Batting for the Naturals

James Astill is the Washington bureau chief and Lexington columnist for The Economist. He is a contributor to Open
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If sport existed only to spread the maximum degree of human happiness, everyone should want India to win all the time

INDIA ENTER THE WORLD CUP this month as the second-ranked team, only narrowly below England. They have the world’s best player in Virat Kohli. And they have perhaps the best collection of pace bowlers, in Jasprit Bumrah, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Mohammed Shami, that India has ever produced. Beautifully varied, and all capable of exploiting the atmospheric moisture and green wickets that are likely in England in early summer, they are a potent battery. Add the guile of Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal, both match-winners though relatively unknown, and India has a potential title-winning attack. In other words, India may soon have their third World Cup. What would that signify?

To appreciate the force of the question, consider that India’s two previous cup wins are considered to be signal moments in cricket’s modern development. It is unfair, in a way, to the players concerned—to Sunil Gavaskar, Roger Binny and the rest, to Mahendra Singh Dhoni and his team too—because their efforts deserve to be viewed as personal triumphs. Yet given that the post-1983 period has seen such a historic shift, from west to east, in how cricket is governed, paid for and even played, it is perhaps inevitable that India’s World Cup wins are seen as important markers in that process.

When India won the World Cup in 1983 it seemed at the time like merely a great sporting upset. The Indian side was a collection of Test players such as Gavaskar and bits-and-pieces players such as Binny, with one all-round genius, Kapil Dev. India had previously won only 17 games in almost a decade of one-day cricket; their opponents at Lord’s, West Indies, were the greatest cricket team ever fielded. Yet in retrospect the shock has subsided, as our understanding of India’s underdog triumph has been reshaped by the great events in cricket that have followed. The Indian triumph helped drive India’s embrace of limited-overs cricket and, in turn, the surge in cricket’s popularity on the sub-continent and consequent new economic possibilities in the game that followed. In the process, Gavaskar et al’s triumph has come to be seen less as the end of India’s long era of underperformance and more as a harbinger of the cricketing explosion to come. It looks no longer merely like a triumph of poverty over adversity, but equally as a promise of the riches and power that Indian cricket now commands.

This jumbling of cause and effect is not as illogical as it might seem, for two reasons. First, because, though little detected at the time, the seeds of India’s rise were already apparent in 1983. Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket heist five years earlier had introduced the novel idea that cricket was a form of entertainment whose players should be paid more than a starvation wage. It had also made the game more entertaining, with coloured kit and motorised drinks carts. This primed cricket for commercialisation, which made the size of India’s potential cricketing market, given its vast population and cricket’s monopolistic hold on India’s sporting affections, for the first time crucially relevant. And this was especially the case given the modest uptick in economic growth India was seeing in the early 80s. By then the so-called ‘Hindu rate of growth’ was over.

The elision of Indian cricket’s underdog status with its overlord future seems unusually appropriate, moreover, because it also reflects the attitude that India’s increasingly dominant cricket administrators have often displayed in their dealings with the rest of the cricketing world. The arrogance of power, spiced with longstanding feelings of grievance: that is the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI) default posture, whether it is negotiating the fixture list, not batting an eyelid as the IPL franchises gut the West Indies of talent, or in long denying India’s prime responsibility for the match-fixing scandals that Indians’ illegal betting industry helps fuel. This pattern of bullying and neglect by the BCCI was the main reason why, as I walked through the dark streets of Nizamuddin on April 2nd, 2011, I awaited the gigantic roar that would signal India’s second World Cup triumph with a sense of excitement laced with dread.

I had nothing against another Indian title, per se. When England weren’t playing, I generally backed India. It was my home, my children’s birthplace, I loved the country. And I loved its cricket tradition, the subject of a book I was writing at that time, especially. But the experience of following the 2011 World Cup closely in India had tested my loyalty.

