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Narrating history through cricket

  • ‘Cricket Country’ looks at the formation of some of the earliest Indian cricket teams
  • Prashant Kidambi's book throws light on the politics surrounding the game in British India

Ranji taking his batting stance.
Ranji taking his batting stance. (Alamy)

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CRICKET COUNTRY : Cricket is a meadow game with a fair name. Its origin is in England, where the idea has long prevailed that it is a sport played on a village green on a sunny summer’s day which builds character and civilizes masculinity, run by a set of rules that ought to govern life and much else. In spring 1944, the poet Edmund Blunden wrote a book called Cricket Country which was “an elegiac account of a boyhood spent playing and watching cricket in the Kent countryside”, as Leicester University academic Prashant Kidambi describes the book in his absorbing response to that title.

Kidambi has called his book Cricket Country as well, adding the suffix “An Indian Odyssey In The Age Of Empire” in the international edition, and “The Untold Story Of The first All-India Team” in the Indian edition, and this choice is deliberate. It is not only a nod to the earlier classic, but an intelligent response to Blunden’s hypothesis of what cricket is and stands for. That the “country” in the title is not in the sense of the rural idyll it represents, of pristine countryside, but a “country” with a capital c, with a name and a flag, signifying sovereignty and modernity.

From its earliest days, at least in Britain’s largest colony—India—cricket was far from being seen as a rural sport: It was decisively urban; it was the means to ingratiate one’s self with the empire and its administrators; it was a vehicle of choice on the path to modernity; and it was definitely not coldly English, despite the poetic assertions of Neville Cardus or the short stories of P.G. Wodehouse. Rather, it was a warm-blooded game played with a hard ball on the sun-baked grounds of India.

Kidambi begins the story in the late 19th century, when the Parsi community in Bombay, as Mumbai was then known, takes to cricket, partly in admiration of British society and partly because they begin to love the sport. The book gives a detailed account of the politics within the community as it plots to send teams to England, and then, as later, merit does not determine who gets selected. The Parsis arrive in England and play matches but their record is mixed, leading those who were critical of the venture to carp that they have set back the cause of cricket.

The narrative then offers a fascinating account of the first Indian cricketing hero—K. S. Ranjitsinhji, better known as Ranji—who sent Cardus into lyrical ecstasies, calling him “the midsummer night’s dream of cricket”, and, when he batted, “a strange light from the East flickered in the English sunshine”. While Ranji’s exploits on the field were worthy, Kidambi casts a harsh light on Ranji’s political choices, explaining his contradictory stance over supporting cricket in India. Ranji was approached to lead or be part of an All-India team to England, but so keen was Ranji to be accepted as an English cricketer that he resisted the urge to fly two different flags.

English cricketer and writer C.B. Fry (left) with K.S. Ranjitsinhji, popularly known as Ranji, in 1902.
English cricketer and writer C.B. Fry (left) with K.S. Ranjitsinhji, popularly known as Ranji, in 1902. (Alamy)

The Conservative politician Norman Tebbit would have approved of Ranji’s allegiance with the English side—Tebbit was appalled that immigrant communities in Britain supported the cricket teams of the West Indies, India or Pakistan, and not the English team, and his informal standard of loyalty to England (which the late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray in India would no doubt have approved of) came to be known as the Tebbit Test. While not an immigrant to England, Ranji wanted to be seen as an English cricketer first. The fact that he had to prove his place in the team by sheer dint of hard work and excellent on-field performance had something to do with it. But so had the resistance from some, such as Lord Harris, the former governor of Bombay, to the idea that Ranji could play for England. For some imperialists, cricket had a role in civilizing the natives, but not necessarily in blending races and classes which must stay apart.

Kidambi shows how, in the early years, the Bombay Gymkhana refused to play Indian teams. When matches were held and the Indian squads began defeating the Bombay Gymkhana team, the colonialists decided to stop the matches. And as was to become the norm later, English journalists would question the bowling action of a particularly successful Parsi cricketer.

Ranji’s reticence was not just limited to his keenness to be part of the English team—he was also engaged in a succession battle in India. He wanted to be declared the rightful heir to the Nawanagar throne. But he had been an adopted son of his father Vibhaji, who had died, and another biological son was appointed king. Ranji spent years plotting to regain what he thought was rightfully his, and he thought being an English cricketer would boost his chances in the eyes of colonial administrators.

Cricket Country, in that sense, is as much about the country as it is about cricket. It is a book of history that uses cricket as a framing device, and if readers are keen to learn about who scored what in the 1910s, or how fiendishly difficult it was to face Palwankar Baloo’s bowling, Cricket Country is not for them. But “what do they know of cricket who only cricket know”, as C. L. R. James had asked in his path-breaking work, Beyond A Boundary (1963)—Cricket Country belongs to that tradition. It tells the story of a nation, its consciousness and awakening through the prism of cricket.

Kidambi is a historian, and there are parts where the book strays far from cricket—in setting the scene of a meeting in 1909 in Bombay, to decide on sending an All-India team to England comprising Parsis, Hindus and Muslims, Kidambi introduces us to Shyamji Krishna Varma, the Oxford-educated lawyer who founded the Indian Home Rule Society in England, and how he (and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar) may have influenced Madan Lal Dhingra, who went on to assassinate Curzon Wyllie, a British army officer, in South Kensington.

The digression is not an act of indulgence: The assassination shocked the British and made some members of the British establishment wonder if closer cultural ties with India were a good idea. And by sending a cricket team, rich industrialists in Bombay hoped they could reassure the British that not all Indians were potential assassins. Nationalist stirrings were emerging in India at the time, and there were clear differences between those who sought to use violence (a year earlier, teenagers Khudiram Bose and Prafulla Chaki had attempted to assassinate a British judge in Muzaffarpur, but ended up killing two British women instead) and those who sought to engage constructively with the British.

Cricket Country also offers other fascinating insights. For long, the received wisdom in India has been that cricket was promoted in India by British administrators and princely states. The Australian writer Richard Cashman’s 1980 book, Patrons, Players, And The Crowd: The Phenomenon Of Indian Cricket, cemented that idea. Kidambi’s research shows that India’s emerging industrial class too played a crucial role. Interestingly, they were from Bombay, and overwhelmingly Gujarati—of the 30-odd businessmen and industrialists who promoted the game, more than two dozen were Gujarati-speaking Kachchhis, Bohras, Khojas or Parsis.

In 1989, Ashis Nandy wrote in his book The Tao Of Cricket that cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English. In A Corner Of A Foreign Field: The Indian History Of A British Sport (2003), Ramachandra Guha viewed history in the context of cricket. Kidambi’s Cricket Country suggests that the game was always an integral part of Indian society, and any understanding of India without understanding the role of cricket would be insufficient.

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