The exclusivist origins of India’s “sport of the masses”. Anjali Doshi traces the history of cricket in the subcontinent
On India’s second Test tour, in 1936, the captain of the team arrived in England with 36 pieces of luggage and two servants. The Maharajkumar of Vizianagram—or “Vizzy”, as he was more commonly known—was the ruler of a small state in present-day Andhra Pradesh. A man of significant girth and even greater arrogance, Vizzy was a mediocre batsman and poor captain. What he lacked in fitness, modesty and talent, he made up for in wealth, ambition and Machiavellianism, sidelining more established names to realise his long-held desire to lead India.
The results were disastrous: India lost every county game and all three Tests, the tour marred further by a breakdown between the captain and his team. Vizzy’s 600 runs came at an average of 16; in the three Tests, he fared worse, scoring 33 runs at an average of eight. Despite bribing an opposition captain with a gold watch to bowl him long hops in a county game, Vizzy had limited success. The joke in England was that his fleet of Rolls-Royces outnumbered his runs.
A post-tour inquiry was not kind in its assessment, concluding that Vizzy was not only clueless when it came to field placings and the benefit of a stable batting order, but also felt threatened by more talented players, including CK Nayudu and Lala Amarnath. Hailing from a poor family in Lahore, then part of undivided India, Amarnath did not suffer fools gladly, and was openly critical of Vizzy’s manipulative tactics and poor leadership. More than that, he was fed up of the princely domination of Indian cricket, and the blatant cronyism between local rulers and their imperial sahibs. Amarnath was sent back to India on disciplinary grounds. It was 12 years before he played another Test.
Unlike England, where cricket began as a rural activity played by peasants as far back as the 16th century, cricket in India began at the top of the class ladder—a game patronised first by princes and affluent Parsis in the mid-19th century, long before it became a game of the masses in the early 20th century. While cricket is now often described as an “Indian game accidentally discovered by the English”, a reference to sociologist Ashis Nandy’s hypothesis in The Tao of Cricket, it did not quite begin that way.
By the 18th century, aristocrats and the landed gentry had begun to dominate cricket in English towns and cities. Unlike football, which has always been a working-class sport, cricket was played and watched by all, resulting in the classist distinction between the so-called gentleman on the one hand (aristocracy and upper-class Oxbridge graduates who did not play for money) and players on the other (working-class folk who played for the dosh). This distinction, made official by the first Gentlemen v Players match at Lord’s in 1806, was abolished only about 50 years ago, and explains why cricket began as an upper-class, urban—and upper-caste—sport in India.
The British never intended to bequeath cricket as part of their colonial legacy. For the imperial lords, it was the only escape from their punishment posting in the heat and dust of India. Once they had retreated behind the gymkhana gates—to plush lawns, wicker chairs and pale ale—they could forget about the savage natives. The Indian princes and Parsis took up the sport to ingratiate themselves with their colonial masters. The Hindus followed the Parsis, and it was only a matter of time before cricket became the “language of the Raj”, according to the Australian historian Richard Cashman. “Those who could master its subtle inflection and rhythms could expect to exert a great influence over colonial policy-makers.”
But neither did the Parsis, nor indeed the rest, have it easy. In A Corner of a Foreign Field, his seminal social history of Indian cricket, Ramachandra Guha describes the struggle endured by the Parsis, Hindus and Muslims to make cricket their own. When assessing the Parsis, Lord Harris, Governor of Bombay (1890–95), stated: “To wear down good bowling, and patiently wait for a run here and there, is easier for the phlegmatic Anglo-Saxon than the excitable Asiatic… The Indian will never be equal to the Englishman.”
And inequality reigned in the development of cricket. The British insisted that the Parsis share Bombay’s first cricket ground, the Esplanade (better known to us as the present-day Azad, Oval and Cross maidans), with a handful of European polo players. They protected their own cricket turf at the Bombay Gymkhana—open only to European members—and encouraged the polo players to scuff up the green and park their ponies at the Esplanade. While the Parsis wrote many letters to protest this shoddy treatment, saying it was a “little unfair that the comforts and conveniences of half a dozen wealthy polo players should be preferred to the healthful recreation of over 500 native youths”, they had to wait several years before they were granted land for the Parsi Gymkhana on Bombay’s Marine Drive in 1887. It was only a matter of time—and political foresight on the part of the establishment—before the Hindus, Muslim and Catholics were each allotted plots.
