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     Mar 5, 2005
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More than just a game
Twenty-Two Yards to Freedom: A Social History of Indian Cricket
by Boria Majumdar

Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

The megalithic proportions cricket has assumed in India is astounding in terms of its value in national consciousness. No other sport, art or entertainment arouses as much Indian passion and obsession as cricket. In this compelling account, Oxford historian Boria Majumdar captures the euphoria and the politics that have imbricated the game ever since British sailors and soldiers carried it to Indian shores circa 1780. Through a meticulous examination of events on and off the cricket field, Majumdar throws open fresh vistas on India's colonial and post-colonial tryst with what has been far more than a mere game.

This book rejects the view that sports and politics do not mix and probes the relationship between leisure and national identity. Cricket is "a derivative sport, creatively and imaginatively adapted to suit Indian socio-cultural needs, to fulfill political imperatives and satisfy economic aspirations". (p 1) Introduced in the late 18th century, it caught the imagination of Indians for varied reasons. It met urges for social mobility by uplifting the underprivileged in a caste-ridden society. To others, it was a non-violent way of challenging the British - "a desire to meet the Englishman on equal terms on the ground and vanquish him". (p 5)

Playing politics
The first battle of native plebeian resistance against European masters occurred in 1868 over the right to cricket-playing space in Bombay (now Mumbai). Though key Indian cricketers in history were not nationalists, the masses perceived them as Indians who competed on equal terms with the British and impressed the West with their feats. Episodes of cricketing history depicted in English-language sources as imperial successes of the "civilizing mission" were seen in vernacular Indian writings as nationalist triumphs.

Maharajas of colonial India patronized cricket as a way to challenge the British, as a social ladder, and as peer pressure. Teams could be sponsored by a maharaja to overcome a financial crisis or to establish regional supremacy. The Patiala royal house promoted the game so as to "equal the British". The Gwalior kings used cricket to break class barriers in their principality. The maharaja of Natore became a major cricket patron to challenge his arch-rival, the maharaja of Cooch Behar. Since the latter's team boasted of European coaches and players, the former formed a rival all-Indian side in 1900. An ardent nationalist, Natore appropriated English ideals of fair play and sporting spirit for his team.

The sensational enmity between the kings of Patiala and Vizianagram augured a struggle for supremacy during India's 1932 tour of England. Both princes vied for captaincy of the national squad. Vizianagram, the losing bidder, withdrew, saying he was "broken-hearted" but sowed dissentions. His hatchet men in the team wrecked Patiala's leadership from within. In 1934, Patiala proposed to name the national championship after Ranjitsinghji, the legendary Indian cricketer. Vizianagram countered that it be called after Viceroy Willingdon. In 1936, Lala Amarnath was sent back from the tour of England because of the machinations of Vizianagram, then the captain. It was the headline of that era.

Ranjitsinghji harnessed his cricketing prowess to further political ambitions of succeeding to the throne of Nawanagar. His world-famous cricketing skills endeared him to the British, who accepted his claim to the succession in 1907 although it was illegal. Later, he peddled cricketing fame to secure the status of a princely state for Nawanagar, a midget in size and importance on the princely chessboard.

Cricket was the prize of a fierce regional contest between Bombay and Bengal in the 1930s. The maharaja of Santosh argued against Bombay's domination by alleging that Bengali cricketers were unfairly omitted from the Indian team. Bengali journalists launched fierce attacks on Bombay that were supported by the United Provinces, another marginalized region.

Social leveler
Until the 1880s, cricket in India was an upper-caste preserve. The Parsis of Bombay, comprador capitalists, were the first to adopt cricket in the late 1830s. Early Hindu cricket was also of an elite nature. Cricket's social base widened from 1884, when patriarchs around the country recruited low-class sportsmen as professionals. Dalit star Palwankar Baloo broke new ground toward egalitarian society. In an India mired in caste prejudices, Baloo won great social acclaim as a player and inspired B R Ambedkar, the framer of free India's constitution. Baloo contested elections in 1934 and 1937 in Bombay, venerated by high and low alike.

British denigration of Bengali middle-class professionals (babus) led them to shun discriminatory social practices and pick the best native talent in sport. In Gujarat and central India too, players from modest backgrounds were roped into teams. School and college cricket in the colonial era was representative of society, aiming to eliminate distinctions of caste and creed. Teachers encouraged students, irrespective of pedigree, to play sports. "Proficiency in cricket helped students get jobs which their academic record would have denied them." (p 96)

The clock was turned back after independence, when a caste elite took over Indian cricket. Patronage changed hands from princes to corporate houses, which determined cricketers' recruitment and remuneration on the basis of academic qualifications. Sports got concentrated in metropolitan areas and players not in the top bracket fell on hard times. Wicketkeeper Dattaram Hindlekar, who represented India, passed away untimely in 1949 for want of money for hospital treatment.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) escalated ticket prices and guarantee-money demands from venues hosting international matches, further sliding the game into a preserve of the affluent. Spectator violence in grounds recurred due to overcrowding in the cheaper stands that were progressively reduced in size. Hooliganism is the handiwork of wealthy jingoistic youth who monopolize live audiences at cricket stadiums today.

