Gideon Haigh in Weekend Australian, 24 January 2020, where the title runs
In December 2011, Rahul Dravid delivered a justly celebrated speech at the Australian War Memorial, the Bradman Oration, lyrically evoking the plurality and diversity of cricket in the subcontinent. “The Indian cricket team is in fact, India itself, in microcosm,” he said, describing a dressing room drawn from every corner of the country that spoke 15 different languages and stood “not just for sport, but possibility, hope, opportunities”.
The audience marvelled, both at Dravid’s vision and erudition; the speech has since enjoyed a YouTube afterlife of half a million views. But a question remained unasked: how? Diversity leads just as readily to fragmentation as combination. That the world’s most popular cricket team is drawn from a population so culturally, ethnically, religiously and linguistically varied is a daily miracle we’re apt to take for granted. There should be a book about how it all began, yes? Well, now there is, and it’s excellent
Cricket Country by Prashant Kidambi of the University of Leicester rewinds a century from Dravid’s remarks to explore the genesis of the inaugural “Indian XI”, of 1911.
Like Australia’s first Test XI, it predates the country’s nationhood. Unlike Australia’s, which had only to blend representatives of the colonies of Victoria and NSW, it needed to combine cricketers of four religions and ethnicities: Parsi, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu, the last with what Kidambi calls its “finely graded hierarchy of degradation”.
The team’s greatest player, the left-arm spinner Palwankar Baloo, one of four brilliant sporting brothers, was its socially lowliest member, from the chamar community of dalits (untouchables).
Baloo’s father had served in the native infantry, which Baloo also joined; he discovered cricket watching soldiers play it. In Bombay he caught the eye of Major Jungly Greig, the city’s leading European cricketer, who employed him as a net bowler: Greig would pay Baloo a small gratuity every time he got out.
For the 1911 team, Greig was appointed chairman of selectors. It was a precaution against the exercise being captured by sectional interests, which had foiled an attempt to choose a team seven years earlier when the Parsis, India’s original cricket community, renownedly imitative of English ways, had been reluctant to relinquish control.
Kidambi has no illusions: it was “collective self-interest rather than change in social consciousness that prompted reluctant upper-caste Hindu cricketers to include a Dalit in their team”. All the same, perhaps sport was a forum where it was easier to make such accommodations, particularly if an Englishman had the sign off. Once included, Baloo became indispensable, taking more than 100 wickets on the tour, and bowling a third of the team’s overs.
It was not the first time cricketers from India had toured England. Bombay Parsis, who had started forming clubs in the 1840s, had been scheduled to visit England in the same northern summer as the first Australian XI, only to be deflected by war in the Ottoman Empire.
A team finally went in 1886, again simultaneously with an Australian XI, but weren’t terribly good.
“They cannot bat or bowl, neither can they field,” reported the Cheltenham Chronicle, anticipating by 100 years the same judgment of English cricket teams.
In December 1892, nonetheless, a Parsi team beat an XI of English amateurs in Bombay, and it was Parsi promoter, Framjee Patel, who first envisioned cricket as a field for reconciliation of Indian sectarianism.
“The social gulf in India is every day widening, owing to the many antipathetic influences at work,” Patel proposed in a 1905 history of the game in India. “In the end, cricket will heal racial antagonism.”
The game was even then spreading through India’s princely states, fostered by local potentates keen to cosy up to the Raj, and to Aligarh, where the famous MAO College taught an Islamic curriculum in an English public school setting.
The 1911 Indians ended up drawing on all these localities in composing a team of seven Hindus, four Muslims, four Parsis and a Sikh.
This last was its 19-year-old captain, the ruler of the Punjab’s premier princely state: to give him his full pomp, Farzand-i-Khas-i-Daulat-i-Inglishia, Mansur-i-Zaman, Amir-ul-Umara, Maharajadhiraja Rajeshwar, Sri Maharaja-i-Rajgan Bhupinder Singh, Maharajah Bahadur of Patiala.
The Maharajah was feted in England, being everyone’s idea of an eastern prince: he wore a turban, travelled with an obedient retinue of co-religionists who enrobed him for cricket, was reputed to use a diamond and ruby studded bat. Unfortunately, he failed to pull his considerable weight, disappearing from the tour after three matches in favour of social functions, polo games and enrolment in the Sandow Institute, a school of physical culture. Worse, he took with him the team’s best batsman, K. M. Mistry, who happened to be his guardian.
Under stand-in skipper Homi Kanga, the team rather struggled, winning only two first-class matches and encountering some novel problems: it turned out that their opening bowler, picked on reputation and a bit past it, had only one eye. But it had created a template. When India returned to England to play its first Tests in 1932, the squad featured the religious groups in basically the same ratio.
Much of the interest in Cricket Country derives from the team’s role in situating India in the wider world. Its visit coincided with an Imperial Conference, at which Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa were represented but India not, and a high-powered Universal Races Conference, at which they were represented by the Tata brothers, industrialists who had also helped fund the cricket tour.
Also in Britain around that time were the wrestler Gama Baksh (‘The Lion of the Punjab’) and the strong man Professor Ramamurti Naidu (‘the Indian Hercules’) — powerful, exotic, alluring, bringing the east nearer. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, later the founder of Pakistan, was at the team’s farewell; B. R. Ambedkar, later the father of India’s constitution, felicitated Palwankar Baloo on the team’s return, and later drew him into politics.
Kidambi’s detailed account also reveals further layers of diversity. The 1911 Indians were coached by an Australian, John Cuffe of Coonamble; their captain had also been coached by an Australian, Frank Tarrant of Fitzroy. Tarrant would in due course organise the first Australian team to tour India — a private venture in 1935-36, bankrolled by the Maharajah. My distinguished former colleague Mike Coward needs to hurry up with that Tarrant biography he’s writing.
The area left fuzziest is the day-to-day reality of running the team. Exactly what it was like to be in that dressing room belongs, perhaps, to what Kidambi calls “the hidden transcript that lies beyond the historian’s grasp”.
But the book is 10 years’ work and it shows, in its elegance and detail. By going somewhere so unexplored, and producing something so original, Kidambi lays claim to being a Rahul Dravid among cricket historians.