Rewriting cricket's history
Cricket has always been much more than a sport in India. Ramachandra Guha's latest book, A Corner of a Foreign Field, tells the story of the gradual indigenisation of this once English game in a hugely entertaining way, writes MUKUND PADMANABHAN.
THERE may be many reasons why A Corner Of A Foreign Field deserves to be read, but above everything else perhaps because it is does what every good book ought to: be a source of pleasure. In this exceptional account of the (social) history of Indian cricket, Ramachandra Guha draws on history, biography, anecdote and observation to extract an affectionate and hugely entertaining account of India's complex, consuming and sometimes troubled love affair with its favourite sport.
In doing so, Guha makes it clear that he is not merely writing another history of the game, but rewriting it in certain important ways. In his revisionary account, the received view that Indian cricket was fathered by Lord Harris is shown up as greatly exaggerated. Dozens of local clubs were already engaged in playing the game by the time this English Test cricketer arrived in India as Governor of Bombay in the late 19th Century. Moreover, Guha suggests that Lord Harris' actual contribution is diminished by the fact that, initially, he was preoccupied with playing his own cricket. And that if he later granted land to native cricket clubs, it was only because he sensed there was no way he could ignore their repeated requests.
C.K. Nayudu is toppled from his pedestal as India's first great cricketer as Guha pins the badge on the little-known Dalit cricketer Palwankar Baloo, who preceded him by many years. The left arm slow bowler, who played very successfully for the Hindus in the Quadrangular, learnt his cricket by occasionally bowling at the nets of a cricket club where he was paid to sweep and roll the pitch. When he played for his first team (the Poona Hindus), he was more than equal on the field but less than equal off it (being served his lunch on a separate table and his tea in disposable matkas).
Even Jardine appears to get a small (and perhaps unintended) makeover from Guha's revisory pen. The English Captain seems a little less like the crusty and imperious stereotype following his tour of the sub-continent, accompanying his father's Indian butler to a cemetery and refusing to kowtow to the imperial powers that be.
It is one thing to take a closer look at Lord Harris or cast a more gentle eye at Jardine, but what about Guha's bold and revolutionary thesis that a virtually unknown Dalit was India's first great cricketer? It would take another cricket historian, or at any rate someone more competent than this lay reader, to evaluate this extraordinary claim. However, if Baloo was as great as Guha says he was, why was he ignored? Guha attributes it partly (and credibly) to the lack of interest that Indians have in their own history, "their disregard for documents, records, remembrances and past heroes". He also thinks it is because Baloo played his cricket before India became an official Test playing nation. However, this last explanation only raises a further question were the Indians who played in the early years of the Quadrangular good enough to be great? Or did the country's cricketing talent mature somewhat later?
Guha marshals a number of facts and comments, which suggest that Baloo was clearly the best Indian spinner of his time. But it is not wholly clear why or how he was greater than some others in that early era. The Parsis, for instance, had begun playing cricket well before the Hindus took to the game and (for many years) played it much better until the other communities caught up and eventually overtook. They had men such as M.E. Pavri among their ranks, who toured England (capturing 170 wickets are about 11 runs apiece and scoring 630 runs), who played for Middlesex and who helped to destroy the visiting English side led by G.F. Vernon.
Guha acknowledges that a few Parsis would be challengers for the title he reserves for Baloo, but appears to rule them out of contention because "more reliable records exist ... for the Hindu bowler of a later generation". It is difficult to avoid feeling that he would have made his case much more convincingly if he had furnished a detailed and comparative set of arguments which establishes Baloo's superiority over his Parsi predecessors and perhaps also a couple of his Hindu and Muslim contemporaries. In the absence of this, one cannot help wondering if Guha has been tempted into overstating the case in favour of his Dalit discovery.
The story of Indian cricket which begins with the first mention of a cricket match played by British sailors in Cambay in 1721 is a story of its gradual indigenisation. Guha chooses to tell it through four "master categories" (race, caste, religion and nation) and although these categories apply to distinct phases of the sub-continent's history, his narrative flows smoothly and effortlessly across them.
The book has some minor blemishes. I think Guha exaggerates when he suggests that millions of Indians questioned Azharuddin's patriotism when India played Pakistan in the World Cup a point he makes in the context of examining the growing impact of communalism on cricket. It is difficult to be convinced by the argument that just as Baloo's career mirrored the struggle against caste oppression, Azhar's career can be held up to embody the fears of an uncertain and communally polarised nation. There are bound to be omissions in a book, which deals with such a vast period, but Zia-ul-Haq's so-called cricket diplomacy, which comprised of a visit to Jaipur to attend a Test match in 1987, deserved at least a few paragraphs in the context of cricket and India-Pak rivalry. No accord was signed and there was really no diplomacy to speak of, but the visit, which followed Operation Brasstacks, is credited with having reduced tensions along the border.
But these are cavils rather than criticisms of what is a truly well researched book about a game, which has always been much more than a sport, particularly in this country. Talking about his book during a recent visit to Chennai, the author suggested it ran the risk of falling between two stools since cricket fans may think it had too much history and historians may feel it has too much cricket. The truth is that it should be of interest not only to both but also to others. For, apart from being a history of cricket and an exploration of broader themes such as caste and nationalism, A Corner Of A Foreign Field with its wealth of anecdotes, its sudden digressions and its witty asides could also regarded as a gripping story told in a hugely entertaining way.
A Corner Of A Foreign Field, Ramachandra Guha, Picador India, Rs. 495.
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