India and cricket are joined at the hip both socially and culturally so profoundly that drawing parallels to other nations and their beloved sports would be the very definition of a false equivalence. Forget the chicken-or-the-egg paradox: I’d posit an even more ground-breaking discovery lies in exploring whether the average Indian infant learns to walk before or after they learn how to correctly hold a cricket bat.
Some may scoff at the aforementioned suggestion as hyperbolic, but in India, the image of fathers shrieking at their sons or daughters to ensure their bowling actions are flawless is an accepted part of daily life. The unintentional bending of the arm while running in to bowl is ingrained into children as a cardinal sin, like slurping through a straw after a beverage is over and done with.
If you’re still not convinced of India’s cricket obsession, consider one of the country’s most treasured films, Lagaan. Based on the British Raj, the film features a climax in which agricultural taxes would be waived off for oppressed Indian farmers if they manage to defeat their oppressors in a game of cricket. While the film’s plot begs many questions, it also perfectly captures how India’s national soft spot for cricket borders on comically ridiculous.
It would be reductionist to label cricket as “just a sport.” In India, it is far more than that. There is a magic that can be conjured with the help of a bat and a ball, which makes it both an athletic feat, father-son bonding tool, and a solver of conflict of the highest order.
Yet amidst the mania characterizing the dominant sporting palate of the second-most-populated country in the world, football fans such as myself also exist—although we undeniably are taking the road less traveled. A glimpse at viewing figures captures the divide I grew up with: according to the viewership rating agency the Audience Measurement and Analytics Ltd, 67.6 million Indian fans feasted their eyes on the 2011 Cricket World Cup Final for over four hours. By contrast, merely 1.5 million viewers tuned into the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final, which was the most-watched sporting event on the planet at the time.
Before smartphones tapped into the cultural zeitgeist, I distinctly remember scouring through newspapers in an attempt to soak up anything and everything I could about football, a sport with which I’d become deeply and irrationally enamoured. There was not much to find: Indian cricketers have always been heralded as demi-gods nationwide, which meant that they were plastered across the front and back pages; meanwhile, dish descriptions on a menu would read like essays when compared to the bite-sized footballing coverage I’d find.
Those smitten by the sight of 22 men chasing a ball around for 90 minutes find they might work to feed their fandom for football, India’s sporting middle child that’s craving to be seen. The average Champions League game is broadcasted at 8pm in the UK, but to witness history in the making, Indian football fans must be wide awake from the ungodly hours of 1:30 to 3:00am.
As a lifelong devotee, I can tell you that students sneakily watching the game on mute, fearing the wrath of their parents, is a ritual that comes with a risk that is worth taking, without question. As is devising the perfect excuse not to attend social gatherings, because peak wedding season in India can clash with the business end of the football season. Naturally, this means every football fan in the country unleashes their hidden screenwriter, spinning a web of white lies to justify why they can’t make it to someone’s big day. These habits bind sporting misfits together in a nation where cricket is nothing short of a surrogate religion.
Today, football has found its way to co-exist somehow. For context, the 2021 European Championships drew viewership figures around the range of a staggering 37 million from Indian football fans during the first 21 games of the tournament, as per official broadcaster Sony. Compare this to the figures garnered during the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final, and then compare to the 2011 Cricket World Cup Final: the gap remains sizable, but it doesn’t seem as impossible to breach a decade later.
Like those cut from the same cloth, I have embraced my role as a fan who will always be one of the odd ones out in a nation where falling in love with the beautiful game of football is a happy accident, rather than a foregone conclusion.
Without us, football would forever remain fixed in cricket’s shadow. But we will continue to watch proudly and push the sport’s Indian fandom forward, come what may.
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