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The best books on Indian Cricket

recommended by Prashant Kidambi

Cricket Country: An Indian Odyssey in the Age of Empire by Prashant Kidambi

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2020 Wolfson History Prize

Cricket Country: An Indian Odyssey in the Age of Empire
by Prashant Kidambi


South Asia has become the beating heart of cricket, with wild enthusiasm for the game at every level of society. Historian Prashant Kidambi—whose book, Cricket Country, was shortlisted for the 2020 Wolfson History Prize—takes us through the history of cricket in India, from its traditional, colonial roots through to the colourful, frenetic national game of today.

Interview by Benedict King

Cricket Country: An Indian Odyssey in the Age of Empire by Prashant Kidambi

SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2020 Wolfson History Prize

Cricket Country: An Indian Odyssey in the Age of Empire
by Prashant Kidambi

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The million-dollar question I wanted to ask you before we talk about the books is: why is cricket so phenomenally popular in India? And, I suppose, that is a question we should ask of Pakistan and Sri Lanka as well. 

Yes. It’s true of most of South Asia.

One explanation is that cricket embodies many aspects of Indian society and culture, ideas of social distancing and hierarchy. For a long time, there was a deeply entrenched idea that the rhythms of the game—that it is slow, that the play unfolds at a leisurely pace, that it is suffused with a sense of the eternal—resonated with an ancient agrarian civilization. So, there’s an influential thesis that, although it was an English sport, cricket took off in India because its core values chimed perfectly with the values of traditional Indian society.

That was the line of argument pursued by Ashis Nandy in his book The Tao of Cricket. I haven’t put that book on my list because I find the arguments in it problematic. Also, the book is not really a history of Indian cricket. It uses cricket to fashion larger arguments about India’s modernity.

Essentially, Nandy’s key thesis is that if you want to explain why cricket became popular in India, you have to understand that cricket’s core values resonated with traditional Indian notions of selfhood and hierarchy.

One problem with this line of argument about the ‘non-modernity’ of cricket is that cricket started off as an urban game in India. It was a game of the modern cities and towns. As I point out in my book, it was in the cities that the game first took root. It was also the English-educated Indians who were first exposed to the game in schools and colleges and who were its biggest votaries.

More recently, if you look at the form of the game that is most popular in India, it’s not the five-day test cricket. It’s the frenetic T20 game.

My own view is that cricket took off in India and remains popular for two reasons. One, it became bound up with colonial modernity and power. For many who embraced the game in India early on—the Parsis, for example—cricket became a way of defining their masculinity. It was seen as a game whose values were those of civilized masculinity and it was associated with British power.

There were other elites who took to the game—the Indian princes, for example—as a way of affirming their standing in the eyes of the British imperial establishment. For Indian elites, the game was like a currency of power.

“Cricket started off as an urban game in India. It was a game of the modern cities and towns”

Cricket was like a charismatic object or ritual that miraculously opened doors. If one played cricket, one might be able to fraternize with Englishmen; many of the clubs in the late 19th century were organised on racial lines. There was scope to fraternise on the cricket field in a society where racial interactions were strictly circumscribed and limited.

If you were an Indian prince, cricket also provided a very subtle way of communicating to your English minders, or your English interlocutors, that you were ‘civilized’. That’s one dynamic that explains why cricket was taken up by the elites in the sub-continent, who were also its most enthusiastic promoters and patrons.

But you can also see a second logic that’s at play from the mid-nineteenth century in Bombay, but increasingly takes root across India over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: cricket becomes a popular sport in urban centres. It is played by youths at colleges and schools in all the big public grounds—maidans, as they are known. One could call this a movement ‘from below’, in which cricket appeals to Indian youth at many different levels.

Obviously, there is the aesthetic quality of the sport—that it has a particular kind of kinaesthetic pleasure to it—the physical dexterity involved in playing the game, the sweet sound of bat hitting ball, and so on. But cricket also facilitates forms of sociability. Youths at colleges and schools formed clubs, for example, and so it became an integral part of urban public culture. And what defines that urban public culture is its association with a certain notion of modernity. Cricket is not attractive because it’s a pre-modern game; it’s attractive precisely because it’s a modern game. This is also a more ‘demotic’ view of the sport’s spread, in that clubs are formed because of the game’s burgeoning popularity.

