While it will not be everyone's cup of chai I did enjoy reading Ramachandra Guha's A Corner of a Foreign Field (Picador, 2002) on a recent return flight to the UK. As seems always to be the case, the sub-title says it all: "The Indian History of a British Sport".
The book tells the story of cricket in India as it relates to four issues: race, caste, religion, nation.
With Race, Guha traces how the sport of the coloniser became domesticated in the sub-continent in the nineteenth century. I was fascinated by the intriguing battle between polo and cricket for physical space in Bombay. And how "the Asian game (polo) played by Europeans became the emblem of patrician power and the English sport (cricket) indulged in by natives the mark of plebeian resistance." (28)
And then I come home to this photo of my son Joseph with Mahendra Singh Dhoni, captain of India.
With Caste, Guha tells the story of how both 'untouchables' and princes played the game and ended up on the same field together. The outstanding cricketer of the early years was Palwankar Baloo. As an 'untouchable' he used to sweep the cricket ground for his English master - until he started bowling to him in the nets for hour after hour. He and his three brothers dominated the early years of Indian cricket, although denied the captaincy for years because of their caste. On the field they were more than equal to team mates and opponents, while off the field they were less than equal as they ate and sat at a separate table. Gradually their achievements subverted "the divinely sanctioned hierarchy of caste" (147) as Guha puts their story alongside Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens. Then there were the princes like Ranjitsinhji (after whom India's provincial tournament is named, the Ranji Trophy) and his nephew Duleepsinhji who strutted their way onto the cricket stage.
And then I come home to this photo of Joseph with Sachin Tendulkar, arguably the second greatest player of all time.
With Religion, Guha reveals how for the first hundred years of cricket in India the dominant tournament was known as the Quadrangular and played annually by teams divided according to religion: the Parsis, the Hindus, the Muslims, and the Europeans. In 1937 there was an agreement reached to include a fifth team comprising Christians, Buddhists, and Jews to create a Pentangular! As the years went by the debate intensified about whether this "communal" approach to cricket helped or hindered the relationship between the religions. When it reached fever pitch the opinion of Mahatma Gandhi was requested. His advice? "I would like the public of Bombay to revise their sporting code and erase from it communal matches." (271) But still this annual tournament persisted.
And then I come home to this photo of Joseph having his Indian cricket shirt signed by the talented young bowler "Ishu" Sharma.
With Nation, Guha reaches the difficult days leading into what is known as 'partition' with the formation of two nations, Pakistan (East & West, primarily Muslim) and India (primarily Hindu). Now "communal cricket" becomes too difficult to sustain, "moulded as much by Hindu class prejudice as by Parsi social snobbery, by Muslim cultural insularity and by British racial superiority." (307) Cricket proceeded to capture the hearts of millions upon millions of people in both nations as a "sibling rivalry" emerges which is severed from time to time by war between the two countries (and now by acts of terrorism) and intensified when the two teams meet on the cricket pitch.
And then I come home to this photo of Joseph and a friend with that other great batsmen Rahul Dravid
Yes, so while I am absorbed in mastering the finer details of Indian social history as told through the story of the indigenisation of cricket my son is living a life with the contemporary celebrities of that same story. Some guys get all the breaks.