Sport and Leisure in Modern India

My photoA great variety of activities might be placed under the heading of “sports and leisure” in modern India. The variety lies not only in the number, but also in the ways in which these activities are organized, and in the fragmented concepts of sport, games, play and leisure. Generally speaking, rituals that are recognized as “sports” are bureaucratically and financially organized, affiliated with Indian nationhood, associated with urban and upper-class populations, and – unlike “play” – associated with childhood as well as adulthood, marking a bridge between the two that the modern subject is expected not so much to cross as to inhabit. While this is not peculiar to India, the Indian case illustrates the enormous gradations within the process of sport-making that are inevitable in an unevenly modern society, where language itself – the translation from the vernacular khel to the English sport – can disguise subtle and not-so-subtle differences between what a “leisure activity” means to those who engage in it. At one level, the boundaries and limits of the games Indians play, their “successes” and “failures,” are closely aligned with those of being Indian in the world. At another level, they function semi-autonomously of the world, as elements of a vernacular subjectivity. This vernacular subjectivity should not be regarded as anti-modern or a pre-modern residue. It exists in a state of continuous, context-driven and mutual influence with the organized, nationalized, “properly modern” world of international competition.

Colonial Origins and Indigenous Experiments

Nearly all major sports that Indians play and follow today – cricket, football (soccer), hockey, tennis, badminton, competitive track-and-field – are colonial imports that came to India with the consolidation of British rule in the nineteenth century, and were widely absorbed as part of the nationalist response to British rule in the later Victorian period. They were introduced by colonial educators to the children of the princely and feudal elites of India, as part of an effort to bond those classes to the empire after the Rebellion of 1857 had been crushed. Polo, which had older roots in a wide region including not only India but Iran and Central Asia, was transformed by British educators and army officers in the same period, producing a modern sport with teams, standardized rules and norms of training, that a tamed native aristocracy could play with its imperial overlords. The enterprise was broadly pedagogical, teaching distinct models of being a child (that played sports) and an adult (that continued to play the same games, and valued childhood play as a building block of adulthood). As in contemporary England, therefore, a close connection was maintained in India between education, childhood and sport. Imperial children were encouraged to play games that had more significance than mere “child’s play.”

When it came to a wider popularization of sports in India, however, the British were ambivalent and often hostile. Games like cricket and football were closely tied to white racial identity. Not only was it unclear that Indians could play them, it was also unclear that they should. The Indian adoption of imported games in the late nineteenth century, and their incorporation into a self-consciously modern subjectivity, were therefore implicitly and sometimes explicitly defiant of colonial power relations. To a great extent, this indigenized “foreign” games: learning and playing them went hand in hand with the assertion of Indianness.

It is not that there were no alternatives to English sports. The emerging Indian middle class, which became the demographic of cricket, football and nationhood in India, knew that pre-colonial sporting traditions could be found in what they were now describing as “Indian culture.” Epic and folk literature contained voluminous accounts of competitive archery and mace-fighting. These intrigued modern Indian consumers of the past, especially those interested in discovering martial traditions. Wrestling, which had an independent pedigree in rural northern India, became a recognized form of exercise as well as a statement of militant masculinity among middle-class youth, particularly in Bengal and Maharashtra, as “Extremist” discourse and revolutionary terrorism became the major idioms of nationalist politics. So did “stick play,” or mock-fighting with staves. During the Swadeshi movement in Bengal in the years following the unpopular British decision to partition the province, for instance, middle-class revolutionaries like Pulin Das – taking their cues from the nationalist writer Bankim Chandra Chatterjee – enlisted their social inferiors to teach them stick play, not so much because they imagined driving the British from India with sticks, as because such “play” was an experience of discipline, community and political confidence.

Wrestling and Olympic Nationhood

Wrestling and other forms of mock-fighting, did not, however, take hold as middle-class sports. Within the vanguard of Indian nationhood, few practiced them, and none “followed” them in the manner in which fans or supporters “follow” sports. They had none of the dominant characteristics of modern sport: no organization, no financial base, no modalities by which spectators and “fans” might identify with teams and athletes, and no widely accepted connection with leisure. Moreover, while they could signify an authentic Indian past, they proved difficult to recover for the present. The skills were esoteric, fit readily neither into urban life nor into the colonial school, and were tainted by their association with tribal and lower-caste populations. They provided fodder for the romantic imagination, but could not compete with the English sports that were securely anchored in the Macaulayan curriculum of colonial subjectivity. The native elites were irrevocably invested in that curriculum, in the sense that they had invested in the adulthood and adult world that children educated in government-affiliated schools were expected to grow into. They did not significantly deviate from it when they created their own educational institutions, such as the Dayananda Anglo-Vedic and Ramakrishna Mission schools for boys, or – in a parallel stream of nationhood – Aligarh College.

At the same time, “recovered” forms of play did not disappear altogether. Wrestling survived, and even thrived, in arenas that were not initially intended for subaltern sports. The reasons have to do with the politics of representation in a colonial society. While Britain was unwilling to contemplate Indian independence before the Second World War, it was willing to concede an independence of sorts in the world of sport, particularly when the “Indian team” remained under overall British control and tutelage. India was thus represented at the 1900 Paris Olympic Games, although the sole representative was the Anglo-Indian Norman Pritchard. (Pritchard won two silver medals in track and field events.) More importantly, while middle class Indians were inconsistent and half-hearted about subaltern pastimes, colonial administrators were sometimes receptive to cultural forms that signified authenticity, and native elites could support such endeavors even when they did not themselves play the game. Subaltern successes in international sport could be appropriated by those who cared about national prestige. Beginning in Antwerp in 1920, Indian wrestlers began to appear regularly in the Olympics with the backing of British as well as Indian patrons, although they would not actually win a medal until K.D. Jadhav won a bronze in Helsinki in 1952.

