Friday, March 1, 2024

Understanding India through cricket: Colonialism, casteism and capitalism

In the recent culmination of the One Day International World Cup, media outlets, social platforms, and everyday conversations were ablaze with fervour.

Lawrence Quesne, in his book “History of Bodyline,” writes that “sports have been the greatest furnace of mass popular emotion in this century.” Cricket, a spectacle that surpasses even the allure of Bollywood and various entertainment forms, emerges as a profound source of amusement. It exudes a robust amalgamation of excitement, glamour, and suspense as a source of entertainment. The magnetic pull of cricket has elevated its players to the status of film celebrities and has created rivalries that echo beyond the boundaries of the field.

However, when the Indian cricket team takes the stage, a palpable pause ensues across the nation. From schools to offices, daily life grinds to a halt, and every corridor of gossip resonates with cricket-centric discussions. In a country as diverse as India, where divisions of caste, class, and languages persist, cricket emerges as the unifying force that binds the populace together through a shared love for the game.

Cricket is more than a game for Indians; it represents their national sentiments and identity. In 2007, the Delhi-based prominent think tank “Centre for the Study of Developing Studies” conducted a survey on cricket following in India and concluded that “eighty percent of Indians under the age of twenty-five follow cricket,” which means more than half a billion Indians are cricket fans. For many Indians, cricket is a source of anxiety, depression, and also emotional and mental strength.

Psychoanalyst and intellectual Ashish Nandy, in his book “The Tao of Cricket,” writes that “Cricket is an Indian game accidentally invented by the English.” It is more Indian than any cricketing nation in the world and is a national obsession for Indians.

Cricket was introduced to India by British soldiers and sailors during the East India Company’s rule. The Calcutta Cricket Club, founded in the eighteenth century, was the first cricket club established outside Britain by East India Company officers. Indians have been following cricket for more than a century.

AG Bigot, a British traveller, in his book “Cricket and Travel in India and America” in the early nineteenth century, writes, “Wherever they may be, North, South, East, or West, sooner or later, provided a sufficient number are gathered together, there is to be a cricket match.”

When the MCC toured India for the first time in 1926 and played against Bombay Gymkhana, newspapers reported that “more than 20,000 people watched the game.” This gives us an idea of how cricket has been followed in India for a long time.

Parsis (Zoroastrians) were the first to play cricket in India. They were potential allies of the British and used the sport for social mobility and collaboration. They formed the first non-British club, called the Oriental Cricket Club, in 1848. By the 1860s, there were thirty Parsi clubs in India, mostly supported and sponsored by capitalist families like the Wadias and Tatas. During this time, Parsis also dominated municipal politics in many provinces and used cricket for their political purposes. Parsi cricket was so popular that when President Roosevelt met Jamshedji Tata, he inquired about the state of Parsi cricket, saying, “How is Parsi cricket going?”

Alongside Parsis, Anglicized Indian communities and feudal princes were among the first to play cricket. They played the sport to attain social status and gain access to the power elite of the Raj. Cricket has a broader influence on politics, economics, and society, as C.L.R James illustrates in his brilliant book “Beyond the Boundary”. It teaches respect for rules, laws, and the impartial authority of umpires. It instilled in Indians a sense of respect for colonial rules, laws, and their impartial authority.

Maharaja Rajindra Singhji, the Maharaja of Patiala, formed a cricket club, after which princely rulers of Bhopal, Baroda, Holkar, and others all embraced cricket. They even provided employment opportunities to cricket players. The Maharaja of Holkar employed India’s first cricket superstar, C.K. Nayadu, as a colonel in his army. Maharaja Dhanarajgirji patronized Mushtaq Ali and the Raja of Jatithi, Vijay Hazare.

Maharaja Bhupindra and his successor Yajivindra played for the All India team. They embraced cricket as it afforded them high status and used the sport as a tool for collaboration. In 1910, when an Indian revolutionary killed a British high official, Maharaja Bhupindra Singh captained and financed the All India Tour of 1911 to England, which aimed to convey a message of peace and colonial collaboration. The Maharaja of Porbandar captained the official 1932 test series, where his batting average was 0.66.

Britain also strategically placed English cricket players in higher positions to utilize cricket as a tool for their politics and collaboration. E.S. Jackson, a former captain, was appointed governor of Bengal, Governor Lord Harris served as M.C.C president, and Lord Willingdon became the Viceroy of India. As Australian historian Richard Cashman writes, “Sahebs used cricket for a greater influence on colonial policymakers.”

