Cricket is the most popular sport in India by far, and is played almost everywhere. The Indian national cricket team won the 1983 Cricket World Cup, the 2007 ICC World Twenty20, the 2011 Cricket World Cup, the 2013 ICC Champions Trophy, and shared the 2002 ICC Champions Trophy with Sri Lanka. The 2023 Cricket World Cup will be hosted by India.
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Why do most Indians like cricket?
A few reasons that I could think of:
1. Nature of the sport:
Despite being called a team sport, the game of cricket has not always been a battle of eleven versus eleven. If you look at it closely, what we have in the Indian cricket team is a bunch of below-average, mediocres mixed with one or two exceptionally talented players who can turn things around completely on their own. It is because
- we don’t have options, we are a manpower abundant but talent scarce country and
- the sport, for its part, does not require us to field all our best talents, just one or two will do just fine.Nine out of ten times, a good performance by those one or two will be enough for us to change the game on its head.
E.g. the 2011 World Cup which we won with meaningful contributions from only two or three batsmen and just one bowler throughout the tournament. We played an out-of-form Sreesanth in the finals.
Another thing about cricket that appeals to us is its simplicity and the related cost factor – to start a game of cricket with your friends, all that you need are a few broken sticks, a rubber ball and some open space. Pitch conditions never mattered to us. In contrast, basic gear and equipment for most other outdoor games are a tad too expensive, at least in India. Also, given the crowded nature of our playgrounds, cricket is the best and the only option left to our kids. We have seen ten to fifteen games being simultaneously played on these grounds. You simply can’t do that when you play a game of football or hockey or anything of that sort.
Also, Cricket as a way of workout requires much less stamina, fitness and strength when compared to all other outdoor sports. In a game of tennis or football, you are required to run after the ball for the entire duration of the game, which is clearly not the case with cricket. In fact, most of us Indians love cricket just for that, don’t we?
Even when it comes to watching matches on TV, cricket is seen only as a good time-pass, and not a real sport as such. So, even the game duration was never a factor at all.
Explosion of one-day cricket in India
Till about the early seventies, the sport had just one format – the Test cricket. Although it satiated the needs of the purists, it largely failed to appeal to the masses for.. well, the obvious reasons. Cricket was not a clear number one favorite at that time.
This also partly explains why our tennis, hockey and football teams reached their peaks during that period leading up to the seventies. India even made it to the FIFA World Cup once!
All these faded with the introduction of a new format of cricket in the seventies. The explosion of one-day cricket made for a colorful, fast paced new kind of a sporting format – something which the Indian public had been craving for for so long. The ’83 World Cup win by Kapil’s Devils only helped boost further its already increasing popularity.
India’s biggest sporting icon till date, unfortunately for ‘others’, happens to be a cricketer. The advent of Sachin, combined with the opening up of Indian economy to foreign players and the rise in the popularity of satellite television, brought in truckloads of money and glamour to the sport which made the whole package simply too irresistible for the average Indian public.
With Sachin’s arrival, India’s on-field performance reached new heights as well. A mediocre side till then, we started winning consistently both at home and abroad. Our test record improved. We posted our first ever 300+ total in one-dayers in the year ’96. We nearly won that year’s World Cup too.
By the end of the nineties, cricket’s supremacy in India had reached its peak. The new crop of players led by Sachin gave the fans a ray of hope, gave them the belief that they too can do it. In my opinion, this is where all other major sports took a major blow. They failed to live up to fans’ expectations. Till about the late eighties, they were all going at the same pace but enter the nineties, cricket did a Usain Bolt and sprinted its way to a big invincible lead over others.
Power shift in world cricket
At around the same time, there was a major power shift in world cricket. England and Australia, the traditional powerhouses were toppled and the cash-rich BCCI slowly started dictating terms at the global level. An Indian became the head of the International Cricket Council for the first time ever. We Indians celebrated it. It was a huge matter of pride for us.
We started treating cricket as something special. This development simply wiped out all the remaining competition that cricket had with other sports in the country. Soon small time cricketers were invited to inaugurate national level tennis and football tournaments, because they earned good money and fame, at least ten times better than their counterparts in those other sports.
Even when the match fixing scandal broke in 2000, India came out largely unscathed because of the power BCCI was wielding over other cricket boards and also, over some of the big names in the Indian political framework. Moreover, given the unexpected rise of the team under the captaincy of Sourav Ganguly, the whole episode was forgotten overnight.
Another big reason that contributed to Indian cricket’s rapid growth in the nineties. Foreign broadcasters favored cricket over other sports because it gave them the unique opportunity to advertise in between overs, effectively giving them hundreds of ad slots for a single one-day match. It opened up new avenue for the marketers and they saw a sudden spike in their interests for the game.
It also helped bring in live cricket from all over the world to remote Indian towns and villages, which in fact led to a ‘small town boom’ in Indian cricket. That explains how a high school football goalkeeper in one of Bihar’s remotest towns went on to lead the Indian cricket team to World Cup glory in little less than a decade’s time.
The IPL Saga
In my opinion, the popularity of IPL has not affected other sports in a big way but it has certainly added to cricket loads and loads of money and a brand new set of audience, especially women of all ages and backgrounds – including the saas-bahu serial watching Indian housewifes – a segment which no one had targeted previously in the entire history of Indian sports television.
Hockey India and few other sports bodies tried replicating this model but have met with very little success so far.
No real competition
Hockey is perhaps the only sport that ever came closest to matching the passion that fans have always shown for cricket. But that was a real long time ago. A team that had once won six Olympic golds in a row has not won a single medal in the last 32 years. Even worse, we couldn’t qualify for the Beijing games in 2008.
Football enjoys decent amount of popularity but limited to few states like Goa, Kerala, Bengal, Sikkim and other North Eastern states. There is a good fan base for European football but mainly restricted to the metros and other tier-1 cities. But the thing is even a good majority of them do not play the sport. They just watch it.
As for tennis, we have produced few really good world class talents who have been good but not really good enough to consistently break into the top 10 or top 20 of the ATP/WTP singles rankings. That precisely is our problem. We have had no real ‘superstar’ players representing India in any of these other sports for a long long time.
And I am not even talking about the rest. Enough has been said already.
Popularity of the Cricket in India detrimental to other sports?
In my opinion, the whole talk about other sports bodies and their players complaining about the BCCI for its dominance is just a story of sour grapes. They fare poorly because they know no professionalism, they lack accountability, they are not ready to work pro bono and more importantly, they fail to produce results on field which is again a result of lot of such similar factors.
Likewise, BCCI has also had its share of corrupt officials (and players too) but they have been more than made up for by their smarter and brighter colleagues who have gone all out working towards the betterment of the sport. They don’t depend on the government for their funds, instead they have been smart enough to pool in their own resources for the game’s development.
These people have given it their all to make cricket the number one sport in the country, and in my opinion, they have earned it and they truly deserve the kind of money, fame and recognition being bestowed upon them. In a country that lacks credible sports culture, we should only be happy that there is at least one sport that is getting its rightful due.