The nationalization (and internationalization) of Indian wrestling accelerated the partial transformation of an activity that had previously drifted imprecisely across the lines of religion and rustic community, modernizing it into a sport, and supplementing the old akharas (wrestling societies) of Benaras with globally applicable regimes of coaching and classification. The akhara and Olympic wrestling were not distinct worlds; they leached into each other, and most importantly, they drew from the same rural and small-town pools of subaltern wrestlers. These young men from the hinterland, with ideas about diet, exercise and moral conduct that were apparently peculiar to their rural milieu, acquired a limited access to the discourses, practices and opportunities of a wider world – limited not only by their marginal class status, but also by their own sense of what was appropriately modern. They and their sport represent the contextual and “alternative” modernity of the subaltern that inhabits a nation that is only contingently that of the middle-class nationalist who cheers for the national team. The same can be said for Indians who play organized, competitive kabaddi, first demonstrated internationally at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. Kabaddi is not a prestige sport, and middle-class adults generally do not play it seriously. (Serious play is itself a middle class idea.) But it has nevertheless become an activity that is “serious” for people from the vernacular classes that exist between the ideal types of “peasants” and “the middle class,” and can contingently represent India in the world.

Since Jadhav’s medal in Helsinki, only a handful of Indian wrestlers – Sushil Kumar, Yogeshwar Dutt and Sakshi Malik – have been successful at the Olympics. Sakshi Malik's bronze in 2016 reflects the mutable, transforming nature of subaltern and provincial sporting traditions: on the margins of middle-class respectability, women have found a niche that eluded them both in the akhara and in the convent school. It is, nevertheless, a paltry tally that reflects the notoriously poor Indian record at the Olympics, where decades of participation have yielded little by way of medals. Indian athletes do poorly at track and field events and most other forms of individual contest, largely because middle-class Indians are not invested in such contests, taking notice briefly only when a compatriot surprises them by winning internationally. The network of schools and regular tournaments through which talent can be identified, nurtured and funneled upward is entirely underdeveloped. A promising young athlete has almost no chance of finding a reliable ladder of school, city, district, state and national level competitions. Even at elite private schools, track and field athletics have no institutional support, and there is little in the way of facilities, coaching or organized competition. Swimming pools are non-existent and few urban Indians can swim. 

In the government schools, where these schools exist at all, the lack of support for athletics is even more acute. The failure of the Indian state to invest in primary and secondary education, not to mention the wider problems of poverty, malnutrition and ill-health below the middle class, has severely curtailed the emergence of subaltern athletes, who literally have nowhere to begin. Indian runners, jumpers and swimmers have had neither the state-directed support that the Chinese and Eastern European states gave their athletes, nor the combination of civil society and market endorsement that has driven athletic success in the western world. World-class track athletes like P.T. Usha, who fell just short of Olympic success in the 1980s, and before her Milkha Singh (who also barely missed an Olympic medal), are aberrations who shone in spite of the Indian “system,” not because of it. That fourth-place "consolation prize” was also the fate of Dipa Karmakar in gymnastics in the 2016 Rio games.) The system, generally speaking, is the lack of any system at all, or a threadbare infrastructure of nationhood. (There are exceptions at the state level. P.T. Usha’s home state of Kerala is notable for both its investment in literacy and its production of track athletes.)

The Hockey Nation

A different kind of Olympic aberration can be found in Indian hockey. Between the 1920s and the 1960s, and even until 1980, India was phenomenally successful in international hockey, winning eleven Olympic medals, including eight golds. That success and its rapid and total evaporation are both revealing. Much of the credit for the promotion of hockey in colonial India is due to the army, which encouraged soldiers to play the game. Not surprisingly, Punjab – a region with disproportionate military recruitment – became the major base of Indian hockey even before Olympic success made the sport a source of national satisfaction. While the participation of enlisted men gave the game a wide base in class, it was limited by region and to some extent by the institution of the military itself. Outside its original enclaves, the game was not played, coached, organized, watched or sponsored with any consistency or seriousness. India was a “hockey nation” much more in the sense that the national team won a lot of competitions, than in the sense of a general love of the sport.

In spite of the emergence of individual stars like the brothers Dhyan Chand and Roop Singh, the infrastructure for producing world-class players remained limited. The most basic failure, as in track and field or swimming, was the official indifference to universal education: relatively few children learned to play the sport competitively. Success that rested on so frail a platform could not be sustained. In the 1960s, the technology of the international game changed, most dramatically with the adoption of artificial turf. Not only was artificial turf not affordable or easily available in India, it called for sharply revised techniques of playing and coaching, which required an elaborate organizational apparatus that had not emerged. The Indian reliance on the excellence of individual players proved to be insufficient, given the limits of the hockey-playing population. Later in the twentieth century, changes in the international rules of the game – particularly the elimination of the offside rule – further disadvantaged Indian players, who were accustomed to playing a game of close control of the ball and not long passing. Hockey survives in India, but the hockey nation was a chimera.

It is worth noting that the fate of hockey in neighboring Pakistan has been both similar and different. There, as in India, the standard of the game was very high well into the 1960s and 1970s, and the army and Punjab constituted the primary soil in which hockey was rooted. There too, changes in technology and technique adversely affected the competitiveness of the national team. Nevertheless, Pakistani hockey was spared the devastation the sport suffered in India, because the military and Punjab have typically possessed greater political and economic clout in Pakistan than in India. The organizational and demographic base of Pakistani hockey was stronger and more extensive, and Pakistan remains a “hockey power,” although a diminished one.

