By Boria Majumdar
Some of us who study the history of cricket for a living tend to forget a few things. First, we take it for granted that most will want to know the details of how the game had taken root and subsequently flourished in India. We tend to provide elaborate descriptions on club formations in the early stages of the game’s development without thinking if such an attempt was turning into an esoteric exercise of sorts. The moot point is in giving details how the real stories got lost on occasions. That’s where Prashant Kidambi needs to be complemented. As a trained historian it was almost inevitable that Kidambi would digress and take us to domains beyond cricket. But what wasn’t inevitable was that he would be able to get back to his cricket narrative and ensure that the thread of his story remained intact. That’s a major success of Kidambi’s Cricket Country.
Kidambi documents the story of the 1911 tour in real detail and in doing so tells us how the tour was a counter narrative against the emerging forces of anti-colonial resistance. India was in turmoil at the time. Bengal had been partitioned in 1905, the Swadeshi movement had picked up pace and revolutionary terrorism had started to make an appearance. The threads of the empire had started to weaken and the relations between the ruler and the ruled were strained to say the least.
Mohun Bagan’s win in football meant that sport wasn’t immune from this nationalist surge. Beating the English at their own game had started to assume significance and was frequently being used as a confidence-building measure across the country. The 1911 tour, as Kidambi demonstrates, was a sort of reaffirmation of the bonds of the empire. Cricket, yet again, was used to bring the West and the East together and show the world that anti-colonial resistance wasn’t all pervasive. At least not in 1911.
The empire was still strong enough to win its imperial subjects over and cricket was more a means to do so than a means of resistance against British rule.
The tour helped the cause of the empire and was organised with a motive to do so. Having studied colonial Bombay for his DPhil in Oxford, it is no surprise that Kidambi will be able to locate the story within a larger canvas. He knows the Bombay story of urbanisation better than many and that’s pretty much evident in the book. That’s what we historians are trained to do. But what we aren’t really trained to do is story tell. That’s where Cricket Country manages to strike a chord. It is a story well told despite being a solid work of history. That history can be eminently readable and appealing is an achievement and for this one reason Cricket Country will have a place on my shelf. While the writing is somewhat academic in places and it requires patience to labour through some portions of the book, it is largely able to stay relevant right through.
Where Kidambi makes a tangible contribution to an existing narrative is when he talks about Sir Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji Jadeja. Was Ranji an English cricketer who used his cricket to make himself an Indian prince is a question that has been asked a million times? Did he not do much for Indian cricket and was it his Anglophile self-portrayal that stopped him from accepting captaincy of the 1911 tour? Kidambi answers in the affirmative. He demonstrates how Ranji’s personal politics had superseded his cricketer identity and forced him to make choices. Ranji the Jam was more important to him than Ranji the cricketer in 1911. Cricket was more a means than a passion and that is evidently proved beyond doubt in Cricket Country. Frankly, with Ranji, this was always the case. Even when he was scoring 154 for England on the cricket field in 1896, he was doing so to advance his claim as the rightful heir to the Jamnagar throne.
Bluntly put, had it not been for his cricket, Ranji would never have become Jam. However, what the later Ranji narrative, which is beyond the scope of this book, demonstrates is that in the late 1920s and early 1930s his stance towards Indian cricket had changed somewhat and he did play a role in encouraging the 1932 Indian team touring England. That he is still remembered with the national championship for cricket in India being named after him is in itself significant.
Could Kidambi have given us more about some of the characters who made the 1911 tour? Aren’t they interesting stories in themselves? Perhaps the answer is yes. However, it may also be argued that he has already written a 500-page tome and such stories weren’t really Kidambi’s concern. He has added to the existing narrative and enriched the Indian cricket story. And in doing so he has also demonstrated how sport contributed to the narrative of urbanisation and nationalist politics in colonial India.
Boria Majumdar is a sports historian and commentator