As England's cricketers are thrashed in Australia perhaps some reverse colonisation by Indian cricket is in order. The origins of cricket in the subcontinentby Edward Luce / January 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
Book: A corner of a foreign field Author: Ramachandra Guha Price: (Picador, ?20)
Ramachandra Guha, a widely respected Indian historian based in Bangalore, was in the midst of researching a magnum opus on the history of post-colonial India when the idea came to him of writing a history of modern India through the prism of cricket. Picador are still awaiting fulfilment of the original contract but, in the meantime, were happy to indulge Guha’s little detour.
Much of the book is devoted to the previously untold story of why Indians started taking to cricket in the mid-Victorian period. The Raj’s colonial masters were at best indifferent and at worst contemptuous of natives playing cricket. Indians, they believed, simply lacked the character to play the game.
“Cricket is essentially Anglo-Saxon,” wrote James Pycroft in 1851. “Foreigners have rarely imitated us. English settlers everywhere play at cricket; but of no single club have we heard that dieted either with frogs, saur-kraut or macaroni.” Pycroft would have been startled to learn that one day, benighted Hindustan would emerge as cricket’s undisputed powerhouse, supplying roughly two-thirds of its global revenues.
What was it about cricket that caught the imagination of Queen Victoria’s Indian subjects? The answer, suggests Guha, is that it gave Indians an opportunity to better their masters at an endeavour which apparently marked them out as superior-temperament, team spirit, fair play and courage. Cricket was a playing field on which might was not automatically right.
But as cricket started to develop in Bombay in the 1860s and 1870s, the Indian pioneers discovered that their colonisers did not always live up to the virtues which they preached. The first Indian club, set up by the Parsee Zoroastrian community in Bombay, probably the most pro-British section of Indians, met with repeated obstruction from their imperial role models.
The small strip of turf on which the Parsee club played in Bombay’s main park was repeatedly torn up by military polo players who refused to consider another venue. Parsee lawyers spent years trying to evict the polo club, deploying subtle arguments about the importance of consistent pitches and evenness of bounce. But fair play proved as elusive in the imperial law courts as it was in the officers’ mess. (Ironically, polo comes from Persia, the original home of the Parsees.)
The dispute eventually petered out, but at its height the controversy attracted attention from other…