Past and present : Indian Cricket

Those who know how cricket grew in India will agree that community pride was the major force behind the promotion of this game. Cricket had a very large following in India, even before independence. It had influenced Indian politics to a much larger extent than Indian historian have written about it. Cricket came to India with British who played it to amuse themselves in an alien land. An acute observer of British ways, Nirad Chaudhary, once remarked that to Englishman abroad, literature was his wife and sport his mistress. Books and games provided twin consolations by which he came to terms with an alien – and potentially hostile – culture and environment. ‘Two monsoons’, it was said, was all that colonial would expect to live through.

The first mention of cricket in India dates to 1721, when British sailor played a match among themselves in the port of Cambay. Slowly and steadily, this game of cricket, like the British flags, established itself at the coast of India before penetrating the untamed hinterland. Wherever British soldier went, they formed clubs and played cricket. Game was followed by dinner and dances where the cricketer ‘might try their abilities in another way’. It appears that British had no intention of teaching the natives to play cricket. They only played this game as a welcome retreat from a utter strangeness of life abroad. Their social clubs were the inventions by which they recreated the social life of their motherland. These clubs generally ‘boasted of a few books’, but provided space in which to play and drink afterward. Some Anglo-Indian were so devoted to their club that they refused to go back to England after retirement. They built home near their club, spent the days in its library and the evening in the bar, and instructed their heirs to be buried somewhere within striking distance of the eighteenth green.

At these clubs, food served and entertainment were English, the wine may have been French. But the only concession to India was the commonly use suffix, gymkhana, which derived from gend-khana, or ball house. The British would play and Indian serve. These roles were neatly delineated in a description of Calcutta Cricket Club, circa 1840 :

On the cricket arena stand two spacious tents, not, however, like the paltry affairs bearing the name in England, but lined with fancy chintz, furnished with looking glasses, sofas and chairs, and each player’s wants, wheather it be a light for this cigar, iced soda-water, or champagne, supplied by his turbaned attendant…. The natives do not enter at all into the spirit of the game. [1]

Some British have left behind  their memories  of  these matches. The matches were exciting, often won or lost in the last over. After play ended billiards was played and whiskey drunk. A donkey was placed in the camp-bed of a colleague who was the last to leave the bar. These English games, however, almost fell victim to an unknown Indian. For ‘on that tour’, remembered Bagot,

On that tour I nearly got into serious trouble, for I was within an ace of slaughtering an unoffending baboo, whose curiosity got the better of his discretion. I was practising at a net,  around which was gathered a select little crowd of native  gentlemen, who, though warned more than once not to  come too near, kept on gradually edging in and making  their remarks : ” Aree dheko, etc.,” till at last I got a half- volley fair to square leg and landed the leader of the  band plumb centre, which doubled him up into a ball and  he was carried off in a moribund condition. Of course it was quite unpremeditated on my part, and a pure accident,  but they were all very indignant, and vowed that they would have me in the lowest dungeon, and, if my friend had ” handed in his checks,” as our American cousins call it, I verily believe they would have had a real good try for it. Happily, however, after about an hour or so he came round, and matters began to assume a more roseate hue ; but he did not come anywhere near the practice nets again, and I fancy the game of cricket fell considerably
in his estimation.

From Bagot accounts, it seems that in both city and village the Indian had no feel for the cricket at all. The ‘native mind has not grasped the delicacies and intricacies of “yorker”, “longhopes”, and “half-volleys”, but rather apt to look on the 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’. In the great city of Calcutta, where Bagot was once stationed, the only Indian with a connection to cricket was the club’s official,

“Fecknee waller,” or thrower, who was by no means bad practice; very straight and very fast, of course with no break and little variations of either length or pace, but with six annas on the wicket, apt to be very deadly if you did not play with a straight bat. Many a rupee has he had out of me in the old days, and would doubtless do so again if he is still in the flesh; but, beyond that, and being a tolerable field on emergency, provided the ball did not hit his legs, he was useless. Batting with him was an unknown science, and one he did not care to learn. He threw and earned his “talub,” picking up unconsidered trifles also in the way of tips, and there his cricket ended. His day’s work over, I have no doubt over his hubble-bubble he was wont to dilate on the folly of the sahibs to an admiring circle of his fellow-countrymen.

These are the  narratives of mutual distaste. The sahib thought the natives unfit to bat or field, although they might bowl – after a fashion – for a wage and tip alongside. He also thought that Indian believed him to be a fool or lunatic to play cricket. In another recollection by another British underlines how Indian had, strictly speaking, not part of cricket itself. ‘I was at Ballygunje’, remembered A. A. Leslie,

when George Craik hit a ball out of cricket ground on the Old Ballygunje Road side. A tikka gharry was passing with the coachman fast asleep. The ball dropped in the gharry but it did not wake the coachman and the horse went on quite unconcerned. The gharry was chased by chokras and the ball retrieved by one who demanded a rupee for its return.

