Rahane’s team batted through forced quarantine, an injury list long enough to field another XI and racial taunts from Australian fans, to produce an unlikely win at a ground that Australia has not lost at in three decades.
“To go through quarantine, have multiple injuries right through the tour, to be bowled out for 36, our lowest score, and you come back to play like champions – it is unreal,” said Indian coach Ravi Shastri. “What I’ve seen is unimaginable, the resolve and character the boys have shown is simply superb.”
The way the young side handled themselves shows not just how a confident India might carry itself on a cricket field, but on a geopolitical and economic stage that is starting to catch up to the weight of its 1.4 billion people.
“There is a sense that essentially India’s time has come,” said Dr Pradeep Taneja, a fellow of the Australia India Institute at the University of Melbourne.
India’s economy is forecast to grow by more than 9 per cent in 2021, outpacing China as it deploys the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Nomura, after falling by more than 7 per cent during the coronavirus pandemic.
Driving it is surging digitisation, pharmaceutical production, automotive manufacturing and a young entrepreneurial small business sector that wants to see India innovate away from legacy industries and protectionism that have hobbled India’s growth in the past.
“There is a new energy that these groups bring,” said Taneja. “Over the last 10-15 years India has witnessed a rising confidence among its young people. The youth is highly motivated. You can see that reflected not just in cricket. But in technology and services where India is doing very well.”
India now has the highest 4G mobile data use per smartphone in the world. Swathes of the country skipped fixed line connections in the 1990s and 2000s and went straight to mobile. Total traffic is projected to triple, reaching 21 exabytes per month in 2025, according to Ericsson.
“There was a time in India where very few people could travel overseas and still many people in small towns can’t afford it, but at the same time they are connected,” said Dr Taneja. “They can see consumer development, trends, fashion and sports. They are creating new ideas, which is an important part of driving the economic story.”
Despite the optimism, the tens of thousands of farmers who have camped outside the capital New Delhi show the deep structural issues still facing the country.
The protests have seen thousands of farmers rotate through sickness and exhaustion, enduring torrential rain to block New Delhi’s main entry points since November.
The agriculture sector accounts for more than 50 per cent of the workforce but only 17 per cent of its GDP.
The farmers are angry at a proposal from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that aims to make changes to the mandated minimum support price that the government buys crops at, while allowing them to sell to the private sector in the hope of the industry becoming more productive.
India’s Supreme Court will now decide if the legislation can be enacted in a country where reform is notoriously slow, and the world’s sixth largest economy is 144th on a per capita basis.
“In the long term the government’s objective is to reduce the number of people engaged in agriculture to free up more people for industrialisation,” said Taneja.
Targeted deregulation has been good to India and cricket before.
As part of the last wave of economic liberalisation measures in the 1990s, the Rao government ended the national TV monopoly for state broadcaster Doordarshan in 1991. The move saw an explosion in TV channels. They now number 857.
The advertising revenue that began to swell through cricket and fierce competition for broadcast rights eventually led to the Indian Premier League, a competition now worth $9 billion. The IPL along with the enormous viewer numbers that an Indian national side can guarantee have made the India the global cricket juggernaut that it is today. It allowed it to invest in grassroots cricket and turned the attention of millions more potential players to the more broadcast friendly three-hour version of the game.
With money came influence. India now dominates the International Cricket Council, once the domain of England and Australia, commanding playing schedules and broadcast rights, accounting for up to 80 per cent of the world’s cricket revenue. It threatened to walk away from the ICC if it did not get its way, a high stakes move that worked. It signalled the beginning of what Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar called India’s transition from “balancing power” to a “leading power”.
“It’s a highly visible showcase of the political effects of economic power, where sheer market size creates new forms of leverage,” noted Dr Alyssa Ayres, the former deputy US secretary of state for south Asia in 2015 in the Octavian Report.
“India has not yet reached the point where its economic health is crucial to global prosperity. But as it grows faster, and as China slows, India has the opportunity to raise its importance to the slower-growing developed economies of the industrialised world.
“If India becomes even remotely as indispensable to the world economy as it has become to the cricket economy, it will have the throw-weight to demand changes in the world order to accommodate its goals. That may be India’s future as it seeks to transform itself into a leading global power.”
India, through it fractious relationship with its neighbour China is increasingly making its geopolitical presence felt. As China accelerates its rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine to its economic partners, India this week began producing doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to deliver to its neighbours in Bhutan, Maldives, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Seychelles.
The Indian government has been lobbying for years without success to be given a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
“One of the things India feels about the international system, whether it is sports or politics, is that the international system has not been fair to India,” said Taneja.
“India has a different point of view to China. It’s temperament is democratic, India makes a claim based on facts. But given India’s economy is growing, it has 1.4 billion people and India’s diaspora is now the world’s largest. There is a sense that India should be given its due.”
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.