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.”