What should interest us is not how the native is represented but where he is placed. It thus appears that Indian might roll the pitch or serve the whiskey. He might even watch the game (out of curiosity) and, at a price, retrieve the ball or throw it for the sahibs to bat back. He was not expected to play the game.

But he would.


Among natives, the first one to pick up this game were Parsis, a ‘comprador’ class which allied themselves with the British with great mutual benefits. The community of fire-worshipers had fled their native Parsia after the coming of Islam and, and settled along the cost of western India. They preferred commerce and trade, professions viewed with disdain with high-born Hindus. When Bombay emerged as a center of power they gravitated towards it and in time graduated to the law and colonial civil services. ‘After the advent of British in India’, remarked one chronicler about Parsis, ‘the dormant qualities that lay concealed in the Parsi bosom … obtained free scope.’

While Paris elders were making a kill doing business and commerce with British  — especially in opium trade with China — Parsis boys were watching British playing cricket. With their ‘elastic and fascinating characters, half oriental, half occidental’,  they took readily to a Western sports too. In time, they improved their skills to a considerable level but the journey towards making a respectful team was not easy. Anyway, in time they began playing against Europeans and started defeated visiting English county teams. The match between Parsi cricketers and the touring Englishman was the greatest sporting contest in the history Bombay. A decade later, the home captain, J. M. Framiji Patel, recalled how ‘the city went mad on the game’. Business came to a halt for two days, as a crowd in excess of 12,000 streamed to the Bombay Gymkhana. This ground,

the scene of many international contests, presented a most animated and picturesque sight; almost all the varied nationalities and the great city were represented there. The canvas tents pitched on the western side of the ground where closely packed with the elite of Bombay Society, Indian and European. The dark eyed daughters of land for the first time mustered strongly. The Parsee priests in their white garb invoked the aid of the ‘Asho Frohers’ to secure victory to the Zoroastrian arms. The schoolboy managed to take French leave…. The ‘man in the street’ was out enjoying his holiday, and in tiers of five and six deep the eastern and northern boundaries of the ground were closely packed by impatient sightseers. Some perched themselves (to get a good view of the game) on the trees surrounding the enclosure. In fine, it required the brush of a Rubens to translate such beautiful sights in colors.

When the match ended and Parsi has won, an Englishman wrote a less appreciative account of Indian crowd. ‘The crowd that demonstrated at the close of the match’, wrote Captain Philip Trevor,

was more attractive to a the artist than to administrator. Few of us who saw it will forget that surging, lowing, multi-coloured throng. In reproduction defies the pen and the brush. But the faces of those who composed it wore, in too many cases, an ugly expression. Of that vast multitude not a thousand knew the name of the thing they were looking, not a hundred had even an elementary knowledge of the game of cricket. But they were dimly conscious the in some particular or another the black man has triumphed over the white man, and they ran hither and thither, gibbering and chattering and muttering vague words of evil omen. I was in tent of the Byculla Club when the end came, and the head of one the largest firms in Bombay said to me, “I know nothing of cricket and I care less, but I could have collected a lac of rupees on the ground to prevent this, if money could have prevented it.

This is not an over-reaction. British knew that the negative result in cricket match played against the native is a blow to the prestige of the empire. These two accounts are only a glimpse into the making of social-history of Indian cricket, a much neglected subject. Natives derived an immense pride in defeating their colonial masters. If Parsis could defeat British, why would Hindu and Muslims not follow the lead? They also formed their teams and started playing against, and sometimes with, Parsis and Europeans. Paris, Hindu, Muslim and European were not the only community in India playing for pride. Later another team ‘The Rest’ was included, thus a pentangular was formed. You may call it the IPL of those days.

Natives and British may have played with same passion but they loved cricket for different reasons. British loved it, as one of them suggested, because it ‘is a standing panegyric on the English character‘. The player ‘must be sober and temperate‘ and ‘patience, fortitude, and self-denial, the various bumps of order, obedience, and good humour, with an unruffled temper, are indispensable.‘ He added that ‘poor, rickety and stunted wits will never serve: the widest shoulders are of little use without a head upon them : the cricketer wants wits down to his fingers’ end.‘. Thus the rule of cricket, and still more its ethos, most fully embodied the self-image of the Victorian elite, its aspiration to set the standard for rest of the humanity.

Why natives loved cricket? Why not hockey? Dhyanchand and his men was doing which no country in hockey has managed do; defeating the world in Olympics without conceding a single goal. Why cricket was so popular in India while it was entirely unknown in freedom-loving America, socialist Russia, the whole of Europe, Japan, China, and most of Africa. One essayist wrote in Illustrated Weekly of India high-lightening this craze about cricket that while ‘Every nation has  a preoccupation. In China, it is Mao; in Latin America, it is Revolution; in India, it is cricket.’

