In a country where Muslims, Hindus, Parsis, and some two thousand other ethnic groups at times stand divided, there is one uniting force that brings Indians together: cricket. Whizzing down the side streets of Delhi or Mumbai on a tuk-tuk will surely offer an authentic glimpse of what Indians endearingly refer to as “gully cricket”, or street cricket. Alternatively, one can witness the awe-inspiring spectacle that is an Indian Premier League match in the hallowed stadiums around India that attracts millions of viewers from all around the world on a nightly basis.
It is a ubiquitous sport that one will find throughout the castes of Indian society. For most Americans, however, the sport remains a mystery. If you’re going to the subcontinent to understand India, then you need to understand cricket.
It’s hardly on most ultra-luxe tours of Mumbai, but one of the most interesting places to experience cricket in India is the Oval Maidan in Mumbai, filled with cricketers and park-goers. This is where cricket in India really began.
Cricket in India can trace its beginnings to British merchant sailors in the early 1700s, playing a beloved game from home while on duty with the East India Company. As the British became more established on the Indian subcontinent, they set up sporting clubs that could host their cricket matches, most notably the Bombay Gymkhana
The wealthy, business-owning Parsi class decided to try their hand at this new sport, followed shortly by the Muslims and Hindus. Each group would go on to set up their own Gymkhanas in Mumbai, sites that can still be visited today in the bustling whirlwind in one of India’s largest cities.
The natural rivalries between the three Indian cricket clubs along with the British soon emerged into what was called the Bombay Quadrangular in 1912. This annual, 15-day tournament elicited a festive atmosphere among locals and its success helped to proliferate the sport around the rest of India. Today, cricket is the national sport — and some might say quasi-religion.
To explain cricket in layman’s terms to the uninitiated is an arduous task. Unlike sports such as soccer, American football, or baseball which have one set of rules, cricket has three official forms: T20, One Day International, and Test. Nevertheless, a cricket match consists of 11 fielders from one team, two batsmen from the opposing team, two wickets consisting of three upright, wooden stumps holding up two wooden bails, and a ball.
The object of the game is to score more runs than the other team. This is done by the batsmen who must protect their wickets by hitting the ball which is bowled by the opposing team and running back and forth between the wickets with the other batsman. Meanwhile, the fielding team’s job is to get all of the opposing team’s batters out in a myriad of ways. Once that has been done or the designated total of balls have been delivered to the batting team, the “innings” is considered over and the teams switch roles. Got it? Great! Now you’re ready to attend a match.
In India, the most exhilarating and spectator-friendly form of cricket is T20, a format that is usually played in about three hours as opposed to test cricket’s four to five day-long matches. Attending a T20 Indian Premier League match is analogous to the excitement and allure of an English Premier League soccer match or college football game in the southeastern United States.
Droves of die-hard fans fill the stadiums to cheer on their favorite cricketers who are worshipped as rock star demi-gods in India, while the delectable aromas of dal, curries, and samosas fill the air. To be in attendance at a cricket match in India is to get one’s finger on the pulse of Indian culture. It’s the perfect complement to the other side of India visitors experience from the lavish elephant ceremony arrivals to the ornate palace-inspired hotels.
To an Indian who loves the game, cricket is childhood. Cricket is that elusive passion they chased, dreaming of being the opening batsman for the national team. Cricket is what bonded families, communities, and people from the most diverse of backgrounds. For those that played under the big lights of Wankhede Stadium, in the alleyways of Calcutta, or on their tiny balcony in the densely populated Delhi, cricket is life