Why in India did cricket become a religion and football never took off?

Historically with India being a colony of England for over ninety years and having traded and in turn being influenced by it for an even longer time, one takes for granted that sporting exchanges too would have taken place. With which one would have expected Indians to be exposed to both the game of cricket and football. However, over 65 years of independence sees India as a cricketing nation with literally no presence of football. This in itself poses an interesting question, since the popularity of any recreational or sporting activity depends on factors like social-cultural conditions, geo-political conditions, economic conditions and also the climatic conditions of a region.

cricket1 300x130 Why did India Give Football a Skip?
Thus, an investigation on this question leads to an answer on the country’s social-cultural, geo-political, economical and climatic conditions, especially in the last hundred years. While the expected influence of the social-cultural, geo-political, economical and climatic conditions is easy to appreciate, the ability to resolve which of these parameters as crucial would be impossible, especially for a country of India’s size and diversity. It is with this knowledge that I have to admit, I move. To put across my point I would divide the hundred years in question to three distinct time eras, namely pre 1947 (marking India’s independence), Independence to 1983 (India wins its first Cricket World cup title) and finally post 1983 era.

1.Pre 1947 Era

England in North America 1859 1 300x209 Why did India Give Football a Skip?

The first English touring team

Pre- 1947 saw a time of 30,000 to 300,000 British coming in contact with the native Indians. This interaction was strange as it had different levels varying from a master-slave relation to a relationship among equals. One of course can relate this to the status of the British officer and that of the Indian with whom the proximity is in question. Either way, the British officer was at a superior position and had a claim of royalty and thus the right to indulge in the gentleman game of cricket. One has only to remember that football was a more sporting craze with the mine-workers of post industrial revolution England. This population was never in proximity with the local population of India. So what the Indians saw was cricket and an invite to join in the game would amount to acceptability in the club of gentlemen. Thus, the Nawab of Pataudi played. The rest of the population was just too poor to bother with sports when they were more preoccupied with the adventure of feeding themselves.

2. Between Independence and 1983

The time period between Independence and 1983 saw a young country getting in terms with itself. With the British rule coming to an end, a new middle class started developing. Though not Nawabs by birth, by education and government jobs they started patronizing the game of cricket. Cricket in those days was only test matches played over 5-6 days. The game had its appeal not only because it was inherited from gentlemen (British officers) but also it matched the mood and flavor of the native Indians. Like the two great books of India, “Mahabharata” and “Ramayana”, the game of test cricket allowed the plot to unravel with many sub-plots developing within it. It also had the pleasure of chess (a game that originated in India) where schemes and plans with enticements of the bowler led to the fall of the batsman.
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Football not only was too fast, it also was a physical game which meant physical contact. India in those years remained a country with caste system and ills of untouchability. The only field game that was popular (in-fact more than cricket) was field hockey, which somehow made sure the opponent player was at least a stick distance away. Fact that social reformation had succeeded against caste system more in areas of Kerala and West Bengal, with pockets of Christianity in Goa and North East part of India coincides with area where football is popular, can not be neglected.

3. Post 1983 era

1983 marked the winning of the World Cup by India for the first time. It came at a time where the country and its populace were searching for something to reassure them of the redeeming pledge made at the time of Independence. It had already lost its claim to the hockey crown. But that world cup win at Lords also had an ingrained message to the success starved population back in India. It was achieved by a captain who had no Nawab parentage or claim to a gentleman. He was a part of the masses. For the first time a commoner was being celebrated. The win also brought money to the players. Money that was enough not only to sustain during the playing years but well into retirement. For the every increasing middle class of India, who made financial security the bane of any decision-making, saw cricket as a viable career option.
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The pace of the game increased, deviating from the pace of story telling in Ramayana or Mahabharata, but larger money flows fulfilling further aspirations. Today in the 2011 world cup winning cricket team only Sachin Tendulkar is from an urban upper middle-class family. The rest is from the interiors of the country (even Sehwag is from the rural areas of Delhi). Those who do not make a cut to the Indian team also earn well from IPL. Cricket thus offers lower middle class to break into the big league within the life span of a generation.

Each era mentioned above gave a definite flip to cricket without impeding the growth of football; however, the gulf between the two games became larger and larger, leading to the present scenario and question that aroused. Today, India’s economic prosperity is improving; aspirations are improving and the curse of castes receding ever so slowly. One thus, can expect growth of other games in the next 40-50 years.

By P.Arun

Also See:
Have The New ODI Rules Killed the Charm of the ODI Game?
European Football Games And The Desi Obsession

Image Source:Grant65 at the English language Wikipedia [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons ,Wikipedia

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