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Grassroots Cricket in India

Photographer: Various

 

Cricket, a sport dubbed as a religion in India owing to its unmatched popularity, has once again become a national obsession with the World Cup 2019 currently underway in England, the birthplace of the Gentleman’s Game. The tournament kicked off on May 30 and will conclude on Jul.14, with India among the favorites to lift the coveted trophy.

During this month-long cricket frenzy, many aficionados can be seen sporting quirky world cup hairdos and performing dedicated prayer services – officiated by priests – for their team’s victory, while many more decide to skip classes in schools and colleges or call in sick at work to watch the games. And the TV and online streaming viewership has been massive, according to Star India, which has the broadcast rights in India. “The ICC Cricket World Cup 2019, in its opening week records a massive 269 million reach on the Star network (...) setting a viewership record in the history of any ICC (International Cricket Council) tournament,” the TV network said in a press release. Total viewership in the country is expected to surpass the previous record of more than 630 million – equivalent to one out of every two Indians – registered during the 2015 World Cup held in Australia, where India crashed out of the semi-finals. With the love for the game crossing hysterical levels, marketers and advertisers seize the opportunity to roll out attractive promotions for their products – from offering a chance to win free tickets to world cup games to discounts and complimentary items at restaurants during match hours. More than the final match whoever reaches there, the high point of the tournament in the subcontinent has always been when neighboring arch-rivals, India and Pakistan, face off. “If you would have done a health check-up of the people watching the India-Pakistan match, I’m sure 90 percent of them would have been found to be hypertensive,” Sunil Khanna, a cricket enthusiast following the sport for three decades, referring to the match on Jun. 16 that India won.

Cricket in India is more than just a sport. The quadrennial showpiece event has been instrumental in shaping the identity of the country of over one billion people. People from different religions, caste, creed, race, and economic status come together in supporting their team, forging a sense of unity and solidarity rarely seen in a country as diverse as India, considered a melting pot of cultures. Looking back, a moment of catharsis occurred when India, among the least favorites, won its first World Cup in 1983 – held in England as well – firing the imagination of Indians and giving them a sense of assertiveness from having made their mark on the world stage. A country still struggling to recover from the scars of colonialism got new heroes and new achievement to celebrate, and the game’s popularity spread like wildfire. Fast forward a decade and figures like stalwarts like Kapil Dev and Sunil Gavaskar were replaced by the iconic and much revered Sachin Tendulkar, who was later joined by the likes of Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, among several others, whose stardom popularized the sport at the grassroots. Youngsters picked up a cricket bat or a ball aping the movements of their heroes, many of whom trained at thriving coaching academies with dreams of representing their country. The rest were content to sharpen their skills on the streets, by-lanes, parks and neighborhood playgrounds. The hysteria around the sport is best exemplified by a popular anecdote by late cricket writer Peter Roebuck, in which a train apparently stopped for longer than usual at a station, waiting for Tendulkar to complete a milestone, and only resumed its journey after he scored his century. Every time a world cup was held and the whole country united with hopes of India repeating its feat of 1983, with the cricketers facing the Herculean task of fulfilling it.

The obsession remained etched in the country’s consciousness until the summer of 2011, when India won the world cup for the second time in Mumbai, prompting the world’s seventh-largest country by area to break into a euphoria of loud, colorful festivities in every nook and corner, which took several days to calm down. Due to its prominence in the Indian subcontinent, cricket’s influence spills beyond the domain of sports to the fields of politics and diplomacy. India and Pakistan share a strained relationship since their independence from British rule in 1947, and have faced off in three major wars and numerous skirmishes along the border. The gentleman’s game has often served to help diffuse political tensions and pave the way for political dialogue, the most recent of them in during the 2011 World Cup held in India. Bilateral ties between the two neighbors had touched a new low following the infamous Mumbai attacks in 2008 in which 166 people were killed and which India blamed on Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Against this backdrop, then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh invited his Pakistani counterpart, Yousaf Raza Gillani, to watch the match with him, which eventually helped ease tensions somewhat. Similarly, cricketing ties are often the first to suffer in the wake of tensions between the neighbors. The two countries have yet to play a bilateral series since 2012-13, and have only faced each other in multilateral international competitions. For decades, cricket has embodied India’s collective consciousness and its aspirations. It has gone from aspiring to make its presence felt at the global stage to dominating a sport and being counted as among the best, in sync with its growing economic and political clout in the 21st century.