I’ve restricted my choices here to history books, but a famous writer whose work perfectly illustrates this phenomenon is R K Narayan. He created and wrote copiously about a fictional small town called Malgudi, set in south India. His first novel was called Swami and Friends, and the story revolves around a group of school boys in Malgudi coming together to form a cricket club. Swami, the chief protagonist, is nicknamed ‘Tate’ by his friends after the famous English bowler, Maurice Tate. It’s a fictional representation of the process I outlined, of cricket taking root from below.

Cricket’s public career in India can thus be explained in these two ways. One channel is through the promoters drawn from the Indian elites, who take to the game because it served as a route to social prestige and allowed them to fraternize with the imperial establishment. Secondly, there’s the historical dynamic unfolding from below, its entrenchment at the grassroots level. In some places, the institutional culture became quite dense by the early twentieth century. In Bombay, for instance, there emerged school clubs, college clubs, office clubs—with tournaments and a very rich institutional culture that then shaped the city’s public culture.

By looking at the interaction of these two dynamics, we can get a sense of the emergent cultural and political significance of cricket, which became increasingly important as time went on. In the late 19th century that political significance was very much about trying to gain recognition for Indian cricket, which is why the Parsis, for example, undertook tours of England in the 1880s. But by the 1920s, you can also see an anti-colonial sentiment coming into play on the cricket pitch, where beating the Englishman at cricket became a way of refuting racial theories that held that Indians were physically inferior to Europeans.

Before we get the books Indian cricket books you’re recommending, what story does your own book, Cricket Country, tell?

On the face of it, it’s a book about the first ‘All India’ cricket team to take to the cricket pitch and its tour of Great Britain and Ireland in the summer of 1911. I take that event and then I try to tell the story of early Indian cricket. But I also look at what it can tell us about the nature of colonial India and its relationship with British imperial power.

People don’t really remember this event and if they do it is regarded as part of the pre-history of Indian cricket, the years before 1932 when India acquired ‘Test’ status.

I wanted to uncover not only a long-forgotten event—the first ‘All India’ cricket tour of Great Britain and Ireland—but also reconstruct the texture of an entire epoch in the Indo-British relationship. The event was very interesting in itself because it was the first time an ‘All India’ team was formed. There had been an All India team in 1893, but that team consisted largely of Europeans. The 1911 team was the first properly representative Indian cricket team. It was led by a prince, the 19-year-old Bhupinder Singh, Maharajah of Patiala. Players were chosen on the basis of religious identity. It had Hindus, Muslims and Parsis. Two of the players were Dalits—so-called ‘Untouchables’—looked down on by the Hindu upper castes and discriminated against in horrendous ways. So, the team itself is fascinating and 1911 was a key year because it was the year the capital of British India was moved from Calcutta to Delhi. It was the year of the coronation of George V in London. He was the first monarch to visit India.

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As the research proceeded, I began to uncover a number of themes that I found engrossing. One was the central role of the Parsis in the history of Indian cricket. The members of this Anglicised community were the first Indians to take to cricket. So, the book really begins with the story of Parsi cricket in Bombay in the mid-nineteenth century.

I narrate the story of how the emergence of India as a new cricket-playing entity led to interest in India as a destination for cricket teams from Britain. Cricket became part of a new imperial cultural diplomacy. Colonial India emerged at the same time as the Caribbean and South Africa as a destination for visiting imperial sides. The matches between these visiting European teams and Indian cricket teams were politically charged affairs, which demonstrate the early political significance of cricket in India. Beating the English on the cricket pitch became hugely symbolic. As an aside, it is worth mentioning that in 2001 the Indian film nominated for the Oscars was Lagaan, a fictional story about an Indian village taking on a British Army regiment at cricket. The box-office success of the film shows how in India cricket’s political significance transcends the sport itself.

Cricket Country also reconstructs the successive attempts to put together the first Indian cricket team; each of these schemes failed. The first attempt to put together an Indian cricket team was in 1898. The promoters of the venture tried to build the team around the figure of Prince Ranjitsinhji, who had emerged in the mid-1890s as a cricketing superstar in Britain, the most popular cricketer after W G Grace.

He played for England. In fact, he captained England, didn’t he?

He played for England, but not as captain; that would have been a step too far for the racial order of the time! Ranji, as he was known, also represented Cambridge University and Sussex. He was an astonishing cricketer, who completely transformed the game. He not only introduced a new stroke—the leg glance—but also played in a manner that was completely different from his English contemporaries.

