The Empire of Cricket

A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport

by Ramachandra Guha

Picador, New Delhi, 2002

INR 495, pp xvt+496

In his classic work on cricket, Beyond a Boundary, the West Indian Marxist CLR James makes the point that most anecdotes about cricket are boring to the non-aficionado because they begin and end with cricket. But in James' view, cricket was the grand sport of social and historical drama. It is therefore impossible to look at cricket as simply any sport. The story of cricket, for James, was the story of empire and race, of domination and resistance. In his time, the captain of the West Indies team was always a white man. James led a successful campaign to install Frank Worrell as the first black West Indian captain through 1959-60.

For years now, no white man has represented the West Indies at cricket. Yet empire and race endure. The West Indian batting legend Viv Richards once famously said that every time he smashed an English bowler to the boundary, he was paying back the erstwhile colonial master. Nor is this an odd, freakish sentiment. In the winter of 1933-34, the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) team toured India. Ram Guha records the comments of two young Indian cricketers as they watched the incomparable CK Nayudu score a memorable century against the visitors. "Nayudu had driven away all fear of the foreigner from my mind", wrote one. "We madly cheered each shot past the boundary not only as a cricket performance but also as an assertion of our resolve to throw the British out of India", wrote the other. Decades later, the Hindi feature film Lagaan drew upon these historical memories to concoct a charming and delicious brew of cricket and romance, empire and resistance.

Cricket, the quintessential colonial game, the white man's sport, has been made his own by the coloured man. Such is the massive following of the game in South Asia that on occasion, such as when India and Pakistan met in a recent World Cup match, television viewership has exceeded the population of Europe. On this most recent meeting, made memorable by Sachin Tendulkar, the cricket itself was sublime. But only a fool would have pretended this was merely a game. It was, without doubt, war minus the shooting or, to use Guha's twist, riots minus the stabbing. When the German tennis champion Boris Becker lost a Wimbledon match in the second round after two consecutive title wins, he could afford to say to a shocked public, more or less nonchalantly, "It wasn't war. Nobody died". Tendulkar and Akram, Ganguly and Younis have no such luxury.

A Corner of a Foreign Field is about all this: what makes cricket more than simply a sport in South Asia. The book is divided into four sections. The first, 'Race: Domesticating a Game' is about the origins of the sport in India, and its gradual spread among the natives. If, for the colonial masters, "the slow stateliness" of the sport, "the graceful clothes that the players wore, the greenness of the grass, the understated gaiety of the lunch and tea intervals", all these were an "extended escape from India", for the emerging Parsi bourgeoisie it provided an opportunity "for strengthening their ties with the overlord and for renewing the vitality of a race that had lived too long in the tropical sun". Guha recounts the fascinating story of how Indians won for themselves space in the Maidan at Bombay, the cradle of Indian cricket, and how the sport spread to other cities of the empire: Calcutta, Madras, Karachi, Aligarh, among others. He observes that while in England, cricket was originally a rural sport which gradually spread to cities, in India it has been, from the outset, an urban sport.

Schoolboys in Bombay play a tournament called the Harris Shield. With youthful irreverence for history, not one of those boys would have any idea who this man Harris was. I certainly did not, when I was a cricket-mad schoolboy in Bombay. Much later, as I became a little more interested in the history of the game, I read about the governor of Bombay, who is regarded as the 'father of Indian Cricket'. Guha does signal service to the history of the game by stripping Harris of his halo and showing him for what he was: "a cricketer but also an Englishman – an Englishman in India" (emphasis in the original). He was racist, arrogant, rude, positively hostile to the idea of the natives playing cricket, and thus thoroughly undeserving of the status accorded to him.

The historian in Guha is at his best in the second section of the book, 'Caste: Up from Serfdom'. This section, which forms in a sense the book's centrepiece, is about the life and career of that remarkable man, Palwankar Baloo, India's first dalit cricketer. Guha makes a persuasive case for regarding Baloo, a left-arm spinner, as "the first great Indian cricketer", ignored and forgotten by cricket historians, and only very gradually coming to the attention of dalit scholarship and activists. Baloo had a long and eventful career as a cricketer – he remained for decades the only Indian bowler to take 100 first class wickets on a tour to England (back in 1911) – and he was an early hero of BR Ambedkar's. Baloo, however, a Congressman, was instrumental in negotiating the Poona Pact of 1932 between Gandhi and Ambedkar (where the latter had to capitulate on the demand for separate electorates for dalits). Baloo was eventually fielded by the Congress against Ambedkar from Bombay in the election of 1937; he lost narrowly.

