ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogging Competition Shortlisted Entry
The Games Indians Play
By Harish Alagappa
Cricket was first introduced to India in the eighteenth century, by homesick employees of the British East India company. It took almost a century for Indians themselves to warm up to it, but by the early 1900s, cricket clubs were mushrooming all over the Indian subcontinent. Generations of Indians took to the sport in schools, colleges, and gymkhanas in all major urban cities in the country. India played its first official test match against England at Lord’s in 1932, and until independence in 1947, played a total of 10 test matches, all against England. Of these matches, India drew 4 and lost 6.
Around the same time, the Indian hockey team was dominating the sport globally. Since their first appearance at the Olympic Games in 1928, the Indian hockey juggernaut had won Gold at every single games. By the time of Independence, the Indian hockey team had won all 12 matches they played at the Olympics, by ludicrous margins like 24-1 against the United States at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles. Urban legend goes that a solitary goal was conceded as a token of goodwill to save the host nation from total embarrassment in front of their home crowd.
Thus, at the moment of independence, the Indian men’s hockey team represented the way forward. A united force consisting mainly of players who served in the Armed Forces, playing together to dominate the world. Indian cricket, the haunt of subservient playboy maharajas and a sport whose popularity at the time was limited to urban centres, was seen as a vestige of India’s past, so much so that ethnocentric political leaders such as Ram Manohar Lohia advocated banning the sport, as he believed it encouraged a colonial mind-set that India needed to emerge from.
In the years and decades following independence, India was still forging its own unique identity, while trying to shed the one it had been forced to keep during British rule. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, thought the best way to do this would be through the ideology of Fabian Socialism, while creating institutes of higher learning and founts of modern ideas like liberalism and secularism. Thus, as the so-called First World experienced the post-World War II economic boom of the 1950s, India chose to remain isolated, non-aligned, and somewhat aloof.
The effects of the western economic boom were visible in the world of sports almost immediately. While India’s barefoot football team finished 4th at the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, their best-ever finish, the future of football was already written. Two years earlier, the 1954 FIFA World Cup Final between underdogs West Germany and the dominant Hungarians had been decided by the teams’ choice of boots. In a match played in heavy rain, the Hungarians found themselves stuck, figuratively and at times literally on a muddy pitch, despite taking a 2-0 lead in the first 8 minutes. The West Germans were wearing special boots, crafted by Adolf Dassler, the founder of Adidas, that featured the new-fangled technology of exchangeable, screw-in studs. With this technological advantage, the West Germans came back to win the game 3-2 and began in earnest the trend of matching sporting skill with economic and technological acumen to gain consistent competitive advantages.
The trend was soon replicated by countries all over the developed world, but not by countries such as India, who neither had the resources nor the inclination to dedicate to sports. Thus, for all the skill that Indian players exhibited, sports such as football and soon hockey were quickly dominated by developed nations. Many Indian hockey aficionados regard the advent of AstroTurf as the exact moment when India lost its edge at the sport, as hockey became more and more about strength and speed, and less about delicate skills such as dribbling and short passes, which is where India had been the hitherto dominant force.
While other sports were changing fast due to new technologies and tactics, cricket — a sport that’s almost as much about its old world charm and feel as it is about the playing itself — was the final avenue for Indian athletes to compete at a global level. In the years since, the Indian love for cricket has continued to grow, so much so that the Indian cricket captain is quite possibly as powerful than the Prime Minister, and certainly more well-known.
Indian cricket commentator Harsha Bhogle once described how one could infer the state of the nation’s economy from the performance of India’s best batsman, highlighting that Sunil Gavaskar’s defensive approach was probably a consequence of being born and raised in the uncertainty and frugality of post-Independence India, who “batted like a man with bank deposits”, while Sachin Tendulkar, whose career coincided with the globalization of the Indian economy, “batted like a man playing the equity market”. The implication is that India’s current captain Virat Kohli, a man raised in an economically ascendant India, and known for being brash, aggressive, and confrontational, perhaps plays like someone investing in the Futures market.
As India tries to catch up to the first world, Indian sports is also doing what it can to catch up to over 70 years of developments in sports science, technology, and training regimens. Most of the biggest obstacles in the India’s way are home grown, from the lack of effective institutions for identifying and growing talent, to the apathy of the middle class towards a career in sports, to corruption at almost every level in every sports authority in the country. But with greater investment in sports, the popularity of global sports leagues among urban, educated Indians, and the now substantial financial rewards that come with being a successful Indian sportsperson, there is hope that India at 80 might have a bit more to dream about than regularly beating the old colonial masters at their own game.