It was in, of all places, the New York Public Library that I came across a connection between the greatest of modern Indians and the greatest of modern Indian sports. This was in the papers of Louis Fischer, who wrote what, in the West, remains the best-known biography of Gandhi. Through an Indian friend Fischer had sent a list of questions for the Mahatma's only surviving sister. In answer to "What does she remember about her brother Mohandas as a child and as a boy? Did he play games?" she replied: "When Mahatmaji was young he used to play with rubber balloons, tennis, cricket and such other games. He used to have such great interest for those games that he would not remember even his meals… He would not stay at home in the evenings as he would get engrossed in playing."
The interview was conducted in December 1948. Ten years later, an Indian journalist met an old classmate of Gandhi's, who remembered a "dashing cricketer" who "evinced a keen interest in the game as a school student". If these oral testimonies are reliable, Gandhi spun a cricket ball long before he spun khadi, the hand-woven cloth he argued should be worn by all Indians in preference to machine-made textiles.
The thought is appealing, even if the evidence of the printed record runs in the other direction. In his autobiography, which deals extensively with his childhood and schooldays, Gandhi does not mention cricket. In his 90-volume Collected Works there is only one reference, in the context of Hindu-Muslim relations. While other Indian nationalists such as Jawaharlal Nehru and C. Rajagopalachari keenly followed cricket, there is no record of Gandhi, in adult life, ever having attended a match. (Nor did he favour India's other great popular passion: he saw only one Hindi film, and that not in full.)
There is, however, an example of the famed Gandhian humour being applied to cricket. When Laxmi Merchant, the sister of the legendary Indian opening batsman Vijay Merchant, went to get the Mahatma's autograph, he scanned through her book for a suitable page, eventually settling upon one containing the names of the 1933-34 MCC touring party. Captained by Douglas Jardine, the team included the Yorkshire slow left-armer Hedley Verity and the Essex all-rounder Stan Nichols. The party had 16 members. To their list of numbered signatures was now appended: "17. M. K. Gandhi".
Cricket barely touched Gandhi, yet, by virtue of who he was and what he did, he had a substantial impact on cricket in India. As I argued in A Corner of a Foreign Field, the Mahatma's teachings profoundly influenced the way the game was played and perceived. The first great Indian slow bowler, Palwankar Baloo, was an untouchable by caste, and so never became captain of the Hindus in the annual Quadrangular tournament. His younger brother Vithal was luckier. His rise to cricketing prominence coincided with Gandhi's assumption of the leadership of the national movement. The Mahatma insisted that swaraj (freedom) would come only when Indians rid themselves of the pernicious practice of untouchability. Quoting this injunction, Vithal's supporters finally succeeded in having him chosen captain of the Hindu team.
In the finals of the 1923 Quadrangular, the Hindus defeated the Europeans, with Vithal making a century. A patriot who watched the match later wrote: "the happiest event, the most agreeable upshot of the set of matches was the carrying of Captain Vithal on the shoulders of Hindus belonging to the socalled upper castes. Hurrah! Captain Vithal! Hurrah! Hindus who forget caste prejudice. Mahatma Gandhi Maharaj ki jai! (Glory to Mahatma Gandhi!)" Vithal retired from first-class cricket in 1929. The next year Gandhi launched his famous Salt Satyagraha, and in May 1930 was thrown into jail, along with some 60,000 other nationalists. (Gandhi, who spent more than six years in British jails, fondly referred to prison as "His Majesty's Hotel".) Later that year a young Australian named Donald Bradman scored 974 runs in five Tests in England. He became a hero, and not just in his homeland. That fine writer K. N. Prabhu, the long-time chief cricket correspondent of the Times of India, dated his admiration for the Don to that summer. As a boy growing up in Madras, venerating Gandhi, Nehru and their ilk, Prabhu saw Bradman as an avenging angel, punishing the English for putting Indians in jail.
These feelings were apparently widely shared. In later years Bradman got more fan mail from India than all other countries put together. One who expressed his admiration, though not in writing, was a certain Devadas Gandhi, youngest of the Mahatma's four sons. Devadas had also been jailed after the Salt March. A committed patriot, he departed from his father in some significant ways. For one thing, he was a cricket nut. After leaving jail he became managing editor of the nationalist newspaper the Hindustan Times. He gave abundant coverage to sport, especially cricket, getting his paper to sponsor the scoreboard at Delhi's Feroz Shah Kotla stadium.
In 1948, with India newly independent, Devadas visited London to attend a meeting of Reuters, on whose board he served. But there was another purpose: to watch Bradman bat. Tickets for the Trent Bridge Test were sold out, but with the help of the grey eminences of Fleet Street a complimentary pass was procured. But all hotel rooms in Nottingham were sold out, too, and journalistic influence carried little weight there. Finally, the younger Gandhi found accommodation in the house of the warden of the Nottingham county jail.
This story was told by Devadas's eldest son, Rajmohan, a historian and biographer of repute. It is thus more plausible than the pieces of oral evidence with which I began. It provides the perfect coda to the story of Gandhi's relations with cricket: that his son, like the father a frequent visitor to Indian branches of His Majesty's Hotel, spent a night in the home of a British prison warden. To watch Bradman bat.