cricket - a religon or just a game

Cricket - an industry and a religion

By Harshvardhan Khona

Last updated: Mar 13, 2021

Exactly where and when the game of cricket was first played is a matter of much conjecture. While the first recorded match was played at Chevening in Kent, England, in 1611, it is widely accepted that some form of cricket was being played much earlier, and in many locations across northern Europe. Indeed, it is likely that the word 'cricket' itself is derived from the Dutch word krick - the name given to a stick.

There is widespread evidence that different versions of the game existed, but in 1774 the rules of modern cricket were drafted by the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) of London. Apart from regular additions and modifications the rules set down then form the basis of the modern game of cricket. While 'village cricket' became a very popular pastime across Kent and Sussex in the 17th and 18th centuries, no-one could have imagined that, some 400 years after the first formal game, cricket would become the planet's second most popular sport, with an estimated 2.5 billion fans - second only to soccer (association football) with 4 billion! This is thanks, in no small way, to the incredible popularity of cricket in India and Pakistan.

Cricket in India

There is something about cricket that transcends nationality, culture, education, background, race, gender and religion - perhaps more so than most other sports. Which brings us neatly to India. While the world's largest democracy is a diverse potpourri of different religions, faiths and cultures, India has one shared belief system when it comes to sport - the adoration of cricket and those who play cricket at the highest level.

Requiring a simple bat and a ball, cricket can be found everywhere, from the lanes and alleyways in the smallest of villages, to the 100,000 plus spectators flooding into Kolkata's Eden Gardens to watch India play Pakistan (in 1999). Unlike most other sports, cricket provides an opportunity for every type of physique to excel - from the 5 foot 2 inch opening batsman to the 7ft opening bowler.

Cricket has a 200 year old rich tradition in India, first brought to its shores by the East India Company in the 1800s. Originally exclusively a game for company officials, cricket quickly 'caught on' as the rulers of Princely states arranged friendly matches. Interest in cricket picked up quickly as the 'elite' classes began competing with European teams.

The growing popularity of cricket drew huge crowds, and to create social order against a backdrop of rising unrest, a competition - initially limited to Europeans and Parsees - was expanded (in 1877) to include Hindus and Muslims and create the Bombay Quadrangular cricket tournament.

Independence in 1947 saw the closure of the Bombay Quadrangular and the onset of several local competitions starting with the Ranji Trophy which is a first class cricket tournament. Since then, cricket has seen a meteoric rise in its popularity and appeal across India, not only drawing large crowds in stadiums but also in street cricket matches known as Gully Cricket. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) is the ultimate authority for cricket in India and responsible for all the domestic tournaments as well as coordination for international tournaments, and competitions for women and youth. Launched in India in 2008, the Twenty20 format or T20 as it is popularly known, has experienced tremendous success and popularity due to its comparatively short duration (Equivalent to a movie in India) and its rapid pace of play. Globally, the Indian Premier League (IPL) is the largest and most 'famous' T20 league, and, indeed, its most profitable one. [iii]. While international 'test' matches continue to remain the favorite form of cricket for purists, such matches have seen a decline in popularity as interest in T20 has grown. Attempts have been made to revive it with a Test Cricket World Cup but that has had mixed results.

Cricket Landscape in India

India won the Cricket World Cup in 1983 and then again in 2011. While its popularity has waxed and waned it has never lost its near-religious status or fervor. Legends of cricket have emerged in every generation, including Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly, Mahindra Singh Dhoni, and Virat Kohli.

Of course nothing that captures the hearts of billions can exist without controversies and cricket in India is no exception. The biggest controversy that rocked India in early 2000s was the match fixing scandal[iv]. Match fixing, as the name suggests, is determining the outcome of the match illegally and then performing accordingly to achieve that outcome. This was not only illegal, but also undermined the spirit of the game denting the popularity of cricket for many.

Following this, Indian cricket went into retreat for a decade, only to receive a tremendous boost with the introduction the IPL. By 2014, it had amongst the top 10 highest attendances across all sports leagues. The tournament began with 8 regional teams and the number has fluctuated since then. A unique factor introduced by it was the inclusion of international players in the regional teams, with each team being allowed up to 4 players from international cricket teams - this alone laid the basis for the IPL to became a roaring hit.

The IPL is worth $6.5 billion USD[v] as of 2019 according to the latest survey by Duff & Phelps. The IPL is a cricketing juggernaut undaunted even by the Covid-19 pandemic. Due to restrictions imposed by the pandemic, the tournament was delayed and eventually moved to UAE where it had a successful season. Cancellation of the tournament would have caused a loss of revenue to the tune of $680 million USD[vi]

Broadcasting rights - a duopoly

Cricket broadcasting rights in India have always been awarded on an exclusive basis. Only one broadcaster can broadcast cricket matches across the country. However, the Supreme Court has upheld a judgment requiring the broadcaster to share the feed with national broadcaster Doordarshan (a government owned channel)[vii]. Similar rules apply in Australia[viii] and UK[ix] as well. However not all matches need to be telecasted through Doordarshan, only those marked as of national importance. So while the World Cup is telecast on it, other matches and IPL are not.

The current rights of all Cricket Broadcast events for IPL, BCCI (Bilateral cricket events) and International Cricket Council in India are held by Star India who paid INR 365 billion ($5 billion USD-currency conversion as of 30th Jan 2021)[x]. Cricket viewership in India is extremely strong with official figures of 766 million viewers in 2018[xi] although this is likely to be a considerable understatement of true viewing figures. This makes it a very lucrative market with some $430 million advertising revenues in the IPL in 2020.[xii].

Cricket broadcasting in India is essentially a duopoly between Star India and its rival Sony who held the rights before Star acquired it - the rights are up for renewal in 2023. The high cost of acquiring the rights creates a considerable barrier to entry for smaller broadcasters, and hence the existence of a duopoly. However, the economic fallout from the pandemic means that falling advertising revenues no longer justify the high valuation attached to broadcasting rights, which may enable more broadcasters to enter the market.

Cricket Sponsorship

In addition to broadcasting, advertisement via sponsorship is a also a source of revenue. Byju’s replaced Oppo as the new sponsor of Indian Cricket Team with a fee of $148 million USD ($620k per match for bilateral ties and $210k for ICC tournament)[xiii] and one will see Byju’s logo on the jersey. MPL is the new kit sponsor and while the amount paid is not known, at base price the rights cost $16 million USD[xiv].

cricket kit sponsorship
Image: courtesy Amazon

Sponsors include Paytm & Byju’s and additional sponsors include Star Sports, Dream11, Hyundai, Ambuja Cement and MPL Sports.


Cricket is my religion and Sachin is our god is a popular book written by Vidyadhar Durgekar which highlights the enormous attraction that cricket has for Indian youth not only from the point of view of a potential career, but also, as with all religions, adding purpose to their lives. If, as Marx said, religion is the opium of the people, then India is a country of a billion cricket addicts, and growing. This factor alone makes it a market worth fighting for.

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