Why doesn’t India dominate cricket more?

Fresh from India’s victory over Australia, to lead 2-1 in the series, and facing the prospect of either their fourth drawn series in 13 attempts or their first ever series win in Australia, one big question is being asked: why isn’t India more dominant than they are?

India is the world’s second-largest country, with a population currently estimated at 1.225 billion, while Australia’s population is currently estimated to be only 24.6 million. To put that into perspective, for every Australian there are 49.79 Indians. That’s a lot.

In a game like cricket, where the best 11 players are selected, you would think that, on average, Australia would have on, or perhaps two, who compared with any in the Indian side. The two teams shouldn’t be able to compete with each other.

The other major factor should be the popularity of cricket in each country. In India, cricket is indisputably the most popular sport, so much so that it is described in many quarters as a religion, with anywhere from 70-90% of the population having cricket as their favourite sport, while in Australia there is debate about whether cricket is the most popular sport and it is the most popular sport by only around 25-30% of the population.

30% of 24.6 million = 7.38 million cricket fans in Australia compared to 70% of 1.225 billion = 857.5 million cricket fans in India, a ratio of 116.19 to 1.

In other words, for every 1 Australian cricket fan, there are 116 Indian cricket fans.

So why aren’t India better?

One big thing to note is that cricket wasn’t always India’s favourite sport. Until about 1983, India’s favourite sport was hockey, a sport they dominated, winning the gold medal at the Olympic Games more often than not, but after 1983 they suddenly stopped being competitive.

Local sports such as Kabbadi were also popular. Indeed, before 1983, cricket in India was probably about as popular as cricket currently is in Australia, in other words that about 25 to 30% of the population of India had cricket as their favourite sport.

What happened in 1983? India won the World Cup!

It wasn’t just that India won the World Cup, cricket’s premier tournament, so much as it was how they won it. India were about to be knocked out when they faced lowly Zimbabwe, then not a test playing nation, and were down and out at 5 for 17, when Kapil Dev came in to bat.

Now, Kapil Dev was a decent lower order batsman, a “bowling all-rounder” perhaps, but he had never scored a half-century before then, and suddenly, while batting with the tail, he scored 175 not out, off 138 balls, while batting with the tail. India got to 8 for 140 but Kapil Dev kept firing as India put on an incredible 266, and then bowled Zimbabwe out for 235 to win by 31 runs in what was ultimately a close match.

Modern followers of cricket might not understand why that is a big deal, given that teams now often get over 400, but back then that was a huge score, and to get there from 5 for 17, and with virtually no contributions along the way, was incredible.

India were not a force in world cricket in 1983: West Indies was. West Indies had won the 1975 and 1979 World Cups and were meant to win in 1983 as well, and when they met India it was expected to be one-sided. When India were bowled out for just 183 it looked like it was going to be a one-sided match, but then somehow India got there, bowling a talented West Indian batting line-up out for 140 to win by 43 runs in incredible scenes.

It was a big moment, a moment that excited Indian cricket fans and, by the time that India hosted the 1987 World Cup, cricket was on every Indian’s lips. The change was dramatic and sudden.

India didn’t suddenly become the best team in the world, though, but since then they have had idols to look up to. Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev were early heroes, but then came Sachin Tendulkar, the hero to beat all heroes, who started as a 16 year old, a good four or five years younger than most cricket players first start playing for their country, and he ended up playing right until he was 40 years old, beating run scoring records in all forms of the game.

The 2000/01 test series against Australia, which was supposed to be Australia’s first test series win in India for 50 years, ended up instead being the tale of VVS Laxman’s 281 and Harbhajan Singh’s 32 wickets in the 3-test series. It was a two-man army, for the most part, but a weak Indian side managed to defy the odds to beat Australia, then at their highest point in their rich history, and win.

These are the kinds of things that excite fans, and there were many more of them beyond that. There was the 2011 World Cup win in India, the 2007 T20 World Cup win in South Africa, the advent of the Indian Premier League, and the rise of Virat Kohli from fringe player to the best player in the world, separately in all three formats, and now we have India sitting on top of the world.

No, India aren’t dominant, and it’s nothing like Australia’s dominance in the 1990’s and 2000’s, nor West Indies’s dominance in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but it might get that way eventually, and winning in Australia is a big part of that.

Australia have had cricket as their favourite sport ever since W G Grace toured back in 1873, while India didn’t start to really care about cricket until 110 years later. Australia were the first test team, the replacement for Grace’s intended test team of USA. Grace’s team had dominated USA so much that he didn’t want to go back.

As USA replaced their love of cricket with a love of the related sport baseball, but Australia embraced it improving mid-tour to the point where Grace’s team faced strong opposition from combined Victorian and New South Wales teams, and, a few years later in 1877, Australia were given test status and played matches against England that were later regarded as test matches.

India were granted test status themselves on 25 June 1932 but it wasn’t the same as it was for Australia. India didn’t gain independence from Britain until 15 June 1947, and cricket was seen by many in India as a way to control the population. On 15 August 1947, India was partitioned into India and Pakistan, and from there they created a rivalry, and, from 1947 until 1983, India and Pakistan cared more about beating each other than about being good at cricket. It never mattered if India won the World Cup, as long as they beat Pakistan, but in 1983, when India won the World Cup, suddenly that mattered too.

So if we consider that Australia had a 110 year head start, and England another 100 or more years before that, then perhaps it’s a bit unfair to expect India to dominate so much so quickly.

India have only loved cricket for 35 years now, a whole generation and a bit. They are only going to get better from here.

And perhaps the tiny nation of Australia who somehow played above themselves for so long with such a small fan base will forever more be on the back foot.

And perhaps that is how it should be.


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