Baloo was the eldest brother in the first cricketing family in India – his brothers Shivram, Vithal and Ganpat were all outstanding players. In fact, in 1913, all four brothers played for the Hindus in the Quadrangular and there was a time people fondly called the Hindu side "Baloo brothers plus seven". The contrast with Ranji is drawn sharply. Guha admits that Ranji is the first great cricketer of Indian origin, but also demonstrates that Ranji was "an arch-loyalist" who "always maintained that he was in essence an 'English cricketer'". It is telling that while the game's premier domestic competition is named after the prince, the dalit remains forgotten and ignored. The saga of the 'Baloo brothers' is stirring, riveting and inspiring. Guha's book deserves to be read by the cricket aficionado as well as the social historian – and the activist working for social justice – for this alone. That the book has much else is a bonus.

The 'Baloo brothers' continue to dominate the third section of the book, 'Religion: Riots Minus the Shooting', which is the story of how Indians gave up being organised into cricket teams on the basis of religious affiliation (in the Quadrangulars and Pentangulars) and started being organised, as today, according to region. Guha's narrative is rich, complex and engaging, and the reader encounters a whole range of characters, situations, twists and turns in this historical saga. I was, however, struck by two points. One, it is amazing that while the first great Indian cricketer was a dalit, who was followed by his three brothers, all outstanding players, India has not to date had a single dalit test cricketer. This is scandalous and calls for a thorough reform of the manner in which the sport is organised in India.

The other point is that a secular organisation of the sport is something that did not fall from the heavens; it was won, as much else, after prolonged struggle in the course of the freedom movement. Hindus and Muslims did not always play in the same team. That right, to play alongside each other, rather than only against each other, had to be fought for. We clearly need to recognise the implications of this. We are living in times when Hindutvawaadi fascists are speedily dismantling achievements of the freedom movement in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres. Nobody will argue that cricket has remained uncontaminated by the poison, but it is by and large true that even now, in spite of everything, cricket remains a shared social space where Hindus and Muslims come together as players as well as spectators. With votaries of Hindutva worming their way into cricket administration, let us not be lulled into thinking that this is a permanent achievement.Sport

Another towering personality emerges from the pages of A Corner, and that is India's first superstar cricketer, CK Nayudu. That Nayudu was a superbly gifted sportsman is stating the obvious. Guha demonstrates, with verve and vividness, that he carried on his shoulders the aspirations of an entire nation. Unlike Baloo, Nayudu was not particularly inclined towards politics but he became, on the cricket field, the symbol of Indian resistance to the empire. In the person of Nayudu, we also see the beginning of another trend: sportsman as superstar, endorsing products and brands. (Guha reproduces a picture of Nayudu promoting a brand of liver tonic in 1941.) His name was also used to market a Hindi feature film. The reader, bombarded incessantly with images of Sachin Tendulkar and his team-mates selling products, will take this for granted. Which is why it is sobering to realise that Nayudu, India's first superstar cricketer, died in near penury. The pages of the book are also lit up by the cricketing exploits of the two Vijays, Merchant and Hazare, world-class batsmen both, and the inimitable Lala Amarnath, the first Indian to score a century on test debut.

Also making an appearance is the man credited with what is perhaps the most controversial tactic ever used in cricket, 'bodyline'. This is, of course, that most imperious of English cricketers, Douglas Jardine, who fought Don Bradman and the Aussies with a bowling line that attacked the body of the batsman. Those familiar with the history of the sport know that Jardine was born in India, and thus had a special relationship with it. Guha's account confirms some of what we know about Jardine: that he was arrogant, often rude and strong-minded. But what we learn complicates this portrait somewhat.

