Undoubtedly the first sport that comes to mind when one thinks of Indian sports today is cricket. Brought to India by her British colonisers, cricket so captured the nation’s imagination that observers are more or less agreed that today it is the one religion that unites India. (The other favourite observation being ‘here’s a country of a billion cricket experts’.)

In places like Calcutta, with everybody glued to their television sets, life grinds to a halt the days the Indian team is playing. One-day fixtures and test matches excite equal enthusiasm; for both, if the match is being played on Indian soil, which by the way supports spin rather than pace, you’ll get capacity crowds and a charged atmosphere seldom matched anywhere outside the subcontinent. Allegations of murky match fixing and a steady string of matches where the team managed to “snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” notwithstanding, the popularity of the game continues to rise. Such is the intensity of involvement with the game that it even affects India’s international relations. In the aftermath of the 1999 Kargil war, India unilaterally suspended cricketing relations with Pakistan. The debate on whether politics and sports should mix enlivens many a discussion, and is yet unresolved.

Hard to imagine but at one time the place that cricket is accorded today in the popular consciousness was reserved for hockey. The heyday of Indian hockey was in the Olympic years from 1928 to 1956 when the hockey team brought the gold medal home every time, from six consecutive games. The introduction of Astroturf, a faster surface than grass and one still largely unavailable in India, coupled with the migration of many hockey-playing Anglo Indians to Australia spelt the end of the golden era. Hockey is the national game of India and a new crop of players including the charismatic Dhanraj Pillay has rekindled popular interest in the game. Of course, nothing succeeds like success and the fact that the Indian team has been posting wins at regular intervals has greatly helped the game’s cause.

Among indigenous games perhaps the best known is kabaddi. It involves two teams standing across a line on the ground. By turns the teams send a player into the opponent’s territory so that he can ‘tag’ and thereby send out of the game members of that team. The catch is that the player must do this in the span of a single breath, all the time muttering “kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi, kabaddi….” so that if he does take in another lung of air the team can immediately tell. The team whose territory the player has entered must try to capture the player and keep him on their side of the demarcating line till he does run out of breath. In which case he is sent out of the game. Kabaddi has become a formal institutionalised sport but basically, it owes its popularity to the fact that you don’t need any props, the rules are simple and it can be played in any dusty alley so long as there are enough people with nothing to do.

Polo is supposed to have been invented by Iranian tribes in the 9th century AD. By and by it spread far and wide towards the east, reaching even Japan. Brought to India with Muslim conquerors who established their rule in Delhi, polo was in India by the last part of the 12th century. It captured the imagination of the ruling elite in the north, especially of the Rajput princes of the western land of Rajasthan who, already master cavaliers, soon mastered the game. However, in the northeastern India, in the state of Manipur, polo was never an elitist sport. Anybody who owned or could loan a horse would play the game. With the disappearance of the great eastern empires and as the political life of India itself became tumultuous with the arrival of the expansionist Mughals, leisure itself and certainly pleasures like polo seemed to disappear too. It was the British rediscovery of the game in Manipur in the early 19th century, where it is called Sagol Kangjei, that breathed fresh life into the sport. The fame of the game spread along with the spread of Empire. Today, polo is played by a select section of people - former princes, erstwhile nobility, students with a privileged public school education, the armed services and such like. But in Manipur, the game is still played by anybody who owns a horse and mallet or can borrow one.

Other indigenous sports of India include kho-kho (an improvisation of the game of ‘tag’), archery, and board games like chauser and pachisi. Still seen in the gullies of old cities and towns, particularly where there is a predominant Muslim population, are sports like kabootar baazi and cock fights. A master of the former can train his brood of pigeons (kabootars) to fly up into the sky, round up his competitor’s brood and usher them home to him. Though they have earned the wrath of animal rights activists worldwide, cockfights can still be watched in parts of India.

Kite flying is a favourite pastime for children and adults alike. Come winter (specially the 14th of Jan – the festival of Makar Sankranti) and the skies are filled with fluttering paper kites of every hue and shape. There is keen competition among kite flyers; the string is coated with glass dust so that it can cut the string of another kite when they're in flight. On the subcontinent the beauty of the kite and the imaginativeness of its shape is secondary to the dexterity of its owner.

Invented by some British officers of the Indian army standing around at a game of billiards, ‘snooker’ came into being in the Indian city of Jubbulpore (now Jabalpur). It spread through the cantonment towns of India first, was taken back to England and thereon taken around the empire. Undoubtedly snooker is an expensive game and few can afford the space and the attendant paraphernalia. So, it is its poorer cousin ‘pool’ that has caught the fancy of Indian youth today. In most cities you’ll find many pool parlours where half an hour at a table can cost as little as 30 rupees.