Every six a nail in the coffin of the Empire
A Corner of a Foreign Field: the Indian history of a British sport - by Ramachandra
Review by Salil Tripathi
25 July 2002
In 1984, riots spread across India after Indira Gandhi's assassination. Thousands
of Sikhs were killed, and troops patrolled the streets to keep warring communities
apart. Then the government remembered that India had won the World Cup, and
sought the soothing power of cricket. Posters appeared with photographs of
Kapil Dev, Mohammed Azharuddin, Roger Binny and Maninder Singh, captioned
"Khelenge saath, jiyenge saath" (We'll play together, live together). Such
faith in the ability of a multi-religious group of cricketers may seem naive,
but within weeks, India returned to normality.
Ramachandra Guha's exceptional new book analyses cricket's central role in
the Indian psyche. It is neither the history of the game, nor of the country.
Rather, Guha intelligently juxtaposes the two, showing how they are interwoven
like the finest Benares silk. It needed someone of Guha's eclectic personality
– historian, scholar, cricket fan and iconoclast – to see the inextricable
bond between cricket and India.
Cricket was introduced as an imperial project, to unite the ruler and the
ruled temporarily. The native wasn't invited initially; he asked to play
with his rulers. "This eagerness revealed a desire to learn and improve one's
self," Guha says, the impulse confirming the imperial mission.
But unintended consequences took over. Just as the railways didn't only speed
up communication but also united India and Lord Macaulay's Minute on Education
not only taught clerical English to the "baboos" (Indian bureaucrats), but
democracy to other Indians, so cricket (with its mythology of fair play)
gave Indians ideas about justice. By 1933, Gandhi had launched his independence
campaign, and CK Nayudu hit many sixes against the MCC. One witness wrote:
"Every six was as good as a nail in the coffin of the British empire."
It was time for India to confront its own demon, caste, on the field. Guha
retells the story of the four low-caste Palwankar brothers. One had his tea
served in a clay cup that could be destroyed, and had to eat separately from
his team. Yet Baloo Palwankar visited England with an all-India team in 1911,
taking more than 100 wickets and presaging other sporting revolutionaries
such as Jesse Owens, Jackie Robinson and Frank Worrell.
The Palwankars played brilliantly in that curious tournament the Quadrangular
(later Pentangular), moulded by Hindu caste prejudice, Parsi snobbery, Muslim
insularity and British racial superiority. Gandhi opposed the tournament
in 1940, but nationalist Indians had long campaigned against it. As The Bombay
Chronicle asked: "If spectators supported the divided tournament, how could
they oppose separate electorates, or even Pakistan?"
Cricket suits the rhythms of what Guha still sees as an agrarian culture,
accustomed to cosmic rather than clock time. At the end of five days there
may not be a conclusion, an outcome with curious appeal to Hindus, whose
myths stress negotiation and compromise.
In cricket alone, India competes as an equal. "India ranks 150th in the World
Development Report, below Namibia and above Haiti. It is cricketers alone
who are asked to redeem these failures," Guha observes, indicating the pressure
11 Indians will face today as they take on England at Lord's. Even in a corner
of a foreign field, millions of eyes will watch every move.