A few months ago, as I watched the World T20 final at home, my father-in-law, then visiting for the weekend, casually strolled into the living room, parked himself on my couch with a cup of tea, looked at the television and asked, "So when the ball goes flying over the boundary like that, is it six runs?"
My father-in-law, well-versed in the metaphysical intricacies of Urdu poetry, in the finer details of Quranic exegesis, in the esoteric details of the administrative strategies of the Ottoman Empire, was all at sea when it came to understanding the rules of this game. My affirmative response to his innocent question was stymied, just for a second, by the realisation that I was in the presence of that curious creature: an Indian non-fan of cricket.
Yes, it's true. There are many Indians - millions! - who cannot bring themselves to care about bat and ball, willow and leather, stump and bail, and all of the rest. They are resolute in their indifference, and sometimes pungent in their hostility. This anti-cricket sentiment in India has a long and venerable history, going all the way back to cricket's earliest days, when passionate nationalists railed against the importation of this latest colonial imposition, this all-too transparent attempt to impose English culture on the Indian landscape, this latest way for insecure, grasping Indians to ape the manners and mores of their colonial masters, this inflamer of "communal" passions in pitting Hindu against Parsee and Muslim.
Later, cricket stood indicted of equally deadly sins: it was a wasteful diversion in a land whose peoples should have been dedicating themselves to economic and material progress; it was a weed, choking indigenous sports; it was a giant oak, in whose shadow no other sport could grow. And then, lastly, there were complaints on grounds of taste: it was boring, it went on for too long, and besides, we weren't really all that good at it anyway. (As might be expected, some of the ire of the Indian non-fan was directed at fans of cricket: they were obsessive creatures who could speak of little else, who wasted their time memorising the statistics of an essentially meaningless and pointless activity.)
The most common public expression of sentiments like these took place in the so-called "middle" section of Indian newspapers, a small column on the editorial page made available to writing dilettantes, a print soapbox of sorts. From this vantage point, the Indian non-fan railed against men in white and the fools who watched them. All that standing around, all that lack of activity, all that evidence that cricketers were not that athletic compared to other sportsmen, all that loss of economic productivity during a Test match - remind me, again, why our country is so besotted with this game?
I have not lived in India for almost three decades now, so my sense of the growth of this demographic is a little shaky. But it seems to me that there is ample cause to turn away from cricket for many Indians now: there are new sports to divert them (many urban youngsters I meet seem more interested in the English Premier League); cricket's associations with political and corporate corruption, and with Bollywood crassness and excess, have only grown; and losses in productivity during big games have not diminished in the slightest.
Worrying about cricket's future is all the rage now. Given cricket's dependence - in the foreseeable future at least - on the Indian economy and its consumers, one might as well rephrase this concern as speculation over whether the tribe of the Indian non-fan will increase. The roots of the concern lie in the acknowledgement, even by fans of the game in India, that in all the critiques made of the game, a glimmer of truth has always lurked.
There is nothing essential about cricket's place in the Indian imagination or sensibility; its position is not protected by any mystical guarantees of durability. It is a cultural activity, one with a history of contingencies propping it up; it must compete for time and attention and emotional investment with all the other offerings of this variegated world. Perhaps, almost unimaginably, it will recede from Indian shores, leaving behind some archaeological traces of its once iron-clad hold on that land.
Samir Chopra lives in Brooklyn and teaches Philosophy at the City University of New York. @EyeonthePitch