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27 January 2021updated 29 Jul 2021 8:48am

Why a group of champion cricketers from poor families are emblems of the new Indian future

The success of players such as Ajinkya Rahane and Thangarasu Natarajan, shows the transformative power of the IPL. 

By Jonathan Liew

The architects of the greatest overseas triumph in the history of Indian cricket were never going to be allowed to slip quietly back into the country. Ajinkya Rahane, the unassuming captain who masterminded India’s astonishing Test series victory over Australia, sealed with a win in Brisbane on 19 January, was showered with flower petals on his return to Mumbai. The fast bowler Thangarasu Natarajan was met in his home village of Chinnappampatti by a crowd of 5,000 who hoisted him into a chariot, decorated him with garlands and carried him all the way to his front door.

For Mohammed Siraj, India’s highest wicket-taker in the series, homecoming would be a more sombre affair. Two months earlier, on the eve of the series, his father Mohammad Ghouse had died of lung disease. Confined to his Sydney hotel and unable to attend the funeral, Siraj stayed in Australia, quietly grieving. On landing at Hyderabad Airport on 21 January, he drove straight to the cemetery to lay flowers at his father’s grave.

On the surface, India’s 2-1 series win in Australia – only their second in 73 years on Australian soil – was a very human triumph: a tale of individual fortitude and resilience in the face of staggering odds. Humiliated in the first Test (when they were bowled out for their lowest ever Test score of 36), deprived of their talismanic captain Virat Kohli, imprisoned in their biosecure bubbles, racially abused by sections of the Australian crowd, ravaged by injuries: these were the circumstances in which a virtual second-string India side claimed famous comeback victories in Melbourne and Brisbane.

[See also: Soumya Bhattacharya’s Diary: An emotional homecoming and one of India’s greatest Test wins]

Yet amid the exultation of new heroes such as Siraj, Natarajan and batsman Shubman Gill, the beaten Australia coach Justin Langer struck at a deeper truth. “Never, ever underestimate the Indians,” he said. “There’s 1.4 billion Indians. Eleven players out of 1.4 billion people. If you play in that first 11, you’ve got to be really tough, don’t you?”

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And in many ways, this was the real legacy of the series. That India could lose virtually an entire first XI and still beat Australia on their home patch – historically Test cricket’s toughest assignment – was above all a triumph of a system, a triumph of demographics and a triumph of the single biggest national talent pool of any sport in the world. Cricket in India, writes the historian Ramachandra Guha in his recent book The Commonwealth of Cricket (2020), is “the most intense popular passion in the history of the human race… were the game better administered, the Indian team would never lose a cricket match”. That long-portended moment – when India finally manages to convert its raw numbers into total supremacy – may be upon us.

Of course, India have always been good at cricket. They were world champions in 1983 and 2011, won in England in 1971, 1986 and 2007, and beat a weakened Australia team two years ago. Even so, Indian cricket has historically been inefficient with its resources. It’s not only the size of the nation, but the relative lack of competition from other sports (football, while growing fast, is very much a niche pursuit; the all-time Olympic Games medal table, meanwhile, places India just behind Ireland). The Indian Premier League (IPL), cricket’s most lucrative competition, earns more revenue during its two-month span than England or Australia generates from the entire sport in a year. But financial and political dominance in cricket has not always translated into Indian wins.

[See also: Ramachandra Guha’s The Commonwealth of Cricket: a delightful sporting memoir]

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In order to glimpse how the tide may be turning, let’s examine the team that toured Australia in 2003-04. Overwhelmingly, it was a side drawn from the ranks of the privileged and the educated middle class. Captain Sourav Ganguly came from one of the richest families in Kolkata; star batsman Sachin Tendulkar was the son of a famous poet; batsman Rahul Dravid’s mother was a professor of architecture. These were brilliant players, but largely incongruent with the country they represented. They were products of a system in which free time and independent means were still reliable predictors of opportunity. India’s team was drawn from the tiniest sliver of its huge population.

What happened? In short, the IPL happened. Established in 2008, it offered not just instant riches but incentives to invest in coaching and talent-spotting. Teams are restricted to four overseas players in their 11, which places a high premium on unearthing the best local talent. To this end, the IPL franchises have established huge scouting networks, assembled enormous X-Factor-style talent camps, and pored through thousands of club and village games looking for hidden gems. Whatever their background, a talented Indian cricketer has a better chance of being seen in 2021 than ever before.

This is the first generation of Indians to have grown up in the IPL era: to have been through the dream factory, felt its transformative power and emerged as elite cricketers. The village through which Natarajan was carried by chariot was the same one where he was raised in poverty by parents who ran a food stall. Gill learned his cricket from the Punjabi farm labourers who worked the land alongside his father. The young Rahane used to walk five miles every day to training because he couldn’t afford a rickshaw. Siraj is the son of a rickshaw driver and never had any formal coaching. On earning his first IPL contract he told his father: “Dad, now you can rest.”

Two decades ago, most of these players would probably have been lost to the game: undiscovered, thwarted, overtaken by the children whose parents could pay for good schooling or elite coaching. But here they are: not just champion cricketers or local celebrities or national icons, but very possibly the emblems of a new Indian future. 

[See also: Appreciation: Colin Bell]

This article appears in the 27 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Lost