Cricket is a bat-and-ball game played between two teams of eleven players on a field at the center of which is a 22-yard (20-meter) pitch with a wicket at each end, each comprising two bails balanced on three stumps.Wikipedia
On the eve of April 2, 2011, India won its first Cricket World Cup in the 28-year history of the competition. And did so on its own soil in Wankhede stadium, Mumbai. The streets in all cities & towns of India were filled with people celebrating and rejoicing, and the air was charged with the reverberations of festivities. The emotions and feelings rippled to me as well, and I became a fan overnight!
So what is the secret to cricket’s irresistible charm for Indians? While the game is exciting and entertaining, our reason for this obsession goes beyond that. Under a research publication, Sport in Society, Nisha Nair concludes that “Cricket renders a common language above and beyond other multiple and layered identities, and serves as a glue and symbol of national identity.”
Tailor-made for Indian landscape and temperament
The very logical reason for cricket’s massive popularity is that the game’s fabric fits just right. A big plot of land or open space is not necessary for playing cricket; it can be played anywhere with a big group of people. As mentioned above, India’s gully cricket is played from narrow streets to railway tracks, making it accessible to a large population. The game relies on luck and strategy more than physical prowess. Indians believe in luck big time and are adept at deriving techniques, making cricket a good match for our culture!
Rising with the Nation
The first recorded cricket match on Indian soil happened back in 1751 as a recreation for the Britishers. For years, Indians were mere spectators of the game that now permeates the nation’s very fabric. And members of the Indian army were the first enthusiastic players of the game, followed by the Parsi community setting up a club in 1848. And as the nation was caught in a struggle for freedom, cricket clubs started in different cities, with India playing matches on England soil as well. By 1916 the game was played by locals all over the sub-continent and became very popular.
1932 marked the year of India becoming an official Test Nation, but it was only years after the 1947 Independence that it tasted a win. As the nation was building itself up, the cricket team defeated the strong England team in Chennai (erstwhile Madras), securing its first-ever Test- win in 1952.
While the first-ever overseer win happened during the 1967-68 tour of New Zealand, the team announced its strength to the world in the 1970s with a back-to-back series win in the West Indies and England.
KN Prabhu, who covered the West Indies tour for The Times of India, wrote: “The 1971 tour of the West Indies will be remembered for three distinct achievements. These are — India’s first victory in the Caribbean, our players’ team spirit through the series, and the emergence of a young batsman (Sunil Gavaskar) who can lay claim to a place in cricket’s hall of fame.”
Cricket was something to rejoice for a nation gripped with a war to liberate Bangladesh and overcoming the drought of the 1960s. Even though many internal factors had divided the nation, cricket united all and became a symbol of a rising India, bringing a sense of pride and hope.
By the 1980s, economic reforms grew the countries’ GDP, the government mobilized telephone lines and color televisions in the nation, and cricket’s visibility grew. This proved to be a boon for India’s 1983 World Cup win. A country starved of entertainment could witness a significant victory that gave India world recognition. It stirred emotions of celebration, hope, and aspiration in the citizens.
The start of 1990 marked the liberalization of the economy and the opening of growth avenues. Being the only sport not managed by the government and the popularity, cricket attracted business eyeballs and sponsorships. It was also the era where cricketing stars like Sachin Tendulkar emerged. By the start of the millennium, cricket was the nation’s obsession and a thriving economy in itself.
A large population of India, irrespective of their religion, language, and status, grew up in the late 80s and early 90s, sharing the emotions of cricket. Crowding over a house or shops that had a TV or radio. A win would be a festival and a defeat mourning. These strong emotions rippled down from one generation to another, and children dreamt of playing for the nation.
The emotions and love for the game have compounded over generations. Each generation had a winning story that made them feel proud irrespective of the nation’s economic conditions. And as the 2000s saw India become a superpower in the world of cricket and it became an identity for India.
In a publication titled Cricket obsession in India: Through the lens of identity theory by Nisa Nair, India’s identity is defined as ‘nebulous’; there is not one thing that can define its identity. Culture, language, and customs change from one corner to another. But, she argues, cricket has been able to bring unity, and Indians intrinsically identify with cricket.
Sports indeed have the power to evoke emotions and be strongly weaved into the world’s various cultures. Still, the fabric of India and cricket is unlike any other, as it’s the source of hope and shared identity for the nation.
I was indifferent to the cricket mania in India until 2011. But even though an Indian does not support a player or the team, they still speak cricket and are fans at heart.