Why is cricket India’s only sports mania?
It is not merely that cricket is popular in India, it is that it dominates organized sports in the country in a manner that few sports dominate any large country in the world. Name most largish countries and at last two or three sports come to mind: Britain has football, cricket and rugby; the US has American football, baseball, basketball and even ice hockey; Australia has Australian football, rugby, cricket and football. And the few exceptions, like Brazil or Argentina, at least focus on the world’s most popular sport. Only India has embraced a sport of relatively limited popularity as its own.
Sociologists say the sport doesn’t matter. A national sport tends to become fixed in the minds of a people during a time of urbanization and rural breakdown. Having lost their original social connections, urban migrants and their look for new loyalties and sports teams have been part of that process.
By chance, cricket has proven to be the instrument by which a highly mobile generation of Indians refind their “tribal” instincts. It is no accident that it is the urban milieu where cricket fanaticism is at its height?
But there is an argument for culture. Most nations are exposed to a number of sports during their period of urbanization.
I remember, some years ago, visiting a football merchandise shop in Malpensa airport in Milan to while away some time. I came upon a shirt for the Genoa football team. The team’s seal, however, had the name “Genoa CFC” emblazoned inside. CFC? I checked the fine print of the seal and, sure enough, the CFC was explained as “cricket and football club.” A reminder that the British holidayers who came to Italy and introduced football also introduced their other traditional sport. But the Italians took only to football. Basta! Who can play a game that lasts five days and normally ends in a draw?
What is it about Indian culture that lent it to reject rugby, football and go for cricket?
Indian parents have one-liners to explain cricket. “It teaches our children patience and that, in life, there aren’t always winners and users.” One columnist in BusinessLine spoke of Indians’ liking for “nonlinear results” – they liked cricket’s supposedly unpredictability. Then there’s a standing argument Indians like cricket because it didn’t demand so much from their muscles.
But cricket’s domination is being chipped away at in India. The World Wresting Federation – which I would consider more theatre than sport – and English Premiere League football are now number one and two in terms of television viewership in India.
If you are a rising power, you will probably produce a generation for whom the idea of neither winning or losing makes little sense. It’s all about winning, they will argue. This spells bad news for test cricket and slightly more competition for eyeballs in the coming decade.