One reason was of-course the joy of witnessing British loose. For an Indian, native defeating British mattered much more than Indian hockey team defeating ‘Monsters of Mars’. But others and equally important reasons were also there too. Bombay pentangular tournament was of communal nature. Teams were formed on the lines of religion and passions flared up during these matches, especially when played between Hindu and Muslims. Players on the ground were cordial as gentlemen but fans were not behaving well. Outside the cricket field, politics and religion were married. While factions in Congress was fighting within itself on community and ideological lines, Jinnah had convinced his followers that Congress party was anti-Muslim. The provocation for Hindi as national language and insulting remarks towards Urdu played their parts too.

Those who were not aware of all this, found this Indian love of cricket puzzling. Janaki Das, the secretary of Indian Cycling Federation, attended World Championship in Zurich, where cyclists of other nations to him of their abhorrence of cricket. These conversations were summarised in an article published in the Bombay Chronicle on his return. The delegates at Zurich, reported Das, were amazed by the keen interest which his nation of ‘starving millions’ showed in expensive and time consuming sport. French added that the game of cricket ‘implies the particular characteristic of the British, namely hero-worship which leads to slave-mentality – the greatest boon of the British to its so-called Empire‘. The delegates were unanimous …. that only aristocrats who do not know value of time and money can indulge in this game.’

Americans, too busy with his pursuit of happiness, would stop a while and have a look at this game but would not sit for five days for it. Not a single game American play cost that much time. But time did not matter to Indians. It is a species which usually thinks in thousands, sometimes even in millions, years and talks in eons. Five days are just a blink of eye. Food was abundant and money mattered little to majority. Situated in temperate zone, India could easily produce three crops a year. So when stomach is full, time abundant and little care for money, what is stopping them from playing and watching cricket, a game infamous for its elite nature.

Since then Indian cricket has changed a lot. With the growing Industrialization, time became a luxury which not many can afford to waste, especially those who can pay to watch it. A businessman, a office-worker can not afford loosing five-days for a single game, no matter how much he desires. Thus there was a growing appetite for shorter version. Radio might have helped in the past in following the game while at work. Television took away that luxury too. Unlike radio, one has to sit in-front of it to enjoy anything on it. A shorter game was a need of time which can be seen in one sitting to its conclusion. I have little doubts a hue and cry must have been raised by puritans when One Day Internationals were first played.

Twenty-20 format invites similar criticism. Is it cricket? Surely, it is not the same game which a British described as a game where ‘poor, rickety and stunted wits will never serve‘ and  where ‘the widest shoulders are of little use without a head upon them‘. And the cricketer must have ‘wits down to his fingers‘. Twenty-20 gives more opportunity to a mediocre player. Wide shoulder, even without a head on them can outperform one who has a calm head and artistic wrist. A Brian Lara, a V. V. S. Laxman, a Rahul Dravid and a Sachin Tendulkar worth little in this format. Those who enjoy ‘the subtlety of the longer form’, how a player builds an innings, and how a bowler bowls a probing spell must find it disappointing. People in villages  can not like it much. Poor people tends to be more patriotic and connect with national team more passionately than with a team owned a Malya or an Ambani. A win matters to them much more than how elegantly a shot is played. IPL has also been criticized for depriving a vast humanity of India of a team which they can claim their own. With what pride a Jharkhandi can say ‘hamara Dhoni’ whenever he hits a winning six for CSK? Or what goes on in the head of a rural Bengali who find a Ganguly playing against Kolkata? It matters to a vast Indian population, no matter how ridiculous it seems for Homo Economicus.

IPL finds its cheerleader exactly in those places where it wants them to be. They are in metros, hotel-pubs and IT industries. This class is always short of time and prefers a short frenzy of stimulating activity. They would not mind supporting T20 even if it means decadence of the game.  They are not only comfortable but also supportive of the idea that their national icons can be turned into personal properties of some rich people. And they may not like to take any criticism of it lightly. For criticizing IPL means criticizing spirit of entrepreneurship and is akin to racism.

Being young has its own benefits. I have grown up watching ODI’s and preferring it over Test Cricket. I am not troubled with purity of the game as our older generation seems to be. Indian team success or failure does not invoke much passion now as it used to do in school days. Perhaps the knowledge of how economy effects people has also took a toll on me. For my generation, revenues generated by IPL matters more than national pride. How much money a player is sold for attracts more eyeballs, if not the gray cells connected to them, than a debate on intricacies of the game. I enjoy this format. I watch IPL and will continue to watch it as long as my team (CSK) is winning. But is it cricket? It is as much cricket as a pornographic movie is a work of art. And perhaps that is what troubling its supporters and critics alike. Those who supports it vehemently can not deny the havoc it has wrecked on the ‘artistic side’ of cricket and also to the performance of national team in longer format. Those who condemn it in public, like pornography, can not deny its charm in private.

End Notes :

[1] For a detailed and fascinating social history of Indian cricket, see ‘A corner of a foreign field, The Indian history of a British sport’, Ramachandra Guha, Picador India


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