Duleepsinghji, the second Indian cricketer to play for England and nephew of Ranjitsinghji, once remarked in a conversation with a Britisher that “Cricket is a way to get in the good books of Britishers and to impress them.” The last and fifth Nawab to play for India was Mansur Ali Khan Pataudi. He made his debut before a life-altering accident in which he lost one eye. Throughout his life, he played with only one eye and became the youngest captain of his time who led India in many great tournaments. He is known as the first great Indian captain. His father, Nawab Iftikhar Ali Pataudi, played for England and India and captained the Indian team in 1946.

The British left behind colonial legacy institutions like the army and civil services, as well as cricket, which became an inherent part of India and makes us understand the country’s socio-political and cultural force. The team and game that once symbolized the identity of the former colonizers are now the most significant elements in the country they once ruled. Cricket has evolved into a celebrity-infused, highly politicized, and billion-dollar industry, forming an integral part of India’s public consciousness. A national victory is celebrated as a collective triumph, while a loss is felt as a national setback.

When U.K Prime Minister Rashni Sunak and S. Jaishankar India’s foreign minister met in U.K on Diwali this year, Jaishankar gifted him a statue of Lord Ganesh and a cricket bat signed by Virat Kohli. This gesture shows the enormous influence of cricket in Politics and culture. Ashis Nandy, in his book, further makes the brilliant point that “Some arguments about colonial, neo-colonial, anti-colonial, and post-colonial consciousness can be better made in the language of international cricket than in that of political economy.”

The first Indian to play cricket at the international level was Ranjitsinghji. He was educated at Rajk

umar, whose philosophy is to educate students through cricket. There have been forty-two Rajkumars who have played first-class cricket, and six have played at the international level.

The first Rajkumar to play cricket was Ranjit Singhji. At the age of sixteen, he went to study at the University of Cambridge with the help of his school headmaster McNoughton, who admired his cricketing skills, and there he won a Cambridge Blue. He became the first Indian to play international cricket, representing England in fifteen tests between 1896-1902. Ranji achieved several historic cricket milestones, being the first to score a century before lunch, the first to score a century on his home and overseas debut, and the first to score three thousand runs in an English season. He remains the only cricketer to score two centuries in two innings on the same day. Ranji’s average was 44.95, which was less than his nephew Duleep Singhji, who played for England and Sussex, and had an average of 58.52.

Despite his impressive cricketing achievements, Ranji’s greatness extended beyond the field due to his novelty and status as the most famous Asian in the Western world. Historian John Lord writes that he was the “first Indian to be universally known and popular.” Renowned cricket writer N. Cardus asserted that “Cricketers will never see the likes of Ranjitsinghji; he was entirely original, and there was no taller batsman like him in the history with whom we can compare him.” Even the great batsman Dr.W.G Grace declared at a Cambridge dinner, “You will never see a batsman to beat him if you live a hundred years.”

Ranji became an emperor because of cricket. His grandfather and Vibhaji, Nawab of Nawanagar, were cousins. Vibhaji’s son Jaswantsinghji died a natural death. Out of his fourteen wives and many concubines, he had no son. He adopted Ranji, who was initially going to inherit as an emperor, but then one of his concubines had a son. Ranji’s association with cricket earned him widespread praise, but his connection to the throne was also significant. Despite being disinherited by Vibhaji in 1884, Ranji’s cricket fame, popularity, friends, collaboration, and support with the British led to his claim to the throne in 1907.

India’s most important and highest domestic cricket series is named after Ranji, played annually. However, the question arises: why is it named after Ranji, considering his status as a British collaborator, colonial rule apologist, his lack of contribution to Indian cricket and never considered himself an Indian cricketer? Despite refusing to captain the All India tour to England in 1911 and refusing to contribute to its expenses. He also forbade his nephew Duleep Singhji, after whom the important zonal trophy, the Duleep Trophy, is named, from playing in the 1932 test series. He wrote a book on cricket and dedicated it to the queen. He always used to say, “Duleep and I are English cricketers.” Mario Rodrigues, in his book “Batting for the Empire: A Political Biography of Ranjitsinghji,” argues that Ranji had no contribution to Indian cricket based on his extensive research. Anthony De Mello, the founder of the Indian Cricket Board of Control, also wrote in “A Portrait in Indian Sport” in 1959 that “Ranji did absolutely nothing for Indian cricket and sport. To all our requests, even for encouragement and advice, Ranji gave one answer: Duleep and I are English cricketers.” Despite all this, the Ranji Trophy is named after him. Why?

On the other hand, India’s first great cricketer, Palwankar Baloo, is forgotten because of his Dalit identity. Hardly anyone knows about him.

No memorial, statue, or tournament is named after him. Baloo, the son of an armyman, was first employed by Parsi Gymkhana as a groundsman, where he used to bowl to Parsi batsmen. After that, he was hired by Europeans in the same capacity. Seeing his bowling capability, he was hired by Hindu Gymkhana as a bowler. Baloo played with them but faced outcast treatment.

