Nepali Times
Wicked keepers


Few people know that after World War II, when the success of the Indian independence movement became evident, another freedom struggle manifested itself.

This sought to free newly-independent India from the polluting foreign game of cricket. Indians wanted to make sure that when the white man left, he took his pastimes back with him. It is a measure of how ambitious this movement was that it first announced itself in Mumbai, a city that was then, as it is now, the place in India most closely identified with cricket and cricketers.

The opening salvo of the second freedom movement was fired in the columns of the crusading weekly, Blitz. It took the form of an essay called "Will Cricket quit India with the British?" by the well-known Congressite, Dr Balkrishna Keskar. He had a PhD from the University of Heidelberg, where he learnt, with the Germans, to admire more manly sports such as football and wrestling. Cricket, he wrote, was a game "purely English in culture and spirit" which could "only thrive in the atmosphere of English culture, English language and English rule".

He dismissed cricket in India as a "game patronised mostly by the Maharaja, the rich and the snobs". Keskar was confident that the game would never be able to survive the shock of the disappearance of British rule and would rapidly yield in popularity to working class sports such as football and athletics.

In those days, Blitz was the vehicle of radical anti-establishmentarianism and the advanced guard of revolution. Keskar's challenge was picked up in the pages of the only other Bombay journals. "Nationalise India through sports!" was the title of a stirring polemic published by the Bombay Chronicle on 6 November, 1946. The writer, Janaki Das, had been the country's representative to the World Cycling Championships in Zurich. There he met sympathetic anti-colonialists who urged him to lead the campaign to cleanse India of cricket.

The Irish representative to the Zurich congress reminded Das that the game of bat and ball was "infested with all the elements of Imperialism". Reporting these conversations in the Bombay Chronicle, the Indian cyclist urged that this "black spot stamped by British imperialism on the face of India be wiped out", to be replaced by games "which build health and character and cost little", such as athletics, swimming, cycling and kabaddi.

Unlike the first freedom movement, however, the second one has been spectacularly unsuccessful. After 50 years of political independence, cricket is more popular than ever before, patronised as much by the maharaja as by the milkman, by the snob as well as by the socialist.

It certainly was no hindrance that Jawaharlal Nehru was a keen follower of the game. Indeed, it was Dr Balkrishna Keskar's melancholy duty, as Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Nehru's cabinet, to carry out his boss's command and have All India Radio broadcast live ball-by-ball commentaries of test matches.

Radio broadcasts helped expand the game's reach, in deepening its roots in a land to which it was imported. More recently, the process has been carried forward by the spread of satellite television which has effectively bridged the divide between city and country, between the sexes, with both peasant men and upper-class women numbered among the fanatical followers of India's Test side.

For all this, some Indians still remain resolute in their opposition to cricket. These moles under the wicket fall into two distinct categories:

1. Economists, who worry about the impact on productivity of wholesale absenteeism from the office (and the kitchen) whenever India plays a match. With Sachin Tendullkar on the box a hundred days in a year, cricket-watching is having an ever greater, and always negative, impact on our GNP. One pro-bomb analyst at the Delhi School of Economics has in fact computed that the impact of Western sanctions will be neutralised by the simple act of abolishing cricket.

2. Cultural Nationalists, the Anglophobe swadeshi-ist who will be forever suspicious of anything that was not invented in the Indo-Gangetic plain. Dhoti, yes, patloon no, says this fellow. Roti yes, dabal roti no. Sanskrit yes, English no, tandoori chicken yes, Kentucky Chicken no. And above all, kabaddi yes, cricket no.

I recall an angry letter written to the Indian Express at the time of the 1992 World Cup. "How long," demanded Sr M M Vyas of Jaisalmer, "how long shall we Indians go on spending money lavishly, wasting precious time for the maintenance of this monument of slavery called cricket?" The greatest of Indian anglophobes, the man whose dislike of Britain and all things British ran deeper and longer than anybody else's, was the late socialist leader Dr Ram Manohar Lohia.

Now, Lohia's pet hates were Jawaharlal Nehru, the English language, and the game of cricket, generally in that order. These aversions, possibly genetic in origin, were made more concrete while Dr Lohia studied at Berlin in the 1930s. Returning home with a PhD in political science, the young leftist became the leader of the Congress Socialist Party, and a key player in the Quit India movement of 1942. After Independence he sat in the Opposition, chasing Nehru, English, and cricket in and out of the Lok Sabha.

It was the last week of December, 1960, and India were playing Pakistan at the Brabourne Stadium. On the second morning of the match, while some forty thousand people crowded into Brabourne, a smaller but not less intense crowd gathered in an Irani restaurant outside. This eatery had been chosen by Dr Lohia for a press conference.

To a group of assembled journalists, the good doctor thundered on about how the game of cricket symbolised India's continuing colonisalism, and how the last Englishman to rule India was complicit in this. Throw out Nehru, he said, and we can all happily start playing kabaddi.

After the scribes departed to file their stories Dr Lohia walked across to the nearest paanwallah and asked: "Kya Hanif out ho gaya kya?" The answer came back, "No, Hanif Mohammed is still batting." Inside every cricket-baiter there is a cricket-lover struggling to get out.

(Ramachandra Guha is an Indian cricket historian and author of Savaging the Civilised and Environmentalism: A Global History.)

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)