The circumstances and forces that shaped the diverse first Indian cricket team...
Watching India's highly-anticipated World Cup fixture against England, it was impossible to tell which of the two really was the home team. An ocean of Indian support engulfed Edgbaston, the atmosphere more redolent of Bengaluru than Birmingham. But this came as no surprise; in the Indian sub-continent, and among the South Asian diaspora, cricket enjoys a status it does nowhere else. England's summer game is now a colossal Indian passion.
Prashant Kidambi's Cricket Country(deliberately) borrows its title from English poet Edmund Blunden's 1944 book, a wistful look back - during World War II - at a childhood devoted to cricket. To Blunden, cricket was inseparable from its idyllic, rural English setting; his Cricket Country was really an ode to England and Englishness. Kidambi's work tells a story from a land that, today, may lay claim to being the actual home of cricket.
Cricket Country: The Untold History of the First All-India Team is an assiduously researched account of the formation of the first representative Indian team and its tour of England in 1911. The idea of India on the cricket field, thus, pre-dated the birth of India as a nation by over three decades. But that Indian team was not meant to be a nationalistic symbol; on the contrary, it was, the author argues, "constituted by, and not against, the forces of empire."
The story begins in Bombay in the late 1800s, when members of the Parsi community, Indian cricket's true pioneers, are drawn to what they see as an elite, English sport. Their attempts to compete with Bombay's European sides are initially stonewalled, but the Parsis eventually have their way, and soon prove that on the cricket ground at least, they are more than equal to their colonial masters.
The Parsis undertake two tours of England, in 1886 and 1888, and although neither is a success, the seeds are sown for what is to follow.
The first all-India team is assembled by "a diverse coalition comprising Indian businessmen, princes and publicists, working in tandem with British governors, officials, journalists, soldiers and professional coaches." There are a couple of failed attempts, due in no small part to disagreements between communities over representation. It is not unexpected, for Bombay's cricket clubs are organised along communal lines.
The book captures, in great detail, the struggle to put this team together and the various machinations at play. The great K.S. Ranjitsinhji emerges as a complicated figure. Ranji, one of the most celebrated cricketers in the British empire, repeatedly rejects pleas to lead this Indian side. He sees himself primarily as an English cricketer, a status he is keen to guard, embroiled as the prince is in a quest for the Nawanagar throne.
'An improbable cast'
The Indian side that eventually departs is, as the author puts it, "an improbable cast of characters" drawn from the across the country and chosen on the basis of their religion: six Parsis, three Muslims and five Hindus, including two Dalits. The team is led by the 19-year-old Bhupinder Singh, the Maharaja of Patiala. The young royal's story makes for fascinating reading; amid his highly anxious dealings with the imperial establishment, and British concerns over his flamboyant lifestyle, there is somehow time for cricket.
Cricket Country, though, is not - in technical terms - a cricket book. It is a work of history, more concerned with documenting the circumstances, the climate and the forces that shaped that first Indian visit, and drawing portraits of the principal actors, than providing match reports.
The tour occurs against the political backdrop of the Swadeshi movement and revolutionary violence against colonial authority. "Its principal backers regarded the tour as a way of affirming the imperial bond at a time of intense mutual antipathy and antagonism between the rulers and the ruled," Kidambi writes. "Equally they sought to promote a reassuring image of India in Britain and thereby, counter the pervasive rhetoric of ineradicable colonial difference."
The author also paints a mesmerising picture of the London of 1911, a grand imperial capital in the middle of a glittering Coronation summer.
The book leaves us longing to dig deeper into the lives of some members of that Indian squad, the likes of B. Jayaram, K. Seshachari, and R.P. Meherhomji, about whom little is known. But that is no criticism - Kidambi tells an intriguing story exceptionally well.