February 13 2011
Australia may have been the centre of the cricketing universe during the recent Ashes series down under but, from this month, the focus moves to India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, which are hosting the 10th ICC Cricket World Cup, starting in Dhaka on February 19.
India are the best cricket team in the world, and the scale of the passion for the game among a population of 1.2bn is hard to exaggerate. It dwarfs anything you may have seen at Lord’s or The Oval and a visit to a big match in Mumbai or Calcutta, especially a one-day international with all the attendant noise and fireworks, is an experience not to be missed.
Even as you walk into the arrivals hall of Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport you see massive billboards featuring cricketing heroes, such as Sachin Tendulkar and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, promoting airlines, beers, cars, computers and other facets of the new India. Tendulkar, aka “The Little Master”, made his test-match début at the age of 16, and is one of the finest batsman the game has ever seen. Now 37, he’s a native of Mumbai, where he enjoys godlike status. No European footballer, not even Zinedine Zidane or David Beckham, has come close to experiencing such adulation.
The nearest comparison to cricket in India is Bollywood, which is followed with almost equal fervour, and it seems entirely natural that movie stars, including Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta, are investors in the Indian Premier League (IPL). Just as Indian TV and newspapers carry regular items and gossip about Bollywood, so the news media are similarly obsessed with cricket, and spicy stories appear every day about the players and their latest foibles and romances. But you don’t need to look far to find enduring glimpses of the older, more patrician Anglo-Indian cricketing model.
Last winter I watched a game between Delhi and Pune at Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium, the home of the Cricket Club of India. Savouring the shade of the Members’ Stand, we sat in comfortable lounge chairs and were waited on by stewards taking orders for afternoon tea, including, incongruously, cucumber sandwiches and scones, jam and cream. On the wall of the pavilion were portraits of Raj legends such as KS Ranjitsinghi or “Ranji”, whose full title was Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar, and who played for Cambridge University and England.
But, of course, the real beating heart of Indian cricket is to be found outside on the streets and in countless flyblown towns where boys using chunks of firewood as improvised bats spend hours playing the game – all, no doubt, hoping that one day they too will taste fame and fortune like The Little Master or a Bollywood star.
As last summer’s match-fixing scandal involving members of the Pakistan team underlined, gambling abuse is a big issue in Asia, and everyone will be hoping that no incidents occur during the World Cup. England fans will be hoping that Andrew Strauss’s team can add another trophy to their increasingly impressive list of achievements – and they have a great chance. But I’m backing India’s galaxy of big hitters to end up lifting the trophy in the final in Mumbai on April 2 at 7-2 with Victor Chandler.