How You Play the Game: Cricket, World Order, and India’s Rise

India has become in the past 10 years the world’s top cricket power, upending the long-standing Anglo-Australian dominance of the sport. Regional expert and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations Alyssa Ayres sees a blueprint in India’s aggressive rise within the sport — once rife with entrenched colonial hierarchies — for its possible path to greater political and geostrategic significance.

Flickr. India's domination of cricket upends an old colonial order.

Flickr. India’s domination of cricket may reveal what its path to wider global power would look like.

India’s emergence as the world’s cricket superpower over the past decade upends an old colonial-era hierarchy. It’s a highly visible showcase of the political effects of economic power, where sheer market size creates new forms of leverage. And India’s new preeminence in cricket politics, exemplified in its ascendancy within the International Cricket Council (ICC), offers lessons for how a more powerful India might approach its future role in global politics. If India becomes even remotely as indispensable to the world economy as it has become to the cricket economy, it will have the throw-weight to demand changes in the world order to accommodate its goals. That may be India’s future as it seeks to transform itself into a leading global power.

Cricket’s development in India cannot be separated from imperial history. The British introduced the game in the early 18th century, Indian players set up cricket clubs in the 19th century, and in 1928 created a national board to govern the sport, the Board of Control for Cricket in India, or BCCI. The BCCI linked India to the governing body known as the Imperial Cricket Conference, later reconstituted as the International Cricket Council (ICC). Though smaller in scale, it’s analogous to FIFA or the International Olympic Committee — a global organization with participants comprised of national member associations. (And similarly, corruption scandals have marred cricket as well, including ongoing revelations about the cozy ties between controversial Indian Premier League founder Lalit Modi and top Indian politicians.)

The ICC has 105 members, but like any good relict of colonialism, it’s rigidly hierarchical. At the top are the elite, the full members: England, eight former British colonies including India, and a conglomerate representing 15 Caribbean nations. They form the official Test-playing nations, those anointed to don whites for the five-day matches that comprise the purest form of the sport. A further 38 associate members, countries where cricket is “fully established and organized,” are not yet able to qualify for full membership due to their more limited history with, and performance in, the sport. They do not participate on the official Test circuit. Associates may be newer to cricket — like Afghanistan and Nepal — or may be training to move up; Bangladesh went from associate to full member, for example, in 2000.

Bringing up the rear, 57 countries count as affiliate members, which have teams that play the game although in a more limited way. The bar for affiliate merely requires that the ICC deem cricket played “in accordance with the Laws of Cricket” in the country. Given the sport’s origins and the process of its dissemination around the world, it’s hardly news that the boards of England and Australia were the dominant national boards within the ICC for most of its history. England, Australia, and South Africa created the old Imperial Cricket Conference in 1909; apartheid South Africa exited the British Commonwealth in 1961 and fell out of the ICC, leaving the English and Australian boards as leading players and dominant forces until 1993.

Anglo-Australian dominance began to erode ten years ago. Until 2005, the ICC had been based at Lord’s, the hallowed London cricket ground in St. John’s Wood regarded as the spiritual home of the sport. That year, after a nearly unanimous vote of its executive board, the ICC moved its headquarters to Dubai. Contemporary press accounts of the move describe the decision as financial: Dubai was offering an incentive package with favorable tax treatment not to be found in the United Kingdom. Yet there was a broader, structural impetus behind the move as well. As the BBC observed, cricket’s “power base has now moved to the east.”

Call it cricket’s pivot to Asia: the recognition that its future, and its prosperity, increasingly depended on its growing fan base in India, and to a lesser extent Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. This pivot foreshadowed the emergence of today’s Indian dominion over cricket. But India has been cricket-mad for decades, and it has long been the largest cricket-playing nation in the world, so the question arises why India’s size and enthusiasm hadn’t translated into greater power earlier. As Russell Wolff, ESPN’s executive vice president for international, put it, “There probably isn’t another market in the world where one sport matters so much disproportionately to everything else.” So what happened in the early 21st century that made India’s rise in cricket possible?

