Inside India #46 – Cricket: the subcontinent’s most popular religion?

This article is one of a series of 50. Together they explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here.

It’s often said that cricket is a religion on the subcontinent, alluding to the fact that the sport incites passion akin to religious fervour. There is little doubt that, with a billion and a half individuals obsessed by the game and the sport now awash with celebrities and sponsorship from the biggest corporate houses, it has become a juggernaut, emblematic, in India’s case, at least, of the country’s rise to global prominence.

Image credit: Abhijit Sen CC 3.0

And yet this is a game transplanted to the subcontinent by the British, a relic of the days of Empire.

Why has cricket survived when so many of the structures of the Raj have been dismantled and thrown on the scrapheap?

One answer lies in the evolution of the game on the subcontinent, and the manner in which locals have made it their own.

Cricket was introduced to the subcontinent by European merchant sailors in the eighteenth century. The earliest match was played in the 1720s, and the first local cricket club was established in 1792. In 1848, Bombay’s Parsee community formed the Oriental Cricket Club, the first to be established by Indians. But it wasn’t until 1911 that a truly national Indian cricket team – comprised of natives – took to the field.

That team began as a glimmer in the mind of one of the subcontinent’s most famous cricketers, a prince named Ranjitsinhji – Ranji for short – whose batting had impressed even the British, so much so that he played for the English team on numerous occasion. Ranji’s attempt to establish a national native team, alas, fell upon rocky shores when bickering broke out among Hindus, Muslims, and Parsees. The bone of contention was the exact makeup of the proposed team.

And there the idea might have died were it not for the fact that, around this time, revolutionary fervour was beginning to make itself felt around the country. Several nawabs, princes and public officials felt that by creating a national team and sending it to England, much needed goodwill might be won back with the ‘head office’.

Choosing the captain of such a team proved a political nightmare.

Ultimately, the powers that be opted for the nineteen-year-old maharajah of Patiala, Bhupinder Singh, a portly young man already gaining a reputation for hedonism. The remainder of the team was selected on the basis of religion: six Parsees, five Hindus and three Muslims. Astonishingly – for the period – the team included two Dalits – the Untouchables, as they were once called. Baloo Palwankar, one of the two men in question, went on to become a Dalit hero and an inspiration for others of his community, such as Dr B.R. Ambedkar, the man who later fought for Dalit rights alongside Gandhi, and penned India’s constitution.

That first tour of Great Britain (and Northern Ireland) was aimed at promoting the notion that India was still a loyal part of the Empire – 1911 was the same year George V was formally crowned king-emperor in London. (Later that year, he travelled to India for the Delhi Durbar.) The tour was only a moderate success, the team played only against English county teams and not the national English team. Back home, its mission was seen by some as one of appeasement at a time when many were beginning to think seriously about a patriotic struggle against the colonisers.

An Indian national team did not play its first Test match until 25 June 1932 – at Lord’s – becoming the sixth team to be granted Test cricket status. By then the Independence struggle was well underway, Gandhi’s legendary Salt March having made a global splash just two years earlier.

Two decades later, India won her first Test match, but it wasn’t until the Seventies that the country became a truly competitive force.

A world cup win in 1983, in the one-day format of the game, led by Kapil Dev, Indian cricket’s original superstar, inspired a generation of icons, such as Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid, who not only became global names, but fabulously wealthy through corporate sponsorship and the growing popularity of the game.

Today, India is the most powerful country in world cricket, one of the most powerful in any sport you might care to name.

In terms of viewership, sponsorship, money flowing through the game, and the world’s most popular short form (known as T20) competition (the Indian Premier League), India has no equal.

This extraordinary passion for the sport has translated into success on the field – India is consistently one of the best sides in the world.

There is little doubt, that, with a massive and young population, with enormous wealth and status to be earned, and with a nationwide obsession bordering on mania, India will continue to dominate the global cricketing landscape for many years to come.

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This article is one of a series of 50 that I will be publishing on my website. Together these pieces explore the history and culture of India from her most ancient civilisations to the nation’s ambitious space programme. You can read all 50 pieces here.

All 50 articles will be collected into a digital book and published in due course. To receive a FREE copy of the book, simply register for my newsletter here. The newsletter goes out every three months and contains updates on book releases, articles, competitions, giveaways, and lots of other interesting stuff. 

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