India Puts Life on Hold

The TIME magazine has a typical article on something that is alien to the culture of the US. Read on.

Incredibly, cricket is not India’s national sport. That title goes to another English import, field hockey. But as anyone who has ever stepped foot in India can tell you, there is really only one game that matters here and it’s not hockey. In the build-up to the quadrennial World Cup — which opened Tuesday in Jamaica — cricket has dominated social conversation, magazine covers and the airwaves. “Cricket is the only game that can stop life in India,” says Apurva Anand, a 21-year-old architecture student. “For the next few weeks my studies will just have to go on hold.”

If hundreds of millions of Indians are looking a little glazed these spring mornings, it might be because the cricket World Cup is being played ten time zones away

Cricket arrived here in the 19th century, when the Parsi community in Mumbai picked up the game from English settlers. The game soon spread around the subcontinent, crossing religious and caste boundaries as it went. India played its first international game in 1932, and it was popularized with the advent of television and the introduction of one-day matches (in which each side is limited to facing only 300 balls during its turn at bat — as opposed to the traditional five-day test match in which each side bats twice, with no limit on the duration of an inning). After India’s unexpected triumph in the 1983 World Cup, cricket became a cornerstone of popular culture in India — and South Asia (neighboring Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh all share India’s passion for the game) became the spiritual and commercial home of the game. Although the World Cup is being staged in the former British colonies of the Caribbean — which field a combined team, the West Indies — satellite television will ensure that its biggest audience will be in India. Indeed, the rights to televise the game on Indian domestic television alone sold for $612 million last year, dwarfing the amount it fetches in such older cricket-playing nations as England and Australia.

While the game’s top stars promote everything from shoes to banks and are mobbed whenever they appear in public, the passion for the game is as evident at the grass roots where you still see poor kids with improvised equipment playing for hours on end in the dusty streets and city alleyways of Pakistan and India. Driving across Sri Lanka two weeks ago, I saw farmers playing atop the banks dividing their rice paddies. Even Afghanistan has been touched by the contagion: Since the fall of the Taliban in 2002, thousands of returning Afghan refugees who fell in love with the game during their years in Pakistan now play on the rock-hard fields around Kabul.

Given the game’s capacity to “stop life” here, it may be a good thing for India’s economy that games played by daylight in the Caribbean run from around 7 p.m. until 3 or 4 in the morning, local time. Many employers have already said they will allow employees to start work slightly later than normal, while a few companies that operate at night have arranged for television coverage so no one misses out. Bangalore-based Infosys BPO, which operates call centers for companies in Europe and the U.S., has even arranged for big screens just outside the main work area so that people on their regular breaks can catch a bit of the action. “It’s about keeping employees happy without letting the work suffer,” says manager of corporate communications Sabrina Mukund.

The big question, of course, is whether India can win it this time around. On paper, they have a strong team, especially their batting lineup. But that has been true in past campaigns, when they have mostly disappointed. In 2003, they were thumped in the final by Australia. A very unscientific straw poll of cricket fans in the shopping area closest to my house last Sunday revealed optimism mixed with suspicion. “Definitely India will win,” said trainee hotel manager Zohaib Khan, 22, before a pause that captures the mood perfectly. “I hope so.”