By this time, cricket in colonial India had taken off in a big way. The Parsis had been followed by the Hindus and Muslims. That in itself is very interesting. Cricket in colonial India was attached to the notion of community. There was this idea that India was essentially a land of communities and cricket too was shaped by that perception. Cricket in India was organized on the lines of religious communities. You had Hindu teams, Parsi teams, Muslim teams, and the ‘Europeans’ (itself an interesting term in this context).

In 1899-1900, cricket promoters in India tried to forge an Indian cricket team around Ranji, but Ranji didn’t want to have anything to do with this. He had come back to India with a very different agenda.

Ranji had been adopted as a young child by the ruler of Nawanagar (in the Kathiawar peninsula) but was then cast aside when his father had a son by another queen. Although he was discarded, his father put him through the college for princes at Rajkot, and then paid for his studies at Cambridge. Even after he became a famous cricketer, Ranji felt that he had been hard done by, that he was the rightful heir to the Nawanagar throne. So, Ranji tried to use his cricketing celebrity in England to reclaim the crown that he felt he had been unfairly deprived of in India. That was his political aim following his father’s death in 1895.

This reinforces the point I made earlier: that for some princes, cricket was a way of furthering political ends. So, that first attempt to build an Indian cricket side failed. Ranji saw himself as an English cricketer. He didn’t see himself as an Indian cricketer and he was very worried that if he led an Indian cricket team to England, then his right to play for England would be called into question by critics in Britain.

In 1902-03, a team from England called the Oxford Authentics arrived in colonial India to play a series of matches across the subcontinent. This was one of those eccentric Oxbridge creations, an amateur side  comprising cricketers of varying levels of ability, who played the game for fun and sociability. This team travelled around India and many of the Indian cricket teams did very well against them. So, the cry went out again, ‘Come on, the time has come to form a common Indian cricket team.’ The West Indians had formed a team in 1900, so there was an added sense that India should be able to do it too.

At the same time, Europeans in the subcontinent had started to get alarmed because the standard of cricket among expatriates stationed in colonial India had started to decline. They felt that English teams would no longer come out to India because of the poor quality of European cricket. But if an Indian cricket team could be stitched together, they reasoned, then perhaps that would encourage English teams to come out. As a result, many Europeans got involved in the project to put together an Indian cricket team, comprising Hindus, Parsis and Muslims, to tour England in the summer of 1904.

That venture got off the ground, but at the final selection meeting there was a breakdown in the negotiations between the Hindus, Muslims and Parsis about the representation of each community within the team. At the last minute, the plug was pulled because the Parsis would not agree to the Hindu and Muslim demands that the team ought to include more Hindus and Muslims. Once again, then, the attempt to put together a composite Indian team failed.

“In terms of politics and politicians, cricket in India has served as a vehicle for political self-advancement and a source of prestige and power”

Finally, you get this attempt in 1911, which really kicks off in 1909. There’s a political context to that too. Between 1904 and 1909, politics in India was dramatically transformed. Lord Curzon had tried to partition Bengal in 1905. There was massive anti-colonial protest: the Swadeshi movement. That movement petered out after two years but, by 1907, there emerged what British officials called the problem of ‘Indian sedition’. Young Indians took to the gun and the bomb, trying to assassinate British officials. One of the most dramatic acts of revolutionary violence occurred in London in July 1909, when an official at the India Office called Curzon Wyllie was assassinated by an Indian student called Madan Lal Dhingra.

It is against this backdrop that Indian cricket promoters, especially business houses like the Tatas—who were the premier Indian businessmen of their time—and princes, came together to revive the idea of sending an Indian cricket team to Britain. Conservative commentators  in Britain had started arguing that if Indian students were going to ‘misuse’ their freedom of entry into Britain to assassinate Europeans, then perhaps their entry into the country  ought to be stopped. For those who regarded themselves as British Indians, sending an Indian cricket team to Britain was an attempt to affirm India’s loyalty to the British Empire.

There is, of course, a great irony here. When you think of the Indian cricket team today, it is a source of jingoism and hyper-nationalism. When India plays against Pakistan, for instance, it is a case of ‘war minus the shooting’. But the first-ever Indian cricket team was formed by an alliance of Indian cricket promoters, businessmen and princes, working in tandem with British politicians, powerful figures in the cricket establishment, professional coaches, and journalists. The coalition was very much a product of empire, not an act of resistance to it. It was created by empire loyalists.

