Cricket, Colony And The Creation Of The “Indian” Community

Posted on February 3, 2014 in Sports

By Rashi Kakkar:

Eleven men, some twelve thousand kilometres away in New Zealand, are having a “bad day in office” which manifests itself in the emotions experienced by millions in India. They are agitated, disappointed and defeated. Cut to 2011, and these are the same million people who jam-pack the Wankhede stadium, and erupt in wild celebrations as Dhoni hits the winning six. The ball crossing the boundary line crowns India as the ODI World Champion, sending the cricket-crazy nation into a feverish frenzy. Every Indian street is filled with crowds, as complete strangers embrace and celebrate their collective moment of pride. It doesn’t matter what religion you practice, what caste you belong to or which Indian state is your hometown, the ‘Indian identity’ supersedes all other affiliations. India has won the World Cup, and for once, being Indian is a matter of collective pride.


In the year 1983, Benedict Anderson coined the term “imagined communities“. He used this term to explain the concept of a nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign“. He further stated that these communities are limited because nations have “finite boundaries, beyond which lie other nations” and are sovereign since in the modern period no monarchy can claim authority over them. Therefore a nation “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each, lives the image of their communion.” If nationalism by definition is the collective voluntary expression of national identity, then nothing achieves this better than cricket in India. Cricket is not about the skill and fortunes of the eleven men who actually play but about the self-respect and pride -if not vindication-of an entire nation.

I find it extremely fascinating that something that was so British became one of the best examples that unites most Indians, regardless of caste, class, religion, region, or language. Being under British rule for over two centuries, most Indians felt a certain sense of animosity towards the British. However Cricket, which is strongly associated with the country of its origin- Britain, continued to flourish post 1947 to the extent that it has become a part of the “hegemonic sports culture” of India. Cricket was first played in England as an informal rural game though it quickly transformed into a highly completive sport. Cricket began diffusing to other countries when British soldiers and settlers brought it with them to the far-flung colonies of the empire. Cricket was the umbilical cord of Empire, linking the mother country with her children. Since its earliest years, global diffusion of the game has been controlled by Englishmen and their cricket clubs. C.L.R. James , the great West Indian historian, journalist, socialist theorist and essayist, once wrote, “Cricket was one of the most complete products of that previous age to which a man like Dickens always looked back with such nostalgia …. It is the only contribution of the English educational system of the nineteenth century to the general education of Western civilization.”

Interestingly, it was not originally the intent of the British to popularize cricket in the subcontinent of Asia. British soldiers are said to have played the game in India as early as 1721, but it was not until the mid-nineteenth century that Indians actually took it up. The Parsi community was the first to formally play the game by establishing the Oriental Cricket Club in 1848. The Parsis took up the game of cricket, along with other imperial customs, partly to demonstrate their fitness for the role of collaboration with the British. This Parsi success at the game also prompted India’s elite Hindu and Muslim populations to take an active interest in it. Americian sociologist Jason Kaufman and Orlando Patterson attribute the adoption of cricket by the elite to the fact that these “elite had relative security within their own communities” and they were also driven by “their competitiveness with elites in rival ethno-religious communities” which allowed for this kind of “segregated- integration.” It was the relative security of the caste based status hierarchy in India which allowed for the diffusion of the game from the top down. Further, Kaufman and Patterson argue that “cricket had a strong identification with English imperialism, and therefore excellence at cricket appeared early on as a way for locals to make a statement about the character of colonial society and the nature of the imperial relationship”. By the 1920s, cricket was followed by everyone in India and from 1934 it could be followed across the country on the radio, when ball-by-ball commentary began. Despite societal divisions, anyone could play, and star players were feted by Indians in every walk of life. India’s gradual rise in the international cricket arena (and its relative lack of success in any other international sport save for hockey till the late 1970s), and more significantly the 1983 world cup win coinciding with the colour TV boom, helped elevate the status of the sport. It became more than just a sport — in the words of Ashis Nandy, “International matches became rabidly nationalistic events replete with hooliganism, jingoism and some outright violence”

This brings me back to present day India and how today, Cricket is nationalism and its spectators, nationalists. It is interesting to note how a spectator often cheers for the team but not the nation. This may be the case seeing as how the idea of a nation as a community is marred by the oppression of its minorities, women and members of the economically weaker sections of its society, whereas the team is always represented as one, albeit with players being in transition. It is due to this representation of oneness that there is a sense of continuity between the World Cup winning teams of 1983 and 2011. The two teams, in reality, share no common elements, except perhaps having been selected by the The Board Of Control For Cricket In India (BCCI), which is a private body, not representing the Indian nation. Nationalism therefore produces continuity and insists upon an analogy between team and nation. As Ramachandra Guha recently stated – “On this game of bat and ball have been projected notions of communal and national loyalty, honour and pride.” Therefore, Cricket becomes a great example of a complete Indian unifier (almost). Cricket also is reflective of the current state of the Indian nation — the team has always lacked the presence of players from the northeast and Kashmir (barring Parvez Rasool, Jammu and Kashmir’s first player in the Indian cricket team, July 2013) — two Indian regions where there are strong separatist voices.

So, the gentleman’s sport does evoke a sense of patriotism where the love for one’s country is measured in terms of the number of matches won. As Arun Jaitley, BJP leader and a powerful voice in India’s cricket establishment recently said, “Cricket will always evoke nationalism. Nationalism is a legitimate expression in the game of cricket.” It was probably this feeling of oneness that prompted Sachin Tendulkar’s recent proclamation – “I am partial towards India and want them to do well (in the 2015 world cup). That would be really exciting. It will give so much happiness to the entire nation. That is something I would want, along with a billion plus people who will also be expecting the same thing to happen.” During the few hours of a cricket match, the Indian is not saffron, white and green, but blue.