Football and Revolutionary Manhood

The history of hockey in the subcontinent is a part of the history of team sports, and inseparable from the success that team sports have enjoyed – in results and in popular support – relative to individual athletics. To people engaged in imagining themselves as a public and a nation, or as national communities, the idea of a team had an appeal that solitary competitors could not achieve as readily. This was particularly true for a public that perceived its colonized condition to be a consequence of disunity, and, indeed, of an inability to come together in a disciplined and purposeful manner. Teams thus possessed an inherent assertiveness, and those that coalesced without immediate British supervision lent themselves easily to nationalism.

That dynamic became evident in football, particularly in Bengal, beginning early in the twentieth century. Club football in the city of Calcutta (Kolkata) took shape along lines of race and ethnicity, with British, Anglo-Indian, western Bengalis, eastern migrants, and Muslims gradually fielding segregated teams supported by segregated groups of fans. For Bengalis, the politics of football were closely tied to the British accusation of effeminacy: to play the game was to assert manhood and regeneration. At the turn of the century, the Hindu reformist ideologue and educator Vivekananda had declared football to be more important than the Bhagavad Gita in the education of boys. Even if the story is apocryphal, the significance attached to it by contemporaries – and the importance attached to football by Vivekananda’s monks at the Ramakrishna Mission schools, where middle-class boys were subjected to a modern, Indian-nationalist pedagogy – backed up the association of football with organization and militant nationhood.

The most famous instance of this militancy came in 1911, when Mohun Bagan – a Calcutta club supported by western Bengalis – entered the finals of the IFA (Indian Football Association) Shield tournament, which was India’s premier football championship. Their opponents were the all-white East Yorkshire Regiment, which had a formidable reputation not just as footballers but as tough soldiers. Mohun Bagan won, setting off raucous celebrations not just among its usual support base but among Indians around Bengal. It was as if a particular club had become the team of the larger nation, against an adversary that was undeniably an arm of the colonial regime, and as such, a team in the competitions of empire and race. Particular details of the match, such as the fact that the Indians had played in bare feet and the Yorkshiremen in boots, received much attention: this was martyred flesh heroically defeating the materials of power, or the downtrodden overcoming the soles of the oppressor’s shoes. It coincided perfectly with the agitation against the British decision to partition Bengal, and with the reversal of that decision in 1911.

Club football remained massively popular in Calcutta and its hinterland after Indian independence, although it did not remain unchanged. The clubs became desegregated; Mohammedan Sporting, for instance, has long had more Hindu players than Muslims, and East Bengal is not limited to migrants from the east. The same player can expect to change clubs multiple times in the course of his career. Fans retained their loyalties more out of habit than from attachment to a particular geography or ethnicity. Also, as the popular base of football in Bengal deepened and widened, and the clubs transitioned from amateurism to contracted salaries, the sport became an established mechanism of aspiration and socio-economic achievement for young men from poorer backgrounds. The clubs did not pay their players extravagantly, but they nevertheless produced a modern structure of professional sport that surpassed anything that emerged with hockey or even cricket. By the 1980s, foreign players from elsewhere in the developing world (Iranians and Nigerians, in particular) were playing for Calcutta-based clubs.

The professionalization of Indian football, however, came with dwindling interest in the idea that a football team could represent the nation. In the 1950s, the Indian national team was still internationally credible (although not a top competitor), especially in the Asian circuit. Soon afterwards, its lack of success on any international stage made it unviable as a carrier of national prestige, and Indian club football became almost entirely insular: a world of its own, in which fans waxed lyrical about star players while ignoring their mediocrity in a wider world. The failure at the international level was due, to some extent, to problems that were also encountered in hockey: lack of organization outside specific regions, difficulties with adapting to technology and new styles of play, inadequacies in professional coaching, and the inadequate physical fitness of subaltern players in a sport that had sharply raised its demands on the body of the athlete.

It is not that Indian football fans were oblivious of a world outside Calcutta (or Goa, where enthusiasm for football also ran high, not least because the history of the old Portuguese colony did not include competition from cricket). They followed the World Cup championships, knew who the international greats were, and developed a particular affection for Brazil and Pele. Brazil was, in a sense, their alternative national team in the absence of Indian competence: dark-skinned, Third World, exuberant, triumphant. But in the decades when Indian television was in its infancy, they rarely saw international football. Even their own football, which they could see at the stadium, was more often an aural and textual phenomenon, heard on the radio and read about in the newspapers. They had a glimpse of Pele in 1977 when the New York club Cosmos visited Calcutta and played an exhibition game against Mohun Bagan, but the blow was soft: Mohun Bagan managed to draw the match 2-2, which pleased the home crowd. They were thrilled to share a moment in the sun, but not shocked or embarrassed by a naked reminder of their inferiority.

In the 1980s, however, the eye could no longer be averted. In the decade when television became commonplace in India, Indian football fans were exposed to the highest levels of the global game, beginning with the 1982 World Cup tournament. With the coming of satellite and cable television, the field of vision came to include major championships, year around, everywhere in the world. At that point, the poor quality of Indian football could not be ignored, and Calcutta’s notorious “football fever” cooled very discernibly. Crowds thinned for club matches, and the notion of an Indian football star became infused with wryness. Some attempts were made to remedy the defects, and certainly, from the 1990s onwards, the liberalization of the Indian economy – and the emergence of a powerful advertising and media industry – generated funds which might have been used to improve the standard of the game. For the most part, these efforts have not worked. Foreign coaches, practice games with B-level and C-level foreign club teams, sending a few players to participate in the English football circuit, and attempts to organize a new, television-sponsor-friendly championship on the basis of city identity have not fundamentally changed the reality of a national team that is a national embarrassment. The gap between results and reasonable expectations has become so wide and entrenched that nobody believes it can be closed. The original purpose of Indian football has, thus, been substantially abdicated, unable to survive the shifts in the economy of the sport, and unable, also, to compete with cricket, where the trajectories of success and popularity have been very different.

