Modern cricket reflects modern India: Nepotism and toxic nationalism

Jay Shah, the secretary of the BCCI, and Sourav Ganguly, its president, play in a friendly match in Kolkata, a day before the 90th annual general meeting of Indian cricket’s governing body. Despite claims of clean-ups, several charges against cricket associations and the BCCI have been swept under the carpet due to their political and financial clout. COURTESY CRICKET ASSOCIATION OF BENGAL/TWITTER
14 September, 2022

The year 1947 marked a discontinuous continuity. When India won its independence, it never totally rejected its colonial past. Some of independent India’s most important institutions—from the army and to the civil services—took pride in their colonial legacy. A sport that was purely a British construct, deeply rooted in feudal superiority and the myth of English values that underpinned the Empire, also became one such inheritance. Cricket has been a great unifier in independent India, a link language connecting the diverse country. Cricket, much more than Hindi films, provides us the perfect lens to look at India’s socio-political journey after independence. It is a mirror to understand India.

Seventy-five years ago, cricket was neither “an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British,” nor a religion. At best, it was one of three team sports—hockey and football being the others—that were played and watched by Indians. It was a game patronised by feudal lords, the princes and the Indian elites, who had benefitted from colonial rule and were enthralled by the British. In a society replete with the real-life heroes of Independence, there was no need for the country to look towards cricketers as heroic figures.

A major shift took place in 1971, when India won two major test series on foreign shores, against England and the West Indies. It also marked the emergence of a middle-class boy, Sunil Gavaskar, as a cricketing hero. It was the same year India won a war against Pakistan, and exorcised the ghosts of the princes by abolishing their privileges and privy purses. As a new generation of Indians born after Independence were gaining adulthood, 1971 marked the beginning of the second act of post-independence India. It was not a clean break but a gradual one, after the slow passing of Jawaharlal Nehru and the many other protagonists of the freedom movement.

This also coincided with India’s declining international performance in football and hockey. Cricket had pretensions of cultural sophistication and appealed to the middle-class desire for elite pursuits. The bigger shift in 1971 was the way cricket got linked with a new emerging middle-class nationalism, though this was nowhere as pernicious as the toxic majoritarian nationalism on display in the Hindutva age. It was manifest in the manner cricket became a vehicle for normalising ties with Pakistan, when the Indian team toured the country in 1978, after a gap of 17 years.