Let me tell you a story. In chronological order.
There was a time when every kid did not grow up playing cricket on the streets of India. We played normal games like hide-and-seek and ran on beaches. Once in a while, someone in the neighbourhood managed to acquire an inflated ball, we played football on those days. Our parents did not buy us a plastic bat-and-ball from the toy shop the moment we learnt to stand up. When men gathered in the evenings, they talked of movies or current affairs. There was no sports talk.
All India Radio
The radio/transistor existed in every home, sowas something we all listened to. We listened with pride when hoisted the Indian flag at the Red Fort for the first time in 1947, when India won 8 Gold, 1 Silver and 2 Bronze in Field Hockey at the Olympics between 1928 and 1980, the 1975 Hockey World Cup win, victories in the 1947, 1965 and 1971 wars…
Meanwhile in Cricket…
India played its first test match in 1932. We had to wait 20 years and 25 tests to win our first test match (). The same year, we won our first test series at home ( ). India’s first overseas test/series win came another 17 years later ( ).
India was still a quiet force in international cricket, an occasional win here and there, but mostly improving- slow and steady. By the time ODIs came into existence, India had played 132 tests so far- won 19, lost 53 and drawn the rest.
ODIs to the rescue
Every second test used to end in a draw, and we had only won 19 tests in 42 years. India played their first ODI on 13 July 1974. Suddenly, there was an increase in excitement everywhere. The matches were more thrilling and at least ended with a result. We also realised that we fared way better in one day cricket than 5-day cricket. The newly found confidence directly translated into results. India won another 16 tests within the next 9 years.
We had begun to take note of the– the perennial underdogs, but public interest remain rather restrained, because India still played and won more often in hockey than cricket, especially the 1975 Hockey World Cup victory.
Nation-wide broadcasting were introduced in 1982. In the same year, colour TV was introduced in the Indian market. Indian small screen programming and live telecast of sports started off in the early 1980s. At that time there was only one national channel, which was government owned.
India enters the Big League
By the time we upgraded from listening to live commentary on the radio to watching live action on the television, something incredible happened. India won the cricket World Cup in 1983, beating West Indies in the final, and Australia en route. Many of us were watching live telecast of cricket for the first time, and to watch our team become World Champions overnight was both unexpected as it was exhilarating.
For the first time since independence and the partition, we had reason to get together and dance on the streets. And among the millions who danced that night of 25 June 1983, there was a 10-year-old boy, short and curly haired. This win inspired an entire generation of youngsters to pick up bat and ball, and that boy was one of them.
Two years later, India won the World Championship of Cricket in Australia. We proved that 1983 was not a fluke. The world sat up to look at the new wonder team in international cricket. Another two years on, India co-hosted the 1987 World Cup. Both India and Pakistan lost their semifinal encounters, missing out on a much-hyped possibility of an India-Pakistan World Cup final.
India were no longer the pushovers, at least in one day cricket.
Emergence of Independent India’s First Superhero
Remember that 10-year-old dancing boy from earlier? By the time he turned 12, he had begun to make waves in Bombay’s cricketing circles. Bombay already had a reputation for producing great cricket players- Sunil Gavaskar, Dilip Vengsarkar, Ajit Wadekar, Vijay Hazare, Polly Umrigar, Vijay Merchant and Ravi Shastri. But even then, this young teen stood out among the galaxy of Bombay stars.
People who saw him bat described him as a rare freak talent. He could notch up big scores at a high pace, pick gaps and score boundaries at will. 4 years later, he played for India. And he kept playing for the next 24 years.
The central government launched a series of economic and social reforms in 1991 under Prime Minister. Foreign channels, private domestic channels, cable and satellite television and big sponsors catapulted cricket into something no sport had hitherto been. Cricket players had lucrative endorsements, the match fees went up. Corporate houses saw an opportunity to push their brands with aggressive marketing, and made money. Indian cricket benefited from it all.
Those who got to play for India were portrayed as superstars by the media. They were in constant glare of the public eye. It inspired and influenced an new generation of young kids- those who grew up watching Sachin Tendulkar. I am one of them, so is the entire current generation of Indian cricketers.
Nobody captured the imagination of the entire nation like Sachin Tendulkar. He became the poster boy of Indian cricket. Today’s kids can perhaps never relate to why we he was so special to us, why it is not an exaggeration when people say he carried the dreams and hopes of a billion people every single time he walked out to bat for India.
See for yourself the effect Sachin Tendulkar had on Indian cricket. You will notice the same trend in our ODI record as well. We started to chase down bigger totals and win more often. There was a new found self-confidence and a spring in our step. By the end of the 1990s, India had established themselves as a batting powerhouse and a spin bowling force. Nobody could beat us at home- not even Australia.
Under inspirational captains like, , , , and , efficient coaches like Anshuman Gaekwad, John Wright and Gary Kirsten, and administrators like , India bloomed further. We began to win abroad quite frequently as well.
Robust Domestic Circuit
Our domestic circut is one of the best in the world, thanks to all the attention and fan following. Other sports can only dream of cricket’s domestic structure. Domestic competitions include the Ranji Trophy, the Duleep Trophy, the Vijay Hazare Trophy, the Deodhar Trophy, the Irani Trophy and the NKP Salve Challenger Trophy. In addition, the BCCI conducts thewhich has only helped to reinforce Brand Cricket in India. This ensures that we never run out of talent!
The Legacy Lives On
India went on to win another World Cup (2011), two Champions Trophies (2002, 2013), and the inaugural World T20 (2007). We were also runners up in the 2003 World Cup, 2014 World T20 and 2000 Champions Trophy. We are now the financial heavyweights as well as the team to beat at every ICC event (not bragging).
Many India’s players feature in the list of all-time greats, highest run getters and wicket takers. Indian players hold more than half the batting records. Between 2008-present, India held the No. 1 position at least once each in Test, ODI and T20I rankings. In fact, as of today (16 February 2016), India is ranked No. 1 in Tests and T20Is, and ranked No. 3 in ODIs. At any given point, at least 3 Indian players regularly feature in the players’ rankings across all formats.
Wherestands right now, if controversies like betting, match fixing and spot fixing, and rampant corruption (surprise, surprise!) has failed to reduce the popularity of the game in India, what else could?
I don’t see cricket’s popularity in India being threatened any time soon.