The Exception of Cricket

Cricket is the great exception of Indian sport. It came from the same colonial roots as hockey and football, in the sense that it was a part of the Victorian pedagogy of discipline and “team spirit” that Indians were both challenged to imbibe and presumed to be racially incapable of absorbing. It too was appropriated initially by limited numbers of Indians: the players came from the higher echelons of native society, although the spectators – who often played too, with different codes of play – represented a wider slice of the people. But whereas hockey and football proved to be limited in their ideological, affective and economic potential, cricket became the Indian national sport, eclipsing all other games to the extent that non-Indians are sometimes surprised to learn that Indians play anything else. Unlike the permanent backwaters of football and hockey, cricket surpassed the wildest expectations of Indian nationalists who saw modern sport as the means of achieving power, influence and centrality.

Indian cricket in the last three decades of the nineteenth century was unquestionably a marginal affair: played by the Parsis of western India and then by the princes, and met with various degrees of grudging British acceptance and condescension. Bombay was the cradle of the sport in India, because of support that was finally extended by the provincial government in the 1890s. The patronage of the princes took the game beyond Bombay. By the first decade of the twentieth century, the first regular Indian cricket tournament had taken shape: the Triangular, in which three ethnically constituted “communities” – Parsis, Europeans and Hindus – each fielded a team. Muslims joined in 1912, making the tournament the Quadrangular, and a fifth team (the Rest) was added in 1937 to what was finally the Pentangular.

Any expectations that colonial administrators or the Anglo-Indian community may have had that the tournament would enshrine a stable European domination of the field dissipated very soon; the non-white teams showed themselves quite capable of holding their own. In its structure, however, the tournament reaffirmed the colonial doctrine of India as a collective of competing ethno-racial groups under British supervision. It was, in that sense, contrary to the nationalist discourse officially espoused by the Congress, which emphasized a unitary nationhood. Gandhi was explicit in his disapproval of the “communal” basis of the Quadrangular contest. If, however, we allow that Indian nationalism has never been entirely distinct from the assertion of communal identities, the Quadrangular was not aberrant. Neither the crowds nor the players were consistently polarized, and there was no significant threat of violent confrontation at the matches. It was understood that the contests were taking place within a limited context that did not exclude other affiliations. A Hindu and a Muslim, representing “the Hindus” and “the Mohammedans” in the tournament, could be teammates in another context, cricketing or otherwise. The Quadrangular/Pentangular can, in fact, be regarded as a successful example of Indians appropriating a colonial structure of competition and using it to gatecrash a closed space of empire. There can be little doubt that the exposure, experience and organization provided by the Quadrangular facilitated the elevation of India to “Test” status – i.e., admission into the top tier of nationally representative cricket teams, which then consisted of England, Australia, South Africa, the West Indies and New Zealand – in 1932. As in the Olympics, sporting nationhood came before the political nation was fully in sight.

Test status was, nevertheless, more an incremental change than a revolution. In the 1930s, it did not mean very many international contests; the hierarchy within the group of Test-playing sides meant that lowly dark-skinned newcomers got fewer games. The Quadrangular remained the primary domestic structure, and the older elites of Indian cricket – the princes in particular – retained considerable influence over the national team, which, consequently, could be described as a group of patrons and clients as much as it could be described as “national.” Over the next decade and a half, however, the princes lost their influence. Middle-class players – who chafed at the self-importance of the princes, especially when the latter displayed little ability but insisted on command – asserted themselves and showed themselves to be indispensable to a competitive national team. The fading away of the British and the princes as political forces after 1947 reinforced the shift. By 1948, when India resumed Test cricket after the interruption imposed by the world war, the national team was firmly in the hands of the urban middle class.

Test Cricket and Nehruvian India

A princely residue remained. It resurfaced prominently in the 1960s in the form of the Nawab of Pataudi, who became a popular and relatively successful captain. Mirroring the place of the princes in independent India, however, Pataudi’s appeal was based more on nostalgia than on the authority of his class. It was also based on peculiar factors like the fact that as a one-eyed man whose most famous performance came on one good leg, Pataudi could be swashbuckling as a buccaneer, especially in a cricketing world in which authority was hoarded by an Anglo-Australian elite. He was, of course, also an insider in the aristocracy: a prince, the son of a former India and England player, and former captain of the Oxford University side. But within India, he carried the aspirations of a middle class that was in command of its own country but conscious of its weakness in the world. It is not coincidental that Pataudi’s place in Indian cricket came to an end just as Mrs. Indira Gandhi abolished the Privy Purses, or extravagant pensions, that had sustained what remained of princely glamor in India.

Indian cricket in the period between the 1950s and the 1980s was both an extensive and a limited phenomenon. Very large numbers of people followed and played the game. Matches in domestic tournaments (particularly the interstate Ranji Trophy and interzonal Duleep Trophy, which replaced the Pentangular after independence) were often well-attended, and Test matches routinely sold out stadiums seating up to eighty thousand spectators. Live commentary of Test matches on All-India Radio took the game into millions of homes, and small crowds of people gathered over transistor radios at bus stops and tea stalls, listening to games they could not attend in person, became a common sight. Cricket in this form was, among other things, a ritual of consuming technology, within the modest means of the middle class in a “socialist” economy. Radio was particularly important in popularizing cricket among women, who had been peripheral to the sport before the 1950s. For children, and boys in particular, the national team provided icons with an overarching appeal: no matter where in the country you lived, you were fixated upon the same dozen or so players, although you might be especially fond of those from your home state. The rituals of neighborhood cricket, played on any available patch of open space, were the same in any Indian city or town. In that sense, cricket reinforced a uniform and popular Indianness, accommodating and balancing regional affiliations.