When India won the World Cup in 1983 it seemed at the time like merely a great sporting upset. The Indian side was a collection of Test players

It wasn’t that I was any less devoted to Indian cricket or impressed and often moved by what it meant to the country. To the contrary, over the course of the previous couple of months I had travelled the length of India, from Patna to Chennai, observing how massively the fortunes of India’s team were being followed. I had talked cricket, watched cricket and even played a bit of cricket. I had marveled, all over again, at the uniquely nationalising effect the Indian game has. The IT professionals I had sat with to watch India and England play out a dramatic tie at the Chinnaswamy were, in their moment of intense cricket focus, one with the villagers I had crowded around a teashop TV set alongside, somewhere east of Allahabad, during India’s nerve-wracking quarter-final against Australia. And so they were both with the Islamic students I had stood among outside Nizamuddin dargah, to watch India’s semi-final defeat of Pakistan. Yet as someone who had always cared more about the future of the game than the fortunes of any national side, India’s achievement in becoming the first World Cup host nation to win the trophy had brought me to a worrying moment of stock-taking.

The victory of 1983 had come to seem symbolic of national promise and becoming. By contrast, I worried that the victory of 2011 signified an Indian dominance of cricket that would be damaging to the game that Indians purported to love. This was again partly borne of a sense of demographic determinism. India represented 70 per cent of the population of the front-line cricket-playing world—and for perhaps the first time it was threatening to punch its weight. How would the rest of the cricket world compete? By 2011, India was at last producing a conveyer belt of cricketing talent, chiefly in batting. The brilliant few batsmen of the 2000s—Sourav Ganguly, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman—had been replaced by a windfall of brilliant batters. Had Gautam Gambhir, Suresh Raina or Yuvraj Singh fallen ill, India had Yusuf Pathan, Rohit Sharma, Ravindra Jadeja ready to step in.

They were all of international quality—India could easily have fielded an alternative batting line that would have been competitive at the World Cup, and maybe world-beating. In their social and geographic diversity—Yusuf, the son of a poor Muslim cleric from Gujarat; Sharma, the son of a caretaker from Nagpur—these new talents were also collectively representative of the accelerating expansion of Indian cricket’s talent pool. A torrent of poor and newly-middle-class boys, all over the country, were for the first time finding opportunity in the game. India was starting to produce cricketers commensurate with its financial and demographic grip on cricket. I once raised this with Shane Warne, in his last season with the Rajasthan Royals at the time, and gushed, exaggerating to make my point, that India could easily field three competitive batting line-ups. “It could field two,” he said firmly, which I took as a confirmation.

This was obviously great in itself—not least as further inspiration for the many poor cricket devotees I had met and interviewed about the country. Yet my worry was that the promised new age of India’s dominance on the pitch, even as the IPL provided an alternative outlet for India’s cricket enthusiasm, was an additional threat to the primacy of international cricket. What would be the dampening effect on cricket in Sri Lanka, the losing finalist in 2011, if India became unbeatable? In particular I feared that, if other countries increasingly struggled to compete with India and its billion- strong talent pool, it would accelerate the migration of their best players away from international duty in favour of the guaranteed mega-bucks of the IPL and other T20 leagues.

Inevitably, India’s triumph also revived the longstanding concern about the poor governance of the BCCI. With its support, the ICC marked the conclusion of the 2011 World Cup by announcing that the associate cricket countries—including Ireland and the Netherlands, which had recently given India tough games—would no longer have a place in the tournament. It was a wretched decision. More darkly, there were also mutterings about possible match-fixing—a blight the Indian board had never threatened to take sufficiently seriously— in the 2011 tournament. India’s semi-final defeat of Pakistan, during which Sachin Tendulkar was dropped four times on his ways to 85, and the Pakistani batting appeared baffling at times, had certainly been a strange game.

