As the sun beats down one sultry summer afternoon in Nagpur, India, something in the air is amiss. The roads are barren, devoid of the daily bustle that so regularly consumes the city. The crowded country of 1.2 billion people is as quiet as it will ever be, huddled indoors, the absence of activity hushing the open air into deafening silence. Even the cows are scared to roam the dusty streets.
This was cricket’s effect on the subcontinent, multiplied a hundredfold, manifest in early 2011 in just about every Indian city as the country’s thermostat rose relentlessly higher and the ICC Cricket World Cup wound to an end. You need know nothing about wickets, overs or eight-hour ODIs to sense cricket’s palpable effect on the country’s collective consciousness. Not every Indian has memorized all 11 ways to record an out, but when MS Dhoni ended the eight-hour final with a Cup-clinching smash on April 2, the country arose from its collective cocoon, roared as one, and partied loud and late into the night.
Cricket is to India as soccer is to Europe — although, of course, it’s called football across the Atlantic. No other sport approaches it in popularity. (Televised WWE matches are about the only “sporting” event to approach cricket in terms of sheer entertainment value, and even the most devoted “fans” are smart enough to realize the matches are fixed long before burly men in Spandex are introduced in flashy pyrotechnic displays.) People watch WWE and cricket for the same reasons. What separates cricket from WWE is that it isn’t confined to the living room. Little kids roam the streets playing the country’s unofficial national sport before they’re old enough to pronounce “Sachin Tendulkar.”
We don’t have a national pastime in America that unifies us as cricket unifies the Commonwealth. Baseball is wonderful, but it’s quaint. Football is flashy, but too rugged to be accessible. If any sport has a chance to unify sports fans across America, it’s basketball, but how can you root for a national team that takes down its opponents like they’re 12-year-olds?
The sports that truly define our land are the ones we watch in college.
There is no true equivalent to college sports in India, nor anywhere else in the world. Nowhere else is the fascination with amateur athletics as rapt as it is America. College sports — particularly men’s basketball and football — are among the most meaningful in the world. They’re more than Minor Leagues, they’re bulwarks of the American entertainment industry. Sports attract students to schools and keep them invested once they’re gone. No experience in the world can mirror the excitement of attending a sporting event for one’s university.
A year ago, I wandered out of Nagpur’s cricket-filled streets and onto the campus of UC Berkeley with a relatively blank slate, lacking a shred of knowledge about Cal sports beyond the little I’d acquired on ESPN. I didn’t come to Cal because of any inborn reason to be a Bears fan, but I wanted a university big enough for the energy to hang in the air. I wanted a place where thousands of screaming fans would wreak havoc on the visiting team. I grew up in a college town, so I knew that feeling. And I knew I’d get that feeling at Cal.
But to experience college life as a college student is a completely different matter.
Being a fan of a college sport is a way to become a part of something bigger than ourselves. Our country’s national sports may not unify us, but at Cal, collegiate sports do.
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