It is a scene far removed from the pristinely manicured lawns at Marylebone Cricket Club in London. The “pavilion” here drops sharply off into a cliff that overlooks suburban Chennai, in Tamil Nadu, India. It is populated by boys from the local neighbourhood, all in their early teens, who seem oblivious to the fact that cricket is not meant to be played with half the pitch missing, such that any ball batted to the right side will be not only unplayable but also lost forever. Cricket, though, exists in this and other versions throughout India, providing one of the strongest forces for unity in an incredibly diverse nation, with the common thread of incredible enthusiasm for this classic stick-and-ball game.
The existence of cricket (and, in fact, most team sports as we know them) throughout the world is due to the influence of the British Empire. Indeed, the highest series of cricket, known as Test cricket, is played by ten teams (England, Australia, South Africa, West Indies, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, and Bangladesh), all of which were part of the British Empire. Sport was always tied up with empire, as English moralists saw the export of “muscular Christianity” through cricket and rugby as a way to civilize the wayward nations of the empire. At a Maori school in 19th century Australia, “the children were said to be ‘quite English in their love of cricket’” (Mangan, Imperial Mentalities 176). “The provision of sports...became a significant part of the whole educational process” (ibid 54) which was directed at producing individuals in the colonies faithful to Christianity and to the Empire. However, cricket has undergone a sociological transformation since those times, becoming not a tool of the imperialists but rather a symbol of a common India.
The Empire today is faded, but as part of its residue Indians love cricket with a fierce passion. It is commonly said today in India that “cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by Englishmen.” In a very divided nation, cricket now cuts across class lines, and satellite dishes are found even in the most remote villages so that villagers can watch cricket. Corporations sponsor clubs all around the country. After the NBA the highest average salaries in the world are paid to players in the Indian Premier League, which was introduced in 2008 and features a faster, more commercial version of the game, complete with cheerleaders, team mascots, and advertisements on the players’ once lily-white uniforms. The best players come from all over the world to play in the IPL, moving the centre of the sport from London to Delhi. Anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has written about the appropriation of cricket as a means of recapturing an identity lost in the whirlwind of decolonization and Partition, which still haunt India.
When I asked several Indians about when they felt most Indian, their answer was that they never considered themselves Indian in their day to day lives, instead identifying themselves by religion, region, language, ethnicity, and caste. When I enquired further, however, they replied that it is when they are confronted with the foreign that they feel Indian. I asked if that would include a Test match, and they jumped to answer in the affirmative. The political histories of the Test countries are jumbled together in a way that elicits extreme emotions when matches finally come; India has contentious histories with Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and England at least. These proxy wars, fought with bats and balls instead of guns and grenades may act as a pressure release valve most of the time. A recent match-fixing scandal has thrown the sport into a tizzy, with fingers constantly being pointed by the Indians at the Pakistanis and by the Pakistanis at the English. The reality of world terrorism has also spilled over into the world of Test cricket, as Pakistan must play its home matches elsewhere, without the support of a home crowd, for fear of international cricketers being targeted.
All in all cricket provides a rich language for discourse between nations, embodying the complexities of relations in the postcolonial era. India has proven adept at taking the legacy of the invader and making it her own, adding Indian flourishes to the game’s foreign structure. Tracing the history of globalization through cricket, one finds its nefarious beginning in the imperial endeavour, but also its redemption in the joy cricket brings to millions of fans across the world.
Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2005. Print.
Gibson, Owen, and David Hopps. "Three Pakistan Players Suspended by ICC and Charged under Anti-corruption Code | Sport | The Guardian." Latest News, Comment and Reviews from the Guardian | Guardian.co.uk. Web. 14 Oct. 2010.
Mangan, J. A. Making Imperial Mentalities: Socialisation and British Imperialism. Manchester England: Manchester UP, 1990. Print.