Cricket was at one time an upper class sport of the British. Today it looks the most egalitarian of games. Three of the last four World Cups in cricket have been won by low-income countries-India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The domination of a game by poor countries is almost unprecedented. How do we explain it?
Almost all worldwide sports are dominated by richer countries. Soccer, rugby, tennis, golf, swimming, athletics, gymnastics are obvious examples. There are exceptions like judo, table tennis and badminton, but these are minor sports in rich countries. Cricket is certainly not a minor game.
In the old days, people used racial and cultural characteristics to explain why some countries were good in sports. I would say economic systems matter much more. Consider athletics. This is dominated by blacks. Yet Africans do not even figure in the 100-metre sprint at the Olympics. All the finalists in this event are likely to be blacks, but they will typically be from countries like the USA (Carl Lewis), Canada (Ben John-son) or Britain (Lionel Christie). Blacks account for the bulk of the population in Africa and only a tiny minority in rich countries, yet the latter win more medals because of superior training facilities and a better overall environment for sports.
Look at who wins medals in the Olympics, or even the Asian games. You will find a high correlation between the GNP of a country and its athletic success. You will also notice a high correlation between communism and medals—communist countries by virtue of totalitarian methods create conditions for athletes comparable with those in richer market economies. If a country is neither rich nor communist, it usually fares badly.
It is sobering to remember that India swept the bulk of medals in the first Asian Games in 1950, a time when it was the leading economic power in Asia. However, it has now been left far behind in the economic race by countries of East Asia and South-East Asia, and these very countries now dominate the Asian Games too. So GNP translates into gold medals. India today is happy if it can win even a handful of medals.
In at least one major sport, soccer, some Latin American countries have also done well. But these are not poor countries. Remember that Latin American countries historically had higher living standards than southern Europe, and so attracted immigrants from poorer European countries like Spain, Portugal, and Italy. This explains why Latin Americans have good soccer facilities. They are middle-income countries, not poor ones. Despite suffering huge economic setbacks in the 1980s, Argentina has a per capita income of $7,200, Mexico of $3,610, Brazil of $3,000. This means they are many times richer than India ($300), Pakistan ($430) or Sri Lanka ($600).
For political reasons, Latin American countries are considered pan of the Third World. In fact, they are countries where Europeans slaughtered the local Indians (as in the USA) and set up shop. They are better viewed as rich countries that failed than as poor ones struggling upwards.
But what about hockey, some people will ask? Is this not a sport n which low-income India became world champions while still under colonial rule, and which it (alongwith Pakistan) continued to dominate till the Europeans and Australia rose in the 1970s?
There was once a popular racial theory that Indians were good at hockey because they had supple wrists and nimble feet, while Europeans were heavy-footed. This is sheer rubbish-wrists and feet matter in other sports too where Europeans have always eaten sub- continentals. Despite supple wrists, sub-continental women have always been thrashed ay Europeans in hockey.
The real explanation here, I think, relates to gender. Hockey in Europe came up mainly as a girls’ sport, and was a minor sport for men. You will not find any of PG Wodehouse’s male characters slaying hockey, though some Females do. However, when the game travelled to the subcontinent, purdah intervened. There was no way most sub-continental families in the 1930s were going to let their girls display themselves in a public hockey Field. And so, thanks to purdah, hockey in the subcontinent became overwhelmingly a man’s sport, at a time when it was mainly a girl’s sport abroad. This enabled the subcontinent to dominate the men’s sport until it became popular among European and Australian males by the 1960s. After that, alas, nobody talks much more about the superiority of our supple wrists.
Which brings us back to the question we began with: why is cricket not dominated by rich countries too? It certainly was in the first half of this century. England and Australia dominated, with South Africa following way back. New Zealand, a fourth rich cricketing nation, did not make the grade because of its small population.
Then in the 1950s, the West Indies came of age, and within two decades became world champions. They won the first two World Cups in the 1970s. However, please note that the West Indies are not poor-they consist mainly of middle-income countries. Trinidad has a per capita income of $3,300, Jamaica of $1,450, and both were even richer before the economic tribulations of the 1980s. They have long been incomparably richer than the cricketing nations of the subcontinent.
So what has happened in recent decades? How come poor countries of the subcontinent have won three of the last four World Cups? Maybe this is partly a lucky streak-it cannot be said that these countries dominate world cricket. But it is certainly true that rich countries do not dominate either.
Ashish Nandy has given a quasi-mystical explanation in one of his books, suggesting that cricket is intrinsically a game of the subcontinent discovered accidentally by the whites first. I personally am skeptical of mystical and racial explanations. I find these are generally preferred when no other obvious explanations are available. If indeed sub-continentals are natural cricketers, why has Bangladesh remained such a backwater?
Fifty years ago, we would have been told that whites are naturally superior cricketers, and the explanation would have looked convincing for those unwilling to look beyond the obvious.
I suspect the rise of the subcontinent in cricket is largely simply demographic. It contains 1,200 million people, against 58 million in Britain, 18 million in Australia and 3.5 million in New Zealand. I suspect the sheer weight of numbers is now overcoming the disadvantage of inferior facilities. GNP matters, but so does population.
If so, critics will ask, why does.