India is not perhaps a place that most people associate with sports, but cricket, hockey and football (soccer) all have their place.
Cricket is by far the most popular of these, and a fine example of how something quintessentially British (well, English) has become something quintessentially Indian. Travellers to India will find it hard to get away from the game – it’s everywhere, especially on television. Cricketing heroes such as the legendary batting maestro Sachin Tendulkar and superstar Indian captain Mahendra Dhoni live under the constant scrutiny of the media and public; expectations are high and disappointments acute. India versus Pakistan matches are especially emotive – the entire country received a fillip when India beat their arch-rivals in the final of the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup in 2007 by a nail-biting five runs. Besides spectator cricket, you’ll see games being played on open spaces all around the country.
Test matches are rare, but inter-state cricket is easy to catch – the most prestigious competition is the Ranji Trophy. Occasionally, in cities like Kolkata, you may even come across a match blocking a road, and will have to be patient as the players begrudgingly let your vehicle continue.
Horseracing can be a good day out, especially if you enjoy a flutter. The racecourse at Kolkata is the most popular, often attracting crowds of more than fifty thousand, especially on New Year’s Day. There are several other racecourses around the country, mostly in larger cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, Hyderabad, Mysore, Bengaluru and Ooty. Other (mainly) spectator sports include polo, originally from upper Kashmir, but taken up by the British to become one of the symbols of the Raj. Certain Rajasthani princes, such as the late Hanut Singh of Jodhpur, were considered to be the best polo players in the world between the 1930s and 1950s, but since the 1960s, when the privy purses were abolished, they have been unable to maintain their stables, and the tradition of polo has declined. Today, it’s mainly the army who plays the game; the best place to catch a match is at the Delhi Gymkhana during the winter season. Polo, in more or less its original form, is still played on tiny mountain ponies in Ladakh; a good place to see a game played in traditional style is in Leh during the Ladakh Festival in early September.
After years in the doldrums, Indian hockey, which used to regularly furnish the country with Olympic medals, is making a strong comeback. The haul of medals dried up in the 1960s when international hockey introduced astro-turf – which was, and still is, a rare surface in India. However, hockey remains very popular, especially in schools and colleges and, interestingly, amongst the tribal girls of Odisha, who supply the Indian national team with a regular clutch of players.
Football (soccer) is similarly popular with a keenly contested national championship. The best teams are based in Kolkata and include three legendary clubs – Mohan Bagan, East Bengal and Mohamadan Sporting – who all command fanatical support. Unlike most of the league, these teams employ professional players and even include some minor internationals, mostly from Africa. International soccer tournaments are becoming increasingly common.
Tennis in India has always been a sport for the middle and upper classes. The country has produced a number of world-class players, such as the men’s duo of Mahesh Bhupati and Leander Paes, who briefly achieved a world number-one ranking in the men’s doubles in 1999, while the glamorous young Sania Mirza, the first ever Indian to break into the WTA’s Top 50 ranked players, rivals the nation’s cricketers in popularity.
Volleyball is very popular throughout India, especially in the resorts of Goa. Standards aren’t particularly high and joining a game is quite easy. Since the arrival on the Formula 1 scene of Kingfisher tycoon Vijay Malia’s Force India team, motor racing has also grown in popularity and since 2011 the country has hosted a Grand Prix at the spanking new track at Noida outside Delhi. Golf is widely followed, too, again among the middle classes; the second oldest golf course in the world is in Kolkata, and one of the highest in the world is at Shimla.
One indigenous sport you’re likely to see in north India is kabadi, played on a small (badminton-sized) court, and informally on any suitable open area. The game, with seven players in each team, consists of a player from each team alternately attempting to “tag” as many members of the opposing team as possible in the space of a single breath (cheating is impossible; the player has to maintain a continuous chant of “kabadikabadikabadikabadi” etc), and getting back to his/her own side of the court without being caught. The game can get quite rough, with slaps and kicks in tagging allowed, and the defending team must try to tackle and pin the attacker so as not to allow him or her to even touch the dividing line. Tagged victims are required to leave the court. Although still an amateur sport, kabadi is taken very seriously with state and national championships, and now features in the Asian Games.
Popular with devotees of the monkey god, Hanuman, Indian wrestling, or kushti, has a small but dedicated following. Wrestlers are known as pahalwaans or “strong men” and can be seen exercising early in the morning with clubs and weights along river ghats such as those in Varanasi or Kolkata.