An Indian Century

An Indian Century: The march of a national game

The Indian and Pakistani cricket captains, Sourav Ganguly and Inzamam-ul-Haq, at a photoshoot in Kolkata ahead of Pakistan’s 2005 tour of India {{name}}
01 October, 2014

IN SEPTEMBER 2007, the International Cricket Council hosted the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa. The best Indian players, including Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Saurav Ganguly, declined to play, thinking it an inconsequential sideshow. An inexperienced team was sent, captained by the then relatively unhonoured wicket-keeper-batsman Mahendra Singh Dhoni.

Six months earlier, India had been knocked out in the preliminary rounds of the main, or fifty-overs-a-side, World Cup. The early exit prompted protests by fans across the country. Effigies of players were burnt, mock funeral processions held. Police pickets were posted outside the homes of the (temporarily) disgraced cricketers.

A cricket fan has his head shaved to mourn India’s early exit from the 2007 fifty-overs-a-side World Cup. The loss prompted protests by fans across the country, who burnt effigies of players and held mock funeral rocessions. RAJESH KUMAR SINGH / AP PHOTO

In South Africa, the cricketers redeemed themselves by winning the T20 championship. The final, played against the arch-enemy, Pakistan, was won (and lost) in the last over. During the post-match ceremony, the Pakistani captain addressed words of regret to his country and religion, apologising to “everyone back home and Muslims all over the world” for letting them down.

Naturally, the mood in India was very different. Here it was 1983 all over again. India had conquered the world once more, and the patriots (and more so the super-patriots) were delighted. Activists of Hindu-chauvinist outfits such as the RSS and the Bajrang Dal organised victory processions. Dhoni’s men received a rapturous reception on their return home, with thousands of fans thronging Mumbai airport, from where the cricketers were driven to the city in an open cavalcade. They were taken to Wankhede Stadium, where a crowd of 35,000 heard a speech by the then president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, Sharad Pawar, also the president of the locally powerful Nationalist Congress Party.

The victorious Indian captain spoke next. He stressed his humble origins. Dhoni came from a working-class family in Ranchi, a town not previously known as a centre of Indian cricket. Nine other members of his side were likewise from places other than the great, powerful, historic cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. This commonality explained their success, claimed Dhoni, since “small-town boys are tougher mentally and physically than cricketers living in metros. Smaller towns lack infrastructure and facilities, so players from there have to work harder.”

Dhoni’s argument was sociologically robust. A steady democratisation and decentralisation of Indian cricket had taken place. Between 1958 and 1974, Bombay was undefeated in the Ranji Trophy. Then, other teams based in large cities, such as Delhi and Karnataka (headquartered in Bangalore), started winning the championship. From the 1990s, teams from the hinterland started asserting their presence. Previously unfashionable sides like Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh began winning the Ranji Trophy as well. Orissa, Kerala, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, also considered cricketing backwaters, began contributing players to the Test team.

In this social and spatial deepening, television played a key role. It nurtured hope and ambition among players in small towns and even villages. In the past, to play for India, it helped enormously if one had grown up in a major city—where one had access to clubs, coaches and competitive leagues. Now, however, if one had the talent and the will, one could learn the techniques of batting and bowling from the television. In the past, Bombay batsmen were coached by, or sought to emulate, Bombay batsmen older than them. But now one could watch and learn from cricketers anywhere in the world.

The widening of the national team’s catchment is only one of the major changes in the ways cricket has been played, watched and perceived over the past twenty years. There have been profound changes in the economics of the game, and in how cricket relates to politics and culture. At the same time, India has emerged as the global centre of cricket, with its cricket board playing a decisive role in how the game is administered worldwide.

OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, the liberalisation of the Indian economy has led to a surge in economic growth and an expansion of the country’s middle class. Post-liberalisation, millions of Indians now have more cash to spend and play around with. Some of their money has gone, directly and indirectly, on cricket and cricketers.

The year after Dhoni’s team won the T20 World Cup, the Indian Premier League got under way. I disliked the IPL even before it began. In an article published two weeks before the first match, I compared Test cricket to single malt Scotch whisky, fifty-overs-a-side internationals to Indian Made Foreign Liquor, and T20 to the local hooch.

