Norman Tebbit's cricket test means nothing when you're winning
Combined with its team's prowess on the field, India's economic clout has turned the tables on the old colonial master
The game of cricket should be thankful that so many British Asians continue to fail Norman Tebbit's "cricket test". In one of his less helpful contributions to social harmony, the old polecat suggested in 1990 that the side that ethnic minorities cheer for – England or their country of origin – should be a barometer of whether they are truly British. But what swells the gates and gives the current Test series against India an atmosphere that rivals the Ashes is the presence, particularly at Lord's on Monday, of thousands of British-based Indians cheering Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman, MS Dhoni and other stars of the visiting team. Significantly, Tebbit directed his barb at Asians, not at Britons of Caribbean descent. The latter presumably pass his test, most having long ago lost interest in cricket and, like everybody else, become obsessed with those unimpeachably English institutions (not), Manchester United and Chelsea. Black people are now hardly seen at English cricket grounds and the West Indies team, once the game's biggest draw and a source of pride and inspiration to African-Caribbean people, is regarded as poor box-office material, usually invited to play here before sparse crowds on rainswept days in May. It is not, however, just memories of Tebbit that give this series its political edge. India is currently the master of the game. On the field, it stands at the top of the world rankings, though England hope, in a few weeks, to have usurped that position. More importantly, India increasingly controls how the game is governed and organised. It generates 70% of world cricket revenues and doesn't hesitate to exercise the power and influence that brings. Though the Dubai-based International Cricket Council (ICC) is nominally in charge, it rarely defies Indian wishes, just as it didn't defy the wishes of the English, as expressed through the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC), in the days when it was based at Lord's and called itself the Imperial Cricket Conference. It has declined, for example, to rule that ball-tracking technology should be used in all Test matches to review umpires' decisions. The Indians, for obscure reasons, don't like it and that, as far as the ICC is concerned, is that. India's power is most evident through the Indian Premier League, a Twenty20 competition between city-based teams with names such as Delhi Daredevils and Royal Challengers Bangalore, which, for a few weeks annually, attracts nearly all the world's best players by offering previously unimaginable sums of money. Some players no longer bother with longer forms of the game such as Test matches, and concentrate entirely on lucrative IPL contracts. The titled gentlemen of Lord's – who invented Twenty20 to entice English proletarians into cricket grounds and thus rescue ailing county clubs – think this a desecration of cricket's true, Corinthian spirit. But the millions of Mumbai and Chennai, who now rarely turn up to watch Tests, have fallen in love with Twenty20 and, much as the purists may object, that and other short forms of cricket will probably dominate in future. So, the tables have turned. Just as the English once used cricket to assert the ideology of empire – to play the game honourably, said Lord Harris, governor general of Bombay and a former captain of Kent, "is a moral lesson in itself" – so Indians now use it to assert the brash, go-getting, commercial values of the new, upwardly mobile India. It is not, it must be admitted, a particularly pretty sight, but then nor was the period of English hegemony. When the Australians were getting uppity in the 1930s, cheekily putting tariffs on British cricket balls and other goods, the English establishment concocted bodyline bowling to teach them a lesson. The Australians responded with accusations of "unsportsmanlike" behaviour – a judgment which, in the MCC's view, it alone was qualified to make – and threats to leave the empire. Without admitting its own culpability, the MCC settled the matter by blaming it all on Harold Larwood, the Nottinghamshire miner who carried out the instruction to bowl fast at Australian bodies. He was driven from the game and ultimately into exile (in Australia, ironically). Even worse was the MCC's record not only of playing all-white South African teams – cricket being racially segregated even before the advent of official apartheid – but of contriving to omit anyone with a non-white skin from English touring teams there. As the recently released film Fire in Babylon recalls, West Indians once used cricket for black self-assertion. In a Britain that seemed to regard West Indians as nothing but "a problem", recalled the black writer Caryl Phillips, "the West Indies team … appeared as a resolute army, with power and creative genius in equal measure". For 15 years, the West Indies dominated world cricket. But those poor islands lacked the economic muscle to carry their dominance into cricket's corridors of power. India's success, on and off the field, is the most palpable evidence of its rising global status. Whatever the outcome of the present series, India, unlike the West Indies, will continue to matter. No wonder British Indians don't care about Tebbit's test. They are backing winners.