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 Guha
Picador, £20

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.