Illustration by Shahd Ngim.

Malign and Misogyny: How Cricket became a Malicious Obsession

The interconnection between cricket and nationalism has run deep since India broke free from colonialism. With the recent uproar of abuse faced by cricketers’ families, has the field become a dangerous territory used to unequivocally assert dominance

Feb 7, 2022

Stillness is a luxury in India. With its loud vehicles, busy markets and larger-than-life people, the country never sleeps for long. At home, silence is frowned upon and stillness is considered unsettling. There have only been two things that kept everyone in my family still. The first is the news and the second is cricket. The latter has assumed a cult following in India, where being a cricket fan and being Indian have become a predictable intersection of interest and identity. Our national pride is on the line whenever the Indian cricket team dons their signature blue uniform. The stakes are high for the spectators and even more so for the players.
This is why when Indian bowler Mohammed Shami failed to excel at his job for one night, he was mercilessly trolled and abused online and was accused of intentionally playing badly so that the Pakistani team could win. The prevalence of nationalism within the arena of sports is an age-old phenomenon. International sporting events are usually framed as events centered around national identity, where they become platforms to showcase the unity of human experience and the widespread nature of human excellence. By design, however, they have the recoil effect of placing the people of a particular nationality in opposition to others rather than bridging gaps between different nationalities.
And the case of Shami, who was blamed for India's loss in the T20 Cricket World Cup championship of 2021, is a perfect example of the dangers of placing national pride in the victories of male-dominated sporting events in states that exhibit ethnonationalist currents. With national identity being the key marker of an athlete's identity, the fact that they're human, hence fallible, is often forgotten. Much of the hatred that Shami received can be better understood when one realizes that he was the only Muslim player on the Indian team that played against Pakistan. During a period marked by the rise of Hindu nationalism in India, Shami's poor performance was taken to be reflective of his disloyalty to India. This sentiment grew within the Indian cricket community because of the increasingly popular conception of Islam as a defining component of the Pakistani identity and, therefore, un-Indian. The reason for this can be traced to British India and — in the eyes of the public imagination — its subsequent partition into India and Pakistan on the basis of religion. Accordingly, cricket matches between Pakistan and India are large commercial events that bring in millions of viewers on both sides of the border, courtesy of the false conflation of Hinduism with the Indian identity and Islam with the Pakistani one.
By drawing on tensions that date back to the colonial period, cricket has acquired a new postcolonial significance. It is not merely about beating the colonizers at their own sport. The sport is also about two former colonies using the stadium as a commercialized battle — the consequences of these matches have immense social relevance to how people perceive their own nation's prestige.
Sports such as cricket also allow for the expression of toxic masculinity and violence, disguised by nationalism. For example, when Indian cricket team captain Virat Kohli spoke out in support of his teammate, his newborn daughter [received rape threats] ( from netizens. Threatening to attack one's daughter does not just rile up the parent by triggering their protective instinct. It is also an effective threat because daughters are still considered the father's property.
Though the rhetoric surrounding women has improved, women in India are often addressed in terms of how they relate to male authority figures in their lives. A woman is first a daughter, then a wife, before she is socially recognized as an individual. Kohli's daughter being threatened for an incident that she had nothing to do with is an expression of this obsession with male proximity. Moreover, the threat of physical violence at the loss of a championship is something that has plagued many sports institutions, wherein these male-dominated circuits and fanbases tend to idolize many facets of traditionally masculine behavior. This toxic masculinity is also visible in how romantic partners of the players are often blamed for their poor athletic performance. Virat Kohli's wife, [Anushka Sharma] (, an accomplished actress in her own right, has been blamed for her husband's poor performance in certain matches. This type of blaming shows how women, in their proximity to athletes and athletes from minority communities, are often made to bear the burden of the team's performance, despite the team being male and mostly Hindu.
However, there is another side to this story. Certain news outlets [claimed] ( that the netizens who trolled Shami were very few in number and hence were not representative of the larger Indian population. Still, the fact that such incidents are not new to the sports domain remains the problem at hand. Such aggression is often due to the incredibly personal nature of one's national identity and the systemically ingrained toxic masculinity that causes people to go online as if they have gone to war. The dangerous intersection between sporting glory and national prestige shows that losses taken extremely personally outside the arena pose real-life threats, no matter how small or uninfluential the source of the threat is. This equation of performance with national prestige strips players of their humanity and can make sports a breeding ground for aggression and prejudice, as the instinct to uphold sportsmanship is weaker than the tendency to scapegoat athletes by blaming them for not just losing a match, but tarnishing a nation's pride.
Gaya (Gayathri) Menon is a Staff Writer. Email her at
gazelle logo