He wasn’t allowed to eat or drink with his playing mates but only outside the ground. In the All India tour of 1911, in which India won only two out of fourteen matches, Baloo outshone and was the star bowler. On his way back, the Depressed Class Association welcomed him at a reception where Dalit leader and icon Dr. B.R. Ambedkar gave a congratulatory speech. Baloo became a hero for people like Ambedkar. Wherever Ambedkar spoke, he talked about the great Dalit cricketer Baloo. Historian Ramachandra Guha, in his book “A Corner of a Foreign Field,” compares him to American supersports stars like Jackie Robinson and Muhammad Ali, heroes of the civil liberties movement. Dalits have their reasons not to remember him because he ended up on the wrong side of politics. He sided with Gandhi in the Poona Pact and even contested against Ambedkar on the Hindu Mahasabha ticket with Congress support, which he lost. The cricket administration not remembering Baloo speaks volumes about casteism in Indian cricket and India.

As per James Astill in his book “The Great Tamasha: Cricket, Corruption, and the Spectacular Modern India,” the only Dalit to play cricket for India is Dodda Ganesh. Ganesh, too, played only four tests for India in the 1990s. Another great cricketer from the low caste, belonging to the fisherman community, was Vinod Kambli, a childhood partner of the legendary Sachin Tendulkar. They both were trained by Ramakant Achrekar. About Kambli, Achrekar said that he is more naturally talented than Tendulkar. They both broke the record for the highest partnership in the Harris Shield school tournament. Kambli made 349 (16) and took 6 wickets, and Tendulkar (14) made 326. Tendulkar made his debut a year later for the Bombay Ranji team, and Kambli debuted a year after that. Tendulkar made his debut for India in 1991, and Kambli in 1993. All know about the brilliance of Tendulkar. Kambli hit four centuries, including two double tons, in his first seven tests. After his 17 tests, Kambli had a woeful series against West Indies and was dropped, never to play again. In an interview in 2008, Kambli said that he was dropped because of his caste and colour. The case of upper-caste Tendulkar and lower-caste Kambli speaks volumes about Indian cricket and India.

Cricket these days is a world game with a global reach. It was invented in England and spread to its colonies through soldiers and sahebs. Now, 104 countries are members of its governing council, the International Cricket Council, with India being its richest and most powerful member.

In the late 1940s, when India was on the brink of gaining freedom, there was a discussion about whether cricket would continue in post-colonial India.

In 1946, when the Indian team led by Nawab Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi played against England, the secretary of the All India Congress Committee wrote against cricket. He stated, “Cricket has hardly any future in India. It is purely English in culture and spirit. With the fall of British power, it will lose its places of honour and will slowly die.”

But, like many symbols of British rule, it stayed in India. The then Vice President of India, S. Radhakrishnan, inaugurated the India-Pakistan test match in 1954. Pakistani media wrote, “This tournament they are playing for occupied Kashmir.” Richard Cashman, in his book “Patrons, Businessmen, and Bankers,” writes that “most of the players were upper-middle-class and upper-caste.”

Nowadays, many lower-middle-class people also play. The satellite television network, global print and mass media coverage, and business patronage have made cricket big business, especially in India with the advent of the IPL. It has turned India into a significant capitalist enterprise in the world of cricket. Cricket generates substantial revenue through advertisements, selling broadcast rights to various channels, and marketing. In 1984-85, England’s tour of India reception was held, and an Olympic book was released. Such is the influence of cricket.

Cricket associations in India are governed by politicians. There is communalism in cricket too. Wasim Jaffer, a former Indian player and Uttarakhand Ranji player, resigned citing bias from selectors. On the other hand, he was accused by Mahim Verma, former Vice President of BCCI and Secretary of CAU, of communalism. Verma himself is facing allegations of sexual harassment and extortion of money for selection.

On 9 March, during the fourth test match of the Border-Gavaskar tournament, Narendra Modi arrived at Narendra Modi Stadium. It was a sort of political rally. Dainik Bhaskar, a Gujarat-based newspaper, reported that “eighty thousand tickets were sold to BJP.” Before this, the Namaste Trump rally was held in October 2020. Modi, during his third stint as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, was made the president of Gujarat Cricket Association, with his second in command, Shah, as the secretary. Neeraj Kumar, former commissioner of Delhi and head of the Anti-Corruption Unit of BCCI, in his book “A Cop in Cricket,” writes that “BCCI is an organised crime from a law enforcement view.”

Soumya Bhattacharya perfectly sums up cricket in India in his book “You Must Like Cricket.” He writes that “The manner in which India has made cricket its own—in terms of the money it generates, the frenzy it generates, and its intricacies into every area of public life, from pop culture to politics—is a marker of the post-colonial present. It is defined by its imperial past.”


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