Sport in India got a formalised structure, so to speak, in the same decade that the Hindustan Times was launched. The first edition of this newspaper was published in September 1924. In 1925 the Indian Hockey Federation came into existence, the Indian Olympic Association was formed in 1927 and a year later the Board of Control for Cricket in India was admitted to the (then) controlling body, the Imperial Cricket Conference.
While these sporting bodies obviously could not articulate anti-colonialist sentiment like the Hindustan Times could, there was little doubt that Indian sportspersons were determined to prove that they were not inferior to their rulers in any way on the field of play. In fact, beating the British at their own game was an unwritten but popular credo.
Interestingly, the country’s two major sports — hockey and cricket — occupied the same timeframe in India but came of different lineages. Cricket first found favour with the mercantile class and bureaucrats close to the British administration, like the Parsis, and its acceptance zoomed after the ‘locals’ took to it too.
The Quadrangular tournament, started in 1912, became a focal point for the sport, though it was structured along the insidious British concept of divide and rule, pitting Hindus, Parsis, Mohammedans and Europeans against each other, much to the consternation of freedom fighters such as Mahatma Gandhi.
However, it was hockey, essentially a cantonment sport, that got India early and significant laurels. In the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, India beat Holland in the final to win gold. The peerless Dhyan Chand scored 14 goals in the Games and the attention of the world was riveted on the amazing skills of Indians, many of whom played barefoot.
Over the next few years the legend of Dhyan Chand was to soar higher, reaching its zenith during the Berlin Olympics, when he led India to a spectacular triumph over Germany, handing out a stunning riposte (along with African-American sprinter Jesse Owens) to Hitler’s theory of Aryan supremacy.
Sustained victories in the international arena over the next two decades deservingly made hockey the national sport, but the appeal of cricket was growing too, despite a lack of early successes. The whys and wherefores of this have occupied the minds of social scientists ever since, with no clear answer emerging.
Perhaps it had to do with the pace of cricket, which suited the Indian physique and temperament better. Perhaps it was the patronage the sport enjoyed, coming as it did from erstwhile royals and in later days from large corporate houses, which gave it more lustre and certainly more money. Just maybe it had to do with more diligent administration.
The story of how cricket usurped hockey’s position as the country’s preeminent sport and dwarfed everything else is compelling in itself. In the eight decades since the first Test match was played at Lord’s in 1932, India’s rise in stature and status has been extraordinary.
India’s cricketers had shown themselves to be highly skillful right from the time Ranjitsinhji introduced the leg-glance to the game (though he never played for the country) around the turn of the 20th century. Supple wrists made for artistic, stylish batsmen and ‘mystery’ spinners who added to the romance of the game.
At various stages, India have had world-record-holders in batting (Sunil Gavaskar and Sachin Tendulkar) and bowling (Kapil Dev), but it is only in the last 20 years that the country has started valuing victories over statistics and milestones, powered undoubtedly by a generational shift in values and a growing sense of national pride.
After being an also-ran where teams and star players were reluctant to tour, India is now regarded as the El Dorado where everybody wants to be seen and paid. Indian cricket is a $3 billion industry (approximately), commanding 75% of the eyeballs and revenue for the sport.
Three major inflection points can be identified in this startling growth. The first was India’s victory in the 1983 World Cup, which triggered countrywide fervour. The second, the economy opening up in 1991, making big sponsorships possible.
The arrival of cable TV around the same time provided a platform that could take the gospel of cricket into virtually every household here and in the Indian diaspora, culminating in the resounding success of the IPL, which every other country is now trying to emulate.
Nevertheless, these three factors had to be harnessed into a cohesive and winning strategy to make cricket the cash-rich and mega-popular sport it is today. While the BCCI has many faults, it was quick to identify India’s shift into consumerism. This was not the case with other popular sports like football (where India finished 4th in the 1956 Asian Games) and hockey, which were hamstrung by a lack of vision and maladministration.
The rise of cricket, willy-nilly, stymied the growth of other disciplines, particularly Olympic sports, where the country languished somewhere at the bottom of the heap. Interestingly, though, India’s first Olympic medals came at the first attempt — two silvers in Paris in 1900 to Norman Pritchard — and are the stuff of controversy and historical drama.
Even now England claims the medals, since Pritchard was an Englishman from Calcutta who just happened to be in France on holiday. (His real ambition was to become a movie star, a goal he later achieved with Beau Geste). Since Pritchard ran for India and had participated in several Bengal province athletic events before, the International Olympic Committee gives the medals to India.
But fascinating as this little nugget of history is, it illustrates a very sad truth: When it comes to the Olympics, India has faced a medal drought for 112 years since Paris, winning just 26 in more than a century. Of these, hockey brought in six consecutive gold medals and eight overall, the last one coming in Moscow in 1980.
This shows up starkly as a lack of will, effort, imagination and purpose, though the trend now seems to be changing. The 2012 London Olympics gave us an excellent medal haul — six in all, with wins in badminton, boxing and shooting — after Beijing 2008 gave us our first individual gold, through shooter Abhinav Bindra.
What of the future? Comparisons with China — just slightly more populated than India — are inevitable but dishearteningly pointless. In 2008, when China hosted the Olympics, it won 51 golds and 100 medals overall. And this is a country that didn’t even participate for decades!
The arguments about poverty, per capita income and GDP get a bit of a hit when you consider that Jamaica, Kenya and Ethiopia dominate track and field events. Moreover, India in 2013 is not the India of 1947, all the current wailing about the falling rupee and the state of the economy notwithstanding.
There is potential and there are stars emerging in sports other than cricket. Indian shooters and boxers have been medal winners at various international events. Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu are top-notchers in badminton, archer Deepika Kumari is world number 1, Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi, Rohan Bopanna and Sania Mirza are all ranked very high in tennis.
Indeed, tennis has given us many rewards, but no grand prizes yet in the individual category, Leander Paes’s Olympic bronze and 14 Grand Slam doubles titles notwithstanding. We need greater efforts to create a new generation of stars after some of the current ones retire.
Tennis is a sport that should suit a nation with rising income levels and increasing prosperity. Football and Formula 1 are growing in popularity, but it is unclear exactly when India can become proficient in both.
Badminton can be exploited much more effectively than it has been so far. The Indian Badminton League, which just finished, has shown that there is great spectator interest in the sport. Badminton must, of course, first overcome the usual infighting and bureaucratic morass that afflicts all sports management in India.
Hype and hot air are seemingly important parts of our public discussions. But neither can win matches or races. You need to start at the bottom, expanding the base of people exposed to sport, spotting and nurturing talent, then focusing on training, diet, sports medicine and mental conditioning.
Countries like Cuba, Kenya, the Koreas, Kazakhstan and China honed their strategies very cleverly. They concentrated on a few sports so that they did not stretch their resources and instead provided results in inverse proportion to the money spent. China grew exponentially and these tactics have earned it enormous dividends, helped of course by a totalitarian government.
If India is to become a contender in the world’s sporting arena and add to its ‘soft power’, existing strategies will not work. Concentrating on a few sports in which it can excel would be wiser.
Above all, the politics of sport, as epitomised by the unseemly controversies involving the IOA, BCCI, AIFF, IHF/HI etc, is an issue that we have to tackle now so that the future need not be stuck in a morass of despair.
Ayaz Memon is a senior journalist who has been writing on sports and other issues for 35 years.