By Mayank Chhaya*
There are perhaps no examples in history of a favorite sport of a great colonizer being so thoroughly re-colonized by its former colonies as cricket is by South Asians. The ongoing ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 is a remarkable example of that. Tens of thousands of South Asian visitors—according to some unconfirmed reports 80,000—have descended upon Britain to attend the World Cup matches.
That number is apart from a large population of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Afghani origins naturalized in Britain. Considering that there were only 800,000 total tickets and of which 650,000 were available for the general spectators, coupled with the smallness of English cricket grounds, it is not surprising that the South Asian presence looks so predominant at various matches, including almost taking over the entire stadium in a sea of blue during India games.
Five of the ten teams in the World Cup—India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan—are South Asian and they carry on their shoulders massive emotion-charged expectations along with a billion-plus television viewership.
Quite like India’s geopolitical primacy in South Asia, it also dominates cricket. It controls some 70% of the global revenue from the game and generates upward of a billion dollars in sponsorships. Although the majority of India’s commercial heavy hitting comes from its success in conducting the Indian Premier League (IPL) matches, by implication it has become the predominant voice even within the ICC (International Cricket Council). Mining the sport’s near religious status in the country, where its grandees are called gods, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the body governing all cricketing affairs, often treats the ICC as its adjunct.
It is hardly surprising that no matter which country hosts the World Cup, it ends up looking like an India/South Asian affair because that is the region where it’s most passionate followers reside. No matter where the television cameras pan, there is always a bunch of South Asian in various stages of exultation or rage depending on what is unfolding on the field.
It is a measure of how widely the game is followed now in its pumped up 50-over and T20 versions that the popular Netflix series ‘Patriot Act’, hosted by the comedian-commentator Hasan Minhaj, whose parents are originally from Aligarh in Uttar Pradesh, India but have settled in America, did an entire episode on it recently. That episode notched up more than a million views on YouTube apart from its own paid viewership on Netflix.
Of all the compelling nuggets that surround the World Cup, perhaps among the most interesting is the presence of Afghanistan, a South Asian country that has not seen a single year without a war since 2001 when America invaded it in the aftermath of the September 11 terror attack and before that, its occupation by the erstwhile Soviet Union between 1979 and 1989. For a country that has seen nothing but bloodshed for the better part of the last four decades, cricket has come as a welcome distraction. As Asadullah Khan, a former Afghan player, was quoted as saying, ““Minus cricket we are nothing.”
The Afghan team, although ranked at the bottom of the current cup standing with no points to its name, its spirit has been widely appreciated. During its match against India, it gave the former some anxious moments before eventually losing by just 11 runs and that too in the last over following a rare hat-trick by the Indian bowler Mohammad Shami who took three consecutive wickets.
History buffs might remember that Afghanistan was once the staging ground for what is known as the Great Game throughout most of the 19th century over a battle for primacy between the British Empire and then Soviet Union. While the consequences of the so-called Great Game are still felt into the 21st century, there is perhaps some irony that another great British game, namely cricket, is bringing some sense of purpose and focus to Afghanistan.
The prospects of South Asia in general and India in particular dominating global cricket irrespective of its format and venue are likely to remain unchallenged in the foreseeable future. If anything, the dominance could only get stronger with new generations of cricketers in these countries rising, lured both by the extraordinary game as well as the promise of great financial rewards. Not to be left behind in South Asia, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives have made baby steps towards taking to cricket as a mass sport – Nepal and Bhutan have cricket teams and cricket boards and Nepal even had a player, Sandeep Lamichhane, playing for Delhi Daredevils in the recent IPL – with Maldives President Ibrahim Mohammed Solih recently watching an IPL game in Bengaluru and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to Male earlier this month, presenting him with a cricket bat and saying India will help promote cricket in the Maldives.
If cricket is the former British colonies’ way of not just getting even with but also completely upstaging the former colonizer, then the results are for all to see.
*About the author: The author is a Chicago-based journalist, writer and filmmaker
Source: This article was published by South Asia Monitor