Racial, religious, communal and caste distinctions were thus enshrined in Indian cricket from the outset. The Bombay Quadrangular and Pentangular tournaments, featuring teams of Europeans, Parsis, Hindus, Muslims and The Rest (Catholics and Anglo-Indians), are perfect examples of the communal and religious organisation of sport in India. But the tournament came in for serious criticism from Gandhi. “I can understand matches between Colleges and Institutions,” he said, “but I have never understood the reason for having Hindu, Parsi, Muslim and other communal Elevens. I should have thought that such unsportsmanlike divisions would be considered taboo in sporting language and sporting manners.” The Pentangular was eventually scrapped in 1946 as independent India aspired to secularism, and the Ranji Trophy—where teams were regionally divided—became the country’s preeminent domestic tournament.
While the princely domination of Indian cricket ended in the 1940s, and the last of 12 Parsi men to represent India in Tests was Farokh Engineer (1961–75), cricket continued to be dominated by the metropolitan, uppercaste elite until the 1990s. In fact, a couple of years after Independence, RSS leader MS Golwalkar criticised Nehru and other Congress ministers for promoting an imperial sport: “The costly game of cricket, which has not only become a fashion in our country, but something over which we are spending crores of rupees, only proves that the English are still dominating our mind and intellect.”
Needless to say, no canny politician would hold this view now. Of all sport in India, none captures the socio-cultural history and contradictions of Indian society better than cricket. While hockey—also introduced during the Raj—does this to some extent, its fading in popularity after the 1960s and only recent return to mass consciousness in the form of the Hockey India League means it never evolved as a mirror of pre- and post-Independence society in quite the same way as cricket. Meanwhile, athletics was dominated by army athletes for several decades, and has more recently attracted lowerand lower-middle-class and rural athletes, including PT Usha, Santhi Soundarajan, Tintu Luka and Dutee Chand. Tennis and golf continue to remain elite, urban and upper-class pursuits, while the Indian Super League has ensured that top-level club football witnesses a revival for both home-grown players and fans. But cultural historians have struggled to find a comparison for a sport that has embodied a nation’s aspirations as much as cricket in India. Athletics in Jamaica, rugby in New Zealand, and football in Brazil come close, but none offer both a common obsession and a billion-plus population.
Most accounts of Indian cricket have focused on race and caste rather than class. While Guha views the sport through the thematic lenses of race, caste, religion and nation, he does allude to class throughout his work. There was “no golden age or uncontaminated past in which the playground was free of social pressure and social influence,” he writes. “Cricket has always been a microcosm of the fissures and tensions within Indian society: fissures that it has both reflected and played upon, mitigated as well as intensified.”
Until 1990, a third of India’s Test players came from Mumbai. In The Great Tamasha, James Astill reports that of 143 Indians who played Test cricket up to 1979, half had a college degree, compared to one to two per cent of Indians as a whole. Between 1932 and 1979, there were only 10 village-born players, but all without exception learned the sport after migrating to the city. This began to change significantly after the 1990s, as players such as Yuvraj Singh (Chandigarh), Harbhajan Singh (Jalandhar) and MS Dhoni (Ranchi) shattered the big-city monopoly.
Another study that examines cricket’s upper-caste domination estimates that Brahmins—constituting six per cent of the country’s population—have on average more than 70 per cent representation in the Indian team. And since 1970, according to an estimate by the website ESPNcricinfo, more than a third of Indian Test players have been Brahmin, including its most celebrated heroes—Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly and Anil Kumble; non-Brahmin stars like Yuvraj, Dhoni and Virat Kohli belong to the warrior castes of Jats, Rajputs and Khatris. Since the 1920s, only two Dalit cricketers have represented India: Palwankar Baloo from the community of chamars (leather workers) and Tendulkar’s schoolmate Vinod Kambli.
