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

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.”

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.