As part of that national consciousness, cricket connected its Indian followers to a world of sport and competition: they learned the names of Caribbean players, the peculiarities of stadiums in Australia, and the subtleties of English “playing conditions” (weather and soil). They acquired that cosmopolitan knowledge through an Indian lens, as Indian fans. In the same spirit, cricket became an instrument of Indian foreign policy: India was the first country to push for a boycott of apartheid South Africa, as part of its wider stance in the world of decolonization, the Cold War and Non-Alignment. It was vindicated when other countries joined the boycott in the early 1970s, and it was against India that South Africa played its first international cricket when apartheid ended and the boycott was called off.

Cricket, however, also reflected the limits of the Indian nation. There were obvious economic limits, which were also the limits of leisure. Even transistor radios and cheap seats at the stadium were not within the reach of all Indians. People whose meager earnings depended on how long they worked could not afford to take a day, let alone five days, off to watch cricket. (The other side of that coin is the likelihood that high unemployment left young men with time to follow Test matches.) Moreover, in the 1950s, patronage of the sport passed from the princes (who had maintained stables of cricketers), and was taken up by the government and private-sector companies which gave first-class (national and regional level) cricketers jobs and regular salaries. This provided players with the security to pursue the sport on a full-time basis, but the money was modest and nobody became rich playing cricket.

Then there were what might be called city limits. The constituency of the game remained urban and middle class, and its growth followed the growth of that demographic in Indian society. For a long time, Test cricket was played in only a handful of urban centers (Bombay, Calcutta, Delhi, Madras, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Kanpur). Efforts to increase the list of venues (adding Chandigarh and Nagpur, for instance) were not entirely successful. Test cricket marked, in that way, not only a line between the city and the village, but a line between cosmopolitan and provincial cities, the center and the backwater. Until recently, players who made it to the national team came overwhelmingly from the bigger cities and the middle class. So did the women who became cricket fans. The women’s game remained severely underdeveloped, with little encouragement or organization. It is not that people in the mofussil town, village and urban slum did not play cricket, or that girls ignored the game. (Many middle-class Indian girls have played with their brothers. But whereas boys could continue to play the game in a reasonably structured way, few girls were given to understand that the game was compatible with female adulthood.) Their versions, however, remained improvised, irregular and self-contained: akin to Jerry Leach’s famous narrative of Trobriand cricket, in which Pacific islanders play their peculiar form of the game.

Results displayed a similar picture of limited success. In Test cricket, Indian defeats far outnumbered victories, and the occasional triumphs typically came in home games, with their familiar playing conditions and friendly crowds. A team capable of winning abroad seemed to take shape only in the 1970s and 1980s. Why this is so remains a difficult question to answer. One can point to the exceptional quality of a batsman like Sunil Gavaskar or a bowler like Kapil Dev, emerging at opposite ends of the 1970s. But even in the 1950s and 1960s, India had much-admired batsmen like Vijay Hazare and bowlers like E.A.S. Prasanna, B.S. Chandrasekhar and Bishan Bedi. While a psychological explanation (the supposedly greater self-belief of the 1970s generation) have sometimes been called upon to explain the difference in results, the simplest explanation is that the results were not especially different. Apart from a couple of spectacular victories in 1971 and 1986, overseas wins remained very rare. India won the World Cup in 1983, but this was in one-day cricket, where weaker teams and modestly-skilled players have a better chance of success. Test cricket remained a different proposition. Exceptional players were all too exceptional, in the sense that their team-mates were mediocre; they were also not exceptional enough, in the sense that the opposition was even better. The Indian pool of talent and resources was too limited. Even middle-class Indian boys, for instance, lacked access to equipment, practice facilities and coaching that Australian and English players could take for granted. Players from poorer backgrounds lacked all those things, plus a few others: proper nutrition, access to schools and tournaments, time to play. Indian successes were victories against the circumstances, sustained in part by the small size of the world of international cricket, in which even mediocre teams had a place.

The two levels of Indian cricket in this period – the organized, urban-middle-class level, with its coaching, tournaments and demarcated pathways of upward mobility, and the unorganized, improvised level of subaltern cricket – were not entirely discrete. Middle-class schoolboys also played neighborhood cricket, often alongside boys from the slums. They switched codes as they switched contexts. And certainly, the stadium itself was a space where the classes and codes came together in semi-segregated fashion: separated by differently priced stands, but immersed in a common crowd and a shared ritual of watching the same game. The men in the cheap seats (there would be few women here) were more given to shouted comments and crude jokes than the middle-class fans, and, quite rarely, willing to riot, although it should be noted that these incidents were usually not about the outcome of the match. (Stadium riots typically stemmed from the poor conditions and indignities that spectators in the cheap stands were asked to put up with.) But they also showed a sophisticated appreciation of the subtleties of Test cricket, which – reflecting its pastoral Victorian origins – could be a slow game, requiring patience from both players and spectators. They knew the esoteric terminology. They relished Indian successes, but they also admired and applauded opponents, and knew what was “not cricket.” They dressed within their means but did not come in rags. When the proletariat went to the stadium or clustered around the radio on the street, they too switched codes, or, as in the Caribbean of C.L.R. James, accepted the hegemony of a particular notion of civilization.

The World of Liberalization

Like almost every aspect of public life in India, this rather stodgy edifice of sporting respectability was shaken to the core by the economic changes of the 1990s, generally described as liberalization: the abandonment of the rhetoric of socialism and centralized regulation, the new openness to foreign investment capital, and, most importantly, the unleashing of an ethos of unapologetic entrepreneurship, self-enrichment and consumerism. It brought to Indian cricket not only a flood of money, transforming the game into a major generator of revenue, it sharply expanded the pool of players and spectators, bringing in people who were indifferent to the codes and expectations that the previous generation had lived by. In this period, Indian cricket has become an undisputed global power, and also confronted an existential crisis.

