Why India are not cricket's Brazil yet
Ed Smith's analogising India with Brazil was an interesting exercise. It works on some levels but not at other, equally crucial, ones.
When football fans think of Brazil, they think primarily of the following: sustained excellence in the game, as evinced by a series of World Cup wins; a tradition of attractive, distinctive, particular styles; a rich local culture of playing football; and a persistent production of high-quality football players revered the world over for their innovative skills.
Brazil's World Cup wins are a crucial part of this picture. They represent wins in football's most prized trophy and indicate an attainment of the game's highest standards.
So is Brazil's style of flowing, attacking football. When hard-headed, pragmatic coaches seek a more airtight strategic and tactical mix, one that is more "winning", it is met with howls of dismay from Brazil's dedicated fans.
So Brazil dominate football's imagination in both the sporting and aesthetic dimensions.
I do not think India do this - not as yet, at least. India's excellence in cricket has been spotty at best: despite producing some of the world's best batsmen, they have never risen to the absolute top in Test cricket because of their failure to produce quality bowling line-ups. While their batsmen have scored heavily and even displayed a distinctive stylistic repertoire, they have not been able to dominate consistently and persistently at home and overseas. India's brand of cricket has never been aggressive, but rather, marked by patience, persistence, and the seizing of moments of opportunity provided by opponents. (While I might be suggesting here that India's style or brand of cricket is "distinctive", it is not, despite plenty of talk of "wristy batsmen", one that is quite as universally adored and admired as Brazil's football is.)
India do not dominate cricket's imagination in either the sporting or the aesthetic dimension. (Indian fans - their numbers and their supposed devotion to the game - certainly dominate the imagination of cricket's journalists and headline-writers; they also dominate blog comments spaces.) Indeed, as many Indian commentators never tire of pointing out, they are provided endless fodder for analysis by the large gap between the following for the game and the lack of consistent performance by the national team.
A better analogy to draw would have been with West Indies: dominant in Test cricket over an extended period, all the while employing a visually and technically idiosyncratic take on the playing of the game. Of course, I do not think Smith intended his analogy to be exact; if I understood him correctly, he meant to indicate that India's combination of a large cricketing population (both players and fans), experience in international cricket, and so-called "knowledge networks", sustain a political economy for cricket that will in time come to dominate those of other teams.
I think this prediction might ultimately turn out to be correct. Especially if limited-overs formats gain prominence and importance. Here, even though bowlers have come to play a greater role than was originally imagined, batsmen still dominate. These formats make the most room to accommodate India's traditional weakness in bowling. When you notice India's fielding has drastically improved you begin to see how they could dominate in these formats. And of course, at home, India are particularly effective with their particular combination of playing XIs; they can call upon their traditional strength in spinners to back up their never-ending production of high-quality batsmen.
Smith's analogy is thus incomplete but still provocative. It is also vulnerable to the possibility that cricket will not retain its place in the Indian imagination. This displacement will be accelerated if Indians start to succeed in other international sports and siphon attention and sponsor monies away from cricket.
I'm an old-fashioned fart; I would love it if Indian cricket became like Brazilian football in the dimensions that matter the most to me: persistent excellence in Tests, backed up by aggressive, purposeful cricket. One can hope.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. He tweets here