My article was read by the sports economist Stefan Szymanski, who then came to visit me in Bangalore. He was advising the IPL on scheduling, and hoped to convince me of the merits of the new tournament. I remained unpersuaded; but, before he left, Professor Szymanski pulled out of his bag a gift he had carried for me all the way from the United States—a bottle of rare Scotch whisky.

It was a well-meaning gesture. In the event, I kept the whisky, and kept to the Test cricket. Although, as a member of the Karnataka State Cricket Association, I have free access to all IPL games played at its stadium, I still haven’t attended any.

My opposition to the IPL was, to begin with, cricketing—it was simply not the game I had grown up with. Then I began to criticise it from a political point of view as well. India’s most populous states—such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar—did not have a single IPL team. On the other hand, the state of Maharashtra had two. It was evident that the distribution of franchises was heavily biased towards the richer parts of the country. The IPL teams were based in the cities and states that had benefited most from India’s economic boom.

Old fogeys like myself were put off by the IPL. On the other hand, many members of the emerging middle class were attracted to it. Young professionals in the new, globalised economy worked long hours. They had not the time, nor the inclination, to take five days off for a Test match. Even a fifty-fifty international cut into the working day. A T20 match, on the other hand, lasted less than four hours. It began at 7 pm and ended well before midnight. You could watch it on television at home, winding down with a drink or two after a hard day at work; or you could watch it at the ground, with friends or family.

The IPL has now been going for eight years. It has often been in the news for non-cricketing reasons. A long entry on Wikipedia entitled ‘Controversies involving the Indian Premier League’ speaks of, among other things, trouble with the Indian Government over non-payment of tax dues; restrictions on the media to ensure only favourable coverage; the suspension of Lalit Modi, the man who ran the IPL for the first three years but then fell foul of his colleagues in the BCCI; the termination of two franchises because of contractual disputes with the board; and the suspension of eight cricketers (including an Indian international) for “spot-fixing” in collusion with bookmakers. The list is by no means exhaustive. IPL players have been detained by the police for misbehaving at parties, allegedly consuming banned drugs, and so on.

For all the corruption and the cronyism, the IPL has thrived. Its progress over the years validates the maxim that there is no such thing as bad publicity. In 2011, for example, some sixty million people watched the tournament. The channel controlling the telecast grossed an estimated Rs 1,000 crore (roughly $200 million). While advertising rates have gone up and down, they remain extremely high. In 2012, for a ten-second spot in the final stages of the IPL, the going rate was Rs 500,000. By comparison, it was Rs 250,000 for an India–Sri Lanka series, and a mere Rs 50,000 for the London Olympics.

To be sure, whereas the fan base of the Indian Test and one-day teams cuts across social and geographical boundaries, the IPL is a largely middle-class and city-based affair. Even so, it must be admitted that the IPL has been a commercial success, and, at least in the cities, a social success as well. T20 cricket has become, like Test cricket and fifty-overs internationals before it, an Indian sport. Proof of its domestication lies in the ways in which it has entered the language of everyday discourse. When, in August 2012, a new chief minister was appointed in Karnataka with less than a year to go before the next state elections, he told the press that he must promote his policies quickly, since “I have very little time. It’s like a T20 match and I have to post a good score. Taking singles won’t do. I have to hit only boundaries and sixes.”

THE LEGENDARY SLOW BOWLER BISHAN SINGH BEDI, who appeared in 67 Tests for India between 1966 and 1979, tells the story of a match against New Zealand early in his career. The players were paid Rs 250 per Test, or Rs 50 per day. When the Indians thrashed their opponents in four days, the BCCI, working on their per diem formula, reduced the match fee by 20 percent. The better you played, apparently, the less you were paid.