Three things: the Indian economy took off; Indian television rapidly expanded and thoroughly commercialized itself; and Indian cricket created a new, more broadcast-friendly league. Each of these developments reinforced the commercialization of the ICC, which in turn gave greater leverage to commensurately more commercialized Indian cricket. The net result: India rose to become the source of 70 to 80 percent of revenue generated under the ICC umbrella. And for the most recently released financial year, 2014, ICC’s worldwide event-related revenue stood at nearly $196 million. That was not a World Cup year, either. Toss in the wildly successful Indian Premier League, a private tournament, and India’s commercial dominance of the sport is even greater.

Although India began its economic reforms in 1991, it was not until 2003 that the Indian economy started a run of sustained higher growth hovering around eight percent and nearly touching 10 percent in 2007, using International Monetary Fund figures. India’s consumer market grew with India’s middle class. Indian businesses flourished, went global, and became major advertisers; cricket, as a means of reaching huge swathes of the population, benefited from swelling ad budgets. This was accompanied by a deregulation of India’s television market, which saw the end of a national monopoly for state-owned broadcaster Doordarshan — for decades the official broadcaster of cricket in India — and the birth of a cacophony of more than 800 private channels in more than twenty languages. The BCCI, after a bitter legal fight with the Indian government, won the ability to auction broadcast rights. Unsurprisingly, it found the newly created private channels willing to bid hundreds of millions of dollars to get cricket on their airwaves. In parallel, with their enormous audience in mind, Indian channels successfully bid for the broadcast rights to ICC world events. Last October, the rights for the next eight-year cycle of ICC cricket events went to Star India and Star Middle East for a reported $2 billion. (Official figures have not been released.) BCCI’s newly elected secretary, Anurag Thakur, sees the moment BCCI got the broadcast rights as a “game changer,” one that altered “the fate of Indian cricket.”

A more recent but equally crucial development is the rise of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Modeled on European soccer clubs, the IPL launched in 2008 as a league of private franchises free to draw players from anywhere in the world — distinct from the ICC model of nation-based teams. Playing a shorter form of the sport known as Twenty20, the IPL was ready-made for television since the games could be contained within around three hours. (Test matches take five days, and One Day matches, as the name suggests, take a full day).

All these trends converged in the internal politics of the ICC. In 2014 the ICC approved a restructuring that dramatically, and formally, changed India’s power within the organization. After an internal finding that India generated as much as 80 percent of ICC revenue, the body approved a plan backed by India, England, and Australia to redistribute ICC revenue with greater weight to those generating it, rather than the equal shares for all full members that had been ICC tradition. (And here, India uniquely lifts all boats, as Sambit Bal, editor-in-chief of ESPNcricinfo notes: “An Indian tour on any board’s cricket calendar is the most lucrative part of their cricket year.”) For India, the change means it will receive around 22 percent of ICC revenue instead of the three to four percent of surplus it received in the past, according to Mint, an Indian business daily. As a result, India has emerged as the undisputed global cricket superpower, dominating international commerce, driving international decision-making, and remaking international institutions to align with Indian priorities. India now sets the agenda in a sporting world long dominated by former colonial power England, reduced to an important but not decisive role.

This all became possible through the political strength India’s economic power delivered. That’s why the new cricket world order also tells us something about how a wealthier and therefore more powerful India might approach international politics in the future. Consider the ICC restructuring itself: it met with resistance within the organization from Pakistan, South Africa, and Sri Lanka, all of which stood to lose substantial financing under the new rules.

But the BCCI batted hard, even threatening to walk out of the council entirely. Former BCCI secretary Sanjay Patel recounted in a June 2014 speech in Hyderabad how “we told them if India is not getting its proper due and importance then India might be forced to form a second ICC of its own.” The brinksmanship worked — and provides an interesting illustration of what India’s foreign secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar meant by saying, during a speech in March of this year, that India was transitioning from being a “balancing power” to a “leading power.” Jaishankar’s comment marks an important shift for India, particularly as the previous Indian administration seemed assertion-averse during its waning years. But the idea of becoming a “leading power” follows from the election promise Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party made last year: it would “build a strong, self-reliant and self-confident India, regaining its rightful place in the comity of nations” and “leverage all our resources and people to play a greater role on the international high table.”