In short, I use this one cricketing event to talk about the tangled history of empire and nation through the prism of sport. At the same time, I also look at the politics of the sport: particularly the composition of the team, which was based on religious lines. That gave me the chance to look at the history of Parsi cricket, Hindu cricket, cricket among the Muslims, each of which had a different trajectory. But the common theme running through all of it is how cricket became closely bound up with notions of community in the early 20th century.

Let’s move on to the books you’ve chosen. The first one is J M Framjee Patel’s Stray Thoughts on Indian Cricket. What story does it tell and why did you choose it?

This book was published in 1905, so unless you’re somebody who’s deeply interested in the history of Indian cricket, you’re unlikely to have heard of it. It is not a particularly original book in the way it is composed because Framjee Patel mostly based his account on previously published books. In fact, the most fascinating, and easily the most perceptive, text on early Indian cricket was published in 1897 by a man called Shapoorjee Sorabjee. This was a history of Parsi cricket, which had a very interesting pamphlet appended to it. The Struggle: Polo versus Cricket narrates the extraordinary story of a bitter conflict between Parsi and Indian cricketers and European polo players on the Bombay maidan. Ideally, I would have included Sorabjee’s pamphlet. But, as it focuses exclusively on Parsi cricket, I think it may be more appropriate to begin with Framjee Patel’s book.

Stray Thoughts could legitimately be called the first proper history of Indian cricket. Unlike earlier histories of Indian cricket, which were essentially histories of Parsi cricket, Patel’s book tells the story of all the different communities who took to cricket in the subcontinent during the nineteenth century.

It was published shortly after the collapse of the venture to send the first-ever Indian cricket team to England in 1904. Framjee Patel had been a key player in the negotiations. He was the representative of Parsi cricket when that attempt to put together a team failed and he was blamed by many sections of public opinion. He was blamed by Europeans, criticized by Hindus and Muslims, and the cricket promoters, all of whom believed that it was his machinations that prevented the tour from going ahead. Alongside recounting the history of Indian cricket, he also used the book to defend his actions and refute his critics.

Stray Thoughts is dedicated to Lord Harris, Governor of Bombay between 1890 and 1895, and a hugely influential figure in the MCC. The book is interesting because it is a classic text of empire loyalism—it is suffused with the idea that British rule was good for India and that Indians should be regarded as British in their values because of their enthusiastic take-up of cricket. Moreover, he believed fervently that cricket could unite rulers and ruled.

Stray Thoughts contains interesting material on cricket among the different Indian communities. But it’s real value to the historian lies in its expression of a certain kind of empire loyalism that became increasingly rare after the end of the First World War. It is very much a product of its context: just before the first major anti-colonial protest movement, the Swadeshi movement of 1905-07.

Was Framjee Patel himself a cricketer?

Yes, he was. He had captained the Parsi team in the early 1890s. His family had been closely involved with Parsi cricket since its inception. He had close connections to the British cricket establishment, the MCC, and to rich businessmen in Bombay. He was able to knit together very different worlds. You could say he was India’s first great cricket promoter and publicist, the first great cricketing impresario.

Was he involved in the 1911 tour?

Yes, Framjee Patel was a key figure in the scheme to send an Indian cricket team to Britain in 1911. In the years immediately after the 1904 venture failed, he tried to revive the idea. In the summer of 1906, he went to England to pursue the scheme. His visit that year coincided with the visit to England of the second West Indian team, comprising black and white players. An official reception in honour of the West Indian cricketers was hosted at the Oval by the Surrey County Cricket Club. Framjee Patel was a guest at this event and expressed his intention to bring out an Indian cricket team. Once again, he pinned his hopes on Ranji, and yet again he was to be disappointed. Eventually, in 1909, shortly after Curzon Wyllie’s assassination, Patel revived the idea of sending an Indian cricket team to Britain. Over the next two years, he played a very important role in bringing this team together.

Among Framjee Patel’s key achievements in making the 1911 All India tour possible was the truce that he brought about between Parsi and Hindu cricketers. Between 1905 and 1909, relations between Hindus and Parsis on the cricket pitch had steadily deteriorated. After Framjee Patel returned from England in 1906, he set about settling the differences between Hindus and Parsis. This helped to pave the way for the formation of the first Indian cricket team.

What became of him in the end? Did he live on beyond independence?

Framjee Patel died in October 1918. Curiously, although he was one of the pillars of Parsi cricket and a leading figure in the Parsi community, his death received only cursory notice in the local press. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that his death occurred in the final weeks of the First World War, a time when public attention was focused on matters other than cricket. But it does mark the end of an era, not only in Indian cricket, but also in Indian public life. Empire loyalists of his kind were to become increasingly rare in the years after 1918.

