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A work on the grand scale - ambitious, provocative, timely, and full of learning worn lightly
May 17, 2008
"I know a man who knows a man who knows a man who once batted for four hours in a Test match with Vijay Hazare," begins one of the essays in Ramachandra Guha's wide-ranging collection An Anthropologist Among the Marxists. A similar sense of connectedness is integral to the view of cricket of this fine historian: that in a country as populous, dispersed, stratified, religiously and culturally diverse as India, the attachment to the game is deep and personal.
Thus the range and richness of Guha's longest and most satisfying excursion into cricket, A Corner of a Foreign Field. It began as a biography of Palwankar Baloo, a Dalit who emancipated himself by his feats on India's inaugural tour of England, and who was later a pivotal figure in the Gandhian ascendancy. Contemplation of the way Baloo's cricket abetted his social mobility led Guha to interrogate cricket from the angles of race, religion and nation as well as caste, to see the cricket field as "both a theatre of imperial power and of Indian resistance". The result is not so much a history of Indian cricket as a cricket history of India. "To the dismay of some of my friends, this has become a book on cricket which does not focus exclusively on runs, wickets and catches, on epic innings and exciting matches," Guha admits. "The making of modern India is its theme, with cricket serving merely as a vehicle, as my chief source of illustrative example."
A Corner of Foreign Field never loses its spirit as a personal journey. It is animated by the same zest and zeal as Guha's earlier books Wickets In the East (1992) and Spin and Other Turns (1994). Guha's revisitation of the origins of the Bombay Quadrangular, for example, commences with him browsing in the shelves of the Marylebone Cricket Club Library at Lord's and being spellbound by an incomparably rare source: Shaporjee Sorabjee's A Chronicle of Cricket Among Parsees and The Struggle: European Polo versus Native Cricket (1897).
Remarkably the battle of European polo versus Indian cricket has escaped the notice of previous historians. It would have escaped me too, had I not chanced upon a contemporary account in the library of the Lord's Cricket Ground. The book lay in an unused corner of that great library - away from the glass cases containing works on cricket at Home and the favoured Dominions (Australia and South Africa), and in the bottom of an open shelf marked 'other countries', a dull green binding concealing its original cover.
Nonetheless, this is very obviously the work of a cool and cultivated mind. Guha wears his learning lightly, but he does wear it, and he pursues his subject untiringly and unsentimentally. The folksy image of Lord Harris as Indian cricket's indulgent uncle is utterly dispelled; Bal Thackeray's past as a cricket cartoonist is wryly revisited; CK Nayudu is so powerfully reimagined that he almost walks out of the text and shakes you by the hand.
For myth, there is patience, but no tolerance. At one point, for instance, Guha quotes Vijay Merchant attesting the fellow feeling that characterised the 1936 Quadrangular, played in spite of unrest between Hindus and Muslims in Bombay thanks to the majestic figure of PJ Hindu Gymkhana president LR Tairsee. Too scrupulous a historian not to, Guha checks, finds otherwise, and is honest enough to express a tinge of disappointment.
This is a compelling story, and it is embarrassing to have to dispute it. However, the riots of 1936 actually took place in the month of October; a calm, albeit an uneasy calm, had returned to the city well before the cricket began ... Perhaps the Hindus, drawn to play the Muslims in the first match, were nervous that violence might recur, and perhaps Tairsee assured them them that it would not. But the cricket did not stop the riots. The old cricketer's recollections were flawed by the romance with which he remembered the now long-dead tournament.
This is cricket history on the grand scale - ambitious, provocative and also timely, for it hove into view six years ago as international cricket's Indian hegemony was embedding itself, and became a key text in its interpretation, complemented more recently by Boria Majumdar's splendid Twenty-Two Yards to Freedom (2004). A few of Guha's judgements might be ripe for revisitation, such as his reflections on how cricketers from the subcontinent have ennobled the game: "One must not forget, either, the essential decency and civility of these cricketers, their readiness to make friends with the opposition and the complete absence in their vocabulary of the words of abuse that come so easily to cricketers of other countries." Indian cricketers have learned a few tricks since then! The edge in India's fan base, however, is abiding and unassailable.
The case can be made that as a national sport Indian cricket has no parallel. There may be more money in American basketball and as much passion in Brazilian soccer. It is the weight of numbers that makes Indian cricket bigger still, with money and passion being multiplied by the 500 million who partake of it.
A Corner of a Foreign Field
by Ramachandra Guha
Picador India, 2002
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