The growing commercialisation of Indian cricket has brought with it a certain amount of corruption and crudity. On the other hand, the march of commerce has made the status of cricketers themselves more secure. In the 1940s and 1950s, many first-class cricketers died destitute. In the 1950s and 1960s, many gifted young players were commanded by their families to abandon the game and focus on their studies, since degrees and not runs or wickets got one jobs. Recognising the problem, in the 1970s public-sector companies and banks recruited Test and Ranji Trophy cricketers onto their rolls, so that they could continue to play the game at a competitive level.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, as the television money rolled in, the BCCI shared some of it with the players. Match fees rose higher and higher. Because cricketers were not always prudent money managers, the board chose to withhold a portion of each player’s match fee and put it into a retirement fund, to be availed of when his career ended. Later, they introduced a separate pension scheme, whereby all former Test players were additionally paid Rs 35,000 per month till their death. Those who had played more than fifty first-class matches were eligible for a monthly pension of Rs 15,000.

In the twenty-first century, the revenues of the BCCI and the incomes of international players have risen substantially, year by year. In 2013, cricketers were each paid Rs 500,000 per Test (whether they won in three days or lost in five), and Rs 300,000 per one-day international. The top twenty-odd players were also paid an annual retainer by the board. There was now also more—much more—money to be made through IPL contracts, and through endorsements.

In the past, if a young man was good enough to play cricket for India, he could become fleetingly famous; now, he can also become very, very rich. Even playing for one’s state assures substantial financial security. In 2013, a full season of Ranji Trophy cricket fetched, in match fees alone, the very handsome figure of Rs 1.4 million.

AS THE SOCIOLOGY AND ECONOMICS of cricket have changed, so has its politics.

The Indian cricket team’s tour of Pakistan in 2004 was the first time the two countries had played a bilateral series since the Kargil War. The cricket was of a high quality, the matches were closely contested, and yet the atmosphere in which they were played was surprisingly pleasant and non-combative. India won the one-day series, and then the Test series too—the first time it had done so in Pakistan (in fifty years of trying). The results were met with equanimity by hosts and visitors alike. Indian cricket fans were not as triumphalist as their past behaviour might have led one to expect. Nor were Pakistani fans excessively despondent.

The next year, Pakistan toured India. I watched them win a Test in Bangalore, powered by a superb hundred from their captain, Inzamam-ul-Haq. Once more, the result was met with an impressive maturity. In the past, Indian fans had sometimes treated Inzamam harshly, making derisive comments about his ample waistline. Now, they applauded both his batsmanship and his captaincy. When the last Indian wicket fell, Inzamam was met, while walking off the ground, by his little son, rushing from the pavilion to greet him. The giant gathered the infant in his arms, cheered by me and—in a striking departure from the time in 1996 when Javed Miandad walked back to the pavilion in Bangalore to the sound of a single man clapping—by everybody else in the stand as well.

The civil, mature spirit in which India–Pakistan matches were conducted in 2004 and 2005 was noteworthy. This owed something to the policies of Indian prime ministers. Both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh had sought to forge better relations with Pakistan. The new mood may also have been influenced, in subtler ways, by the impressive strides made by the economy. Indians had long prided themselves on their more-or-less continuous democratic history, contrasting this with the fact that Pakistan had experienced long periods of military rule. Now, India was far more prosperous as well. Their nationalist insecurities thus assuaged, middle-class Indians minded less when they lost a cricket match to Pakistan. After all, they were doing so much better where it really mattered.

IN 2011, the World Cup returned to India. It had previously been played in the subcontinent in 1987 and 1996. This time, the always excessive nationalism of the Indian cricket fan was intensified by the fact that this would almost certainly be Sachin Tendulkar’s last World Cup. He had played five World Cups before, but had never been on the winning team. Victory at home would be the perfect parting gift for the most widely admired sportsman in Indian history.

Tendulkar made his international debut in 1989. His first years in Test cricket were played against a background of growing social conflict in India. The Mandal Commission Report, advocating affirmative action for intermediate castes, had sparked a series of clashes between different castes. The opening out of the Indian economy had provoked fears of rising inequality and joblessness. There was an insurgency in Kashmir, and continuing tension along the Pakistan border. A Hindu-chauvinist revival was threatening the country’s secular fabric. Through the 1990s, thousands of people lost their lives in bloody riots between rival religious groupings.