After India's 1983 World Cup triumph, BCCI reverted to a conscious talent-nurturing policy and paved the way for a meritocracy to re-emerge. Thanks to the sale of telecast rights to foreign broadcasters, a coup that transformed Indian sports in 1995, BCCI raised financial incentives in domestic cricket and aided ailing yesteryear players. Cricket as an aristocratic domain is today an anachronism.

The Bengal tradition
Large-scale cricket began in Bengal in 1880, "rooted in the urge to negate the charge of effeminacy leveled against the Bengali male". (p 136) The British believed cricket to be a way of implanting manliness, stamina and vigor into effete Indians, a view echoed by Bengali sports patrons desirous of a new identity and individuality. A Bengali coaching manual of 1899 reads, "The respect accorded to a good cricket player by the Sahibs finds no parallel." (p 156) At the Presidency College, defeating the all-European Calcutta Cricket Club was the central attraction of the annual sports calendar. The popularity that fixtures between Indian and English schools generated indicates power equations between colonizer and colonized.

Bengal declined in cricket vis-a-vis Bombay after 1930. A proposal for a permanent cricket stadium in Calcutta (now Kolkata) was scuttled for years because the colonial military was unwilling to release land that would impair security arrangements for the city. The British feared that nationalist-minded Bengalis might rally around cricket for self-assertion if it was encouraged beyond limits. Religious turmoil forced the Hindu middle classes to shun cricket patronage in the 1940s, plummeting native interest in the game.

The Bombay saga
Cricket in Bombay started amid competitive communalism in society. Parsis, Hindus and Muslims formed exclusive clubs and teams, goaded by the superiority complex and separatism of the British. The Bombay Pentangular tournament's enormous popularity stamped the communal organization of cricket. The city's work ethic and commercialism also spawned professionalism in cricket. Leading players endorsed consumer durables for money in the late 1930s. The commodious Brabourne Stadium, opened in 1937, was partly financed by gate receipts from the Pentangular.

The Pentangular was abolished in 1946 after prolonged intrigues of vested interests. Though couched in secular nationalistic rhetoric, the anti-Pentangular agitation was driven by commercial and power political rivalries. The BCCI and other regional cricket associations resented Bombay's hegemony of the game and envied the Pentangular's money spinning. Princes were wary of professional players of Bombay who could defy patrons. Though cricketers themselves vocally backed the Pentangular (Vijay Merchant was suspended by BCCI for supporting it), the opponents persuaded the British to bury the tournament.

The ungentlemanly game
Cricket as a gentleman's game is a persisting myth. In India, it has witnessed umpteen instances of bickering and nastiness. C K Nayudu, a commoner, challenged princely control of cricket. Embroiled in insults and humiliation in the 1930s, he remained the people's hero. Lala Amarnath, the captain of India in 1948, had an infamous battle with BCCI president A S De Mello. Journalists preferred the polish and social status of De Mello to the rusticity of Amarnath. However, Amarnath had the last laugh by bundling out De Mello from the board with the assistance of the Bengal lobby in 1951. Selection of cricket umpires was mired in controversy until 1960, when meritorious appointments replaced nepotism and partiality of cricket associations.

The personality clash between Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev in 1983-84 rocked the nation. In 1989, the BCCI debarred six top cricketers for one year as punishment for appearing in exhibition matches. The ban was revoked after a Supreme Court intercession. "Surging commercialization was loosening older structures of dominance." (p 310) The match-fixing horror of 2000-01 rocked public confidence in cricket, with the captain and vice captain implicated for "doing" games (underperforming and manipulating results for bookmakers). Majumdar reminds that in 1935, Amarnath was offered Rs10,000 to throw away a final in which he was playing. In 1948, a player was suspended for "selling a match" in Bombay.

In 2001, English referee Mike Denness overly penalized six Indian players, raising specters of racism. The BCCI's confrontation with the International Cricket Council (ICC) over this reflected the changing balance of power in world cricket. It revealed India's ascendancy in the sport, buttressed by Jagmohan Dalmiya's dramatic election as ICC president in 1997. Cricket's great power shift was demonstrated again in the 2002 row over Indian players' endorsements in ICC events.

Cricket is central to Indian national life today, an elixir that renders backwardness and poverty forgettable. Nothing short of clear victory satisfies fanatic cricket fans. "Playing cricket is no less difficult than governing the country." (p 363) Cricket authorities and the Indian government have had their share of tussles. The 1993-95 dispute over telecasting rights attained international political importance when South African President Nelson Mandela attempted to reach the Indian prime minister. It demonstrated India's weakness as an attractive destination for foreign investment as well as "the connections between cricket, society and polity". (p 405)

Majumdar's praiseworthy work attests to the importance of non-sporting motives and issues in sport. In India, all was and is fair in love, war and cricket. Recounting unforgettable vignettes with sharp analysis, this book will set new standards.

Twenty-Two Yards to Freedom: A Social History of Indian Cricket by Boria Majumdar. Penguin Books India, New Delhi, December 2004. ISBN: 067005794-0. Price: US$13.25; 483 pages.

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