Playing football rather than reciting the Gita will take one near to God
– Swami Vivekanand
There is little evidence to show that soccer or hockey were any less popular than cricket in India until the early 80s. In fact, India achieved early successes in hockey and soccer that led Anthony de Mello, one of the founders of the BCCI to declare,
Heightened by our hockey success at Amsterdam, our ambitions for Indian sport know no bounds just then. We visualized our cricketers playing at the Oval, at Lord’s ….
In his paper, Batting for the flag: cricket, television and globalization in India, Nalin Mehta of the La Trobe University explains how the popularity of cricket in India is not the product of some
peculiar Indian affiliation for the game, but inextricably linked with the expansion of Indian television and a confluence of other factors: the creation of a large middle class, economic reforms, the politics of identity, the birth of the satellite television industry and broader trends in globalization.
Indeed it should surprise an objective observer that cricket is this popular in India. Simple economics do not encourage the playing of the sport. Considerable investments are required to start even a simple game, although as with many other things Indians have adapted the game to their environment.
Cricket has becoming an almost inextricable part of urban, middle-class India’s identity. Expatriates now run extensive cricket leagues even in America, where the game is almost unheard of. It has become part of the consumption triangle of middle India along with Bollywood and Western pop culture. It remains a fact that India’s successes even in a relatively (in global terms) non-popular sport like cricket, have been few and far between, with the team having losing records against most competitors even though its population dwarfs that of any other cricket playing country. So why is middle India hooked to cricket ?
Mehta argues that,
in a land divided at multifarious levels by factors such as language, caste and custom, the unrelenting drive to construct and capture a national market for maximizing profits has led television producers and advertisers to turn to cricket as the lowest common denominator.
Indeed, the expansion of cricket was driven by compelling economic reasons and enabling technological advances like the,
launch of INSAT-1A and later INSAT-1B, allowed the creation of what became known as the National Programme which was envisaged as a tool for uniting people
And the administrators of cricket capitalized on this tool and success in the 1983 World Cup to popularize the game and in turn make it an indispensable tool for the advertisers who needed a medium and brand ambassadors to communicate with the emerging middle classes. Why did hockey and soccer not succeed ? Sadly the,
decline in hockey standards began to turn spectators away at a time when television was providing opportunities for building an entirely new support base.
As for soccer, the decline ironically started after the broadcast of the 1982 Soccer World Cup as the fans in Bengal and Kerala suddenly became aware of,
the gap between their own local heroes and the great international stars
In contrast, the rise of Indian television coincided with some of India’s greatest cricketing achievements, and the cricket team conveniently became an easy release for the aspirational nationalism of middle class Indians. No one can deny the excitement and passions cricket can arouse among Indians. But the question is, is it worth the cost to other sports ? Especially those like hockey and soccer that were once integral to the ‘Indian’ identity,
the victory would fill every Indian with joy and pride to know that rice-eating, malaria-ridden, bare-footed Bengalis have got the better of beef-eating, Herculean, booted John Bull in that peculiarly English sport.
– The newspaper Nayak after the victory of Mohun Bagan over British East York Regiment in 1911 soccer game