I worried that the victory of 2011 signified an Indian dominance of cricket that would be damaging to the game that Indians purported to love

But in retrospect I think I worried too much. The temptation to overload an epic sporting encounter with socio-historical meaning is often fraught. The various sorts of theorising about India’s 1983 win exemplifies that. Without Kapil Dev, their one outstanding one-day player, India could not have won; in a sense, any philosophising about the result therefore rests on the shoulders of one chance player. Moreover, India’s 2011 world title was only its second—which, set against Australia’s five, hardly looks like a reason to worry about unending Indian domination. In truth, sporting success owes to multiple factors, including luck and the fortunes of individual men and women, as well as great socio-economic currents. As such they are useful indicators of deeper historical trends, but not infallible. The fears I had about the coming Indian takeover of cricket were understandable but inflated.

Subsequent events have made that clear. The Indian team followed up its World Cup triumph by getting smashed by England in a five-Test series later in the year. And though it has maintained a consistently good standard since, it has never threatened to match the ruthlessness of the best Australian or West Indian sides. In part, it must be said, that is because the revolution in batsmanship that India’s investment in T20 has spawned has been widely shared. For England, the forthcoming tournament’s hosts and favourites, Jonny Bairstow, Jos Buttler and Ben Stokes have all developed their attacking game in the IPL. The same could be said of the premier batsmen in most of this year’s World Cup teams.

MEANWHILE, AMID the inevitable scandals of Indian cricket governance, there has been progress, in the form of the Lodha Committee reforms. They will be contested and at best partially implemented, of course. Put-upon satraps, such as N Srinivasan in Tamil Nadu and Niranjan Shah in Saurashtra, have already found proxies to circumvent Lodha and perpetuate their power. Yet the prospect of a Lodha-ordained greater role in Indian cricket administration for former cricketers seems positive. And the overarching story, that the BCCI has for the first time been held to account, still feels like a very big deal.

Then what, to return to my opening question, would it mean if India bag their third World Cup in England next month? Most obviously, of course, it would mean ineffable joy for most of the world’s cricket fans, which is not a trifling thing. If India win, my mind will be back with the villages in Uttar Pradesh and the slums of Mumbai I once knew, imagining the scenes of jubilation there. If sport existed only to spread the maximum degree of human happiness, everyone should want India to win all the time.

Yet let me limit my theorising this time, in all humility, to the cricket field, which is what matters most. I suggest another Indian triumph would signify three related things. First, as noted above, it would mark the coming-of-age of Indian pace bowling. With respect to Kapil, to Zaheer Khan, and to my particular favourite, Javagal Srinath (the “vegetarian fast-bowler”), India has rarely had a reliable pace attack in all conditions, since Mohammad Nissar and Amar Singh in the 30s. The reason for this has been hotly debated, But there is little doubt that the combination of cricket’s ever-spreading popularity and T20s’ demand for quick bowling has provided a solution. India has a new budding tradition of fast bowling and cricket will be better for it. (As a footnote: almost every cricket conversation I have had over the past six months, with fellow Britons, or random Australians, Indians and Pakistanis, here in Washington DC, has turned at some point to Bumrah: the man is a fast-bowling marvel.)

Second, in India’s World Cup squad we can for the first time see the influence of the IPL in developing and promoting talent that might otherwise have been overlooked. Bumrah, spotted and nurtured by the Mumbai Indians, is the obvious example. Third, albeit with some reservation, I sense that this World Cup already marks the normalising of India’s fraught player selection and internal team politics. There are anomalies there, of course. I doubt Dhoni would make any of the other front-rank batting lineups. Yet the ruthlessness with which the Indian selectors have ejected world-class finger- spinners such as Ravichandran Ashwin from their plans appears to be bold, cricket-based and defensible.

So will I again fear for cricket’s future if Kohli and his men make it three titles for India? I will try not to. Indeed, I would celebrate—albeit not as enthusiastically as if Eoin Morgan and his team make it one title for England. Yet even if they do (and, dear reader, England actually have a decent chance in this World Cup), I am looking forward to seeing runs from Kohli, one of the best three or four batsmen I have ever seen, and wickets for Bumrah. And I look forward to much more than this, too: England’s hopes and India’s chances aside, this could be a dazzling Word Cup.