When walking through a shopping center or a cluster of sidewalk shops in India, it’s not uncommon to see a group of intently focused men, all staring into the store. “What’s going on?” you wonder. It doesn’t take long to make an easy guess. They’re watching cricket on the shop’s TV. Team India is probably playing another in a series of endless matches against a national rival, probably Pakistan or Australia, the two teams India most loves to beat, Australia because it’s the best and Pakistan because………well, because it’s Pakistan.
Cricket, that classic British import, is by far the national sport of India. Nothing comes close to challenging it. It’s the only game I see kids playing in the parks outside of the occasional basketball or soccer game. Indians love cricket with a passion and although few play once they grow up, they love to watch. Playing sports is a luxury few can afford beyond childhood — who has time to play games when the next level examinations, to determine whether you get into the right school, is always looming? But the passion for boyhood games carries into adulthood. Isn’t it like that the world over?
In a country of one billion, India has but a single national cricket team, so you can imagine how much the players are lionized when the nation’s honor rests on their shoulders. When they win, they are heroes paraded in the streets. I think it’s not too far fetched to say that cricket is the unifying force in India, cutting across language, religion, caste and region to bring the nation together in a common bond. “The Boys in Blue” are a symbol of national pride, and the fact that they are fairly good and often win (except against those dastardly Australians) is even better.
It was against this backdrop of sporting nationalism that something revolutionary happened in 2008. A new form of the game, called Twenty20 Cricket, was gaining in popularity and a professional league of city-affiliated teams was formed, organized along the lines of soccer’s Premier League in England. Called the Indian Premier League (IPL), eight teams were organized to compete against each other in a two-month season. Team owners invited international players to put their names into a pool to be bid upon by the teams — and the owners weren’t talking small change, either. As you can imagine, many of world’s best became involved, giving all the teams an international cast.
Many predicted a flop—saying Indians wouldn’t root for foreign players or city-based teams, and that the new format would “cheapen” traditional cricket. Some wondered if the international mixing of players would undermine the concept of a national team. Others saw it as a gimmick and some newspaper columnists predicted disaster.
The first season of the IPL was a resounding success: full stadiums (50,000+), nightly TV coverage, a nation glued to their screens, huge ratings, fast-paced action (at least by cricket standards), celebrities, imported cheerleaders (borrowed from the Washington Redskins) fireworks, and close games. The games even drew a 30% audience share of women, an unprecedented number for cricket.
Cricket, as some say, is American baseball on valium. It’s really, really slow with a full game sometimes lasting for days. The new IPL has created a shortened format that leads to games of only three or four hours, the same as a typical Bollywood movie. As a startup enterprise, few expected teams to turn a profit the first year, but in the end, some of the teams did and everyone was looking forward to next year.
As you can tell, I’m a starved American sports fan, but there is something more to my interest than entertainment. I find it interesting to witness the birth of a sporting phenomenon and I’m intrigued by its social implications.
Sports are reflective of the culture and consciousness of a country. It’s been said that baseball is a reflection of how America used to be in the past, whereas football is a reflection of how it is now. Cricket is a gentleman’s game in which participants take a knee to the “spirit of the game.” We all know what it means when something “simply isn’t cricket.” The game honors a spirit of fair play, rule of law, order, leisurely pace, and gentlemanly virtue, and I think it matters that these are the traits with which India identifies, and to which it aspires.
Some locals worry that the new league will somehow weaken fans’ fanatical interest in their national team. I say, “I hope it does!” From a strictly sporting view, the new league has given dozens of young, local players a chance to step forward. When there is only one team of consequence in the entire country, what are the chances of ever playing for it? Why bother? Now there are more, leading a young kid to think, “Maybe I don’t have to grow up and be a computer engineer after all.”
Of course, some will say it isn’t good to invest one’s life in hopeless dreams, but I’m happy to see kids have a choice. Maybe a few of the older ones will go out into the sunshine and play. Maybe the success of cricket will spill over into the other, totally neglected sports such as basketball, tennis, golf, soccer and field hockey, which languish here on the sidelines. Maybe a few more promising young athletes will be given a greater chance. If so, I’m all for it.