To say that India and its billion citizens love cricket is an understatement. One would be more interested in checking the score on the phone rather than focusing on the meeting. Hell, who hasn’t done that! The madness to pray to an effigy of a cricketer side by side to the statue of the deities. Our love for this sport has grown by leaps and bounds amidst its evolution from humble radio commentaries to live streaming on a smartphone. It hasn’t happened overnight. There are multiple elements which have contributed to the present ginormous status of cricket in India amongst all the other sports. Indian cricket has come a long way from a leisure sport to a religion in this country.
It was a different scenario during the mid 20th century. We were far better at football and field hockey than cricket at the global stage. Multiple Olympic Gold medals in Field hockey and qualifying for the football world cup in 1950 are the biggest sporting achievements in the respective sport in India’s history. Naturally, they were the winners of the popularity contest amongst the fans. Yet, there have been a few historic milestones which have turned the tide in cricket’s favour. Indian team’s stature grew over the 70s with multiple test wins and the increased strength of the squad with great spinners and batsmen. Things were about to change for the best with the 1983 World Cup.
India wasn’t considered a formidable contender in the limited-overs format. The team had several young players in 1983 bringing an attacking mindset to the team. Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri, Mohinder Amarnath, Srikkanth, Madan Lal, Vengsarkar, Gavaskar. On paper, this squad didn’t look like they could do any serious damage. Even the players didn’t believe they would eventually change the course for cricket in India. Against the mighty West Indies, the Indian team could pull a miracle in the final to become the world champions to everyone’s surprise. This wasn’t just a stroke of luck but the finest moment by one of the greatest Indian teams assembled. They became overnight heroes and rightfully so. The 80s also saw individual players make a name for themselves amongst the greatest of their time. Gavaskar became the first player to cross 10,000 runs mark and 34 centuries in test format. Kapil Dev, the greatest all-rounder India ever produced, became the first player to reach 400 wickets and 5000 runs in test cricket.
People were quick to jump on the bandwagon and BCCI pounced upon this opportunity as the organizing body of Indian Cricket. It is important to note that BCCI wasn’t a mammoth that time as it is today. They could capitalize on the opportunity by striking the hammer when the iron was red hot. You can call this as the inflection point for BCCI and Indian Cricket. Jagmohan Dalmiya, then Treasurer of BCCI, was crucial in bringing 1987 world cup to the subcontinent to latch on to the growing fanbase in the country. Subsequently, BCCI also fought for broadcasting rights to cricket matches in India. Everyone who is familiar with the business aspect of any sports understands the importance of broadcasting rights and viewership. It is the most important source of revenue for any league or organization with the benefits trickling down to the team and the players.
With another successful world cup event in 1996 in the subcontinent, BCCI and ICC benefitted from various sponsorships and broadcasting rights. This made the case stronger for Jagmohan Dalmiya as the next president of ICC in 1996. BCCI had the biggest say in ICC and rightfully so, considering the viewership in India is more than the next 9 test playing nations in the world. You did not have shirt sponsors till the early 21st Century. Only when England struck a deal with Vodafone to print their names on the front of the jersey, did BCCI land a massive contract with Sahara. It opened the doors to a different and massive avenue of sponsorship for BCCI. The beast was finally getting the share worth its appetite.
The rise of cricketing standards has played a much more important role considering everything said and done. Late 20th century saw the inclusion of a few legendary players in the squad who would surpass expectations and records at the least. Sachin Tendulkar, Anil Kumble, Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid — Magna cum laude. India had a batting lineup to challenge every bowler in the world. We still weren’t the greatest in picking up the wickets but could manage to outscore the opponent. Early 21st century saw Indian Cricket dominate like never seen before. Test series draw against possibly the greatest Test squads, Steve Waugh’s Australia. The famous victory after a follow-on in Kolkata.
Until this point, the Indian team wasn’t good at chasing totals in one day cricket. To further worry the team, we had to chase 325 runs against England at the Lord’s in the 2002 Natwest Final. No matter how much we depended on the heroics of Tendulkar, the entire team stepped up with young Yuvraj-Kaif taking us to the finish line. Ganguly’s celebration at the balcony is still a moment to be proud of. We were now mocking the inventors of the game beyond the silver screen. Remember Lagaan! This gave India newfound confidence to chase down the targets when needed. The joint winner of ICC Champions Trophy in 2002. A remarkable run to the final of 2003 World Cup only to fall short to the mighty Australians. It was followed with a test and ODI series victory against our bitter rivals Pakistan in their territory.
