An imported obsession

Cover of Cricket Country: The Untold History of the First All India Team. Credits:
This book “charts how the idea of India took shape” on the manicured cricket pitches of Mumbai long before the country gained independence, and not so much on the muddy football maidans  of Kolkata or the uneven hockey fields of Lahore and Amritsar.

Incidentally, undivided Bengal and Punjab were provinces that sent the most freedom fighters to the Cellular Jail in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Hockey and football were by far the more popular sports among the masses in northern and eastern regions of both undivided and independent India.

Cricket caught the popular imagination later, mostly after India’s 1983 World Cup win. India’s famous cricket team that defeated West Indies and England in 1971 had little representation from eastern India, and Bishan Singh Bedi was the only representative of the north to be a member of both the tours. One only need listen to Mr Bedi and Kapil Dev to understand how parochial and steeped in Englishness the Indian teams of that era were. 

In his exhaustively researched book, Prashant Kidambi, associate professor of colonial urban history at the University of Leicester, argues that the Indian cricket team that visited England in 1911 was the first effort at putting together a “representative national” team. That team was no symbol of nationalistic fervour aroused by the Swadeshi movement of 1905 and the partition of Bengal, which the British were forced to undo in 1911.

The team was “constituted by, and not against, the forces of empire.” If the team’s visit to England was to affirm the imperial bond at a time of political upheavals in British India, its composition was less representative of Indian social realities. The team had six Parsis, three Muslims and five Hindus, including two Dalits. Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala, all of 19 years old and anxious about his place in the imperial establishment, led the team.

The author has written engagingly about the Parsi pioneers, who overcame British resistance to start playing cricket in what was then Bombay in the late 19th century. There is also a chapter on “Ranji” and another on the travails of the Patiala royal, the team’s captain. Another on the “Indian Summer” in England in 1911, to coincide with the ‘Festival of Empire’ and grand coronation ceremony in London, is a delightful read.

If Ranjitsinhji is considered the father of Indian cricket, few remember his contemporary Jamsetji Merwanji, a Parsi gentleman who was a world champion of “racquets”, a forerunner of squash, and was in London in 1911 to defend his title. The cricket team found time to visit the bouts of nine Punjabi Muslim pehelwans,  or wrestlers, including disciples of the famous Gama Baksh.

Professor Kodi Ramamurti Naidu, dubbed the “Indian Hercules” and known for his “astonishing displays of strength and endurance”, was another Indian who drew crowds in England, and had become a “totemic figure among nationalists eager to promote indigenous forms of physical culture.”

As the cricket team spent time in England in 1911, the flagbearers of nationalism was Mohun Bagan football club that defeated the East Yorkshire Regiment in an IFA Shield match thousands of miles away.

The author has followed Ashis Nandy and Ramachandra Guha to delve into the history of popularity of cricket in India and its larger influence. The title of the book is borrowed from English poet Edmund Blunden’s 1944 book, where he “reaffirmed the deeply entrenched view that cricket was truly authentic when it was inviolately English”.

As the author points out, Bluden’s book had no subtitle since there could only be one Cricket Country. Mr Kidambi’s work reverberates with what Mr Nandy in 1989 wrote in  A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport,  seemed to celebrate the popularity of cricket as a victory of the idea of Nehruvian India.

Mr Guha argued that cricket’s popularity had proved socialist leader Ram Manohar Lohia and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s M S Golwalkar wrong. Both considered the sport a sign of British imperialism and implored people to play indigenous sports like instead. While cricket remains popular, the construct of a Nehruvian India never permeated mass consciousness.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has resurrected a combination of Lohia and Golwalkar in politics. He is yet to question the frenzy around cricket but on occasion implored in his Mann ki Baat broadcasts (of May 27, 2018) for people to play and preserve traditional Indian sports like pitthoo, kho-kho, marbles,  gilli-danda,  and others. Mr Modi said traditional games enhance not just physical ability, but also logical thinking and make us aware of "our culture and traditions".

The just concluded cricket World Cup had millions watching, but market forces have discovered there is money to be made from north India’s fascination for  kabaddi; football is suddenly in vogue with the urban youth and hockey is seeing better days. Athletes like Hima Das are emerging from distant corners. Cricket's popularity in India coincided with economic liberalisation. The next cricket World Cup will be held in India. With England finally winning a World Cup, there is renewed interest in the sport in the country of it birth. But has the sport reached its zenith in the land it made its own at least in the last couple of decades?

Cricket Country: The Untold History of the First All India Team

Prashant Kidambi

Penguin, Rs 699, Pages: 453


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