Indian cricket in the 1990s was marked most dramatically by the twin phenomena of corruption and Sachin Tendulkar. The decade saw a series of scandals: senior players were implicated in, or at least accused of, financial and sporting improprieties. These included tax evasion and “match fixing,” i.e., cooperating with bookies to fix the outcome of a match (or a smaller part of a match, in what is called “spot fixing”). As allegations flew and secret recordings emerged, the spectacle of corruption itself became a commodity, consumed in the new commercial media. In this hothouse of money and scandal, Tendulkar emerged as a young batting prodigy. His undeniable greatness on the field was matched by his enormous appeal to advertisers, and by his apparently impeccable propriety. Unlike older players with their suddenly-acquired Rolex watches and bookie friends, Tendulkar set a new standard of circumspection: his every move was calculated to be scandal-proof, and every word as bland and insubstantial as a public-relations statement. The circumspection itself was marketed by his managers and admirers in the media as part of his image: he was, it was often said, very protective of his privacy. That new concept of privacy went beyond middle-class modesty: it was inseparable from Tendulkar’s astonishing earnings. (A rough estimate, in the early 2000s, would be five million US dollars annually.) Those earnings no longer came from a token job at a government bureaucracy or a textile company; they came from corporate sponsorship. Cricketers advertising products were not new in India, but the scale and scope of the such activity in the 1990s was. Tendulkar thus epitomized the consolidation of a new, sophisticated relationship between cricket and acceptable wealth, legitimizing the acquisitiveness and aspirations of the middle class in a time when there was, apparently, no longer a contradiction between private aggrandizement and the collective pleasures of nationhood.

Beginning early in the new millennium, the Indian national team began to win abroad with a frequency that was quite unprecedented. Its performances in home series also reached new heights, and a perpetual underdog of Test cricket suddenly became recognized as one of the top teams in the world. The reasons for this change of circumstances are not all centered on India. The West Indies, for instance, sank in this period from overwhelming dominance to shocking mediocrity, making life easier for rivals. But the primary reasons are rooted in home soil. The BCCI, or the board that ran Indian cricket, had become very rich from television revenues. It now eclipsed the Australian and English boards in terms of income, and was the preeminent financial power in the sport. The new wealth allowed it to invest in the infrastructure, personnel and methods of modern professional sport: the training facilities, coaches, dieticians and specialists in fitness and sports medicine that Indian hockey and football could never afford. Simultaneously, the expansion of the middle class threw up an abundance of talent. Tendulkar was not a lone star; he was part of a formidable batting line-up. Fast bowling had long the major weakness and embarrassment of Indian cricket; now the country seemed to be full of young men who could bowl at respectable speeds.

In this rather euphoric moment, however, there were already signs of trouble, some overt and others that were not immediately recognized. The development (initially in England) of T20, a very short version of the game that is essentially cricket reduced to highlights, was seen by Indian media entrepreneurs as a money-making opportunity. They perceived, quite reasonably, that a game that lasted three hours and ended in a guaranteed result was better suited to modern urban life than a five-day game that could end in a draw. With the support of retired cricketers like Kapil Dev, they organized a T20 league, the Indian Cricket League (ICL), that offered attractive remuneration to regional, national and even international players. The BCCI, unwilling to tolerate the challenge to its monopoly on players and revenues, cracked down very hard on the ICL, using its financial clout in world cricket to ban participating players from all international competition. The ICL collapsed. The BCCI promptly created its own T20 competition, the Indian Premier League (IPL), in which privately owned teams were associated with particular Indian cities. The IPL offered extremely lucrative contracts to Indian and overseas cricketers, muscled in on the international cricket calendar, and became a television phenomenon.

The IPL was in many ways the perfect symptom of the Indian version of globalized capitalism, and of the “gold-rush economy” of liberalization. It took its cues wherever it could find them, but preferred American and Indian cultural material: the floodlit cricket was accompanied by imported white cheerleaders in skimpy clothes, Bollywood music and personalities (who played a dual role as owners and mascots of the new teams), and fireworks. Players were publicly “auctioned.” The pavilion, from which players descended like gods when it was their turn to bat, was replaced by the “dugout” from which well-paid Troglodytes emerged. All-India Radio and Doordarshan commentators, now hopelessly dull, made way for exuberant announcers, “journalists” and ex-cricketers paid to endorse the spectacle in hyperbolic terms. BCCI board members themselves owned IPL teams, effectively giving themselves the right to regulate their own profit-making, and drafting bylaws that denied any conflict of interest between private ownership of IPL teams, management of the national game, and the allocation of television revenues. Politicians became visibly close to the IPL, supporting their protégés among the managers of the game, and it remained unclear whether they were curbing or facilitating the irregularities of the cricket board. Board members who were team-owners also had their protégés: N. Srinivasan, the powerful and tenacious president of the BCCI, also owned the Chennai Super Kings IPL team; M.S. Dhoni, the captain of that team, was also the captain of the Indian national team and the highest-paid cricketer in the world. The BCCI’s attorneys increasingly took the position that the board was not a national entity at all, but a private organization. Given the history of Indian cricket, this amounted to a startling repudiation of the national focus of the sport, and an admission of the naturalized nexus between corporations, politicians, sports bureaucrats and celebrity athletes. It was a logical culmination of the new privacy that had been heralded by the Tendulkar phenomenon in the previous decade.

