The Many Mysteries of Indian Cricket

Jon GemmellCorrespondent IApril 4, 2017

Amid the fanfare of the IPL auctions and the condemnation for refusing to promote aid to the victims of Israeli aggression, BBC’s Radio 4 has just produced a gem of a programme on the importance of cricket to India.

In "The Tiger Takes Guard", ex-England captain Mike Brearley spoke to a range of commentators about the state of the sport in India—its past, its cultural significance and potential future in the age of Twenty20.

Everywhere you go in India, Brearley began, you see cricket being played on whatever patch of ground there is. The national team recently beat both England and Australia and then there is the Indian Premier League, whose final was enjoyed by a TV audience of 100 million.

However, the programme asked, is the garden really so rosy? Following the Chennai Test in which India spectacularly beat England with the help of another Sachin Tendulkar century, the second Test at Mohali was viewed by just a smattering of fans.

Brearley walked through the town looking for a tee-shirt, but they were all adorned with baseball motifs. When asked about cricket tee-shirts he was told that they would be on sale once the IPL was underway.

This dichotomy between the recently discovered cash-cow and Test cricket formed the main focus of the programmes. Wisden editor Scyld Berry defines three key phases in the transition from Test match to one-day supremacy in India.

In the 1970s emphasis was on not losing which led to boring cricket. In 1983 India was surprise winners of the one-day World Cup and this launched the country’s fascination with the shortened form of the game. This was extended in 2007 when they won the inaugural World Twenty20.

Brearley fears for the longer game in which, as Rahul Dravid says, all aspects of character and technique are tested, and Tendulkar describes as still that little bit special.

Former spinner Bishen Bedi is critical of Twenty20 cricket, arguing that it leaves no impact. He believes that it will eventually destroy deeper values, replacing them with something new. This apprehension is shared by writer Rahul Bhattacharya who believes that Tests will never regain their supremacy.

Pundit Ravi Shastri, though, believes that Twenty20 will make Test cricket more interesting. It will encourage new shots, different fields and bowling options, while Tendulkar points out that run rates in Test cricket have assumed a new importance.

Beyond the current concerns for Test cricket, the programme explored the reasons for India’s fascination with cricket. For sociologist Ashis Nandy, cricket has always been an Indian game, accidentally discovered by the English. He argues that there are certain similarities in the values and culture of cricket with the Indian lifestyle.

For Mark Tully these values stem from the main religious faiths’ rejection of the notion of certainty. In cricket at no time are all 22 players on the field, so that changing conditions affect the two sides differently. Weather and atmosphere can change how the ball behaves, affecting the uncertainty of the game.

Many nationalists thought cricket should be abolished after independence. But instead it became part of an India that absorbed cultures and adapted them into something Indian.

For Bedi cricket and Bollywood both provide pleasure to the workers whose life is otherwise grim. India is the seventh largest country in the world with the second biggest population. “What do we have?” asked an Indian journalist. “All we have is a huge difference between rich and poor, but through cricket also some hope and something to cheer.”

For Brearley, nothing unites this country of 14 different languages as much as cricket. In some ways there is no "India", such are the differences in geography and culture. Cricket unites class, religion, and geographic region like little else does.

For historian Boria Majumdar, cricket is much more than a game for Indians. “We might not be a multi-faceted sporting nation, but in cricket we matter, that’s why it has such a hold over India.”

It is doubtful that a commercial station would have been interested in such a sophisticated piece of broadcasting, and whilst we all feel disappointed every now and then with the BBC’s actions, it is a disappointment with an organisation that most cherish—advert free and run without the obvious necessity of commercial concerns.

If only we could say that about cricket!