In this political climate of jingoism and xenophobia, what can we speak of the underdog in Indian cricket that upholds two different sides of the curious spatio-cultural geopolitics that is India itself, asks Soumabrata Chatterjee.
Cricket has never been just a game in South Asia. Even in its country of origin, it mimicked certain Victorian values of masculinity, purity and pride, and that is the reason why cricket was brought to India as part of a civilising mission by the colonial authorities. In fact, it was an elaborate ploy to distract intersecting communities from an atmosphere of dissent and trouble. The relation between cricket and the formation of a national identity is not difficult to hypothesise about if we can take into account the madness and frenzy associated with this sport in modern India.
The postcolonial histories of the “tricontinental” nations follow different trajectories of modernity and colonial appropriation, but none deny the influence of the imperial past in the present of most of them. Maybe this is the reason why the Caribbean Marxist and cricket thinker CLR James observed, “The British tradition soaked deep into me was that when you entered the sporting arena you left behind the sordid compromises of everyday existence. Yet for us to do that we would have had to divest ourselves of our skins.”
Ramachandra Guha notes a “historical irony” in the struggle between polo played by Europeans and cricket played by the local lads for preferred access to the Bombay Gymkhana. Polo is an Indo-Iranian sport while cricket is an English sport. That cricket has somehow become synonymous with a resistant formation of national identity that consistently talks back to the imperial tradition is quite understandable when Rahul Dravid answers that he would have liked to be a freedom fighter when asked during the 2003 World Cup about his choice role in his past life. In recent years, this frenzy has taken up violent forms of “hypernationalism”, with media agencies coming up with names like “Badla” (revenge) or “Sarfarosh” (fervour). This has also been associated with burning effigies and attacks on the houses of cricketers. Even the changing nature of spectators has alarmed cricket scholars about the political import that this game has started to carry within itself. But then, it was never just another game.
The changing nature of spectators has alarmed cricket scholars about the political import that this game has started to carry within itself. But then, it was never just another game.
In this political climate of jingoism and xenophobia, what can we speak of the underdog in Indian cricket that upholds two different sides of the curious spatio-cultural geopolitics that is India itself? In order to do this, we might have to investigate two extremely polar opposite contexts that might rip apart the bhadralok culture and the manufactured fragrance of tradition that we cricket lovers imagine ourselves to be ensconced in comfortably. What it will bring out is a weird country of half-baked desires, of over-enthusiasm, of misreading, and of a system of ironies.
The year was 2002. In the month of February, the nation shook in communal violence in the aftermath of the Godhra train burning. Gujarat was the context of this “ethnic cleansing” directed against the Muslim minority population in the state. The mention of this incident brings horrific memories of the Kausar Banu case, the Naroda Patiya massacre and what not. The question seeping through such violence was a simple one: Do we regard Muslims as a part of our nation? Do we accept and respect them as our equal? Questions have been slashed across and put down in the last 10 to 14 years, but the gruesome fact of silencing the marginal, of murdering what might be termed as the subaltern, is still prevalent.
What is interesting is that in the same year, the Indian cricket team toured England in July. And on 13 July 2002 it won the Natwest series final, chasing a then-improbable target of 325. What is even more surreptitiously ironic is that the final runs were scored by Mohammed Kaif and Zaheer Khan. While the nation wept and laughed galore at Saurav Ganguly’s grand talking-back gesture in the form of the histrionics with his shirt, the nation looked at the Indian squad as representative of national pride and resistance to the once colonial regime. And the ground was none other than Lord’s, which is truly the Mecca of cricket. In such a sacred context, it was but sacrilegious to commit such an act of pedantic bravery.
What is interesting is that in the same year, the Indian cricket team toured England in July. And on 13 July 2002 it won the Natwest series final, chasing a then-improbable target of 325. What is even more surreptitiously ironic is that the final runs were scored by Mohammed Kaif and Zaheer Khan.
Who was the underdog then, in these two situations working together, almost concurrently, to disrupt the secular image of India? Was it Ganguly, whose team won a near-impossible match? Was it Kausar Banu? Was it Narendra Modi, who is described as the classic underdog in his tea-seller-to-prime-minister story?
In order to understand how cricket can be both a nationalist metaphor and reserve a strong Victorian identity, we need to trace its roots in its mother country.
The game of cricket, philosophically considered, is a standing panegyric on the English character: none but an orderly and sensible race of people would so amuse themselves. It calls into requisition all the cardinal virtues, some moralist would say. As with the Grecian games of old, the player must be sober and temperate. Patience, fortitude, and self-denial, the various bumps of order, obedience, and good humour, with an unruffled temper, are indispensable.
This is a quote from The Cricket Field, published in 1851 by the cricketer and clergyman Reverend James Pycroft. In portraying cricket as a representative form of long-lost Olympian ideals, he not only bestows on the sport a certain sense of history and prestige but also underlines his ideal of “Muscular Christianity” which stood against physical weakness, lack of faith and decorum. The Victorian bourgeois ideals of temperance, self-denial and patience came to be articulatory emotions in the embodied practice of the game itself.