“The post-World War II order is precisely what India is poised to challenge.”

—Alyssa Ayres

Where does India currently stand? In international politics, it now counts among the G20, but not the G7, or any as-yet-to-be-recalibrated G8. It has deepened ties with the world’s largest powers, but is still a leader of the developing world’s G77 grouping, and continues to participate in the Non-Aligned Movement, a confab of 120 developing nations that during the Cold War saw themselves as neither Soviet nor American satraps. (Its relevance today could not be less apparent.) India seeks a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, which U.S. President Barack Obama has endorsed, but Security Council reform more broadly will take time to realize, making this a longer-term prospect. And given the absence of any Security Council reform momentum, it is hard to envision how such a process might unfold and how long that unfolding would take. Of course, the very structure of these groupings, as Jaishankar also noted in March, is rooted in the post-World War II political order.

This order is precisely what India is poised to challenge — and if it successfully does so, it will have been fueled by a high-octane economy, which crossed the $2-trillion mark in real terms in 2014, according to the IMF, compared to the U.S. economy at $17 trillion, and the Chinese at $10 trillion in real terms. After a recent slump, India is on track to grow at 7.5 percent or higher for the coming half-decade, again using IMF projections. This year India surpassed China to become the fastest-growing major economy in the world, and in purchasing power parity terms, the Indian economy has already overtaken Japan to become the world’s third-largest. While India is the world’s ninth-largest economy in real terms, in April the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that the Indian economy would become the world’s third-largest in real terms by 2030.

The Narendra Modi government has opened the Indian economy further, launched an effort to ease the pain of doing business in India, and begun a difficult but long-overdue overhaul of India’s antiquated labor laws. Modi may not be breaking china as some expected, but his government has taken India’s economic growth as its lodestar for domestic transformation. That transformation, under the Modi government, has also become the central goal for India’s foreign relations.

Yes, India has not yet reached the point where its economic health is crucial to global prosperity. But as it grows faster, and as China slows, India has the opportunity to raise its importance to the slower-growing developed economies of the industrialized world. If India’s economy were to become an engine of growth necessary for everyone else, it would give India another kind of diplomatic heft. It might also position India to approach decision-making differently, with greater assertiveness. That has already been the case in institutions of regional governance like the South Asian Area of Regional Cooperation, where New Delhi has been stitching together a zone of greater economic connectivity with the smaller nations of the region. Modi’s theory has been to use India’s economy as a sweetener to reset previously troubled bilateral ties.

In international diplomacy, India has not yet been in a position to single-handedly shape global outcomes. It has favored a cautious approach to global crises, such as in the Middle East, and generally has favored policies of non-interference coupled with a tradition of calculated inoffensiveness in public statements. (Whence, for example, its carefully crafted diplomatic statements and its abstention and even strategic absence from U.N. organization votes). But the cricket world order shows a different side of India, one that demands change and is fully prepared to walk away without it. That might well become part of India’s diplomatic toolkit once the Indian economy grows enough, and integrates with the world sufficiently, to create strategic strength. In the negotiations for the BRICS New Development Bank, for example, India by all accounts fought hard for the presidency, which it won. It has signed up as the second-largest contributor to the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and will have a strong voice as a result. Under Modi, India is funding the completion of its first home-built aircraft carrier, and has its eye on developing a supercarrier as well. A more powerful navy will give India a greater say across a broad arc stretching from Singapore to Aden.

Last December, an anonymous BCCI official told Mint that his organization enjoys “a similar clout in the ICC as the United States of America does in the United Nations.” With the long view in mind, we may see a stronger India emerge in geopolitics — just as it has in the new cricket world order.