Sachin Tendulkar in Lahore in 1989, the year he made his international debut. Unlike previous Indian batsman, Tendulkar exuded power. BEN RADFORD / ALLSPORT / GETTY IMAGES

The social tension was accompanied by political instability—between 1989 and 1998, India was governed by no fewer than seven different prime ministers. It was in this atmosphere of hate, suspicion, fear and violence that Tendulkar scored his first hundreds in international cricket. The skill and versatility of his batsmanship made millions of Indians temporarily forget their everyday insecurities and come together to cheer their new hero.

There had been fine Indian batsmen before Tendulkar. Merchant and Hazare, in the 1940s, and Gavaskar and Viswanath, in the 1970s, were world-class players. Yet their game was based on technique and artistry, whereas Tendulkar exuded power and domination. He was a magnificent attacking batsman, who took the game to the bowlers. Although he was a little man, he stood up to the best fast bowlers of the day—South Africa’s Allan Donald, Pakistan’s Waqar Younis, the West Indies’s Curtly Ambrose, Australia’s Glenn McGrath—hooking, cutting and driving them with authority. Because he was a small man, his conquest of these fearsome foreigners made Indians marvel even more.

Gundappa Viswanath, considered among the finest batsmen of the 1970s, scored over six thousand runs in 91 appearances for India. ADRIAN MUREL / ALLSPORT / GETTY IMAGES

Tendulkar would have been great in any age, yet he was lucky that his cricketing career coincided with the rise of satellite television, as well as with the growing importance of one-day cricket. The achievements of Gavaskar and Viswanath could only be admired by those in the cities. Tendulkar could be appreciated in small towns and villages as well. His style of batsmanship was extremely well suited to limited-overs cricket, which was rapidly replacing Test matches as the main form of the game in India (and beyond). There was also far more international cricket played nowadays. These factors all helped Tendulkar become more recognisable than any Indian cricketer of the past.

When the 2011 World Cup started, Tendulkar had scored 97 hundreds in international cricket. He scored two more in the early rounds—against England and South Africa respectively—making it 99. India, meanwhile, easily qualified for the knockout rounds of the competition. In the quarter-finals, they played Australia, winner of the previous three World Cups. It was a hard-fought match, played at Ahmedabad, and won in the end by the home team.

India would now meet Pakistan in the semi-finals. The match was scheduled for Mohali, in Punjab, a few hours away from the Pakistani border.

This was by far the most awaited, most discussed match of the entire World Cup. Fans all over India and Pakistan began praying for their team’s success. In Ranchi, hometown of the Indian captain, MS Dhoni, chickens were sacrificed to placate temple goddesses. In Rajkot, 51 coconuts were offered to Lord Hanuman in a famous shrine dedicated to him. In Kanpur, Hindu and Muslim priests held a joint prayer service. Muslims read verses from the Quran, while Hindus read from their holy texts, both with a view to helping the Indian team win the World Cup.

In Mohali itself, one cricket lover held a placard outside the stadium, promising he would donate a kidney to whoever gave him a ticket for the match. Sadly, he didn’t get to see the match live. Among those who did were several thousand Pakistani fans, who had driven across the border on temporary visas. Their prime minister at the time, Yousuf Raza Gilani, also came, at the invitation of his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh. The two watched the match together. Also in attendance were other leading Indian politicians and film stars.

The Pakistani prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani (left) and the Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh at the 2011 World Cup semifinal in Mohali, Punjab. Pakistan fought hard, but India won the match quite comfortably in the end. DANIEL BEREHULAK / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

On the day of the game, offices everywhere closed early. So did state legislatures, politicians deciding that cricket must take precedence over matters of state. In towns and cities across the country, fans huddled around their television sets. The only places that worked—after a fashion—were operation theatres of hospitals. But there, too, doctors, nurses, attendants and (not least) patients followed what was happening at Mohali, ball by ball, on their mobile phones.

