharajahs and the Anglophile upper classes, but with the dawning of the twentieth century and the growth of the independence movement, cricket, like football, was taken up by the middle classes as a vehicle for the expression of Indian nationalism. At a time when political and military power lay with the British, sporting endeavor provided one area where Indians could openly challenge their colonial masters. Cricket proved to be a forge of national unity, be it the first All-India side of 1911 which toured England with a squad of Indians from all religions, castes and regions, or the 1926 side which held its own against an MCC XI.
Independence saw India emerge as a fledgling nation, ponderous and unsure of itself. The decades that followed were marked by unfulfilled promise, and cricket once more seemed to mirror the national mood. From the late forties to the seventies, India played a total of 106 tests, winning only fifteen. Indeed, for many years, a foreign tour by an Indian side was judged a success if the team hadn’t suffered a complete whitewash. But while their overseas disasters did little to encourage the growth of the game at home, to Indian immigrants to Britain and their offspring, at a time when brown faces on television or in any field of public life were rare, the sub-continent’s touring sides offered role models to a generation of British Asian youth who found it more natural to support these men that looked like them than to pass the so-called Tebbit Test.
The eighties saw cricket’s place transformed in the Indian psyche. Alongside winning the 1983 world cup, the emergence of working class stars such as Kapil Dev and the reach of television into even the smallest villages, created heroes that all Indians could be proud of. Suddenly stadiums in remote parts of the country would be regularly filled to capacity.
The explosion in popularity coincided with the reforms of the nineties which transformed the closed, inward-looking Indian economy to an open and internationally orientated one, unafraid to take on the world. It ushered in a period of unprecedented growth, which boosted the nation’s self-confidence. In cricket too, India began rising up the world rankings, its sides displaying a new-found back-bone, most memorably marked by captain, Sourav Ganguly, removing his shirt to celebrate a victory over England at Lords in 2002. When criticised for his actions at the home of cricket, Ganguly pointed out that Freddie Flintoff had done the same thing in India six months earlier.And cricket continues to evolve with the country. The most popular incarnation of its latest format, the 20 overs game, is the Indian Premier League. Indeed the IPL is in many ways the embodiment of modern India – young, vibrant, outward looking and commercially driven. The nation and its love of the game have changed much over the last century. What’s clear is that the fortunes of the sport and the country will be inextricably tied together for many decades to come.
(An edited version of this article appeared in the BA Highlife Magazine, August 2017 Issue)