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Beating British at their own game

Before Independence, cricket was the sport of the imperial power.

Beating British at their own game

Sea of blue: Indian fans outnumbered those of all their opponents in each match of the recent World Cup. Photo: Bipin Patel

Before Independence, cricket was the sport of the imperial power. However, the sport is more Asian than English now. Its control has been snatched from England, bit by bit, over the years. The most passionate fans of the game are in South Asia. The richest sponsors are in India. South Asia is the Mecca of cricket now

Rohit Mahajan

After 40 years of effort, England have the World Cup. It was won by a team that is a triumph of multiculturalism — which, ironically, is an idea hated by many in the polarised, Brexitian United Kingdom. The team was led by an Irishman from Dublin, their best player was from New Zealand, their most fearsome bowler from Barbados, their most attacking batsman from South Africa and their best spinner has roots in Pakistan.

Again ironically, control of cricket has been snatched from England, bit by bit, since the first World Cup was played in 1975. The most passionate fans of cricket are in South Asia. The richest sponsors of cricket are in India. South Asia is the Mecca of cricket now.

Change has been very rapid in the last 25 years, but it had been slowly creeping in before that. The governing body of the sport, ICC, formed in 1909 by England, Australia and South Africa, dropped the ‘Imperial’ from its name to become the ‘International Cricket Conference’ in 1965. The ‘Conference’ was replaced with ‘Council’ in 1993. The same year the power of veto England and Australia enjoyed at ICC was snatched away, after years of protests by the once-colonised countries.

Twelve years later, ICC itself relocated from the Lord’s ground in London to Dubai. Cricket’s spirit had moved to the Indian subcontinent long before; the move of the HQ to Asia signified the reality of the new world — cricket was now more Asian than English.

On July 14 last month, wild scenes were witnessed at Lord’s in London. It was the day of the World Cup final. The match was a thriller through and through. During the final minutes of the game — the maddest and saddest passage of play ever in the World Cup — people went delirious with joy, people went numb with despair. The joy of the English fans soon gave way to subdued elation; the despair of the New Zealand fans was soon replaced by acceptance of their horrid fate, and they congratulated the English fans and accepted commiserations. They all trooped out in orderly rows. The team visited the Prime Minister and the Queen. The trophy was waved around a bit. Then England moved on. They don’t do emotion as intensely and extensively as we in the Subcontinent.

Cricket’s South Asian century

On July 14 at Lord’s, I didn’t spot New Zealand fans crying — except one. It was Shayan Aryan, 11 years old, wearing the black New Zealand jersey. He was disconsolate that his team had lost. Shayan represents the future of cricket’s fandom in the West — cricket’s most passionate adherents in countries such as England, Australia and New Zealand are South Asian. Cricket is not the No. 1 sport in any of these countries — the men’s Wimbledon final, played the same day as the cricket World Cup final, easily won in terms of TV viewership. And don’t even talk about football and rugby, the top two sports in the UK. However, for the immigrants from South Asia residing in the UK, cricket is the very lifeblood. It’s a religion. It’s practically the only team sport their home country is world-class in. In the UK (or Australia), cricket is the only sport in which people who look like them are doing well.

For them, cricket is also a reminder of what they lost when they migrated to countries of ‘white people’. As Akbar Chaudhary, a Pakistani-origin doctor, told me, the English congregate at the pub. South Asians — and especially Muslims — needed a place for non-alcoholic recreation. The cricket field, naturally enough, was that place. So you have Bradford’s Quaid-e-Azam League — named after Muhammad Ali Jinnah — or the British Tamil Cricket League in the UK, in which thousands of people from the South Asian diaspora showcase their talent. Many of them felt unwelcome in the often rigid English cricket structure; they created their own structure.

Complicated relationship

The South Asian’s relationship with cricket is complicated. Before Independence, cricket was the sport of the imperial power and the local elite who aspired to sit at the same table as their masters. For the freedom fighters of those times, cricket was for the idle rich; the kings and princes who played the sport were seen as collaborators with the British.

Every nation needs something to be proud of — every culture, for instance, has songs about the strength of its men. However, in the modern world, war is not something to be proud of; sport is the best source of the pride of a nation, for it involves winning a war minus the guns. Doctors or scientists can’t shore up a nation’s pride the way a soldier or sportsperson does.

When India became free, we had hockey and cricket as sports which were our source of pride. The newly-independent India was filled with pride when its hockey team beat Great Britain to win the gold medal at the London Olympic Games in 1948. That pride continues to be invoked — the movie Gold, depicting that win over the colonial master, was released last year. The marketing man’s instinct of monetising patriotism is unerring — thus the movie was released on August 15.

The story is the same for the other South Asian nations. Pakistan’s greatest sporting achievements have come in cricket and hockey; ditto for Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and now for Afghanistan.

The once-colonised nations dislike much about the British to this day: Their culture and lifestyle are remarked upon with disdain by most South Asians; yet cricket, a sport the British disingenuously used to spread notions about the fairness of the white man, has been embraced by South Asians, both in their homelands and abroad. For the immigrants, this was necessary — for South Asians in Britain, cricket lessened the feeling of isolation in a new country; the sport also enabled the immigrants to socialise with white people on the field of play at equal terms. The British greatly respected sporting prowess. The outsider, thus, could become the insider. Apart from all that, of course, there’s great joy to be had from playing a sport.

Converted to cricket

For the Victorian colonialist, cricket represented the idealised virtues of the Englishman: Fair-play, loyalty, unselfishness, sense of honour and team spirit. These were, naturally, deemed superior to the qualities of the colonised people, if they had any. It was deemed fit to convert the natives. As Ramachandra Guha writes, the British converted the Indian to cricket, “to thus bind him more firmly; and more happily, to their rule.”

The greatest success of the colonial project is achieved when the colonised people aspire to become like the coloniser. This has happened — cricket is more Asian than English now. I met nationalistic Indian fans in England who believed that controlling global cricket, with passionate fans and the key to the treasury and future of the sport, is a revenge of the colonised people. But such a notion would be inaccurate: If indeed some descendants of the colonised people are clinging to the absurd idea of revenge, it would be achieved only the day the white English were to play kho-kho or kabaddi with great fervour, aspiring to beat India in these sports.

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