Let’s move on to Edward Docker’s A History of Indian Cricket (1976). This book covers the period from the 1920s to the 1970s, doesn’t it?

Framjee Patel’s book tells the story of Indian cricket up to 1905. Docker’s book takes the story forward from the 1920s to the 1970s. He commenced work on this book shortly after India had famously secured, in quick succession, overseas victories against the West Indies and England in 1971. My reason for including this book is a personal one. It’s the first proper cricket book that I read and it made a deep impression on me.

A History of Indian Cricket  starts off with a very arresting account of a match that took place at the Bombay Gymkhana in December 1926. This contest was between Arthur Gilligan’s visiting MCC team and an All India team; interestingly, this was the first time after 1911 that a team representing ‘All India’ took to the field. The book opens with a riveting description of the astonishing innings played in this match by C K Nayudu, who went on to become one of the most popular Indian cricketers in the 1930s. In a little over two hours, Nayudu scored 153 against the visiting Englishmen, an innings studded with astonishing shots that repeatedly sailed over the boundary. If the innings was sensational, Docker’s narrative made it even more so in the imagination of a ten-year old reader. Although I did not understand much of Docker’s text, the description of that Nayudu knock, and its political symbolism, stayed with me for a long time.

Docker’s book contains fascinating vignettes and lurid stories. It recounts in rich detail the intrigues and petty politics of Indian cricket. It doesn’t investigate the structural features and social context of the game. But the narrative is very racy. We get a vivid picture of individuals trying to outdo each other; it is a tale dominated by skulduggery, sharp elbows, personal animosities, and backstabbing. The book captures the flavour of the leading cricketing personalities of the time. It shows how, from the outset, Indian cricket was dominated by powerful individuals. In Docker’s account, the history of Indian cricket is essentially the story of these individuals and their changing fortunes. Moreover, this account is very much about India in the international (Test match) arena.

Still, the book is based on considerable primary research, especially the use of contemporary newspapers. It’s written in very accessible prose, too, it’s a page-turner.

I’m interested in understanding changing attitudes to cricket before and after independence. You mentioned that opposition to British rule in India became far more widespread and militant in the 1920s. Did that lead to people rejecting cricket as an imperialist cultural phenomenon? And was there any comparable move to reject or marginalise cricket as ‘un-Indian’ after 1947?

That’s a very good question. I write about this in my book, but one of the reasons that the 1911 cricket team was so quickly forgotten about in subsequent decades is that it was an expression of empire loyalism. After 1918, the relations between India and Britain changed very dramatically. There were two reasons for this.

First, imperial Britain disappointed Indian nationalists because it was reluctant to offer substantial concessions to Indian demands for self-representation. Indian nationalists felt that India had made a huge contribution to the war effort and hence their demands for greater representation demanded substantive reforms in the structure of colonial governance. Instead, the colonial authorities in India extended the wartime restrictions on civil liberties, in the form of the infamous ‘Rowlatt Act’. The protest that followed catapulted Mahatma Gandhi on to the stage of all India politics for the first time. In the spring of 1919, Gandhi spearheaded the all India protest movement against the Rowlatt Act. And it was during this protest movement that the notorious Jallianwala Bagh [Amritsar] Massacre took place.

After this, there was a significant change in Indo-British relations. By the end of the 1920s, the anti-colonial mood was deeply entrenched. For the generation of ‘moderate’ nationalists before the First World War, it was possible to reconcile patriotism with empire loyalism. Many of them would have been happy to describe themselves as ‘British Indians’. By 1930, most Indian nationalists could no longer reconcile empire and nation as focal points of political loyalty. And, of course, that had consequences on the cricket pitch. Now cricket matches between European teams and Indian teams came to acquire a political edge. By the 1930s, there were overt expressions of anti-colonial nationalist sentiment on the cricket pitch.

There was also a growing sense that Indians should embrace indigenous sporting traditions—it was rather like Irish cultural nationalism in this regard. In India, these ideas became significant in the 1890s, especially in Bengal and Maharashtra. There were attempts to revive traditional sports, like folk wrestling, for example.

This  tradition continued even after independence. But as cricket grew in popularity after 1947, those voices fell on deaf ears. You’d imagine that indigenous sport would get a fillip in independent India—and some did get government support—but cricket continued to be the de facto national sport. Those who wanted to reject cricket were vastly outnumbered by those who embraced it.