Such naked robber-baron capitalism in cricket was not sustainable for very long. Lalit Modi, the architect of the IPL, soon found himself accused of financial impropriety and fled the country. After a series of lawsuits, new match-fixing scandals and the intervention of the Indian Supreme Court, some separation was instituted between team ownership and the BCCI, glaring conflicts of interest were mitigated, and the worst offenders – in particular Srinivasan –  were weakened. The public’s fascination with the money-making on display was tempered by a discernible revulsion at the corruption and greed, especially as the novelty of cheerleaders and Bollywood stars at cricket matches wore off.

The efforts to clean up the IPL could not, however, hide the crisis in Test cricket in India. Attendance at Test matches plummeted after the 1990s; crowds made it clear that they preferred the “entertainment package” of T20 to the arcane pleasures of the longer game. It could be said of them that they were not serious cricket fans, but the idea of being “serious” about entertainment, or the adult equivalent of “play,” was alien to them. The phenomenon was not exclusively Indian: it affected every cricket-playing country outside the old, white circle of England, Australia, New Zealand and a portion of South Africa. Within India, only some cities – Bangalore, Chennai, Calcutta and Bombay – still saw full stadiums for Test matches.

The pattern was clear: Test cricket hung on in the older centers of the sport, and was dying in the peripheries of the nation, the city and the stadium, where economic liberalization had transformed the relationship between consumption and respectability. These peripheries were made up not only of old cricket fans who had revised their ideas about pleasure and leisure, but also of new fans whose expectations were different to begin with. These fans were not subalterns in the economic sense; the poor were never a part of the marketplace of cricket in the IPL era. They were, however, newly moneyed and brashly confident. Defying C.L.R. James, the new crowd showed no interest in the pedagogy of the stadium or the hegemony of elites who insisted upon a “straight bat.” They did not applaud opponents who played well or won; they were not liberals. They were not invested in the nostalgia and history – the essentially Victorian and Nehruvian modernity – that Test cricket prioritized. Short-format cricket was instant and disposable gratification: a sport akin to basketball, in that it did not call upon the fan to learn and remember legends, scoreboards and plays over periods of decades.

The crisis of the old fan base was evident on the field as well. The string of Test match victories in the early and mid-2000s was followed by a succession of heavy defeats, especially in away games. Test cricket survived in India, but as a sickly and barely tolerated cousin of the boisterous new sporting Self. It came to expected that India would lose abroad, and that the losses would be compensated for in international rankings by home series and blatant manipulation of the playing conditions. When the great Indian players who had come of age in the 1990s retired from the sport, they were not replaced by players of a comparable level of skill, even though the pool of talent was larger. Test cricket and T20 call for different techniques. Because the money was in T20, the new generation of cricketers had geared themselves to play the short format and were found lacking in the skills of the longer, more demanding version of the game. To some extent, this was a global phenomenon, but it was particularly pronounced in India, where the economic earthquake had exposed the demographic limits of “traditional” cricket: an insufficient number of Indians had been taught to value that game.

Ironically, thus, the same forces that put Indian cricket at the peak of the global game pulled it down almost immediately, shifting the globe in the process. The structure of patronage expanded, allowing better performances and results, but it demanded a different game. In England and Australia, the Indian enthusiasm for T20 was regarded as an upstart effrontery and, indeed, as childish. But while English and Australian sportswriters and cricket administrators sought to cling to their old position as the arbiters of values and beauty in sport, it was clear that in terms of the power to allocate resources, make policy and persuade the greatest number of people, they were now the periphery. With the wealth generated by a massive new market, Indian cricket was the new global center, sucking foreign players into IPL teams and bullying other national cricket boards (to their alarm, resentment and acquiescence). The values of the sport had changed, and aesthetics rearticulated as marketable kitsch. The thrill of national victory now came not so much from winning on the field at the most challenging level of the game, as from the awareness of Indian power in the financial and administrative world of cricket.

Nearly Was and Almost Rans – Tennis, “TT” and Badminton

In its abbreviated, Americanized and ultra-monetized form, cricket remained the gorilla on the Indian playing field. Hopes that some of the largesse would be shared with other, neglected, sports came to nothing. The enlargement of the middle class did provide a boost to tennis. India had a modest history of competitive tennis, going back to the mid-twentieth century. Ramanathan Krishnan won the Wimbledon boys’ title in 1954, and reached the men’s semi-finals in 1960 and 1961; he was the fourth-seeded player at Wimbledon in 1962. His son Ramesh also won the junior titles at Wimbledon and the French Open, both in 1979. The Amritraj brothers (Vijay and Anand) had some success in the international men’s circuit and the Davis Cup in the 1970s and 1980s. Economic liberalization generated a larger pool of players (who came entirely from the urban middle class), greater resources for training, and more attractive financial rewards. Just as importantly, it produced the media environment in which Indians could compete internationally before Indian crowds. The first beneficiaries of the changed circumstances were Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi, who became a formidable doubles team, regularly winning international championships. Whereas Vijay Amritraj had an eternally hopeful following among a thin sliver of Indians who read the English-language newspapers, Paes and Bhupathi were widely admired: their frequent victories, strutting assertiveness and income seemed to embody the formula of success in the 1990s. In the new millennium, Sania Mirza took that formula further, becoming the first Indian tennis celebrity. Her good looks, dress sense and insouciance made her perfect material for the tabloid media, which had eclipsed and infected the stolid newspapers and television programming of the past. Her accomplishments on the tennis court became secondary to gossip about her love life, and her decision to marry a Pakistani cricketer only highlighted her reputation for living glamorously on the margins of respectability, like a slightly scandalous Bollywood starlet.

Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi and Sania Mirza were players of modest ability. None broke into the top twenty of international singles rankings, although Mirza came close at one point in her career. They all became specialist doubles players, sometimes teaming up with retired singles greats like Martina Navratilova and Martina Hingis. Their Indian fans did not begrudge them these shortcomings and dodges. Many fans were simply unaware that doubles competition is a lesser form of tennis (much as T20 is a lesser form of cricket), requiring a lower level of skill. They did not themselves play tennis; most had never been coached or held a racquet. That is precisely why the standard of tennis remained low in India: very few played or had access to the infrastructure, even in the era of liberalization. What had grown was a base of armchair fans, who were attracted to victory, celebrity, television entertainment and the vicarious experience of money. In that regard, Indian tennis resembled Formula One auto racing, which acquired a following among affluent Indians in the 2000s. These fans declared themselves to be supporters of the revealingly named Force India, which was privately owned by a wealthy Indian (Vijay Mallya, who has also fled the country to escape prosecution for financial crimes), but staffed entirely by non-Indians. It also resembled T20 cricket, although cricket was a game that its fans actually played.

A somewhat different situation is discernible in badminton and table tennis. Unlike tennis (not to mention auto racing), both these sports are widely played by middle class Indians, recreationally and semi-competitively. Coaching – mainly non-professional –  is sometimes available, at least sporadically. As in tennis, however, there is considerable participation by women; these are considered appropriate sports for middle-class girls, possibly because they are less “rough and tumble” than field sports, to say nothing of wrestling. The standard of play in table tennis has rarely been world-class, although some players did gain a modest level of recognition. Indu Puri was national champion in the women’s game for many years in the 1970s and 1980s, but never ranked among the top fifty in the world. Badminton, which middle-class Indians carried over from colonial traditions of leisure, was played both as gentle backyard recreation for sari-clad women and more energetically in schools, neighborhood clubs and gymnasiums. It produced a bona fide world champion in Prakash Padukone in 1980: he was, briefly, the number one player in the world. Currently, Saina Nehwal is almost as good, relative to her global peers, as Padukone was in his milieu. Nehwal is by any standard a magnificent athlete and a successful one, well known to the middle-class constituency of Indian sport. She and P.V. Sindhu have both won Olympic medals recently. For all that, neither woman has Sania Mirza’s celebrity status, and badminton is not a glamor sport. Few Indians have any awareness of Nehwal’s particular international opponents, or of badminton as an international game. (By contrast, Prakash Padukone's international peers, such as the Indonesian greats Liem Swie King and Rudy Hartono, were known to Indians who followed badminton. Today, Indians who cheer for Nehwal or Sindhu follow victory, not the sport.) It remains a homely sport, and Nehwal the archetypal girl-next-door, when sporting celebrity in India is, more than ever, conveyed by the appearance of power in the world.


The concept of sport in India has historically emphasized the organization of play as an aspect and a sign of education. Moreover, it was (and remains) also an aspect and a sign of nationhood: the pursuit of national teams, or compact collectives that might summarize and represent the larger collective. Not surprisingly, the visible limits of sporting success in India reflect other visible limits of a nationhood that, in its modern posture, has attempted to ignore the basic requisites of a modern public, especially in education and health. The Indian contingent that returns empty-handed from the Olympics is, in that sense, the embarrassing companion of the extreme poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition that many ex-colonial nation-states have overcome, but that the Indian middle class has learned not to see. It is not that Indian parents insist that their children study rather than play sports, an explanation that is trotted out every four years, after Indian athletes have again underperformed at the Olympics. It is that not enough Indians go to school. The Indian nationalist assumption has generally been that even a limited nation will be globally competitive because of its sheer numbers. The reality is that because the national public and the national population have remained partially distinct, the success of the former has been disrupted by the unaddressed problems of the latter.

Teams and crowds are inherently public, and inseparable from the coalescence of a national public. Historically, “private” activities did not fit easily into this ideology of leisure with a collective political purpose. The sports that were relatively successful became so only when they effectively mobilized nationhood for a competitive but inclusive world: that, indeed, was the meaning of success. This limited nation was rarely strong enough to remain competitive. Only cricket has fully managed the magic trick of sport in modern India: it is widely played by Indians in India, successfully played by Indians at the global level, and is organized to represent the nation in the world.

That “magical” success has been reinforced but also reconstituted by the transformed relationship between nationhood and the public in India. Until quite recently, the codes of competition that people who regarded themselves as Indian and sporting were, by and large, determined with reference to a wider world of sport: taking on “the world” at its “own games.” Because the public that played such games in India was not very large, and the state it controlled not very strong in resources and organization, results measured in terms of national achievements or victories remained modest. What developed was a somewhat limited and insulated sporting society that was nevertheless determined to view itself as a player in the world: not unlike Nehruvian India generally.

When the insularity and limitedness were exploded by market forces, the sporting nation could not and did not remain the same. It became wider and deeper, linked at one end to a multinational world of name-brands, celebrities and capital, and at the other end to consumers who had hitherto been marginal to the work (which was also the leisure) of representing the nation in the world. For the new crowd that took over the spaces in which the middle-class understanding of nationhood is displayed, competing with the world on “universal” terms (which were, of course, not so much universal as hegemonic) was less relevant than the narcissistic vision of itself on television. That infatuation diluted and altered the meanings of “serious” sport, infusing it with the “childish,” entertainment-oriented, business of playing, which – unlike sport – had no automatic political significance.

Yet politics is more significant than ever in the relationship between Indians and their sports in the era of tabloid news. As the sporting nation has been redefined to accommodate play, privacy has itself been revised to make room for the material rewards of representing the nation, which can effectively be privately owned but publicly displayed. The sporting nation now consumes, is consumed, and is a private sanctuary for consumption. This indicates, indeed, the development of multiple levels of play. Liberalized Indians (who should not be confused with liberal Indians, a dying breed) “play” before a national public – playing both a sport and a role, like those of Sachin Tendulkar and Sania Mirza, or a random woman who sees herself on the giant screen in the stadium – to acquire the wealth that allows them to retreat from the public eye and play privately.