The match started at 2 pm, Indian Standard Time. India batted first. The great Tendulkar top-scored with 85, helped by as many as four dropped catches, his good luck no doubt credited by some to the prayers previously offered to local and universal gods. India posted a score of 260—competitive if not unattainable. Pakistan fought hard, but a combination of tight bowling and smart fielding saw India win quite comfortably in the end.

As the match ended, young men congregated at street corners, shouting slogans in praise of their team and their country. One report, from the port town of Kochi—as far removed in geographical and cultural distance as any place in India could be from Mohali—is representative. Here, as the last Pakistani wicket fell, there were, according to the New Indian Express, “frenzied celebrations,” with “dance, music, and crackers” creating “an electric atmosphere.” A large group of fans “took out a victory march from Palarivattam Junction to the Jawaharlal Nehru International Stadium in Kaloor, with chants of ‘Jeetega Bhai Jeetega, India Jeetega,’ ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ and ‘Sachin Ki Jai.’”

For some Indians, their team’s victory suggested that Pakistan fell short of India in political and civilisational terms as much as in cricket. As one fan patronisingly put it, “if they take their own national social, religious, political and economical condition so seriously as a cricket game in comparison with India and try their best to equate themselves with India, [the] future of Pakistan will be much brighter and much prosperous.”

VICTORY OVER PAKISTAN took India to the final, where they were pitted against their other subcontinental rivals, Sri Lanka. The match was to be played in Mumbai, the country’s financial centre, the hub of its entertainment industry, and the home town of many of the best Indian cricketers, not least Tendulkar. Now, 22 years after his international debut, this great and greatly travelled cricketer had returned home to play the final of cricket’s World Cup. Most Indian fans—and not a few foreigners too—hoped (and prayed) for a fairy-tale ending, in the form of an Indian victory brought about by a century from Tendulkar that would be his hundredth hundred in Indian colours.

India, in a World Cup final, at home, with Tendulkar playing in Mumbai on the verge of a historic personal landmark. No match in cricket history had generated so much interest. In Kolkata, also a great Indian port city—albeit on the other side of the subcontinent—the main product sold in the days leading up to the final was the national flag. Most flags were small enough to be displayed by a single hand. However, in the locality of Bhowanipur, a young man had stitched together a sixty-metre-long tricolour, which—with the help of his friends—he planned to parade along the streets if his team won.

A more collective interest was manifested by the students of Gujarat University, who prevailed upon the vice chancellor to postpone their year-end examinations to after the tournament had ended. As many as ninety thousand examinees welcomed the change in dates. Also in Ahmedabad, the inmates of the Sabarmati prison joined their warders in praying for Team India’s success. In Mumbai itself, the owner of a seafood restaurant in Juhu put up a large screen, and instructed customers to “heckle Sri Lanka mercilessly.” A Chinese restaurant in Dadar offered a “100% discount” if Tendulkar scored his hundredth century.

Millions of Indians, including these convicts at Sabarmati Central Jail in Ahmedabad, tuned in to India’s World Cup matches. Soaring television ratings have translated into massive profits for the Indian cricket board and the country’s cricket stars. SAM PANTHAKY / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

In the high-tech city of Bangalore, the computer terminals that normally served as the backoffice of the world logged off several hours before the final began. In a “desperate bid to catch up with the game from the first over,” wrote the Times of India, “thousands of commuters were seen crowding the roads in two-wheelers, cars, autos and public transport (state-run buses) to head to homes, bars, restaurants and the nearest neighbourhood to avoid getting caught in traffic jams and missing the fun.”

Bangalore is where I (usually) live. It was here that I watched some of the early matches of the 2011 World Cup. In mid March, however, I had to leave for a series of academic engagements in the United States. I was on a flight to Chicago when the match against Pakistan took place. On the day of the final I was in Hawaii, which is fifteen hours behind Mumbai. This being America, the television in my hotel room would not show the cricket.

