A Corner of a Foreign Field

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

This is far more than just a cricket book. It is an inspired approach to colonial and post-colonial Indian history, as seen in its relationship with what is now, unarguably, the country’s national game. This is not a fanatic’s skewed perspective: cricket is the predominant Indian obsession, exceeding the football mania that obtains in this country. And the origins of the game were charged, from the very start, with issues of governance. English officers would set up matches to overcome boredom and homesickness; Indians were at first largely incurious, if not actively repelled at the pointed exclusivity of the occasions. Cricket was also deemed to be an indicator of the phlegmatic, notionally gentlemanly national character; how could excitable natives possibly be expected to summon up the reserves of decency and patience that were so much a part of the game?

An account of the game in the 1850s noted that Indians “were rather apt to look on a cricket match as proof of the lunatic propensities of their masters the sahibs, and to wonder what possible enjoyment they could find in running about in the sun all day after a leather ball”. Yet there is a picture taken only 40 years later: a group of Himalayan villagers are playing the game in a rocky valley with bat and stumps carved straight from a nearby tree. There is no white face in sight.

The memoirist may not have been looking in the right places, though. The first Indian players of the game were Parsis, who were always more ready to accommodate the British. They formed the splendidly named Young Zoroastrian Club in 1850, which is still going strong. The widening acceptance of the game threw all kinds of social and religious anxieties into the mix. Would teams be composed along religious lines? How would Hindus react to the inclusion of Untouchables in the side? (The Untouchables were learning the game, their Raj employers not being sniffy about caste.)

The first undisputably great Indian player, Palwankar Baloo, was a Chamaar, a caste loathed by others as they work with cattle hides. As Guha points out, Baloo learned to work with leather in quite a different way. One contemporary puts it exquisitely: an over from Baloo contained “six deliveries – each a different menace and yet looking as harmless as the morning dew on a grass blade”. In spite of his talent, he was obliged to sit apart from his team-mates during the tea interval and drink from a disposable clay vessel while everyone else sipped from porcelain cups.

Not that Brits should feel smug that they didn’t have a monopoly on discrimination: when Indian teams started winning against white ones, there were rumblings about unfair home advantage and the like, at which point nationalists were able to turn the high-flown rhetoric of cricket back on their rulers; a fascinating aspect of Guha’s book is the story of the burgeoning independence movement – as well as its subsequent, fractured history.

Still, there is a good case to be made for saying that cricket helped to undermine the caste system more than any other factor except possibly the railways (where the only division of seating was between whites and non-whites). Mahatma Gandhi was against cricket, but not very stridently, and only insofar as the inter-Indian tournaments were divided along religious lines. Meanwhile, as the country was redrawn and nearly tore itself apart, cricket remained a unifier, of sorts. Pakistani and Indian governments may have been at each others’ throats, but players have the warmest respect for each other. A report in this paper on Tuesday would seem to indicate that the cricketers want to play but their rulers won’t let them. After reading this book you will begin to see how the question of whether politics should mix with sport is not an easy one to answer. And consider the fact that Douglas Jardine, the England captain most loathed by Australians even after 70 years, was adored in India, and not just because he was born in Bombay. But you learn a lot more than just that from this book.