PRASHANT KIDAMBI examines the Indian cricket tour of the British Isles in 1911 not just as a sporting contest, but as a context in which to view incipient Indian nationalism as the Raj approached its final decades.
The squad was a mix of Parsees, Muslims, and Hindus, and their best player, the stoic bowler Palwankar Baloo, was from the caste of leather workers, regarded as untouchable; their captain was a youthful maharaja, and there was great excitement in England at the arrival of this diverse group.
The British had actively encouraged the team, hoping that a team drawn from all communities would be a sign of harmony, and that the healthy sporting contests would encourage moderate, “loyalist” Indians and stem the upsurge in violent Swadeshi factions. Its sponsors were mainly Indian aristocrats, who had similar desires, and there was also genuine sporting interest in about how the best Indian cricketers would compare with those from England.
Prashant Kidambi’s book starts with the origins of this tour, including the early, Parsi-only tour to England of 1886, and the first half covers the growth of cricket, initially in Bombay, and then around different centres of India at this time. His focus then switches to Britain and the Coronation summer of 1911 and the British attitudes to the tourists.
The book carries serious scholarship, with 90 pages of footnotes for a book that is only 400 pages long, but, given that the book is entitled Cricket Country, Kidambi is curiously uninterested in the actual matches: the cricket-loving reader looks in vain for anything as basic as the tourists’ batting and bowling averages, and the tour itself is covered during just one chapter. For those who are interested, the Indians of 1911 had a mixed time of it: they won some victories over lesser counties, but were smashed by the major counties that they played, unable to cope with the recent innovation of “swerve” bowling.
Where the book is stronger is on the diverse social contexts in which cricket came to thrive: elite Muslim boarding schools in the north of the country; the Parsee community playing cricket on the maidans of Bombay; the middle classes taking up cricket in Calcutta, and so on. This serves to highlight his overall thesis, which is that, while cricket may once have been seen as fundamentally English, time has shown it to be much more core to Indian identity than to England’s, and the roots of this change can be traced back further than is usually thought.
The Revd Robert Stanier is Vicar of St Andrew and St Mark, Surbiton, and is captain of the the Southwark clergy cricket team.
Cricket Country: An Indian odyssey in the age of empire
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