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HomesportsA cricket rivalry evolves: How Indian fans came to love English players

A cricket rivalry evolves: How Indian fans came to love English players

Mumbai, India – The image of former India captain Sourav Ganguly swinging his jersey in jubilation on the Lord’s Cricket Stadium’s balcony is deeply etched in every Indian cricket fan’s memory.

It was July 13, 2002. India had defeated England by two wickets in a tightly contested final of the NatWest series as Ganguly’s side chased a mighty target of 326 in the final over.

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The match, rated as one of the greatest in one-day cricket, was a titanic clash between the golden age of Indian cricket – featuring Ganguly, Sachin Tendulkar and Anil Kumble – and an England team boasting top players such as Nasser Hussain, Marcus Trescothick and Andrew Flintoff.

For India, the victory was a sweet revenge after England had held them to a 3-3 ODI series draw at home earlier that year.

After Zaheer Khan hit the winning runs, Ganguly swung his India jersey, baring his torso as he hurled invective, delivering a tit-for-tat after Flintoff celebrated topless at the Wankhede Stadium during England’s tour of India.

India and England have played more than 100 international ODI matches since the 1970s and tempers have flared during those face-offs. There have been incidents of aggression, moments of good banter and a strong feeling of competitiveness between the players.

But, as India and England prepare to face off at the Cricket World Cup on Sunday, Indian fans feel that their so-called rivalry has toned down over the last few years with players from both countries competing together in franchise leagues, including the Twenty20 Indian Premier League.

“For sure the rivalry between India and England has reduced,” Chirag Narasimiah, a commercial and corporate lawyer from Bengaluru, told Al Jazeera. “Aggression between teams has calmed in general across international cricket because of the IPL and other leagues.”

English players have played in the IPL since its inception in 2008 and many of them have formed a solid fan base in the cricket-loving country.

England’s test captain and all-rounder Ben Stokes, who has played for IPL teams Rajasthan Royals and Chennai Super Kings, is a fan favourite among Indians.

During England’s World Cup match against South Africa in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium last weekend, Indian fans were rooting for him every time he got hold of the ball while fielding and chanted his name when he came on to bat in the second innings.

Jos Buttler and Joe Root, who both played for Rajasthan Royals in the 2023 IPL season, also received a similar reception from the Mumbai crowd even as England suffered a huge defeat.

“IPL has allowed fans to be exposed to a lot of players from different countries,” said Ali Taabish Nomani, an insurance consultant from Lucknow.

“A lot of fans are knowledgeable in our cricket-loving country so once they see a player doing well, they will support him irrespective of the country he is from. Be it even Ben Stokes of England.”

Narasimiah, who also advises on sports law matters, said that the IPL works as a great tool to bridge the gap between Indian fans and overseas players.

“The league has opened up the game to a lot of casual fans, who don’t really understand or delve deep into rivalries. Those fans are happy to just watch the game and enjoy whoever is playing well,” he said.

“I think this has increased over the years and led to fewer conversations where you’d discuss if a player is from England or Australia.

“Also, England players have toured India and been part of the IPL for so many years that nothing is new for them. They are also making an effort to assimilate.”

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For Dion George, a software developer from Mumbai, supporting Chennai Super Kings made him “emotionally invested” in England batter Sam Curran’s career.

Curran played for the Chennai-based IPL franchise in the 2020-21 IPL season before joining Punjab Kings this year. But that did not affect George’s support for the Englishman.

“Since I followed him for so long because of my allegiance with Chennai, I am so used to supporting him. I still get happy when I see him do well for Punjab or even England,” said George.

Apart from Curran, George is also a big supporter of Buttler and included the England skipper in his fantasy gaming team during IPL a couple of seasons ago.

“While playing fantasy games, you subconsciously align yourself with wanting these players to do well, and that stays for a long time, too. After I had Buttler in my fantasy team, I would look forward to him scoring well even in international Test cricket and the World Cups,” George, 26, said.

“When I attended England vs South Africa, I was most upset over seeing him get out.”

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Colonial history

While India and England have been rivals on the cricket field, the countries also share a long history, with the British ruling over the Indian subcontinent from 1858 to 1947.

Cricket, which originated in England, was introduced to the Indian subcontinent by sailors and traders of the English East India Company in the 17th and 18th centuries and it became a highly popular sport among Indians when India defeated their former colonisers England on their own turf in 1971 – winning a three-test series 1-0.

In 1983, India won the World Cup for the first time, lifting the trophy at the Lord’s Cricket Ground in London, once called the “cathedral of cricket”.

Then in 2011, India won their second world title, while England won the World Cup for the first time in 2019, ending their agonising 44-year wait to be world champions of the sport they invented.

Britain’s colonial history is not forgotten, but Indian fans say it does not affect them when watching an India vs England cricket match.

“I don’t think about British colonialism because what has happened is in the past now and we should learn from history,” said Nomani, who will attend India v England in Lucknow on Sunday.

“I have never looked at it that way, for me it’s just two teams from two countries playing a game of cricket.”

Narasimiah said India’s cricketing achievements have proven they are better than their former colonisers.

“I don’t think the colonial history matters so much for today’s fans, especially in the age group of 20-30s. It’s because India has sort of ‘been there done that’ by winning the World Cup before England,” he said.

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England’s poor form

England head into Sunday’s match against table-toppers India with four defeats in five matches.

Mathematically, England are not yet out of the race for the semifinals, but their hopes are hanging by a thread as the team sits second bottom, above the Netherlands on net run rate.

Dismal batting has let England down on several occasions during their World Cup title defence, while their bowlers have also not stepped up.

Nonetheless, India fan Nomani expects Sunday’s clash in Lucknow to be entertaining.

“I believe it will be a good match because the pitch has been completely changed since the venue was awarded the World Cup. It could be a neutral venue for both teams … also with England coming into the game with four losses, they could be aggressive and India might be eased out as they have won all five matches,” the 30-year-old said.

“I would say it will be India’s match to lose, but it will be an aggressive and competitive game.”

Source: Al Jazeera


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