I went to sleep at 11 pm, just as the match was beginning. By the time I awoke much of it was over. My son had been able to arrange a ticket for the final; with thirty thousand screaming around him at Wankhede Stadium, he would not be able to take my calls. So I called a college classmate in Delhi instead. He filled me in as to what had happened thus far. Sri Lanka had batted first, and, with the accomplished Mahela Jayawardene scoring a hundred, posted a total of 274.

My friend then quickly told me about the progress of the Indian innings. Tendulkar got out early; the hundredth hundred would have to wait for another day. As we spoke, Gambhir and Dhoni were together in a crucial partnership. I sensed a hint of impatience in my friend’s replies; clearly, he wanted to get back to his television. I hung up and went down with my laptop to the hotel reception. There was no wi-fi in the rooms, but I was told I might be able to access it in the garden café. After some scrambling, I located one of several illegal sites that were “livestreaming” the match. I caught the last half an hour, up to and including Dhoni’s spectacular six that secured India their win.

A spectacular six from Mahendra Singh Dhoni (left) secured India’s victory against Sri Lanka in the 2011 World Cup final. WILLIAM WEST / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Later, I caught up with news reports on how the victory was received back home. In the eastern town of Berhampur, fans visited temples and broke coconuts in grateful thanks. In the sub-Himalayan town of Dehradun—where I had spent my boyhood and youth—thousands of people rushed to the iconic Clock Tower to shout slogans and burst crackers. In Delhi, Sonia Gandhi, the president of the ruling Congress party, born and raised in cricket-illiterate Italy, came out of her heavily protected bungalow to (briefly) celebrate her adopted country’s win with (as The Telegraph reported) “a teeming, screaming crowd of cricket fans.”

Of course, the celebrations were very loud—and prolonged—in Mumbai itself. After the final ended, reported the Press Trust of India, “it was Diwali once again on the streets of India’s financial hub as jubilant Mumbaikars celebrated team India’s victory in the Cricket World Cup on Saturday night. The sounds of fireworks and musical instruments like dhol, tashe reverberated throughout the city as the ‘biggest party on the planet’ began.”

Almost all of India rejoiced. The exceptions were congenital cricket-haters, and one particular group of entrepreneurs: those who made their money selling and distributing films. As India marched through the knockout rounds, the number of empty seats in cinema halls increased. In the last rounds of the tournament, city multiplexes that normally were quite full were reporting occupancy levels as low as 10 percent. A Mint headline pithily conveyed this conquest of one great popular passion at the hands of another: “Film Business Goes for a Toss as Cricket Scores.”

By common consent, the most charming (as well as most apposite) comment on the home team’s win came from one of the cricketers. As they took a victory lap after the match, several younger players raised Tendulkar on their shoulders. One of them, the batsman Virat Kohli, said later that Tendulkar had “carried Indian cricket on his shoulders for 21 years.”

FOUR DAYS AFTER INDIA WON THE WORLD CUP, a resolution was introduced in the Maharashtra state assembly. This asked that Tendulkar be awarded India’s highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna. The resolution was passed unanimously.

The Bharat Ratna had, in recent years, become a subject of intense parochial interest. Different states had vigorously advanced the claims of their own best-known public figures. Tendulkar was of course a Maharashtrian, but in this case the interest and the pride was national rather than parochial. The call to make him a certified “Jewel of India” grew wider and louder. Television channels ran discussions on whether a cricketer deserved an honour reserved in the past for politicians, social workers, scholars and musicians. Most people thought that, in this particular case, he did.

Had Tendulkar scored his hundredth hundred in that World Cup final, the clamour to make him a Bharat Ratna might have been impossible to resist. Had that happened, it is also overwhelmingly likely that Tendulkar would have then retired from the game.

In the event, Tendulkar was not made a Bharat Ratna after the World Cup. He now played on, in part in search of that hundredth hundred, in part because his (many and various) sponsors wished him to continue, in part because he still thought he was good enough. From the age of 16 he had been an international cricketer. He knew no other profession. Without even a high-school certificate, he would not have known where to find one. In 2010 he had scored more runs in Tests than anyone else, and been chosen Wisden’s cricketer of the year. Now, he had just been part of a successful World Cup campaign, in which he had scored two centuries and a crucial 85 against Pakistan.