What is the second most popular sport in India?

As far as sports introduced from outside India are concerned, football is very popular in Bengal, the northeastern states, Kerala and Goa. Football has become more popular recently. But hockey was the most popular sport after cricket until the 1980s. Badminton and tennis are both quite popular, although they are both largely played by the middle classes. As for indigenous sports, it has to be wrestling. And then there is kabaddi, which is also popular.

Let’s talk about to Richard Cashman’s Patrons, Players and the Crowd: the Phenomenon of Indian Cricket (1980). What story does Cashman tell in this book? 

I mentioned that Docker’s book was very much about the politics of Indian cricket, but quite weak on the sociological and cultural dimensions of the sport, especially its popular dynamics. Cashman’s book is the exact opposite. He focuses on the structures of Indian cricket, especially the sociology and the culture of the game as it evolved in the subcontinent.

Cashman looks at patronage and the role of money in the sport, how it works, who encouraged and supported the game in colonial and postcolonial India and their reasons for doing so. When he looks at players, he’s interested in their sociological backgrounds, not their cricketing performances. He provides details on the class and caste profile of Indian cricketers. He examines the nature of cricket crowds and their behaviour. It’s the first proper historical sociology of Indian cricket. At the outset, I said that there were two ways of looking at the history of Indian cricket—from above and from below. Cashman’s book is simultaneously a history from above and below. It allows you to look at all the structural dynamics of Indian cricket.

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Cashman was a trained historian. He worked on western India before he came to work on Indian cricket. He has subsequently gone on to write on other aspects of sport, especially sport in Australia. This book really captures the complexity of Indian cricket’s sociology and cultural formation. Its strength is its deep empirical research. He uses all kinds of primary sources.

The book can appear slightly dated today, largely because the game has changed beyond recognition over the four decades since it was published, but because of its empirical findings and insights into the sociology of Indian cricket, it remains one of the best books on the subject.

What story does he tell about the patrons and the players? Does he draw any interesting conclusions about where they come from and what motivates and unites them?

A striking feature of Cashman’s book is the subtle way it charts shifts that have happened over time. So, for example, when he’s writing about patronage, he shows how, initially, the princes played a key role but were increasingly supplanted, after 1947, by secular, modern institutions, commercial firms and the public sector. It is these institutions that provided cricketers with a livelihood in post-independence India. He charts how the nature of patronage changes from the feudal to more modern, secular forms. That’s one theme.

When he focuses on the social background of players, he emphasizes the intersection of caste and class. Cashman notes the interesting phenomenon that there are very few players from the lowest classes who have played for India, very few from the Dalit communities.

It’s a book full of rich and subtle sociological insights. He’s very good on crowds, especially the rituals of the Indian cricket crowd, its distinctive forms of collective behaviour and how it differs from crowds elsewhere. He’s good, too, on the way the game has been imagined and ‘Indianized’. The book also shows how the vocabularies of the game have been ‘Indianized’. It’s a very sophisticated analysis of how cricket has been transformed into an Indian game.

From independence in 1947 up until 1980 when he wrote this book, what was the Indian government’s relationship to cricket? Was there significant government patronage of the game? Does the government do a lot to promote it or give it particular privileges?

Governments get involved in cricket when it comes to the organization of international tours and tournaments. Also, when stadiums have to be built, the government has to get involved in dealing with the issues pertaining to land allocation. And, of course, until the era of liberalization in the early 1990s, cricket commentary was through All India Radio and on TV it was broadcast on the Indian national channel, Doordarshan. But it is hard to discern a substantive and coherent official policy towards cricket. Cricket’s popularity ensured that it would be the dominant sport, but that was not because of official patronage.

If we broaden the lens and think of this issue not in terms of government, but in terms of politics and politicians, cricket in India has served as a vehicle for political self-advancement and a source of prestige and power. Prominent politicians have tended to control cricketing associations in the provinces. The Board of Control for Cricket in India has continuously been dominated by politicians. In the early years of the Board, it was the princes who tended to dominate. Now, it’s professional politicians. Politicians have found in cricket rich pickings, both as a conduit to elevated political status and, increasingly over the last twenty years, to substantive monetary resources. That’s why the relationship between cricket and politics is significant.

Your next Indian cricket book is Ramachandra Guha’s A Corner of a Foreign Field: The Indian History of a British Sport. This is a much more recent book. What story does this tell us?