There is a perfectly valid explanation for why Indian cricket has been dominated by the upper castes and classes. For most Indians, until the economy opened up in 1991, and millions of dollars flowed into cricket from telecast rights—which eventually trickled down to players in the form of lucrative contracts and pension schemes—cricket was not a viable career option. Until then, most cricketers had to depend on public-sector companies for employment. Even with the influx of capital, it was only international cricketers, in the 1990s and early 2000s, who could bank on their earnings from commercial endorsements and match fees. It wasn’t until the Indian Premier League came about in 2008 that cricketers did not have to rely on making the Indian team. The commercial evolution of the game in India, then, went hand-in-hand with economic development in the country.
Following Independence, cricket in India—like in England—was dominated by upperclass elites who pursued the sport not for money but for the love of the game. This was a Nehruvian India where socialism and intellectualism were valued over commercialism. Where Marxism was yet to become a dirty word, and political liberty, equality and tolerance—rather than economic development, unquestioning patriotism and religious nationalism—were ideals to strive for. A passage from Sujit Mukherjee’s Playing for India provides much insight into how cricket operated in this India: “Wicket-keeping is a slow and patient business, a waiting and watching game, which stretches time out of shape and demands attention to the trivial and respect for the ordinary,” he writes. “A nation bred on ten thousand verses of the Mahabharata, one lakh reiterations of the Gayatri Mantra, and countless commentaries of the Bhagvad Gita should take to wicket-keeping as easily as birds to air.”
In contrast, recent cricket fiction and non-fiction, including Aravind Adiga’s Selection Day and Astill’s The Great Tamasha, capture the opening up of the sport to all classes, but equally the dangers of cricket’s blatant embrace of commercialism: players pursue financial success at the cost of all else, while the board that governs cricket shows little consideration for lower- and lower-middle-class spectators. There is an inherent class bias in the geography of new stadiums cropping up across India—many of which are not accessible by public transport in cities like Nagpur and Vishakhapatnam—as well as the heavy price one has to pay to watch a game live. IPL tickets this season in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore range from Rs 500 to Rs 16,000: even at its lowest, it would be an expensive, if not unaffordable, outing for a lower-class family of four.
Indian cricket is now an embodiment of all the contradictions that afflict Indian society, particularly geographical and economic inequality. Even as IPL riches have meant more opportunities for domestic cricketers, many who don’t have the knack or inclination for the hyper-commercial and breathlessly paced Twenty20 version of the game have been sidelined. Domestic cricketers without an IPL contract make an average of Rs 5-7 lakh a year; those with IPL contracts make a minimum of Rs 10 lakh and a maximum of multiple crores in six weeks. This imbalance has created an altogether new kind of class divide. As Anand Vasu notes in the 2017 Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, there is a darker side to the IPL. While offering great riches to players from poor backgrounds, the league is rife with corruption and controversy—there is no counsel for young cricketers from poorer and rural backgrounds who lose their way in the big-city circus. As Vasu puts it, the “seduction of dollars, the flirtation with the spotlight and embrace of fame” are often followed by the “kiss of death”.
What once seemed like an exciting prospect—the ultimate democratisation of cricket, in which geography, caste and class would cease to matter—now mirrors the rat race we see in Indian society. Rural and lower-class cricketers are only too happy to follow the urban elite in their sense of privilege and entitlement, as long as they find themselves on the right side of this divide. And a journey that often begins with a love of the sport is quickly appropriated by commercial considerations. The abandonment of Test cricket, which is more often than not played to empty stadiums, and the upper-class occupation of stands during the IPL, are both developments along very Indian lines.
When Nandy talked about cricket as an Indian game accidentally discovered by the English, he was referring to India as the spiritual home of the sport, because cricket arouses “more passions in India than in England”. He believed the sport had a deep cultural connection with India—in the gentle rhythms, slow action and Mahabharata-like sub-plots of Test cricket—and argued it had little to do with an imperial legacy. But India has taken cricket and shaken it up. And, in the process, made it more Indian than even it realises
This article was first published in the July-September 2017 issue of the Indian Quarterly magazine.