Anywhere in the world, cricket’s largest nation can turn a crowd into a sea of blue, writes Jeff Centenera.
India’s cricket fans have gone global, says Jeff Centenera.
If there was any doubt in Australia about the reach of Indian cricket passion, it was dispelled for good in Melbourne during the group stage of the ICC World Cup in 2015. The cavernous stands of the MCG can be a tough sell-out when the home team isn’t involved, which is why the India-South Africa pool match produced a spectacle as stunning as any seen in the venerable G’s history – a crowd of 87,000.
Even observers back in India noted that Eden Gardens would rarely look like that. The academic and biographer of Sachin Tendulkar, Boria Majumdar, wrote half-jokingly that 85,000 in that crowd supported India. Australia’s tourism promotion body later reported that visitor numbers from India that month had spiked by more than 50 percent to 23,000.
It was a signature moment for Indian cricket fandom, which proved it could travel just as well
as its counterparts in England and Australia – alongside the Barmy Army and the Fanatics, the Bharat Army has a ubiquitous place wherever big-time cricket is played around the planet.
The Bharat Army’s origins, though, speak to the differences in how Indian cricket is followed. The group was founded in the UK in 1999, and consciously modelled on its English counterpart. But the Bharat Army operation grew to the point where it connected with elements back in India, who now serve a world-wide fan base – one of the group’s founders noted to the BBC during India’s tour of England that its biggest growth area in terms of interest was North America.
India’s burgeoning wealth has given greater opportunity for its own citizens to go abroad. But it’s not just about the travellers – the Indian XI finds supporters wherever it goes. The huge crowds at the MCG during the World Cup were surely filled by Melbourne’s significant population of Indian background.
The cricket team has become a symbol for a modern, global India that resonates powerfully with its communities abroad. “The real connect back with India is the Indian cricket team,” says Boria Majumdar. “Well, there are two: one is Bollywood, one is cricket.
“It’s the real connection of the Indian diaspora with home, which is why the Indian cricket team is always the story of that connection – that we can beat the world, we have come of age. In terms of technology, in terms of jobs, in terms of sporting prowess, we’re up there.
“Whichever part of the world you’re in, if you still have a connect with your roots back in India, that connect is kept alive through Indian cricket.”
As a representation of Indian identity, cricket has another unifying characteristic – at once, it is able to hold together the strands of old and new. As Majumdar explains, this can be seen in the figure of Virat Kohli. He recalls the day of Tendulkar’s retirement, as the Indian legend sat in the dressing room, Kohli touched his feet with threads given to him by his father.
“That’s a very old tradition,” Majumdar says. “And from Kohli: aggressive, film star wife, the public displays of emotion, the tattoos. He’s the exemplar of this peculiar mesh of modernity and tradition.”
THE REAL CONNECT BACK WITH INDIA IS THE INDIAN CRICKET TEAM.
India’s numbers left an impression at the MCG during the 2015 World Cup.