That English sporting legacy
TO BE launched on Wednesday at the British Council with an introduction and reading by the author is Ramachandra Guha's latest cricket book, "A Corner of a Foreign Field", interweaves an anecdotal history of Indian cricket with the social and political history of the times.
Academician, historian, environmentalist, sociologist, cricket buff and prolific writer, Guha has been described as ``perhaps the best of India's non-fiction writers''. It's a reputation based on his history of the Chipko movement, "The Unquiet Woods", his brilliant biography of Verrier Elwin, "Savaging the Civilised", which particularly looks at the contribution Elwin made to the tribal rights movement, and his cricket book and columns in the Sunday edition of this paper. A delightful read, my only regret is that Guha once again fails to do justice to Madras's contribution to that story. But then he takes a rather broader view of Indian cricket than my rather parochial one, which sees
Buchi Babu as deserving rather more than ten lines for his contribution to giving South Indians a place in the cricketing sun;
C.P. Johnstone as one who not only did rather more behind the scenes to make the Ranji Trophy a more meaningful tournament than Dr. P. Subbaroyan, also a Madras stalwart, but who also, in the very first Ranji match led Madras to what's still a record, a one-day victory (over Mysore that's Karnataka today, isn't it, Ram?), thereby getting the support of ``ten thousand khadi-clad Indians'', and
those `Tests' at hallowed Chepauk, which for me began with Russi Modi on the one side and Hassett and Keith Miller of the Aussie Services on the other, as some of the finest in Indian Test history.
I'm glad, though, that in all those almost 500 pages I did discover one nugget, a Madras player who was only a name to me till Guha brought him alive here.
Guha's centerpiece in the book is Palwankar Baloo, one of four cricketing brothers from Bombay. Guha describes him in these terms: ``The book's most heroic character is a cricketer and a politician now forgotten by both cricket and politics... A slow left-arm bowler of low-caste origin... was the first great Indian cricketer and a pioneer in the emancipation of the Untouchables. His career in cricket and politics stretched from 1895 to 1937.'' The ``accomplice'' many a time of this ``lowly Chamaar'' was a ``Tamil Iyengar, that most exclusive and arrogant of Brahmin sub-castes,'' the crooked- fingered K. Seshachari. Of this outstanding wicketkeeper, it has been said by Romesh Ganguly whom Guha quotes, ``The fastest ball would not remove (`the cricket colossus, Seshachari, dark and forbidding') from his place of operation so near to the batsman's citadel. He crouched low and I wondered if the bails would not be disturbed from their cradle on top of the stumps by the volume of air let out by his lungs which I thought had the capacity of bellows.''
Together, Baloo and Seshachari ``made a deadly combination,'' writes Guha who, I'm certain, will one day write a biography of Baloo that will prove as significant as his one on Verrier Elwin.
Another Iyengar from Madras who finds place in the book is ``the Congress Chief Minister of Madras, C. Rajagopalachari''... ``in whose inclusive nationalism there was no place at all for communal groupings'' and who, therefore, rather forcefully provided a cue, on the stand to take on the Pentangular, to one of his Ministers, Subbaroyan, on the eve of his taking over as president of the Board of Control of Cricket in India. Between Rajaji and Johnstone, Subbaroyan had no option but to sink the Pentangular and give primacy to the Ranji Trophy.
Rajaji as a Chief Minister of a later time is also seen at the Fourth Test during Pakistan's first visit to India (1952-53). When rain deprived the Pakistanis of a series levelling victory, Rajaji stated that ``if such fixtures could bring rain, he would like to organise them every year.''
The Pakistan captain, Abdul Hafeez when he played for India and A.H. Kardar in his new role, diplomatically replied that ``he was happy the rains came'' to end a prolonged drought.
The sentiments of sportsmen from both countries have not changed much since then; only the politicians have become less tolerant.
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