Something which deserves attention is the infrastructure to promote and grow cricket in the country. From honing the youth to organizing any event, we have cracked the code. At present India has no dearth of players apt for all the positions in the squad. It is not possible to maintain the status quo without a system which provides youngsters with a way to make it to the national team. The facilities to promote domestic cricket with youngsters shining in Ranji Trophy, Under-19 world cup and more so recently, IPL, has helped to elevate the standard of Indian Cricket. The right mixture of youth and experience in the senior team has taken Indian Cricket to unprecedented heights. Sehwag, Gambhir, Yuvraj, Zaheer, Harbhajan, Dhoni, Kohli, Rohit Sharma. These are just a few from the endless list.
Except for the 2007 ODI World Cup debacle, India has been consistent and maintained their dominance in the limited over format. 2007 T20 World Cup, 2008 CB Series, 2011 ODI World Cup, 2013 Champions Trophy. This became much sweeter with several test victories away from the home. India had a poor record overseas especially in the toughest format of the game. India could manage to shine on multiple occasions with a Test series victory in England, first test series win in New Zealand, first test victory in South Africa. India rose to the number one rankings in one day and test cricket. You couldn’t bully this team anymore, they had your number.
Our batsmen and bowlers have topped the charts over multiple decades now and created records parallel to none. Most centuries in ODI and test, highest runs overall in ODI and test, highest individual score in an ODI match, most stumpings in ODI, most catches in test cricket. When you talk about your dream team, it is hard to overlook any Indian player in the starting XI. The best part, this holds true even across different eras. There are several Indian squads over the years who could be spoken about in the same breath as the Windies of ’70s and ’80s or Aussies of ’90s and early 2000s.
BCCI has strengthened its position in the ICC over the years. Thanks to the millions of fans, BCCI became the highest contributor amongst the Big Three including England and Wales Cricket Board and Cricket Australia. The Big 3 comprise 80% of the total international revenue in cricket. This has led to a model where the Big 3 gets the biggest share of the pie with BCCI taking the biggest bite of all. BCCI has flexed its muscles numerous times, much to the disliking of others, to increase its share of the earnings. BCCI has had its fair share of controversies en route. Spot-fixing scandal in IPL, disrespect for the highest judicial institution of India by disregarding Lodha Committee’s suggestions and perceived unethical conduct of its business within ICC. Still, BCCI has been undoubtedly the biggest reason for cricket’s stronghold presence in every household in India.
Due to the sea of humanity supporting the blue army, it has been the ideal touring destination for small market teams. A fixture against India brings exceptional viewership and its fruits along with it. India has supported teams like Afghanistan in numerous ways to help them gain the position of a Test-playing nation. Providing a temporary home ground in India, facilitating the development of a stadium in Afghanistan, and making it mandatory for all the teams touring India to play one match against Afghanistan. It is a great sign to see teams benefit with such contributions. Other sporting leagues in the country have been following in IPL’s footsteps to increase their presence amidst the growing popularity of other sports.
While we talk at length about the men in blue, let’s not forget about the other team in the country making strides. Women’s national team has been consistent on the biggest stages in recent years. Making the run to the final in 2017 World Cup and 2020 T20 world cup speaks volume about the efforts vested by the players, team and the board to bring women’s cricket game to the same level as the male counterparts. Remember when Harmanpreet Kaur scored 171 in the semi final against Australia in 2017 world cup. It might possess the same importance in women’s cricket timeline as the 1983 world cup for men’s game. Nothing is more crucial than viewership for continued success. Women stars have suffered at the hands of weak popularity to gain similar stardom as an average male player. With the introduction of Women’s T20 League to the likes of IPL, we wish for packed stadiums at women’s cricket team matches.
Cricket has a nostalgia in this country which rivals football in Europe and South America and Basketball in the USA. Multiple generations of a family reminisce about the best cricketing memories of their era and argue about the greatness of their favourite player over the other. Numerous living room conversations have gone about discussing the test cricket’s class vs T20’s flare. The world around us seems to pause during India’s matches as we witness moments of brilliance. The current brand of cricket put on display by the Indian team is a blend of the class and humility of the preceding generations and the exuberance and passion setting an example for the future.
With the cricket season resuming amidst the pandemic, we can expect Indian team to continue from where they left off. India will be touring Australia shortly after the IPL and would wish to repeat the success as the previous time. We were successful in claiming a test series win down under. The only argument against this victory was the depleted Australian squad. Things would be different this time around with Australian squad at its full potential. Nonetheless, it would make for an interesting exhibition of Cricket with India’s finest looking to keep the spirit and the standard of the game as high as ever.