If I had to rank the books in this list by sheer quality, this book would be number one. Guha trained as a historical sociologist. He has had a very prominent career as a professional historian. Notably, he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of Indian cricket and its history. If one were looking for an overview of the entire history of Indian cricket from its very beginnings to the present, this is the book.

In a sense, you could say that Guha’s approach is a synthesis of Docker and Cashman. He is very keenly attuned to the politics of the sport. The book shows how politics and cricket repeatedly intersected in colonial and postcolonial India. But it is equally attentive to the sociology of Indian cricket. It strikes a very nice balance between these two aspects. It’s also organized in a thematic way. Guha shows how, from the very outset, cricket in the subcontinent was shaped by the fissures and fractures of the wider society. Race, caste, religion and nation are the principal themes that run through the book.

You get a real sense of how cricket became Indianized, how it became politicized, and how it became this extraordinarily popular sport. It’s narrated in a very readable and subtle way. In my view, the most fascinating and pioneering part of the book is the story of Palwankar Baloo, the great Dalit bowler, who was unquestionably India’s first great cricketer (Ranji does not count as he saw himself as an ‘English’ cricketer).

You’ve talked about how the Parsis took up cricket initially and how they were followed by the different communities in India. Was there any kind of attempt by the British authorities to introduce cricket to India? Or was that just never needed? Did it flourish naturally or were there active politically- or culturally-driven initiatives by the British to ‘cricketify’ India.

I would say that the British approach was something of a mixed bag. They did attempt to make cricket an important part of the educational curriculum. That was particularly true of the educational institutions that they ran for Indian princes, whom they wanted to train to play a role similar to the English gentry/aristocracy—a ruling class. It was assumed that if you played cricket you would be a good leader and that you would be imbued with the right values. For instance, Ranji went to one of these—Rajkumar College—before he went to Cambridge.

“Guha shows how, from the very outset, cricket in the subcontinent was shaped by the fissures and fractures of the wider society”

You also had English headmasters and teachers who came out to India. The Muhammadan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh was a classic example of this and it figures prominently in my book because all the Muslim cricketers in the 1911 Indian team had been to that institution. Theodore Beck, its  Cambridge-educated headmaster, made cricket a key part of the Aligarh curriculum.

Equally, British officials interested in cricket could, by virtue of their public office, promote the game. Lord Harris, when he was Governor of Bombay between 1890 and 1895, made cricket a key part of his official responsibilities, about which he was quite proud.

Many Oxbridge graduates who came out to India, either in political roles or as part of the civil service, were keen cricketers.

Cricket was part of the official culture, but British officials they did not always promote it in an overt way. In fact, as I show in my book, at the outset in Bombay, when the English first took on the Parsis, there was a lot of ambivalence about the Parsis taking up the game. It was almost as if these ‘mimic men’ playing cricket was vaguely threatening.

Your final choice is Migrant Races: Empire, Identity and K S Ranjitsinhji by Satadru Sen.

This book deserves to be more widely known than it is. It’s probably familiar to those who work in the field of modern South Asian history, and perhaps to postcolonial theorists. But it’s a very beautifully structured and subtle attempt to understand one of the most complex and complicated characters in the history of Indian cricket: Prince Ranjitsinhji. Because it is an academic work, I suspect this book is not more widely known among those who are purely interested in the history of cricket. A general reader might not find it readily accessible, but it does repay close attention. Sen shows how Ranji negotiated the complex worlds that he had to navigate. The book is not only deeply attentive to the different contexts and constraints within which Ranji operated but also to the ways in which he exercised his agency as a cricketer and a prince.

“His batting might have conveyed the impression of effortless genius, but nothing was naturally given to Ranji”

The book does not really dwell on Ranji’s cricket career. It is not interested in what he did on the field. It is more concerned with how Ranji was shaped by the larger structures of empire and nation and how he forged his way through these at different times in his public career. It shows how Ranji learnt to perform the roles that he was called upon to play. His batting might have conveyed the impression of effortless genius, but nothing was naturally given to Ranji.

He was quite vulnerable and had to negotiate the very different worlds of colonial India and imperial Britain. The book dwells on Ranji’s quest for his crown. It looks at the place of money in his life, the need to have resources befitting a prince. It shows his complex and ambivalent interactions both with the colonial establishment—which eventually made him the ruler of Nawanagar in 1907—and with Indian nationalism.

