Political Economy of Indian Cricket



The notion that sport can be a globalizing force receives a major fillip with the unfolding of the process of commercialization. The grand ideas of globalization and commercialization in the domain of cricket gained a reasonably concrete shape when their potential was unleashed by the maverick media mogul Kerry Packer through his World Series Cricket in the tail-end of the 70’s. An all-out embrace of commercialization by the cricket economy in India happened with a lag nonetheless. The dirigiste management of cricket in India ran into rough weather in the early 90s, fairly coinciding with the decision to remove the fetters imposed on the economy. The spillover of the latter into the economy of cricket warrants a focused political economy analysis at the current juncture, for cricket, has successfully embodied the socio-economic and political transformations that have transpired in India in its postcolonial epoch.

Cricket in India has been a theater for the free-play of some of the ubiquitous and persistent themes of our society such as race, caste, religion and nation. It could also be true that the most popular sport in any society will see the larger political economy developments cast a shadow on its nature and dynamics. The political economy of cricket in India is a quintessential example which has all the trappings of a sport reflecting the economic changes in the country.


The Trajectory Traversed – From Imperialism to Financial Hegemony:

It is interesting to take a look at the trajectory cricket has traversed in India since it began to gain traction among the elites and middle classes of Bombay in the late 19th century. From being an emphatic symbol of imperial power, cricket became an instrument of nationalist resistance even as it embodied the overarching fissures in the Indian society, before transforming into a full-fledged trope of nationalism in postcolonial India, ultimately metamorphosing into a lucrative commercial enterprise. Professional cricket in post-Independence India was driven largely by the feeling of national pride even though it was far from being a stable source of livelihood. In that sense, the term ‘professional’ looks misplaced especially when juxtaposed with the ‘professionalization’ that has happened after the arrival of franchise-based T20 cricket in the first decade of the 21st century. The ever-growing commercialization of cricket is exemplified by the Indian Premier League. The league, while having grown into a gargantuan billion-dollar empire with a bewildering matrix of stakeholders, has come to expose the cracks in the triumphalism of neoliberal philosophy and the darker side of Indian capitalism in particular.



The Political Economy Backdrop – From Dirigisme to Pro-Business:

When I began to survey the confluence of developments that triggered a marked shift in the way cricket was played, organized and watched, I realized that two were of a momentous nature. The Kerry Packer World Series Cricket and the World Cup of 1983. Before getting into the brass-tacks of the aforementioned developments, a detour into the political economy of India in the first four decades after independence is warranted to understand their significance.


Notwithstanding the socialist rhetoric, there was a fundamental failure to rein in the tendency towards concentration of economic power. While some monopolistic practices were curbed, asset concentration in the industrial sector was never really challenged and landlordism was rampant in rural areas. This posed a structural constraint to the expansion of the domestic market for consumption and manufactured goods where it remained socially narrowly based. The additional purchasing power that was generated by stimulus from the state accrued largely to the narrow social segment which in turn provided the main source of growth in demand for manufactured consumer goods. From a consumerist angle, till about the end of the seventies, people who considered themselves middle class reckoned their status in terms that factored in the importance of consumer durables.


In the early eighties, as the cracks in the growth strategy were becoming more obvious, there was a rightward shift in economic policy as some of the features of economic nationalism and autarky began to be discarded. This period saw a convergence of two trends. After the Emergency was imposed (in 1975), Mrs. Indira Gandhi announced a Twenty Point Programme of economic and social change. The components of this program relating to industry slotted in smoothly with the ideas suggested by the likes of BK Nehru, who was on the ‘right’ side of economic thinking. Facilitating and accelerating private sector activity was a key part of the government’s economic agenda during the Emergency. Big businesses were naturally pleased with this turn in policy and it welcomed Indira Gandhi’s return to office in 1980. This signified a tilt in favor of the business community which was intensified in Mrs. Gandhi’s last term in office[1]. On the other hand, the social segment mentioned above became more aspirational and was eager to ape lifestyles and consumption patterns of the developed world, which meant that there was a dichotomy in the domestic production patterns and the new demand patterns among the affluent class.


1983 World Cup Victory and the Take Off:

Taking the convergence of these two trends as the point of departure, we can look at the salience of the World Cup 1983 not just in cricketing terms but also in terms of nationalism and commerce. The Asian Games came to India in 1982 and to everyone’s delight, a Cabinet decision to allow the import of color television for showing the colorful spectacle ushered in the first phase of revolution in television technology in India. In the same year, the second phase was also set in motion as Doordarshan began its networking phase. The first nationally televised cricketing event was the World Cup of 1983 and the national audience for cricket was created by Doordarshan as the government had the monopoly over broadcasting. The coming together of national telecasting and the most improbable World Cup victory against the champion side by an underdog Indian side transformed Indian cricket in many ways.


The victory instilled a great sense of national pride and infused a strong feeling of nationalism as there was nothing else that could give the inferiority complex of a postcolonial society a promising facelift. The growing popularity of the shorter format coupled with the success of a cricketing minnow at an international level created a mass audience for cricket in India. The consolidation of this mass audience with the victory in the World Championship in Australia in 1985 and the hosting of the 1987 World Cup in the subcontinent proved to be a boon for television channels, sponsors and advertisers as it became evident that India offered the largest and most lucrative audience (and hence the market) for cricket. The commercial potential shifted the balance of powers within the ICC.


Reference: [1] Raghavan, S. (2015). What Emergency Meant For Big Business in India. Retrieved from NDTV: http://www.ndtv.com/opinion/how-the-emergency-transformed-indias-economy-774957



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here