Leading the MCC team to India in 1933-34, Jardine insisted on including the maharaja of Patiala (a member of MCC) in his team in the match against Delhi. The maharaja-cricketer had recently been banished from Shimla, allegedly for making a pass at an English girl. (Locals in Shimla believe that the girl in question was the Viceroy Willingdon's daughter, and the spot where Patiala is supposed to have trifled with the empire is shown off to tourists as "scandal point".) Willingdon tried to dissuade Jardine, as did Lady Willingdon, but Jardine would not yield. After the Delhi match, the MCC was to play the Viceroy's XI and Jardine was determined to thrash his hosts. That he did, by an innings, is one thing. More impressively, he forced an apology for the pitch having been rolled longer than the allotted time from the host. To extract an apology from the viceroy and then slay his team – Jardine could not have been such a bad fellow after all.

The final section of the book, 'Nation: History's Residues', brings us to present times, and is an examination, in the main, of India-Pakistan relations in the field of cricket. Here we meet Abdul Hafeez Kardar, "a cricketer-scholar, a man of personality and intelligence who almost single-handedly made Pakistan a Test-playing nation", for whom "cricket was… a means of consolidating the unity and identity of his new and vulnerable nation". Guha takes us through the first two series played between the two teams on either side of the border, and then on to the encounters in the 1970s and 1980s. While these meetings came with their share of tensions, "sporting exchanges in the late 1970s could be understood in a spirit of brotherliness". Even in 1992, Guha feels, many Indians were happy at Pakistan winning the World Cup. But soon after that, matters nose-dived. From the pitch dug up at Ferozeshah Kotla by goons of the right-wing Shiv Sena, to that test at Calcutta where the ground had to be emptied of spectators before the match could be completed, to that pressure cooker of a quarter-final at Bangalore in the 1996 World Cup, to the match in the 1999 World Cup when India, led by Azharuddin, faced Pakistan on the cricket field as bullets were flying in Kashmir, Indo-Pak cricketing encounters have become more and more occasions for the display of communal aggression and jingoism on both sides of the border. They have become, to use George Orwell's famous coinage, war minus the nuclear missiles.

Ram Guha has written a book elegant and exhilarating in equal measure. What he seeks to do is not so much to write the history of cricket in India as much as the history of India through its cricket. In this, he succeeds admirably. We meet cricketers past and present, of course, but also others who influenced the sport one way or another: the journalist SA Brelvi (who campaigned long and hard to abolish communal representation in cricket), the broadcaster AFS Talyarkhan ("with a voice that was 'beer-soaked, cigarette-stained'"), leaders Gandhi, Ambedkar and Jinnah, Hindutva peddlers Bal Thackeray (who loved cricket and once drew a cartoon of Pakistani cricketer Hanif Muhammad), VD Savarkar (who, with characteristic pettiness, wanted Hazare, a Christian, to 'reconvert' to Hinduism), Golwalkar (who hated cricket, along with much else) and the socialist Ram Manohar Lohia (who wanted cricket to depart with the British). His prose is superb, his scholarship outstanding, and his anecdotes engaging. Guha also has a sparkling sense of humour: ". . . at this match in Old Trafford [between India and Pakistan] the players and spectators and mood were all Asian. The English thoughtfully supplied the weather. It was a grey and windy day . . .".

Race, caste, religion and nation: these, then, are the grand themes that run through this book. Having read it and enjoyed it, though, I am intrigued by the absence of a fifth theme: market. If there is one force that regulates the sport at the global level – the force, moreover, that gives the Indian cricketing board power enough to take on the International Cricket Council and hold the World Cup to ransom, as happened recently in the dispute over the Indian players' contracts – it is surely the market. If the 1990s stand out for the declining trajectory of Indo-Pak relations (in cricket as elsewhere), and alongside this, for the growth of an increasingly communal perception of cricket, surely the decade also stands out for the vice-like grip that corporate capital has come to exert on Indian policy making, in the economy as much as in cricket. In Guha's narrative, though, this factor is conspicuously absent. Strangely, Guha sees Nayudu-the-advertiser but not the superbrand called Tendulkar.

Guha quotes Neville Cardus at the head of the book: "It is a dreadful pity when a beautifully spacious generalisation is upset by one or two simple facts". But it is a greater pity still, is it not, when facts are not illuminated by generalisation?

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