As a form, cricket represents values that are primarily “puritan” ones, where the strict adherence to an external code imbibes a gratifying moral progress. The sport involves a proliferation of Victorian-elite values such as sportsmanship, fair play, control over personal sentiments, a steadfast loyalty to the group and the predominance of the group over the individual. Keith Sandiford notes that the game of cricket emerged into a symbol of cultural superiority in Victorian England. The age of the industrial revolution not only had the positive effect of strengthening the nation’s pride, but it also brought about a latent insecurity about its cultural conservatism. Cricket and devotion to the crown were the vestiges of the irredeemable glorious past.
The Georgians looked upon cricket as a form of vibrant recreation, but the Victorians removed these impurities to foster it as a mode of spiritual and moral regeneration. The phrase “not cricket” came to be a popular one to mark this distinct change over time. Sandiford notes the link between the advent of muscular Christianity as a philosophy and figure of the “Chivalrous Christian” playing cricket. In this strain of philosophy, the construction of masculinity proved to be the antecedent of a disciplined adherence to godliness. The reason of stating the growth and evolution of the sport in its mother country is because these values of sportsmanship and masculinity, which were a part of the “civilising mission” also became the catchwords of the rise of nationalism in India. Arthur Gimble introduced it to the Pacific islands as a civilising agent. Lord Harris, as Governor of Bombay in the 1890s, thought the sport could efface communal tensions.
The Georgians looked upon cricket as a form of vibrant recreation, but the Victorians removed these impurities to foster it as a mode of spiritual and moral regeneration.
The Victorian elites who were part of the administration in India created a desire for this sporting practice to inculcate these same Victorian values in the stereotyped figure of the effeminate and lazy Indian. It was also used as a secular instrument to promote a shared space of healthy competition between variant communities.
It is in this context that we come to our next case in point, Babaji Palwankar Baloo. He was the first cricketer from the Dalit community to disrupt the prejudiced system of our cultural hegemony. He climbed through the ranks in the early years of the 20th century by way of his left-arm orthodox spin (a facet of spin bowling that is slowly dying right now), but he was never made the captain of his side since he played in a Hindu-majority team. In fact, his brother Vithal Palwankar was made the captain of the Hindus team in the Bombay Quadrangular cricket competition.
Cricket was brought to India in the middle of the 18th century by British soldiers and sailors, who played among themselves in their backyards or cantonments. The first Indians to play the sport were the Parsis of Bombay, who saw in it an opportunity for social mobility. The Hindus started cricket to oppose the Parsis and the first Hindu club, Bombay Union, was formed in 1866 by youths of the Prabhu caste. It is interesting to note that the advent of the sport did not abolish the pre-existing class distinctions either in its mother country or in the colonial states. That the Hindu community was divided on the basis of caste and religion can be gauged from the names of the established clubs, some of which were Gujarati Union Cricket Club, Kshatriya Cricket Club and Gowd Saraswat Cricket Club.
That the Hindu community was divided on the basis of caste and religion can be gauged from the names of the established clubs, some of which were Gujarati Union Cricket Club, Kshatriya Cricket Club and Gowd Saraswat Cricket Club.
Muslim cricket in Bombay was pioneered by the Luxmani and Tyebjee families. The slow evolution of the contests between the European teams and the natives ultimately resulted in the Bombay Quadrangular in 1912, which consisted of the Parsi, Hindu and Muslim communities along with the Bombay Gymkhana, which was the club representing the Europeans. The exclusivity of this contest arising from the desire to preserve caste and racial purity prompted the fifth category of the “Rest” to be inserted to make it a Pentangular tournament in 1937. In the history of the sport in Bombay, the sentiment of nationalism never overthrew the strict communal partition in the players. Guha notes that the rise of the sport in Bombay was not due to an urge for a national identity but it was rather fuelled by the Hindu caste bias, by Parsi social elitism, by Muslim “cultural insularity”, and by British racial prejudice.
Baloo was born into the chamar caste, which is derided for its occupation of working with leather, as tanners or dyers. As incomprehensibly stupid as that sounds, it is also true that he used to sweep and clean up at the Parsee cricket club before he joined Poona Cricket club and got a chance to brush up his bowling skills by practicing with a certain JG Grieg, one of the best European-Indian cricketers at that time. His inclusion into the Hindu team was met with severe criticism because the players had to play with the same ball that he has touched. However, it was due to his talents and exploits that the Poona Hindus beat the Poona Europeans. He was, of course, made to eat and drink in separate plates.
His brother Shivram was also touted as the next big thing around the corner. Both of them played superbly to register a memorable win against the Europeans in 1906 at the Bombay Gymkhana. It was after the English tour, where he took 114 wickets, and the Bombay triangular (between Hindus, Parsis and Europeans) becoming a quadrangular tournament with the inclusion of the Muslims, that Baloo’s name was rejected for captaincy in favor of a Brahmin cricketer.
His inclusion into the Hindu team was met with severe criticism because the players had to play with the same ball that he has touched. However, it was due to his talents and exploits that the Poona Hindus beat the Poona Europeans.
In fact, it is heartening to note that Baloo was one of the inspirers of Babasaheb Ambedkar while he was growing up. Babasaheb used to organise felicitation ceremonies for Baloo and his tremendous achievements.
Who, then, is a underdog here? Definitely Palwankar and his brothers? But then, how do we locate Sourav and his underdog team beside Palwankar and his brothers? Their social contexts are different; their experiences, no doubt, are differentially placed. Yet something connects them and disconnects them at the same time. It is the coupling of two disparate memories that come from two different eras. Both underplay the other, both highlight the other.