That century of centuries finally came in a match against Bangladesh in March 2012. In April, the government nominated Tendulkar to the Rajya Sabha. He was the first sportsman to be so honoured. Tendulkar now chose to retire, but from one-day cricket only. When India next played a Test match, he added a fresh record to an already extensive collection: he was now the first member of parliament to play for India.

Through 2012 and 2013, Tendulkar’s game visibly declined. By August 2013 he had gone two-and-a-half years, and 22 Tests, without scoring a hundred. For the first time in his career, there was talk in cricketing circles (and beyond) that he no longer deserved his place in the team.

India’s next scheduled Test series was in South Africa, in December 2013. South Africa had the best fast bowlers in the world, who, on their home pitches, would severely test the ageing Tendulkar. There were some talented young batsmen in the wings, waiting to be blooded. On purely cricketing grounds, the selectors might have been tempted not to pick Tendulkar for the South African tour. But this was no ordinary cricketer, but the most venerated sportsman in the history of modern sport. When, during the troubles of 1968, the police wanted to detain the ageing troublemaker Jean-Paul Sartre, the French president Charles de Gaulle said: “One does not arrest Voltaire.” Which Indian selection committee would have the desire or the courage to drop God?

There was a further, and determining, complication: that in August 2013 Tendulkar had played 198 Test matches. If he went to South Africa, he would become the first (and possibly last) player in cricket history to play two hundred Tests. Which selection committee would act to deny Tendulkar (and India) this achievement?

The ever-canny Indian Cricket Board stepped in to solve the problem. A two-Test series was arranged before the South African tour—against the West Indies, and at home, with the second Test, Tendulkar’s two-hundredth, to be played in Mumbai. Thus were the selectors saved from embarrassment—and perhaps Tendulkar too, since he would certainly fare better against the West Indies in India than against South Africa in South Africa.

The series against the West Indies was due to begin on 6 November 2013. On the afternoon of October tenth, Tendulkar announced he would retire from all forms of cricket after these two home Tests. That day, and night, the cricketer and his legacy dominated discussions on Indian television. This prompted an angry article, on the left-wing website Kafila, complaining that “while every channel debated (at inordinate length) the consequences of the banal inevitability of a sportsman retiring from his game while the going was good,” the media had scarcely discussed another recent event—the acquittal by the Patna High Court of members of an upper-caste militia accused of murdering some sixty Dalits in rural Bihar.

Tendulkar retired in 2013, with a hundred centuries to his name, after playing his two-hundredth Test match in a special series against the West Indies. Hours after India won, it was announced that Tendulkar would receive the Bharat Ratna RAJANISH KAKADE / AP PHOTO

The charge that love of cricket—and of one cricketer in particular—was responsible for this apathy would not go uncontested. A comment on the article accepted that the “Bathe massacre was utterly unfortunate, but still, you will have to acknowledge that the contribution of Tendulkar towards this society is really huge, larger than any communist revolution or any blood thirsty Sena.” The comment writer, who had grown up in rural Bihar himself, remembered watching Tendulkar bat “on a black and white television running on tractor batteries (for power never came back then). And I remember [the] whole village cheering up for this young lad … the Bhumihars, Brahmans and the Dalits alike, on that single television screen available.”

India’s victory over Pakistan in the final of the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup, in 2007, heralded the arrival of a new crop of cricketing heroes, many of whom had first learned the techniques of batting and bowling by watching television. THEMBA HADEBE / AP PHOTO

The writer insisted that “if we need anything, we need more Tendulkars. More Tendulkars to dissolve the boundaries between North and South, Hindus and Muslims, the forwards and dalits.”

In the early years of his career, Tendulkar brought solace and consolation to a divided nation by the sheer quality of his batsmanship. There were few credible role models elsewhere: the politicians were manipulative and corrupt, the film stars exhibitionist, the entrepreneurs self-serving. By the end of the 1990s, however, he commanded attention by the sheer weight of his cricketing achievements. He was well on the way to becoming the most prolific batsman in the history of world cricket, scoring more runs and more centuries in both Test and one-day matches than any other player. Indians love records in any case; in this case, the fact that we are so miserable at other sports, and perform so pathetically at the Olympics, made us cling to Tendulkar all the more.

