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Cricket has devoted followers, but don’t call it a religion

In Why India Can Never Do Without Cricket, a love letter to both the game and his national team, Soumya Bhattacharya writes: "We have invested our emotions, our passions, our frenzy, our whole lives in following this side." It is, he says, like a giant corporation: "How its stocks rise and fall has a bearing on our lives."

Bhattacharya, the fortysomething editor of the Hindustan Times, is speaking not just for fans of the Indian cricket team, nor simply fans of cricket, but for the fan. Full stop. And for a column which bears that name, this is surely a moment for reflection. But not too long a pause, because India is coming - the team and its fans.

After the briefest of warm-ups (in Taunton), the squad heads for Lord's on 21 July for the first of four Tests, with five one-day internationals and a Twenty20 bash-a-thon thrown in for good measure in the weeks following.

This India team is at the top of the International Cricket Council Test rankings and has just won the 50-overs World Cup. Its star players - Sachin Tendulkar, Virender Sehwag, Mahendra Singh Dhoni (the captain) and Zaheer Khan - all ducked out of the recent tour to the Caribbean in order to be fit and ready for the English summer.

England, meanwhile, are a single point below South Africa - who are in second place in those Test rankings - after a winter tour in which they thrashed Australia (now in fifth place, which I mention only to be petty). Not for nothing has Cricinfo, the website for the statistically obsessed, declared this the "biggest summer since Ashes 2005".

Saffron army

England v India has not always been about first team against second(-ish) but it has always been a big occasion. This is down to the "away" fans. They come in great numbers, with families often occupying an entire row of seats. Their cool bags tend to be packed with something more enticing than a Ginsters and a six-pack of mini Melton Mowbrays and - a most welcome quirk, this - they also come armed with marker pens
and scrap paper for an impromptu banner or three.

Certainly, the quality of this makeshift signage is variable: "Shane be Warned", scrawled on a large piece of cardboard during India's Super Six clash with Warne's Australia during the 1999 World Cup, sticks in the memory as an example of the weak punning that characterises many of these messages. But in an age of corporatised cricket (for which the Indian rupee is more responsible than the British pound or the Australian dollar), it's a welcome nod to amateurism.

This is not a Barmy Army (the saffron army?), a touring troupe with a newly minted songbook that showers largesse on the local economy. Rather, this is, in the main, a resident diaspora failing the Tebbit test and caring not one jot. (Only with the emergence of an enlarged, wealthy middle class on the subcontinent has Indian cricket tourism become a possibility.) Expect large crowds at Lord's, Trent Bridge, Edgbaston and the Oval, each of which is in easy reach of sizeable immigrant communities.

That there are only four Tests this summer will offer more evidence, for those seeking it, that the five-day game is in deep decline. Limited-overs cricket is the only commercially viable form of the game. Or so they say.

It is true that Test matches in India rarely sell out, but that doesn't equate with a lack of interest, nor with a lack of commercial viability. Test matches continue to pull in television viewing figures in India that compare favourably with that other cultural phenomenon, the soap opera. And consider this: on the final day of the Nagpur Test between India and Australia in 2008, Cricinfo recorded 1.8 million unique users of the site, almost all checking on the progress of the match. In England, the grounds will be packed.

So expect plenty of passion over the next two and a half months. Just don't call cricket India's new religion. As Bhattacharya notes: "Religion has scarred India more deeply than anything else. Cricket is the balm that heals. Cricket is our anti-religion, our most precious, deeply secular institution." Amen to that.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

This article first appeared in the 18 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, India