Ranji tends to be seen in two ways. One is solely as a cricketer. He’s celebrated in this very Orientalist way by a lot of English cricket writers. It’s a tradition that goes all the way back to those who wrote about him in the early 20th century, writers like Neville Cardus. The other tradition is to focus on his politics and accuse him of being an opponent of Indian nationalism. Both perspectives are one-sided and reduce this complicated figure to a caricature.

When you say they celebrate him in an Orientalist tradition, can you just unpack what you mean by that?

Consider the images that were used to describe Ranji’s batting—that he was a conjuror, a ‘dark’ magician, and so on. There is a famous comment about him that is often quoted in cricket literature: that ‘he never played a Christian stroke in his life’. He was regarded as a ‘strange light from the East’. In short, he was (and still continues to be) portrayed as a mysterious Oriental, very different from the stolid Anglo-Saxon cricketer.

Like a Djinni…

Exactly. Simon Wilde has written a very fine biography of Ranji, but it too reaffirms this idea of the ‘strange and sublime genius’ of Ranji.

More recently, people have criticised Ranji’s anti-nationalism, arguing that he did not promote Indian cricket, that he did very little for Indian cricket, that he saw himself as an English cricketer, and that he was a bad ruler.

So, there are these two contrasting traditions of writing about Ranji. Satadru Sen’s book shows how both of these perspectives are simplistic. The book really gets to the complexities of the man and it does so without either celebrating him in an uncritical fashion or vilifying him. It shows how Ranji negotiated the choices that he had to make and how he was shaped by the larger structures of imperial power that shaped his life. It’s a very insightful and illuminating book.

Some reviewers of my book have said that I’m very critical of Ranji. I’m not. I document what he did, but I’m not judgmental about him. Following Satadru Sen, I think one needs to understand Ranji as a complex figure, shaped by his circumstances and his time.

He lived until 1933. After his playing career was over and he was a Maharaja, did he become a patron of cricket in India, or did he leave the game behind, once he became a prince?

Ranji became the ruler of Nawanagar in 1907. He travelled to Britain the following year and played for Sussex. Thereafter, he returned to England from time to time. His cricket career was largely finished by 1910. He took no part in the 1911 cricket tour at all, but by that time he was well past his best.

After he became the ruler of Nawanagar, Ranji left the game behind as far as India was concerned. He played cricket matches on his private estate, but he was not formally associated with any initiatives to do with Indian cricket. For instance, he had little to do with the Board of Control for Cricket in India, which was formed in 1927.

After Ranji’s death in 1933, the Maharaja of Patiala donated a gold cup that was named after the great cricketer. Thus, the premier national Indian cricket tournament, which is played on zonal lines, is known as the Ranji Trophy.

You mentioned that there was this big shift in national sentiment in India in the 1920s in the wake of the Amritsar massacre. Did Ranji remain loyal to the empire or did he get involved in nationalist movements? 

Satadru Sen brilliantly shows how Ranji was no longer an ardent empire loyalist by the end of the 1920s. His relationship with the British Raj grew increasingly strained over time, because of the way the local British authorities in India dealt with him. There were tensions over finances and other matters to do with princely politics. He became disillusioned with the British imperial establishment. Interestingly, he began to harbour sympathies for what the nationalists were doing, even though he was never an overt nationalist. He never came out on the side of Gandhi, but it was equally clear that he was not the unquestioning empire loyalist of the past.

One final question. Cricket has been immensely popular in India now for well over a century. Do you think those Parsis who started playing the game in India 150 years ago and saw certain values in it would recognize T20 cricket, played in brightly coloured pyjamas? And would they have approved of it or do you think they’d have seen it as a completely different game?

Funnily enough, I think the Parsis of late nineteenth century Bombay would have understood it! To begin with, the Parsis played in their traditional dress, which in the illustrations of the time look rather like pyjamas. Also, the early cricket matches on the Bombay maidan were probably limited overs matches. I reckon they would have been comfortable with T20 cricket.

So, those early matches would have always had a result.

I suspect so. The aim would have been to a secure a result.

Interview by Benedict King

September 10, 2020

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Prashant Kidambi

Prashant Kidambi

Prashant Kidambi is Associate Professor in Colonial Urban History at the University of Leicester. After completing postgraduate degrees in history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford. Kidambi’s research explores the interface between British imperialism and the history of modern South Asia.

Prashant Kidambi

Prashant Kidambi

Prashant Kidambi is Associate Professor in Colonial Urban History at the University of Leicester. After completing postgraduate degrees in history at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, he was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford. Kidambi’s research explores the interface between British imperialism and the history of modern South Asia.