It was because of what Tendulkar had meant for India that fans were so forgiving of the cynical, manipulative way in which that final series against the West Indies was scheduled. The cricketer failed in the first match in Kolkata, but in the second, his two-hundredth, played in his hometown, scored a crisp 74. India won both matches, easily. Hours after the second win, it was announced that Tendulkar would be awarded the Bharat Ratna.

THROUGH THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, the superpowers of world cricket were England and Australia. England was where the game began; where its rules were set and re-set; where the Imperial (later International) Cricket Council was headquartered. Australia produced many of the finest players and teams, pioneered the commercialisation of cricket, and perfected its coverage through high-quality television.

In the 1960s, and again in the 1980s, the West Indies were the best cricket team in the world. But in an organisational and commercial sense the sport was still run from London and Melbourne. The real decentring of world cricket began with the unexpected victory of India in the 1983 World Cup. Pakistan’s triumph in 1992 and Sri Lanka’s in 1996 followed.

Back in 1981, the English critic Scyld Berry presciently wrote: “Cricket in India should become the most popular sport in any country in the world.” And further: “India is destined to become the capital of cricket.” By the end of the twentieth century this prediction had been handsomely realised. Fourteen years into this century, the significance of cricket to India, and of India to cricket, has further increased. The former process has been largely salutary. One wishes one could say the same about the latter.

The challenge to Anglo-Australian hegemony was led by the BCCI. To begin with, the Indian board invoked a wider consensus. On cricketing as well as demographic grounds, South Asia was now claimed to be the emerging centre of the game. This agenda found fulfilment in the staging in South Asia of the 1987 and 1996 World Cups. Meanwhile, the headquarters of the ICC were relocated from Lord’s to Dubai, in a geographical bow to a larger political and commercial transformation.

The success of the Indian Premier League has signalled a second, and further, shift. It is now not South Asia, but India alone, which is the centre of world cricket. The BCCI is the new, and sole, hegemon. It recognises its power, and exercises it regularly, if not always fairly. Consider here the BCCI’s refusal to submit to the Decision Review System in matches played by India. The best cricket umpires make mistakes, because they are human. Technological developments have now permitted the correction or modification of erroneous decisions. The BCCI has resisted the use of these new technologies, although they radically reduce error and thus ensure greater fairness all round. One unspoken reason for this refusal is that batsmen who are short—as Indians tend to be—are more often adjudged leg-before-wicket by precision cameras than they would be by the naked eye alone.

An enthusiastic promoter of the new technology was the South African administrator Haroon Lorgat. As CEO of the International Cricket Council, Lorgat attracted the ire of the BCCI for endorsing the review system and for urging boards to adhere to a “Future Tours Programme” in which each country played all others in turn. After stepping down as ICC chief, Lorgat returned to administrative duties at home. He was CEO of Cricket South Africa in 2013, when India was due to play three Tests and five one-dayinternationals there. When the BCCI hurriedly decided to host the series against the West Indies, the South African tour had to be abbreviated to two Tests and three one-day internationals. This decision was taken unilaterally by the Indians—and the South Africans had no option but to acquiesce. In fact, the BCCI insisted on a further condition—that, in bilateral discussions between the two countries, their adversary Haroon Lorgat would recuse himself.

The use (or non-use) of cutting-edge television technology, the scheduling (and rescheduling) of tours—in these and other matters relevant to all cricketing nations, the BCCI exercises substantial and often absolute powers. Thus, as Sharda Ugra has written, “the nation that first cleared its throat and then demanded to be heard by the Anglocentric powers, has now turned into the game’s loudest bully, ready to flex its muscle and flaunt its wealth. India now remodels and controls cricket’s economy, and in the new order it chooses to play autocrat, not leader.”

This essay is adapted from the new, revised edition of Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport, forthcoming from Allen Lane.