Sixty-five thousand people attended the final of the IPL at Eden Gardens, Kolkata.  There was nothing much Bengali or Kolkata about the match. No player from Bengal featured in either of the teams. Nor did the teams bear the name of  a Bengali hero.

Is sport in India becoming increasingly global and ranking-based rather than nationalistic or sub-nationalistic? As a critic has suggested: “The triumph of cosmopolitanism suggests that national fervour has diminished.”

So the rise of cosmopolitanism – marked by big-ticket player purchase and night-time entertainment – goes against  the slightly fading concept of nationhood and sporting glory. Countries use the Olympics to send out strong messages of nationhood and patriotism. But few realise that  the very notion is being eaten into by global sporting leagues where cosmopolitanism is sought to be projected against national fervour.

When sport was a form of nationalism

It isn’t easy to brush away the role of nationalism in sport. Few of us know how Hitler used the heavyweight boxer Max Schmeling to propagate Nazism during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “We would hardly know our youth who in schools all over Germany swing their boxing gloves according to the will of the Fuhrer, if a majority of them weren’t impressed by the silent desire to become a Schmeling,” Nazi paper Angriff wrote then, as quoted in Beyond Glory: Joe Lous Vs Max Schmeling and a World on the Brink  by David Margolick.

Schmeling gave the Nazi salute before his bouts. After wining a bout he once jumped over and punched the nose of the president of the anti-Nazi league!

Jayaditya Gupta of ESPNCricinfo argued in an article in a June 2012 article in Mint,  titled That Sense of History, that visiting  national places of historical importance would inspire sportsmen to do more for their country.

Pointing to the visit of  the English soccer team to Auschwitz and the Australian cricket team’s 2001 visit to Gallipolli (where the first battle that troops from Australia and New Zealand fought in took place) as means of inspiration, the writer argues that the Indian cricket team should visit Jalianwala Bagh or Sabarmati Ashram.  Many would feel that it would be better for Indian cricketers to visit gyms more often!

The IPL is eroding regional fervour

This global cricket league, with players from all over the world, has received humongous public adoration and support despite  the scandals, the allegations of match-fixing, and the notion that it represents a degradation of cricket.

There are larger and many positive outcomes to this public support of the league, especially in a country where domestic cricket gets no audience at all, not even the Ranji Trophy or Duleep Trophy finals, the country’s top domestic cricket events, both played on the basis of sub-nationalism with state or zonal teams.

History was different. Don’t forget, for instance, that the cricket Pentagular in colonial India was played along community lines. In Ram Guha’s book, A Corner of a Foreign Field, a Parsi cricketer is quoted as writing: “It is the opinion of many teachers that the Parsee boy takes to cricket as a duck takes to water. The Hindu is slow in learning it but once attracted by the game he goes on improving, The Mahomedan boy prefers his marbles to bat and ball.”

All of that is gone now: For the Indian cricket lover, there are now many global heroes, unlike in the time of Sunil Gavaskar. So Virat Kohli and M.S Dhoni are viewed as just one of the stars among the many. And fans in India go delirious over Ab De Villiers, Chris Gayle, of Lendl Simmons with just as much fervour.

India is clearly following the global pattern, with an the urban, cosmopolitan ethos seemingly overriding all else. In fact, more cheers were reserved for foreign players than for Indians during the IPL.

The new model of fandom

Arguably, a house-full gathering of 65,000 when the home team is not even playing would not be possible for any public ticketed sporting event in India outside of the IPL, unless some of the world’s best footballers or tennis players were to be playing here. It’s true that an exhibition match between Argentina and Venezuela in Kolkata was sold out at the 100,000-plus capacity Yuva Bharati Krirangan in 2011, on the strength of the presence of Lionel Messi.

Maybe the emerging Indian Soccer league might also attract similar crowds in future.  The important point: both these are private events. Private initiative in building sports events and teams may well be the key factor in playing down nationalism as well as sub-nationalism.

So, the sight of South African star AB de Villiers walking back to the pavilion with his arm around the young shoulders of  Sarfaraz Khan from Mumbai is symbolic of how cricket and sport in general are evolving.  National, casteist, and ethnic boundaries are blurring once and for all.

About four decades ago, the most charged spectator event in India was probably a Bengal Vs Kerala Santosh Trophy match. I have been to one of those in a bus, packed like a helpless sardine.  To obliterate Bengal was my only objective.  That objective is gone. How and where? And is it for better for worse?