If evidence was needed about cricket’s growing influence, there was plenty available recently. Sourav Ganguly assumed office like a rockstar political leader in full media glare, chased for sound bytes and on-the-go quotes. His taking fresh guard was a grand coronation befitting a new king.
Then, away in Australia, the ICC Women’s World Cup was launched by Kareena Kapoor Khan, another sign of Indian cricket capturing new territory and pushing the boundary. That global cricket events need India’s support was known, what is new is a top film star readily agreeing to play second fiddle.
India’s abiding love affair with cricket defies comprehension. Pundits and social observers offer many reasons: there was, in the past, the British legacy, princely patronage and participation of the social elite. Later, together with celebrity support and presence of legendary superstars, cricket became a mass sport and part of India’s DNA.
Of course this doesn’t adequately explain cricket’s amazing connect with India. That a sport can become a ‘religion’ and get attached to national emotion and identity is till yet a bit of a mystery.
This question popped up when the Supreme Court decided to reform the BCCI which, someone pointed out, is one of 10 million registered societies in the country. The Honourable Court played with a straight bat to provide context to why it decided to roll up its sleeves and get its hands dirty to clean up the mess.
The Court gave sound reasons for getting involved. Cricket, it observed, is of ‘national interest’ and important to countless cricket lovers. The sport belongs to fans and if their trust in administration/ governance is breached there is need to step in and right the wrong.
There never was any doubt about cricket’s power and influence. It was once said (famously by Raj Singh Dungarpur) that the selection of the Indian cricket team is as important as a cabinet reshuffle announcement. Cricket is at the same level as politics and films though sometimes these boundaries get blurred. Sourav represents Indian cricket but his political value is formidable. There are whispers too, till date unverified, of MSD playing a political role in his home state.
Cricket’s partnership with films is well established – both thrive on glamour and mass appeal. But even here, recent developments have moved things forward in a rush. The spate of biopics (on SRT, MSD, Azhar) and cricket-themed films (the 83 World Cup) demonstrate the power and potential of cricket. Cricket’s current superstars enjoy a cult status similar to those of the Khans.
On the social front too, cricket is an all-time favourite. Everyone has an opinion, and as a convenient topic of conversation there is nothing better than cricket. SRT, SMG, Kapil Dev are household names; Virat Kohli’s cover drive and Bumrah’s yorkers are regularly discussed by families over dinner.
The true strength of Indian cricket is not the extent of popularity but the unconditional love it receives. Lose the World Cup — no matter, all is well soon as we thrash a poor West Indies and an equally pathetic South Africa. Fans are forgiving, generous and kind — they sulk and express disappointment but don’t hold grudges.
Controversies are conveniently condoned. When the IPL was hit by scandal, its net value increased and sponsorship figures went up as did television ratings and viewership numbers. No backlash or boycott. Which shows that cricket is recession proof and in its ecosystem there is no slowdown.
In addition to economic muscle, cricket has recently acquired bigger role in the political space. Increasingly, cricket features in the narrative about nationalism as though team is an army waging a proxy war and players are soldiers on a mission.
These trends surfaced during the World Cup, fuelled in part by the Committee of Administrators (CoA), who took a populist stand and played a political card. Calls for ICC to boycott Pakistan were never going to work, and the resultant snub by the international body damaged India’s standing.
The CoA scored a second self goal by backing MSD on the ‘balidan’ logo on his keeping gloves. They deliberately chose a position that was contrary to well-established guidelines not just of the ICC but even those of the BCCI.
When the Supreme Court stepped in, it was a signal that cricket was not an independent island. Perhaps, a new conversation will start about cricket’s position in the political space.