Popular sports in India
When a trooper in the Royal Dragoons arrived in India around 1930, he was greeted with the words “everyone here is sports mad” and little has changed nearly a century later.
Indigenous pastimes such as Kabaddi vie for the attention of the sports-crazy public with spectator events as diverse as hockey, chess and Moto GP. Cricket may be akin to a religious pursuit in India but there are many other sports which unite this diverse nation.
Cricket is certainly one of the most popular sports in India and has been since it was introduced by merchant sailors in the 1700s. Three centuries later and viewing records were smashed when over 25 million people tuned in to watch India play New Zealand in the 2019 World Cup.
While cricket may be India’s obsession, hockey is regarded as the country’s national sport. The men in blue are the most successful hockey team to have competed in the Olympics with eight gold, one silver and two bronze medals since their first appearance at the games in 1928. The legendary Dyan Chand – known as the “hockey wizard” – helped his nation earn three of those golds and his birthday in August is celebrated as National Sports Day each year.
India may never have qualified for a World Cup but following football is immensely popular in the country. The English Premier League is one of the most-watched sports leagues in India with sizeable followings of the major European clubs. Domestically, the Indian Soccer League (ISL) continues to grow in popularity since its launch in 2014 and football is now the third most popular sport to watch in India behind cricket and kabaddi.
The ancient contact sport of Kabaddi remains one of the most popular sports in India. The Pro-Kabaddi League attracts huge audiences with Bollywood stars among those who avidly follow the sport and even own some of the major teams. The aim of the game is for a single player – the “raider” – to enter the opposing team’s half of the court and tag as many defenders as possible without being tackled. India has won all six of the kabaddi world cups which have been staged.
Badminton has always been popular in India but interest continues to rise thanks to the exploits of Indian stars on the world stage in recent years. Badminton is the second most played sport in the country and the nation boasts a handful of players – both male and female – at the top of the world rankings. Saina Nehwal became the first Indian player to win an Olympic medal when she took bronze at the 2012 games in London. That achievement was surpassed by PV Sindhu who took silver four years later in Rio.
Tennis has a sizeable following in India and the nation boasts the most successful Asian team to have featured in the Davis Cup. In 1999, Leander Paes and Mahesh Bhupathi won the French Open and Wimbledon titles and would go on to become the first doubles team to reach the finals of all four Grand Slam events. Sania Mirza is a former world no. 1 in the women’s doubles and boasts six major titles in both the mixed and same-sex pairings.
Boxing has always been a popular spectator sport in India but punched its way into the limelight when super-middleweight Vijender Singh brought home an Olympic bronze medal from the 2008 Beijing Games. Female flyweight Mary Kom won bronze at London 2012 having already amassed eight World Championship medals.
Motorsports of all varieties are popular sports in India with its own Moto GP team competing as Mahindra Racing. Efforts continue to stage a motorcycle Grand Prix on Indian soil and as the second biggest market for motorbikes in the world, the potential audience remains huge.
Viswanathan “Vishy” Anand put India on the world chess map when he became the first grandmaster from the country in 1988 and has been world champion on four occasions. A bright future lies ahead with a host of young players emerging from India’s burgeoning chess culture. India joined France as the world’s No. 1 ranked chess nation in 2013 and a recent study suggested more Indians play chess than any other country.
Basketball is a staple on the curriculums of Indian schools and colleges. The NBA has always been a popular fixture on the television screens of India with Satnam Singh Bhamara becoming the first Indian to be drafted by an NBA team when he was called by the Dallas Mavericks in 2015. Interest has continued to soar since the North American league staged its first two games in India in 2019 when the Sacramento Kings and the Indiana Pacers visited Mumbai.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has enjoyed a huge surge in popularity in India in the last few years. One of the fastest-growing sports in the country, MMA has become the third most popular sport in the world and its appeal to Indians is obvious given the nation’s long history of combat sports.